Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Who is Your Audience, Anyway?

Recently, I've been thinking about books and audiences. There's not a writer on the planet who doesn't want his words to be as popular as J.K. Rowling's. Even though it may seem like absolutely everyone is mad about Harry Potter, I know they're not. I know people who have given the books a chance or seen at least one of the films, but aren't enthralled. They're not her audience. Ditto for all of the other best-selling authors. Their audiences may be huge, but no one has an audience that encompasses every reader.

It seems like I'm needlessly stating the obvious. But if it's so obvious, why do so many writers, particularly writers who haven't yet been published seem not to know it? People make themselves crazy trying to figure out what "readers" want and trying to write their story for that mythical audience. So, they get critiques and try to please all of the critiquers because they assume the critiquer knows what the reader wants. They sit in writer's chat rooms discussing whether readers will like this or that. They worry about whether it's realistic or logical enough. Sometimes I wonder if they've ever read a book.

Why do I wonder if they've ever read a book? Because the best books have unrealistic and illogical things in them. The best books have all the things they tell each other to leave out. For example, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum destroys at least one car per book. No one in real life destroys that many cars, but everyone reads those books and one question they want answered is, "How will she destroy a car in this one?" And, "What car will she end up replacing it with?" If Ms. Evanovich had asked a lot of the unpublished writers I know to crit that idea, they'd tell her not to do it. They'd say it was too unrealistic. But she's one of the top-selling writers today. This leads me to conclude that the book audience is not looking for the same thing the critiquers and unpublished writers think they're looking for.

I think anyone who wants to find an audience needs to read what's selling right now. Ask why it's selling? What's appealing about it? Think about what you're reading. Read books more than once. You learn more from a book the second or third or fourth time through. Read more than just your favorite genre. Reading can give you clues to what's selling, but copying what you've read won't make you sell the way the top sellers do.

The biggest thing I've noticed is that the top-selling writers stick to their stories. They have a vision of what they want to say. They have stories that they're passionate about. They've studied the writing craft and learned to use its tools to polish up that story until it shone. But the main thing they have that most of the people I know who haven't published yet have is a clear image of the story they're telling. Everything else is subordinate to that image. Everything is judged against that image. If it fits, it stays. If it doesn't, it goes. That clarity of vision is one of the keys to writing a story people will want to read, one that resonates with a lot of people, a story that will find its audience.