Writers are often told not to write what they want, but to write what readers want, but some of us couldn’t do that even if we wanted to. We haven’t a clue what readers want or how to give it to them.
I always thought readers were like me — they liked well-written stand-alone novels that didn’t so much pull them into the story as that they pulled the story into them and somehow made them greater than they were. The books didn’t have to be literary. In fact, I have never been a fan of literary novels, but books did need enough intelligence and depth and character to find a place in my inner self. So those are the novels I wrote — seemingly simple stories that take on a complexity when readers bring themselves to the book.
People do seem to like my books (unless they are romance readers who accidentally stumble into the wrong story), but I’ve never reached “the masses” and I never will for the simple reason that I don’t know what “the masses” want. (Normally I don’t use terms such as “the masses” because who among us ever sees him or herself as one of the masses? But still, when you are talking about 80 to 100 million readers, as some notorious writers have gained, those are massive numbers.)
Going by the books that reach vast numbers of people, what readers want is bondage with some S&M, and lots of raw sex, all pulled together with childish writing. Or they want simplistic stories with a lack of logic, poorly constructed sentences, faceless characters and lots of action with some cultural references thrown in to make them think they are in the know.
Okay, I admit, I’m being a bit simplistic myself and maybe even peevish. Sometimes good books with good writing do appeal to millions upon millions of people, but I don’t know why those books appeal to masses of readers anymore than why gray sex and brown symbols do. (I’m trying to be clever here, and probably failing miserably.)
It would be nice (maybe) to sell millions of books, but I can’t give readers what they want if I haven’t a clue. And I can’t get a clue. It’s like cilantro.
I never could understand why people liked cilantro. To me, it tastes like soap. Cilantro contains chemical compounds called aldehydes, which are also present in soaps and other cleaning agents, and apparently I don’t have the enzyme that breaks down the soap-like compounds of the herb into a tasty seasoning, so I get the full soap taste. Yuck.
And maybe I’m lacking the book “enzyme” that could help me understand what readers want. Heck, I don’t even know what I want anymore!
That said, I do write with readers in mind. Good writing, lack of typos, well-constructed sentences, interesting characters in vivid settings, hooks, conflicts, all keep my stories flowing smoothly and easy to read. I try to remove any hiccup that would pull the reader out of the story, or to pull the story out of the reader. And who knows. Maybe someday massive numbers of readers will discover that after all, I did give them what they want.
It could happen.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook