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Friday, June 29, 2012

What Do Readers Want?

If you've read my blog post on the "7 Common Pitfalls of Critiquers," you know one of them is when people assume they can speak for what readers want. You might hear a comment like, "If you don't fix that info dump on the first page, readers will never get to page two before closing the book and putting it back on the shelf." But such a comment is a ploy to add more authority to someone's opinion than telling the truth. Because the only thing a critiquer can really give you is what they would do, not what most readers are going to do, or even a minor subset of them.

No one can speak for the readers. If anyone knew what the readers would like, they'd be rich. Because they could start a publishing company and only pick bestselling books to publish. Doesn't happen. If editors at big publishing houses can't predict that, who do it for a living, no critiquer will be able to predict what a reader is going to like.

So am I saying there are no standards in writing? That anything goes? Yes and no. Mike Duran, a writer friend I respect a lot, has made the case that there should be standards of excellence in writing. And there is a certain level of professionalism and quality that is to be expected. While most people can handle a typo here or there, for instance, if a book is littered with them, it makes the story hard to read. There probably aren't going to be a lot of readers that do like that. If such a story succeeds, it will be in spite of the typos, not because of them, and if they are that prevalent, they do throw a hurdle to a writer succeeding.

There are writing skills that tend to work more often than not. Elements of writing that will hinder more than help. Yet, Mike has also backed off a hard line on that as well. Quality, while there is some "objective" standards, isn't a hard line in the sand either. Some will disagree on certain standards, and you'll find popular writers who have violated them and been successful anyway.

In the end, what is success? Getting published? Having an agent? A literary award? Acclaim by the literary community? Or readers buying, talking about, and loving your novel? Your answer to that will determine your standards. Because each of those groups wants and looks for different things. An agent wants to know what they can sell to an editor. An editor wants to know what they can sell to the readers. An award looks at the perfection of craft. The literary critic will look for the literary merit. But readers, what do they want? They simply want to be entertained.

Sure, some of the readers enjoy learning new things, seeing new perspectives, discovering new words, marveling at the lyrical quality of the prose, or any other number of items. But what it boils down to is they want to be entertained. "I don't care about plot, but love reading lyrical prose." Great, then that is what entertains you. "I enjoy witty dialog. As long as the plot is decent, I'm fine." There you go, such a book would entertain you. "I want action and adventure and suspense." So such a book would entertain you, where the previous two types would not. "If I see a plot hole, I can't suspend disbelief any longer and it ruins the story." Fine, that ruins the story for you. Why, because you can no longer be entertained when that happens.

Getting the idea here? Every reader has their definition of what is or isn't entertaining to them. And no one reader is the same. Success comes when you write something that a good number of people find entertaining. And no one formula, no "standard" is going to accomplish that. If you are one of those people for whom two or three typos in a novel ruin your enjoyment of it, all you can tell a writer is that it ruined it for you, but not the readers. If a plot hole messes with your enjoyment, you can only speak for yourself, not all the readers out there.

**SPOILER ALERT** Take, for example, the Star Trek prequel reboot movie that came out not long ago. That movie was littered with plot holes big enough to drive the Enterprise through. I mean, a ship that has to drop a drilling laser on a chain from orbit into into the atmosphere of Vulcan (which in itself would be a physical impossibility unless the ship could "orbit" at the same speed as the planet's rotation through some anti-gravity drive, which was never proposed), take the time to drill a hole to the core of the planet, and drop a substance that will destroy the planet—come on! How impractical is that? Meanwhile, the Vulcans, who were warping around the galaxy way before humans in Star Trek lore, run screaming and hiding as if they have no space ship or even atmospheric vehicle in which to put up a defense of their world. All they would have had to do is what Spock did toward the end. Fly a ship to that drill and shoot it off it's chain. Game over. The movie would have ended in thirty minutes.

And the idea of people "jumping" from an orbiting space ship and falling straight down into the atmosphere (without being fried by reentry) would never happen. You don't fall straight down, rather they would have orbited the planet themselves for several weeks before they lost enough orbiting speed to descend to the planet. They would have had to have had some kind of thrusters to halt their orbiting and fall straight down. And then they would have not been able to stay with the ship which would have continued to orbit the planet. What they showed on the screen was simply an impossible scenario, and the whole premise was one giant, huge, plot hole. ** SPOILER ALERT OVER **

But guess what? People loved it. They went to see it in droves. I loved it. It did well enough at the box office that they are making a new one, probably just as plot-hole laden as the first. Why? Because it was entertaining to most people. They loved the characters. That the story was full of plot holes didn't matter to them. It didn't cause them to not enjoy it. I'm sure some people may have even walked out of the theater in disgust upon seeing it. Those plot holes totally ruined it for them. Or they saw it as fluff, shallow, not worth the money. But they were in the minority, apparently.

Did that mean they were wrong? Should the writers of that movie have fixed the plot holes? They probably should have. If they had the time, maybe they would have. They had deadlines. A lot of the issues I pointed out could be fixed by adding some technology (force fields for reentry, thrusters to maintain fall direction and speed, etc.). But they did get what they had to get right. And that was telling an entertaining story. Apparently plot holes are not at the top of that list for most people. If they like the story and characters, they will ignore the other stuff.

Which goes to the issue of how we approach writing as entertainers of the word. Do we correct that info dump on page 2? Do we worry about that plot hole our critique partner discovered? Do we have standards? Or do we ignore that stuff and only focus on what we think will be entertaining?

How about both? The real issue is we sometimes want to tinker and tinker with a story. You never get it perfect. Every time I read through my story, I find new typos, issues I failed to see before that need fixing, word choices that could be better, confusing structures that need clarifying. I don't think I've ever had the experience of reading through a novel I'd written without finding something that needed fixing. And usually, when I read the published novel, I'll see new things that should have been caught and corrected. You never can get it perfect, and you'll spend years of your life on one story if you try. And in the end, you may have sacrificed entertainment value for perfection.

So I liked the way Kristine Kathryn Rusch put it in a recent blog post titled "Perfection." The question isn't whether I can meet a certain standard or perfection set by critics, an editor, or whoever, but:
A better question is, “How do I make the book the best it can be?” That you have to answer for yourself....Writers who are always improving, always learning, move forward. They are secure in the knowledge that the book they wrote ten years ago is the best book it could have been given their level of craft and their understanding of the art of writing at the time they finished the book. They’re better now, so they write new things, explore new pathways.

Check out her post (after you've finished here and left a comment, of course!) It is highly recommended reading.

So, what do readers want? To be entertained. And due to the varied taste and expectations out there, there is no one formula for achieving that. What entertains me may not be entertaining to a lot of other people. Likewise, what doesn't entertain me may be a hot seller if made available to the general public. What trips the story up where I can't enjoy it, most others couldn't give a rat's behind about. So don't let anyone tell you they know if you don't do X, Y, or Z, then readers will not buy your book. It only means that person wouldn't buy your book. Whether they represent a majority of readers is a totally different story. And one other hint, writers tend to get tripped up on craft issues when reading stories much more than most readers do.

What story have you been keeping in the drawer because you are afraid to send it out, warts and all?

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