If You Give A Reader A Cookie – A Blast From The Past From December 13, 2017

If You Give A Reader A Cookie – A Blast From The Past From December 13, 2017

Something I haven’t discussed, in this whole “where should you put your book” is that beyond structure there are reader expectations and… well, reader cookies.

“Reader cookies?” you ask. “You mean some publicity thing?  I have to find all my readers and bake them cookies?”

Er…. no.

Look, the thing to take in account on genre is that usually people have one favorite genre.  They might read others, but they had one they absolutely follow and “eat” like peanuts.  (Years ago Kris Rusch told me that science fiction readers are the narrower readers.  I don’t think she’s right.  I think she said that because most science fiction readers are prejudiced against romance.  but she also said that romance readers read every genre, and all I can say is she must come from a universe where Spock has a beard.  There’s no reason for her to lie, and I don’t think she was, but my experience is exactly the opposite of hers.)

But most readers, when reading genre, learn and come to crave certain points.

There are things in all genres that aren’t logical, they’re just convention and accepted by all writers/readers so that that type of story can be told.

For instance most of us, in most cases, understand that true love takes time and much contact to develop, but you can’t really show that in a novel (Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer comes close.) And you can’t show the many kinds of “true love” that aren’t necessarily romantic love.  There just isn’t enough space, and it wouldn’t make for a good narrative.

So instead, you have a sort of handwavium, like they look, they touch and they KNOW they’re destined to love each other.  Now in modern (written, because even in regencies this happens) romances, it tends to be because they had teh amazing secks.  Which is silly and probably teaches teen girls all the wrong things, but it’s also easy to write/sell.

In science fiction, you’ll have not just FTL — that would be easy — but all sorts of short cuts, gadgets and history that are never explained.

In mystery you’ll have detectives in small towns who solve more murders than the population of the town could stand.  And no one finds this weird.

Now if you’re reading cross-genre, that kind of stuff can annoy you no end. But eventually you get used to it.

What might take you longer to get is the reader cookies, i.e. things readers in the genre really like.

As someone who is making her bones in what could be called retro-science-fiction I do a lot of reader cookying.  Like… burners.  (No, they’re not lasers.  I actually figure they’re some form of concentrated gravity.  Yes, I know what Athena said.  But she’s not technologically literate, and also, honestly, she read a lot of 20th century sf from her father’s library.)  Or flying cars (I want my flying car.)

They’re things I find cool, and I remember being thrilled about when I was a kid reading sf/f, and since I’m center of the SF reader demographic (I’m more askew for fantasy) I figured others would have the same reaction.  Apparently so.

In mystery, particularly if you’re doing cozies, your reader cookies are often tied to the way your detective puts clues together, particularly if it only makes sense in the detective’s mind.

But  more importantly, making sure the reader gets the cookie involves making sure that they get what they paid for as it were.

Your romance needs to be romantic.  even if you’re galloping in other directions, with mystery, and sf and fantasy touches, YOUR COUPLE NEEDS TO HAVE A GRAND, ROMANTIC LOVE, (even if they don’t realize it till the end, which often happens in sweet romances) and there needs to be a happy ever after.

Your mystery needs to be mysterious, and your detective (amateur or professional) needs to solve it.

Your science fiction needs to at least wave at science, and the events must be interestingly futuristic (and no, just growing tomatoes on another planet and having emotional breakdowns about your status as female does NOT count.)

Your fantasy needs to be fantastic.  There must be magic and awe and spells and stuff.  (I fail so hard at this with the shifters.)


I mean Dresden Files has a Noir Mystery structure, but yeah, it’s fantasy.  I mean, he’s casting spells, using his SIGHT, working with elves and the supernatural.  And that’s fine, because it’s a fantasy with mystery structure, but all the cookies are fantasy.

You know where this is going, don’t you?

Read the d*mn genre you think your work might belong under.  Read the top sellers at Amazon at least.  Take a week and read them.  Be aware of what the reader picking up your book is going to expect.

Because you can’t know what they want, till you know what else they’re doing.  So go and read it, and then decide how to classify your own work.


  1. What exactly does ‘grand romantic love’ mean?

    The answer may well be that I need to read more romance. What are some prolific authors that are good examples, and likely to be stocked in a public library? Or should I just go to a used book store, and grab the available Heyer?

    1. A lot of the love songs from classical musicals also convey grand romantic love in a very dramatic way. Listening to the music and lyrics of some might help you.

      1. This.
        Grand romantic love — I’m sorry, i feel like crap, so this might not be complete, but I’ll try– is the idea there’s only one person for you, and you’re in some way predestined and can only be happy if together.

    2. Honestly, I’d recommend going to your librarian, telling her you’re doing research on the genre, and ask her what the most heavily checked out or requested authors are. Then get one book from each, and read them all.

      If you don’t want to talk to her, grab a random selection – at least 6 – of books and read them all. Then return them, and get another random 6, plus more from the authors you liked. Because if you want to write a current genre romance, then you want to be fluent in current books in the genre.

      I wouldn’t recommend Heyer for this purpose. Nothing against the lady, but you realize she hasn’t been writing for the current market for, um, a few decades now. That’d be like reading Leslie Charteris to pick up the reader cookies for current thrillers.

    3. I haven’t been to a library in decades. Does KU count? I “started” romance with Ruby Lionsdrake who has a couple of Space Opera Romance series. I don’t know how trope-typical those are, but I found them a fun segue from Sci Fi to Romance. I thought they were better than some of Lindsey Borouker’s books (they are the same person, which is common knowledge, now), which are rarely in KU.

      1. mrsizer,

        If you’re using KU, skip Ruby LionsDrake and go straight to the romances across several subgenres (or focus on one particular subgenre) that are in the top 20 in their subgenre.

        Nothing against Lindsay, but if you focus on a SF writer who also does Romance, you’re going to get the wrong impression and wrong education, as she works hard at putting in both SF and Romance reader cookies, so you’ll get the wrong impression for when you want to learn “what do Romance readers like?”

        Just like when Lois Bujold wrote the Sharing Knife series – yes, they’re romance. But it’s an accomplished fantasy author writing romance, so all the fantasy reader cookies were put in, right down to in-depth worldbuilding, coherent magic system with limitations and powers other than what’s strictly needed for the plot, fantastic beasts and plants and such that were consistent and worldbuilding relevant but not plot relevant. These things do not excite or please the romance readers; they’re things that excite and please fantasy readers.

        In fact, make sure you go to romance subcategory science fiction, and pick up two or three books with nekkid male torsos on the front, and titles like “mated to the alien.” As a SF reader, you’ll end up wanting to throw them across the room. “This technology makes no sense!” “This worldbuilding makes no sense!” “A technology like that would have completely reshaped culture!” “The economics of that race are… not even wrong!” “Wait, did you even look at how you completely contradicted your travel / communication times?”

        Congratulations, you are finding out what are SF reader cookies by their absence in romance – science fiction. Write that down in appropriate column

        And then when you get to the parts that make you wince and groan and go “why the heck are they even…” Congratulations, you’ve found a romance reader cookie. Write it down.

    4. Thanks all.

      Part of my problem with mess in progress is that I have no clue what kind of plot it can be. ‘Can I make it work as a romance?’ is a serious question, as is ‘Should I?’

      Romantic relationships are important, but I don’t know if I can make them important in the correct ways. There’s a very real risk that I can deliver ‘particularly close comrades in arms’, but not grand romantic love.


    I don’t think I agree with this. It’s part of the formula for a certain sub-genre of romance, but I know of some very pleasing romances (including one I’ve written) where the drama arises not from the romance itself but from entanglements and difficulties that enmesh the couple after they’ve decided to love one another. I’ll be writing more about this in the near future.

    1. But which readers are you writing to? That’s where the “cookie checklist” comes in. If you are aiming at a certain market, then GRAND ROMANTIC LOVE has to be there or your readers will be steamed. If you are writing to other parts of the romance market, then yes, there’s a lot of options.

    2. Romances that don’t have that aren’t aimed at the romance market, but at the “mainstream” market.
      Romance is NOT “has love in it” it’s a category genre.
      What you just said is “Well, my science fiction doesn’t need to be set in the future or have any grand technology. It is all about current day science problems.”
      While that would be science and fiction, it wouldn’t be the GENRE science fiction. Which is simply a “marketing category” to help you find your audience.
      Disagree all you want. It is still what it is.

      1. I think that may be your best example of “genre” vs “subject matter” to date. Very clear.

        1. I’ll agree that genre is largely a matter of opinion, but the issue in this case is that it isn’t the writer’s opinion–it’s the readers. Romance readers are expecting something when they pick up a book, and they’ll hate it if you don’t give that to them, regardless of how good your book might be otherwise.

          As far as your specific example goes, well, romance isn’t really my genre, but it seems that you and Sarah aren’t really contradicting each other. I would say that it’s possible to have “entanglements and difficulties that enmesh the couple after they’ve decided to love one another” driving the plot while still having their “grand, romantic love” at the center of things–after all, it’s the fact that we really want this couple to be together that makes us care about the entanglements and difficulties they face.

    3. I think mrsizer has a point, that you’re talking about a subject, and Sarah is talking about genre. Those are different things.

      Danielle Steele is not technically a romance writer, believe it or not. For many of her books, removing the romantic elements doesn’t break the story. You take the sci-fi out of “Dune” and you have no story. Steele could be said to be writing the “glitz & glamour” genre, but she herself said she doesn’t write romances. And it’s true, per the rules of the genre.

      An example is Steele’s “Fine Things,” where romance IS a key element, but the story is actually about the ups and downs in the life of Bernie Fine. The struggling single mother he marries after a whirlwind romance dies of cancer in the middle of the novel. He has to rebuild his life, with his stepdaughter and baby son, which includes having to arrange the rescue of the little girl when she’s kidnapped by her father, who had abandoned her and her mother. In the last quarter of the novel, Bernie eventually falls in love with his son’s pediatrician. He can’t move forward with her until he finally overcomes his wife’s death.

      Why is this not a romance book? The thread running through the story is Bernie running a department store, and later starting his own store. To fit the romance genre, Bernie wouldn’t have married in the first quarter of the novel; the novel would be about the courtship of his wife, with their wedding coming at the end. And Liz wouldn’t die; her death puts this in love story territory, except it would come nearer the end of the book. The unconventional pediatrician would likely not be a factor. Love stories can have happy endings, it’s just that they can also be bittersweet or tragic.

      Romance novels are either “happily ever after,” or “happy for now,” with both halves of the couple alive and facing this future together. That’s regardless of which subgenre — historical, contemporary, paranormal, etc., the romance falls into. Ergo, Steele is correct that her story isn’t in that genre.

      Marketing categories — genre — are a promise you’re making to the reader. If you put a story in the cozy mystery category, your readers are expecting Miss Marple, not aliens bursting out of people’s chests. If you shelve your book in horror, then Elizabeth Bennett better be fighting off a vampiric Mr. Collins. Deciding to put straight Jane Austen in horror simply because the idea of marrying Mr. Collins is horrifying is a great way to make readers hate you.

      So, bake those cookies.

  3. Back when I first read this, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” was a distant memory from childhood. Now, I’m sitting here mentally going…

    “If you give a reader a cookie,
    Then she’ll ask for a glass of milk, and then
    One thing will lead to another,
    And you never know what’s next!”

    Basically, if you give a reader a cookie, you’ll never get rid of her. Which, come to think of it, is in fact the goal.

  4. I too have noted that romance readers rarely read anything else (or if they do, don’t stray very far, eg. paranormal romance or UF), but we SF/F readers often dabble (eg. my second love, pre-Renaissance historical fiction. I don’t read romance at all, tho I do edit it… different brain functions.)

    I would argue that all of Urban Fantasy (with rare exceptions, like Greg Bear and Charles deLint, who only fall under UF for sharing its tropes) is actually other genres with fantasy (or rarely, SF) elements pasted on top — it’s an extension of PNR, not of SF/F. This is part of why I don’t enjoy UF — it’s NOT fantasy (and I don’t require a lot of ‘fantastic’ elements to keep me a happily cookified reader) and it does not READ like fantasy; to my ear, most reads like a mis-aimed romance or gumshoe. If I’m going to read romance or gumshoe (and I do, if rarely — I love Shell Scott and Travis McGee) I don’t want stale peanut butter in my chocolate. And I note that today’s conventional UF (as noted, mostly being in fact romance or gumshoe) did not become ragingly popular until we had a generation who did not grow up with us old fogeys’ tropes, but who were still really romance readers. And who when they write, don’t even KNOW our tropes, but they sure do hit all the high spots for romance.

    This, far more than wokeness, is why about a reader-generation ago, I gradually stopped reading newer authors. Me, who thought a book a day was just barely enough; me, who routinely read doorstoppers in a single sitting. Absent the properly ingrained historical tropes, today’s writers chronically reinvent the wheel, and achieve odd shapes. Triangular wheels may look kewl but they don’t get the wagon smoothly down the road. And hitching the horse behind the cart may work on a flat paved street, but not so well anywhere else.

    [I would further argue… being trope-deficient or wrongly troped, more than wokeness, is why the most recent Star Trek offerings have gone off the rails. And that in fact given a solid foundation in the tropes, the rails won’t let you run totally amok even if you’re otherwise an idiot.]


    1. Ah, but Charles de Lint started before it was a hard genre, and he keeps pushing the edges, because he’s Charles de Lint. See also Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series. When you create the genre, you can play. Those of us poor schnooks who have to write for readers who already know what they want . . . 🙂

      1. Ha. I write for myself. If others wish to share, they’re welcome to, but I don’t write FOR them. Then again, I’m not paying the rent with it.

        1. That’s where I live. Probably a good thing, as my book came out the way it did. Breaking lots of genre rules.

          As usual, I’m obliviously kicking the ball around and have no idea that I’m playing soccer in a mine field. ~:D

          1. LOL… yer doin’ it wrong, if yer still worryin’ about the mines. Use a hoverball. Problem solved!!

    2. Actually I’ve heard the “SF readers read SF, and the romance readers read about one third other genres” — from a person who worked for a book chain and based the claim on the analysis of the sales by those cards.

  5. I have to admit, I stopped reading “The Cat That” series because I got tired of Pick-axe City having a murder rate (the population was less than 2000) that made sleeping on a park bench in Chicago or Baltimore a safer lifestyle than moving to Pick-axe City. You knew the newbie was going to buy it because the town’s population would drop precipitously otherwise.

      1. It got to the point where that series seemed to believe that the only acceptable way to have money is to have inherited it from your Atlantic City Madam aunt.

        I left for other reasons, but the scene where the billionaire is deriding someone else as selfish and greedy because she doesn’t want to work for free always struck me as extremely crass.

  6. and OTOH i am trying to deliberately exclude certain ‘cookies’ from my current work and coming up with reasoning is frustrating

      1. well, in certain SF circles at present in order to show sufficiently advanced tech everyone has ‘implants’ and well, i don’t want that. i know it it a ‘thing’ in certain circles of military SF, but i don’t need my main character googling stuff on the hypernet every ten seconds… its a bit of a pain explaining why powered armor works so well without neural interfaces. i know if i just say ” neural interfacing didnt work out well” people will go WHY

        1. Hmm.

          If you have implants, there can be a little more to it than just ‘automatically comes with the input/output bandwidth to double as a smartphone’.

          You’ve at a minimum got a chain that goes input from nervous system -> signal processing -> output externally to a system that isn’t implanted.

          Input adds in a chain going the other way.

          You’ve got at least four budgets that can limit the amount of capacity that you can install for each of those chains, and hence space between nothing and ‘brain cellphone’. 1. Signal budget through human flesh to and from the external system. 2. Power 3. Time spent learning to make the interface work. 4. Infection if you can’t close the skin back up, or require frequent surgeries.

          Adding the on board graphics processing for the sort of interfaces moderns like would be pretty costly in power.

          I think there is a very defensible case that at most it makes sense to install a small amount of output, train folks to use that for powered armor, and otherwise not bother.

          If you want a deep dive into it, robotics and controls engineering combined with medicine might be able to say how possible powered armor and implants really are. How fast do those systems have to be to avoid a) smashing yourself against the armor b) armor misread causing the armor to smash against flesh? How fast can they be, and how does that translate to the amount of lead the system needs to be, hence to where the implant needs to be to feed the controls?

          If you can do simpler (passive or powered from the armor with no storage) sensors distributed through the body, you have one justification for not being able to holonet from your brain. If it is buried near the brain stem, or deeper, there is going to be a lot of signal processing to decide what to send, only so much bandwidth to transmit from the implant through that much flesh, and a lot of delicate stuff sensitive to heating or to messy power transmission into the body.

          Beyond that, implants are not necessarily a reader cookie. Okay, yes, they are in some subgenres, but in the general sci fi genre, the cookie is more the cool analysis you did figuring out how they work, or in some strange implication they let you play with.

          1. yes, bob, i can explain all that.

            Powered armor isnt hard to explain. friends like to joke that i have at least a masters in BS physics. i can make explanations just fine (especially since we’re really on the cusp of making power armor now)

            but explaining why there aren’t implants and why it isnt interfaced directly into the person? i’d really like to be able to just say that the kind of implants that write knowledge directly into your memories never worked out well, and leave it at that.

            1. Idea – the lower parts of the brain react faster than the higher information processing. I.e., way too many blue on blue incidents when the suit reacts instantly on the startle reflex. Slowing the suit down, though, defeats the purpose.

              You might try re-reading the part in Starship Troopers where Rico is describing his suit training. Now, mine aren’t quite the same as RAH envisioned, either – there is an AI that handles a lot of the “routine” things. The Marine inside is more of a suit commander – not so much taking care of the now, but deciding what is the next.

              OTOH, it could probably be done with two sentences, considering that I have been futzing with the $SPOUSE$ computer all this week (actually, every night after she comes home and starts cursing at it).

              It was a government contract. Microsoft was the low bidder.

              Or maybe a single acronym: WPDE.

              1. and to be honest i am more tempted to have the varoius govrnments have sdone nasty things withn those type of implants, but realistically, i just dont want to have them and dont want to explain it

            2. Perhaps if the knowledge-writing implants have some gruesome and/or fatal spectacularly inconvenient side effects, that might solve the issue. Amount of exposition to get this across could range from a couple sentences to half a chapter. (Says the guy who doesn’t write fiction… Judge accordingly.)

            3. Perhaps if the knowledge-writing implants have some gruesome and/or spectacularly inconvenient side effects, that might solve the issue. Amount of exposition to get this across could range from a couple sentences to half a chapter. (Says the guy who doesn’t write fiction… Judge accordingly.)

              (I goofed with the previous attempt. Delete or ignore…)

            4. What exactly is difficult about ‘the necessary signal processing for high bandwidth implants gets too hot to have inside the body’, so ‘low bandwitdh external neural interfaces are the best engineering trade off’? Have you already assumed a lot of cheap, compact, low power computers, such that the reader can tell that the first is not true in your setting?

              Getting a memory modifying implant working is a very long ways down the road from some of the stopping points that could be justified.

              The Air Force Research Lab may still have the proposal projects of this year’s Repperger internship up. They included a bunch of Radio Frequency and microwave impact on tissue research, the sort of thing that would have been needed extensively in SAO to allow even a conservative fanon model of Kayaba’s Nerve Gear to be created. It may be that even the most conservative model of the Nerve Gear is physically impossible, before even considering heating of brain tissue.

              Exactly how fragile the operation of the brain is, how sensitive to heating, the impact of high frequencies on human tissue, are all open questions. The research could easily have been terminated after early experiments turned up a high rate of cancer.

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