Today I want to chat about the importance of knowing your audience, but particularly, being honest with them. Let me start with an example from my own story. In my book, one of my heroine's best friends finds out she is pregnant out of wedlock in the first chapter. At one point, she looks at the heroine and says she feels like she sold her birthright for soup, and the soup wasn't even that good.
Now, let's just say it. I thought this joke was pretty clever. Biblical humor, you know? That's how I roll. But when I had my paid critique with Allison Pittman at the ACFW conference, she told me this section felt artificial to her, like people in real life would never make that kind of reference.
I'll be honest. At first I was resistant because it would mean giving up my soup joke. :) But as I continued reading through my story, I began to visualize actual readers. That's when things changed.
I think it's very easy for writers, especially yet-to-be published writers, to feel as if we are writing to a computer screen. At best, it seems to be an act of worship just between God and ourselves. So rarely do we ever step back to actually ask God to give us a vision of our future readership.
I read a blog/newsletter from Robin Jones Gunn a few months back where she told a story about the prayer she prayed before finding a publisher for the Christy Miller Series. This is the excerpt from Robin's website: "At one low point when I was ready to give up I came across a poignant verse in Psalm 102:18. The words went deep inside and I wrote the verse on a card with a picture of a mother reading a book to a young girl. The handwritten letters have faded. It says, 'Let this be written for a future generation that a people not yet created may praise the Lord."
When I first read those words, I cried. I mean, actually cried. Know why? Because I am part of the generation Robin prayed for. I am part of this vision she had.
May God give us such a hope, such a vision for our own stories.
Let's talk about some ways knowing your audience makes a difference in your story. For me, the turning point that brought clarity was when I walked into my secular college classroom and imagined my students reading my story. Would they understand the birthright reference? Probably not. And if they did understand it, would it resonate with them? No. Absolutely not.
It was then I realized the importance of "getting real" with our future readers, because now is the time we are writing the words that will someday touch their hearts. Let's make the opportunity count. Here are some ways to remember so we can do that well.
- The way you handle faith elements.
If you're writing Christian fiction, the faith-based element of your story should be tied to the character's arc, and thus must be not only believable, but impactful. Don't cheapen the power of the Gospel by watering it down. The Bible says the Word of God will not return void. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that "all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." I believe we as Christian writers are doing far too little praying over our future readership. What an incredible ministry we have to touch people's hearts through the power of stories. If we don't take time to shape strong stories or to be honest with our readers, intentionally or not, we are offering them less than they deserve, and we are cheapening the reputation of Christian fiction. In my experience, ABA readers are open to faith-based stories (after all, who doesn't want to read about redemption?), but they want the inspirational element to feel organic. And frankly, as a reader, I do too. The story of redemption is messy and real.
- "Christianese" language.
This is one of my pet peeves, and ironically, is also the problem with the example I gave from my own manuscript earlier in this post. People just don't like churchy language. Imagine yourself at a Star Trek convention. Hard to do, I know, but stick with me here. You're trying to have a meaningful conversation with someone, but they just keep saying "live long and prosper." What are you thinking? Uh, "weeeeirrrd." Have you ever been in a church service where someone keeps saying a catch phrase like "glory to God" in the same way? I believe we really have to be careful of our churchy language, because we don't want our audience to feel like they're left out of some kind of secret club. I'm not suggesting we water down the inspirational message. Quite the contrary, actually. I've found that the more purging we do of this artificiality or religious lingo, the more powerful the actual faith-based elements become, because they seem so much more honest and genuine.
- Your empathy for the hurting.
The older I get, the more I realize something. We're not really as different from other people as we'd like to think we are. It's true what they say--everyone has a story. Your job as an author is to consider every side of that story. Don't write off a character, even a villain, as being completely one dimensional. Here's an example. I can't imagine a life where I had casual sex with a bunch of men before getting married. It's easy for me to sort of hold my chin high and say, "Oh, good job, you." But is that really the calling of Christ? What if things had been different for me? What if I had grown up in a home where I hadn't felt secure or valued? What if I didn't know God and instead tried to be a generally good person according to what society says is acceptable behavior for a woman in her twenties? What if I got pregnant, or caught a disease? How heartbreaking would that impermanence of relationships be for me? If you're having trouble relating to a character, ask yourself what it would take for you to do what that character just did (and it may be vastly more serious than casual sex). Think you'd never hurt another human being? What if they took one of your kids? I'm suggesting you should go Jack Bauer on anybody, but I'm just saying. If we can't empathize with the hurting, maybe we're not being honest enough with ourselves.
To write well, we must be empathetic. We absolutely cannot consider ourselves better than others, or our readers will sense that elitism and resent it. Besides, books are one of the mightiest forms of ministry. We have a responsibility to love our readers at the point of their need, even as Christ loves them... and us.
Lord, give us eyes to see past the vision of our own hearts and into the high calling You've put on our lives.
Have you ever read a book that just didn't feel "real"? What about it gave you that impression? How can we avoid coming across as artificial to readers?
Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.