Friday, January 20, 2017

Who Am I Writing To?

A popular post from August 2009

by Annette Lyon

At a writing conference probably ten or more years ago, I heard Orson Scott Card say that if you write a love letter and it's received the way you intended it to be, then you have written well for your audience.

He was right. I'd never write a romantic letter to my husband the same way I'd write a letter to one of my children, and writing a letter to my parents would be different still. Even if I'm expressing love in every case, the tone and word choice would be different. The desired effect would be different.

You have the same job in your fiction. Who is your audience? Do you know? If you don't, then you're going to run into two big problems.

1) You won't create the best effect possible.
Knowing the age group and genre are both critical.

For the age group alone, the vocabulary, sentence structure, tone, voice, and complexity of storyline and even topics and the way you'll approach them will be largely determined by the age of your audience.

A story told one way will touch a thirty-year-old man differently than the same one told to a thirteen-year-old. Which one is better? Neither. But one will react in a stronger way--and that's the one that's geared toward the right audience.

If you're looking to write for a young audience, for example, read book geared toward young people. LOTS of them. Learn the difference between early chapter books, middle grade, and young adult. Learn how long those types of books are. Know where your book would be shelved in the book store AND why.

On the opposite end, if your book is clearly for adults, read a lot from the proper section of the bookstore where your book would fit. You'll learn the tones, voices, themes, and so on. Reading your own genre is some of the best education you can do to learn how to write in your own genre.

2) You can't sell it if you don't know what it is.
The hardest part about publishing isn't writing the book, although that can be brutal all by itself. The hardest part can be actually selling it.

First you have to get an agent to fall in love with you and your work and be convinced they can sell it. That means they know exactly how they'll pitch it to editors and publishers.

And that means they need to know from the very first time you contact them in a query where your book belongs in a bookstore. Is it in the middle grade section? In the adult horror section? Is it a women's literary piece? A young adult fantasy? A paranormal romance? They need to know right off the bat.

If they don't know, they can't take you on as a client, and then they can't sell it to an editor. And then the editor can't sell it to the committee.

Let's pretend for a moment that somehow you managed to write a book without knowing who your audience was and that you managed to get an agent and then a contract.

Guess what? The marketing department will have NO IDEA what to do with your book. How can they advertise it? To whom? How can they put out their salesmen to bookstores or make ads in catalogs and write copy to sell it? They don't know who to target their sales copy for.

For that matter, how will the graphic design department know how to design a cover to attract . . . what kind of reader? A twelve-year-old girl will be attracted to a very different cover than a forty-year-old woman.

Bottom line: Figure out who you're writing for. If you don't know the answer right this very second, that's okay. You might figure it out as you write, as the plot solidifies and your get your writing feet under yourself and the picture becomes clearer.

When things have come into focus, go back and do revisions, with a better view of what the real story is and who you're telling your story to.

Because in the end, if you just want your family to read it, that's great. They can be your sole audience.

But if you want to sell it and have a bigger audience, you'll need to know who they are before you ever submit.


Jordan McCollum said...

A few weeks ago I had my husband read the first chapter of my romantic suspense. Out loud. To me.

He, uh, didn't appreciate some of the romance stuff. And sometimes I'm of the same mind, so I spent a few weeks agonizing over whether or not I should dial back the emotional romancey stuff.

And then I read a post about how romance buyers are buying "a basket of feelings," and that emotional romancey stuff is often exactly what they want to get. (And my critique partners who DO like romance are eating it up. Other than when they're telling me it's too much. Which is always good to know!)

If this were for another audience—like, say, my husband—then yes, I'd have to get all that stuff out. But since it's not and I knew that when I put it there, now it's just a matter of fine tuning. I hope.

Amber Lynae said...

Annette, this is a very useful post. Even though we know (or should know this information) I think we forget. There is much more to being published than just getting the but on the shelf. If you want people to read it you need to know what people would want to read it. So thank you.

L.T. Elliot said...

I love the analogy of the love letter. I've never had a problem knowing who "I'm in love with" as far as writing goes but this post has brought a whole new meaning to how it's interpreted. Thanks, Annette!

Kimberly said...

Great advice as always, Annette. Love the love letter perspective - what a great way to explain it.

Carolyn V. said...

Perfect advice! It really makes sense to know who you are writing for. =) Thanks, great post.

Heather B. Moore said...

Great advice. I'm always impressed with the YA authors who have a strong YA voice. Also, I think with my first manuscript I really struggled with my audience. "Everyone will like it" I thought. It's not published.

Terresa said...

Great post. I like how pin point the fact that we need to know what kind of animal (book) we're writing in order to handle it better.
And your other point about knowing the audience, and reading books in that age bracket and genre to get a better feel for tone, etc. (I have so much homework ahead of me on this one!)