Monday, March 16, 2009

Who Do You Write For?

Most people think about their writing as a way to communicate. So, as we're writing, we must have some sort of reader in mind. Maybe this is your "target audience" when you think about publishing your book. Or maybe -- a mindset that I advocate and try to preserve -- the person you are writing for is yourself. No matter who this reader is, it's a good idea to recognize the reader you have created for yourself and to figure out how anticipating that reader affects your writing.

Mary Yukari Waters once told me that her ideal reader is herself...but not exactly herself. She said she imagines a better form of who she is, a copy of Mary that is cooler, smarter, funnier, deeper, and superior to her in every way. She writes for that better person in the hopes that, when all is said and done, her own imperfection in her craft will result in a piece of writing that is perfectly suited for her. Other writers may have a broader audience in mind. For lack of a more personal example, a man who writes scientific stories for lay people has to keep in mind that not everyone understands the fertilization process of a sea urchin, even if the writer himself knows it like the back of his latex-gloved hand. That writer cannot simply focus on self-indulgence.

When I think deeply about this (and it does take some effort), I realize that I have two types of readers in mind. The first group is a bunch of highly intelligent, no nonsense people. The type of people that refuse to let you get away with any BS. Maybe it's best to call them critics. I see them as knowing more about my subject matter than I do, more about people than I do, and more about emotions than I do. They're waiting to judge me and bring up any flaw in my writing. My second reader is myself in the future. I realize that a lot of what I do is determined by my fear of embarrassing myself down the line. An early story that I got published online was called "Maya's Secret Flavors." Just writing about it now makes me break out into a cold sweat. It's about a college student, Maya, who has an affair with an older man only to find out that he's married. As a result, she ends up throwing herself at a younger, more innocent guy and ruining her reputation in her own eyes. I'm actually fine with all that. The clencher, the part I'm embarrassed about, is that the entire story had this extended metaphor that compared her heart to a lump of cheese that was left in the sun. Ugh. I was so happy when the journal collapsed and my story was no longer floating around in the world. Or maybe it's still out there.

I don't think that the readers I have in mind are ideal. They may not even be healthy. But this is who floats around behind my computer screen as I write. As a result, I think I push myself harder to find the real emotions in my characters and to do the proper research on my subject matter. On the downside, these mental readers also make me feel defensive, and that may be limiting my creativity. So, I have to remember that whenever I am being too safe in my writing.

Who are the readers you have in your head when you write? How do they affect what you create?

And, if you don't have a reader, keep in mind that your best work probably results from writing what you want to read rather than writing what you want to write.


  1. I think you nailed it. I write for myself, working to produce something I would want to read.

    When I edit and revise, that's when I put on different hats and give strong consideration to my target market, but that's not a part of my creative process.

  2. Who are the readers I have in mind while I write? My kids. Most of what I write spans all kid lit from PBs to YA. And my kids range from 6-19.

    Using them as my target audience works well for me. They are even my first readers for any story I write. If it's YA, I have my 17 and 19 year olds read it (though they are heading towards too old). MG or tween and chapter books, my two sons read them. They are 9 and 11. The beginning readers are read by my 6 year old daughter.

  3. This is a fantastic question, Davin! I am just like you (no surprise there, hehe). I write for myself in the future. I can answer this right away because I have had this discussion before on the blogosphere.

    I also write for that high-brow audience that you're talking about. For Monarch, for example, I write for an audience of ex-CIA people who are going to look at my story and burst into laughter at my silly conjectures. But you know, I do research anyway, and try my hardest to get it to feel right. :)

    I also write for my characters. If they sat down and read this, would they feel I've portrayed them accurately. They do take on a life of their own, you know. :)

  4. A friend of mine (let's call her Emma) and I were talking about this very subject recently. Emma is my first audience, my harshest critic and my best reader. She boldly says to me "this doesn't work" or even "really, this is just stupid" when my writing is lazy or sloppy or both. Admittedly, when I have written anything I hope that Emma is impressed and moved. High praise from Emma is a note in the margin reading, "This is so good."

    All that having been said, I remain my own true target audience. Sometimes Emma and I differ, and my opinion trumps hers because I claim the authority to say that I Know Best. If I like it and it "works" for me, then I've done good work. I aim to write things that I'd like to read, or that someone like me (but better-read and brighter) would like to read.

  5. Myself.

    People who could spot plot holes and spelling errors a mile away (super birds, mostly).

    Davin, this post makes my heart feel like holey cheese. It's melting in the sunshine, but you have filled the gaps with tasty treats. Ha ha.

    Yeah, I have some bad material roaming the world. It's no fun, but at least we tried, right?

  6. I don't know who I write for. I guess myself to some extent, because I want to write the type of book that I would want to read.

    I actually have to focus more on who I am not writing for - like my mom. She is not a big fiction fan to begin with and on top of that she would just be horrified by my writing - the swearing, the sex, the devil as a somewhat comical character. So, I just have to remind myself that this is not for my mom and I don't care what she thinks if she ever reads it. (I totally love my mom BTW and she would not be mean or judgemental, I just know this would not be her cup of tea. Like her favorite book ever was Marley and Me... so, you know.)

  7. It looks like I write for myself, though my works were written because I one day got an idea for something interesting to write, and not because I set out to write something that I would want to read.

    Though, maybe that's all it really is anyway.

    As I think about it, aside from writing for myself I think I'd also like to write for my boyfriend, who isn't much of a reader and tends to take a long time to finish novels. I think that if I could get him hooked and wanting to read more then I may have something good.

  8. I write for myself as a kid...when I was young, what did I like? That's my goal, ultimately.

  9. Rick, Is revision part of the creative process, or do you view that as a separate thing? For me the revision is the most creative part.

    Captain Hook, It's nice that you have those perfect readers right there with you!

    Lady Glamis, You make a great point. Yes, I definitely write with a view to "defend" my characters.

    Scott, Yeah, I have close seconds in my hierarchy of judges, definitely!

    Justus...Thanks. Sort of. :)

    Kate, Yes, it's also good to know who you are NOT writing for. That's not mean. It's just an awareness of different tastes.

    Charlene, Yes, I agree with you. It's good to test your material on people who don't like to read. My best friend is that way. He avoids reading whenever possible. As a result, he gives me some of the best criticism.

    Beth, Your commenting! Hi! That's funny because you're like the opposite of Lady Glamis and me.

  10. Me too, my first audience is myself. Secondly, I hope that my novel can target people who like their crime fiction with a little twist, people who like novels where the line between good and bad is nonexistent.

  11. Crimogenic, I love it when that line is nonexistent. I think all my characters are that way, neither good or bad. That's just how I view the world.

  12. I have two answers. One is silly, but true. The other is crass and commercial, but also true.

    First, I write for my clone. Not myself; I can't enjoy my own stories, because all I can see is all the flaws, all the squiggly bits which I'd hoped would be straight and all the straight bits I'd hoped would squiggle.

    But, if, by chance, someone had made a clone of me before I wrote the monster, and my clone were to ring my doorbell some day, then -- after squealing and hugging her and saying, "You won't believe this, but I always wished I had a clone," -- I would press my mss into her hand and ask her to read it. And if her face lit up with joy, then I would have succeeded. Best of all, she would then give me a manuscript, and I would read a complete novel based on some idea I had, oh, years ago, but never had time to pursue. And now here it was, all shiny and finished.

    Second Answer. I read in Donald Maas' book How to Write a Breakout Novel that a bestseller offered more than one kind of PoV character for diverse readers to hook into. In other words, not all the characters should be the same age, the same gender, or the same type of personality.

    In the first version of my book, almost all the PoV characters were young people at about the same stage of life. I decided to change the age of some of them, so some of the characters were adolescents, but others were adults who had already experienced marriage, separation, parenthood, loss. This made the book harder to write, but I think it also enriched it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.