(note: This is not directed at anyone. This came to mind after a crit session and made me think.)
In a previous entry, I postulated that you, as a writer, should write the story you want to read. I still stand by that statement, to a point. But now that I think about it, I do feel it deserves a little qualification. See, what the statements means, to me, is if my story is to pull my readers in, it has to pull me in. I am, after all, just an overgrown kid who loves horror. So I want my readers to feel what I felt, to see what I saw, when I write something.
Of course, there's another side to the coin. Isn't there always? If you want to be a professional writer, you want to be published professionally. You want your work to capture the imagination of not just the audience, but also the editor, agent, and publisher to whom you send it. Sure, you want your story to be as visceral and engaging as humanly possible, but at the same time, you want it read, right? So there comes a point where you have to step away from the original statement of "this is what I would want to read" and ask yourself "Is this something my audience would like to read? Is this something that the editor/agent/publisher will read to the end and give a chance?" It sounds a little mercenary, I know, and a little cynical, but the ugly truth is being a writer is a business, first and foremost. Maybe not first, but it's right up there at the top of the list. The point is, without readers, for whom are you writing? If not for the readers, you don't have a job. So we, as writers, may very well use all our learned craft and tricks to write a story that we'd love to read, but the truth is we're producing a product, something that we hope other people will want to read. If you hand a story to an editor, publisher or agent that offends them so greatly that they refuse to read it, then you may as well have thrown that story in a hole. Sure, someone else might publish it, but that first one now has a lasting impression of you.
So how do you tell? How can you tell what's going to set an editor off? Research. Look at the titles that editor has already published. Talk to the other writers who are represented by that agent. If nothing else, write and ask. There are few things worse than that awkward moment when you realize you've offended someone who, you hope, could help your career. Imagine handing in a story in which you portray witches as every negative stereotype, only to learn that the editor who read it was a practicing wiccan who takes the bashing of her religion very seriously. Or subbing a story in which the only way to survive is to eat live kittens, to a card-carrying member of PETA. Or a story in which every female character is portrayed as inferior to men, bad drivers, and psychotic to a feminist who happens to be tired of all the gender-biased crap that gets heaped on her.
My opinion (and it is mine, for no one else wants it) is simply this: I want to be read. I want to be an author. Therefore, I need readers. An author without readers is like an actor without an audience. What's the point? So I guess, to a point, I write for the audience. In my case, however, I am the audience. It's easy to say "I write for myself," but without the readers, I have no job. The readers plunk down their hard-earned money and time to read my work. The least I can do is try to give them what they want.
Again, just my unsolicited $.02.