Ask A Writer: “How Do I Write What The Audience Wants To Read?”

At Tumblr, Pallav asks:

“Every reader wants to read something different from a fiction author. How do you reach that place which intersects what you want to write and what the readers want to read?”

My very short, very incomplete answer: “You don’t.”

My slightly longer and still woefully incomplete answer: “You don’t, at least, not on purpose.”

My much longer and probably incomprehensible answer: “Okay, fine, you can do this on purpose but really, you shouldn’t, because doing something like this on purpose means chasing trends and writing only to a market and becoming a brand and standing on a platform and cobbling together a product rather than a story and basically just, y’know, hammering a circle peg into a square hole — so don’t.”

Now, let me explain in greater — and less gibbery-babbly-rambly — detail.

It is time to choose as a writer whether or not you are going to fill a niche, or rather, emit a barbaric yawp and headbutt the wall to make your own motherfucking you-shaped niche.

Filling a niche means:

Examining the marketplace.

Seeing that hey, pterodactyl erotica is super-hot right now. Or, maybe being a bit savvier and saying, “By scouring the publishing trends and reading these here pigeon entrails, I can surmise in an act of libriomancy that the next big trend will be ‘Mennonite spy thrillers.'”

Then finally, writing to that market: “Now I will write the novel, THE BONNET GOES BOOM, followed by its sequel, THE GINGHAM DECEPTION. Starring Mennonite super-agent, Dorcas Brubaker!”

You have crafted a product for the marketplace.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with that.

It’s a fairly solid — if a little safe — business decision. You found a need. You wrote to that need. You created a brand for yourself and shouted that brand from atop your platform. Game over. Good job.

Oh-ho-ho, but consider the following:

First, chasing trends and predicting niches seems a safe play but also ridiculously difficult. You decide, “I’m going to write that pterodactyl erotica, 50 SHRIEKS OF PREY and then make so much money I can buy my own animatronic pterodactyl that I can sex-bang in the barn,” well, fine. But you better write super-fucking-apeshit-fast, hoss. Because trends are like storms. They come in fast. Make a lot of noise, knock over some trees, and then, like that — *snaps fingers* — they’re gone until the next one rolls in. And, by the time you bring your book to market, people might be burned out on all that soft-core dino-porn.

(This is, by the way, what happens when someone says something like, Vampires are over. They don’t mean that. What they mean is, the vampire trend is over, which further means, you won’t be able to just bring any old piece-of-shit vampire novel to market in the hopes of riding this trend because the trend already galloped out of the stable, so now your vampire novel has to actually be really, actually good.)

Second, nobody wants to read a “product” written by a “brand.” If they wanted that, they’d read the back of a fucking cereal box. Nobody reads a book and says, “Shit, Bob, you know what? This was a really great product. I’m really happy they tailored it to the reading habits of my market. I am crazy loyal and love the work of Kyle Snarlbarn, Author Inc. — I love his brand. I love the way he shotguns us in the eyes with endless adverbs and descriptions of pterodactyl bondage.”

Now, here I’ll add: I’m a little bit wrong. Woefully and regrettably there actually is an audience out there who wants to read products by brands even if they don’t know that’s exactly what they want to read. Right? There are readers who will read anything that even smells like TWILIGHT. My own mother will read anything ever with the words “Robert Ludlum” on it, even if that name was scrawled in the margins of the book with a permanent marker. I had this discussion on Twitter the other day that there will always be readers who don’t give much of a shit for quality in writing or quality of storytelling. This is true in food, too — I mean, a whole helluva lot of people don’t care that McDonald’s is basically the nutritional equivalent of wasp spray, right? They don’t care that it’s less food and more product of food science. McDonald’s is a very strong brand. And they turn out a freakishly consistent product.

Is that who you want to be?

You want to be the authorial equivalent to McDonald’s?

Do you want to write for that comfortable and wildly undiscerning segment of the population?

Now, to go back to TWILIGHT and Robert Ludlum — regarding both of those, you may be saying, “Both of those were ehrmagerd holy-shit success stories, you dumb, beard-faced shit-wit.” To which I’d say, correctomundo, senor, but here I’d also point out that neither Meyer nor Ludlum appeared to be writing to fill a niche — they did not seek to write products from the POV of brands. They wrote what they wanted to fucking write. They did not embrace a pre-existing niche but instead blew their own hole in the wall with literary C4 and walked in. Others followed them; they didn’t follow others.

Like their work or not:

They wrote what they wanted to write.

Which leads me to my third point:

Writing to a market isn’t particularly engaging to you, the writer. I mean, I’m sure for some it is — and if that’s the case, may the Force be with you, Young Skywalker. But, creatively, most authors write best when they’re writing something that speaks to them as a storyteller, not something that speaks purely to a trend or market segment. You should be excited about it. It should mirror you in some way: it should call to your heart, sing your pain, inject your life onto the page. It should be organic to who you are, not artifice cobbled together to meet an unscientifically-determined, uncertain and probably temporary market segment.

I’m reading a book now that was sent to me for blurbing purposes — THE DEVIL OF ECHO LAKE, by Douglass Wynne, and the book is about a rockstar who gives up his soul for his music, and it opens right out of the gate with a very strong paragraph and ends thusly: “I sold my soul, he thought, and it fit. Like a perfect chorus summing up the verses of his life, it rhymed with the rest of him.”

I’m not saying to sell your soul.

I am saying to write the stories that rhyme with the rest of you.

Write your story. Not somebody else’s story.

The audience will be there. I don’t know how big or how small that audience will be. But they’ll be there. The magic happens when that thing that speaks to your heart also speaks to theirs — that seems awfully “lightning-strikey,” and hey, you know what? It is. But I assume you didn’t get into this thing to get rich. And you can maximize your chances by continuing to put stuff like this out there — material of both quantity and quality. You’re a lot likelier to get struck by lightning if you walk out into an open field during a storm while carrying a lightning rod.

Let your voice and your style be your brand.

Let your best work act as your platform.

Let someone else worry about the product.

Ask your own writing or storytelling question at: http://terribleminds.tumblr.com/ask

51 comments

  • Thank you for this. I think we all have those weary days when you eye the book section at the Grocery Store and think to yourself, “What IS this SHIT? These are what gets published today?” Followed by spontaneous weeping that frightens the person who just wants the latest Danielle Steele to read on an airplane.
    But it’s the grocery Store rack. Sure, they might host something great every once in a great while that caught fire for good reason, but for the most part its the basic simple drivel that is put out to appeal to readers who aren’t willing or looking to take a chance on a new unheard of book in an actual bookstore. They want their bland simple ‘bestselling’ stories.
    I’d love for my novel to someday have a niche in a department store, maybe even a grocery store, but that’s not why I write. I’m writing the story that I love, because its a story only I know, and it feels like the best thing I could possibly be writing. I write because I have this idea buzzing in my brain that demands to be put into words and shared.
    It’s not TWILIGHT. It’s not 50 Shades of Porn. It’s probably not even Harry Potter. But it’s mine, and that makes it beautiful.

  • I actually am really truly writing smoking-hot minotaur porn at the moment. But that pterodactyl thing sounds good too.

    Need a name for mine. “Lowing in the Dusk?” “Horns of the Beast?”

    I’m not so much writing for the market, as thinking there might actually be a place in the market for a book I’ve been considering writing for a while.

  • That was profound.
    I think I will stop working on my new MS (50 shades of green) and go back to what I know. Selling duct tape and cable ties to builders not multimillionaires.

  • Wow, Chuck, I end up reposting a lot of these.
    I’ve been tweaking my novel for what feels like forever depending on what different readers (read: markets) thought. This last incarnation is all mine (in that I did several things readers told me NOT to do) and it’s getting some pretty good feedback. Also, I love it. Wanting to do the writer thing as an only career, I spend a lot of time worrying that no one will buy the damn thing after all the effort; truth is no one will read it if I don’t get it out there and I won’t get it out there if I keep worrying so much about whether or not people will read it.

    So Amen to the Amen and thanks :-)

  • As usual, Words of Truth scratched with the Nail of Authenticity onto the Cricket Bat of Common Sense.

    Part of the problem is that there is some reverse-engineering going on. People see ‘writer lifestyle’ (work from home, get millions, throngs of adoring fans at signings) and go ‘how do I go about getting that?’. After that comes ‘market research’ and after that, ‘death’.

    Of course this is also a delightfully eloquent take on the age-old debate between the artistic and the populist, the author/reader contract and whatnot, but I like the Venn Diagram. Also, if you write what you want to write it gets better and thus increases the chances of people wanting to read it. Funny how that works.

  • Writers like John Le Carre and Len Deighton sucked me in to genre fiction . Books that respected history, built on history. And I don’t see many like them any more. But I’m trying to write them. So maybe I’m chasing a trend, but it’s a thirty-year-old trend. I’m hoping to catch it on the retro rebound.

  • Thanks for the extra clarification on when people talk about a trend being “over”. I knew what it meant, but you phrased it in such a way that didn’t make me want to climb up a bell tower with a shotgun. I’m working on a zombie apocalypse novel, and if I hear about how zombies are “over” one more time, I am going postal.

    I know they’re “over”. I know they aren’t a hot trend anymore. I’m not chasing a trend, I’m writing the book I want to write.

  • “Every reader wants to read something different from a fiction author.”

    Good post. I don’t think the above quote is true, to be honest. I think most readers want the same thing — engaging characters, engrossing plot, readable prose in whatever genre or sub-genre they favor. So as a writer, you hone you craft, you harness skill to inspiration, and you write whatever it is that you love to write. Because if you’re good enough, the audience will be there. This is the age of the niche writer. I know far many writers earning a comfortable wage writing in the niche they love than I do mainstream success stories.

  • Erhmergerd – you totally nailed the very thing I’ve been pondering these many weeks. But you probably hear that shit all the time (is it a trend?!).

    It’s also seriously worth noting that this lesson applies to just about everything, not just writing. Be your own style of CEO! Be your own snappy dresser! Be your own consumer of food type goods! Picking up on trends in anything can be helpful, but it sure as hell won’t make you happy or successful. Best to niche your own life.

    SO SAY WE ALL!

  • “Write the stories that rhyme with the rest of you.” If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it would say.

    Thanks for this–a Wendig-shaped reminder not to be a puzzle piece.

  • One element perhaps missing is that traditional publishers—some of them—DO believe in brands. Not necessarily in the sense of “pterodactyl erotica is the next big thing!” but they do get concerned about brand confusion.

    Personal example—I’m a children’s book author (somewhat by accident) and I have a particular series and a particular “brand” (so sayeth marketing, in so many words) and they get a little twitchy about the notion of me working with another publisher on a project for a different age range, partly because hey, other publisher! but also significantly because I write for a certain age range, they’ve poured money into it, and if an 8-12 year old sees a book with my name on it, they just pull it off the shelf and expect to be able to read it and enjoy it. If I do a series for 5-7 year olds, the fear is that our hypothetical 12 year old pulls the book down and goes “What is ths crap?” and stops reading my books.

    Is this a legit concern? I honestly couldn’t tell you. But they believe it. As long as I use a pen name, they are far less concerned. (Is it a sign that trad publishing is the devil? I don’t believe that either. They’re a business and they run it as they see fit, and pay me well for playing along.)

  • I’m a little surprised no one has mentioned James Patterson, who could be entertaining back when he simply wrote high concept thrillers but has transformed himself into a brand in the McDonald’s sense of the word. Through his management of the James Patterson Dreck Factory, the brand churns out many successful products each year, which somehow manage to sell despite being less interesting than the back of a cereal box.

    So surely someone will point him and shout, “See! SEE?!” To which I would say, you know, if you really want to be that guy and think you can pull it off, go for it. While I hate the shit the James Patterson Dreck Factory produces, I give props to him for being a highly talented marketing monster. I won’t spend money or precious time on his shit, but obviously jerbillions of people do. So I get there IS something to be said for being the McDonald’s of the written word, if you can pull it off.

  • “Second, nobody wants to read a “product” written by a “brand.” If they wanted that, they’d read the back of a fucking cereal box.”

    Aren’t the Star Wars books and other game/movie tie-ins of this general nature? Granted there would be levels of skill with the craft, but they generally stay “on message” don’t they?

  • I do not want to be the authorial equivalent of McDonald’s.

    I know that when I “build” my story; the audience will come.

    Wow, that didn’t quite come out right.

    But, I’m sure you get my drift and got a little 12-year-old boy giggle out of it, too.

    BTFO!

  • I don’t know. I guess it depends on the writer, but I’m not sure there can’t be a perfectly satisfactory overlap in there and I’m not sure that it isn’t wise to aim for it.
    I’m kinda tired of the “be an ARTIST, don’t SELL OUT!” message out there.
    I could enjoy writing a lot of different things. Why not pick something agents are most likely to feel they can sell?

  • I would hate to have to write what the reader “wants,” but the publishing industry thrives on the practice.

    Most egregious example: V.C. Andrews.

    “After being buried, “V.C. Andrews” has published 39 books, each one hitting The New York Times’ bestseller list. More than 90 million of “her” books are in print. Four production companies have bought rights to spin titles into movies.”

    Source: http://completevca.com/art_ghostwriter.shtml

  • Now listen, Chuck. “Brand” does not mean “franchise.” It means “known quantity.” Cartier is a brand. Perrier is a brand. Vonnegut, Tolstoy, Steinbeck–their readers read a lot of what they write, because they supply similar appeal every time. Please to not be equating Faulkner to McDonald’s just because he, IN HIS OWN WORDS, wrote “the same story over and over”. Rail against the term if you must, but the concept it represents is sound.

  • Hey Chuck,

    Great post and one I agree with entirely. You are SO right about trends – you just may as well write for yourself. That’s my philosophy anyway. You need to write a story that speaks to you. I’m having immense fun plotting my third book now :)

  • First, “Libriomancy” is my new favorite word. Secondly, “Write stories that rhyme with the rest of you,” is going on my writing wall. This article is brilliant. Thank you.

  • “Write stories that rhyme with the rest of you…” Perfect.

    I do struggle with this, mainly because the rest of me doesn’t so much rhyme as evoke a freakish haiku – short, confusing, and something about blossoms.

    Brands and voices fascinate me, because as you said the most successful authors have them – but they never copied others’. Instead of Twishite, et al, where the ‘voice’ was more of a wet garble, I consider older author powerhouses – Wodehouse, Chesterton, Austen. Each of these had a voice so distinct I’d defy anyone not to recognise it in a dark room.

    That’s the real goal I think – not to brand, or pigeonhole, but to express yourself in such a distilled way that readers go, ‘no one else could have wrote that’.

    Then market the hell out of it.

  • Thank you for this post. Got me all weepie-eyed and feeling artistic this morning. Imma go write my story the way I feel it, and let the universe (and my editor) sort it out later.

  • Brilliant piece of writing, hit the nail right on the head, a pleasure to read your words, you are a writer after my own heart with speed on your tongue indeed…

  • February 13, 2014 at 11:14 PM // Reply

    That is the hard part! trying to figure out how to write to your audience. HOWEVER, (I’m not a “professional writer”) But, your AUDIENCE – lets see how do I put this – not all people are going to read what you write (different audiences) so how do you MAKE someone like your writing when the genre is not what they are interested in but they pick up the article, book, blog etc, and start reading because in the first paragraph you’ve caught their interest. This comes easy to some people, I’m always stuck in writers block and don’t know how to put my words down on paper. So what do I do with that?? I’ve taken classes before but this goes all the way back to when I was YOUNG. I am not your avid reader either, so I think this may help with my writing skills..? maybe?

  • February 13, 2014 at 11:15 PM // Reply

    Most of my wordpress is not my work but the work of other authors and writers and bloggers? I want to change that. I have a lot of hits but…

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