How To Romance Your Readers – And Sell More Stories

With us today is Dr. John Yeoman from Writers’ Village. He has an impressive resume, including being a successful commercial novelist for 42 years!  I’m honored to have him with us today, and to have his personal email in case I ever have a question.  Whoops, did I say that out loud?

Anyway, I’ve mentioned before that his blog is one of my favorites.  If you haven’t checked it out yet go here.  Just recently John created a new form of fiction.  At the end of this post I’ll give you a link that further explains what he did.

Take it away, John!

Thanks, Sue!

Here’s a fabulous tip for making sure our readers love your stories and want to read more. But first, let me ask you a question.

As fiction writers, do we always write about ourselves? Our character may be a mafia don, nun, pearl fisherman or – in a sci-fi novel – a thinking blob of mud but, however we camouflage ourselves, it’s us. Isn’t it?

First-time novelists notoriously write their autobiography behind a very thin disguise. When they’re into their tenth novel and the best-seller lists they’re still doing it, albeit with more skill.

When Patricia Cornwell presents her medical examiner Dr Kay Scarpetta as a chip of ice – all business, no humour – we see Cornwell herself. We may admire her craft work as an author but we wouldn’t invite her to dinner. But when Kathy Reichs gives us Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist in a comparable job, we warm to her feistiness, fallibility and dry wit. We’d just love to go to Reichs’s barbecue.

If the author is just like us, or how we’d like to be, we become a lifelong fan.

How to build our readers’ loyalty

One way to turn our readers into lifelong fans is to pattern our protagonist upon our target reader – not as they really are but as they would like to be.

‘Cozy’ detective stories typically feature an amateur lady detective of a certain age. To strangers, she appears sweet, dull and utterly unmemorable. But show her a mystery and she’ll dive into a thrift shop and emerge, metaphorically speaking, as Superwoman.

Her prototype is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. The Marple stories can be enjoyed by people of all genders and backgrounds, of course, but their core readership is ladies of a certain age. (Superwomen indeed, although their menfolk will rarely admit it.)

For menfolk, Christie created Poirot. We might think him a buffoon on his first appearance but, oh, those little grey cells!

Pattern your main characters on your readers.

How can you do this? Mentally picture the person you are writing for.

If yours is a ‘genre’ story, draw up a profile of the typical reader of, say, romance, sci-fi, paranormal mystery, crime (of every flavour), historicals and the like. And examine their tastes. A Google search along the lines of ‘historical fiction readers demographics’ can be highly revealing.

The stories most favoured by both US and UK readers, it seems, feature a notable (real) person who lived in England in the 13th to 16th centuries and engaged in an adventure that was recorded in history books. Female readers like an added undertone of romance while men opt for a military angle. (Source: AWriterofHistory.com)

So your ideal protagonist would be an erudite soldier, prominent in the Wars of the Roses (mid 15th century), and warring at home with a feisty woman. Her role can be played up or down according to the gender of your target reader.

What real historical characters fit that profile? How about William Hastings, who was knighted at the Battle of Towton in 1461, and his strong-minded wife Katherine Neville?

Sounds perfect! Unfortunately, Ken Follet got there before us. His historical adventure Pillars of the Earth, featuring precisely those characters, sold 18 million copies. How could it fail? It profiled its target readers.

Model your protagonist on your ideal reader and your protagonist becomes the reader’s ‘I’ or ‘eye’ in the text. It’s the character they’ll bond with.

Is that approach a formula?

Yes. It was long-whiskered even by the turn of the 20th century. H. Rider Haggard lampooned it wickedly in his hilarious Mr Meeson’s Will (1911). But the formula works. Haggard had previously used it, without a blush, in his adventure novels that sold more than 100 million copies.

Look at any escapist modern novel and you’ll find some variant of that pattern. The reader is given an ‘I’ or ‘eye’ in the text to escape into. If the protagonist is just like themselves, or how they’d like to be, the job’s done.

It’s also the secret of a great conversation.

Stop talking about you. Start talking about them. And it works in novels. Write about your reader. You can’t help writing about yourself, anyway. Your characters will always be you, however you disguise them, so your ego will still be gratified. But, like Rider Haggard’s, your novels might sell 100 million copies.

Yeo-me-HS right

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course by going here, or at Writers’ Village:

http://www.writers-village.org/academy-intro

Here’s the link I was telling you about: http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog/how-i-created-a-totally-new-book-genre-and-you-can-too

Well, what do you think?  We’d love to hear from you in the comment section!

 

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15 Comments

  1. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

  2. It depends on your reader. Personally I would read Patricia Cornwell any day, but have no interest in Kathy Reichs. I write for readers like me, because I write the books I wish existed.

    • I too write the books I wish existed, in some part I think we all do. But what John is saying is if you keep your audience in mind you will sell more books. Knowing your audience will also help you when querying agents if you choose the traditional route.

      • Yes, except marketability is about writing what already exists, because people only want what they’re told. So it’s a vicious cycle. You have to choose between writing what they want or writing what you want and what matters to you, which is the nature of consumerism.

        • I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. If we all wrote retellings of some sort than reading would be rather boring. I know many traditionally published authors who write what they want to see on the shelves while keeping their audience in mind.

    • I agree, Sarah, that we must write – at some level – for ourselves. Otherwise, there’s no joy in the writing and we become a writing factory. But if we don’t have a reader, we’re not – strictly speaking – authors. So we must keep our reader in mind. However, you’re quite right that everyone’s taste is different so we can’t predict our audience’s response. For example, it’s interesting that you like Cornwell, whereas I loathe her, but have no time for Reichs whom I love!

  3. This makes so much sense that I’m whacking my forehead with my laptop! Thank you, Dr. John Yeoman; it’s always fun to hear advice from successful authors. Thank YOU, Sue, for introducing us to his books and website. You are such a good connector of people!

  4. Sound advice. I have two protagonists with my crime thriller/adventure. A rather bumbling private investigator with a comic relief sidekick. My historical fiction is USA but carries a lusty romance along for the ride.

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