Readers Won’t Like It If . . .

“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.

naughty words

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.

Beyond the Written Word

Words flow through my fingers and onto the paper, onto the keyboard. I take them for granted, even when they’re lumpy or reluctant or stuck. They flow out of my mouth as reliably as tap water (I’m lucky that way). Sometimes I sing them. I’m not a real singer, but I sing regularly, in a pick-up group — all comers welcome — that gets together monthly to sing and also in the Spirituals Choir. The choir is part of the U.S. Slave Song Project. We sing the folk songs sung by African slaves in America between 1619 and 1865.

For more than a decade, between the mid-1980s and the very late 1990s, I was very involved in local theater, first as a reviewer for one of the local papers, then mainly as a stage manager and actor. I even wrote several one-act plays.

Mostly these days, though, my creative life is words on paper and words on screen, writing them and editing them.

A couple of weeks ago, Roberta Kirn, the leader of the pick-up group I sing with and also a dancer, drummer, and teacher, sent round an email to all the singers, drummers, and musically inclined people on her list. An upcoming production at The Yard was looking for singers to form a sort of flash mob in the audience during the performance. Contact information was provided.

Of course I was tempted — but I’m not a real singer: was I a good enough singer to do this, whatever it was? And The Yard is a summer dance colony in the next town over. Of all the creative arts, dance is the one I have the least affinity for. Dance is a language I don’t speak. It’s spoken mostly by skinny people who can contort their bodies in impossible ways. I’m not skinny now, and for a couple of decades I was downright fat. My contortions are all mental. I do them with words.

Poster for "The Queue" at The Yard

Poster for “The Queue” at The Yard

Still, it sounded fun, and a little risky, and an excuse to get out of my head. I signed up. I had to miss the rehearsal; the director said come anyway. Our song was a three-part arrangement of the chorus of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Before Friday night’s performance, we did a run-through with the cast of The Queuedeveloped and performed by the Lucky Plush dance theater company from Chicago. The company began the song onstage, then the half dozen or so of us singers joined in from our scattered seats in the audience. I managed to pick up my note, hold my part, and remember the song even with no one around me to lean on — always a worry of mine.

The big reward was getting to see The Queue twice through. It’s set in an airport. At the beginning, apart from a gay couple setting out on their honeymoon, the seven players don’t know each other. Gradually connections develop and emerge among them. The piece is theater as well as dance. I do speak theater, and I totally forgot that I don’t speak dance. In theater, how the actors use space and their own bodies can be at least as important as what they do with their voices and the words of the script. The Queue draws on slapstick, vaudeville, and the great choral production numbers of yesteryear, among other things, and since the players are trained dancers who can do astonishing things with their bodies, I forgot that dance, music, and theater are supposed to be separate arts involving separate skills.

Well, OK, I already knew that. Thanks to my theater experience, writing often feels like directing or stage-managing to me. My characters are my actors. I watch them, coach them, and sometimes become them. Singing probably makes me even more attentive to sounds, rhythm, and silences than I would be otherwise. But lately I’ve been so exclusively engaged with the written word it’s like I’ve had blinkers on. Or as if I’ve been riding on an escalator focused entirely on the straight-ahead, screening out all the distractions to left and right.

And dance. I was totally ignoring dance. It’s not just for skinny people, and it’s not just a foreign language spoken in places I’ll never visit. I was just part of a dance production, even if all I did was stand up and sing.

Writers are scavengers. We’re the ultimate recyclers and repurposers. Our minds may seem crammed to capacity, but they aren’t. There’s always room for more.

UKL’s Challenge

We interrupt this blog to bring you an important message. Ursula K. Le Guin has been high in my literary pantheon for a very long time. The other night at the 65th National Book Awards, Le Guin was honored for her distinguished contribution to American letters. In barely five minutes she proved that her distinguished contribution continues. Her speech seems to be going viral. Good. It’s a challenge to writers, publishers, and readers. Let’s live up to it.

And here is The Speech, as transcribed by Parker Higgins and posted on his blog. He notes that the bits in parentheses were ad-libbed to the audience. Thanks!

Thank you, Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

 

Murder, They Write — and Write, and Write

I’m probably going to get into big trouble here. Quite a few of my friends and acquaintances write murder mysteries. A vast number of my friends and acquaintances read murder mysteries.

Still, I’ve gotta say it: Something bugs me about murder mysteries.

The other day lonelyboy1977, a blogger I follow, blogged about “the one trope I love to hate.” The trope he loves to hate is the love triangle. It’s not the trope itself he hates. It’s the way writers who use it tend to fall into ruts. Rather than develop their characters and plots, they let the trope do the work.

In real life, murder is a crime. In fiction, it’s a trope. In murder mysteries, it’s a sine qua non. Without a murder, it’s not a murder mystery.

Aside: OK, now I’m curious. Are there any murder mysteries out there in which murder doesn’t happen? Recommendations welcome.

No, I don’t for a minute believe that writing and reading murder mysteries makes a person insensitive to murder. I get the distinction between fiction and real life. Even when it’s set in a real place, fiction creates an alternate reality. My friend Cynthia Riggs writes murder mysteries about Martha’s Vineyard, the place where we both live. They’re fun, they’re well-written, they’re true to the place in almost every detail . . .

body outlineExcept for the dead bodies that keep turning up. Homicide is very rare on Martha’s Vineyard. If murders happened on the Vineyard as often as they do in Cynthia’s books, the Vineyard would be a very different place. More of us would lock our doors. Fewer of us would go for long walks in the woods alone. Every time someone was murdered, we’d be surreptitiously studying our friends and neighbors for clues: Did you do it?

And perhaps wondering ourselves: Who out there is itching to kill me?

Why is the murder trope so popular with writers? Well, duh, writers write murder mysteries because there’s an apparently insatiable market out there for them. But how about from a strictly writing point of view?

fingerprintToss a murder into the meandering stream of daily life and plot happens. I’ve blogged before about how I’m plot-impaired. The number of online how-to-plot guides out there tells me I’m not alone. I’d probably be better at plotting if I were better at killing characters off.

The task I’ve set myself, though, pretty much precludes that option. In my fiction, I’m exploring Martha’s Vineyard. In creating my alternate-reality Vineyard, I’ve limited myself to the materials lying around in the actual place. At present I’ve got a loose dog, a child trapped in a bad family situation, and a protagonist who gets sucked into trying to rescue both of them. The dog almost gets shot and there’s one character I wouldn’t mind killing off, but so far no one’s died or committed murder.

What I’m curious about is how the murder trope influences the writer’s imagination. Murder is such a sure-fire way to get a plot going — does it push other possibilities out of the picture? The same goes for other tried-and-true tropes, like the love triangle. If something works once, we’ll usually do it again — and again and again and again.

Till it stops working.

Which isn’t likely to happen in our lifetimes.

Here I’m going to take a giant step backwards. As the late Grace Paley said, and I’m forever quoting, “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

My feet aren’t in the mud of murder mysteries, and I’ve already said enough. But I’m curious. And I hope some of you murder mystery writers and avid readers out there will weigh in.

Murder weapons

Murder weapons in waiting

Genres and Dump Dogs

Literary genres weren’t invented by writers. They were invented by publishers. Writing is notoriously hard to categorize. Each book is unique, even books written by the same author. Publishers’ marketing departments hate this. Promote each book as a unique entity? That’s no way to do business.

So publishers identify niches, big groups of potential readers with similar interests, and market to them. Much easier, much more efficient, and (from the marketers’ perspective) much more effective.

At first the boundaries between niches are flexible, barely perceptible even. But with time they harden into walls. The niches become genres, and the genres subdivide into subgenres. The walls get higher, so that readers can barely see over them.

Reading Ray and Lorna Coppinger’s book Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, I got the idea that the evolution of literature has a lot in common with the evolution of dogs.

The Coppingers believe that canids domesticated themselves (and evolved into dogs) after humans started settling into stationary villages, which featured on their outskirts stationary dumps — good foraging for those canids who didn’t mind being that close to people. These “village dogs,” both in history and in the present, developed certain common characteristics, e.g., a medium size that was big enough to defend itself but small enough to thrive on the food available. Physical differentiation started to happen when some humans figured out that dogs could be useful at certain tasks, such as herding or guarding livestock and pulling sleds.

“Breeds” as we know them, however, are relatively recent developments. Until a couple of centuries ago, a retriever was a dog that retrieved well — not necessarily a dog with retrievers on both sides of its pedigree. Whether a dog could retrieve well depended partly on its parents (did it have the right physical characteristics for the job?) and partly on how it was raised and trained. A Labrador retriever pedigree alone does not a good retriever make. The modern emphasis on “pure” breeds (meaning the stud books are closed, meaning genetic diversity takes a wallop), especially in the show ring, tends to divorce function from appearance and to focus heavily on the latter.

Literary genres are like breeds — of relatively recent development, especially the notion that there are clear lines between them and everything has to fit into one category. “Literature” is more like those village dogs of indeterminate breed: it adapts to the climate and food sources available, and maybe it looks a little like this, a little like that, but you can’t say for sure that it’s a beagle or a foxhound (or a mystery or a romance). When you’re trying to tell a story, you scavenge and steal from whatever’s in the vicinity and if it works you keep it.

All of which is not to say that genres aren’t useful to writers. Faced with a whole boundless ocean of possibilities, it’s easy to choke. Why not focus on the weather and currents, the flora and fauna, of a particular inlet or harbor or archipelago? By all means go ahead. Each genre has its tropes and conventions. Because readers are familiar with them, you don’t have to justify, say, the dead body that turns up in chapter 1 or the FTL (faster-than-light) starship that enables your characters to get from one planet to another. You can devote your writerly attention to other things.

Just keep in mind that many stories worth telling don’t fit neatly, or even messily, into one genre or another. In the attempt to squeeze them in, sacrifices have to be made. Genetic diversity may be lost. The end result might be a dog that looks sharp in the show ring but can’t do the job its ancestors did.