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!


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