Giving Readers What They Want

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 masseslike 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

7 Responses to “Giving Readers What They Want”

  1. Alison Doherty Says:

    Really interesting post. I’m writing my first novel and am definitely struggling with how much I should think about a reader and audience while writing.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      To be honest, when writing your first novel, I don’t think it helps to consider what readers want. It’s hard enough to get into the story without wondering if people will like it. I have a hunch that considering what readers want comes later. If you write a book they like, then follow through and write more. Unless you can tap into the mass mind, it’s almost impossible to know what will catch on.

  2. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Sometimes I don’t think you want to appeal to the masses. Then you become almost like a cookie-cutter putting out the same crap every year and/or having fans who expect too much or expect the wrong things from you (Charlaine Harris falls into the latter).
    Still, it’d be nice to sit on Ellen or The View and discuss your novel, right?

  3. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I know what I want out of a novel and I have always treated myself as a base line for what others might want. I know that if I wrote a novel I personally wouldn’t read unless you put a gun to my head in order to capture some mythical mass audience I’d fail miserably. Either the mass audience wouldn’t exist at the time (they’d gone on to some other kind of writing) or it would be too much like painting by numbers to be any good.

    I too write in my own way with readers in mind. I have always liked the idea of cliffhanger chapter ending and employ them in my work. The same goes for hooks to keep the reader coming back for more. My favorite writers use both devices. Such devices can be found in novels by Dickens. There are some wonderful examples of this sort of thing in Vanity Fair by Thackeray.

  4. Juliet Waldron Says:

    I send a big hug! Sometimes I think that getting the big contract and a lot of readers is about as likely as winning the lottery by buying a single ticket. We write because we are driven to it; all the rest, in the end, may not be our lot.

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