Mark Terry

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Reader's Requirements

October 19, 2009
The writer, we're often told, needs to keep in mind the needs of the reader. I've been thinking a lot about that lately. Ultimately, I know, when I sit down to write a novel, I'm trying to entertain myself. I hope that by doing so, I will also entertain readers. I know not all readers will like my books. I don't like all books. And, in fact, as I get older, more experienced, and/or jaded, some authors whose works I greatly admired no longer interest me. They grew out of me or I grew out of them. Sometimes because they changed; sometimes because I changed.

Here are a few things I think about my readers:

--they're very busy. It's a busy world, I'm very busy, so I understand that when they're not working, cleaning house, cooking dinner, watching TV, surfing the 'net, nagging their kids about homework, or any of a million other things, they might like to read a book. As a result, I should not waste their time.

--As the above point ought to make clear, my readers have a lot of distractions from reading. There are numerous other things they can choose as their form of entertainment, whether it's TV, movies, listening to music, reading magazines, reading other books, cooking marshmallows over an open fire, playing with their dog/cat/guinea pig/pet rock, theater, sex, or watching paint dry. I'd better deliver something those activities don't. Somehow.

--There's an enormous amount of competition with other books. I went to Borders on Sunday. I headed first to the music reference section and immediately saw two books I wanted to buy there--one was the Guitar Tabs White Pages and the other was a very thorough book of guitar chords. Then I swung through the new releases. Michael Connelly's new book is out, 9 Dragons, and Jonathan Kellerman's new book, Evidence, is out. Then I wandered some more and thought about picking up Suzanne Collins "The Hunger Games" and there were some biographies I was interested in... I settled on Kellerman's new book. That said, I've recently bought 5 or 6 books in the last 5 or 6 weeks, plus had a couple given to me, so I'm sort of swamped with books. But my time and money are limited... and so are readers'. Somehow I've got to give my readers something that other writers don't.

Now, I pulled this off the late Ed McBain's website, because I think it's worth keeping in mind. It's his contract with his readers:

I like to believe I've made a contract with the reader.

The contract is a simple one.

I know all the rules of mystery writing, and I promise
that I will observe them so long as they provide a novel
that will keep you fascinated, intrigued, and entertained.
If they get in the way of that basic need, I'll either bend
the rules or break them, but I will never cheat the
reader. Never.

There will be a murder, I promise you, and there will be
men and women trying hard to solve that murder. Most
often -- but not always -- they will succeed. Sometimes
a cop will be wounded. Sometimes a cop will even be
killed. These are realistic novels, so if you are looking
for Agatha Christie, you're not only in the wrong pew,
you're in the wrong church.

One of my first editors said that there was a "clinical
verity" to the 87th Precinct novels, but I have never
glorified violence, and never gloated over it, and I
promise you I never will. I am not writing for children.
but I promise you that the sex in these novels will never
be gratuitous or prurient. I sometimes feel like a fly on
the wall, listening, observing. I like the idea of walking
into a room with these cops, feeling what these men or
women are feeling, and then helping you to feel the
same way. I like to place you there. I promise that I'll do
my best to make you feel you're actually living these

I promise I will never bore you silly with long
descriptions of winding roads through remote forests. I
promise I will never write tiresome interior monologues
that serve no purpose but to examine my own navel. I
promise you dialogue that ain't real, but that sounds
real. I promise you men and women who love (and
sometimes lose), men and women who break the law
(and sometimes win), men and women who are
confronted on a daily basis with urgent problems they
must solve. Just like you and me, come to think of it.

I promise to keep you awake all night.

I promise to keep writing till the day I die.

I will sign this contract in blood if you like.


Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

You DID blog! Darn. Now I have no clever remark in response to your status update to make you smile. Phooey. *sigh*

Ya' shoulda ended this with a question, because I'd be curious to see what other writers would put in their contract. What about you?

Mine would probably be something like: I'm going to try and touch the most vulnerable bits of you: your greatest fears and your most secret desires. I promise to always treat those secrets with love and respect, to cherish them, and to handle them with care. I will not judge my characters, these reflections of you and me both, but will accept and present them as they are. Most importantly, I will make you feel less alone.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Love this. Nothing more. Just love it.

3:24 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I considered it. I like your manifesto. Mine would say something along the lines of, "I won't waste your time; I will do everything possible to NOT be boring; I will respect your time and the money you invested in my stories; I will try to make you feel something. Because of the nature of my books, what you feel is most likely to be exhilaration, nervousness, fear, or an adrenaline rush, but I will try damned hard to make you feel something. I will try to make you think, but I want to entertain you more than educate you. I will try to show you things you may not have seen before. I will, above all, try to make the time you spend worthwhile and get you to turn the pages, staying up late or being late to a meeting because you wanted to keep reading."

5:17 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks, Erica.

5:17 AM  

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