It might be the most important question you ask yourself.
Perhaps not life’s most important question, but for many in the writing community, it is certainly up there. You can’t avoid it, nor should you. It defines you and your life’s work. Will guide your efforts and determine the course you should take. It will force you to look past yourself and to others with augmented vision. This is a question as minute as it is paramount.
Who are you writing for?
Yes, it is obvious. Yes, you think you’ve answered it before. No, it isn’t groundbreaking. And yes, it ends in a preposition (and that can be troubling and keep you up at night, trust me, I often wrestle with that issue). But it mustn’t be overlooked.
Personally, I love literature. It must be noted that this is not the same sentence as “I like to read.” Literature, as defined by the ever-reliable and highly-scholarly source of Wikipedia (and a million actual other credible sources but this was easier for me) is “writing that is considered to be an art form, or any single writing deemed to have artistic or intellectual value, often due to deploying language in ways that differ from ordinary usage.” Resting in this category are Charles Dickens, Kafka, Camus, any of the Russian writers, (myself, unfortunately, not included) Salinger, Twain, Orwell, etc., and those are only some of the ones I personally enjoy, from a list of the prose heroes. They are the “greats” or to be put into today’s terms, G.O.A.T.
What I have discovered, is that through my writing endeavors, I cannot aspire to be on that literature list. I am phrasing it strangely, but it is true. While literature is beloved, from my feeble understanding, it isn’t in-demand. Partially because that stuff has been done, but also partially because the challenge isn’t desirable. People want to be entertained, but the writing world has much competition. When all you had was candlelight and the written word, authors could be as verbose and poetic as they wanted, because there were few other creative outlets. (BTW, none of this is scholarly. This is my B.A. in History’s educated opinion, but it also seems kind of obvious.) Today’s authors have to compete with television, movies, Candy Crush (is that still a thing?) social media, etc.
When I was first asked who I was writing for, I wanted to scoff. This is partially due to the fact that I tend to behave as though I know it all, but also because the question is much deeper than most give it credit. I wanted to write literature, I mean, that’s what I read, so therefore that’s what bookstores want. Right? Well, not really. Look at what is on the bestseller list. It isn’t Lolita. Times have changed and though those works will always be praised and beloved, they are no longer entertaining to the masses.
You might think “I’m writing for myself.” This is a very noble-sounding pursuit. You don’t care about rules, or what society expects of you. You love writing for writing’s sake, and the art/craft of story is most important. This is fine, but it might not sell many copies when it is finished. If you are like me, and writing for yourself only, the market might be too thin for agents or publishers to want to risk taking you on board. You need much more mass appeal if anyone wants to risk their dollars on you.
So who is your target audience? Think on a grand-scale. What’s difficult to factor in, too, is the fact that most book-buyers are women. For me, that’s okay, because I am also a woman, and so is my protagonist. That being said, I need to cater my diction towards that mid-twenties female demographic book-buyer. I also need to do that in a way that doesn’t sacrifice my literary integrity. This endeavor might not be as difficult as it seems, for I am nowhere near a Dostoevsky-level (though my heritage should give me some points, right?) but, because I have been so entrenched in that language, I have self-trained myself to attempt for that writing-style. The writing-style I should seek is one that caters to someone like myself, (millenial-esque, female, sassy, enjoys hipster coffee shops as much as Starbucks, thrift stores as much as Nordstroms, museums as much as the beach) except just not myself. I am my target demographic, but not necessarily my target audience.
I want my story to have mass appeal, for many reasons. The desire for notoriety is certainly up there, as is the wish to have my message heard among different walks-of-life. However, few stories have this kind of reach. I thought my books could be taught in universities, made into a movie, and bookmarked by aging men in the retirement home. One day, that might happen. But as for my current story (which is in the editing process and hopefully will be sent to an agent in the next few weeks. Eeek!) if I care about it’s message, and want it to be published, I need to have tunnel vision, but with a wide tunnel. My tunnel is a person like me (female! young-kinda!) but not one that is a pseudo-intellectual, trying to impress others with her vocabulary prowess. She wants a good story, one that is told well, and doesn’t need a thesaurus every two sentences. She isn’t dumb, rather, just busy, or there are other things vying for her attention, so my story needs to be the most compelling, not my use of language nor evidence of my way around a dictionary. The story should stand out more than the author. It is the story told well that will garner the larger audience.
When I write these blogs, I write them for me, but also for my readers. I want whoever is interested in the writing process to see my struggles, and hopefully learn from them, but at the very least be entertained. This is the approach I should take for my novel-writing, too. As these blogs have become therapeutic and allow me to flex my writing muscle, I need to look at the editing process of my book in much the same way. For I am my target audience. My book should appeal to someone like me, even if me is someone that loves literature. My story needs to be compelling enough to breach the woman that thinks she is above contemporary books, but also solid enough to sell to the lay-reader, the one that has a few minutes before bedtime or on the train-in to work. My book should not create more work for people. So my book needs to be for me, but also for you.
Does any of that make sense? My apologies if it is a bit convoluted. I’m still figuring it out myself.
Who are you writing for?