Saturday, August 16, 2014

Reader’s Rush (Like Runner’s High, Only Better)

Karen Syed is the CEO of Echelon Press, my publisher. Karen believes we should write and publish books solely to please our readers. I agree. Most of us write so people can read what we wrote to provide them an entertaining experience. A couple of questions people ask me frequently at book fairs and conferences are, "How do you come up with your ideas?" and "Why do you have to kill people or have so much violence in your books?"

When I try to answer those questions—and trust me, you often can't answer the latter to some people's satisfaction—I try to think about what I want as a reader.

I'm not an international spy, but, damn, I sure want to be. That's why I read so much Daniel Silva. In reality, I can't stand confrontation, but give me a Greg Iles book or a Pat Conroy novel, and I can be, through their characters, the brash, take-no-prisoners hero who stands up to corruption and wins against all odds. I'm no longer a homicide investigator, but if I want to be one again, I can do it through the pages of a Patricia Cornwell book, or the novels of any one of dozens of mystery writers.

How do I get my ideas? Two words: "What if..."

What if the 9/11 terrorists, instead of striking our largest cities, had targeted Danville, Illinois or Little Rock, Arkansas? Would it have incited more fear because these are heart-of-America towns?

What if there is really a drug out there that will cure cancer, but the drug companies, who make billions off treatment, want to keep it secret so they won't lose their profits or their market share? What if they were willing to kill to keep it secret?

Why do I kill in my books? Because as a reader I want stakes--clearly defined, understandable, life-altering stakes. It’s the same reason I get on a roller coaster, but wouldn’t climb a ladder for the life of me. The roller coaster creates the illusion I’m plunging headlong to my demise, but at the bottom, its rails draw me up into another twist.  Without stakes, there is no story, and without a story, we, as readers get no value for the time we spent reading. Are there any bigger stakes than losing one's life? Would you kill to protect your life? Your kids' lives? Your spouse?

To quote a line from the movie Mississippi Burning,  "Down here, things are different; here, they believe that some things are worth killing for."

And that's what makes it interesting.

I’ve gotten some scornful looks from some parents flipping through my YA books about violence and language. (Just wait til they see the teen sex in Book Three). I suppose I could write a book about the kid whom nothing happened to on the way to school, and she worried about it all day. How thrilling! Nah, I say kill one of her schoolmates and plant the murder weapon in the kid’s locker. Now we have a story.


  1. Perhaps not having stakes sufficiently large for me to care about is why most literary fiction doesn’t grab my attention. Teens these days have killed thousands with their thumbs using their phones or tablets or computers or game consoles – they need to learn about the consequences of violence, which is where our fiction can play a vital part.

    ~ Jim

  2. I agree with Jim. Entertainment is the primary reason to write a book. Dealing with contemporary issues is a great way to hook and audience and without getting
    "preachy" it is a way to get the reader to consider their own behavior.

  3. Although I certainly don't disregard potential readers, I write to please myself. Sometimes I feel like I have a message I want to impart in story form, sometimes I'm primarily entertaining myself.

    It's a true bonus when someone else enjoys my work!

  4. Like KM, I write to please myself as well as hoping to please others. So far I seem to have managed both. Will my work appeal to every reader of mysteries? Absolutely not. I don't have enough violence in my books, but there are a sizable amount of readers who like a murder or two as long as it's not too graphic. My books appeal more to readers who want to solve who doneit before the murderer is revealed at the end.