Thursday, April 8, 2010

Who do you write for?

The answer seems obvious. Whether you write middle grades, YAs or picture books, you’re aiming for a very specific demographic. But when you’re writing, do you think “hey, this book will amuse and delight ten-year-olds everywhere”, or do you write with a specific person in mind?

In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that he believed that “every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’” King went on to say that his ‘ideal reader’ is his wife, Tabitha. That is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever read. He wrote all those scary creepy stories for the love of his life.

It makes me feel a little guilty. My husband is supportive of my writing in a million different ways. He was the first person to ever call me an author (and that was after I wrote the first sentence of my first story.) But he doesn’t share my passion for middle grade books and he doesn’t read many of them. And I feel that having a basic understanding of the genre in which you are writing is a non-negotiable prerequisite for an ‘ideal reader’. So while my husband will celebrate my accomplishments, build me up when I’m anxious and listen to me read the same paragraph over and over again, he’s not the person I have in mind when I write.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote her latest book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, for twenty-seven women. After coming to the conclusion that she could never satisfy the millions of readers of her best seller Eat, Pray, Love, she narrowed it down her small circle of female friends. She even named them in her forward. Sure, whittling it down from millions to 27 is a huge feat, but I can’t imagine writing while thinking about 27 of my nearest and dearest friends. It would be hard to keep them all in my head. Besides, they all have such definite personalities. I wonder, at what point, my loved-ones would start to argue about the direction to take the story. Would they come to a consensus about a single sentence? Twenty-seven is way too many. For me, it needs to be one.

I have trusted readers whose opinions I cherish. Sometimes it’s a writing buddy, other times it’s my school librarian friend who has read every single piece of drivel I’ve ever written (if that’s not a definition of true friendship, I don’t know what is), other times it’s my nephew (he’s grown now, but he was a boy when I started writing).

For my work-in-progress, my ideal reader is a person I will never see again.
I met her on the release day for Neil Armstrong is my Uncle. I spent the day at a school visit celebrating with 4th and 5th graders. It was quite a party. Ice Cream. Cards. Banners. When the day was done, I sat in the classroom alone waiting for the teacher (aka my sister) to do an errand somewhere in the school. I was so tired I put my head on the desk. When I picked it up, a 5th grader was standing in front of me.

I’d met so many children that day that I couldn’t remember her name. I know she told it to me more than once. I was too embarrassed to ask. I wondered how long she’d been standing there.
What’s your next book about?” she asked.
I decided to be cagey. “What do you think it should be about?”

It was the question she was waiting for. She talked about two of the characters in my book. She wondered what happened to one of them. And she talked about friendship. She even gave me ideas for plots and themes. Then she put her hands on her hips. “And that,” she said, “is the story you should write next.”

Before I could ask her a single question she raced for the door.
While my w.i.p. has different characters than the ones she suggested, I keep her themes in mind. I still think about how confidently she spoke and how quickly she got to what was important. And when I write, I think of her. And I wish I could remember her name.


Jamie D. said...

What a wonderful post - and an amazing story. And that pup is just adorable. :-)

The novels I want to get traditionally published, I write for myself. And I don't mean that in any kind of "artistic" sense...only that I write what I want to read. I write emotions that make me feel something, characters that make me care about them, and stories that make me worried, happy, anxious and relieved. I like genre fiction that tends to appeal to a wide audience, and I hope that comes through in my writing.

As far as my serial novel goes - I write that for the readers who decide each week what should happen next...but I write it in a way that I'd want to read it. So those are still written for me, but for the five or six readers with a stake in the story as well. :-)

nanmarino said...

Jamie, Thanks for your comments. You have an interesting point. If our own writing doesn't make us feel something, then what's the purpose? Oh and on behalf of my dog, Chi, thanks :)

Jeff Hirsch said...

Great story Nan. Wish I had a mysterious little girl that gave me story ideas!

Sure, I write for me ultimately but I get what King is saying. Who is your ideal reader? Who do you want to please? For me it's my wife. Basically i just want to write things my wife will think are cool. She's a smart cookie and a book editor herself so nothing makes me feel better than when she likes something.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Enjoyed this post! Sometimes I write for current or past students, especially ones I've read aloud to in the past. I think, "Oh, ___ would enjoy this part..." But mostly I think I write for the little 9 or 10-year-old kid I used to be.

nanmarino said...

Jeff, School visits are great for that. There's always one or two children who have very definite opinions of what you should be writing. They give pretty good advice too. (This is slightly off topic but in my last school visit, one girl wanted the name of my agent. With that kind of drive, I bet she'll be published before she graduates high school) I think you'd enjoy the chapter in On Writing. You and S. King have similar thoughts on wife as ideal reader:) Congrats on your upcoming books!
Ruth, How great to be able to think about all those students. I'm sure they're a great source of inspiration. I sometimes think about the 10 year-old I used to be too. :)

Vonna said...

I believe you were visited by the Book Fairy in the guise of a little girl.

nanmarino said...

Vonna, Love the concept of a book fairy. Hope we all get lots of book fairy visits.

Anonymous said...

Nan, I read your book standing up in the stacks of the library shelves. I was transported. It was moving, fun and literary- the references to the moon gave fuel to budding literary analysts. Gabriel Garcia Marquez says, "I write my stories so that my friends will like me better." I think I write for my great, great, great great grandchildren, so that I can still be a presence in the life of my family long after I'm gone.

nanmarino said...

What a truly poetic reason to write.
Interesting quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I'm not sure if my friends like me better because of my writing. I suspect they get tired of hearing me talk about my book characters. That's why it's so wonderful to have writer friends. They'll go with you to your imaginary place and you can go with them to theirs.
Thank you for the very kind words re: my book. I love discovering books you read standing up in the bookstore/library. I'm so flattered that you considered my book to be one of them.

Anonymous said...

This post is thought-provoking. The next time I start a wip, I'm going to try to better envision my intended reader.

cleemckenzie said...

First, you never write drivel. That's my job. Second, can you send that little book fairy to my house? I could use a theme or two.

What a great experience, Nan.

nanmarino said...

Medeia, Just when I think I'm starting to get a handle on these things I read something else that contradicts it. In this month's The Writer in a series called "From the Writer Archive" there's an article by Madeleine L'Engle called "Focus on the Story, Not on the Readers" where she says, "write the story that wants to be told". She talks about not writing for anyone, but instead she says to "listen to the story" and not keep the reader in mind. So now I'm totally confused :)
Lee, This book fairy is getting popular. Wouldn't it be nice if we could send one to writers everywhere? :) btw,you never write drivel

anne Mazer said...

Nan, I LOVE this post! when I write, I'm always thinking of my audience, although I don't know that I could define them/her/him/it or narrow them down to a single person or even a few special people. It's just a kind of feeling about my readers, an intuitive sense. I'm saying what I want to say, but also holding an awareness of my reader in my mind at the same time, never quite losing the knowledge that I'm writing for both of us, together. Does this add more confusion to the topic? :-)
A fabulous post!!!!

Mike Jung said...

A wonderful post, Nan, as I've come to expect. I hope I'm lucky enough to have a reader like that in my life one day.

nanmarino said...

Anne, Confusion is always welcome. So it's not one person but a general feeling of your readers in general? I love that it's an intuitive feeling for you. BTW, I am enjoying reading about your writing process in SPILLING INK.
Mike, thanks. With all the people in #mikesempire, you will have many readers.

Kristen Lamb said...

Great blog. Thanks for taking the time to share.

nanmarino said...

Thanks, Kristen.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I write to pay back all the writers who got me through my childhood and teenage years...If it hadn't been from them I'm sure I would have made lots of poor choices in my life. I hope when I have a book (or ten) it/they will help some other kid going through a difficlut or sad time.

nanmarino said...

Sharon, I think that's one of the reasons I love mg/ya books. They help us through those rough times. Thanks for your comment.