You Can’t Please Everyone

by James Scott Bell

It was October 15, 1971, and former teenage idol Rick Nelson was one of the performers at an oldies concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Other acts included Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Bobby Rydell.

Nelson, who’d had a string of hits in the late 50s and early 60s, sang a couple of his oldies, including one of his biggest, “Hello Mary Lou.” But then Nelson, who had been stretching his songwriting wings into country music, tried out a country-fied version of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”

Which is when the boo birds came out.

The unnerved Nelson gamely tried one more song, got more boos, then promptly left the stage. In fact, he left the building and did not appear onstage for the finale.

Back in California, Nelson holed up in his music room, and three weeks later came up with a song about his experience. “Garden Party” appeared in 1972 and reached number six on Billboard’s list. It was Nelson’s last hit song. He died in a plane crash in 1985 at the age of 45.

“Garden Party” tells the story of the concert in amusingly cryptic terms. Out in the audience, for example, “Yoko brought her walrus” (obviously John). And in the corner was a “Mr. Hughes,” the name used by Rick Nelson’s neighbor, George Harrison, whenever the quiet Beatle wanted to go out incognito.

But mostly the song is about being willing to pay the price for your artistic vision.


If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck,
But if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck.
But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

As Rick’s son Gunnar later put it, “After a lifetime of pretending to be a character he wasn’t—wearing the sweater on Monday on the set of Ozzie and Harriet after being a real rock star on the weekends—he was writing and performing for his own pleasure and satisfaction. The song was based on his experience at Madison Square Garden. He turned what could have remained the darkest day of his life into his brightest shining moment. Just when the music industry considered him a relic, filing him away as yesterday’s news, he had the biggest hit of his career and it was totally autobiographical.”

The point is that every artist has to realize you can’t please everyone. Indeed, as the noted journalist Herbert Bayard Swope once said, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.”

My advice to writers (the ones who want to make a career out of this gig, at least) has always been to find that sweet spot where your love for the material meets commercial viability. Where your voice and vision lap onto the shores of reader expectation. Whip your story into a recognizable form, but fill it with the unique touches that can come only from you.

And know that when you do, there will be naysayers and critics. That comes with the territory. But if you’ve truly pleased yourself, it’s all right now.

What risks have you taken in your writing? How did it turn out? What did you learn from it? 


25 thoughts on “You Can’t Please Everyone

  1. One of the most frequent comments I get in reviews is that my stories are different from what the reader expects.

    I write primarily in the romance genre, which is rich with tropes and expectations. I abide by the overall genre expectation of a happy ending, and a highly emotional romantic journey to get there, but just can’t bring myself to write “a rake romance” or “a secret baby” story.

    I pay the price, too. I’ve had to win loyal readers one at a time, and my sales have never been stellar, because I don’t write to appeal to the masses.

    It IS a choice. But I’ve made the choice for so long that now it is my brand, so I’m stuck with it. (Thank god.)


    • The main thing IS choice, Tracy, which the now ten-years-old indie world has only broadened. And loyal readers, small though the number may be, are always a good thing. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Excellent post, Joe, and an excellent reminder. I suspect when “Garden Party” came out, songwriters all over the world slapped their pens on their desk and muttered, “Well, damn” because Nelson got to it before they could. 🙂

    • I remember when “Garden Party” came out. I thought, “Ricky Nelson? I thought he was stuck in some lounge somewhere doing his old songs.” And then I thought, “Good for him.”

  3. Funny, I’ve been thinking about this as I write an appreciation of crime author Peter Abrahams for a publication. Abrahams, for nearly thirty years, wrote sophisticated standalone literary suspense-thrillers, winning critical acclaim (including a lengthy New Yorker piece by Joyce Carol Oates), awards (including an Edgar) and achieving commercial success (one of his novels was made into a movie, THE FAN, starring Robert DeNiro).

    But somewhere around ten years ago, he seemed to lose commercial viability under his own name, even after spinning off into some wonderful middle-grade and YA work. So he made what seemed like an abrupt turn into a pen name (Spencer Quinn) and a sort-of-cozy private-eye series (narrated by a dog) that found commercial success, and now Abrahams’ reinvention as “the dog guy” in crime fiction has become a little industrial complex of its own, with spinoff series in middle-grade and young-reader levels. I met Abrahams in 2014 at my hometown bookstore, where he was there to read from his latest Chet-and-Bernie mystery, as Spencer Quinn, to a full
    House. I was the only person there who knew him as Peter Abrahams, and everybody—including him—seemed a bit embarrassed when I referred to him by his actual name. Now, in his seventies, Abrahams seems completely delighted with this career reboot, and has built an online and publicity persona around it. And, well, more power to him.

    I miss Peter Abrahams, but maybe it’s weird that I seem to miss him more than he does. I content myself with the fact that Peter Abrahams is not really gone — his unique voice is readily evident in the Spencer Quinn books, a voice he couldn’t hide if he were Paul McCartney trying to play bars in disguise as Randy and the Rockets. So he’s there, but he’s not, and I suspect he loses less sleep over it than I do. He strikes me as a very happy guy.

    • Great story about Abrahams, Jim. I read several of his books back in the day, and you’re right, they are excellent. (I think Stephen King gave him a glowing blurb, as in “the best thriller writer working today” or some such).

      I was not aware of his “reboot,” but that’s a hard thing to pull off so late in one’s career. That he has made it work is a testament to his talent.

  4. In my opinion, if someone doesn’ write what they’re passionate about, it will show in the finished work. I’d rather not write at all than to write in a genre I don’t like just because the “world” demands it.

    I remember the song Garden Party – knew a lot of the story behind it, but I had no idea Mr. Hughes was in fact, George Harrison.

    • In my opinion, if someone doesn’t write what they’re passionate about, it will show in the finished work.

      Exactly right, Joan. I often talk about joy in writing, how that connection with your material does show up on the page. It needs to be there!

  5. Thanks for this. This week I received the two most vicious reviews of my career. After garnering fours and fives for over a year from folks who really enjoyed my work, I had two one star reviews that called my work ridiculous and tiresome. No matter how much you know intellectually that trolls and naysayers are out there, it is never pleasant to see them attack you personally.

    So to make myself feel better in some twisted way, I went on best selling authors Amazon pages, authors I have read and really enjoyed, and read their one star reviews. I found that they have been attacked far more viciously than I had been, and not once or twice, but dozens of times.

    After I finished, I sat down and went back to work on my next novel. All I can do is the best I can do as I strive to improve my writing craft.

  6. Very interesting! I didn’t know the background to Garden Party’s origins. And good advice.

  7. I read an interview this week with a best selling author retweeted by a successful agent in which the author recounted how her goal in writing her debut book was to make a lot of money. I’d never heard of the author so googled for more information. I read the reviews of her mega-hit books on Amazon and Goodreads. It was marketed as one of those books that if you liked Gone Girl, you’d love this book. Many didn’t and the criticisms were brutal. The author met her goal of making millions of dollars and pleasing herself, but I was disturbed that the #1 goal was not to write a good book or a better book than the genre leader, but to make a ton of money, buy an expensive car and house and have enough money for an expensive therapist. I understand agents are in it to make money, but the authors attitude left me feeling sad. Thank goodness this isn’t the prevailing goal in writing.

  8. I’m running a risk right now. My publisher insists they want my story about an idea I once had, then lost interest in it. They believe the story holds promise (and presumably, loot) for all of us.

    But to be honest, that story is wwaayyy down on my list of priorities. My current want-tos are my paranormal series about an inactive U.S. Marine military police officer who stumbles into strange adventures while leading the perfectly normal life as a wife, mom, and twin sister to a beautiful, ex-World Leader contestant winner who is a foot taller, another race, and an accomplished musician who holds a doctorate in orchestral conducting, as well as my World War II epic novel.

    So if you see me on the streets wearing old clothes with those fingerless gloves, and I’m carrying a sign that says WILL WRITE FOR A NICE-SIZED ADVANCE, please: pull over and be generous. The life you save will add one more number to the total of New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks, University of Oklahoma, Arizona Cardinals, and Phoenix Suns fan bases, as well as one more Mexican food addict.

    • Ha! Well, sometimes a publisher or agent pushes an idea and it seems like a good one…in that case, the book can become like an arranged marriage. Remember Golda and Tevye didn’t discover they loved each other until 25 years in. I contend an author can find the love in a project, even if it’s not theirs to begin with. Characters are the key…but that’s for another day.

  9. I remember when “Garden Party” came out, and thank you for telling us the back story.

    As an emerging author, I’m writing short stories and flash to practice the craft. One day, a “hacker” sent me a threatening email message. I turned that message into a short-short story with an experimental format (email thread) and a positive (HEA) ending. My way of “getting back” at the hacker.

    That story was rejected by eight online journals, and the members of my online writers community -who critiqued the story- suggested that my story might never find a home. I was told it was too “out there” and too simplistic.

    A week ago, it was accepted and published by a journal that takes risks and helps emerging authors. As I continue to write and publish, my future reader audience may only be a few dozen. If they find delight in my stories, I’ll be content.

    Thank you for your encouragement!

  10. This topic hit some nerves. Good to know I’m not alone. They say ‘write what you know,’ yet writers conferences aim to tell me—you’re white. You can’t really know that.

    I have spent my adult life overseas doing human rights work, diplomatic liaison. and teaching. The diplomatic life requires coursework in DC and then immersion once you arrive at post. You must understand the host culture to do your job. So naturally the interesting people and problems I have known are outside Ametican culture.

    My first draft tries to be PC and write only from the American’s PoV, yet my beta readers say, tell me what the other characters think. Doing that takes me out on a limb. So far, my sensitivity editor says I’ve done okay. Will the publishers believe me or say I’ve wandered out of bounds?

    • You’ve definitely hit on a hot-button issue, Nancy, which is lighting wildfires of social media mobbing (e.g., Amélie Wen Zhao) and choking off slots for risk-taking authors in traditional publishing. Good thing there is indie now, where no one can tell you to stay in your lane.

  11. Jim, I love the refrain about not being able to please everyone, but we eventually have to please ourselves. I’m about to self-publish a novella based on an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a number of years. It will please me–and maybe that’s enough. Thanks for the post.

    • That’s so great, Doc. We can do this now. I’ve put out some short stories just because I loved the ideas. They don’t make much money, but they do please some new readers…and thus, please me, too!

  12. Dear Mr. Bell,
    I enjoyed your post very much! I watched the video of ‘Garden Party’ and thought how ironic it was that it is one of the few songs I know all the words to. I made a sign and put it on the wall in my writing room, it reads, ‘It’s okay to color outside of the lines!”

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