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bear by san

March 2017

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bear by san

The more I learn, the less I know.

The more I learn about writing, the more I need an editor. Or sharp beta-readers who are in sympathy to my work. Or both.

When I was learning the craft, what I needed was comment. Any comment. Broad, scattershot, full of nuggets both on and off the mark that I could cherrypick or collate against each other to figure out what I was doing that worked, or didn't work, for whom and why.

Now, things are different. I know what works and why. My concern comes down to making it work as well as possible for the majority of readers, and that's a whole different ball of wax.

For that, I need readers who are in sympathy with what I want to accomplish (if they want to read a book that's not the book I'm writing, it's less useful than it used to be, because I'm now more aware of all the other books I could be writing when I choose to write this one, and why I've chosen not to write them.)

300 is a major league batting average

This grows out of a conversation msagara, leahbobet, and I had in Toronto.

On your best day, you will miss 66% of readers.

On an average day, you will miss 75%.

On a bad day, you'll miss them all.

Drive through.

There is such a thing as target audience. It doesn't work the way I used to think it did, in that when one is writing, there is a target audience for one's work, and they are the people whom one reaches with the least effort.

The way it does work is this; there are readers who are potentially in sympathy with what one is trying to do. They are the target audience. Or, in other words, it's almost no use writing a romance to readers like me; we don't like romances. You may pick me up as collateral damage, if you write the right sort of romance (I also don't much like humor, but I like David Sedaris, etc--), but I'm not the reader you should be aiming for if you want to reach an audience that will appreciate your work.

Likewise, I'm a genre writer. I want to reach as much of the potential audience for my fiction as I can without compromising the integrity of the work I want to do. Which means that most of long work will have surface layers that are adventure/thriller/mystery plots. But because I personally find adventure/thriller/mystery plots without an underpinning of character, idea, and theme a little tiresome, I'll let the book develop those layers as well. The hardest work, for me, is actually in making that surface plot strong, because my primary focus and my primary emotional satisfaction lies in the character development. The intuitive level, as it were.

But it's got to have the external plot, as well.

Which is a surface that will also alienate some readers. Okay, so that's one trade off of potential audience for target audience. Is it still the book I want to write? Well, sure, or I wouldn't be writing it. Because I can do the character work around the framework of the adventure plot, and make both stronger.

So, finding a target audience there gives me, actually, a stronger book--a book that works on more levels--as well as, theoretically, improving my sales.

I talk a lot about the Shakespearean ability to write to groundlings and galleries simultaneously, and the concept of obscurity as a literary virtue. The thing is, obscurity can accomplish things that transparency can't. There's ways that "The Waste Land" can work, because of its unapologetic obscurity, that "Mending Wall" can't work, because of its unapologetic transparency.

Doesn't make one better than the other, or more limited than the other, or more literature than the other. It just aims them in different directions.

(Which is not to say that there isn't trash out there. Because yes, Virginia, there is trash. There are books that don't even realize they have the possibility of ambition. Ob. Disclaimer: In a nod to sounding less pretentious than I actually am, I'll even admit that some people consider my work to fall into that category. They may even be right, but if I believed them, I'd be acknowledging a wasted life, and really, that's too much like work.)

So anyway, how do these two things (target audience and knowing less than I used to know) tie together? Well, really, they're the same thing. Or, more precisely--

I need editors now more than before because now I *know* what every sentence I write is for. "This is a sentence that inclues some emotional distress, and advances the plot in this way. This is a sentence that generates tension, and tells the reader what the cause of the emotional distress is."

And when I go back and look at it, I think, "That second sentence is superfluous, because the reader who is reading for the emotional level of the book is not a careless reader. He does not skim, the way the reader who is reading for the action plot may skim, and he does not care to be led by the nose. These readers will prefer it to be left implicit why he's upset."

And I cut the second sentence.

And I send the chapter off to my wise readers, and they say, "Is he upset because he thinks so and so has a crush on him?" And I say, "No, he's upset because the war is going badly."

And I find another way to try to clue the reader in to why he's upset, while still leaving a certain amount of ambiguity and openness to interpretation and letting the reader feel like he's observing what's going on rather than being told (which is a trick in itself, because in life, people observe wrong all the damned time, and in literature, readers can't be permitted to observe wrong too often, or they throw the book across the room), because readers really don't like to be led by the nose.

Or, at least, large parts of my target audience don't.

It's a hell of a trick. Thank god for editors.

Comments

Can I say thank you, very much, for posting this stuff? :) It's a pretty valuable glimpse of higher-level writing from the writer's perspective, and looks like a valuable skill, and it's great, so I'm saving it to my memories.
Clearly, you're a genius ;D
*g* Clearly, I'm the kind of person who only learns something when she tries to explain it. :-P
That balance between making sure the reader has the information they need and not telling them everything is difficult to achieve.

And the worst part is, it's different for every goddamned reader. Drat them all.

Oh wait. We loves our readers, yesss, precious....
Hot damn.

::grins:: I'd been working on this metaphor about oatmeal and chocolate mousse and the purposes of literature... and this cuts neatly to the chase.

There are, I think, a few things that start having a genuine purpose and meaning later on... ones which get a bad name earlier, or are used as excuses. Target audience is one of those. And one that also makes some of the publisher's end of the business look a little less random.

MMm. Yes. Especially that publisher bit.

There's some art and craft going on on their end too.

But I'm still interested in the chocolate mousse....
"Thank god for editors."

Amen, Sister!

And your bit about target audiences -- that too. I was just grumping about that one, over in my playpen. If you don't like that _kind_ of thing, saying so don't help a whole hell of a lot.
It's that sympathy thing.

There's a point where you realize that every choice you make will alienate some readers and endear you to others, I think. And somewhere around there is also where you take control of your narratives.

Or at least that's how it worked for me.
So...

What is it that you want to accomplish, exactly? I mean, other than multilayered fiction? :)
*g* Asking somebody what they want to accomplish with their fiction is like asking them what they want to accomplish with their lives. The only sensible answer is "Every goddamned thing I can."

Also, Ollie! (sorry. I squee eery time I see your icon.)
On bad days, I want to listen to the little voice that repeats the words I've been told by a cruel boss: "A trained monkey can do what you do [editing-wise]."

On good days, my hindbrain thinks, "Dammit, he's wrong. Isn't he?" (Note the disbelief, even on a good day.)

On a =really= good day, I hear things like what you just said, and I want to dance.

Thanks. Not that I've edited you, but thank you for noticing that editors actually are worth their oxygen usage in the world. :-)
Well, *my* editor does an amazing amount of work toward making me not look stupid in public. And also toward making my stories better stories, when they're finally in print.

A lot of it is just asking smart questions.

I have a deep and abiding appreciation for editors. I know some writers really dislike them, and I imagine there are some editors out there who are completely on crack and who do terrible things to books and distort an author's vision...

...but it's been my good fortune never to work with one.
So true. On the subject of target audience, it kills me when people send me non-genre fic, and sometimes the stories are so lovely, and yet I have to reject them, because of course we do have a target audience. I'll tell them they're lovely stories, sometimes even recommend other markets, and the responses are almost painfully naive: but why won't you publish me? Aren't I pretty? Aren't I shiny? And you have to explain the concept of niche - well, when you have the time. (I save a lot of my responses.)
We had to reject a couple of horror stories at A&A that broke my heart to send back.

Alas, alack...

editors

When I first started writing for "The Independent" in London, Tom Wilkie told me, "A reporter's job is to produce the raw material out of which an editor can make a newspaper." Now that I'm editing (student theses, and articles for a programming magazine), I'm realizing that spelling, grammar, and logical organization are just the first three rungs on a very tall ladder. I think "compelling" is the fourth rung, and "meaningful" the fifth --- Kipling and King are compelling (get lost in the story, have to keep turning the pages, have to know how it comes out), while Steinbeck and Brand are meaningful (they may not change your life, but they give you fresh insight into the lives of others).

The members of my writing group, and others, are helping me get a grip on rung #4 --- there's a lot more forward motion in my writing than there used to be --- and rung #5 is why I quit my job last September. I can't help but wonder, though: what's next after that?

Re: editors

*g* #6, for me, was "beauty." And #7 was the realization that they're all the same fucking thing, and need to be done all at once if they're to be done well.

Walk, and chew gum.

If it was easy, quoth she, it would not be fun.
Guilty pleasures and best loved books can still be trash. (Actually, I think to be a really guilty pleasure, they have to be trash and you have to KNOW they're trash. And love them anyway.)

I think you mean something different by "emotion" here than what I was trying to express. Because in the context of the above, what I'm talking about is the strength of the character development and the intuitive work the book is doing--specifically not angst-and-romance, or what have you.

I agree--there are books that are very upfront/manipulative with their emotional content, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about showing what the character is feeling, rather than explaining it.

Especially with first person narrators, this is fun, because they can tell you one thing, and be feeling another.
It's like you knew exactly what post I needed to read today. You're a genius, Bear! *grin*
God, I hope I'm not a mindreader. I couldn't handle the responsibility,--
Added to my memories.

Thanks Bear. This is a great insight.

We can't please everyone, but we sure can please ourselves, and in the meantime, adapt a smidgen of humility to open our work to the greatest possible numbers of others while staying true to our vision.

Such a tall order.

But . . . you seem to be pulling it off.
aw, shucks, ma'am.
OK,ET - my brain had just weaved through the idea of target audiences this morning and then I read this. *g* I would tell you to stay out of my brain, but since you are far more articulate than I am, I guess I'll stay out of yours. *snerk*

ouuuuuuuuuuch

I love your icon.

BTW, if I swung by in very late June, could you put me up for a day or two?
By then, you'll need an editor, too. *g*
I don't know how to thank you for this post. Truthfully, you've just snapped me out of my need to try to please every reader. I'm a very beginning writer, one who cares way too much about what everyone thinks of her and her writings. I've always known that I can't get along with everybody, but somehow, the parallel message that my writing can't be everybody's choice of prose doesn't seem to get to my head until now. Sometimes, I try too hard to please everybody - even altering my writing to do so. And it was in vain, too. If it weren't for this, I suppose I would go onto trying to please them forever, a feat that's unreachable. So thanks so much for this post. :)

Yours,
Shina

PS I've just friended you. I hope you don't mind. =)
Come on in, the more the merrier!

And you're welcome. The not-pleasing-every-reader thing is hard; I mean, you want to. But when you try to, you realize that you wind up not pleasing anybody, including yourself.

C'est la guerre. *g*