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

53 comments

  • 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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