What Does Your Reader Really Want?

what does your reader really want?

I’m in the midst of judging a large short story writing contest, going through the first pass.

Now, this is an anonymous contest, one where the judges shouldn’t know things like your name, hometown, sex, or age. I’m proud of the fact that the contest can judge authors on merit alone. And the rules on story length and content are well explained.

With each story that I open, I’m hoping to find a gem, but I get a lot of things that don’t work. So, what kinds of problems do I see?

First, this is an anonymous contest. If you’re one of the fifty people who put your name and address on the cover of your story, you’re out. It doesn’t matter how amazing the story is, I just flat-out reject you. The same is true if you only left your email address on it in many cases, because your name in front of a gmail address pretty much destroys your anonymity.

If you’re one of another fifty people who sent me poems, then you get an automatic rejection, too.  Unfortunately, this is not a poetry contest. If you’re the person who sent a 900-page novel, I rejected you, too. In fact I rejected several 300-400 page novels. And I rejected all of the screenplays, comic manuscripts, nonfiction books and articles, political diatribes and editorials.

I also reject stories that don’t fit our genre requirements. So, for example, if you send me a romance or beautifully written mainstream story, I’ll reject those without comment.

To those who send me letters, you’re rejected. That includes the woman who sent a love letter, and the unfortunate people who tell me their problems. I sympathize, I really do, while I am rejecting your submission.

Since this is a short story contest, I hate seeing things like “Prologue” or “Chapter 1” at the top of your entry. And since the story must be publishable as original material, I reject anything that starts off with a quote from a song or is set in someone else’s universe.

I don’t take stories with heavy profanity, sex scenes, or grotesque violence, so if your protagonist starts his story with the F-word, I don’t read any further, and if the high point of the story turns out to be that character A gets to screw character B, well, you’ve wasted my time.

And of course pictures don’t really help, either. I got one story a couple of years ago from a teenage girl who was nice enough to send me a picture of herself in very little clothes, although she was strategically covered in three marijuana leaves.

You see, the problem is that many of the people who submit to these contests—or to magazines or book publishers—can’t seem to get it into their heads that the editor is looking for a type of story.  So they waste their own time and the editor’s time by sending out to the wrong market.

Yet even many published writers do the same thing. You can be a master at prose and a fool at marketing. So very often I get stories that are so cynical, so depressing, that I have to ask myself, “Would anyone who is concerned about his own mental stability want to read this piece of crud?”

You see, it’s not just the editor that you have to please. As an editor, I’m just a gatekeeper. I try to find stories that I believe other people will want to read. Sometimes I find one that doesn’t exactly match my personal tastes, but I believe that other people will like it—and so I send it on to the other judges. Thus, the story that I like the best might only place third in the contest while another story that I suspect fits a general audience will win first. That’s okay. Often trying to compare two good stories becomes a matter of judging between an apple and celery stick.

So when you’re trying to attract a wide audience, you need to make sure that in every line of your story, and in every word and paragraph, you keep your audience in mind.  I ask myself questions as I write, such as “Will this opening line hook them, or should I try another?” “Does this word need to go in, or would the pacing work better if I cut it?” “Does this description resonate well with other works in the genre?” and so on.

And when I finish a well-written tale, I ask myself, “Is this good enough? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with it, but could there be more right with this story?”

Stories are written for audiences. Some authors like to pretend that the audience doesn’t matter. In their own defense they will say, “I’m an artist. I don’t cater to popular tastes.” Well, I think that you should have a bit of that attitude. You need to create works that you’re proud of too, and very often the most powerful works are the ones that spring from you organically. But too often, authors ignore the needs and desires of their audience at their own peril.

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