October 23 – 29: “Which comes first, the reader or the story?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The reader or the story? This week ITW Members Neil S. Plakcy, Steven Cooper and J. H. Bográn will weigh in on this age-old question. Scroll down to the “comments” to see who solves this riddle!


Steven Cooper is a freelance writer, video producer, and the author of three previous novels. A former television reporter, he has received multiple Emmy awards and nominations, a National Edward R. Murrow Award, and Associated Press awards. He taught writing at Rollins College (Winter Park, FL) from 2007 to 2012.



Neil S. Plakcy has written or edited over three dozen novels and short stories in mystery, romance and erotica. To research the Angus Green series, he participated in the FBI’s sixteen-week citizen’s academy, practiced at a shooting range, and visited numerous gay bars in Fort Lauderdale. (Seriously, it was research.) He is an assistant professor of English at Broward College in South Florida, and has been a construction manager, a computer game producer, and a web developer – all experiences he uses in his fiction.


J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. POISONED TEARS is his third novel in English and has already garnered positive reviews and recommendations. Jon Land calls it “a splendid piece of crime noir.” Douglas Preston says it’s a first class roller-coaster ride. His other works include novels in both English and Spanish, short stories, screenplays. He’s a member of The Crime Writers Association, the Short Fiction Writers Guild, and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator.



  1. Are we asking does a writer write what readers demonstrate is popular? Following the trend?

    Writers of series obviously write what their readers want–another book about the character/s. But initially? How many authors say ‘I wrote the book I wanted to read and couldn’t find?’

  2. I think the majority of authors want to write a great story as their primary objective knowing that if it is great, readers will come. But the reality is a lot more complex.

    My debut novel “Yellow Death” I think, is exactly the story I wanted to write. My first objective was to finish it but it actually turned out very well and I’m very happy with it. The concept that the protagonist contracts a lethal, previously unknown viral disease and has only a few days to figure it out -essentially by herself, is a unique story. She does pull it off and the vast majority of my readers want to see her in more adventures. I hadn’t originally planned to write a series but I agree with my readers that the protagonist is a tough, smart disease investigator who is grounded and very likable. She is kind of an amalgam of some of the smart capable women I knew when I was at CDC. I like her too and I think it it’s a great idea to have her star in a series of infection-related thrillers. Does that make the reader now more important? I don’t think so. As an indie author who has a day job that supports my family, I’m not forced to pander to readers in any way. I have the freedom to create the second, third and fourth novels in the way that I want to write them. I will pay to have them edited because I know that makes for a better finished product. Is commercial success important to me? It would be nice in that it would allow me more time to write but it is not my primary goal.

    In my view, traditional publishers especially the bigger houses, clearly have the readers in the forefront because publishers are in the business to sell books. If two authors each wrote novels of identical quality and appeal, the one with the bigger platform would get the contract. No question about it. I would think mid-list authors with a publishing contract pretty much have to also put the reader in the forefront, especially if writing is their primary source of income. Then again they also have to come up with good stories or they will be let go. This is not the case with a few big platform “name” authors who grind out book after book with declining quality and originality, yet are kept on because the publisher still can make a profit on the author’s name alone. The story becomes almost irrelevant!

  3. In a word, both. This is not a cop-out. I start with a story in mind that I suspect readers like me would like to experience. I want readers to be as engaged with the story as I am in writing it. That informs style, voice, tone, character development, plot (did I miss anything?). The reader and the story share the driver’s seat. Sometimes the story is taking the reader for a ride; sometimes the reader has a stronger grip on the wheel.

    This is a tough question. It’s more complex than it seems. With my latest novel, Desert Remains, I came up with the basic concept for the story in a brainstorming session attended by imaginary readers, my muse, and occasionally my spouse. I can’t speak for other authors. I only know my process. The story and the reader are inextricably tied. Perhaps this comes from my work as a journalist, particularly in my days as a special projects reporter, away from the hamster wheel of breaking news. As a special projects reporter, I had to really consider audience sensibility when enterprising/pitching stories. My work had to reach people. I had to know them. I had to understand what they cared about and why. And yet, my stories were not completely audience-driven. I had to inject my own journalistic authority, ultimately, to determine if a story was worthy of the time and effort required. I also had to know that the story would come from the heart.

    The heart always matters. Whether the heart feels dark or light, the work must come from a place of love. If you don’t love your story, it’s unlikely your readers will love it. If you don’t love writing your story, your lack of heart will find its way into the finished manuscript.

    The follow-ups to Desert Remains are following a similar process. Readers. Muse. Spouse. The only difference is that I now have core characters who show up for the brainstorming session. So I need a bigger room. And more doughnuts.

  4. I think the story always has to come first, and a good story will find its readers.

    There’s an inherent danger in trying to write to market, because even in these days of rapid self-publishing, it still takes time to write a quality manuscript and bring it through the process of publishing, and just because readers are clamoring for something today doesn’t mean they’ll still want it months or years later.

    Especially with the wide reach authors have today through digital publishing, we can reach the audience who wants our work once it’s finished. So write the best story, and then worry about readers.

  5. Has anyone ever altered their story to appease the readership? I’m not talking about profanity, gratuitous sex or over-the-top gruesome description. The example I am thinking of, which is a bit of advice I’ve heard in more than one seminar on novel writing is “never kill off a pet”. The backlash from readers is apparently quite strong. The only example in the literature that I can think of is “Old Yeller” in which the beloved dog becomes mad with rabies and has to be put down by the boy who owns and loves the dog. Any other similar story taboos?

    1. I´ve changed bits to appease the editor…who I believe they are among the first fans/readers of a story.

      As for breaking the rules, I once killed a dog in the opening line. Then again, the scene involved Hitler killing his dog at the Bunker in 1945. It just added to the collective hatred of an already despised character.

  6. My take is that the story comes first. You must write something you feel passionate about before you can start even thinking of an audience.
    Writing for an audience as the only target is just as bad as writing to a trend because in the publishing work, we´ll see that by the time the story sees the light the trend is over, and the target is older.

  7. There are lots of examples of authors who hit upon a character readers love. It would be a very strong, confident writer who turned their back on a series possibility because they didn’t want to write that character again. Then again some writers go way past the character’s use by date, and others leave when the series is still hot.

    Would you stop writing a series about a character if readers were clamouring for more?
    I suppose if you’d run dry, you would have to.

    1. Exactly. Readers demanded, I heard some bordered on rioting, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to bring Holmes back.

      J K Rowling is doing something similar with Harry Potter, if not exactly more stories about the wizard, then at least more adventures in that world.

      As for myself, I prefer to write stand-alones. However, all my novels happen in the same universe and there are connections between the characters. I don´t put them upfront, but some avid readers have commented on it. (For example, the main character in Poisoned Tears is the brother of a secondary character in Firefall.)

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