‘Argh, They’re Watching Me!’ Thinking about Readers.

Writing copy has a solid rule, whether it’s back cover blurbs or catalogue copy: think about the audience. What do they need to know, what do they want to know, what will persuade them to buy your product.

But can you think about the audience while writing fiction?

There are many people who write to order, of course. Writing series books to a set brief is a thriving art. And publishers’ search for the Next Big Thing usually entails trying to reproduce the Current Big Thing, so if you can knock out a quick and competent The Michelangelo Cipher or 49 Colours of Red on demand, you will probably make a nice living, and more power to your typing fingers.

But if you’re trying to tell your own story, the thought of an audience can be paralysing. There are people who never send their work to a publisher because they’re terrified of what someone else will say. I didn’t show The Magpie Lord to anyone before sending it to Samhain – I needed to have a publisher’s imprimatur before I had the nerve to tell anyone, ‘I wrote this, and actually, at least two people think it’s quite good.’

Plenty of people don’t write because their awareness of a ghostly audience, of eyes on their work, is so crippling that they stop before they begin. What if my boss thinks I’m a psycho? What if my mother reads the sex scenes?! If I wrote something else, would it sell more? People say, write the book you want to read. But what if I’m the only person who wants to read it?

Of course, the standard writing-tips response is, don’t think about the audience, just write from the heart, etc. But that’s only partially true, because stories exist for an audience. An unread/unheard tale is like an unconsummated love affair, or an uneaten cake. It might be a thing of beauty but it hasn’t achieved its point. And if you entirely disregard your audience while writing, you may well end up with an unreadable book.

Essentially, you have to entirely ignore the question of ‘Will anyone want to read my Edwardian country-house spy romance?’, while focusing hard on, ‘Will readers of my Edwardian country-house spy romance find this plot point gripping, this conflict compelling?’ Ignore the invisible audience that might hate your work, and focus on doing your best for the invisible audience who will love it…if you do it right.

Of course, as soon as you get published, you have an additional, even more crippling worry: not only might people read it, but, worse, they might not read it. But that’s another blog.

Are you aware of the invisible audience when you write? Tell me how you handle it!

4 replies
  1. ABE
    ABE says:

    I stop for a moment, add an entirely new category of potential readers to a long laundry list of odd, lovely people who comment or in other ways say they like what they’ve read so far, and then start wondering how I will get Pride’s Children in front of THEIR eyes.

    I was flabbergasted when my beta reader turned out to be a 20 year old – a category of human I would NEVER have thought of originally. Now I just ‘torture Rachel’ (thanks, Rachel!), and wonder how I’m going to see if there are OTHER 20 yos who would also like to read it – or if Rachel is just some kind of muse.

    Do you just run different campaigns on different places where each potential group might go to find reading material? I keep writing, pleasing myself (and Rachel – she gets it!), and trying to think ahead.

  2. Em
    Em says:

    One approach: write fanfiction. Post it somewhere fans will find it. (It helps if you choose a a fandom of kind and thoughtful people. Maybe avoid one known for its toxicity.) Experience writing something you thought no one would like, and being wrong about that. The stakes are low. You can be anonymous. Hell, you can even be doubly anonymous and post a second work under a new name if the first one lands with a thud. You can practice writing secure in the knowledge that your readers will not have exacting professional standards, will appreciate that you’re doing this for free, and will be delighted to have a new story to read at all. This isn’t true in commercial publishing but can help build a habit of playful confidence as you start out.

    Obviously fanfiction readers are not the same as publishers or commercial readers, but it’s like playing in the paddling pool before jumping off the deep end. You can experience failure or success on a small, manageable scale. (And I have on good authority that some successful romance writers dabbled in fanfiction before going pro, and that some well-respected authors write fanfiction [under pseudonyms, obviously] when they want to experiment without judgment.)

    I’ve never submitted anything for publication and might never, but before writing fanfiction I would never have considered trying. Now publishing a novel seems like an exciting challenge rather than an absurd impossibility.


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