It’s easy to get caught up in the notion we are artists, and forget about the business side of our business. This is one of the reasons we need to be honest about our goals. It’s a noble goal to want to earn a living, a good living from writing. Yet, if we want to make money writing, we have to feed people what they want to eat.
A Tale of Two Parsnips
I remember being in NYC in 2012. It was our final day in the city and we were celebrating a member of our group’s birthday. Since I have a bazillion food allergies, we called ahead of time to make sure the restaurant could accommodate someone with allergies to half the known universe.
Since the place was an Asian-Australian fusion restaurant, they assured me that there were lots of grilled meat dishes that could be easily adjusted to meet my needs. This was a super fancy restaurant and the chef had even once won Iron Chef, so I didn’t eat much that day, preparing for my first experience with an Asian-Australian cuisine.
We get to the ordering and the chef simply refused to modify any of the dishes, claiming that removing the mashed potatoes (which contained dairy) ruined the aesthetics of the dish. Seriously? Um, did anyone tell this chef food is for eating, not staring at?
The waitress kept continually offering me the parsnip soup. I was hungry, then after fifteen times being offered soup I didn’t want, I was ticked. I finally lost my temper, scared the waitress and someone somehow convinced the kitchen to create an aesthetically unbalanced plate before I came back there and made an aesthetically unbalanced chef.
To this day, my friend Rachel Funk Heller claims “parsnip” is my trigger word (and can be counted on to randomly shout it out to embarrass me).
But this story illustrates my point. We shouldn’t keep trying to serve others something they don’t want to consume. This has been a guiding principle of my social media approach. I don’t like eating spam, so why feed it to others?
When I wrote my first social media book, it was because all the books out there were highly technical, boring and made me want to throw myself in traffic. I knew I couldn’t be alone. Why not write a book that was useful and fun? Repackage a boring topic into something people enjoyed?
***That’s thinking like an entrepreneur, btw ;).
Same with fiction. I didn’t like being forced to read The Great Gatsby (three times too many), so why write books similar to so many of the classics most of us only read because we had to?
And inevitably I get an intellectual who wants to argue and it’s fine. If we want to write a modern version of Moby Dick, no one will stop us. If we want to write perspicacious prose only a handful of intelligentcia “get”? Write away!
Just don’t complain about sales numbers.
Readers, by and large, don’t want us to show off how clever we are. They want a good story. Just like I wanted to eat protein even if removing the mashed potatoes adversely affected the “aesthetic balance” of a plate I could barely see in a far-too-dark-pretentious-restaurant.
Give Readers What They Want In a WAY They Want
Every Christmas, we go through the same routine. The Spawn opens his new toys, then Mommy and Daddy spend the next hour with scissors and kitchen knives trying to break into them. I’m pretty shocked I haven’t lost a finger working to get past all the zip-tes, plastic, and anti-theft stuff.
This is how info-dump, fish heads, needless prologues and flashbacks feel to readers. We have to get past so much stuff to get to what we want, that we move on to novels who don’t make us work so hard to get to the STORY.
One of the reasons I emphasize understanding the craft of writing is that novel/story structure is mythic. There is actually evidence that narrative structure is hardwired into the human brain. Yes, we can break rules and deviate, but we do this too much? We confuse the reader. It’s like serving them a blue steak. Blue steak could taste great, but our minds won’t let us eat and enjoy something so very wrong.
This is why it’s important to deliver a book that’s been properly edited. Too many typos and mistakes are like grease coagulating on the plate. It negatively impacts the experience of the reader, and anything that pulls a reader out of the story needs to be cut or fixed.
Good books are good books, but I’ll be blunt. There are outside factors we can never anticipate. This is why we need to keep writing. Maybe we put out a fabulous dystopian fiction. But, if the economy suddenly tanks, people are out of work and the world political climate shifts to the terrifying? We tend to not want to read more of the doom and gloom we get every day on the news.
I actually have a theory that this is part of why 50 Shades of Grey took off when it did. It was racy, mindless junk food that put readers in a world where someone else told them what to do (allowing them to escape from a real world where they have NO idea what to do). Whether the book was good, bad, or terrible, it clearly filled a need and a market emerged.
This is why writing more books is critical. Maybe Book One isn’t selling well today, but in a digital world where shelf space is infinite? Might do better next year. We get better the more we
cook write, and odds are, if we do it enough, we’ll discover our readers and they’ll discover us.
Have you ever had someone try to keep giving you something you DIDN’T WANT? A book? Food at a restaurant, bad mojo at a clothing store? Two words. Skinny jeans. Any sociological theories about the success of 50 Shades? Come on! Let’s play armchair psychiatrist! I am not a doctor, but play one on the Internet :D.
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
ANNOUNCEMENTS: I have a class coming up TONIGHT, Creating Conflict and Tension on Every Page if you want to learn how to apply these tactics to your writing. Use WANA15 to get 15% off.
Also, August 21st, I am running a Your First Five Pages webinar. Bronze is $40 and Gold is $55 (I look at your first five pages) and use WANA15 for 15% off.
Reblogged this on yasarnorman.
Yes. My husband kept trying to get me to do housework instead of having someone come once a week. NOT going to happen! I told him I’d do it if we shared them. Haven’t heard a word since. 🙂
Haven’t read the book myself, but I agree with what you said. It meets a need. It must have to become so successful.
I think there needs to be a balance between what we feed people and what they want to eat. Kids want to eat nothing but sweets and chips: should we just give in and feed them just that? Also, writing something just because you think people want to read that kind of thing is the best way to fail. you have to like what you’re writing, because if you don’t you’ll feel miserable and your book will reflect it.
True, but we also need to remember not to be writing for ourselves. And we are providing a product to consumers. We aren’t their parents. It’s incumbent on us to make something “good for them” also enjoyable. For instance, all writers needed to understand social media. But putting out 200 pages of IT speak was fruitless. Yes, give them their veggies, but make them taste good and a market will emerge.
I recall having a writer in my critique group who INSISTED on using this thesaurus web site. Instead of just using regular words, he loaded his stories with so much arcane language, reading was a beating. He might as well have been writing in Sanskrit. Yet, he was so enamored with his cleverness, he failed to see how making a reader stop every three words to reach for a dictionary would not be a pleasant experience. He was writing for an Audience of One…himself.
This reminds me of the whole needs-versus-wants discussion. Sometimes we want something but when we get it’s not what we actually needed.
I think good books can be the same way. Not entirely sure how to implement that, though x)
Re the writing for an audience of one, recalls a favorite quote from Toni Andrews (who says give me credit when you quote this–because you will quote it):
“My goal is never for you to notice my writing. My goal is for you to NOT notice when the phone rings.”
Haha, awesome xD
I think that both sides need to be looked at. You could create something that would be very good for people to read, but if it doesn’t entice them to read it in the first place, they won’t receive the benefit. This is where the marketing tactic: “sell them what they want, give them what they need” comes in. You can frame your “nutritional” content in a presentation that, at, first glance, looks like a bowl of ice cream. You see this all the time other industries, why not in books too?
Great blog. Write what the reader wants. But also it needs to be what the author loves or it isn’t going to be any good.
It needs to be a balance. It can’t ALL be for us or ALL to suit a market. We can’t predict markets, trends and flukes. We can write good stories, though.
Awesome post! I’ve been wanting you to blog about this just never got around to asking. I can’t decide if the author should change what they write about to suit the parsnip people. Some people write so well but I don’t like the subjects. Everyone wants to read to escape reality but what if writers don’t realise they are writing about things people have gone through. For me if it’s even vaguely related to something from real life it puts me off.
There must be something in the air encouraging food analogies for writing. I’ve been making them too lately. 🙂
I know what you mean about folks pushing what you DON’T WANT. People are bad about this when it comes to T.V. shows. I don’t watch much T.V., but I might have enjoyed some of the shows people recommend… if it was just that, a single recommendation. Instead, the more I hear about how I “have to watch” some show, the less interested I become. It’s sad because the pushing means the person really enjoyed the story and characters, but a calm “Have you watched this? I found it very entertaining.” would have done better.
In Russia, The Great Gatsby is considered a light read, not intellectual, hehe, like Ulysses or The Divine Comedy. At least, The GB is short, we’ve been fed War and Peace with a 100 page-long description of the Austerlitz battle. As for Moby Dick, I’m sure it was considered a beautiful read before the electricity was invented, now with everyone having an attention span of a caffeine-addictive Scrat it’s worse than a Spanish inquisition 🙂
btw, what’s this indigo stuff on the plate?
I appreciate your theory explaining 50 Shades. It helps its popularity sit better with me, even if I still don’t like it.
When I was pregnant with my first son, I had a coworker who used to put 2 peanut butter cups on my desk every morning. I never asked him for them, but finally had to ask him to stop because I was gaining too much weight. What I’d really craved was butter pecan ice cream. I hope junk food like 50 Shades doesn’t have a similar effect as those peanut butter cups did. 😉
First, I think it’s very silly that the chef was determining how to deliver the food that YOU had to pay for based on his preferences. If he was offering a free service, then I would understand. However, how can you be in a customer service role (even if you may not deal directly with the customer) and still think that your opinion matters more than the customer who is spending his or her money.
Second, just keep writing is the best advice that anyone can give in terms or writing. The more things you finish, the better your odds of getting something published.
This is a bit off topic, but might come in handy for you this Christmas.
I have twins, age 8, and I am always frustrated at all the stuff that is attached to their new toys to keep it securely in the package. But I’ve figured out a way to make Christmas morning/Birthdays run a lot smoother, (and by “smoother” I really mean I’ve found a way to sit on the couch with my coffee instead of wrangling stupid wires while my twins bounce around the room).
Take all that stuff off BEFORE you wrap the presents. After the kiddos are in bed, sit and watch your favorite tv show (Bachelor/Bachelorette are perfect!) and open the box, take all the tethering crap off, and then close it back up. Wrap it like usual, and then you can sit and watch them enjoy the present right when they get it.
Oooh, I’m totally doing that this year! Thanks Christi! 😀
What a good idea! When we gave my Mom an eReader we charged the battery in advance (having noticed with our own that waiting for that first charge is FOREVER) and had a book already loaded and open for her. 🙂
Totally agree with you about 50 Shades … the fantasy wasn’t getting tied up, it was someone coming and being like why don’t I fix your life for you and give you everything you want.
I really don’t like chocolate (strange I know). People are always telling me just to try it again…it’s like why do you think you know what I want more than me. I know I’m going to gag if I eat that. Just eat your own chocolate cake and don’t worry about me!
Rant over. Great post!
That’s irish coffee for me. Eventually I tried it at a fancy restaurant and after that I just put my foot down; if I don’t like it there chances are I’m not gonna like it anywhere.
I’m with you on the chocolate thing. If anything, give me white chocolate in very small doses. I once had an old boyfriend who tricked me into eating some cheap chocolate. I still gag thinking about it.
Glad to know I’m not the only one.
Described that way, I can see how 50 Shades would be appealing. I’d mostly just scratched my head and shrugged it off as not my thing. 🙂
Another great idea presented extremely well. I have shared your blog url with some writer friends of mine. Your blog is consistently the best one I read.
This is a very interesting discussion! Readers do know what they want from an author. I am a very avid reader of romance. If I really like an author, I buy all of their books. There are exceptions. I love reading authors who have a series. It feels like visiting old friends when characters from past books are in the current story. Sometimes, the author will get away from a series and start a new one. If I loved the past books, I will give the new series a chance. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. The voice of the author feels different. Most of the time it does work. Of course, if the new series isn’t a hit with me, I won’t buy anything else from that series.
When I want to buy a new book, I’ll search certain words to find the type of story I’d like to read on that day. I have found some wonderful authors through searches!
Wonderful, thank you. It seems such a small thing to say for some great tips.
Kristin, you made some valuable points re: giving the reader what they want. Your illustrations – via your food allergies and the frustration you encountered as well as the surprising success of Fifty Shades of Grey – hit it home. Thanks.
Reblogged this on Cynthia Stacey and commented:
Imagine, give the reader what they want! Simple but awesome advice from Author Kristen Lamb.
Not to take anything away from this, but if you stop to think about it, this should be common sense, reaally. Ooh, and I cannot spell tonight… Thank again for some great advice!!!
50 Shades wasn’t my up of tea. I understand, if you want people to read your book you have to write what appeals to them. You don’t have to mimic the latest craze. And readers aren’t likely to explore a new different form of the novel. P.S. I spent fifteen years in restaurant kitchens. I told the wait staff “if you can write it down, I can make it.” Too many chefs believe they’re god when it comes to preparing food.
I like the way you think Kristen. People who have written books with a small nick, often complain about not selling many because they think their book will be the one that makes it big. The exception. It’s good to hold out that kind of hope, but on the other hand, be realistic and don’t complain if it doesn’t happen. Instead write one that has a better chance of selling to a much bigger audience and then another and another…well you already said that. It seems like a no brainer, but for many it isn’t.
I totally agree with your take on the “50 Shades” phenomenon. At this point in time, people want an escape from their regular lives. We can look at all of the most popular movies that have been released in the past couple of years, and most are science fiction, fantasy or horror, i.e., The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, WWZ, Oz, The Great and Powerful, etc., as opposed to “realistic” action, and drama.
From what I can see it’s pretty much the same with books, though there may be quite a few non-fiction books doing well, the majority of the big blockbuster books fall into these categories as well. People seem to want that escape; they want the ability to lose themselves in these worlds where the good guys always win, and everyone lives happily ever after. That’s just my take on the phenomenon, though. 🙂
I remember with pride the time I sent back a plate of what was supposed to be fettuccine Alfredo but had been made with – hold on to your hat – CILANTRO instead of parsley. And this was not a silly little know-nothing pasta place: it was Prego in Beverley Hills. At least nobody in the kitchen tried to convince me that that was what I really wanted, I just didn’t know it. If only unsuccessful or slightly-successful writers that I know – including myself – would remember to learn something from that.
I’m not a writer but related this to my business! Great reminder! I have to remind myself constantly “It’s not all about me”! Thank you!
Two observations of agreement: we want what we want, which for most book buyers (our customers) involves having the good guys win and living happily ever after in fiction. In nonfiction, we are interested in some factual information and practical help, not esoteric nonsense. A quick glance at the lists of what is actually selling…say at Amazon, might help us reorient ourselves to reality. Life is hard…give us something to take our minds off ourselves. At least we can have some fun or root for the good guys. Remember why sports is big business…
Have fun writing and enjoy eating real food in a real diner, just for fun!
I love your story about the fancy restaurant. I suspect the person that answers the phone there will agree to any question posed just to get you in. I can understand “aesthetically pleasing,” even in food dishes, but to refuse to omit part of a dish because of causing an imbalance in the aesthetics for God’s sake, even to cater to a diner’s allergies, is going waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too far.
Also, I have to agree with cmrose2003 about reading books that are part of a series. When I find an author who really takes me out of this world – often quite literally since I love sci-fi – I hate to see the novel end. So reading more in that series is like a continuation of the first one. It sort of puts off the end, at least for a little longer.
I am LOVING this series! Maybe I should dig into some John Maxwell books to come up with blog topics. 😀
I’m writing to amuse myself and my husband. I also happen to adore urban/modern fantasy, the kind usually found in MG and sometimes YA. So I’m writing a YA urban fantasy that’s high on the adventure/wonder/mystery/horror and low on the romance, although it has bits of that, too. I think it’s pretty marketable. My beta and test readers have responded favorably. 🙂
I hear you about The Great Gatsby. I liked some of the novels I read in college, but not that one. I have no interest in seeing its latest movie incarnation, even with its charismatic stars, simply because I don’t like the plot.
My Freshman Comp teacher stressed “ALWAYS think about your audience.” As a writer you must be true to yourself or otherwise your writing is dishonest and readers will sense that. Still, It comes down to balance. A well-balanced meal…well balanced book. Give them something that’s different, tastes good, fills them up, and satisfies their nutritional requirements.
Skiiny jeans – snort – oh YES 🙂
The problem here is that you were misled before you went. This restaurant may well have been meeting the requirement of your fourth rule by providing the majority of people what they wanted.
Given your allergies, you were not part of that majority. You are a niche market for which they did not need to cater.
I have ‘pressed this’.
Excellent post Kristen, thanks. Its interesting too that you mentioned ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ to illustrate the points … my wife read the book and found it had many spelling errors, but i guess it obviously didn’t matter to the millions of buyers! It filled a niche and if the story / product is good enough it will sell i suppose … but getting the balance right seems so difficult sometimes … so thank you for your continued tips #Kristen Lamb’s blog ! Ha ha LOL!
We writers can end up wandering around in our own heads way too much – your post is an excellent reminder that we need to be writing something people want to read. I loved your parsnip soup fury and the tip that people want to get to the story. Head-wandering can result in a lot of ‘packaging’ getting in the way. This thought is going to help me hone my first 5,000 words (of a psychological thriller) ready for entry into a competition. Ah – they want to get to the STORY – I get it! Thanks.
You had me at food! Sorry. I’m not a prolific writer. Honesty is the best policy. I saw the picture of food and clicked. My stomach rules my life.
I have always worried about turning out the same sort of “fluff” that becomes popular just because it’s popular. I think it can be challening to maintain your creative integrity while also appealing to a wide variety of audiences. I guess timing is everything! You make a lot of great points in this post!
Also, I cannot BELIEVE the chef refused to modify the dish!
Thanks for this. I’m just getting started as a non-fiction blogger and writer, so I’m glad I found you. I’m looking forward to learning about what I can do to promote my writing, but I take your message to heart – being successful is as much about timing as it is about talent.
lol I am becoming a huge fan of your blog and was thinking of linking back to it anyway even before I read about the contest! here you go http://lisawhitefern.wordpress.com/
I’m so happy you’ve written about this. I have been working on a series of short stories and when I began, I wondered whether I should let my writing be my writing or make it something meant for a particular audience. I chose to go with the latter. So while my stories reflect my experiences, my target market is always at the back of my mind, tailoring the way I write and the way I deliver the story, so this post is encouraging. I hope I am on the right track!
Reblogged this on Rashid's Blog.
I don’t know, I might try the blue steak. I hope it tastes good.
I think people worry too much and psyche themselves out. Writing something that is going to be successful does require that balance, but that is also a balance that we develop a sense for over time. It is also a balance that changes per genre. For example, from what little I’ve read of romance novel, they seem lighter on the details. While in fantasy, my preferred genre, the details are much thicker.
Simply reading other people’s stuff that we like is a good indicator of that balance.
I liked many of the classics, for example. Some of them though were a little thick and hard to read. I pick out those qualities that good literature has and try to incorporate those elements into my book without taking away from the story or putting it on hold.
Hmmmm…. now I’m a little confused… I always HOPE people like to consume what I have to offer – but I never can be sure – since I had a story in my head and it wanted to be written… am I just a knucklehead?