What Do Readers Really Want?

There’s much excitement over at Salon.com with Laura Miller’s Readers’ Advice to Writers, which has generated both cries of Philistinism! and Yes, my reading life is justified. Ms. Miller, by the way, is qualified to give advice as a reader, not a writer.

I don’t have time to wade through over one hundred responses, but there’s one statement from Ms. Miller that resonated with me:

Desire is the engine that drives both life and narrative.

While other pieces of advice, for instance, Remember that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can’t recognize “good writing” or don’t value it that much, I absolutely disagree with. I don’t want to read anything that shouts beautiful prose style but if it strikes me as beautiful that’s an added bonus (and may keep me reading). And even if a reader doesn’t acknowledge or care about style, clunky prose may well give them that odd, seasick feeling that makes them close the book without really knowing why they couldn’t keep going. Shouldn’t good writing be something that flows and that you don’t really notice because it is so appropriate to the narrative?

Ms. Miller’s article was inspired by the Guardian’s two-part Ten Rules for Writing Fiction which was actually much more interesting from my point of view and I haven’t read all of it, but I did pick up a few gems that I wanted to share. The article was prompted by the releases next month of Elmore Leonard’s book of the same name and his ten basic rules begin the article.

I went first to the writers I liked and then browsed around. I had a grudging admiration for Philip Pullman‘s contribution:

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.

Okay, Mr. Pullman. Moving on. Nearly everyone agreed a writer should read:

Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. Hilary Mantel

When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else. Zadie Smith

Except for Will Self, who claims it’s too late:

Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already (assuming, that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven’t you have no business whatsoever being a writer of fiction).

Zadie Smith gives this cogent piece of advice (yes! yes!)

Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

And then mentions that Jean Plaidy used to write five thousand words before lunchtime and spend the afternoon writing fan letters. Just thinking about it makes me want to lie down.

I loved these gems from Roddy Doyle:

Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.

Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.

And again from Zadie Smith:

Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there’s prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too.

Have you read either of these articles? What did you think?

If you’re a writer, what’s the most valuable piece of advice you were ever given?
And as a reader, what advice would you give writers?

Guest blogging and giving away a copy of Improper Relations (later) today at Lust In Time, and tomorrow I’m a guest at Victoria Janssen‘s blog. And don’t forget my contest.

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12 years ago

An editor gave me this piece of advice: Listen to your own inner voice.

Jane George
12 years ago

I read this list after Neil Gaiman Twittered about it last week. It was generally interesting to compare writers and advice and I liked what Margaret Atwood said about doing back exercises because pain is distracting, lol.

But I’d like to call BS on the false humility of Anne Enright’s #3: Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

So according to her F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway were hacks. They thought fairly well of themselves, didn’t they?

In contrast, I liked what Gaiman said about writing with confidence.

I don’t think he meant with hubris or ego, but I know that for me, in order to reach that wiggly right-brained place where my brilliance resides, yes, I said brilliance, it dodges around like a lightning bug down there, I have to believe that I’m capable of catching it in a jar.

And who wants to read anything that the author HONESTLY thought was was crap?

Jane George
12 years ago

On a more positive note, Barbara Samuel has great advice for writers on her blog today:

(copy & paste)

And now I’m going offline! 🙂

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Hi Vicky. I think learning to trust your own inner voice is a major part of becoming a writer.

Jane, I thought Margaret Atwood’s comments were a riot and I agree with you about Ann Enright. I think loving what you produce and loving the process (when you’ve turned off the internet and stopped washing the kitchen floor) is a big part of what we do.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

I liked the advice from readers, but I didn’t have the time to go through all the comments. I’ll bet some were interesting.

The ten rules writing advice was a mixed bag. I hate it when people say “never.” Some was pretensious. But a lot was really good advice.

I think that the best advice I ever got was to use deep POV. Once I understood deep POV writing became easier.

Amanda McCabe
12 years ago

Janet, I recently read that book of essays by Zadie Smith, too! It was great reading. I just wish you would get those novels out there faster so I could devour them…

I’m not usually much for “writing rules,” either–except for stuff like “use commas properly” and “don’t be boring” 🙂

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

I can’t remember who said it, but I do remember one famous writer saying “Don’t write the stuff they skip.”

I am terrible when it comes to following rules. Ask my CP partner. She will read something I’ve written and say “Are you SURE you want to go that far out on a limb?”

My answer “Tweet. Tweet.”

Jane Austen
12 years ago

I don’t know that readers can really give advice on what they want to read, but maybe that’s just me. It really all depends on how well the author can make things work. Some things work for some authors and I really enjoy the work, but other authors try the same thing and it falls flat. I always bring up the same book in this situation, Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer. Most people saw her main character as a bitch and didn’t like her. I didn’t. I connected with her. I understand her. I read the book over and over. So you can say “make a heroine you readers can relate to”, but in reality everyone relates to everyone else differently. So I don’t think you really can give advice or make rules. It’s all relative and it’s all a crap shoot.

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Amanda, I love Zadie Smith, but I didn’t know those quotes were from her essays. I’ll have to look out for them.

JA, I agree, sort of, with you. There are no hard and fast rules, and if you take the attitude that rules are there to be broken, well…

Louisa, how do you KNOW what the stuff is they’ll skip? If you write it with passion and skill, won’t you keep their interest?

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

Excellent question, Janet ! You absolutely DON’T know what they will skip over. And I think you are right. If it is all written with passion and skill they won’t be able to put it down. The passion I think I have. Still working on the skill.

Or a writer could always write with exquisite wit and the reader simply can’t skip anything for fear of missing something fabulous. A few writers who do that come to mind. One Janet Mullany in particular !!

Amanda McCabe
12 years ago

“Amanda, I love Zadie Smith, but I didn’t know those quotes were from her essays. I’ll have to look out for them.”

It’s a collection called “Changing My Mind,” I got it for Christmas! She talks about many things–writing, reading, book reviews, politics, etc. Fascinating stuff

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