Okay, I’m taking off my crankypants now to write a rare post about craft. Let me open by saying this post will contain some gross generalizations, and I know such blanket statements can’t possibly cover all situations and will certainly be untrue in many cases. I’m only working with blanket statements here to address a larger topic, so please try to bear with me on them and focus on the larger topic.
I have a writer acquaintance who writes hard-boiled detective, murder mystery novels. He will often post excerpts from his work as a promotional gambit (as opposed to looking for feedback), and just as often will post about his disappointment with his sales. I read some of his excerpts, and concluded that to my mind, what’s wrong with his work is that it’s overwritten.
He seems never able to write something like, "She was exhausted," when he could write something like, "The weight of the day, the hopeless yoke of overwork, enveloped her in a fog of somnambulant fatigue." And he doesn’t employ these kinds of sentences sparingly, virtually every line appears to have been laboriously massaged, tinkered with, and obsessed over.
Some people reading this will actually prefer the second, lengthier sentence to the first. Some will also think it’s just fine if most of the sentences in a given book are like the second one, and will admire the craft that went into them. Other people—people like me—, not so much. It got me thinking about reader tastes, and whether it might be possible to predict them.
And here’s where those gross generalizations enter the picture. It seems to me that readers who favor certain genres may also favor certain writing styles.
I am a near-textbook example of the Type A personality. I am most definitely a "bottom line it for me" type, a chronic multitasker, and a very busy person who values efficiency in most aspects of my life. It should come as no surprise that I don’t have much patience for flowery prose and lengthy descriptive passages. I’m not saying that style of writing is necessarily bad, just that it’s not a good fit for me, and I suspect it’s not a good fit for most Type A people.
I have a friend who’s much more laid-back. She can spend a half hour contemplating a painting in a gallery, and days on a road trip with no particular destination or schedule in mind; she may not even bring a map. She’s the type of person who will savor every word of the kinds of passages that I find irritating.
Now, getting back to that writer acquaintance…what if *most* of his target audience shares my sensibilities? What if the type of person who’s most likely to seek out a detective story is Type A? Considering that some of the defining characteristics of Type A people are that we’re very goal-oriented, organized, attentive to details, and love solving puzzles, it doesn’t seem like such a leap to imagine that most of us enjoy a good murder mystery; a murder mystery is essentially a written puzzle, after all. It may not be such a leap to imagine the inverse is true, too: that most people who enjoy murder mysteries are Type A.
If that’s true, then my writer acquaintance is turning off the bulk of his target audience with his verbose, highly stylized prose. We Type A people only want to be given relevant, or possibly relevant, pieces of the puzzle so we can try to solve it. Anything more feels like a waste of our time and energies.
My laid-back friend has plenty of patience for stylized prose, but for her, most murder mysteries are little more than empty exercises in tricky plotting and misdirection. She wants to read books that she feels feed her soul, not just her intellect. She very well might enjoy my writer acquaintance’s work, since it strives to rise high above plot mechanics and even be somewhat philosophical, but she’s not likely to ever find it since she’s not one to seek out murder mysteries or detective novels in the first place.
So for those who write in specific genres or combo genres (e.g., supernatural romance, supernatural thriller), and for whom maximizing sales is a priority, maybe give a thought to the most likely type of person to seek out your books in the first place, and what that person’s preferences might be. I’m not trying to suggest you totally engineer your prose to match some kind of external template, just that appealing to a commercial audience is always a balancing act between pleasing the audience and pleasing yourself.
I have nothing but respect for the writer who follows his vision regardless of whether or not it will lead to commercial success, but for those like that detective novelist, who spends as much time worrying over his sales as his art, writing with the eventual reader in mind may give better results.