Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
A writer friend had a book release this week, one I’ve been following fairly closely. I admit I was surprised by the enthusiasm of her very avid fans. At the same time, I was struck by a variety of unusual comments from reviewers. Many of the reviewers are longtime fans of the writer, which was why one particular comment really stood out.
One reviewer, at the beginning of what proved to be a positive review, admitted that she expected the story to be just another one of those kinds of stories. The comment had a definite negative connotation. Hmm . . . Was this a case of a fan tiring of the genre? Then why even read the book? I was intrigued. Even a couple days later and after reading tons of reviews (of that book and a handful of others), I was still intrigued.
What happens when readers grow fatigued with the kinds of stories they’ve always loved? Should that influence the writer’s writing?
And what happens when the writer grows fatigued with his or her own stories?
The reviewer could have been making a reference to genre—she wasn’t exact concerning what she was referring to. But she could just as easily have been referring to the subject matter or the theme or the plot, not only the genre. So you can fill in the blank regarding the focus of her comment. But as a writer, you may at some time want to give consideration to reader burnout or saturation. It’s likely that the fans you have today may not remain your fans forever.
Now, if you write one novel every ten years, it’s probably less likely that fans will tire of your style or your story world, even if you feature the same world in every novel. But if you publish multiple books in the same genre each year, or if you publish only once a year but do so every year for many years, it’s likely that readers could burn out on your stories.
We can understand this happening with foods, knowing that over time and after too many meals, we grow tired of even our favorites. The same can happen with books. Too much can be too much. Readers can reach a tipping point.
I haven’t done a study on the phenomenon, but I certainly see this in my own reading life. For example, I loved the first handful or two of the Kinsey Millhone books written by Sue Grafton. But I admit that by mid-alphabet (her book titles are based on successive letters of the alphabet), I simply got tired of reading. The books didn’t decline in quality—I just lost interest. I couldn’t even tell you if it was the protagonist, the locations, or the style of the mysteries that no longer satisfied. I was just ready to move on.
On the other hand, each time Dick Francis put out a new book, I gobbled it up. I never tired of his books. But his books didn’t feature the same character—could that have been the difference? Maybe. Maybe I can only read so many adventures in the life of a single character.
What I want to focus on here is that if you’re writing a lot of stories in the same genre or style, if you’re featuring the same protagonist in a long series of books, or if maybe you’re featuring the same fictional world in a long series, you might also want to consider your readers and their needs.
Readers may read and love every one of your books from now until you stop writing. Or fans may only love your books while they’re a certain age or living through certain stages in their lives.
Fans may love all your books and not love a particular one for zillions of reasons. They may tire of your books for any number of reasons. Yet do be aware that even your most fervent fans may not love your books forever.
Writing styles go out of fashion. Genres and subgenres go out of fashion too.
The readers of today face issues different from those faced by readers of twenty, forty, and one hundred years ago. Teens of today face issues different from those of teens from the nineties or the sixties or the fifties.
Young families deal with different issues today. The families of thirty years from now will deal with issues we’ve not yet imagined.
The point is, readers as individuals change and readers as a group change.
Readers still want great stories, stories that can take us into new worlds, maybe stories that can distract us. But our interests do change. An individual reader may want something different when she’s twenty, thirty, or fifty, something different from what entertained or captured her attention when she was in high school.
Those whose jobs change from people oriented to technology oriented may crave a different style of fiction, maybe a genre that hadn’t interested them before.
Readers may read something different because they have a lack in their lives. Or they may want to read something new as a means of making sense of the changes in their personal lives or in the world around them.
Whether we’re talking individuals or groups of readers, readers’ needs can change. And while the change in readers may not be a reason for a writer to alter his or her style or genre or story themes, the reality of change is something that writers should be aware of.
Readers may want something new because they themselves are now different. Or they may want something new because they’ve become saturated by the peculiarities of a genre or theme. Writers should at least have a sense that the possibility is there for readers, even longtime fans, to want a change.
Does this mean a writer should change as well, change what he or she writes? Maybe. But you also don’t want to stop writing a particular series or a certain character only on the chance that readers might be bored with it or him. Still, knowing that readers can grow bored with even the best characters and story worlds is helpful for writers. Is necessary to help writers plan.
I have no great suggestions for you today. I just wanted to remind you—especially if you’re planning to release five novels of the same genre and subgenre this year and another five next year, or if you’ve planned out a series of two dozen novels featuring your amazing sleuth or a dozen novels set in your dystopian world—that readers can reach saturation points and likely eventually will.
You may gain new readers for every one you lose, that’s true. But you might not. In a changing world, the worldview you consciously or unconsciously feature in your books may not remain a popular one. Or it may simply become outdated.
I don’t want to discourage you—write the plots and characters that inspire you and write in the genre that moves you. But if you feel a coolness from once-fiery fans, don’t be surprised. And don’t assume the coolness is a response to the story itself or to your skills. The reader’s reaction may have nothing to do with your writing whatsoever. Changes may be due to differences in an individual, to shifts in culture, or to any combination of dozens of factors.
The bottom line—don’t expect that what works one day, for one book, will work all the time for every book. People and people groups change. And that means they might want something new in their entertainment.
Expect readers to ultimately move on.
Expect readers to reach saturation points with genre, characters, themes, fictional worlds, other aspects of setting, and even your writing style.
And keep your writing fresh. Use what works, of course. But don’t write the same story again and again. For books with the same major character or setting, feature a different aspect of the setting. Intrigue readers with something new.
For an example of keeping some elements of the setting constant while writing entirely different stories, let’s look again at Dick Francis.
His mysteries are all related in some way to British horse racing. And yet the horse-racing elements are part of the setting, not necessarily a key ingredient in the plot. One story might feature more about racing than another story, but Francis often focused on professions and issues having only the slightest links to racing, horses, and stables. So one story might feature smugglers, another wine connoisseurs, another actors, and still another race car drivers. The horse-racing connection was there, but not always as the star or focal point of the novels.
Consider keeping your series setting or your protagonist the same while creating other elements that make each book truly unique.
If the only element your books have in common is the genre but even you are starting to feel that your books are all the same, that each is just another one of those __________ (fill in the blank with whatever genre reference fits), consider adding a different element. Maybe a different focus. A different theme or approach.
Yes, you may have been writing books with the same theme again and again without realizing it. And even if your plots are distinctly different, your best fans may want something new. They may need a fresh theme. And you may need to shake up your writing by focusing on a new one.
Or for a big change, consider a new genre.
Don’t feel that you must change, but be open to change. Especially if you’ve been writing the same character, story world, or genre for a whole bunch of years or for a whole lotta books.
And don’t be shocked when a reader is ready for something new. Needing a change isn’t an indictment against your writing or your stories. Readers simply develop new tastes over time.
If you’ve dealt with this issue, did you make changes? I’d love to hear what changes you’ve made to deal with reader (or writer) saturation.