Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Your Audience

"Remember your audience" is a piece of advice authors hear often, but, in my opinion, it is advice that can never be given frequently enough. Why? The reason most of you are reading this blog is because you want to be published. Rather than just writing for yourself, you want other people to read your story. Those "other people," your potential readers, are incredibly, incredibly important.

I've seen a number of stories by authors who don't seem to know who their audience is. This problem can occur in any genre of fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter), but I've seen in most often in YA. The problem with YA is that we think of YA as having one homogeneous audience (generally called "teens"), but that's not actually true. Depending on who you ask, YA can include anyone between age 12 and 21 (and we know that many adults read YA too!). Even a more conservative range of 13-18 is actually quite wide when you think about it--an eighth grader may find books written for college freshmen completely inaccessible, and vice versa.

Today I read a partial in which the writing style and characters were more suited for younger YA readers, while certain aspects of the plot were definitely more adult. A 12-year-old would have enjoyed the story on the whole, but several key scenes would have been completely inappropriate for someone so young; on the other hand, an 18-year-old would have been fine with those scenes, but the rest of the story would have been too immature for them to want to read. It was as though the author was trying to target both audiences, but, in doing so, wasn't able to capture either of them. I had to recommend passing on the manuscript.

So what can the author do? Before you start writing your story, stop and think of who your ideal reader is. For YA, narrow down a particular age--not just "teens" but a more narrow age group. For adult authors, age is not as important as "stage of life"--are you writing for young, single women or widowed retirees? If your book is about a certain segment of the population--be it based on religion, education, gender, culture, profession, or anything else--consider how accessible this segment is to the general population. For example, you don't need to be a doctor to enjoy a medical drama, but if every other word is a highly technical term of art that only trained physicians would understand, you are severely limiting your audience to only doctors to enjoy reading about doctors rather than everyone who enjoys reading about doctors.

Once you know who your audience is, you'll be able to better focus your writing to target that particular group of readers. If you're afraid your audience is too narrow, you can either reconsider your target audience or you can take extra care as you write to make the story accessible to other readers as well--not necessarily changing your target, but just making it a bit larger. But make sure, no matter how wide or narrow your audience is, you know who those readers are and what they enjoy to read, because otherwise the only audience for your book is going to be yourself.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Looking for fresh and new

Agents and editors are always talking about how we're looking for something fresh and new. I know saying this frustrates authors, because rarely does anyone define what they mean. Recently I experienced a "eureka" moment (it helped that I was in Northern CA at the time) and here's hoping that my insights help to shed a bit of light on at least one aspect of what might be meant by the phrase "fresh and new."

So much of what I read in manuscripts these days is quite competently written. The characters are good, the story relatively strong, dialogue sharp, etc. But what the story lacks is freshness. What it has too much of is predictability. Once you understand the characters and their motivation and generally where the story is set, the rest of the plot falls sadly into a very predictable pattern. If A does this, then B, of course, is going to do that and as a result, C happens. Far too many stories (be they romances, mysteries, or general fiction) have the same A's, B',s and C's.

But recently I read two very different books where the ABC's were all mixed up and the results were delightful. One book was the much-acclaimed first novel by Gail Carriger, Soulless. There the author weaves both unpredictable characters and events throughout her story. Even her choice of words often sets one's head spinning. For example, instead of focusing on the usual powers of vampires and werewolves, the author has written a wonderful tale about a woman with no soul who actually touches those paranormal creatures and returns them to human form. Just imagine how that could twist a standard vampire plot! From the opening words of the first paragraph of the book, there's no question that the reader is about to embark on a most unpredictable tale.

The second book is Danar by Matthew MacNown. I came to know this book early in its life when the author's mother retained my legal services to help negotiate the publishing contract. Matthew (whom regrettably I have never met) must be a most remarkable young man; not only because at the age of twenty-two he can already say he's an author, but also because he has autism. I couldn't wait to read the book when it came out. It's a fantasy set in a far off land of dark and light where heroes do battle with wicked villains. But what delighted me most about the book was the fresh perspective Matthew brought to the story. There were inventive names and words throughout and a focus on what was happening in the story unlike any other I'd read in a long while. It was that unpredictable and fresh look at what could have otherwise been a very traditional story that resonated with me.

So the next time you sit down to write, think about how you can introduce the unpredictable and unexpected into your story -- think about your language and dialogue, your characters, your plot. See if you can't play off the predictable to come up with something new. Remember you still have to have believability. You don't want your unpredictable element to simply drop down from the sky. It has to emerge from your setting, plot and/or characters in a way that the reader can understand and accept, but try looking at the world you're writing in a different way and I'm confident you'll come up with something fresh and new.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Balancing Dialogue and Exposition

Crafting a good story can be quite the balancing act. It’s never easy to include all the important elements, such as character development, plot, and setting, without accidentally focusing on one of these a little more than the others. And it can be difficult to balance what you convey through exposition with dialogue. Too much of one and not enough of the other can be disastrous.

Unfortunately, something that I have been coming across lately is excessive use of dialogue in place of exposition. I say unfortunately because this tends to give me no other option than to recommend passing on a manuscript.

There is a time and place for everything. Characters need to converse with each other in order to grow as characters. As readers, we need to hear their voices in order to know them better. But dialogue can’t accomplish everything. It is important to recognize when exposition should be used, like when creating a strong sense of place for a story, or even when building up your characters’ interiority.

This is certainly not to say that you should throw in lots of exposition and severely cut down on dialogue. When I was growing up, I remember hating Island of the Blue Dolphins because there was so much exposition. Every little detail of the island was described, and I simply didn’t care. There was hardly any dialogue, since the protagonist was alone on the island for most of the story, and that made the book bore me completely. All I wanted was a little dialogue!

There is a fine line between having too much dialogue or not enough, too much exposition or not enough. Never forget that writing is a balancing act. Of course, it isn’t easy, but that’s why the revisions process exists.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Writer Appreciation: a Brief Note

I just looked at the blog and realized that I haven't blogged since January. January! It is a good thing, Authors, that my job is not to be a writer. The tenacity and stick-to-itiveness that it takes to sit your butt in a chair and write something every single day (or at least on the semi-regular basis [more often than every two months] that it takes to write a manuscript) is admirable, possibly miraculous (at least from my view) and deserves a standing ovation. (Pause while she stands at her desk with her arms shaped in an "O" above her head.) The good news is that we're busy with other things behind the scenes here, including reading those manuscripts that you're writing. So keep writing, keep submitting (YA manuscripts to me now and other manuscripts to Elaine soon [stay tuned to the blog and website for notice on when adult fiction queries should resume]), and I'll blog again sooner than two months from now. Deal? Deal.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Writing What You Know, Part II

Recently, Intern Jenn wrote a blog post about making sure the details in your story are consistent and doing research if necessary to ensure that they are. Her advice is excellent, but after reading a few worrying partials recently, I'd like to add a related but different piece of advice: don't write what you don't know.

I've read many partial and full manuscripts by authors who have an interest in a particular subject--be it a profession, a hobby, a locality, or something else--and it really shows in the manuscript. There are no odd inconsistencies like Jenn wrote about, the stories tend to be a bit richer because of the all the detail the authors know about their subject matter, and the author's enthusiasm for their subject clearly comes across and often sparks the same enthusiasm in their readers.

A lot of these fantastic stories are based on first-hand experience--I've noticed a lot of lawyers writing legal dramas and crime thrillers, for instance--but many of them are based entirely on research. There's no rule that says that an author who grows up in the city and has never seen a horse in her life can't write a book about cowboys--but she is probably going to have to do extra research to be able to do it convincingly. And, if she does do enough research and really puts effort into it, she may be able to write a cowboy story that is even better than an author who grew up on a farm and made the Olympic equestrian team.

And then there are the authors who neither have first hand experience nor do any research at all. And the interns cry.

This problem most frequently arises in books that are based around a certain technology, especially the internet or cell phones. Remember that knowing how to use a device is not the same thing as understanding how it works. For example, many people own hair dryers. You don't need any research to tell your reader that your character dries her hair with a hair dryer--even people who don't use hair dryers have a basic understanding how they work (plug it in, turn it on, and hot air comes out). But say you have a MacGyver-esque protagonist who opens the hair dryer, crosses a few wires, and, magic!, the hair dryer is now a car. We know this can't actually happen, and it's so ridiculous that the reader won't be able to believe your story and will probably stop reading (unless your story happens to be a parody of MacGyver).

The key is to keep in mind who your audience is and how discerning they will be. Writing a children's book in which monkeys' fur turns green when they eat a lime popsicle is okay because it's a kid's book and they don't care if that can't actually happen. But if you write a cowboy book and you have no idea how to ride or care for a horse, it's time to go down to the library or stables and learn because many of your readers are going to be cowboy fans and are going to think it a bit odd when your protagonist reveals that his horse only eats chocolate cake. Likewise, if you write a regency romance, you better not have people driving around in SUVs.

Again, this isn't to say that you should only write about things you have first hand experience with. But I am saying that if you don't know the subject you're writing about, you need to learn about it because most times you don't need to be an expert to tell an author hasn't done his or her research. The more you know, the better your story tends to be.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New Release

Today we're celebrating Cowboy Trouble, the debut release from author Joanne Kennedy. When big city journalist Libby Brown flees from her latest love-life disaster to live a self-sufficient life on a farm, the last thing she expects to find is Luke Rawlins, a sexy cowboy next-door neighbor who's more than willing to help her weather her first Wyoming season. Libby and Luke find themselves enmeshed in the small town's only crime, it looks like things will only get hotter--and more complicated--for the two of them. Cowboy Trouble is available everywhere books are sold, including Amazon.com and Indiebound.org. Congratulations, Joanne!