Without readers a writer has no career.
There are other reasons people write, of course. For therapy. For fun. For their family. Out of boredom. In prison.
But most writers write to share their stories with the hope of some financial return.
When asked what kind of writing made the most money, Elmore Leonard replied, “Ransom notes.”
Outside of that particular genre, professional writers swim in the free enterprise system, which usually involves two parties: seller and buyer.
The writer is the seller, the reader is the buyer. The product is a book. Or a story.
And in order for this exchange to work, the buyer must like the product.
In order for this exchange to become a lucrative career, the buyer must love the product.
Which brings me to the 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader:
1. The reader wants to be transported into a dream
Fiction writers often hear from agents and editors that a reader wants an “emotional experience” from a novel. Or to be “entertained.”
True, but I don’t think those go far enough. What a reader really and truly longs for is to be entranced. I mean that quite literally. The best reading and movie-going experiences you’ve ever had have been those where you forgot you were reading or watching, and were just so caught up in the story it was like you were in a dream.
It’s like one of my favorite shows as a kid, Gumby. Remember Gumby and Pokey? (If you want to keep your age a secret, don’t raise your hand).
My favorite part of any episode was when Gumby and his horse jumped into a book, got sucked inside, and became part of the story world. I wanted to do that with the Hardy Boys. Jump in and help Frank and Joe solve the mystery.
The point is, when you read, you want to feel like Gumby, like you’re inside the story, experiencing it directly.
Hard to do, writer friend, but who said great writing was easy? Maybe a vanity press or two, but that’s it.
When I teach workshops I often use the metaphor of speed bumps. You drive along on a beautiful stretch of road, looking at the lovely scenery, and you “forget” that you’re driving. But if you hit a speed bump, you’re taken out of that experience for a moment. Too many of those moments and your drive becomes unpleasant.
One reason we study the craft is to learn to eliminate speed bumps, so the readers can forget they’re driving and just enjoy the ride.
2. The reader is always looking for the best entertainment bang for the buck
In this, readers are like any other consumer. If they are going to lay out discretionary funds on something, they want a good return on that investment. Their judgment is based on expectations and experience. If they have experienced a writer giving them wonderful reading over and over, they will pay a higher price for their next book.
If, on the other hand, a writer is new and untested, the reader wants a sampling at a low price, or free. Even then, however, they desire to be just as entertained as if they shelled out ten or twenty bucks for a Harlan Coben or a Debbie Macomber.
That’s a challenge all right, and should be. But here’s the good news. If a reader gets something on the cheap and it enraptures them, you are on your way to a career, because of #3, below.
3. If you surpass reader expectations, they will reward you by becoming fans
Fans are the best thing to have. Fans generate word of mouth. Fans stay with you.
So your goal needs to be not just to meet reader expectations, but surpass them.
By doing everything you can to get better, write better. To do what Red Smith (and NOT Ernest Hemingway) said. You just sit down at the keyboard, open a vein, and bleed.
That’s not just romanticized jargon. It’s what the best writers do, over and over again.
So what if you don’t reach that high standard with your book? No matter. You book will be better for the trying, and you’ll be a better writer, and you next book will be better yet.
Jump on that train, and stay on it.
4. Readers want to feel a connection with authors they love
Which in the “old days” meant maybe sending a fan letter and getting a note in return; or going to a book signing and getting a hardcover signed and saying a few words to the author.
Now we have tweets, and Facebooking, and blogs, and email. Different ways for readers to feel connected to their favorite writers.
Which is really what social media is about. It’s social, not marketing, media. Do it well and you build up a community and when you have something to offer, you will have earned the right to do so.
5. Readers need stories, so supply their needs
In fact, we all need stories. Stories are what keep a culture alive, as opposed to being on life support. Stories shape us, the best ones for the good, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Long Goodbye. The former is literary, the latter is genre, but it’s elevated genre, it has something to say that’s deep, and in this era of 50 shades of dreck and dross, there’s a crying need for books that elevate the soul, which can be done in any genre, even horror (just ask Koontz or King).
Obey the law! And readers will thank you with a fair exchange of funds.