Anyone who knows me even a little will tell you I have quite a stubborn streak.
Sometimes, this can be a good thing. It can make you persistent and committed to the things you believe in, helping you to overcome obstacles and make those ideas a reality. But it can be a problem as well, blinding you to unpleasant truths or preventing you from accepting ideas that you really should consider.
One of my stubborn writing hang-ups has been over the audience I’m writing for. It’s not something I gave much thought to early on because I was writing for myself. Even when I started getting stories published, I took the position that I would worry about my audience after I actually had one. However, this put me in a classic “chicken or egg” conundrum. You don’t want to write for an audience before you have one, but how are you supposed to gain an audience if you’re not targeting one?
To be perfectly honest, I hate questions like this. As a writer, I desperately want to believe that I can write absolutely whatever I want and the ideal audience will magically find it. But what if that audience is, well, not that big? There are some grim realities writers have to cope with in the novel writing business, the biggest of which being the fact that people just don’t read all that much. At the same time, more novels are being published today than ever before, so that small number of readers has an ever-expanding pool of choices. If you can’t find your niche in that market, anything you write is pretty much going to be dead on arrival, lost in a swirling sea of new releases that come and go every single day.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing exactly what you want to write and hoping your work finds an audience. Luck is a huge part of the publishing industry, so there’s always a chance that you’ll write the thing nobody knew they wanted and it becomes a hit. It happens. But I can tell you from experience that the opposite outcome, writing exactly what you want and having it land with a resounding thud, is painful as hell.
My wife has been telling me for years that I should stop trying to write books for people like me and start aiming for a younger audience. That makes sense for two reasons: first of all, I don’t actually read that much fiction these days, so it’s probably unwise to hope that people like me are more frequent readers than I am myself; and second, 10-16 year olds are absolutely voracious readers. My 12 year old daughter blasts through books and binge watches television shows on a regular basis. If there’s anybody a fantasy author should be aiming at, it’s readers like her.
But I didn’t want to write for preteens and teens. I had an arrogant, stubborn mentality of wanting to write for “adults.” Most of my characters are usually older, and I had problems with the idea of centering a story on 18-20 year old characters, much less adolescent aged characters. It wasn’t that I thought it was beneath me or anything like that; I was simply more interested in the conflicts and struggles of characters in later stages of their lives. I was also concerned that I wouldn’t be able to strike the right tone stylistically.
What got me over my aversion was finally reading the first Harry Potter book (which, amazingly, I’d never done), and watching my daughter obsess over the show Stranger Things. Both instances reminded me of something Michael Moorcock once wrote about the Narnia books. Moorcock hated Narnia with a burning passion because he was offended by the way CS Lewis treated his audience. He thought Lewis wrote like someone who believed kids were stupid (to quote Moorcock from his infamous “Epic Pooh” essay: “As a child, I found that these books did not show me the respect I was used to from Nesbit or Richmal Crompton, who also gave me denser, better writing and a wider vocabulary.”). It occurred to me that the best way to write for a younger audience was to simply conceive a story based around younger characters and then, well, write the way I always write (and toning down the language and the violence just a tad, of course). You don’t have to “write down” to reach younger audiences. Most of these kids can handle whatever a genre writer like myself can throw at them.
So I gave it a shot. Having a typical representative of my prospective demographic living in the house has proved to be great advantage. I’ve been handing off completed chapters to my daughter for her assessment, which has mostly gone well. One moment where I realized just how different of an audience I was writing for came when she criticized a chapter for having very little character descriptions. “How,” she asked, “will people be able to draw fan art of the character?”
That’s certainly a question I never considered before. Still, that enthusiasm and the idea that you’re writing for an audience that wants to contribute to a fandom around the books they read was a pretty good indication that I’m on the right track. The final results are still a ways off, but I feel like I might be on the right track for the first time in quite a while.