Or: Choosing a Target Audience
This is my story. From start to finish, I’ve written it for me. It doesn’t matter if anybody else likes it–I wrote it for myself. It came from the heart, and that’s all it really needs.
If you want other people to read your story–if you want your novel to sell*–you can’t afford to include any of the above phrases in your writerly worldview.
One of the main challenges in writing is narrowing your focus. Keeping your story on-track. Ignoring the side paths that would let your tale meander into a swamp. Characters must stay in-character. Scenes must move the story forward. Plot threads must tie up in the end. If you pay attention to these principles, they’ll let you craft a compelling tale from start to finish.
In the same vein, you need to target a specific audience as you write.
Squinting into the Wind
I’ve only shot a bow and arrow a few times in my life. It’s great fun, and I want to make time for an archery class or two at some point (you know, when I have time, har har). But the little practice I’ve had so far has taught me that when I’m shooting, I have to pay attention to my target.
“Well, duh,” you might say. “Who’d be dumb enough not to pick a target before they shoot?”
*ahem* My point exactly. When I’m sighting along the shaft of an arrow, I have to ask myself: Is the target close enough? Is the target big enough? Is the wind blowing? Is my stance solid? I squint at my target and try to get an accurate feel for these elements before I loose my arrow.
It’s the same in writing. When I’m writing, editing, finalizing, and marketing a novel, I “squint” at my target audience and ask myself similar questions: Who am I writing for? What does my audience expect? Have I chosen a wide enough audience? Have I chosen a narrow enough audience so that the book doesn’t go off on what might be just crowd-pleasing tangents? Is my writing solid? What else do I need to work on before I can loose this book on the public?
Examine Your Target
As I wrote the previous paragraph, I was thinking of you, dear reader. If I were writing for a highbrow literary magazine, I might’ve phrased my question, “For whom am I writing?” But here at UnSyl, our tone is a little less formal. Our readers aren’t looking for ultimate grammatical sticklerism (although we and you should do our collective best to get the grammar right 98% of the time). Our readers are (mostly) writers looking for help in getting their stories out of their heads and into the hands of their own readers. Our readers want advice they can relate to and implement, and they need us to present that advice without a lot of nitpicky fuss.
So instead I chose a less sticklery question: “Who am I writing for?” My tone is informal to match the informal atmosphere you’ve come to expect from this blog. Instead of “advice to which you can relate,” I want to give you “advice you can relate to.” And if I do throw in a “highbrow” phrase here and there, I do it to get a chuckle instead of a stoic nod of approval.
But on to noveling. If I’m writing for young adults, I avoid using words like “perspicacious” or “unguent” in my story. Not because kids are stupid, but because I recognize that they’d likely relate better to “shrewd” and “ointment.” If I’m writing sci-fi, I bear in mind that my audience will expect a certain amount of scientific lingo. Paying attention to my target audience means I’m considering their needs and expectations in every sentence and every word.
For my fantasy novel series Legends of the Light-Walkers (currently comprised of Rethana’s Surrender and Rethana’s Trial), I invented a language I call “Lirren Eamnaya.” Lirren Eamnaya has now been twenty years in the making, with dozens of pages of notes, a dictionary, and a functional grammar. Considering the effort and joy I’ve put into this, I’m sure you can understand my desire to use it as much as possible in my novels.
Readers have other ideas.
I took my beta readers’ and my editor’s advice and chopped a bunch of Lirren Eamnaya out of the manuscript. But judging by reviews since publication, I didn’t chop enough. What was my mistake? I wasn’t properly targeting my audience. I wrote the Rethana novels with an ideal reader in mind…who looked a little bit too much like me. I *love* reading fantasy stories in which the world-building is so in-depth that it includes other languages. Having to puzzle them out doesn’t distract me from the story; instead, it pulls me farther into that world.
But I’m learning that the wider fantasy audience doesn’t enjoy that challenge as much as I do. So, for the rest of the Legends of the Light-Walkers series, I’ll be taking the critical reviews to heart and making the stories more readable. I’ll target an audience that will accept some foreign language elements but doesn’t want to do a full linguistic analysis while they’re trying to enjoy the story.
Fair enough. ; )
Discovering What They Want
So, how do you find your target audience and figure out their needs? Well, trial and error is one way–and a painful one, as you can see above. It’s effective, but it means taking a risk and having a pretty thick skin (some of those reviews are hard to stomach).
You also need to keep up with your reading. Look at what’s hot in your genre and work backward: Based on what you’re reading, what are the kind of people who are reading it? What elements do these novels have in common that are making them so popular? What are the characteristics of readers who enjoy these elements?
Know your readers, and you’ll clarify and tighten up your writing. And they will thank you for it.
*There’s nothing wrong with being in the noveling business for the money. Writing might be your beloved passion, but you’re not betraying any kind of ethereal Bohemian spirit by wanting to be paid for all of your hard work.