Readers reign supreme and you cannot tell them they’re wrong
In an open discussion about writing that I attended, a contentious point remained rooted in my mind.
A resource speaker said, in essence, that writers should sometimes deviate from what the readers expect to read. Readers, he stated, could get tired of reading, for example, funny stories. He added that readers would not mind when a tear-jerker of a story is included in a short-story magazine.
I was still new in the writing profession, but what the speaker said lingered in my mind. I did not quite buy the idea that he suggested.
It wasn’t a puzzle where the speaker was coming from. He was recommending the inclusion of stories imbued with social issues. He was a literary writer and was, at the time, a dean at a well-respected university. He was invited in the open discussion, not in his capacity as literary writer or communications dean but as a writer for commercial publications.
I must add that he used a pen name when writing for magazines and later, for local romance novels. Must I drop a hint that he wasn’t proud to be linked to non-literary writings?
Happy endings only
Somehow, however, I forgot that I did not believe in giving the readers the type of stories that they were not expecting. I was an editor at the time for illustrated comics-magazines. One title was issued twice a week. It had human interest articles, three serialized novels and at least five short stories.
A requirement for all short story contributions was to have happy endings.
But in a few occasions, I came across fantastic fiction pieces that I totally rooted for. To give context, those were the days when women’s struggles at home and at work were rarely given spaces in the media. (Yes, that long ago.)
No, I wasn’t a closet ultra-feminist. I just believed, then and now, in women’s rights and the freedom to expose women’s sufferings.
I had the manuscripts processed for payment. But as the final approval for payment had to come from the editor-in-chief, he called me out. He had read the manuscripts. He reminded me about the happy-ending-only policy for short stories.
Looking back, I wasn’t intimidated by my boss when he indicated that I should not have accepted the manuscripts. I loved the stories. I believed they would resonate with a number of female readers. So I defended the stories, emphasizing that the theme was relatable, and that the way they were written was brilliant.
The magazines we published, I said, might be for entertainment only for the masses, but it would not hurt to include a story every now and then that provided hard lessons in life.
Unwittingly, I used the rationale proffered by the resource speaker whom I referred to in the beginning of this article. A rationale I did not quite buy, but I did not say it aloud.
The editor-in-chief initialled the recommendation for payment for the stories that did not end happily.
I was satisfied. I thought it would be all right to not always concede the wants of the true boss.
Writing about real life
A big lesson after some years jolted me. I was an exclusive romance novelist when I wrote a novel which revolved around the Mt, Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines. It was the second biggest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.
My home at the time was situated within 50km radius of this eruption. I was trapped for weeks and weeks – up to months actually – in an expat compound.
So what would a self-respecting writer, who was currently without a bright-and-happy Muse, write about?
The volcano was still having baby eruptions of ash and volcanic rocks, and there were multiple baby and not-so-baby earthquakes almost daily. One who did not live during these dark volcanic uncertainties could not know how much it influenced my writings at the time.
A novel with this eruption in the prominent background of the plot was what I wrote. I even killed off at least two main characters. Those were the months when I hugely regretted leaving New Zealand.
As soon as the romance book was available in book stores, I received letters from my readers. They were dispirited in my latest novel. Instead of an upbeat mood after reading the novel, they felt depressed with the havoc wreaked upon the lands by the volcano eruption.
How dare I, they wrote, kill off the characters whom they thought would not die? What was I thinking, they further lamented. They expected love, romance and romanticism, not life’s realities.
The big lesson for writers
The reader is the true boss of writers who are writing for money.
Readers reign supreme. If they buy romance books, they expect romance. They expect fantastic happy endings.
When they read thrillers, they expect to sit on the edge of their seat while devouring page after page of whole walls of text, holding their breath in suspense.
The same applies for bloggers and content creators who have money in mind, earning from what they write.
So write what your readers expect to read. Or if you are a ghostwriter, write what is specified in your contract.
Writers whose bread and butter comes from writing, I strongly believe, would not tune out of this reminder.
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First published here.
Thank you very much for reading!