Friday, August 27, 2010

Consider your audience?? Don't! - By Michael Snyder

Week Four of:

Tips from those who have gone before us

By: Michael Snyder

I recently stumbled into a conversation between a gaggle of writers who all seemed to agree on the necessity of “considering their audience” as they write. As a lifelong contrarian, I felt obliged to chime in.

My one-word morsel of advice was simply: “Don’t!”

Now let me say right upfront that I have a great love and appreciation for anyone who takes the time, attention, and emotional energy to read one of my books. It’s an honor that I hope I never take for granted. That said, I didn’t write the book for those people. And I won’t write the next one for them either.

My one rule of writing is to amuse myself.

That may sound prideful, myopic, or even narcissistic. Heck, it might even be prideful, myopic, and narcissistic! But I don’t think so.

Here’s my logic. There is an entire industry that’s been around a lot longer than me. It’s filled with people a lot smarter and more savvy than me. If publishing experience were a cornfield, I’d be one little niblet on one little ear struggling to survive until harvest. With all those people possessing all that knowledge and experience and the tools to publish and sell books, you’d think they could predict with pinpoint accuracy what the buying public wants. But they can’t, not really. And neither can I.

When composing a story, my advice would be to forget that "audiences" even exist. Just write your story. Again, write to amuse yourself (or thrill or frighten or romantically tweak or whatever gets your literary motor running). Forget the critics (both inside and outside your head). Our job as storytellers is to tell the truth. If we skirt the truth in any way it will show up in the writing. And the writing WILL suffer. So don't blink. Get it all down on the page in that first draft. Do it exactly the way you want to do it. And don't feel the least bit guilty about it. Writing takes courage. If it's not emotionally draining, it's probably not going to be worth reading anyhow.

When it comes to editing our job is still to tell the truth, but now it's time to turn a more objective eye to the process. We have decisions to make, hundreds of them, maybe thousands. My opinion however is that each of those decisions should serve the work, not the potential whims of potential readers. At this point in the process we're turning raw material into art. So it's still not time to think about the audience. In fact, if you consider your audience during the editing process you will drive yourself mad.

Finally the work is done, the book is “finished,” and it's time to submit. So, now is it time to consider the audience? My answer is a resounding Maybe. I will admit that I am starting to consider an audience at this point. However, it has become the proverbial "audience of one" (which is really a handful or two depending on where you are in the process). I’m talking about agents, acquisitions editors, a pub board, marketing people, or some combination. Realistically though, any “consideration” at this point has less to do with the content of the story and more to do with how best to present it.

And I think that’s really the point.

My primary job is to write a compelling story with all the truth and beauty I can muster. Secondarily, my job is to market the finished product. And all that really means is providing a compelling reason (or two or three or ten) to give the story a try.

The reason I think considering an audience doesn't work is because there is no consensus. Don't believe me? Just click over to amazon and see if I'm right. Find a book you've read, one you have an opinion about, but one that has 20 or more reviews attached. Read each one carefully. Obviously, ALL of these folks found themselves in the "target audience" for this book, because they all read it, right? Are they all pleased? Did they all appreciate the book in the same way? Would any amount of “considering” all those reviewers have helped make the book better? I don’t think so. Not unless you have the time and resources to publish nine or ten versions of your story. Even then, there’s no accounting for the tastes of the masses.

A quick example: my novels have been criticized for being "too Christian" by some, and "not Christian enough" by others. Who's right? Who cares? I can't prove it anyway. And frankly, I have a life to live and more writing to do.

I should point out again that although I don’t routinely consider audiences, it doesn’t mean I don’t care. Of course I do. But if I write true to myself and my convictions (both spiritually and artistically) I'll get more work done. And it will be work I can be proud of instead of obsessing over.

Michael Snyder writes. He is the author of the novels My Name Is Russell Fink and Return Policy; both (at least according to his lovely wife and his regular-looking publisher) are worthy of your time, attention, and hard-earned dollars. Michael’s debut novel was one of three finalists in Christianity Today’s 2009 Book of the Year Award. He is also a regular contributor for the Master’s Artist blog. His third novel, Stand-up Guy, is now in the editing stages and will be available wherever fine books are sold (and sometimes stolen) in 2011.


Beth K. Vogt said...

"Our job as storytellers is to tell the truth. If we skirt the truth in any way it will show up in the writing."
And I guess that's why it's difficult to consider an audience when you're writing: People trip over other people's truth.
Excellent, thought-provoking post.
Thanks, Michael.

Casey said...

I really loved this! I have read reviews on Amazon and other sites and no two people can agree completely on any one book. Your audience is going to be the people that read it and enjoy it, but when I write, I do it purely for the Audience of One. Thanks Michael! This was a really great post and inspired me to not worry quite so much.

Krista Phillips said...

I loved this! Thanks Mike:-) I think about my audience in a broad sense ... I'll always have some kinda romance in my books, but this pleases me too so it works, ha!

Julia M. Reffner said...

Great thoughts, Michael! This is so true. We should be writing for God's glory alone and enjoying the writing process.

Jason Black said...

The converse philosophy, of course, is that you should be considering your audience with every word and every comma, you put on the page. By that I mean that writing effective fiction is a process of taking the reader on an intellectual and emotional journey from page one to "The End." The real story you're creating is exactly that emotional journey. The words on the page are just a tool--an imprecise, indirect tool at that--for creating the real story that takes place inside the reader's head.

That is, the real story does not consist of events, plot points, and dialogue. The real story consists of the reader's inferences, realizations, and emotional reactions to those events, plot points, and dialogue.

The outer surface of the story, presented in words, creates the true story within. It is this true story within that we strive to evoke for the reader.

And how, pray tell, can we hope to achieve such a thing if we are not obsessively, omnipresently focused on the reader with every keystroke we type? When we choose between "ambled" or "shuffled" to describe how a drunkard proceeds along a dimly lit sidewalk, must we not be minutely attuned to the reader so we can decide which word carries the particular connotation that will create the effect we wish to create within the reader's mind and heart?

Michael is, of course, exactly right to suggest that we put concerns of the audience far from our minds when it comes to deciding upon the shape of our story, its twists and turns, and so forth. If we fall into the trap of second-guessing what's hot in the marketplace or whether readers do or don't like a surprise ending, then as Michael says we're not being truthful.

Truth, to a novelist, is about we as writers choosing what that "true story within," the one inside the reader's head, shall be. When we are doing that, we must be true to the story and unconcerned with whether people will like it or want to buy it or whether they'll read it and decide we must really hate our mothers or whatever.

But when it comes time to render that true inner story on the page, with the indirect, imprecise tools of our trade--words and punctuation--it is there that the audience must be ever first in our minds. We must always consider how our choices in _telling_ the true inner story of OUR imagination will ping and bobble within our readers, and whether they will create a true inner story in the READER'S imagination that matches our own.

(Oh, and for the record: Michael, if your aim with Return Policy was to write a straight Christian fiction piece, I didn't think it was Christian enough. The non-secular moments of the book were few and far enough between, and weren't strictly necessary to the evolution of the plot, that they stuck out as author intrusions. If, on the other hand, your aim was simply to tell an engaging story about three people each undergoing separate experiences of grief and loss, then I think you succeeded admirably. My two cents, anyway.)