You Can’t Please Everybody

As an active member of the Internet Writers’ Workshop and several other online writing groups, I’m often asked what advice I have for new authors who are just starting out. For a long time, my response was “Learn the language”.  I believe writers should know how to use words correctly, and that includes grammar, punctuation, and yes, even spelling.

But, that’s no longer the answer I give, because (1) I’ve harped about grammar and punctution for so long now, nobody pays any attention to me, and (2) as I get older, I hope I’m getting wiser, too, and I’ve learned a lot as a writer.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we can’t please everyone with our stories. Taste in romance reading is a personal thing, and thank goodness for that! Because of the varied interests of the romance-reading audience, there’s room for writers in a multitude of romantic sub-genres. Check out any “romance” bookshelf — online or in a brick-and-mortar store — and you’ll find paranormals, sci-fi, dystopian, and steam punk. You’ll see time travels, Regencies, Americana, and more, side by side with modern-day contemporary love stories. Romance tales often include mysteries to solve. They may be stories filled with danger and fast-paced action, and they may be set in exotic, exciting, faraway places.

Love is universal, and today’s love stories know no bounds. You’ll find men falling in love with men, women loving other women, and you’ll find adventurous romantic menages, if that’s what you enjoy reading. Whether you like your romance on the steamy, hot-as-fire side or the sweeter, “behind closed door” variety, romance authors today have just the story for you. Interracial romance? Military stories? Sports romance? Hollywood romance? You name it, and somebody is writing it.  But let’s not talk about “dinosaur romance”, OK?

What all this means for an author, of course, is that while some people are going to like your books, others aren’t. If you write erotic romance, there will be readers who complain that the book has too much sex. If you write sweet inspirationals, at least one reviewer will be disappointed that there isn’t enough sex.

Even if you’re not writing romance, you’ll encounter similar situations in other genres. Some readers want fast-paced action with blood and guts oozing from every page. Some readers want a leisurely stroll through a veritable garden of words with interesting little twists and turns in the path. Some readers are shocked by four-letter words while others don’t find dialogue realistic without them.

Nope, you definitely can’t please everybody. And every time I write that phrase or read it or say it, music comes into my head. Remember Rick Nelson singing “Garden Party“? It includes these lyrics:

But it’s all right now, I’ve learned my lesson well.
You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.

— Rick Nelson, Garden Party —

Maybe you already know the story behind the song, or maybe not.  Either way, here it is.

I went to a garden party…

In October, 1971, Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band performed in a Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival at Madison Square Garden.  Although the reasons for what happened are unclear, Nelson left the stage after being booed and jeered by  the crowd. He refused to return for the rest of the performance. Some reports claim that the boos were actually directed toward a police officer at the back, but whatever happened, Nelson took it personally. He believed the audience disliked him because after playing a few of his “oldie” hits, he’d turned to performing a newer “country-infused” rock music.

Back to writing…

One day while browsing through “best-seller” lists at various publishers, I had a brainstorm. It hit me all at once, like a brilliant flash of lightning. If I wanted to top the charts, it was simply a matter of writing what the public wanted, which, according to my research would result in an erotic romance about two male vampires living on another planet. At least part of the time. Most likely one would actually be a “shape-shifter” who occasionally turned into a werewolf, and probably he would do a bit of time-travel from one dimension to another. There would be evil aliens throwing orgies, and of course, I’d have to include a lot of BSDM… did I get that right? I’m not exactly sure what the letters mean, and no, I don’t really want to know. I have a vague idea, and that’s enough for me. That’s more than enough.

OK, you guessed it. I’m not into bondage. Neither do I care for blood-thirsty vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, aliens, or time travel. So would I really want to write a “best-seller” that included these things?

Nope. Not a chance. And needless to say, if I tried, it would not be a best-seller, because my heart wouldn’t be in it.

That’s the thing about writing, you see, and that’s the point in all of this. If your heart’s not in it, it doesn’t matter what you write. You can’t achieve success in any endeavor by trying to be someone you’re not or by trying to do something you dislike, but for some reason, a lot of authors keep trying it.

We have this crazy idea that everybody who picks up one of our books should love it.  Our writing is good! We know that. Our story is intriguing! Yep, sure is. We have interesting characters! Indeed.

But somebody will dislike it. Somebody will be bored by it. Somebody will find it confusing. Somebody will find it dull. Somebody will probably even stop reading half-way through because … because, why?

Because it simply doesn’t suit their taste.

What we need to be writing are the stories that we want to read, not the stories we think everybody else wants.  I think Toni Morrison said it best:

If there’s a book you really want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.

What do YOU want to read? That’s what you should be writing, because there are other readers like you, readers who are waiting to read that special story that only YOU can tell.

Write what you enjoy, what you love, what you’re passionate about. You can’t please everybody, but you have to please yourself.