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What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Mark Z. Danielewski

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice.

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice.

If memory serves (and, sometimes, it does–wearing a get-up not unlike that of a roller-skating carhop), I first came across Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves in a Facebook® ad. Yep, that’s right: I succumbed to a social networking site’s shameless commercial lures. I went with the flow, I yielded to temptation, I clicked a click that click-clicking clickers should refuse to click. Shame on me.

Insanity Ensues

Or maybe not shame on me. From first glance on Facebook ad to purchase at the bookstore, House of Leaves looked and sounded interesting, and it delivered on its promise in bizarre and enjoyable fashion. Here is my summary:

[[[the story of Johnny (told mostly in footnotes), who reads Zampano’s book and starts going crazy as a result <<<the non-fiction book written by crazy (?) old man Zampano (who is blind) *about* Will’s movie and house {{{the “home movie” shot by professional photographer Will, whose house is larger on the inside than on the outside; the more he explores, the larger and more labyrinthine it gets–and there’s something lurking in it♡♡♡THE LOVE STORY OF WILL AND HIS WIFE, KAREN♡♡♡the “home movie” shot by professional photographer Will, whose house is larger on the inside than on the outside; the more he explores, the larger and more labyrinthine it gets–and there’s something lurking in it}}} the non-fiction book written by crazy (?) old man Zampano (who is blind) *about* Will’s movie and house>>> the story of Johnny (told mostly in footnotes), who reads Zampano’s book and starts going crazy as a result]]]

No. I’m not kidding. That summary gives you only a hint of what this book is really like.


I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

And I’m not kidding about that, either.

Insanity Finds the Perfect Audience

I like puzzles. I enjoy figuring things out. I love a good challenge. House of Leaves promises and provides challenge in abundance, both plotwise and visually (what with parts of the text missing or backward or upside down and so forth). The plot contains a labyrinth for me to figure out, and the text itself is an even more challenging maze. And the core of it all is a love story that satisfies the girl in me. I won’t deny that a couple of times, I was squeeing on the inside.

I am the perfect audience for Danielewski’s weird novel.

Insanity Is Not For Everyone

If you’ve been paying attention, my scruffy little inklings, you’ll have noticed that I am bounding up to and leaping onto the bandwagon a bit late. Aaron already covered the subject of audience analysis quite well–in his article on audience analysis. He even challenged you to describe your own audience so you’ll have a clear picture of their needs and expectations. There’s really little for me to add to what he has already told you. Which would kind of nullify the entire point of my article, except that thinking about House of Leaves made me realize that it’s the perfect example of what Aaron’s talking about.

You see, Danielewski’s target audience is narrow; I happen to be right smack in the middle of his bull’s-eye. (Let that tell you something about me or not.) I’m also the target audience for Tad Williams. Lois Lowry. Jennifer Roberson. Roger Zelazny. Jane Austen. Stats about me aside, what makes me their target audience is that they write stories I love. Danielewski wrote a story that terrified me, enthralled me, offended me, engaged me. He wrote a story I love.

But not everyone is going to love it. I have two friends in particular who tried to read it and couldn’t get past the fiftieth page. Those two are not Danielewski’s target audience. Stick a Tom Clancy novel under my nose, and you’ve lost me–because I am not Clancy’s target audience. In the past, I have picked one of his novels off the shelf at the bookstore, paged through it–and put it back. Nowadays, I’m not likely even to pull a Clancy off the shelf, not even to peruse the cover. Some of you aren’t likely to set foot in the sci-fi & fantasy section. You’re not the target audience, and those authors aren’t going to be negotiating a connection with you.

Your Readers’ Brand of Insanity

You’ve gotta find it. That particular combination of ingredients, those specific characters whose personalities and interactions generate the stories your target audience wants to fall in love with. Every target audience has its own brand of crazy. You’ve gotta figure out what your readers’ brand of crazy looks like. Forget the self-indulgent (yes, I’m daring to call it that) I-write-for-the-sake-of-writing/I-write-for-myself business. Nobody’s gonna buy that attitude, and if you put that attitude into your writing, nobody’s gonna buy that, either.

If you’re writing, you’re writing for somebody, and that somebody isn’t you. You have a target audience, and they’re dying to get their hands on your story. Your job is to figure out who they are, so that you’ll know which spices should flavor your written concoction. Writer, do your job and know your audience. It’s the only way you’re gonna put that manic, acquisitive gleam into their eyes. It’s the only way you’re gonna negotiate the connection that makes somebody out there say, Yes, this story is my kind of crazy. I’m ready to read. Let’s do this thing.

And that’s WILAWriTWe.

(Click a link! Feed a writer! Thus speaketh the FCC.)

Photo credit Courtney Cantrell.

5 Responses to “What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Mark Z. Danielewski”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    Whoo…jolly good fun. I remember you talking about that book before. I am going to put it on my to do list now to check it out. Might be a long time, but it will get done.

    Ok I’m back and it’s on my list. Thanks!

  2. Courtney Cantrell says:

    @Carlos: Thanks for reading and commenting! When you get to House of Leaves, I’d be interested to hear what you think of it. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you might relate to this book’s brand of crazy. ;oD

  3. Carlos Velez says:

    Haha, thanks Courtney, I will definitely let you know when I get around to it.

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