Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Myth of the "Average" Reader

by Terri Main

A couple of weeks ago we were discussing expositions. The popular wisdom of those discussing it was that long expositions were boring for the “average reader.” That started me thinking. Is there an "Average" reader? Is the reader of a cozy mystery the same as that of a space-opera science fiction novel?  Are either of them in any way similar to those reading romance novels? 

Even if they are the same or similar demographically, they come to the novel with different expectations. For instance, readers of cozies, expect shorter novels, less violence, more time with the sleuth to participate in her or his methods. Hardboiled PI or police procedural readers want to get right to the murder and, hopefully, multiple murders, gun battles and someone really needs to get hit on the head soon. Epic fantasy readers like some of the worldbuilding stuff early on even if it slows down the storyline just a little, especially if it is the first book of the series. However, they also want the action to begin while this world building is taking place. "Hard" Science fiction readers are looking for more character development and the implications of the technology to be highlighted. Science Fantasy/Space Opera types more often want to blast off immediately. 

I know those are all over simplifications. One can point to examples of exceptions to the rule, but I do think that when I write I have to think about those genre-based differences in readers. 

I need to stop thinking about THE AVERAGE READER and think about the average reader of a certain genre and the conventions of that genre. How do I find that out? READ, READ, READ and then READ. After that, you might READ. I don’t mean reading books about writing for that genre, although that may be helpful. I mean reading good examples of people writing for that genre. 

As you read, make notes. How long before the inciting incident of the action in the novel? What are the characters like? How long are the novels? Do they have long or short chapters? Do they have many subplots or few if any? 

One good exercise is to read and then write a one or two sentence summary of what happened in each chapter. And do this for several books in your chosen genre. 

Who should you read? Read authors who write the type of books you want to write. This doesn’t necessarily mean the ones who write in your style or a style you would like to emulate. That can lead to you submerging your own voice under that of a favorite author. Read authors published by different publishers. That way you get past the idiosyncrasies of a particular publisher and see the genre as a whole. 

What I am going to say next may shock you, but don’t read the top authors. At least don’t read their most recent work. Stephen King or Nora Roberts could write a description of their summer vacation and get a six-figure advance. Read their first novels, when they still had to work to build an audience. Read the work horses of the genre. These are people who are not household names, but consistently turn out novels people buy and read. 
Immerse yourself in the genre and become an “average reader” of that genre, then write to a more specific reader. 

Once you shed yourself of an illusion of an universal average reader, then you can really get to know the real readers of your own genre.


Unknown said...

I read A LOT! I do read some of the popular big name authors like Christine Feehan, Alyssa Day, Charlaine Harris and Lynsay Sands to name a few. I used to read a lot of Nora Roberts but something I noticed with her stuff over time is that she started repeating herself. A character that had a certain look was turning up in every book. It wouldn't be so bad but it was always the main character. This especially started happening with her single title releases.

I think she's so prolific and puts out so many stories every year that she's now starting to rely more and more on a set formula than creating something new. For me that takes away from the story.

One woman who has written for Harlequin for years is Betty Neels. I hate to say it, but if you have read one of her books, you've read them all. It's always the same story just with the names of the characters changed. Mousy British nurse loses job after meeting visiting Dutch surgeon. He feels guilty and offers her a job as a governess to his daughter in Denmark. He's engaged to a beautiful but nasty woman who treats the nurse badly. Surgeon fires nurse who's in love with him and then forces his fiance to break up with him because he's too "honorable" to break up with her. Then he goes and seeks out the nurse and marries her....BORING!

I despise repetition. Okay, some of your characters might share traits with others, but not all the time. And you can't tell me that you can only ever think of the same story over and over again with the only new thing being the names? My criteria as a reader is...don't bore me. That's all I ask and if you tell the same story over and over again, you are gonna bore me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this information with us. Lots of good points to take into consideration. I like the one or two sentence summary of each chapter read. I'll definitely try it.

Cheryl said...

Excellent post, Terri. By the looks of my TBR pile, I'll be reading a lot. :)