November 22-28: “Which comes first, the reader, or the story?”

Do the needs of the reader conflict with the needs of the story? What if the reader wants to be entertained, but the author wants their fiction to include a message?

The discussion is over, but you can still read what International Thriller Writers members Julie Korzenko, Sharon Linnea, Heather Graham, Grant McKenzie, Boyd Morrison, Austin Camacho, AJ Hartley, Brad Parks, and others had to say in this thoughtful Roundtable discussion.

Born in England, raised in New England and subsequently settling in the South, Julie Korzenko’s background has strongly influenced her eclectic taste in literature, art and life experiences. A passionate advocate for nature and wildlife, she began college as a zoology major but ultimately graduated with a business degree in paralegal studies.  Her career has run the gambit from law to network administration to marketing and back to law. Her first novel, DEVIL’S GOLD, was published by Medallion Press in 2009.

Sharon Linnea is an award-winning biographer, novelist, and one of the top inspiration journalists in the country. Sharon’s extensive background as a book and magazine editor has led her into many interesting venues, where she has gotten to interview and work with cultural historians, psychologists, film and recording artists, and Holocaust survivors. She spent five years studying Hawaiian history for her biography Princess Ka’iulani: Hope of a Nation, Heart of a People, (winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award) and another five years interviewing modern Hawaiian islanders from all walks of life for Chicken Soup from the Soul of Hawai’i. She is currently promoting the Eden Thrillers and working on a new series of nonfiction books. Her most recent book is LOST CIVILIZATIONS, which was published by Sterling in May 2009.

Heather Graham is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over a hundred novels including suspense, paranormal, historical, and mainstream Christmas fare. She lives in Miami, Florida, her home, and an easy shot down to the Keys where she can indulge in her passion for diving. Travel, research, and ballroom dancing also help keep her sane; she is the mother of five, and also resides with two dogs, a cat, and an albino skunk. She is CEO of Slush Pile Productions, a recording company and production house for various charity events. Look her up at

Born in Scotland, living in Canada and writing American fiction, Grant McKenzie likes to wear a toque and kilt with his six-guns. His debut novel, SWITCH, earned fantastic reviews internationally when it was published in mass-market paperback by Bantam TransWorld UK on July 2, 2009, in translation in Germany by Heyne in August, and in trade paperback in Canada by Penguin in August 2010. In 2011, it will be translated into Complex Chinese for Spring International Publishers of Taiwan and into Russian for AST – the largest publisher in Russia. Grant’s second novel, NO CRY FOR HELP, was published in the UK, Australia and New Zealand in mass-market paperback by Bantam TransWorld in November 2010. Grant’s short stories have been featured in the First Thrills anthology edited by Lee Child from Tor/Forge, plus Out of the Gutter and Spinetingler magazines, and his first screenplay won a fellowship at the Praxis Centre for Screenwriting in Vancouver, B.C.

Boyd Morrison received his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Rice University in Houston. He has a PhD in industrial engineering from Virginia Tech and was formerly employed at NASA, Microsoft’s Xbox Games Group, and Thomson-RCA. In 2003, he fulfilled a lifelong dream and became a Jeopardy! Champion. He is also a professional actor who has appeared in commercials, stage plays, and films. He lives with his wife in Seattle. Visit his website at

Austin S. Camacho has written a series about private detective Hannibal Jones and a series of adventure novels featuring mercenary Morgan Stark and jewel thief Felicity O’Brien.  To pay the mortgage he answers media queries for the Defense Department.  Camacho lives in Springfield, Virginia with his lovely wife Denise and Princess the Wonder Cat.

British born writer A.J. Hartley got his first taste for archaeology touring sites in Greece and Rome as a child with his family. As an English major at Manchester University he took extra classes in Eqyptology and got a job working on a Bronze Age site just outside Jerusalem. Since then, life has taken him to many places around the world, and though he always leaned more towards the literary than to the strictly historical, his fascination with the past has continued unabated. He has an M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University and is currently the Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As well as being a novelist and academic, he is a screenwriter, theatre director and dramaturg (and has a book explaining what that is). He has more hobbies than is good for anyone, and treats ordinary things like sport and food and beer with a reverence which borders on mania. He is married with a son, and lives in Charlotte.

Brad Parks’ first novel, Faces of the Gone, is the winner of the 2010 Shamus Award for Best First Novel and has been shortlisted for the Nero Award. Library Journal called it “the most hilariously funny and deadly serious mystery debut since Janet Evanovich’s ONE FOR THE MONEY.” called Brad “the literary love child of (Janet) Evanovich and (Harlan) Coben.” The Dartmouth College graduate spent a dozen years as a reporter for The Washington Post and The Newark Star-Ledger and is now a full-time novelist. EYES OF THE INNOCENT, the next Carter Ross novel, releases February 1, 2011, and the third and fourth books in the series are also written and awaiting publication. Parks lives with his wife and two small children in Virginia, where he hopes to keep writing novels until someone forces him to stop.

  1. I’m looking forward to what you guys have to say here. It seems to me that every story has a message, and a novel-length thriller usually has many. Even though a message or it’s impact is filtered or interpreted through a reader’s circumstances or worldview, it is still there.

    “Do the needs of the reader conflict with the needs of the story?” Is this in reference to questions like: “Do you kill your loveable protagonist at the end because that’s how it happened in the real-life story on which you base your novel, or do you keep her alive because you know your readers will want her to live, and you don’t want readers (buyers) to throw your book against the wall, curse you and leave dirty one-star reviews on Amazon, and besides, if this one does well your publisher will want you to write a sequel or series?”

    On that note – how is the answer to the “needs of the reader conflict with the needs of the story” question influenced by the needs of your agent or publisher?

    “What if the reader wants to be entertained, but the author wants their fiction to include a message?” Is this a trick question? I usually get both in the thrillers I read, even if the message is “Some things are worth fighting for,” or, “Anyone may be a latent hero – they just haven’t yet been forced into action,” or, “Never put your faith or trust in a bureaucracy,” or, “This is what happens when you volunteer.” 🙂

    Thanks to all of you for whatever comments you make this week.

  2. For me, the genesis of any story begins with the sharp, barb-edged hook that compels me to tell that particular tale. I need to be excited by the possibilities of a story before I put that first word on the page. This is a story that I want to read – a story that I believe readers will excitedly devour – so, first, I need to write it.
    But with that said, I also believe that readers are more loyal and forgiving than publishers. Publishers want to fit writers into very narrow slots that practically squeeze the air out of their lungs in order to “brand” them because that’s what the accounting department tells editorial the readers actually want. But, in my opinion, readers are more flexible than that and are often more embracing of writers who grow and take creative risks in order to tell the best story. Of course, with risk comes the possibility of failure – a result all writers constantly fear – but even then, those wonderful, wonderful readers are often willing to give us another chance. The publishers on the other hand . . .
    So I write to tell the tale that burns hottest within my imagination, but my biggest thrill – and reward – is when I receive the verdict from the readers and they write to say that they couldn’t put it down.

  3. I believe we “genre writers” belong to the actual oldest profession—storytelling. (It probably took someone telling a heckova good story to get the next oldest profession up and running.) From the tribe sitting around the fire listening to Og recall the thrill of the hunt or the medieval folks gathered to hear the bard, an unspoken contract has existed between the storyteller and the listener, or, in later eras, the reader.

    The reader-or-the-story is indeed a chicken-or-the-egg proposition. We as writers, as part of honing our craft, learn what takes the reader racing to the very precipice, chased by hounds, Blackhawk helicopters, or simply guys with guns. The unspoken contract says that the reader who picks up the book is willing to suspend disbelief and come along with us. It also says that we storytellers will grip them, respect their intelligence, surround them with action and danger, and then, of course, end the chapter. They will then cry (silently), “What? WHAT?” knowing that when they turn the page, we lead them to a greater danger and a steeper precipice.

    The fact is, the only way to do this effectively is to be at once the writer AND the reader. By reading other writers to see what entertains, enthralls, scares. And use that knowledge to create the story.

    So I guess I’d say, when you get down to it, the reader inside us comes first. That’s why the story exists in the first place. To create the roller coaster track that will most effectively move the car, er, reader through the thrills to the end, and yes, perhaps even be thought-provoking along the way.

  4. Fiction writing is a mystical mixture of artistic talent and and hard-learned craft, and the mix is different for each author. For that reason, the answer to this question depends on who you ask. I know some very successful writers who are able to project what their intended audience will want to hear and write exactly that. Writing for the reader is one reliable path to success. I, on the other hand, begin each writing effort with a story that will please me. This of course becomes a story in search of a reader. Once I have the first draft down I then try to hone, shape and refine my story to be more like what I think my reader is looking for. I don’t know anyone personally who can moves back and forth on this one – But I’m curious if they are out there. Can you write a thriller to the market this year, and one in which the story came first next year?

  5. Writers come from every background known to man. Some start off as English or literature or communications majors–but not necessarily.

    Writers start off as readers more than anything else. My friends with writing careers are doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, sheriffs, policemen, theater people, actors, musicians, newscasters–they’re into film, video, animation, computers, graphics, business, you name it.

    What they all shared was that they were readers. They knew what they longed to read, and their imaginations soared until they couldn’t stand it, and they sat down to write their own stories.

    So, actually, from the get-go to me, the reader became the story-teller, telling stories that they believed readers like them would like to see in print (or in an ebook format, these days)

    In some instances, I understand, however, that authors must think about reader expectation. Which to me, is the reason for pseudonyms–if you’re going in a different direction and don’t want the military spy experts to be disappointed, you let them know it’s a different kind of book by going with a pseudonym.

    But, it is an interesting question. Especially with authors who have main characters with major followings–F Paul Wilson and Repairman Jack and Lee Childs with Reacher, to name just a few.

    In my mind, an author can write many things in many genres–genres or sub-genres that will make that writer happy. I personally believe it’s a huge mistake to write what you don’t want to write! But, I’m sure every author out there has their opinion as well!

  6. Aw, this is an easy one – the literary equivalent of the lazy fly ball to right field. So please join me in calling for it, circling underneath it, and catching it:

    Story… is… everything.

    Seriously. I won’t get too deep into this argument – unless Boyd, who’s sort of a genius, gives me a hard time – but the fact is, human beings are social creatures who owe their very existence on this planet to their love of stories (it goes to evolution and… oh, never mind). We love hearing good stories – always have, always will – and for that reason, story trumps all. I would submit that it’s more important than everything else writers do put together.

    For my evidence, I present James Patterson.

    Now, say what you will about James Patterson – and, keep in mind, whatever you say, there’s probably a critic out there who has said things five times worse. He is routinely shredded for his too-short chapters, his all-dialogue scenes, his thoroughly dull language. Nevertheless, this is a man whose name has appeared on 1 out of every 17 hardcover novels sold in the United States in the last four years, according to the New York Times. Let me repeat: 1 out of every 17! So, clearly, he knows a little something about what readers want.

    What’s more, he’s fully capable of writing stuff that higher-minded literary types adore. Most people don’t realize this, but Patterson’s debut, THE THOMAS BERRYMAN NUMBER, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel – and the Edgars have long been weighted toward the more high-falutin’ end of our genre. Yet when a New York Times Magazine reporter asked about the critical success of that book – versus the routine panning he gets now – Patterson replied, “The sentences are superior to a lot of the stuff I write now, but the story isn’t as good. I’m less interested in sentences now and more interested in stories.”

    So don’t trust me. Trust James Patterson: If you take care of the story, the readers will follow.

    1. “human beings are social creatures who owe their very existence on this planet to their love of stories”

      I’d love to hear that explanation sometime.

  7. Brad, I’m no genius. My wife is the brains in this outfit.

    I seem to be in the majority that feels story comes first. All of us writers began as readers, so we tend to write what we would want to read (although I’ve heard of a few authors who have a more mercenary approach–it doesn’t usually work out well). When I finish writing a book, I know I’m happy with it if I can look at my novel and feel like it’s something I would pick up in the bookstore if I didn’t happen to be the author.

    The reason I write is because I want to create a story that’s never been written before and because I want to entertain. If I can’t do both of those things, it’s not going to be any fun for me or anyone else who reads it. So I think the common thread you see in all the authors here is that a story first and foremost has to entertain the author.

    I don’t think you can write aiming for readers because they’re such a broad spectrum. Many people love The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but some hate it. That’s just the way it is in any kind of entertainment medium. You just have to hope that what you like is what a lot of other people are going to like.

    When I think of readers is in the editing stage. We spend months creating a book, and it’s easy to become too close to it. I know intimately what happens in the story, but sometimes what’s in my brain doesn’t make it onto the page. So I have to ask a lot of questions as I re-read: Does the reader know what they need to in order to understand the plot? Does a twist make sense? Do I describe a setting with enough detail for the reader to understand the scene, or is my description bogging down the pace? Would a reader stumble over this awkwardly pronounced name? Finding the right answer to all of those questions and many others is important to polishing the story, because if readers are confused or bored, they’ll stop reading. And what’s the point of writing if you don’t have readers?

    1. The Story is more important than the reader.
      The reader cannot be chosen by the story but must instead choose the story. The author must create a story which compels people to read it. As a reader I have never compelled a story to be told but have chosen to read many brilliant stories.
      You may compare the origins of the story and reader to the chicken and the egg but without good stories there would be no readers. There would still be good stories to be told if nobody read them.

  8. I have to comment that James Patterson seems to succeed by ignoring reader expectations. Ask a fan if they like Patterson and the answer is often, “Do you mean early Alex Cross or late Alex Cross? Actually I only like the series he writes with… (name one.) People don’t know WHAT to expect from a Patterson book until they know what character, which cowriters and which audience he’s aiming at (I actually like his sci-fi YA stuff.) Or maybe I’ve got it backwards, and he’s managed to write something for every reader.

    But back to this conversation: Of course, Boyd (and the phenomenal Heather Graham) have issues that Brad and many of the rest of us don’t. I’m sure the more books you get published, the more your readership is refined, and the more you kinda have to consider reader expectations. But I think this influences story less than character. Maybe it’s what happens in the characters’ personal lives that fulfills reader expectation, and the actual story – plot events – can be whatever satisfies the writer. What say you more published authors?

  9. Good morning everyone, and a special welcome to Michael for igniting this round table. Which comes first the reader or the story? I suppose I’m in the minority. Writers are entertainers so, for me, the reader is always foremost in my mind. When I pick up a book, I want to be whisked away to another world and taken on a journey. As a writer, it is our job to whisk and journey you into being our number one biggest fan.

    Every story does have a message – it’s what lies behind the writer’s passion. That passion develops the characters and places obstacles and challenges in their path to overcome. Passion also envelops experiences and events that have motivated us or touched our hearts in some particular fashion. Does that message conflict with the reader’s needs? I don’t believe it does. Are we insisting that everyone agree with what we have to say? No. That’s why those lousy reviews pop up like that forehead pimple that never seems to disappear.

    The needs of our publisher and agent are for us to produce a commercially viable project that will sell mucho copies and put smiles on everyone’s faces. We do this by writing books that hopefully don’t make you want to shred it into tiny little bits and force feed it back to us. Would I ever kill a lovable protagonist? Nope. I wouldn’t. Why? Because I love a happy ending and, really, being force-fed shredded paper is not an experience I think I need to add to my bucket list. Have I had the urge to put something on paper that the reader would hate but makes the story have a greater impact? Absolutely! However, that’s when our agent or critique partner steps in and brings us back to reality with a “WTF” and a “Have you lost your mind?” And I, like a chastened two year old, returns to the keyboard and reworks the plot.

    Is entertainment with a message possible? Absolutely! It’s what I strive for with every book. Without the reader, where would I be as a writer? Stories and characters crowd my mind. I have to stew and brew until it all formulates into something exciting that I pray others will love as well. That’s the challenge and the passion. For me, the reader comes first. Always. Sometimes. Most of the time.

  10. For me the question suggests a false binary, an either/or between reader and story that I don’t really feel. Yes, I try to keep an eye on the dread market to an extent, but I also consider myself to be my ideal reader! I don’t mean that I’m a BETTER reader than anyone else, just that I’m writing for people like me, people who find the same kinds of things interesting/scary/exciting/moving as I do.

    Everyone knows the “write what you know” mantra, but I tend to push for the “write what you read” approach. I’ve never sat down to write a piece of fiction strictly for someone else and I doubt I ever would. That would be too much like work. I write primarily because I enjoy it. My books tend to be labors of love and I know when I set out that they won’t appeal to everyone. My last thriller, What Time Devours, was saturated with stuff I care about, much of it deeply personal: England, academia, Shakespeare, cancer. None of those subjects was going to make the book fly off the shelves, and combined together in a thriller (not a piece of “literary” fiction) I knew my market would shrink still further. But that’s OK. As my agent observed (somewhat ruefully) this was a book I had to write.

    I can’t read thrillers which are all action. They exhaust me, and leave me wishing that I was watching the movie instead which would at least go quickly (I’m a slow reader). To try and write such a book would be torture for me, as it would be to write a romance or one of those cozy mysteries about crocheting or baking. I just couldn’t do it, or rather, I couldn’t do it well, and I would continually wonder why I was botheirng to try.

    When I sit down in the morning to write the time passes in a flash. I look up, feeling like I’ve barely started, only to find that I’ve been at the computer for four hours and produced 3,000 words. I love it. But it only goes that way because I enjoy what I’m writing, revel in it to the point of pathology. If my agent called and told me that my books were no longer selling at all and no publisher would ever buy another book from me, it wouldn’t stop me writing. I always wanted to be published, I always (and still do) want to reach as broad an audience as possible, but, yes–if I’m really honest–I want to do it on my terms. I don’t write merely for myself, but I do write for people who might be like me, and for others who are more like me, perhaps, than they realize.

  11. Austin, I’m not sure what you mean by the issues that Heather and I have that other authors don’t. It sounds like you think I’m some way in the same league as Heather, which I’m definitely not. She’s a NY Times bestseller who has written over 100 novels and novellas, while I just published my debut this summer, with my second coming out next week. Can you go into that a little more?

    I don’t know if you can ever really know how readers will respond to what happens to your characters. In Rogue Wave, the book that comes out next week, I had a long talk with my editor about the fate of a major character. The story is a disaster novel, and I felt that the novel was more resonant if this character didn’t make it to the end, while she thought readers would hate me for it. It was a tough decision, but I finally convinced her to let me keep the story the way it was. One of the reasons I was confident in my decision was because I had previously self-published the novel and the reader feedback about it was universally positive. I think that’s a good example of trusting your readers to understand what your intentions are.

    But again I think “readers” is too monolithic a term to use. We have all kinds of readers, and I think AJ has the right attitude. Write what you love and hope that many others will come along for the ride.

  12. First, I’ll apologize to you, Boyd, for confusing you with another author (at least it was a successful author.) Heather’s readers certainly have specific expectation and I think it must create some sort of pressure.

    I did want to address the needs of publishers mentioned earlier, for us to produce a commercially viable project. Yes, that may be why they’re in business, but I strongly suspect that everyone who has posted here today has a better idea of what our readers want than any publisher does. This is of course how I explain great books being rejected repeatedly by publishers before someone picks them up and makes them bestsellers (Did someone mention Harry Potter?) So when I sit down to write, I create stories that I would enjoy, in the hope that I’ll have lots of company. I think I hear that from many of you.

    BUT, I’d really like to know if anyone here has gotten advice from a publisher to change a book that they believe made their project more commercially successful.

  13. Boyd, it’s not necessarily your wife’s superior intellect. We just like her better. ; )

    (And, I gotta say, kudos to her: It’s the rare spouse who would thrive in an environment like the Bouchercon bar as well as she does).

    Anyhow, where was I… oh, that’s right, still gagging a bit over the 3000-word writing trances that AJ apparently goes into. Lucky dog. (And, really, AJ, you ought to include a disclaimer when you write things like that, something like: RESULTS NOT TYPICAL. FOR MOST MORTALS, WRITING IS A BIT MORE OF A STRUGGLE THAN THAT).

    But if I had a somewhat coherent comment to make (other than just busting chops), it would be about this mythical “reader” that publishing companies seem to think exist. It always seems to me when I hear publishers talk about readers, they’re referred to as these fragile, stupid, easily confused creatures. The attitude seems to be: Don’t make any sudden movements! Don’t tap on the glass! You’ll scare the readers!

    But it’s funny, the readers I’ve met — whether on tour or just at cocktail parties — aren’t that way at all. They’re smart, discerning folks, capable of rolling with the punches and making up their own minds about things. And maybe the publishing companies get a little gun-shy — because they tend to hear from the 1 percent of nutcases who someone have a problem because (GASP!) what do you mean Heather Graham is writing something that doesn’t have a vampire in it! — but I really think the vast, silent majority is chronically underestimated.

    I guess that’s why — even as a guy who writes solely for readers, and who would never write a single word if I thought it wasn’t going to be published — I still don’t worry about readers that much. As long as you pick a compelling story and tell it well, I think readers will roll with you.

    Just don’t, you know, kill a dog or anything.

    1. “Just don’t, you know, kill a dog or anything.”

      “Crap,” he said as he threw four-hundred typewritten double-spaced pages out the window. “There goes my compelling story of a heroic Animal Control officer who tracks down a serial dog killer.”

  14. Austin: I would love to share with you “advice from a publisher to change a book that they believe made their project more commercially successful” but first I need to get the publisher to get me into more book stores so that I have some hope of commercial success. How can readers possibly discover a great story if they don’t see the book on the shelf? Anyone can get listed on Amazon, but to really reach those who love books, I want publishers to give new authors a real shot and buy space if they need to, to get those authors noticed.

  15. Grant – I feel your pain.

    What happens when you create a protagonist that all your beta readers (including your agent and editor) hate? Do you do an entire rewrite of a character that YOU love or do you stick to your guns and potentially never see that particular book published? After much teeth gnashing, I’d do the rewrite.

    I agree with Brad that readers are savvy and educated and know what they enjoy. I think that alone is one of the scariest aspects of being a writer. It could just be the irritating people-pleasing aspect of my personality, though, that makes me worry about the reader. In the end, my goal is still to always entertain. And I have now added a few more goals: I want to be like Heather, write at the pace of AJ and obtain bar tips from Boyd’s wife.

  16. Sorry, Brad. I should say on the 3,000 words a day issue that I write fast of neccessity because I may only get a couple of mornings away from my day job and the writing I have to do for that! And that I can only get a lot done when I have a good sense fo where the story is going. And (last caveat, honest) that they might not all be GOOD words. This is first draft stuff after all 🙂 BUT, writing fast for me comes from enjoying what I am writing, something I just can’t do when it feels like I’m working on something my heart isn’t in.

    That said, I do think I’ve had good editorial feedback from time to time that has helped me improve a book’s commercial appeal while still delivering what I want. Sometimes these things just have to be pointed out to me. Often I see the value right away and think that teh note makes the book better, not just easier to sell. Maybe I’ve been lucky; I’ve never really had the “can there be sharks in it?” kind of note from an editor or agent, partly (I suspect) because they usually committed to a fairly polished first version. I think that (for better or worse) I write the kind of books you either like or you don’t. I doubt an editor would take my work and try to radically transform it into something else, esp. since it seems that most editors these days want something close to “camera ready” copy.

    I got some great notes from the editors at Razorbill/Penguin for my first up-coming YA. Everything they suggested made the book stronger.

    This really does feel like a round table. Which is another way of saying we should continue this conversation in the bar (presumably with tips from Boyd’s wife).

  17. First of all, someone please point me to the bar and introduce me to Boyd’s wife. Nice to have something to look forward to.

    I have to say, as a reader, I’ve never quit in disgust because the author killed off a very likable character. (Although I did recently have speaks with an author over that very issue; I felt killing off the likable secondary characters had earned Nice Main Character a few more years among us–alas, not to be.) But it never occurred to me to stop reading his best-selling stuff over this. It was his plot, after all.

    HOWEVER, what made me stop reading another best-selling thriller writer, who will remain unnamed, was the blatant cheating in his storytelling. I couldn’t even finish his most recent book. Cheating, in this case, meant 1) that the protagonist acted through most of the book as if he didn’t have knowledge that–oops!–he magically admitted he had just in time to turn the plot; and 2) another character told a first-person story integral to the plot and then, later, admitted he had lied TO HIMSELF and the event hadn’t actually happened that way. You MUST respect your reader. You can mislead them, but you can’t LIE to them.

    I’ve been lucky that so far I’ve had editors who know that not every book is meant for every reader. If you try to water down the plot or the point of view to the point that everyone will like it, no one will love it. And I’d rather have a smaller rabid “tribe” of readers than a larger group that doesn’t really care one way or another.

  18. Fair point, Sharon. However much we might write for (a version of) ourselves we should never insult our readers’ intelligence or assume that not being “market-centred” justifies sloppy plotting, dodgy logic or anything which we could have done better! We won’t always succeed, but we should try to be better than good in every aspect of our writing.

  19. Is it ever tempting for the message to be, “Here’s how much I know about this subject, and I think you all need to know it, too”?

    Do you ever feel the temtation to “explain” too much?

    Do any of you struggle with trying to decide how much information is enough to make the stakes clear and/or set the scene, versus how much is so much that it begins to overshadow the character’s story and bog down the pace?

    Thanks for all the discussion so far.

  20. Michael,
    your question gets to one of my greatest struggles as a writer. My ‘day job’ is as a Shakespeare professor. One of the hardest things for me as a novelist is not allowing myself to switch hats halfway through a project. I feel the familiar teacher’s instinct to educate all the time, not because I think my readers OUGHT to know what I know, but because I find my subject fascinating and think they will too. I know in my heart that they probably wob’t but I WANT them to be stirred by the things that stir me, so it’s tough not to add in a lot of stuff that is kind of cool but just doesn’t need to be there. I fight that impulse constantly, not always successfully. It as a long time before I wrote a book with a Shakespearean core for that very reason.

    The flip side, of coruse, is that I do get a lot of positive feedback from readers who like to be exposed to new ideas, bits of history etc. as they read. So it’s a blancning act, I guess, though the truth your question implies is crucial: everything should serve story and character. If it doesn’t, it should probably go. How story and character are served is more of a judgment call, and I have sometimes found that some history I was considering lifting from the book sudden;y turns out to have real THEMATIC resonance, even if it’s not essential to story in terms of plot.

    Great question.

    1. “I have sometimes found that some history I was considering lifting from the book sudden;y turns out to have real THEMATIC resonance, even if it’s not essential to story in terms of plot.”

      Interesting. You’ve articulated something that I will try to remember as I revise. Thanks, A.J.

  21. Michael,

    You’ve also hit on one of my weak points. I’m an intensive researcher and very passionate about my subject matter, and it is often a hard balance as to what is necessary to share and how to limit yourself to include only that which moves the plot forward.

    I am just like Sharon only a bit more violent. I’ve actually thrown a book out the window because a very well known author who shall remain nameless forgot to tie up an entire plot line. I could not believe I’d reached the last page and Joe Schmoe was still in a cabin with a gun to his head or something similar. I can’t remember the details, but it was a serious gaffe. That’s just sloppy writing and sloppy editing. Ever since then, I am very meticulous in tracking all my plot lines.

    Respect the reader!

    Now where is that bar?

    1. Julie – my wife recently threw a book – by a very well respected and best-selling author – across the room because she had stayed up late to find out how the story ended, wondering how all the plot threads would come together, and the author ended with “I guess we’ll never know.” To paraphrase her reaction for public consumption: Aaarrrggh!

    2. Julie,

      I share your passion for research. If I’m interested enough in something to write about it, I also want to read and learn about it – often to the detriment of my word count. I keep thinking that at some point I’ll reach a point of diminishing return (at least when it comes to researching how to write), and I’ll be able to spend more time writing. But why, when I say that, do I feel like an addict saying, “This is the last time, I swear”?

      “I am just like Sharon only a bit more violent.” Before or after that trip to the bar? I can’t wait to meet you guys. 🙂

  22. Great question, indeed! When I’ve immersed myself in something like Israeli Bedouin culture (for TREASURE OF EDEN) or financial theory or even the feasibility of human immortality for the mega-rich, you want to share with your readers the cool stuff you’ve discovered! I call this the “show off” stage, and a writer should never write when she or he is in the midst of it. .

    It’s at that point that I try to dwell with the characters who have this knowledge until it becomes the warp and woof of their lives, and then only use the parts that drive plot and character.

    At its best, fiction can change how people think about things–but it has to be done because the reader likes the characters, and understands the stakes.

    As for all the cool stuff you’ve discovered–that’s why God invented the author website.

    1. “At its best, fiction can change how people think about things–but it has to be done because the reader likes the characters, and understands the stakes.”

      I’ve often heard (and I believe) that fiction can change how people think about things, but I guess I’ve always thought in far too vague or general terms, such as the message or theme, and I’ve never thought of those two points: liking the characters and understanding the stakes – as the WAY to do it.

      I feel smarter now.

      Thanks, Sharon.

  23. Great point, Sharon. The “how much research do you include?” question comes up in fantasy writers’ forums a lot, though it’s usually called “world building” there. The key, as you suggest, is that you include what the story needs. The rest becomes the author’s “Bible”: the rules and specifics that detail stuff like geography, the logic of a magic system, the characteristics of fantastic creatures etc. that the author needs to know to keep the story consistent according to its own rules, but which doesn’t need spelling out for the reader.

  24. Michael,

    I seem to have the opposite issue. In first drafts, I often don’t explain enough about the technology, artifact, or setting I’m using so that my beta readers are confused about what’s going on. I then have to rewrite the section or add information to make it clearer. I think that’s because I know the subject so well that I thought it was on the page, but it was still just in my head.

    I love getting knowledge about esoteric subjects when reading thrillers, but as an author I have to be careful not to resort to a dialogue where characters explain stuff to each other that they should already know, especially when it’s in the middle of an action sequence and the bullets are flying. That’s why authors often have an inexperienced character who acts as a surrogate for the reader and is as new to the subject as the reader might be. Although it may be cliche, it works.

    1. “I have to be careful not to resort to a dialogue where characters explain stuff to each other that they should already know” Is this the same thing as what I’ve heard referred to as the “As you know, Bob” technique?

      “I often don’t explain enough about the technology, artifact, or setting I’m using so that my beta readers are confused about what’s going on.” I can see how that would be easy to do for an author who is both familiar with and passionate about a subject. I will remember the surrogate technique as I discover places where I’ve left out necessary details.

      Thanks, Boyd. I appreciate your comments.

  25. Well, even though this discussion lasts through the weekend, I know most of you will be busy traveling, visiting, eating, sleeping, wishing you hadn’t eaten so much, sleeping some more, and re-traveling (sure it’s a word). So, in case you guys can’t get on here later in the week, I will go ahead and say a big “Thank You!” for all the helpful comments you’ve made this week – especially the ones in answer to my questions. I feel like a fan who was given a backstage pass by his favorite band.

  26. Respect the reader to the utmost … but the story is paramount. By the first I mean, be sure to wrap up all your loose ends, plant the clues necessary to figure out the mystery (if there’s one) and play fair with them, and write a compelling story worth the (fill in the black) they paid to read it. Then, turn your attention fully to the story. That’s the only thing we control as writers, the story. Reader reaction, we can’t do anything about. So write what you think is best, put up with your editor’s howling with grace, put it out, and hope lots of people like it so you can write the next.

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