25th Trillium Award

FICTION CRAFT BY SHAUN SMITH, ET AL

 
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Targeting Audience

With Rick Blechta, Terry Fallis, Susan Glickman, Lisa Harrington, Niall Leonard, Christine Pountney, Cordelia Strube and Urve Tamberg.

John Updike once said the first obligation of any writer is to find an audience. Not all writers feel this way, so I was very interested by the variety of answers received to this month?s question: When you are writing fiction, is there an audience you are thinking of? It seems there are almost as many audiences as there are writers. Some writers write for other writers, some write for friends or relations, some write for imagined readers while others write for themselves. I?ll admit I have never understood that last one, which is extremely common: Writers often say they write the books they want to read. For me, this is incomprehensible; writing is isolation enough without requiring yourself to be your own audience. I want to write the books that others will want to read, and I want to read the books that I cannot write. In that, I tend to side with Updike, but as they say, ?diff?rent strokes?.

As for me, when I write, it is for my protagonist. Not directly, of course, but I feel as I write that the story and its telling must be such that my protagonist would embrace it, would love to read it, if it was not about them. That?s only a demographic exercise by by-product; I am not intentionally designing characters to appeal to a particular readership. (I have a deep distrust of writers who do that.) My protagonists tend to spring to life whole and they become my moral compass, if you will, while I am writing. They insist on a certain truthfulness in the telling of the tale, as though they are both part of the story and also looking over my shoulder at the page. My hope, which lies external to this process, is that actual, real readers will have feelings about the world that are similar enough to those of my protagonist that my work will appeal to them. That?s the only way I know to try to meet Updike?s first obligation.

Now, let?s find out who some other writers are writing for.

 

Rick Blechta is the author of several novels, including The Fallen One, A Case of You and When Hell Freezes Over. He lives in Toronto, ON.

I?ve used music as a background for all my fiction up to this point, and while I don?t have an ?ideal reader? in my head as I work, I?m very aware of how much musical information I?m throwing into the mix. Especially if the genre is classical music (my newly released novel, The Fallen One, has an operatic soprano as the protagonist) I can easily imagine readers? eyes glazing over as I go on and on about this aria or that, for instance. Believe me, it?s the last thing I want my novels to do!

So the question for me is always how much is too much? I want my readers to be intrigued and sucked into each book?s ?universe? by my characters and the stories they're telling. Yes, these people are sort of different from the mainstream because they are musicians and performers, but all the action can?t take place onstage or in the rehearsal room. If I don?t create well-rounded and believable characters, I don?t think any amount of music will make the plot work well. That?s foremost in my mind as I work: is what I?m writing informing the reader or am I lecturing them? Are my words expanding their understanding of the characters? motivations and actions, or just allowing me to show off how much I know about a particular musical topic?

Sometimes it?s hard to know. After all, I wouldn?t also be a musician if I didn?t find music endlessly fascinating. I have to rely on my editors and the few readers (mostly editors) whose insight I trust. They reel me in when I?ve gone too far. Best comment I?ve ever received in that situation: ?As a musical treatise, these four chapters are brilliant; as crime fiction, not so much.?

So, the audience in my mind as I write are engaged, turning pages as fast as they can (but not skipping things!), and fascinated by the lives of the people about whom I?m writing. Best comment you can make to an author? ?You kept me up one night last week until almost 3:00 a.m!?

All that being said, I don?t think there?s a greater kick for any writer that to see someone reading what you?ve written, be it on an airplane, bus, subway, wherever. It?s only happened to me twice and it felt wonderful, like I?d really done something worthwhile.

 

Terry Fallis is the author of the novels Up and Down, The High Road and The Best Laid Plans. He lives in Toronto, ON.

When I?m writing, I am in fact thinking of a particular audience?an audience of one. When I?m writing, I?m really only thinking of me. Yes, I am that selfish. Actually, I focus on me because I?m trying to write a book that I would want to read. After lots and lots of reflection on this point, I?ve come to believe that I write best when I?m creating and capturing a story that appeals to me?a story that I can?t put down. Then I?m writing in my wheelhouse?in my own zone.

Of course, I hope that when I?m done, the writing, not to mention the story, will grab readers and not let go. But when writing, I am my own litmus test for that. I don?t think much about other readers when I?m pounding out the pages. This may seem an odd approach, particularly when I spend so much time after a novel is published, talking about the book and reading passages from it to others at libraries, festivals and book clubs. But there it is.

Writing is hard enough when you?re crafting a story you really like, and that really connects to you. I cannot imagine altering my approach to focus on a different audience, perhaps one with different interests and different sensibilities from my own. Having said that, this ?all about me? perspective flips when I write in my day job as a PR professional. Then, I must always consider the audience I?m targeting. That?s what clients pay us to do. But when I?m writing novels, I?m the client, and I write them first and foremost, for me.

 

Susan Glickman is the author of numerous books of fiction including the novels The Tale-Teller and The Violin Lover. She lives in Toronto, ON.

It took me a while to realize why this question made me uncomfortable. Finally I realized the problem was that I write for a reader, singular, who is actively making my work come alive in his or her imagination through a process of engagement, and not an audience, plural, sitting there listening while I perform the work for them. Although I always read my writing out loud to get the rhythms and sounds right and prune out any syntactical awkwardness, although I do care hugely that it lend itself to live presentation, there?s really only one Reader I?m writing for: highly intelligent, empathetic, curious, witty, and easily bored (though not irritably critical). This Reader has impeccable taste, has read widely and with great discrimination, and demands that I revise ruthlessly. I?ve never actually met the Reader but we have a tacit agreement that I will do my best to write something worth reading and s/he will do his/her best to provide generous attention.

 

Lisa Harrington is the author of the novels Live to Tell and Rattled. She lives in Halifax, NS.

When you are writing fiction, is there an audience you are thinking of?

Though I like to think my work appeals to everyone, in terms of audience, my first instinct is to say I target primarily girls, ages 12 to 17. Seems simple enough. But after thinking about it some more, it occurs to me that maybe it?s not quite that cut and dried. I realize I don?t just have one audience in mind when I write.

In the first story I ever wrote, the main character was 12, because at the time, my daughter was also 12. Everything I write, I write with her in mind. As well, my characters tend to age with her. In Rattled, the main character was 15, in Live to Tell, the main character was 16, and so on. I run all my work by her because she seems to have a good handle on what appeals or doesn?t appeal to her age group. She has no problem saying things like, ?That?s not believable?, ?No, we wouldn?t say it like that?, or ?Nobody uses that word anymore?. Sometimes she makes me feel very old.

Also, I?m lucky enough to be part of an incredibly talented writing group. So in a way, I?m writing for them too?they?re an audience on a weekly basis. I?ll hear them in my head, ?That totally works? or ?You?re telling, not showing?. I have to produce work that?s going to get their stamp of approval.

And because much of what I write has seeds in personal experience, my friends and family take up a bit of head space. I?ll wonder who?s going to recognize themselves, who?s not, who?s going to say, ?I remember that? or ?It didn?t happen that way?.

With all these voices in my head, it?s a miracle I manage to get down anything that makes sense. I guess I should feel lucky everyone?s able to happily co-exist up there?things could get messy otherwise.

 

Niall Leonard is the author of the novel Crusher. He lives in London, England.

I sometimes get asked why I ?targeted the Young Adult audience? when I wrote Crusher, but I didn?t consciously target any audience. The whole notion of appealing to one particular age-group seems a bit odd to me; as a teenager I often read books meant for adults, and as an adult I often read books meant for teenagers. When I wrote Crusher I tried to entertain myself, and felt if anyone else of any age liked the story it would be a bonus.

It?s true that the idea for Crusher ? a seventeen-year-old school dropout investigating the murder of his dad ? was sparked by a friend who told me she couldn?t find books for her teenage son, because he wasn?t into paranormal romance or sci-fi. I immediately thought, what about a teenager investigating a murder? Set in London, as gritty and realistic as possible? But from that point the story grew like any of the crime stories I write for TV. I didn?t pull any punches or cut any corners; on the contrary, I?d never be allowed to broadcast the amount of swearing and teen sex featured in Crusher. (The violence, yes ? the old double standard still applies.)

Of course, if your hero is seventeen, and you?re telling the story in his voice, you have to try and look at the world as a seventeen-year-old. Thanks to his troubled adolescence Finn Maguire is more worldly and cynical than your typical teenager (if such a creature exists) but he still has a lot to learn, and all those things made Finn and his journey more interesting and challenging to me. However I have always considered that a good yarn is a good yarn, and that if it is well told it will appeal to any reader. Judging by its reception that seems to be true of Crusher.

It might seem arrogant to say so, but I believe a writer should beware of listening too closely to the audience in any case. These days, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and book blogs it?s easier than ever for a writer to communicate directly with his or her readers and get their feedback, and that?s incredibly exciting, but it has its disadvantages. If when you start to create a story you take on board too many opinions you will soon lose your way, for the simple reason that you can?t always please everybody. The writer has to make a decision to tell the story a certain way and stick to that. It?s hard enough sometimes to follow your own inner voice without having to listen to that of the audience as well!

So when people ask me, do I write for an audience? The answer is no, I write for myself. But luckily the tales that move me, thrill me and make me laugh seem to be what readers like too.

 

Christine Pountney is the author of the novels Sweet Jesus, Last Chance Texaco and The Best Way You Know How. She lives in Toronto, ON.

I tend to write the book I?d like to read, but haven?t found on the shelf yet. Books start, for me, with a curiosity about something I?m grappling with in my own life. In this sense, they are very personal. I will never write a purely intellectual book. I have to be emotionally driven by the process, because novels can take years; and if it?s not in some sense an unsolvable case, or an impossible mission, or a quest towards some unachievable, spiritual goal, I would get bored and desist. By spiritual, I mean, having to do with unattainable yearnings, for instance, defining clearly one?s purpose on the earth.

So, the first audience is myself. When I am overcome with doubts, or indecision, I look to a friend, an old friend, whose friendship has endured over so many years, no large amount of idiocy could alter its true nature. My friend Nat Loveless, I sometimes write for her. Or, if I want to impress, my friend Michael Helm (though he doesn?t know this). I will write for Barbara Gowdy from now on. And Miriam Toews. I write for Fitzgerald, for Henry James, for John Berger, Annie Dillard, Jane Bowles.

Failing that, because this technique of addressing one person in particular has never really featured prominently, I write for no one. This is perhaps the most fruitful audience for me. I write as I used to sing, at the top of my lungs into my motorcycle helmet, at 120 km/h on the highway. I write as if I were naked in a field of poppies on an island I know no one will ever set foot; I write with the freedom and immunity of someone in a state of complete privacy. Only then can my audacity kick in; a certain, confident freedom I only feel when I am totally alone.

 

Cordelia Strube is the author numerous novels including Milosz, Milton?s Elements, Planet Reese and Lemon. She lives in Toronto, ON.

For years, publishing marketing departments have asked me who my audience is. I?ve been tempted to reply Mr. and Mrs. Melwin Dinglebob of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, but that would suggest that their question is frivolous and it?s not. So I usually I reply, ?Everybody.? This, unfortunately, tends to irritate them; they want a marketing formula geared to a demographic, but reader feedback has taught me that it?s not that simple.

Every reader is actually the reader of her or himself. The writer is the lens enabling the reader to focus on what she/he might never have seen without reading the book. It?s that recognition of ourselves in fiction that gives it power. As a writer I try to be as accurate about the human condition as my experience and knowledge will allow. When readers have asked me how I know what they?re thinking, I reply ?because I?m thinking what you?re thinking.? Love, hate, loss, illness, joy, heartbreak, hope, despair, we?ve all been there. When I write I do occasionally think of individual readers, primarily my partner and daughter because I can picture them giggling over a line of dialogue. But also readers I?ve met who?ve told me what something I wrote meant to them, like the eighty-year-old grandmother from Brooklyn who declared, ?I?m Lemon,? the sixteen year-old protagonist in my novel Lemon. Below the surface we?re all the same mess of wants and contradictions. It?s called being human.

 

Urve Tamberg is the author of the novel The Darkest Corner of the World. She lives in Oakville, ON.

I picture a bored teen, simultaneously texting, listening to music with earbuds firmly in place, and checking Facebook on the computer. I ask myself, what will make her read a book? Preferably my book. How can I pique her interest in historical fiction, especially in the stories of World War II in Eastern Europe? There are no castles, or princesses, or knights in armour. Only terror, arrests, and deportations. Seventy years ago, as the Soviet and German armies ravaged Europe, survival meant lying, hiding, and using your wits to stay alive.

The odds are definitely not in my favour.

Or are they?

I also think of a teen who loves dystopian fantasy but may not realize that many of the events depicted in dystopian literature actually took place in the twentieth century. Stalin's control of the fifteen nations that comprised the USSR, the genocide of millions of people due to the Ukrainian famine, the Iron Curtain that prevented communication to and from the West, and the inability of people to travel freely to countries outside the communist sphere of control.

I wonder if my bored teen would pop out one earbud, and glance up from her phone. "OMG! Did those things really happen?"

I hope her next question would be "What would I have done in those circumstances?" I want her to think "If my family was in danger of being arrested and tortured, how far would I go to save them? Would I be brave enough to defy a law that states possession of food is a crime?"

When I was growing up, I didn't enjoy history because it was a regurgitation of dates, and facts. At the same time, I didn't read historical fiction because I found too many authors took liberties with dates and facts. I want to create a world (similar to a fantasy world) that is rich with description, and a story that focuses on the choices the protagonist has to make in a morally complex situation.

As I write historical fiction, I also keep Alfred Hitchcock in mind, and strive to write a psychological thriller. I focus on the emotional terror, rather than the battles. And given the popularity of dystopian novels, it seems that teens really want to read about characters their age who must fight with their wits to survive against all odds.

Truth is stranger than fiction. I hope those odds are in favour of historical fiction.

---

Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the non-fiction collection Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs, which is currently available on Kindle, and is forthcoming in print from Tightrope Books. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto.

Follow Shaun on Twitter.

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