What Do Readers Really Want?

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ― William Styron

By PJ Parrish

A writer friend of mine, Tim Hallinan, had an interesting post on Facebook the other day. Well, all his posts are interesting, but I thought this one you all at TKZ might really enjoy. Plus, I read it at a special point while my writing my new book. Here’s the post. Then I’ll be back and we’ll talk.

Bruce Springsteen in the NY Times today, talking about his goals for his one-man Broadway show:

“I think an audience always wants two things. They want to feel at home and they want to be surprised.”

If I had a single writing space, I’d put those words on the wall.

I think book readers want the same things, except that by “at home” they mean knowing instinctively that they can trust the writer not to violate the covenant between them, the sort of handshake made in the first few pages, that says the writer will do his/her best throughout the considerable amount of time the reader is generously volunteering to the experience. The reader needs to “feel at home” in their expectation of the kind of story and the level of quality and commitment the writer is attempting to bring to the experience. (It’s actually more like an airbnb, in that readers might expect different kinds of experiences from different spaces or books.)

But in addition to that level of comfort, they also want to be surprised — the book needs to take them places they weren’t expecting to go. And I think that covers everything from major story developments to tiny moments of grace among individual characters, maybe just a new way to say something.

I can’t think of anything, from a mild chuckle to a moment of illumination, that this doesn’t imply.

 

Isn’t that great stuff? Both from Bruce and Tim.  A couple years back, I read Tim’s Edgar-nominated book The Queen of Patpong. Normally, I don’t go for Asian settings, but I really was transported by his rendering of his location and the arc of his character Rose, village girl turned sex worker. Her story reminded me of another book that took me east, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, another tale of a girl sold into sex trade. (Click here to read the opening of The Patpong Queen to get a taste of of what it’s like in a Bangkok lap bar. Tim’s latest release, by the way, is coming in November — Fools’ River)

I’m also a big Springsteen fan. Not just for the tunes. Mostly it’s because he’s a great storyteller. So many of his songs are short stories, filled with damaged characters and locations painted with Van Gogh virtuosity. With just a few quick impasto strokes, Springsteen makes me see his places —

New Jersey Turnpike riding on a wet night
‘Neath the refinery’s glow out where the great black rivers flow.
License, registration, I ain’t got none
But I got a clear conscience ’bout the things that I done

And makes me feel for his people —

My name is Joe Roberts I work for the state
I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville barracks number 8
I always done an honest job as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky and Franky ain’t no good

Now ever since we was young kids it’s been the same come down
I get a call over the radio Franky’s in trouble downtown
Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way

Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’ nothin’ feels better than blood on blood
Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”

I catch him when he’s strayin’ like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good

Like a good novelist, Springsteen honors the covenant between writer and reader. He makes us feel at home in his genre and his world, yet his song-stories can surprise through their ability to ignite a memory, touch a heart, or thrum a fear.  I’ve cried listening to him perform Independence Day, a song about a son’s inability to connect with a father. This is what great books do as well — they resonate, they connect, they make you think when you read them, yes, that is exactly how I feel!

As Tim so nicely puts it, a novel “is a handshake in the first few pages” that the writer will do everything in her power to keep up her side of the bargain. And as for that element of surprise both Bruce and Tim talk about, well, that’s the magic, isn’t it.

“Surprise” isn’t just a mere plot twist (though that can be fun). It isn’t just the final revelation of who did, indeed, do it. (though that can be satisfying). It isn’t the colorful rendering of your location (though who doesn’t want to visit far away places with strange-sounding names, like Bangkok and Bayonne?) “Surprise” is, as Tim says, the magic dust you spread throughout your entire book, from the care you put in your plotting, to the love you invest in your characters, even the bad ones, maybe especially the bad ones.

I’m one chapter shy of finishing the latest book.  This book has taken my sister Kelly and I “home” in that we have returned to our series character Louis Kincaid, and I am hopeful this story will make Louis’s fans feel a comfort that maybe they didn’t feel with our previous stand alone thriller. And we’ve worked really hard — and long — on this one to strengthen the covenant by producing what we really hope is a subtle and mutli-layered psychological mystery.

But I also hope the readers will be surprised. We’re taking them up to the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where small skeletons are found buried in abandoned copper mines, and into the arcana of the Catholic religion, where good cops struggle to reconcile the sanctity of the confessional with their need for justice.

This is why Tim’s post resonated with me. It is also why I started out today with one of my favorite quotes from Styron. We’re about ready to type THE END. I’ve had some experiences. I’m a little exhausted. And I’ve lived a couple lives while writing it. I can only hope the readers will feel the same.

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Being the Next…

Miami_Vice

I was for no particular reason thinking about the Miami Vice television series on Friday afternoon. You’ve probably at least heard of Miami Vice, if you haven’t seen an episode.Television producer Michael Mann originally conceived the idea behind the iconic series during a brainstorming/brainstreaming session in which he wrote the words “MTV cops” on a piece of paper. The audience didn’t necessarily tune in entirely for the music, but they sure didn’t turn away, either. Mann gave viewers a forty-eight minute music video featuring multiple songs, violence, some PG-rated sex, and a lot of style, all from the viewpoint of Crockett and Tubbs, a couple of Miami-Dade County drug enforcement agents.  If your dad or, uh, grandfather has a white linen sport coat in the back of his closet it may well mean that he was rockin’ his best Sonny Crockett back in the day.

cop rock

Now. Have you ever heard of…Cop Rock? It was pitched as the next Miami Vice, and featured dramatic episodes with a cast ensemble who, in the middle of a squad room, a murder scene, or whatever, would…burst into song and dance. It is almost impossible to watch more than a few minutes of any of the very few episodes of Cop Rock that aired without hoping that the cast, scriptwriters, showrunners, and the like would…burst into flame. Just kidding. I think.

I mention this because I don’t think that it’s a good idea to aim at being the “next” of something. I understand that the “next” Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train is precisely what editors — some editors, anyway — are looking for. The entertainment business is reactive, not proactive. The gatekeepers don’t get in trouble for missing a hit; they get in trouble for pushing a project that winds up dead on arrival. The theory is that if a book has a troubled female protagonist who is an unreliable narrator then readers who bought The Girl on the Train will buy and read that, too. At some point, however, that demand is going to run out, and you don’t want it to run out just before your book gets published.

I’m starting to see a number of Jack Reacher-type books, wherein a strong, silent type with an extraordinary skillset wanders into a town and reluctantly becomes involved in someone’s troubles. They’re not all bad books, but it’s almost impossible to read them with comparing them to Lee Child’s offspring, and to find them at least somewhat wanting. I would submit that one is better served by taking an element here and an element there from stories or series that you admire — whether successful or otherwise — and changing the narrative. p.g. sturges does an excellent job of this in his “Shortcut Man” series. Dick Henry, the Shortcut Man, is an ex-cop who stays in one place, helping people with everyday problems by utilizing extra-legal means. Henry is Robert McCall, without the gravitas. Tim Hallinan pulls off a similar trick in his Junior Bender series, which features a cat burglar who works for criminals. Bender is Richard Stark’s Parker turned inside out.  Both protagonists are criminals, but likeable guys; they’re anti-heroes without the “anti-”, if you will. 

What I would like to know is: what authors — or series — do you go to for inspiration? And I mean “inspiration” as a spark, not a model.

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