When I write, I don’t think about audience in any specific, tangible way. It’s not that I don’t write for readers, it’s that I don’t have a vision carved in stone of who those readers are. This is probably because I’m a literary omnivore myself. I read–and love–all kinds of books. Picture books. Irish folk tale collections. Historical novels. How-to, chicken-raising, laundry-detergent-making homesteading manuals. Medieval saints’ lives. Contemporary young adult love stories. Sci-fi epics. I want to read all the books, or at least give them all a try.
So when I write, I don’t think, “I’m writing for middle-aged women who have a secret thing for vampire boys.” I think about telling a compelling story about complex and flawed but likable characters. I think about putting the reader squarely and deliciously in the middle of another world. I think about crafting prose that is both elegant and clear. I think about how I can tell the Truth via the lie.
This week’s second #DareToExcel prompt from wonder-tracker Jeffrey Davis, however, is pushing me to put more thought into the question of audience:
#DareToExcel Challenge – 4:
Do some research on the people who might benefit from your challenge. Look at the online conversations, on our private forum, or – better – have real-time conversations with customers or potential audience members.
Make notes on what feels broken or not-quite-right or downright frustrating in their worlds.
How does he feel when he’s not feeling so great? What one irritation keeps tripping her up?
Then make notes on this: What does she want- a different feeling, a problem solved, one step toward a yearning – that your project might surprisingly give her?
Go back to your burning question: How will your question invite them in?
Look back at your project brief. Did you define a problem in a way that speaks to their perceived wants?
Don’t over-think it for now. We’re taking notes and keeping momentum.
I know that my audience is adults, and not the YA audience for whom I usually write. Not that kid in The Princess Bride who asks, with a look of supreme kid disgust, “Is this a kissing book?”
In a very informal and not even vaguely scientific Facebook poll, I posed this question: When you pick up a novel, what are you looking for within its pages? I got some awesome responses, the majority of which magically fit into three broad categories, which I shall dub world-hopping, out-of-body experiences, and altered reality.
A number of people mentioned that they like to learn something when they read. They want to experience something they otherwise wouldn’t, or to change or grow as a result of reading. They want to think, to engage fully, to be challenged and transformed by stories. They want stories to alter their reality, to spark change or thought or transformation.
Even more people brought up character. They want characters who are real, compelling, flawed. They want to live life for a short time in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through someone else’s eyes. They want to have an out-of-body experience, either directly, by inhabiting a new perspective, or indirectly, by encountering someone in the fictional world that they might not meet in real life.
The largest number of responses, however, fell within the category of world-hopping, and this fascinates me. They used different words, and someone brought up the problematic nature of the word “escape.” But no matter what words they used, many people indicated that when they read a book, they want it to transport them to another place, another time, whether real or imagined.
So, what’s broken or not-quite-right? What drives people to stories? And what problem are they seeking to address?
I think the “problem” is twofold.
First, in the negative sense of “problem,” life is real, yo. It’s hard. And it’s real and messy and complicated and sometimes smelly and embarrassing or uncomfortable or depressing or even downright scary. We need stories that lift us up out of this muck. Sometimes we need to escape.
Second, the positive sense of “problem,” as in “math problem”–something to be investigated, a way of seeking answers. Sometimes we need to inhabit other worlds, other lives, because our world is good. We seek in stories reminders of the richness of human experience, reflections of common thoughts and emotions, or even reminders that we should not take all our goodness for granted.
Dang, peeps. This is a tall order. So how does my burning question invite my readers in?
Burning question: What if we took back the faerie tales?
My work in progress is a faerie tale–not a retelling, but a faerie tale for grownups.
This is a kissing book.
There is also a bunch of other stuff.
There are monsters, but they wear human skins. There are lovers, but few of them are sixteen or even twenty- or thirty-six. There are all the things that there should be in a faerie tale–wise old men and women, precocious children, lovers and haters and magic and wizards and a creepy forest and all the rest. But my ambitious goal–what I am trying to do with this project–is to do with faerie tales what Dylan Thomas did with the villanelle in his poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Villanelles were largely floofy love-poems. Thomas took the form and made it matter, made it say things it had not said before.
I think faerie tales matter, but I believe that the ways in which we’ve retold them in the past century have largely served the best interests not of readers but of corporations and ideologies. Faerie tales, at their core, are about transporting us to other worlds that reflect our own in ways both rich and strange. They are about putting us in others’ iron boots and red dancing shoes so that we can learn more about ourselves. They were not always sweet, expurgated bedtime stories for children, or PG-rated movies with big-eyed forest creatures perching on people’s nattily-dressed shoulders.
So I hope that my question invites my readers to own the stories we tell ourselves. I hope it offers them a chance to world-hop and have out-of-body experiences and alter their realities. I hope that it invites readers into a world that is at once familiar and unexplored territory.
Big hopes for this kissing book.
You can read an early version of the Prologue to The Glass Box here, on the magnificent ArtiPeeps website. While you’re there, check out the vast and rich collaboration that’s been going on there involving the nine realms of Norse mythology. There is some seriously magical taking-back and owning of old stories going on here–poems, stories, art, music, and even a Viking longship. For real.