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Who Is Your Audience? Or, Why I Don't Care What Your Heroine Ate for Breakfast

Sometimes I worry that my posts here send mixed messages. First I say, "Writing is communication, period. Write for your audience." And then I say, "Don't worry what other people think. Have confidence in yourself and your ideas."

These two opinions can seem conflicting, but they're really two parts of the same viewpoint. Put succinctly: "Write for your audience. Don't worry about people who aren't your audience."

Yes, you do have an audience.

I see a lot of writers brag, "I never think about genre when I write. Someone told me I write inspirational fiction, and I was so surprised because I'd never thought of my work that way!"

Being ignorant of trivial capitalist concerns like genre has long been a point of pride for "artists." But all of the doomed manuscripts I've read had one common root problem: the authors didn't know what they were writing or who they were writing it for.

For example, a woman asked me to critique a cozy mystery. After reading it, I said, "It's very cozy, but it's not a mystery. The heroine decided who the villain was in chapter three, and then all of the evidence fell neatly into her lap. Where are the other suspects? The clever clues? The scintillating twists and turns?"

And she said, "My heroine has psychic powers. I wanted the book to be about her using them to prove who the murderer is, not about her solving the case."

If you set out to write a mystery, it has to be a mystery. You can't label a book a cozy mystery and then deliver a cozy fantasy about a woman discovering her clairvoyant abilities. That's like dressing up your Chinese restaurant as a retro diner, and when customers order cheeseburgers you serve them kung pao chicken.

(And then when people complain that kung pao chicken isn't a cheeseburger, you get offended and say kung pao chicken is better, no one appreciates your vision and hard work, other customers have said that the chicken was the best cheeseburger they'd ever had, etc.)

Choose your audience wisely.

Good news: you choose your audience, not the other way around. And I believe for every bud of a story, you can find the right audience to fit.

The right audience might not be the one you originally intended. The acquaintance in my anecdote thought she was writing a cozy mystery for adults. But her book was all about the heroine experiencing first love, discovering and defining her identity, adjusting to the responsibilities of adulthood—classic themes of YA and New Adult novels. A simple change of label from "mystery" to "magical realism" and an adjustment in her protagonist's age from a twenty-something to a college student would better ensure that her work was placed into appreciative hands.

Similarly, many writers think they're writing YA because their protagonists are teenagers, but their style and subject material would be better received by adults. Or they think they're writing literary historicals in the tradition of Edith Wharton, when they're really writing romances in the tradition of Georgette Heyer.

But the writers in the biggest trouble are the ones who think they don't have a genre at all—that their book will be adored by "everybody." BS. Nothing is adored by everybody. You're always writing for somebody.

That somebody might not fit neatly into an established category like "middle-aged female romance reader" or "adolescent male sci-fi fan", but they're a somebody receptive to your purpose. Do you want to make people laugh about the silly oddities of modern life? Your audience is people who want to laugh. You want to make people ruminate on the darker realities of modern life? Your audience is people who want to ruminate. Trying to make people who want to laugh ruminate, or make people who want to ruminate laugh, is setting yourself up for failure.

Write for the audience you've chosen.

Every audience opens a book with certain expectations. And once you've chosen your audience, you must meet those expectations.

No, that doesn't mean you have to write cookie-cutter stories. When people write cookie-cutter stories, it means they couldn't be bothered to think about what readers are really after under the surface of overdone plots. They see the success of The Hunger Games and Divergent and assume people like dystopian YA novels about teenage girls fighting oppressive dictatorships, so they write more dystopian YA novels about teenage girls fighting oppressive dictatorships. But these big-name novels aren't popular because of their plots, they're popular because they offer excitement and adventure. The copycats, being neither exciting nor adventurous, do not give readers what they want.

To get to the root of your audience's expectations, you have to answer two questions:

  1. Why does your audience read?
  2. How does your audience read?

The why is pretty easy to figure out if you take the time to study the popular titles in your genre. Ignore the plots; the plots are just frames. What do you feel when you read them? Excited? Shocked? Heartbroken? Righteously angry? Warm and fuzzy? Is that the same way you want your readers to feel? If not, you might be in the wrong genre. Find a different one.

The how is tougher, because personal experience won't cut it. You'll need to get people in your target audience to read your work and tell you which parts they skipped and which caught their attention. If you're like me, you'll probably find two basic sets of readers.

One set will say, "I love the realism of your characters' thoughts and feelings, but the action sequences are weak. You should develop them. More thoughts and feelings!"

The other set will say, "The zippy action sequences are awesome, but all the thoughts and feelings are boooring. You should trim them. More zippy action!"

Members of the first set tend to have a taste for low-energy sentimental and cerebral genres: literary, romance, cozy mysteries, women's fiction, historicals, etc. Members of the second set gravitate towards the excitement and adventure in high-energy genres: sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, chick lit, etc.

Of course it's not a cut-and-dry dichotomy—all readers want stories that have interesting plots, fascinating settings, and characters they care about. But it's still very important to know which set is your set, and to keep their reading habits in mind as you write.

And here's where I finally get to the alternative title of this post: I don't care what your heroine ate for breakfast.

Low-energy people care what your heroine ate for breakfast. They will hang on to every sip of hazelnut coffee and every nibble of whole wheat toast with butter and strawberry preserves. They each have their reasons for being interested in the breakfast—they're reading to dream of a more comfortable, worry-free life; they think every detail is significant in setting and character development; or they simply like food, and that's why they picked up a book with a picture of a scone on the cover.

But high-energy people will, upon stumbling into a two-page description of french toast with maple syrup and fresh-squeezed orange juice, either (a) skip to the good parts or (b) put the book down for good.

Depending on which genre I'm reading, I flip-flop between sets. If I was intrigued by the premise of a cozy mystery with a quaint country farmhouse on the cover, well, I accept that apple pancakes come with the territory. But if I picked up a book because it sounded like a grand adventure, and then I run into one rapturous ode to cinnamon rolls after another, I get frustrated. Where are my sword fights, damn it?

Other things I do not care about in high-energy genres:

  • How pretty the scenery is along the walk between point A, where something interesting happened, and point B, where something interesting will happen.

  • How delicious the love interest looks in whatever he's wearing in that scene, and how devastating his smile is, and how your heroine's heart goes pitter-patter and she blushes at the naughty thoughts that cross her mind.

  • How this situation reminds your heroine of those sunny afternoons with grandma before she passed away, or of the days when she and her husband were happy, or of that time in her childhood when her family went to the beach house and Mommy and Daddy fought and blah, blah, blah.

In high-energy genres, if a passage isn't directly relevant to the current story, it gets skipped. Of course you can't make things fun and exciting all the time, but anything that stops the forward movement of the story can be lethal. Put a low-energy book in these readers' hands, and they'll complain that "nothing happened" and "I fell asleep in chapter one."

On the other hand, if you fail to deliver a heavy dose of sap and/or profundity in low-energy genres, those readers will grumble. They'll complain that your book was shallow, commercial, a waste of money and time.

Ignore everyone else.

Because different sets of readers have different tastes, you will never please everybody. Say Reader A likes the book and Reader B hates it. Change it to suit Reader B, and Reader A will hate it. You have to choose one.

Here's where "having confidence in your ideas" comes into play, because people who aren't your audience will always say your book sucks. Every reader will have one inflexible ideal of "a good book," and they will try to make you fit it.

Most writers and avid readers are in the sentimental/cerebral set. So if you write high-energy thrillers, comedies, steampunk fantasies, etc., expect your fellow writers to tell you "develop" them with more thoughts and feelings and lengthy descriptions of Belgian waffles with whipped cream. Don't cave to the peer pressure and bog your story down with sap. They are not your audience.

Likewise, most people who aren't writers or avid readers are in the non-sentimental set. If you write thoughtful literary novels or heartwarming cozies, expect your thrill-seeking friends to tell you it's boring. Don't cut the heart out of your story by deleting all the thoughts and feelings and poetic setting descriptions. They are not your audience.

Of course it's always good to consider the views of people who disagree with you about your writing, because it may turn out they were right. But if all of the elements they criticize were deliberate choices on your part—they say the story is too slow and you intended it to be slow, or they say it's too zippy and you intended it to be zippy—then they're probably not your audience.

"Realistic" Characters: Individuals or Stereotypes?

"A popular teenage boy wouldn't play Pokemon. Isn't that a game for little kids?"

"A man wouldn't think that way. Sex and competition are always at the forefront of a man's mind."

"A young woman today wouldn't know Cheers. That's before her time."

As novelists, we see our characters as individuals. We spend years (or at least months) with them, developing their histories and personalities. We give them unique worldviews, unique tastes and hobbies, unique voices. We treat them like real people with real minds.

Or do we?

The three quotes above (slightly modified from their originals) came from the fingertips of fellow writers. These writers would agree wholeheartedly, I'm sure, that stereotypes are shallow. They've probably complained more than once of cardboard cut-out characters. They've called for more originality, more individuality, more fleshed-out protagonists who feel real.

And yet, at the first whiff of individuality—the first toe over the line of an established stereotype—they say, "Person X of Demographic Y wouldn't think or act that way." The unspoken assumption: "All people of Demographic Y think and act exactly the same."

Characters are Ideals

As I wrote last November, people don't expect a protagonist to act like a real person. They expect him or her to act like a Reasonable Person, an ideal. Not a perfect ideal, but an abstract one—a representation of how a decent member of society should act under the circumstances.

Example: A little girl of 5 or 6 is wandering lost and alone in a crowded mall. Most real people will ignore her. They'll tell themselves they don't have the time, someone else will take care of her, the girl's mother could be just around the corner and would scream "pedophile!" etc. In social experiments with this exact setup, 40 to 60 minutes have passed before a single passerby among hundreds stopped to help.

But if your heroine ignores a lost little girl, readers will get very angry. That's not the way a woman is supposed to behave, even if that's the way most real women do (including, logically, the readers themselves).

Even in lesser matters, if your protagonist doesn't conform to the stereotype he or she is "supposed" to fit based on age, sex, ethnicity, etc., your fellow writers and readers will complain.

Example: Your heroine is twenty-something years old and mentions that she loved the Borrowers books as a girl.

Your fellow writers' reaction: This is unrealistic because the Borrowers series ended in the early 1980s, and therefore nobody growing up in the 1990s would have read them. Kids in the 1990s only read series that were written in the 1990s, like The Baby-sitters Club and Goosebumps, because all the books from previous decades vanished into thin air the moment they fell out of vogue. Duh.

The same rule applies to music, movies, etc.—people are only "supposed" to know the media that was current and popular in "their time." She's a teenager in 2014 and her favorite band is Heart? Wrong. Her favorite actor is Matt Damon? Also wrong. You're clearly out of touch with today's young people, because every single teenage girl on the planet listens to One Direction and swoons for Taylor Lautner.

Characters are "Me"

It can be difficult for people to accept, or even fully grasp, that others live and think differently than they do. I have been sternly informed that the cycle of poverty doesn't exist, and that unemployed people are simply lazy. I have also been sternly informed that nobody would ever say that the cycle of poverty doesn't exist or that unemployed people are simply lazy.

When people read books, they project themselves and their experiences onto the page. If a character is the same age and/or sex as the readers, the readers don't see that character as a unique individual. They see "me." E.g., when a YA reader comments derisively that "a sixteen-year-old girl wouldn't listen to Heart," what she means is, "I don't listen to Heart, so none of the other twenty million teens in America would either."

If the readers are in a different demographic than the character, they'll instead use people they know as a reference. E.g., the critic might not be a teenager, but her niece is. Her niece has never heard of Heart or Matt Damon. Therefore, the tastes of your teenage heroine are unrealistic.

And if the readers don't know anybody in that demographic personally, they'll fall back on stereotypes they've learned from other media, whether those stereotypes defy common sense or not. E.g., they don't actually know any immigrants from Asia, but Asian characters in movies and TV shows speak in clipped, broken English. Your Asian immigrant has a slight accent, but otherwise she speaks like an American. Unrealistic. If someone has an accent, she must also have terrible grammar and a tiny vocabulary.

So what can you do about it?

Nothing, really.

A reader's definition of "realistic" depends on his or her perception of "reality." Nobody's reality is exactly the same as someone else's reality. So you will never be able to create a work of fiction that's consistent with anyone's reality but your own.

Oh, you can try. You can smash your characters into tiny, rigid boxes. You can listen to the people who say it's unrealistic for Person X of Demographic Y to have any qualities or preferences outside the norm. You can turn your hero into every other writer's hero, hoping you can make everybody happy.

Or you can smile, say, "Thank you for your input," and forget about them. People will whip out their big bag o' stereotypes every time they open a book. It's unavoidable. If the back cover says a heroine is "forty-five" and "divorced," before the first sentence readers have already built her entire character and history in their heads, based on stereotypes and the middle-aged divorcees they've known and read about.

I've had people comment on the first page of a manuscript that the main character was unrealistic. The first page. They read just enough to learn names and hair colors, and "Um, I don't think a brunette named Sally would say that." Some beta readers suggested rewrites that turned the protagonists into completely different people before they'd even reached page two.

Writer A: "My book opens in a ritzy Manhattan office. The heroine is a quick-witted go-getter named Elizabeth...."

Writer B: "No, she's not. She's a sweet ingenue with a heart of gold. She grew up in Texas and goes by Lizzie."

Writer A: "But..."

Writer B (firmly): "Lizzie."

No matter how you bend and shape your characters to suit the "realism" standards of other people, you will never make everybody happy. All you'll do is make yourself very unhappy by compromising your ideas.

So unless your character is behaving truly OOC, and when you think about it he or she as an individual—not as a representative of Demographic Y—would not think or act the way you've written, I say stick to your guns. You're writing the characters in your head, not someone else's.

Weak Endings: Why You Write Them, How to Avoid Them

I've been reading books from many genres recently, primarily because I've run out of options in my own. Humor has a very limited selection. Most humor books are non-fiction—breezy essay collections and memoirs by celebrity comedians and talk-show hosts. If you take those out of the pool, the few remaining novels labeled "humor" aren't even comedy proper. They're romances or mysteries with a few quirky characters who spout a few funny lines. Take those out, and you're basically left with three things: novels by people who think anything involving natural body parts and functions is hilarious, novels written by people named PG Wodehouse or Douglas Adams many decades ago, and children's books.

So I've been sampling bestsellers in dystopian sci-fi (Wool), psychological thrillers (Gone Girl), and cozy mysteries (this, that, and the other title featuring middle-aged divorcees with psychic powers who solve murders while savoring mountains of delicious pastries with herbal tea).

And across all genres, I notice one disappointing trend: weak endings.

A book starts out strong, with an attention-grabbing premise and dynamic characters. A quarter of the way through, it starts to lose steam. Cliches pop up like bad pennies, protagonists lose focus, the tone sinks from funny or adventurous or eerie to "meh." But you keep chugging along, thinking it will pick up soon because you're only 30% in and it must go somewhere, right?

But it doesn't. By the 50% mark it's a dull, half-baked mess. By 70% you get tired of waiting for "somewhere." You skim the rest. Maybe you skip to the last few pages. And there you find that the book simply stops. It sputters to a halt, loose ends dangling in the wind. You presume this is The End because there are no more words.

There are several reasons that weak endings are so common in literature, popular or otherwise.

1. Writers start at the beginning.

Nobody sees a fascinating story in the news, or wakes up from a strange dream, or has a nifty idea during a conversation with friends and says, "Hey, that would be a great ending for a novel!"

Writers start with beginnings. Sometimes they start with backstories. They start with promising buds of ideas that may or may not make a good novel-length story. They start with an exciting opening scene, or a particular setting or cast of characters, or some inkling of the moral or themes.

But then many don't look beyond the beginning. They just start writing, hoping they'll figure out the story along the way. Then when they run out of ideas or interest—when they've written all the fun parts and all that's left is that troublesome "going somewhere" thing—they tack on some blase resolution just because it has to end somehow.

2. Publishers and readers buy beginnings.

People don't write strong endings because, frankly, they don't have to. Beginnings sell books; endings don't matter.

What's on the back-cover blurb or Amazon product page for any book? The set-up. The cursory backstory, the inciting incident. Maybe some overinflated praise of the author's genius, if the book really isn't very good and all they have to sell it is the famous name.

People rarely talk about endings. They don't reveal endings in reviews because it's bad form to "spoil." They're also comparatively lenient about endings—a mediocre ending doesn't make or break a book the way a mediocre first page does. If people like the setup, and they like the first chapter preview, they buy. They won't see the bad ending until they get there.

So if a writer/agent/publisher needs to pick and choose where to place their energies, the ending takes the lowest priority. The hook is everything, the ending is an afterthought.

3. Writers polish the beginning and slack on the ending.

If you write somewhat linearly, like I do, the first few chapters will be written long before the later ones. As I write the rest, the early chapters have time to sit and solidify. I go back and polish them up. I reread them with fresh eyes, give them to beta readers, spot the flaws and fix them.

Then the later chapters get the shaft. By the time I reach chapter 16, I'm tired of rewrites. I just want to get them done and move on. It's like the curse of birth order. The first child gets the Baby Einstein toys, the music lessons, the assiduous fussing over every scrape and cough. The sixteenth child, well, if she stays out of drugs and jail, that's good enough.

The problem is, the ending chapters are the hardest to pull off. They need extra attention, extra rewrites that they won't get. In the final build to the climax, the writing has to tighten, not slack. The mood is fragile—you have to ratchet up the action and intensity higher, higher, until the BOOM.

Too many books are front-loaded. They're all high energy at the outset, and then they have nothing left at the end. A basic story arc should look like this:

Story Arc

But the energy arc for front-loaded books looks like this:

Energy Arc

These arcs also double as graphs of the readers' interest and emotional investment. Graph #1 is good. Graph #2 is bad.

If your early-to-middle chapters are a bit boring, people will keep reading because they look forward to the "somewhere" to come. But if you get sloppy at the climax, you compromise the emotional payoff.

***

Writing a strong ending is hard, much harder than writing a strong beginning. So what can you do about it?

Think early, and think hard.

Good endings don't materialize out of thin air by themselves, even if you think (or hope) they will when you get there. It's best to know more or less how a story will end before you even begin writing it.

If you're following the logical classic arc, the ending will contain much that influences the way you write the beginning and middle. As I've said before, and as brighter people said before me, the problem with a "bad ending" often isn't in the ending itself, but in the middle leading up to it. If you don't know where you're going with a story, you're certainly not going to plot it very well. It's like hopping in the car for a trip with no destination, and trying to wing your way to somewhere good. It rarely works out.

Keep at it.

Endings are hard. You won't get it right on the first try. You won't get the rest right on the first try, either, but fixing the rest won't be quite so tiring as fixing the ending.

First, you'll be sick of the book by the time you get there (see #3, above).

Second, the ending is an emotional peak—or it had better be—and emotions are tricky and draining.

Third, no matter which genre you write, the climax will be darker than the rest of the book. It will have the highest concentration of conflict, of uncertainty, of "how on earth are they going to get themselves out of this?" That's how you create excitement and tension, and that's how you can drive yourself crazy.

Don't shy away.

To write an exciting climax and resolution, you often have to deal with emotions that are embarrassing or difficult or just plain unpleasant to deal with.

If you shy away from the embarrassment or unpleasantness, rush through it because this part isn't light and bubbly fun like the rest, you've lost it. Bianca Goes to NYC pops to mind yet again. So does anything written by Jane Austen—her endings are so maddening because she dumps the whole big bang into a few cursory sentences to get all that blushing happy ending stuff out of the way.

From Pride and Prejudice:

Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever."

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.

That's it. After hundreds of pages of dancing around "Are they going to get hitched or not?," there's your answer. Now onwards and upwards.

At least in JA's time strong emotions, especially of a sexual nature, were not to be expressed directly. Modern writers have no excuse. Even today many people can't, or don't bother, to attack their climaxes head on, and then they end up with these wishy-washy endings that drag on or splutter out.

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