While I pursued my degree in writing, I took a number of writing workshops. Peer critique was the main element of these workshops. I have few specific memories from those critiques. There is one, however, that has stayed with me. This memory is from a poetry workshop. There were two members of the class whose poetry always was incomprehensible. Now, it's okay for poetry, unlike prose, to be a little difficult to access. In fact, good poetry should have levels of meaning. Even so, a good piece of poetry will have something that reader connects with, whether it is the beauty of the words or something in it that stirs the reader / hearer's emotions. Exceptional poetry is visceral. The reader / hearer doesn't have to understand immediately (or ever) what the poem means as long as the poem moves the person. The poetry of these two classmates, however, didn't move the rest of us; it just confused us. For a few weeks, people were polite and gentle in their feedback, but finally, someone told one of these poets that his poetry just never made any sense. The author haughtily replied, "It doesn't have to make sense. I write poetry for myself. You don't have to understand it." I still remember my reaction to that statement. I thought, "Fine. Then write, read it, put it in your drawer and don't bother other people with it." I was offended by his condescension and his callous disregard for his readers. In last week's blog entry, I said that it's important to keep your audience in mind when you write. Most of my examples were about non-fiction writing and I promised that I would talk about fiction today. So here it is. In creative writing AUDIENCE MATTERS!
Writing is both a skill and an art, and creative writers tend to be highly aware of the artist aspect. We tend to think of ourselves as artists, and we are. That doesn't mean, however, that we need to rebel against all rules and conventions. Rules and conventions exist for a reason, primarily because they are effective. I'm not saying creative writers should never go against convention and, say, put a unicorn in a science fiction novel. I'm saying don't do it JUST BECAUSE. "I'm an artist and I'm free to play it as I feel it" (to borrow a phrase from musicians) may feel good, but make sure to empty some drawers to put your unpublished manuscripts in.
There is one writing rule that should never be ignored: keep your audience in mind. What difference does audience make to a creative writer's work? I'll just address two biggies: age and genre. AGE: Vocabulary, of course, comes immediately to mind. Most writers know not to use the same vocabulary for a children's book that they would use for an adult psychological mystery. Perhaps a little less obvious is the fact that a writer who uses vocabulary and a narrative voice appropriate for 9-12 years olds in story written for the hot Young Adult market (approx. 13-18) is going to fail. Those audiences are different and, if you aren't aware of the difference, either do research or don't write for those markets. Subject matter is another element to consider when thinking about your audience's age. It's kind of a duh that a murder mystery / thriller would be inappropriate for 6-9 year olds. In regards to the YA market, while many adults enjoy YA novels (e.g. Harry Potter), the focus of the YA story should be on the target audience's issues: coming of age, dating / romance, family issues, even sensitive issues such as suicide or abuse. Of course many adults love romance novels, so if I write a romance novel, I don't have to worry about whether the audience is YA or adult, right? Wrong. An adult novel has an adult protagonist. A YA novel has a teenage protagonist. Also, sexual intimacy will be handled differently. GENRE: Of course, entire blogs can be dedicated to the topic of genre, even one specific genre. So I'll just make a couple of comments. First, know whether or not you are writing genre, and if so, what kind. Know who your audience is and know that they know about that genre. That means that you'd better know about it too. All genres have conventions. As I said above, that doesn't mean you always have to stick to the tiniest letter of the law of every convention of the genre, but if you are going against convention, know why you're doing it. And doing it because you're an artist is not a good reason. Genre readers read a specific genre because they like specific things about it. There are things they expect to find when they read a book or story in that genre. It's like when you eat ice cream. You don't expect ice cream to taste like meat. You buy ice cream; you want to experience ice cream. So readers of horror novels have certain expectations when they read. They don't expect the narrator to sound like he came out of a Dr. Seuss book--unless that ties into the horror plot. If you're clever enough, perhaps you could make it work, but know what you're doing and why you're doing it. To go back to the unicorn example. Although Sci-Fi and Fantasy are grouped together, they are two different genres, each with its own conventions. Dragons manage to fly back and forth between the two from time to time, but unicorns have been consigned, it seems, exclusively to fantasy. But it might be possible to write a unicorn into a sci-fi piece as long as the writer adheres to one unbreakable sci-fi rule: it must be scientifically plausible. For example--and just for clarity, I like this idea, I'm copyrighting it and you can't use it. Sorry :( -- since unicorns are in folklore worldwide, a protagonist scientist who likes the idea of unicorns could pursue proving that unicorns existed before The Flood, find DNA evidence, maybe find a unicorn skeleton and carbon-date it and all this might ultimately lead to finding a herd of unicorn on a secluded mountaintop somwhere. But in order for the unicorn to transition into a sci-fi novel, the science must be there and must be plausible. Trust me, the audience will know if it's not--and they will not be happy. Nor will publishers, editors, agents. Audience matters. Really. Ignore them at your own peril.
In what other ways does audience affect your writing?
Genre writers: in what ways are conventions restrictive? How are they helpful?