Finding the Right Audience
Articles and how-to books often tell writers to write backwards. First pick an audience, then come up with a story to cater to them.
I remember standing in the local public library, leafing through one of the "For Dummies" books on Young Adult fiction, and feeling my cynical heart shrink even more with the turn of every page. How to construct characters to a certain formula (Proactive! Sympathetic! Boy Scout with a Splash of Suffering!), how to come up with a plot to fit the standard arc (exposition, rising action, climax...you know the drill), and how to smash your voice into the tone expected (Short words good. Adult sentences bad). What little faith in art was left after that evaporated completely when I stumbled on the self-contradictory submission guidelines of a certain publisher:
"We do not want old-fashioned, predictable, or formulaic books....Every Avalon heroine should be an independent young woman with an interesting profession or career. She is equal to the stresses of today's world and can take care of herself. She should be smart, capable, and likable...Avalon heroes should be warm, likable, realistic, sympathetic, understanding men who treat the heroine as an equal, with respect for her intelligence and individuality, and with courtesy."
No, no. They don't want formulaic books—they just want the same unique book over and over.
Doubtless, this approach will make you money. First isolate an audience, like "kids who liked Harry Potter and have nothing to do now that the series is over." Then select some stock characters to fill the expected roles. Hero of Destiny. Dumb but Loveable Sidekick. Wizened Mentor. Arch-nemesis. Love Interest. Put in a healthy balance of genders so all of your readers will have someone to relate to, and can mix and match them in smutty preteen fan fiction. And finally, come up with something for these imaginary people to do, preferably involving tragic, comic, and romantic elements.
Or you can, you know, actually have something to say. You can have a story or a message you want to spread to the world, and then figure out the best way to tell it. Unfortunately, this approach will probably not make you money, unless you're talking about something sexy—like institutionalized oppression, mental illness, domestic abuse, etc.—or you get very lucky and find a publisher with deep pockets who wants to push that message too.
I've always been the type to take the tougher, less popular route—not because I have a particularly noble character or principles, but because I'm perverse and just want to prove that I can. I signed up for German in high school because everyone told me it was impractical and I should learn Spanish instead. I picked up the oboe because nobody sane wants to play the oboe. My head still pounds and my jaw buzzes from those few torturous months. And shaving those damned reeds!
So naturally, I insist on writing unpopular stuff, and being ignored and/or put down for it. I don't start with an audience and try to please them, but write what I believe should be written. And this is very well and good, I think, but the end result so far is that nobody will read it.
Sweetie tells me I'm being contradictory. First I say I don't care about success or what people think of me, and boldly declare I'll write what I want. Then I get upset that I'm not successful. But to me, there are distinct kinds of success: fame, fortune, and impact. I don't care much for the first two. I only need enough to live on, and maybe a little extra for Sweetie's games and gadgets, a yearly vacation, and a new mattress and couch that isn't soaked with soot and toxins from a house fire.
But I do want to make an impact. That's why I write books—so people read them. I think artists who are smug about keeping their work to themselves are idiots. Obviously, you created it to communicate with people. You don't get props for being eccentric and only releasing your movies in hoity toity theaters, or keeping your paintings locked up, or bombing your own buildings so your genius isn't sullied by a public who doesn't understand.*
*That's a reference to The Fountainhead, if you haven't read it. It's all about the existential struggle of the individualistic spirit, and how artists are better off destroying their work than letting it be compromised by less enlightened minds. But after Ayn Rand published this book and earned accolades for it, she wrote her own diluted screenplay for the Hollywood movie. And she didn't bomb Warner Bros. when they hired a lead actress she didn't like, used buildings from the wrong time period and style, and turned the rape into a stylized chase-and-make out sequence.
But even though I don't set out to write with an audience in mind, I believe there's an audience out there for everything. Even though I seem to be stuck in limbo between literary and genre fiction, and I don't have an identifiable market or even an age range, it doesn't mean that there are no readers who would like me if they found me. A decade ago, I'm pretty sure people didn't expect there to be a massive audience ravenous for love stories with vampires, but industrious publishers and TV producers certainly made one.
Finding that audience, however, is a bit of a chore. All I know right now is who my audience isn't. Bubbles Pop is not an Amazon darling. Just glancing at the bestsellers, Kindle readers want the fantastic, the salacious, the swoon-worthy and the pseudo-artistic. Amazon is all about trends; their entire model is based on selling what people are buying and hiding what they don't. On the other hand, it's not a traditional hardcover, either. It's too high-falutin' for "regular" readers, but "serious" readers think it's too fluffy. I mean, it's based on a fairy tale, and nobody dies. Lame.
So what is it, exactly? According to Sweetie, it's a book that belongs in high school libraries. Fair enough, though it will never make it into one because of all the "bad language," without the established literary backing to justify it to concerned parents. Then there's WIP-B, a historical novel chock-full of philosophizing on repression and hypocrisy in which nobody has sex, no wars break out, and the main characters spend all of their time trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world. What is that? A book that belongs in the libraries of small liberal arts colleges?
For now, I suppose I shouldn't worry about it. Though Bubbles Pop was a tad time-sensitive, with current issues and pop culture references that won't have the same effect in a decade, a historical novel won't stale. It's like I'm making a fossil from the get-go.
Finally, to lighten the mood, a fourth limerick:
A popular writer of Chick Lit
Could find no more typos to nitpick.
But readers succeeded
And gleefully Tweeted,
"Wat a terible writer she is!" [sic]