Friday, May 01, 2009

Donis Does It - Do You?

Charles’ here, starting this blog with a shout out to recent guest blogger Marc Blatte who landed an appearance on NPR Weekend Edition. Well done, sir. Now why didn’t you mention me?

Last week I wrote about writing the kinds of books readers want to read, which prompted fellow-blogger and the ever-insightful Donis to note that that’s all well and good, but that unless you did a ton of (expensive, trust me) market research, you can never really know what readers want and that the best you can do is study your craft, write constantly, love to write and write the best books you can write. I agree completely—and that’s why I’m still right.

So, Charles, what do readers want? Naturally, they all want something different. Well, not completely different and not all of them, but it’s safe to say that they want books with great characters and a wonderful story and a memorable setting…which all sounds so general and not at all helpful, until you’ve read a few books in a row that had none of these things. But this is not helpful advice and it is my sworn duty as a Type M for Murder Blogger to provide all comers with advice practical and free.

Donis pointed out that she does not know what her readers want to read but she’s wrong. I think she knows exactly what they want. Checkout the opening sentence from Donis’ The Old Buzzard Had It Coming:

It was just after dinner on that January day in 1912, and very cold with a threat of snow, when Harley Day began the journey to his eternal reward.

These are not words just tossed down because the author like the way they looked. Whether she knew it or not (and I know she did), these twenty-nine words let readers who are looking for a certain kind of book know that they have found it. No buckets of blood splashed up in your face, no cowering victim begging for mercy, no big city cop looking for redemption, no F-bomb heavy dialog, no primer-level reading. Just twenty-nine words that tell readers who are looking for a beautifully-crafted story with a hint of mystery, set in a specific time and place by someone who knows what she’s writing about that they have found what they were looking for. That is knowing your reader.

If you set out to write a best seller you will fail. Your book will try to be all things to all people, and like a smarmy politician, you may have some success but ultimately people will see you for what you are. But if you set out to write a book for an audience you can picture—even an audience of one—then you are on the right track. You need to know this audience (or this person) so well that you know what they want to read and how they want to read it. It’s not what you want to say but how they want to hear it.

Imagine if Donis had set out to write to the psycho killer crowd instead...

The pin-sharp prongs popped his eyeballs as the man drove the pitchfork through his skull, pinning Harley Day to the wall of the barn, just as he had done to Harley’s wife, four children and dog before him.

Or to the recipe-mystery crowd…

It had been a fine meal, the turkey braised with a special sauce made of three parts honey, one part sautéed cranberries, sprinkled with a dash of cinnamon and simmered over a low flame all evening, a quarter clove of garlic and a dash of cherry brandy added sometime after seven when the pot was raised to a low boil and a final quarter cup of finely-ground brown sugar was added, and Harley Day thought about it as he went to the barn to die.

Or to the mystery-from-the-cat’s-perspective crowd…

I supposed he would say I was tagging along, staying too close to his feet and that’s why he called me a nuisance—Moi? A nuisance?—but the fact is I had a date with an crafty and hopefully tasty mouse, and was heading to the barn anyway on that day that was so cold a gal’s tail could freeze off.

Fortunately, Donis knows her reader, and the result is a series of finely crafted books that give her readers exactly what they want to read.

Common sense stuff? You’d think it would be, but I’ve read too many books that tried to be too many things to too many people. And in the end—if you could make it that far—you knew you wouldn’t be back for more.


Donis Casey said...

Thanks, Charles! You've given me ideas for four new novels! What an intriguing idea to approach the same story in different ways for different audiences.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Well said, Charles. Makes me rethink some of my own writing.