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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.

Some writers like to brag, "I never think about genre when I write. Someone told me I write [such-and-such genre], 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 whom 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 mid-twenties to late teens 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 settings. 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 with 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 and put in 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 to "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.


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