Sunday, August 18, 2013

Who Are You Writing For?

It can be enlightening to analyze not only why you write, but for whom you write. Your imagined audience says a great deal about what kind of work you produce, both now and in the future.

In my own case, my audience has changed over the years. The people I used to hope to impress don't matter so much any more.

There are a number of audiences we might be writing for. Following are a few I've thought of. You might think of others.

You might imagine a particular someone reading your work. A parent. A favorite teacher. An old lover. A significant other. Your old schoolmates.

  • If you write with one of these people in mind, you probably write with the hope of making them proud of you, or proving that you're smarter, more creative, more worthwhile than they gave you credit for. 
  • You are writing in hopes of being praised or being recognized. 
  • The downside of this approach is that you are coming at your task from a position of weakness. You see yourself as needing the approval of your target audience. You come at the work from a deficit.

You might write with a type of reader in mind. Young adult. Professional women. Literary types. Other writers. Ex-military. Street-smart hipsters.

  • If you write with a demographic in mind you need to know a great deal about their lifestyle, their preferences, and their biases.
  • Sometimes having a specific target audience will lead you toward genre writing (e.g., romances for housewives).
  • It can be helpful to have a particular groove that fits your writing. On the other hand, it can limit your imagination and lead to flat writing. You may find yourself writing the same story with slight variations over and over again.
You might write for people just like you. If you're a young middle-class woman, you write for young, middle-class women. If you're a middle-aged professional, you write for other middle-aged professionals. You're writing for people who see things pretty much the way you do.
  • You already know your audience very well. This can be an advantage because you don't have to guess at how they will react to situations in your stories.
  • However, you may limit yourself by not taking a wider view.
You might write for yourself. You write what interests you with no thought as to whether anyone else cares about your subject matter.
  • The obvious disadvantage of this approach is that your writing might bore everyone but yourself.
  • On the other hand, you have the freedom to explore anything and everything without worrying about how someone else might react.
  • You can also try out unconventional techniques. James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness method came out of wanting to achieve a certain effect. He didn't care whether the audience would stay with him.
In own writing life, I have tried all of these audiences with the possible exception of choosing a demographic.

I started out wanting to prove to my parents, teachers, friends and acquaintances that I was a good writer. I wanted to wow them. I wanted them to say, "I never knew Lee was such a talented person."

I moved on to writing for people who were like me. My audience was my peer group.

Now I write for myself, for better or for worse. I follow my nose and my interests. No story is like any other story. That's both a blessing and a curse because my work can't be pigeonholed. Readers don't know what to expect from me. It's hard to build a readership that way.

Who do you write for? Is there an audience I've left out?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why I Keep Writing

Last week I wrote about how hard it is to stay motivated to keep on writing.There are a thousand reasons to quit:

  • Writing is hard. It takes years to develop skill and even once we have developed all the tools of our craft, we must still struggle to express our ideas in a compelling manner.
  • Our first efforts are usually less than memorable to put it kindly.
  • No one really cares much whether our stories get told or not. After all, a novel, short story, poem or essay will not end hunger or bring about world peace.
  • If we're honest we have to concede that most people forget a book, movie or story very soon after seeing it. No matter how good it is.
  • To get anyone to pay attention to our work we have to be excellent marketers and/or salespeople. Many, if not most of us are not.
  • Most of us are never going to get rich and famous from our writing. We're more likely to win the lottery.
So why write? Why not take up something more satisfying like knitting or playing the guitar?

I promised to list the reasons I keep writing. Here they are in no particular order.
  • Imaginary people live in my head. All kinds of crazy things happen to them and they insist on telling me about them. They won't leave me alone until I write down their stories.
  • There are techniques I'm not good at. I get frequent urges to practice these even when the results are less than thrilling. Experience has taught me that eventually I'll get better. The exhilaration of conquering a technique that has until now eluded me is incomparable.
  • Sometimes an atmosphere, an emotion, a vision, or a circumstance stirs my imagination. In the hands of someone else, these would be transformed into poems. In my case, I am driven to create a story in which to contain them.
  • I love words. I love the sound of them, the feel of them in my mouth. I love to look at them,  tiny black soldiers marching left to right across a white expanse to create a world, a universe, that never existed before. I love selecting the right ones and placing them in the best possible order  so that the reader can see, feel, hear exactly what I do. I paint with words.
  • I love the surprise of writing. I never know how a story is going to turn out until I write it. I often go into it believing I know how it will go only to discover that the characters take matters into their own hands and carry the story to places I never imagined.
  • I am intrigued by the task of how to put events in the right order so that the reader gets just the information he needs at any given point and no more and yet the story proceeds in a coherent fashion. 

Notice that every reason I have listed is about the process of writing, not the outcome.

I think that's the lesson here. At least for me. We have to love to write. We have to look forward to sitting down at the keyboard every morning and meeting that day's challenges and opportunities. For me it has to be about the story and how to tell it simply, beautifully, convincingly. It has to come down to choosing each word and each scene so I can paint a complete portrait of my imagined world.

If thoughts break in about whether a publisher will like it or whether my story is "commercial", I can't do my job. I'm thinking about the wrong things. I'm worrying about results over which I have very little control.

What I can control--at least to the limit of my talent and skill--is whether I have written my story well.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What Keeps You Writing?

Notice, I didn't entitle this post, "What made you start writing?" Beginning is fairly simple. Keeping at it is the tough part.

We begin writing for a number of reasons. Here are the most common I can think of. Maybe you can think of others.

  • We're good at it. It has always come naturally to us.
  • We believe we have a unique story to tell and we're eager to share it with the world.
  • Someone else has written about our experience(s) but didn't do the story justice. We know we can tell it as it deserves to be told.
  • People seem impressed if we says we're writers. We feel special to be among the few with a gift for language.
  • We believe it's a route to becoming rich or famous or both.
When we begin, we may believe that writing is our destiny, that we are uniquely suited to the solitary but glamorous (in our minds)  life of a writer.

Unfortunately, none of these beliefs and attitudes about ourselves and the writing process stand up once we begin.
  • Experience shows us that facility with language is a far cry from effective writing. We quickly discover that our skills need serious development and honing.
  • Our unique story, it turns out, is not so unique after all. There are only a few stories in the world and they have all been told by others long before we took up writing. The only thing unique about our story is that it happened to us.
  • Writing is difficult. Those who came before us may have failed to do our story justice, but we find that, in our hands, it fares no better at first. A long apprenticeship is required before our story comes to life.
  • While people may be impressed when we say we're writers, they become far less enthused when we don't produce anything worth reading for years. And eventually we stop proclaiming our specialness.
  • Almost no one becomes either rich or famous from writing. For every J.K. Rowling, there are a million unknown, unsung writers who are talented, skillful and deserving of an audience.
So why continue? 


There is nothing glamorous, or even very interesting about sitting in front of a keyboard for hours, alone and bleary-eyed, trying to get a scene right. 

And once we finish and send our efforts out into the world--no doubt dreaming of quick publication and TV interviews--we are in for a terrible letdown. Because the rejections begin pouring in, usually in the form of form letters, but sometimes with comments or suggestions which prove that the agent or publisher barely looked at our work. Or didn't read it at all.

And once we realize we will not be published any time soon, we may decide to take matters into our own hands and self-publish. Take it directly to the people. Let the readers have access to our work without the clumsiness of a middle man.

And that's when we learn that not only do we have to be good writers, we also have to learn how to market our work. We have to advertise it, beat the drums for it, sell it.


So, back to my original question: what is it that keeps us writing?

I have my own set of answers that I've developed over time. I'll share these with you next week. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what motivates you to stay focused and committed.