Most of us want to write what’s in our hearts and express ourselves with our unique prose without worrying about what anyone else thinks. And we can. . . if we don’t care whether our writing makes it to publication or appeals to readers.
In the last post, we talked about the importance of creating saleable books. If we want publishing houses to take an interest in our books and if we want our words to reach the largest audience possible, then we have to pay attention to what readers want and that may require us to adjust our writing techniques.
Of course no one can predict what readers will want next. All we can do is study what they want now. And of course all writers should strive to have their unique voices, special flare, and push the limits of creativity. We should write with all of the passion inside of us. But we can't ingnore the modern reader because. . .
Ultimately the reader determines what sells, not publishing houses. We often wag our fingers at agents and editors and accuse them of being too picky, of being closed to so many kinds and styles of writing. But in my experience with my agent and in-house editors, they're constantly asking questions like “will the reader like this?” or “what will most readers buy?” They make the readers' desires top priority.
As much as we may resist the idea, maybe we too need to take a closer look at what appeals to readers, particularly modern readers.
If you’re like me, when you read a classic book, you find yourself stopping and saying, “That technique would never work today.” For example, in Chapter One of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott brings the story to a grinding halt when she says, “As young readers like to know `how people look', we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters.”
Alcott goes on to write a LONG paragraph about the appearance and personality of each of the March daughters. Alcott could have eliminated all of the description because later she brings each character to life so uniquely.
What worked for authors one hundred, fifty, or even ten years ago, won’t necessarily appeal to readers today. We don’t hang on to our outdated computers or cell phones, and we can’t cling too tightly to our writing methods either. We have to be willing to change with the times and meet the needs of the modern reader.
So, what are some of the needs of today’s readers? Well, I’m the first to admit, I’d much rather read a 21st century book than a classic. So I simply have to start by asking, what do I like in a book? Here are just a few considerations.
1. Fast pace. Most of us are living incredibly busy lives. We often go from one activity to the next with hardly a chance to breathe. We grow impatient easily, and because we don’t have time to waste, we demand that our entertainment be equally fast-paced.
And how can we make our writing fast-paced? First we can make sure our plot doesn’t drag. But in addition to that, we can stick to shorter sentences, break up our paragraphs, keep the scenes succinct, and ruthlessly eliminate unnecessary description and internal monologue.
2. Action-packed. Not only do we live with a fast-pace, but we’re also a culture that thrives on action, danger, suspense, and high adrenaline rushes. We want adventures and entertainment that take us into the wild and thrilling 3-D.
No matter what genre we write, we have to ask ourselves how we can raise the stakes, increase the conflict, and add more tension. We need to eliminate the static and replace it with action that sweeps the reader into a new dimension.
3. Emotionally charged. In a culture obsessed with reality TV shows, we long to connect with the raw emotions of everyday problems. We have our own unique joys and pains, and somehow getting a glimpse of what others are going through helps us put our own issues into perspective.
In our writing, we need to pour our hearts and souls out onto the paper. We have to bring readers into the reality of our characters lives, give them real problems and vivid emotions to which readers can connect.
In summary, I can’t help but quote James Scott Bell’s The Art of War For Writers. In reference to writing a saleable book he says: "It’s useless to be a creative original unless you can also sell what you create. . .Does this mean not writing what you love? No. But write what you love with eyes wide open.” (p. 10)
Any other needs of modern readers that I missed? Do you think it’s important to write for the modern reader or do you think it’s more important to write the way you want? Is it possible to do both?
This article originally appeared in a guest post I wrote for Author Culture.
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