Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why You Can't Write for "Everyone"

Audience?Image by orkomedix via Flickr

Okay – technically, you can write for everyone.  But should you try?  That is, should your target audience be every living soul on the face of the planet?

Beginning writers often make the mistake of saying their target audience is everyone. And, on the surface, that seems wise. Who would want to exclude potential readers? And don’t the most successful works of fiction (e.g., Harry Potter) have broad appeal?

Well, yes and no.

In the first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry is 11 years old. Mid-grade novels are usually written for children a year or two younger than the protagonist; therefore, J.K. Rowling’s intended audience was aged 9-10. Certainly, the cover and interior illustrations were designed for that audience, and Rowling even adopted her gender-neutral nom de plume to appeal to boys.

It happened that the world Rowling created was so magical and Harry so universally identifiable that the series appealed to girls, teens, and even adults as well as 9-10 year-old boys. But that outcome is rare.

Instead of targeting “everybody,” writers should focus on a narrow audience.

Who do you envision as your primary readers? Men? Women? What age range? What socioeconomic status? Do you see your readers having a religious affiliation? A political one? What would their interests and hobbies be? What music, TV shows, sports do they follow? What is their level of education?

The better you know your target audience, the better you’ll know what likely appeals to them and what likely turns them off.

This does not mean your characters have to be carbon copies of some imaginary reader who is male, 35, lives in the suburbs, goes to a Methodist church, votes Democrat, roots for the St. Louis Cardinals, and has a B.A. in architectural design.   In fact, you might want to avoid using such overly specific details in your story unless they are important.

But no character or story can appeal to every reader.

No, not even Harry Potter. When authors say their book is targeted to everyone, it usually means they haven’t given their audience much thought. 

Unless you are writing exclusively for yourself, you should consider who is going to see your book on the shelf or online, whose eye is going to be attracted by the cover design, and who is going to pay money to read the words you have worked so hard to craft.

Have you narrowed down your audience?

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

5 Tips for Dealing with That Difficult Reader

In your face !Image by aramolara via Flickr

When people read your story and tell you it's wonderful, they make you feel like you're soaring through the stratosphere.  But then THAT reader comes along.

You know THAT reader.  He's the one who tells you your story is good, BUT . . .  Or she listens patiently while you explain some aspect of your story and then trips you up with your own words.  ("That's not what I got out of your story!")

Sometimes, THAT reader does it to be mean.  More often, though, he genuinely cares about your story and is perplexed by something  something which didn't ring true to him or which left him confused about a character's motivation.  Sometimes, his questions feel like an interrogation and make you want to lawyer up. ("I'm not saying anything further until my character seeks counsel!")

So, how do you deal with THAT reader?

For me, I start by reminding myself that I don't have to win every argument.  I don't even have to participate in every argument put before me.

This simple technique can help you, as an author, preserve your sanity.  It acknowledges that everything you write reflects your opinions, views, and ideas.  These things come from deep within you and were formed by some combination of your life experiences, beliefs, values, assumptions, and even prejudices  all of which are unique to you.  This means your ideas can be flawed, even though you may not be aware of it.

But the reader also has his own ideas, which come from his own life experiences, etc., and may also be flawed.  Perhaps this is why he reacted so oddly to your story.  Or perhaps his ideas  and yours  aren't really flawed.  Perhaps they're just different.

As the author, your options when confronted by THAT reader are few.  You can attempt to set her straight by arguing your point of view.  You can dismiss her opinions as belonging to someone who just didn't "get it."

Or you can adopt a different attitude by following these tips:

1. Respect the reader's intent.  Particularly if the reader is a peer editor or beta reader, all feedback is good.

2. Listen with your mind blank.  This is difficult to do when we feel our work is being attacked.  Our normal response is to become defensive and start formulating a rebuttal.  But if we're focusing on what we're going to say, we are probably missing or misunderstanding what the reader is saying.  This means we may overlook a suggestion or insight which can improve the story.

3. Choose not to see the reader's comments as an attack.  Again, this is difficult, particularly if the reader comes across as an attacker or interrogator.  However, you are always in control of how you respond.

4. Smile and nod.  Affirmative body language does not have to mean you agree with the reader; it can mean you understand what he is saying.

5. After your emotions have died down, carefully consider the content  not the presentation  of the reader's words.  
  • Content is the substance of what is being said ("The ending of your story lacks dramatic punch").
  • Presentation is the delivery of the content ("How could you take me on this wonderful ride and leave me hanging???").
Separating content from presentation helps you see where the reader may have a point.  It also helps you avoid the feeling that she is winning and you are losing.

Dealing with THAT reader can be uncomfortable, but buried deep within his seemingly hurtful questions and comments may be nuggets of wisdom.  Getting to those nuggets takes patience and a willingness to put our own egos aside.   However, anything that helps us improve as writers is worth the effort.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

What a Difference a Year Makes: The Longview Literary Festival

Books BooksImage via Wikipedia

This post is two days early because I’ll be spending Saturday at the Longview Literary Festival in Lee's Summit, MO.

The Longview Lit Fest is an annual gathering of authors, publishers, and anyone else interested in writing and publishing.  I attended my first Lit Fest last year, and it changed my life.  For one thing, this blog wouldn’t exist without it. 

In the fall of 2010, I was just beginning to work on an idea for a YA story.  I had spent much of the previous two years writing a novel that went nowhere, so I was reluctant to commit to writing another novel.  I had leaned of the Longview Lit Fest through a writing group I was part of, and the dates coincided with fall break at the college where I teach, so I thought it would be a good idea to attend, sit in on some presentations, and maybe  interact with other authors who are trying to accomplish the same thing I am (namely, get published!).

The festival featured presentations by both published and unpublished authors, and a chance to talk with professionals in the field.  All of that was valuable and eye-opening to me.  But that’s not why the festival changed my life.

While there, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in over ten years – someone who, when last I saw her, didn’t write fiction and had no aspirations (to my knowledge) to be a published author.  But now, not only was she writing two children’s books of her own, she had joined The Kansas City Writers Meetup.  She regaled me with stories of her critiquing group, which met Monday evenings at a local coffee shop.

I was already a member of two critiquing groups and, though I learned a lot from both of them, my participation was winding down for various reasons.  I was thus hesitant to commit to another group.  But when you run into someone you haven't seen in a decade in the unlikeliest of places and you find this person actively pursuing the same goals you are . . . I've never placed much stock in "signs" appearing out of nowhere, directing people where to go, but I haven't ruled out the possibility of signs, either.

Bottom line: I joined the KCWM and was invited into my friend's Monday night critiquing group. 

Flash forward a year later.  I am now the co-facilitator of that same group, along with Dennis Young (who was also at the Longview Lit Fest last year).  I've written two complete drafts of my YA novel – the novel I was hesitant to write in the first place.  I've met a number of wonderful writers whose feedback and fellowship I've come to appreciate.

And I started this blog – a direct result of a KCWM presentation given by Kristi Bernard, who sold me on the necessity of creating a social networking platform.

On top of that, I'm launching Three Rabbits Publishing, an author promotions/online publishing business with the self-same Kristi Bernard and K.P. Kollenborn, two outstanding authors I met through KCWM.

All because I attended the Longview Literary Festival last year.

The moral of this story?  Step out in faith.  You never know where it's going to take you.

I still have a long way to go before I publish my novel, but I've got a lot more options than I did a year ago.  More, I've got a sense of direction and a supportive network of fellow writers who share the same or similar goals. And, because of all of that, I'm a lot happier than I was a year ago.

So, if you happen to be in the Kansas City area this Friday and Saturday, stop by the Longview Literary Festival.  You never know what might happen.

The Longview Literary Festival runs from 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Mel Aytes Education Center, 500 S.W. Longview Rd., Lee's Summit, MO.  I’ll only be there on Saturday due to other commitments.  But if you're there, say hi.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why You Should Write Your Character’s Biography

WritingImage by jjpacres via Flickr

You’re soaring right along in your novel or short story when suddenly you’re stuck.  Your character reaches the crisis point or has to make a decision.  What does he do?  Does he go left or right? 

All writers face this dilemma at one point or another.  The great idea you had in the back of your mind now seems unworkable.  Your character could make either choice and it doesn’t matter.  Or, worse, you’ve been “winging” it all along and now there’s no wind to keep your story aloft.

But much uncertainty can be avoided if you take one simple precaution:  Before you write the story itself, write your main character's biography.

A character biography is not the same thing as your story.  Whereas your story will probably center on one crucial event or series of related events in your character’s life (“How Luke defeated Darth Vader”, “How Dorothy traveled to Oz and got back home”), the biography is an account of everything that’s happened in the character's life up until the moment we encounter her in the story.

A biography includes date and place of birth, parents’ names, siblings (if any), friends, the character’s physical attributes (height, weight, hair color, eye color, and so on), occupation, education, and even seemingly minor aspects such as her favorite color, favorite music, and sense of humor.

Furthermore, a biography does not merely list these aspects.  A biography should incorporate them into a mini-narrative – four or five pages, max— to show you how the details weave together and form the sum total of your character's fictional life.

The most important thing about your character biography is that the vast majority of these details will never be mentioned in your story.
So why write a character biography?

Because the more you know about your character, the more you know whether he will turn left or right, how he will behave in the crisis, and the probable outcomes from his choices.

Think about the choices you’ve made as a living, breathing human being.  Whether it’s who to marry, where to live, what job to take, or even what to order for lunch, weren't those choices based on some combination of your previous experiences, fears, or preferences? 

If you know you like chocolate cake because you’ve always liked chocolate cake, you’re more apt to order it for dessert than the peach meringue rhubarb pie, which you’ve never had before and which doesn’t sound appealing because you don’t like peaches or rhubarb.  On the other hand, if you’re sick of chocolate because you had a mocha almond shake yesterday, you might take a chance on something new.

So it is with your character.  If a group of older boys taunted her on the playground when she was 11, she might be wary of men as she grows older.  In The Da Vinci Code, we learn that Robert Langdon nearly drowned as a child, an experience which left him claustrophobic; not only does this detail reveal more about his character, it plays a key role in the story.

While writing my own novel, I’ve learned that because my young character likes root beer, he is favorably disposed toward a character who gives him root beer candy; this leads him to make a crucial decision later in the book.  Also, his devotion to a particular TV series influences how he interacts with certain other characters.

Know your character as well as (or even better than) you know yourself, and you’ll know exactly how he’ll respond in any given situation.  You may even find yourself saying the story is writing itself.

What has your character biography taught you about your character?

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Superman Vs. Batman: Choose Your Icon

Superman and his alter ego, Clark KentImage via Wikipedia
If Superman is Batman's opposite – as I suggested in last week's post – what makes Superman an icon?

For writers, understanding the difference between the two characters is crucial if you want to create a memorable, long-lasting character. Despite their differences, Superman is no less an icon than Batman.  In fact, when people think of super-heroes, Superman is usually the first one who comes to mind.

Superman also represents the quintessential American hero.  Perhaps no other fictional character embodies the values of “truth, justice, and the American way” – a tag line even used during the 1950s Superman TV series.

Ironically, Superman contradicts many of these values.  He was not born in the United States (the ultimate foreigner, he’s from another planet!).  He did not work hard to get his super-powers – he acquired them because of his physiology and the natural environment of earth (lighter gravity, yellow sun).

Superman is not really about “truth,” either, since he hides his identity under the guise of Clark Kent.

Yet these qualities appeal to a very different set of emotions and associations which elevate Superman to icon status:

The Ultimate Immigrant.  Superman, like many of us – or our parents, our grandparents, or other relatives – came to this country from somewhere else.  He did not inherit American citizenship; he adopted it – by choice.  And he came to love America as many immigrants do.  (It has been suggested by film scholars that some of the best films about America have been made by directors of foreign birth, such as Frank Capra.)

Furthermore, Superman’s love of humanity isn’t limited to this country – it’s inclusive of all citizens of earth (and even natives of other worlds).  This makes him a universal hero, which taps into the American ideal of our nation serving as a shelter for “the tired, the homeless, the hungry.”  On the surface, Superman wears a costume strongly evocative of red, white, and blue, but his costume merely reminds us that America itself was meant to welcome others.

(This ideal, by the way, stands in stark contrast to Batman, who is often portrayed as a provincial hero devoted to protecting one particular city, Gotham City.)

Natural Abilities.  Superman is not only gifted with super-powers, but he’s gifted with an abundance of them: super-strength, flight, invulnerability, x-ray vision, telescopic vision, microscopic vision, ad nauseum.  Some writers have complained that Superman’s god-like abilities make him extremely difficult to write, and some comics fans claim that such a powerful character is hard to identify with.  (And some writers – and even filmmakers – have made the mistake of taking Superman’s god-like status to ridiculous levels.)

Yet this abundance of powers taps into deeply cherished emotions and associations, including “American exceptionalism” – the idea that there is something special about us, that we have the know-how and the determination to overcome odds and to be a shining light for the rest of the world.  An arrogant notion?  Perhaps.  But who doesn’t want to believe themselves special?  Who doesn’t want to believe they can accomplish, achieve, or acquire more than they have? 

Superman embodies the hope that we, too, can live lives of abundance – abundant health, wealth, friends, fulfillment.

This is not to say that Superman always has it easy.  The challenge faced by comics and film writers has always been to create worthy challenges for Superman, and some have succeeded more than others.  Before DC reinvented the character back in 1986, one of the recurring themes was that Superman – for all of his powers – was not a god.  He could not save his loved ones, including his foster parents, from death.  Nor could he bring back his beloved homeworld of Krypton or his natural parents. 

Later versions of the character were stripped of these humanizing elements to his detriment, in my opinion.  Instead of Superman losing loved ones, his powers were toned down.  He could no longer survive in space for unlimited periods of time, for example.  But such limitations have a negligible effect, I think.  Furthermore, they undercut the theme that, no matter how powerful Superman is, he’s still human.

And there is something reassuring in that theme: no matter how powerful we get – as individuals or as a nation – we’re still human, too. 

Hiding in Plain Sight. Volumes have been written about the importance of the Clark Kent persona to Superman – how it further humanizes him, how it represents the “mask” we all wear in public –  when we have to pretend we’re something we’re not in order to function in society – and how we know there’s more to us than even our closest friends suspect.

And all of this is true.  Superman has always pretended to be a dweeb (before the term dweeb was even popularized) so he can walk among normal humans, so he can have family and friends who will not be endangered by his enemies, and so he can have some semblance of a normal life.

And don’t all of us wear similar masks, such as when job interview or date,?  Don't we try to project what we think the other person or company wants?  Sometimes we wear masks for our own protection – reveal too much to others and we can get hurt. 

Paul Laurence Dunbar, in an early 20th century poem, “We Wear the Mask,” described the persona adopted by African Americans in order to be accepted iby white society (or at least to avoid being singled out for harm in the era of segregation and lynchings), but his poem could easily apply to anyone anywhere. NPR recently broadcast a disturbing story of FBI agents being trained to regard all “religious Muslims” as potential terrorists.  And in my Intro to Lit class, we read Dwight Okita's "In Response to Executive Order 9066," a moving poem written from the persona of a 14-year-old girl  who loves tomato seeds and hot dogs and who was being sent to a Japanese relocation camp during World War II.

As a nation, we have a long way to go before we realize the ideal of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for everyone, before equality truly becomes a reality and not an ideal.  Ironically, Superman – this god-like character of unimaginable power – embodies this struggle because he, too, is forced to hide, to wear a mask (ironically by not wearing an actual mask at all).

In their own ways, Superman and Batman embody different aspects of our hopes, dreams, and fears.  It’s tempting to think of them as the yin and yang of the American psyche (or, perhaps, the human psyche), but I prefer to think of them as complementary icons who point to the complexity and richness of life – and fiction.

If given a choice of Superman or Batman, which would you prefer and why?

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Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...