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I’ll admit to a guilty pleasure of playing the daily challenges at the Mahjong game I found on my new computer. There are 5 variations of the game, and each day, they give you 3 of them. Most mornings (over my 2nd cup of coffee), I can complete the challenges in 15 minutes or less. Some days, there are puzzles that truly challenge, and I might have to come back later rather than spend the entire morning (or day) trying to win.
This month, I noticed something new. Above each challenge was a difficulty level, and they’ve changed the scoring system. Harder game, more points for beating it. Somehow, knowing that a game was supposed to be easy and not being able to solve it on the first (or fifteenth) try became an exercise in both determination and frustration. I expected it to be easy, so when I didn’t race through it, I felt as thought I’d become a failure.
What about with books? What kind of expectations do readers bring with them when they peruse the countless available titles at a bookstore, whether it’s brick and mortar or on line?
1. Author familiarity. If they’ve read books by an author, they’re going to expect a similar read. This might be characters they love, or the author’s voice, or the storytelling. If a writer starts a new series, readers might be disappointed if whatever attracted them to the first isn’t there in the next. Or, if the author deviates from the genre, or sub genre. A romantic suspense author turns to contemporary romance, or adds a paranormal twist. Even though they’re still romance, readers might not keep following.
2. Cover art. Covers can say so much about a book, and there are expectations. A dark, gloomy cover would disappoint a reader expecting suspense if the book turned out to be a lighthearted comedy, or the reverse. A chick-lit/women’s fiction cover would disappoint readers if the book turned out to be a thriller. Cozy mysteries have their own brand of cover, and readers expect the book to follow the genre conventions.
3. Genre/sub genre. We all bring expectations to our reading. If it’s a mystery, we expect the crime to be solved. If it’s a thriller, we want to be scared, but we still expect things will work out in the end—even if there’s some peripheral damage along the way. Romance had better end up with the Happily Ever After. That’s why bookstores shelve books of similar genres together. Readers come in knowing what kind of a book they want.
Ebooks allow a little more flexibility, because in an on-line bookstore, a book can be on more than one shelf. It’s easy to ‘rearrange’ the store with the click of a button. But once the reader finds the book, it still needs to meet those expectations.
Of course, when you get beyond the basics, like solving a crime or saving the world, each reader has different preferences. I’ve been dinged for too much sex in my romantic suspense books—clearly those readers prefer the mystery/suspense themes. I’ve been dinged for not enough sex in those same books—clearly those readers are looking for more of the romance. Heck, I’ve been dinged for too much “relationship” in my mysteries, even though there’s no sex on the page.
Right now, in the Blackthorne, Inc. book I’m working on, it took me about 230 manuscript pages before my characters were in a position to have the “obligatory” sex scene. It could have taken place on or off the page, but it’s a romance, and book 5 in my series, so if I deviate too much from what I’ve done before, I’m going to be violating the trust of my readers—they expect at least one hot sex scene, and they expect it to be on the page. But I can’t write it simply to meet their expectations. It has to come at the right place in the story, and at the right time for the characters. They’re running from bad guys, rushing to rescue people. They’ve only been together about 48 hours. Stopping to have sex just because it’s page 191 is NOT a good reason.
Causes Terry Odell Supports
Pro Literacy Worldwide, The Nature Conservancy, The Adult Literacy League, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society