Kath here. Please welcome Susanne Dunlap to Writer Unboxed today. Susanne is the author of YA historical novels In the Shadow of the Lamp (available now), Anastasia’s Secret, and The Musician’s Daughter, as well as the adult novels Emilie’s Voice and Liszt’s Kiss. Thanks for stopping by, Susanne!
I’m one of the fortunate few who have had books published by mainstream publishing houses. I never take the privilege for granted, and I work constantly to develop my craft. I feel responsible not only to the people who have taken a gamble on me and given me this opportunity, but also to my readers. With my fifth book in six years published by Bloomsbury on April 12th, I’ve been thinking about readers and my changing relationship with them as I become not just the author of a book they might have liked, but an author they might be counting on to continue to produce novels that feed something in them.
That said, I made a shift in the middle of my compressed career so far, from writing historical fiction for adults on musical subjects, to writing historical fiction for young adults based not necessarily on musical subjects, but always featuring young women who face the challenges of their times with courage and imagination. Some of my adult readers have followed me into this new territory, for which I’m grateful. In fact, I don’t really write any differently in terms of style or vocabulary, only focusing my point of view more narrowly on the concerns of the young heroine.
So what have my readers taught me? First, I have to stress that my sample is pretty small. It consists only of those who have written reviews or contacted me directly. I wish there were a way to find out how more people respond to my books, but for now there isn’t. Here are the three things I have learned:
- Your ending will never please everyone. For every reader who says “I loved the ending! It made me cry!” there’s another one who says, “I loved everything about this book, except the ending.” If everything’s too neatly tied up, someone will comment on that. If you leave some things for the reader to fill in, someone else will find that annoying. The answer? Write the ending that works for you, and accept that it will create some controversy.
- Romance is a double-edged sword. In YA aimed at a primarily female audience, romance is (according to my publisher, and I believe them) essential. I thought, this time, by making a love triangle central to the plot of In the Shadow of the Lamp, I had hit the right balance. Wrong! I was shocked to see a review that actually said the romance spoiled an otherwise perfect book. Go figure.
- Just when you think you’ve figured something out, you discover you haven’t got a clue. This could be an observation about life in general, but I find it particularly applies to writing. If you think people want sequels and series, you find out they want something completely different. If you produce something completely different, readers clamor for a sequel or a series.
This may seem like a “you can’t win” post, but actually, I mean to free my fellow writers from the idea that you have to please your audience when you write. Don’t bother trying! Write the book you want to write. Ultimately, you are the one in control. You get to decide how your characters act, what matters to them, and how the story unfolds. Sometimes you’ll hit it just right—for some people. It’s a constant struggle. But isn’t it better than almost any other struggle you can think of?