Tuesday, 19 July 2011

What's In It For The Reader?

Lots of writers say things along the lines of 'they just want to get read' so I must be in a minority on this one because I'm indifferent if my books are read or not.  I want them to be bought, because that's how I make my living, but read...?  It's not a big issue for me.  I write, I get work finished and sold, and that's enough for me.

But even though I write without thinking about whether my books are going to be read or not, I am very conscious in the editing process about what's in it for the reader.  I don't think it matters exactly what the reader is going to get out of investing their time - lots of exciting action, beautiful use of language, interesting historical information, insight into human emotions, a removal from this mundane world into a fantasy land - but I think the writer should know what it is they're offering - and then deliver.

I've been thinking about this because I've workshopped a friend's memoir for a couple of years. In our workshopping group, we know each other so well that we're sometimes blunt: 'It's interesting to us because we know you, but it wouldn't interest anyone else'. The discussions gradually centred around 'why would an outsider want to read this?'  Sometimes the answers suggested that the author should go down more sensational or personal paths than she wanted to go, so she had to find other pathways.  

I'm pleased to say that the memoir has found a publisher, the contracts have been signed, and the book is scheduled for publication in 2012.  I like to think that asking What's in it for the Reader? helped.  It's made me go back to my own work and ask the same question.  

I know what I think I'm offering the reader - do you?


Diandra said...

A few weeks ago, I talked to my colleague and friend, and I told her all I wanted to do with my stories is entertain the reader (and, of course, make a living from my writing eventually, so I'll have more time to write). That was something she really couldn't understand. She said that if she were to write a book, she would want to enlighten or teach the reader something... hmpf, I must be a rather simple person. ^^

(I never think about the reader while I write, that is all about the story. When editing, I try to see what the reader would see, without knowing the whole story yet.)

Jim Murdoch said...

When I talk about a poem I describe it as an iceberg: only a fraction of the poem makes it to the page, the rest is inside the poet’s head which is why his poetry always makes perfect sense to him. Much the same goes for prose. If there is not enough on the page for readers to connect with they’ll lose interest. They need to form their own iceberg, the stuff on the page + the stuff they themselves have experienced and what they expect for the author.

Reader expectation is an interesting thing. I went to see S.O.B. in the cinema when it first came out and there were two old women in the row in front of us who had gone purely because they saw Julie Andrews was featured but she was very un-Maria it, even flashing her boobs at one point. The poor dears didn’t know where to look.

Sarah Duncan said...

Diandra - but would her book be better than yours? I don't think so (well, not unless it was a How To book, in which case you'd expect it to teach the reader something). I'm with you - I write stories that I hope entertain.

Jim - love the Julie Andrews story. We normally hear the iceberg analogy in terms of the writer, so it's interesting turning it around to the reader's POV.

womagwriter said...

What's in it for the reader is a question I've asked myself a lot while writing and editing my novel, because it could be seen as 80,000 words of self-indulgent nonsense. I'm working hard to give it a wide appeal, even though that sometimes means cutting out bits which are important to me, but aren't as entertaining to anyone else.

Sarah Duncan said...

Kath, I think you're right to keep the reader in mind at this stage - though I'm sure your novel isn't really self indulgent nonsense!