Thursday, January 15, 2009

Who’s REALLY Your Reader…Part 2

So you’ve written something wonderfully intelligent, witty, canny, and clever. You know it is, because your writing group loves it.(!) Your critique partner loves it. And it’s gotten to that point because you’ve targeted it…tailored it…refined it…until you know—you know, as in “wake me up at three in the morning and ask me, and I’ll tell you”—your marketing niches and who’s going to be the audience for your book. You have a polished synopsis. You have crafted your query letter. You’ve meticulously formatted your manuscript. You’ve edited, revised, gotten critiques, entered contests…you’ve even been invited, several chill-inducing times, to submit complete manuscripts to those Gate Keepers of the Fantasy—the editors of your dream publishing houses.

But that’s where you’ve stopped.

You’ve gotten the “good” rejection letters and received helpful guidance from authors who write for aforementioned Dream Publishing Houses; you’ve tallied myriad score sheets, gone to workshops, tried to decipher author blogs or agent blogs or publisher blogs to “read between the lines”…you’ve listened to inspiring speakers, visualized, affirmed yourself, thought positive, indulged in aromatherapy, courted your muse, and even considered hypnosis…

…everything, in fact, except sold this wonderfully intelligent, witty, canny, clever piece of fiction.
And now, you want to know why—before you take a brutally sharp, finely honed, and carefully aimed blade and slash either your pages or your wrist.

(Have I used enough paired adjective/adverbs yet, d’ya think?)

The tragedy of this is, in the end, apparently no one can really tell you why one piece of writing sells and one doesn’t.
But in my particular case—in the case of one particularly fine piece of fiction over which I have done my share of bleeding—I think I’ve discerned a possible factor.

Several people in my world love this particular story. When I sent them sample chapters, they clamored and pestered me to send more and more and more. One of them, in a contest, gave me a perfect score.

(I didn’t even get a perfect score the year I won a Golden Heart. Just sayin’.)

On the other hand, several other people in my world have read parts—or all!—of this manuscript, looked up at me, and said, “Huh?”
Some of them have said, “Oh, wow, this is really good writing…but where would it sell?”
Some of them have said, “What kind of book is this, exactly?”
Some of them have said, “Well, you’ll have to take out the ______ (name your element), or this won’t sell at all.”
One of them, in an especially memorable encounter, said, “This kind of book doesn’t sell, and I’m not wasting two years of my life trying.”
But a great many more of them have said nothing at all.

Three guesses which group was composed of “publishing professionals”—authors, editors, and agents—versus which group was “readers.” Not that some of the “readers” weren’t also writers, or people who enjoyed good writing. One of them is a crit partner, one of them is a bookseller, so it’s not like they’re totally out of the loop. But of the “publishing professionals” I’ve sent this book to, over the years—people who had the power to help get it sold, or to buy it themselves—not one has found in my story the combination of elements that would prompt them to take it to an editorial committee meeting and plead its case. I can’t help but wonder why.

Maybe the answer’s as simple as the old adage about “a little knowledge.”

“Publishing professionals”—if they’re at all human—are among the first to tell you that they really have no idea what they’re looking for, sometimes, in a story. That they only “know it when they see it.” But as aforementioned “professionals,” they have to tell writers something when they’re besieged by questions about how to go about “getting attention” in the slush pile.

So…they tell us things. Some of those are helpful. Most are not—unless the only audience we’re aiming at is that comprised of other writers we know, our critique groups, or the teachers in our MFA programs.

Publishing professionals can certainly tell you how to write correctly. You’ll know how to analyze your characters, how to write a conversation that does double or triple duty, how to foreshadow and presage and drop hints and integrate backstory and wrap it all up with a tidy bow at the end into a “satisfying conclusion.”

But will you have written a whopping good story?
The kind an “ordinary” reader will pick up and devour?

I would submit, from all the available evidence I’ve seen lately…probably not.

Which can lead us, if we’re honest, to a fairly radical conclusion:

editors, agents, and publishing professionals are no more equipped to tell you how to write a whopping good story than an “ordinary” reader with no “qualifications” is.
They know one when they see one, just like we do. but that's it.

So we need to stop writing as if they can tell us how to do this...and as if their evaluation is a true indicator of how well we're doing. Short of The Call telling us they are ready to spend money on our stuff...everything else is just so much guesswork. And should be treated accordingly.

Yeah, that notion is tough to get our brains around. It runs counter to all the “knowledge” we have, all the “sensible” processes we’ve been taught, and can bring us dangerously close to “wasting our time” if we go about things “wrong.”

But is what we’ve gotten from not wasting our time any better?

In the end, it seems, some of us have been led down the garden path into writing for the wrong people. It was done with the best of intentions, surely. And it’s something that many, many, many of us are still doing.

But it seems to me, thinking this over, that writing a really great “yarn” is like losing weight successfully: if good advice could make it happen, you wouldn’t need 10,000 books on the market allegedly “helping” you to do it.

If it were as simple as doing things correctly, it’d be like working with a really good vending machine: you put the dollar in, you get the story elements out.

Unfortunately, whopping good stories don’t come from letter-perfect, correct writing.
They don’t even necessarily come from good writing.
What they do come from—as hackneyed as it sounds, and as amateur as it can sometimes come across—is inspiration.

Inspiration is what grabs the writer and won’t let her go…and what grabs her reader just as hard, so that the two of them together take a glorious ride. But you can’t “learn” inspiration from writing classes, workshops, critiques, or professionals.

You can only get it from within.

You’ll know it when you see it and feel it.

Warning: when inspiration hits, what it won’t be is tailored, targeted, “branded,” or “satisfying” in the end; it’ll go so far beyond merely “satisfying” that it’ll take your breath—and the breath of lots and lots of people—away.
And they’ll tell their friends…
And so on…
And so on…
And so on.

And while they’re grabbing for the oxygen and jumping around the room—they won’t care if you wrote well or not.
They’ll just enjoy the glorious ride.

There’s the only readership you need to cultivate.
your audience.
And you’ll know them when you find them.

May you all find these real people…these “ordinary” readers…who will make all the difference. And stop writing for the others. No matter how competent they can make you.

Competence is never brilliant. It never sets the world on fire.

My resolution this year is to write for a better audience...and keep the extinguisher handy.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Who’s REALLY Your Reader?

This question gets asked all the time, doesn’t it? It’s part of “branding” discussions for those of us who’ve been around awhile. It’s presented in intermediate (or even beginning!) writing workshops as part of targeting a manuscript’s potential audience—hence, which “line” of which publisher to send it to. It’s hammered at newbies—which, of course, we all were at one time. And we’re all clueless. We have no idea who’s going to read our books. Far as we’re concerned, everybody’s going to. So if you press us, we really can’t give you an answer. We just know we want to write books! (And yes, we do say that with a breathless, exclamation-point sort of voice. We all do. You remember.)

Are you cringing yet? Yeah, probably. Especially when you remember what came next.

“What do you mean, you just want to write books? You’ll want to know what kind of book you’re writing if you’re going to pitch it! The publishers will want to know what to call it! The booksellers will want to know how to shelve it! You ought to be thinking about this before you even start to write a word, or you’re just wasting your time! Do you really want to waste your time?”

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.

In one sense, this is valuable advice. But in another sense, it’s led to an unforeseen consequence, one that can turn a fresh, inspiring, funny, quirky, scary-good writer into just another one of the bunch; she becomes not so much a successful author as one who knows “how to write for an audience”—only that audience mainly ends up being mostly other writers.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a problem. Because other writers, much as they love to read, are not going to be the bulk of your audience. Readers are. Readers who can’t necessarily write a coherent English sentence themselves (and we all know those people!). Readers who don’t know a comma from a semicolon. Readers who wouldn’t know passive writing if it walked up and bit them in the neck. Readers who don’t give a rat’s patootey how many words you use that end in “ly”….who don’t care about if your POV is consistent, your character arcs are in place, your three-act structure holds together, or your GMC is all charted out. They just care about a whopping good story.

Now, deciding what’s a “whopping good story” is still a subjective thing. We all know people who are wild about the Harry Potter books—while several others (myself among them) couldn’t get past 60 pages in the first one before we lost patience and gave up out of sheer boredom. Millions of people love the Twilight series—yet almost every writer I know pans them as being pretty awful writing. Jerry Jenkins’ success with the Left Behind stories, for many of us, is baffling. And, of course, one of the most monumental best-sellers of all time, The Da Vinci Code, is so riddled with errors, misrepresentations, and just plain stupidity that in some circles it’s become a textbook example of how not to write a religious/historical thriller.

And yet, as much as various writers have panned all of these successes as “bad writing”…people still buy them. And buy them. And buy them And pass them around. And talk about them. Why? Because, as one writer finally put it, “Yeah, Dan Brown may not know how to do research—but he knows how to write a page-turner!”

In other words, even knowing the writing isn’t up to snuff, and even knowing that were this work critiqued by their own writing group, it’d never pass…when the writers took off their “professional” hats and read these books—or countless others I haven’t mentioned—they enjoyed them. They may have considered them “guilty pleasures.” They may have tucked a paperback Harry Potter inside the latest Oprah hardcover selection when they were scrunched down in one of the comfy chairs at Barnes & Noble, just so people would think they were actually reading real “literature.” But the fact is, even though they “knew better,” these writers were as hooked as people who never write an original word.

What does this tell us?

The easy answer—the answer that, ironically, even writers and editors and agents come out with—is that “story trumps all.” You’ll see this on blogs, you’ll see this in publisher guidelines, et cetera. When pressed for “what you’re looking for,” a harried editor will usually just shrug and say, “Give me a good story. Give me something I can’t put down.”

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
It’s not.
But it could be a lot simpler than we as writers make it on each other—and ourselves.

In the next post, I’ll talk a little more about what can go wrong on the way to a whopping good story…and propose some possible “fixes” to think about for the new year.

Stay tuned!