Monday, October 25, 2010

Knowing Your Audience

Several recent posts got me thinking. In this post on agent, Nathan Bransford’s blog, Livia Blackburne talks about a test in which men and women had different reactions to seeing others in pain. Here, agent Sarah LaPolla talks about what a strong female character is to her, along with links to what a strong female character means to a YA author, and an editor. Finally, my own agent, Michael Bourret, talked about B&N rearranging their teen book section to focus on popular genres.

What do all of these have in common? Audience. You know, the people you actually write your books for.

As a reader you may not think about audience a lot until you discover someone else hated a book you really loved. Or the other way around. Maybe you have a discussion over lunch where your best friend gushes on and on about a book that totally didn’t work for you. Or maybe you see a Goodreads review where a fellow reader lambastes a book you adored. You ask yourself how it’s possible for someone else to have such a completely opposite reading experience as you did.

If you’ve been an author for very long, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The same day someone tells you how they raced through your book in one day and immediately started to read it again, you get a review from someone else who says your plot was full of holes, you characters weren’t even deep enough to be called two dimensional, and your ending was weaker than your mom’s cherry Kool-Aid (the kind where she tried to get by on half the sugar and only one envelope of mix to stretch it out.)

Obviously the story didn’t change from one reader to another. So why the difference? Part of it can be chalked up to expectations. Maybe Reader A went into the book expecting nothing more than a quick, fun, romp. While Reader B, was looking for something packed full of meaning and deep insights. I’ve been surprised more than once by people telling me how much they loved a book that technically at least, I knew wasn’t very well written.

More often, though, it has to do with what we call tastes. What you like, want, or expect in a book is affected by your background, previous books you’ve read, your mood, the genres you lean toward, your age, your gender, and dozens of other things. You don’t give it much thought when you are reading a book though. You either like it or you don’t.

For example, I started reading Twilight when the buzz was just beginning to really build. I knew it was a vampire book. I’d heard it was a “chick book.” And I knew that it was selling like crazy. That was about all I went in knowing. I soon discovered there were two groups of vampires. The good guys and the bad guys. As an action adventure, fantasy loving, paranormal reading, testosterone pumped guy, I immediately began anticipating the big battle. Good vampires + bad vampires = climatic battle near the end of book. I won’t tell you the words I blurted out when I discovered the entire battle takes place while Bella is knocked out and we don’t see any of it. But they weren’t, “Gosh, let’s get back to the smooching.”

Now that doesn’t mean I didn’t like Twilight. I thought it was a cool romance. For all the back and forth about whether the series was good or not, Myers nailed her characters and obviously appealed to the target audience. But it wasn’t the right story for me. I wasn’t that audience. In my version of the story, the battle would be great. Bella would kick butt, and drive at least one stake through the heart of the bad guys. After which I would have been fine with more sparkling and smooching. With the same expectations, Hunger Games was the perfect book for me. It worked on all levels as I devoured it.

As a reader, it’s pretty easy to adapt to the books that interest you. Generally you discover certain authors and certain genres. You read the kinds of books you like. You learn which of your friends and which blogs share your tastes and you pay closer attention to their recommendations than say, The New York Times book review. Hopefully you occasionally dip your toe in unknown waters, but when you do, it’s with the understanding that the water there might not be what you normally like.

As an author, it’s a little trickier. You have to understand your audience and write, if not specifically for them, at least toward them. You have to know what other books your audience has read. What kinds of characters they like. How big of twists they expect. What types of endings they are willing to put up with. And on and on. Yes, you can write for yourself. But if you do, either make sure you only expect you to buy your books, or that there are plenty of readers like you buying books.

So how to you write for your audience?

First of all, remember that all book reading audiences are readers first and foremost. The biggest complaints I see from readers involve slow moving plots, flat characters, and disappointing endings. Before you even consider what kind of story your readers will enjoy, you need to nail those three things. Yes, big name authors have gotten away with slow beginnings. You can’t. You have to grab your readers early with a gripping plot, and keep them hanging on every chapter. Your characters MUST have depth. They must be proactive. They must have a goal. They must have flaws. They must learn and grow. I teach a two hour hands-on class that barely touches on all the things your main characters must have. And finally the payoff has to be big. Your readers have hung with you for hours at least, and possibly days or weeks. Don’t wrap up the story in a couple of paragraphs unless you want your readers screaming for your instant tarring and feathering.

Once you’ve got that down, make sure you understand exactly the age and genre you are focusing on. Read books for the same target audience. The Chosen One and Uglies are both books about teenage girls, but they are very different genres. Can the same people enjoy both? Absolutely, but neither book would have worked if it had been written in the style of the other. If you don’t know what books are written to a similar audience or haven’t read them, stop writing and spend a little time reading what has worked in the past.

I’m not saying to copy another author’s voice or style. What I am saying is to study why certain books worked. What was it about Twilight that hit such a nerve with romance readers—especially younger ones? What made Scott Westerfeld’s world so compelling? Use that knowledge to make your unique story stronger.

As an author, I know exactly the reader I am targeting with each book I write. I hope that my story is universal enough to be popular with a wide range of readers, but if I can’t hit my target group dead on, I’m already starting with one huge strike against me. With Demon Spawn, I targeted teens, both male and female—especially those who liked dystopian urban fantasies like Uglies, Hunger Games, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and others. I had strong romantic elements with both angels and demons for those who enjoy paranormal romances like Fallen, Hush Hush, etc, combined plenty of action and adventure. I had a strong female character, who takes chances, but who is naïve when it comes to guys and believing everything she’s been taught. I gave her plenty of room to grow as the story unfolds.

As you plan and write your novel, remember who will be reading it, and make sure that you give them a story and characters that will resonate with them. Make your story your own. Make it something that stands out from the crowd. But also make it something that will be loved by readers in general and especially by “your” readers.


J.N. Future Author said...

That must have been one of the funniest reviews I have ever read with the 'weaker than your moms cherry kool-aid' and 'gosh, lets get back to the smooching' and definatly '...unless you want your readers screaming for your instant tarring and feathering.'

But honestly it was very informative. I guess I have never thought about the target audience much....

Magenta said...

That is all *really* great advice. Thank you very much for your words of wisdom. They are much appreciated. ^_^

Brooke from The Bluestocking Guide said...

Excellent post Scott!!

ali said...

I totally laughed out loud when I read your line about hoping you could get back to the smooching part. Or not.

Gosh, Jeff ~ I've stayed away too long! LOVE your humor. Always!

And great advice too. I hope I'm doing a good job of writing for my target audience. Only time will really tell, I guess!

Glad to have rediscovered your blog!

Blue said...

great post, Scott! and have I ever mentioned how much i love the fishies on your Water Keep cover? such fun!

Amber Argyle said...

Thanks for the links.