One of the often repeated rules of writing is: Know your audience. The idea behind this seemingly simple piece of advice is that as a writer you have to understand who it is you are writing for and what their expectations are and, that once you know your audience, it will be easier to write for them.
So in my case, this apparent audience is kids between seven and ten years old and their parents, as well as older teenagers interested in fantasy literature. Seems pretty straightforward, right?
However, what I am coming to realize as I am working on my children’s and young adult books is that those target audiences are not enough for me to thrive as a writer.
When I first started writing, there was only one audience: myself. I write because I have to and to entertain myself. I enjoy the process of creating characters and worlds and trying to create some mask of order over all the chaos of words spilling out of my head.
More than thirty years later, I am still my key audience.
This lesson in keeping the primacy of the writer as the main audience really struck home about ten years ago. I was formally schooled in the classic undergrad university creative writing laboratory with heavy doses of Raymond Carver and Chekhov and other masters of the short story.
A certain ideal of writing, both in terms of content and style, was heavily imprinted on me, and as I left university and entered the world of a writer who struggled while trying to earn money and develop a career in other fields, when I returned to writing that imprint weighed heavily on my ideal of what writing was.
About ten years ago, I realized that the subject matter and style bored me. I am not interested in writing about modern middle-aged angst and subtle nuanced revelations of character in stories where nothing happened.
So I turned my writing to what inspired me to read as a child – fantasy literature. Perhaps not the material for witty conversation at New York cocktail parties but the material that makes me write.
The second audience I am realizing that I need to write for is one that I have kept myself blissfully blind to for too many years: the publishing industry.
For years, I have only had my eye to the creation of the work: the thrill of developing ideas, the joy of flow, the struggles with structure and process, and the elusive task of editing. A few short pieces have found their way out into the hands of publishers only to be returned, but I always figured that I am still a young (albeit 43 year-old) writer and that my work needs polishing or I have sent the work to the wrong editors and agents.
But now after the children’s book conference at Book Passage, I have realized that a primary audience is the editors and agents that are the gatekeepers to getting published and those whose job it is to sell my books.
It doesn’t matter if a classroom of children sat in rapt attention listening week after week to Sophia in Mouseland when I came in to read chapters or if their first grade teacher thought the book was great. Despite the kids being the target audience, the work has to first make it past the publishing industry.
So the story cannot just be entertaining, it has be to have the potential to sell. It has to fit within the range of books that are selling this year. It has to fit within their catalogues. It has to have the potential for successive books. It can’t be quiet, but has to jump out from the other books on the shelf. It has to been seen as fit to sell by those in the industry.
And, of course, there is the more obvious audience: the kids and teenagers that seem like the apparent answer to the question of who is the audience.
But, as I move along this path, I have realized that writing is not just an entertainment or a stage of my life but a calling for me that fundamentally must keep me passionate, especially in the valleys and tough spots, and that writing is a also business and to get a book to the broadest target audience possible, the work must also speak to and excite the gatekeepers in the industry.
As it is with most “rules” of writing or life, there is no simple answer and the more one looks at the question the more complex the answer must be.