Let’s say you were house hunting.
You’ve got two small kids, two incomes, a decent budget. You’d like something with four bedrooms so you can have room for a home office and/or craft room, a garage for tools and the car, maybe a yard for a dog.
“I’ve got the perfect place for you,” says your plastic-smiling realtor. And she takes you to a decent but otherwise nondescript home. “You have to see this.”
You look around. “Um… the yard’s sort of small,” you point out.
“Yes, yes,” she says, ushering you through the living room.
“Does it have four bedrooms?”
“Sure,” she says, getting a little impatient. “And a garage. Sort of.”
“How’s the school dis…”
“Ta-dah!” She’s standing in the bathroom, and she moves her hands with a flourish… pointing to the toilet.
You blink. “That’s a toilet.”
“It’s a PLATINUM toilet.” She looks proud enough to bust. “And the SINK is platinum, too!”
You’re staring at her like she may be high at this point. “Um… okay. But how’s the school district?”
She is now obviously frustrated. “The kitchen sink is platinum too, you know. So are some of the doorknobs.”
You are really uncomfortable. Apparently platinum is a thing around here. “It’s lovely,” you say, hoping to mollify her. “Can we, er, look at the bedrooms?”
She grudgingly gives you the full walk-through. The house is serviceable, no question, but you wish that the owner had spent the money they’d blown on platinum-plating the plumbing on fencing the yard, or built an actual garage instead of the currently open carport. So this house will definitely be a no.
What does all of this have to do with your writing, you might ask?
(Or you might not. I was piling that on with a trowel there.)
It’s about reader expectation. You want to spend as much time working out your novel as you need to, giving care and attention to the craft of the novel. That said, if you spend half an hour fretting over whether or not to use a semicolon or a colon in a sentence, you need to ask yourself if this is a genre or an audience that is going to care about your deliberations, or is this going to be the proverbial platinum toilet: something you think is amazing, but your buyer won’t care about.
Some examples of possible platinum toilets:
Description. If you’re writing literary fiction or historical fiction or some genres of romance, a certain kind of in depth and often poetic description can be very necessary, and will be missed. But if you use that same language in, say, thriller, some Westerns, some horror, and some sci-fi, you’ll find your readers looking at their watch and wondering about the next listing.
Pacing. You’ll notice with movies, stories like The Remains of the Day aren’t break-neck thrillers and The Fast and the Furious doesn’t allow for a lot of introspection. Which camp does your audience fall into? What are they in the mood for? And how can you satisfy it with your work?
Voice. It’s great to sound unique. It’s bad to become so “unique” that it’s almost unrecognizable and incoherent. This often happens with sci-fi writers who want to create their own worlds and languages, or people who want to use a lot of dialect. That said, there are some readers who want voice above all things, and some authors who have made their living on voice. I adore the voices of Erin Morgenstern (author of The Night Circus) and William Gibson (author of Pattern Recognition and Neuromancer) for very different reasons. Again, though, these books are more about voice than they are about genre, and if you love books with sharp plots, these authors aren’t your go-tos. Be judicious.
Darlings/self-indulgences. You may have a joke you love that you’re determined to shoe-horn into place. Don’t. You probably have a scene or character that doesn’t quite fit, but you still love it, so in it stays. Really… don’t. Because it won’t seem nearly as cute to the reader, and you’ll be the one paying the price.
Bottom line: always keep the reader in mind.
You are the first reader, the creator, and the first draft is always for you. But ultimately, the purpose of publishing is to communicate with readers. The purpose of economically successful publishing is to connect with an established and growing fanbase. You’ll only be able to do this by focusing on what you do best, where it intersects with what your audience wants… and leaving the platinum plumbing to somebody else.
Who do you think is your audience? And what do they expect from authors they enjoy? How can you better serve them — and what are you doing that isn’t addressing what really matters to them?