“Readers won’t stand for it.”
“It’ll trip readers up.”
“Readers expect mysteries to start off with a bang.”
Hang around editors for any length of time and you’ll hear umpteen variations on the theme: readers demand this and they won’t put up with that. You may even hear it from the editor you’ve engaged to work on your manuscript.
Here’s why you should take generalizations about “readers” with about a half ton of salt.
When editors, agents, teachers, and other gatekeepers claim to speak for “readers,” they’re hiding behind an authority that doesn’t exist. Readers are not homogeneous. They do not constitute a godlike authority that must be obeyed and can’t be contradicted or even verified.
Good editors don’t need to hide. We’ll say things like “I stumbled over this bit” or “Given the conventions of [insert genre here], you might consider picking up the pace in chapter one.” Take your editor’s observations and suggestions seriously, but remember that the choice is yours —
Unless, of course, a desirable contract hangs in the balance. When dubious advice is backed up by threat, it’s often best to take it. It’s still your call. Most experienced writers have gone along with editorial decisions that we didn’t agree with. The work survived, and so did we. And sometimes in hindsight the decision looks better than it did at the time.
When an editor tells you that readers won’t stand for something, don’t be afraid to talk back and stand your ground.
My mystery-writing friend Cynthia Riggs was told by her editor that readers would balk at a character’s using the word “bastard” in Bloodroot, the forthcoming title in her Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series. Not one to take this lying down, Cynthia created a table of the “naughty words” used in the (so far) 12-book series. “Bastard” has appeared 41 times in the series, and 14 of them were in one particular book.
True, Cynthia did once receive an email from a fan who wrote that she didn’t “enjoy the language used by the police.” This reader also noted that she had already read four books in the series and had started on her fifth, so the use of strong language doesn’t seem to have been a deal-breaker for her.
For sure it may be a deal-breaker for some. All of us have likes, dislikes, and expectations that will prompt us to put a book down or never pick it up in the first place. Editors can’t predict how “readers” will respond to a particular scene or character or word because “readers” as a generic category doesn’t exist.
Neither can writers. When we attempt to please all of the readers all of the time — or even all of the readers in a particular sub-subgenre — our writing tends to become formulaic and predictable. Fortunately, and whether we know it or not, many of us have a more specific reader in mind. That’s who we’re writing for. Often this reader looks at least somewhat like us.
Left to our own devices, writers are hard to pigeonhole. So are readers. So are books. Unfortunately, we aren’t left to our own devices. Books can be unique, unpredictable, hard to describe in 25 words or less. This makes them hard to market. Widgets, in contrast, are easy to sell because, being mass-produced, they’re consistent and predictable. Aha! thought the commercial publishers. We’ll treat books like widgets!
And for several decades they’ve been doing exactly that: sorting books into genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres so that customers can — so the thinking goes — buy books the way they buy toilet paper. (For more about this, see “Genres and Dump Dogs.”)
In my bookselling days, I found this endlessly frustrating. Where to shelve books that fit into two, three, or more categories? Shelving a book in one place would make it easier for some readers to find, but what about the readers who wouldn’t think to look there? What about the readers who were convinced that no book in that section could possibly interest them?
The marketing departments have trained us well. Many readers make a beeline for [insert subgenre here] and won’t stray from it. Writers whose top priority is selling, maybe even writing for a living, ignore this at their financial peril — but if they heed it, what happens to their writing? Often it becomes predictable — like a good widget. If they want to do something different, they’ll often do it under a pseudonym, to avoid disappointing their widget-hunting readers.
So when an editor or an agent or a writer you admire tells you that “readers won’t stand for it,” they may mean well, or think they do. It’s still your call. Readers aren’t homogeneous. Write for the ones who are willing to take chances. Write for yourself.