How do writers decide upon a story? Should we pay attention to what’s popular? Should we try to keep up with the trends? Or should we focus on what we want and not worry about what’s selling? It’s the age-old question, “Do we write to primarily please ourselves? Or do we write to please the reader?”
Here are some of the most common arguments for pleasing OURSELVES (as writers):
• Shouldn’t we as artists have a higher set of principles that guide us than market trends?
• If we strive to follow trends, what’s popular may change by the time our book is ready for publication.
• We have to stay true to what’s in our hearts because that’s the essence of who we are. If we try to write something we’re “not,” we risk betraying ourselves and writing drivel.
• If we can’t write what we truly and absolutely love, then what’s the point of writing at all?
Here are some of the most common arguments for pleasing the READER:
• Publishers need to invest in books they know will sell. They run a business and have to break even at the very least.
• Writers should trust publishing house professionals who see the sales figures on a daily basis and have a better idea of what readers love and buy.
• If a writer doesn’t care about readers, then why seek publication at all? Why not write simply for the pure pleasure of it and nothing more?
I’m getting ready to begin plotting my third contracted novel.
And to be honest, I’ve been struggling through this very issue. Can I write the book that I truly feel passionate about? Or do I need to focus on writing what readers will enjoy the most?
My Bethany House editor has given me some basic guidelines for the setting and era of Book 3. So, over the past few months, I’ve done some initial research, organized basic plots, tossed around some character ideas and sent in a couple synopses. But I haven’t felt particularly passionate about the ideas.
I’d love to be able to write about whatever I want, no matter the setting, time period, mood, characters, or plot. But, I also want to write something that people will enjoy reading, especially now that I’m getting comments like, “Can’t wait for your next book.” I’d hate to write a story that completely pleases me, but fails to satisfy my growing readership.
So is there a way to mesh the two dichotomies? Can we write for ourselves and still please the reader?
Here are just a few ways to do BOTH, to stay true to ourselves and please our readers:
• Understand the readers of our genre better. Make sure we know what they like best and how our book can fit within those expectations. And yet we can look at how we might be able to offer them something slightly new and different at the same time.
• Stay within the parameters of the market, but look for fresh, unique ideas that can push the boundaries just a bit. As author, Mike Duran recently said in an excellent post If You Write It, Will They Come? “Popular books uniquely capture or build upon market trends . . . an author needs both artistic vision and market savvy.”
• Take what we’re passionate about and look for ways to shape that into a story that may not exactly fit the mold, but is still appealing to readers.
If we’re seeking publication (particularly traditional publication), we have to remind ourselves that ultimately we’re seeking readers. We can’t ignore those readers, or we risk losing them. But we can’t ignore our needs either, or we risk losing passionate writing.
The mark of a great writer is one who can learn to balance the two needs. They're the types of writers who stay fresh and unique and write what they love, but are able to make sure their readers will love what they write too.
So, what’s your opinion? Should writers seek to please themselves or the reader? Or, like me, do you think there’s a way to do both?