I belong to a critique group who meet regularly to read and comment – positively, I hope – on each other’s work. Last week I asked them for feedback on a short story I’d written. I’d thought of sending it out to my mailing list of subscribers as a free read, something I do from time to time. I liked the story, but I was worried that its tone was much darker than the novels I write. The group liked the story, too, but expressed exactly the same concern. A great tale, but …
It got me thinking about reading expectations. Most writers are all too aware of the way in which publishers and agents like to label – you’re a saga writer or a cosy crime writer or you write fantasy. When a novel crosses genres, which often happens, it can be difficult for an author to sell their idea. Publishers work with categories and if they’re to sell the book, it has to fit into one they know.
But reader expectations are just as powerful. A romance reader will be angry – and rightly so – if there’s no happy ending. A crime aficionado will want a body or two. And expectations go beyond mere genre. They extend to style and tone. What if an author who usually writes gentle romance with a fun dialogue suddenly produces a kick-ass heroine who swears profusely? The writing is as skilful as ever, the plotting spot on, the characterisation deep and interesting, and the expected happy ending is present and correct. But what kind of response will there be from the readers she’s nurtured? Disappointment, I would guess, even a feeling perhaps of being betrayed. This writer isn’t the person the reader thought she was.
As for my story, I’ve shelved it until the time I’ve written a few more dark tales. Then I’ll take my colleagues’ advice and publish them as a collection of short stories with a title that clearly signals the shadows within. I’m left, though, with an uncomfortable thought. If I usually write historical mystery and suspense, with a little romance, where did that darkness come from?