Charles (“Chuck”) Rosenberg is a Harvard Law School-trained lawyer who has been a partner in a large, international law firm and, simultaneously, an adjunct law professor who has taught numerous law school courses, from copyright to criminal procedure. He received his undergraduate degree from Antioch College and has served as the credited legal script consultant to TV’s The Paper Chase, L.A Law, The Practice and Boston Legal, a full-time on-air legal analyst for E! Television’s O. J. Simpson criminal and civil trial coverage, and a former board member of the Taos Film Festival. His latest novel, WRITE TO DIE, is published by Thomas & Mercer.
What Do Readers Want?
Freud once asked of Marie Bonaparte the (sexist) question, “What does woman want?” With apologies to Freud for adapting his question, I want to ask “What do readers want?”
For most of history, writers found out what their readers wanted indirectly—by looking at sales figures, by reading professional reviews in newspapers and magazines, by hearing from agents, editors and writing teachers, and by talking with friends, acquaintances and other writers (most of whom probably didn’t say what they really thought). Unless they got tons of pointed fan mail, writers didn’t usually have direct access to the views of hundreds (or even thousands) of ordinary readers of their books.
Now, thanks to reader reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads, plus lots of blogs, writers are awash in reader opinions—if they want to read them. Some authors don’t. I do, and here are a couple of things I’ve learned.
To start with, I’ve learned that even people who like a particular genre (e.g., crime fiction) vary widely in what they’re looking for. For example, in a review of my first novel, Death on a High Floor (I was lucky enough to have over one thousand Amazon reviews for that book), one reader wrote, “Couldn’t put it down!” But several days earlier, another reader had written: “A fun book, but slow at times.”
What to make of this? After reading many more reviews, I concluded that some readers simply like a fast burn—murder on page 1, likely killers identified soon thereafter, protagonist and a lot about his/her character not long after that, mainly generated through action, action, action. Some readers, by contrast, prefer to let the story and the characters build. But, clearly, these days the vast majority of crime fiction readers want a fast start.
These different “pacing” preferences aren’t really surprising. As the late novelist John Gardner said, the job of the writer (quoting Coleridge) is to create in the mind of the reader, “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment,” so that the reader can be persuaded “that the events [the writer] recounts really happened or might have happened . . .”, thus creating what Gardener calls the “fictional dream.”*
The problem is that people dream different dreams. What will quickly entice one person into a fictional world won’t always work for others. Why? Because the dream the author has on offer to the reader must fit with the reader’s own mindset about what might be real, or should be real, or at least what might be realistically imagined.
So what’s the best path for an author to decide about pacing? Should I do what I like best for myself (I tend to prefer a medium burn) or do what the majority of readers seem to want? When I reread the first draft of my new novel, Write to Die, the murder that’s key to the book didn’t occur until Chapter 3. After reading it, I said to myself, “You know, it appears that most of my readers prefer a fast burn.” The murder is now on page 2.
It’s not only reader preference on pacing that I learned more about from reader reviews. I’ve also come to understand that if you create good characters, you’d best be careful what you do with them in any sequels. In Death on a High Floor, I created Jenna James, a young, feisty, self-confident, brilliant trial lawyer. Many readers loved her. In the first sequel, Long Knives, I moved Jenna to a new setting and gave her some life challenges. So while she’s still young and feisty, she’s also at times scared, paranoid and defensive. When I wrote her that way, I thought I was just writing her going through a very bumpy period. A lot of readers agreed, but a small, rather vocal minority hated what I’d “done to her.”
In my new novel, Write to Die, the first of a planned series, I’ve created two new characters, Rory Calburton, a forty-year old, rather stuffy lawyer-partner, and Sarah Gold, a thirty-year old woman associate who’s into heavy risk-taking (and hey, with only ten years between them, there’s always the opportunity for romance). I think they’re good characters, and I hope readers will like them. But I’ve learned from reader reviews that when I write the sequel, I have to be careful not to change them too much. Because if you manage to create a great character, you no longer fully own her.
*The Art of Fiction, Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner, pp. 22-24, 38 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1985).
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