Ugly Stepchildren and You—

Last year, a nonfiction piece of mine received honorable mention in a fairly, large writing contest, The Kay Snow Writing Contest of the Willamette Writer’s Association. Having my picture on stage in front of Chelsea Cain and Phillip Margolin and a pretty, gold-embossed certificate to take home pleased me greatly. However, the story was not one of my favorites. In fact, I questioned myself why I was even entering it. I thought the subject too cliché, in which I rambled on about life and feelings. So what happened? Why did someone honor my ugly stepchild story? (I can say that because I was once an ugly stepchild)

Conceivably, some fool liked it and then convinced more fools to like it, and in the end, maybe it’s really all about the fools you know—or, I’m the fool who doesn’t know my audience. Why else would my favorite pieces founder while my mediocre writes glitter like a sequined…stepchild? It might not have been my best write, but it seems I had honed my voice to a particular audience—unknowingly. Forever, I have been working on a horror story, with the most fantastic plot, yet no matter how much I edit, it falls short of recognition. It is one of my favorite writes…so why does no one want it? Some have said, “It needs more action,” or “the struggle is too vague,” and this, “great plot, but we don’t care for the style,” —ouch, that was a bleeder.

I’ve given this lesson much thought, having believed I knew my audience through rigorous research of specific publications and webzines, all being slightly different from others, but it seems to go deeper than that. There is a subtle calling of change in each publication that writers inch towards, whether it’s a little more sex, less splatterpunk, or fantasy tinted. Crafting a story that works means being on the ‘cutting edge’ of that genre by merging a variety of them into a clear, original idea while still keeping to the main theme. This is what I believed happened with my honorable story when I included a spark of horror and spirituality into nonfiction—unknowingly.

While many write for the ‘lay’ audience, maybe even narrowing it a bit further to chic lit mystery or odd horror, these categories still encompass an array of tastes and style. Exactly who is the audience? Moreover, what do they want? Discover that, and add a twist. It seems simple enough, but this skill is not easy to achieve, nor is it a permanent triumph, for the publishing world is multifaceted phenomenon, a kaleidoscope of opinions and imaginations that only through faithful reading can we step inside and join in the parade—usually.

I’m familiar with the essentials and subtleties of the craft, though I continue to struggle with my audience. Everyone is unique, with preferences affected by the constant flux of the world around them, and so I wonder how much of my ‘style’ should I sacrifice to please the audience and/or get published. Material requires a certain amount of polishing to suit the reader, but what if I just want to be me? Some days, I’d rather skip along the adventures of my own rutted path as a writer than strut down the star-studded sidewalk of another. Alas, someone is the fool, but remember, I’m the ugly stepchild. Okay—I’ll admit to a slight strut across the Gala Awards Banquet stage before I skipped merrily back to my table.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about audience and/or your experience with publication…you might discover or teach something in doing so.

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15 thoughts on “Ugly Stepchildren and You—

  1. Erin… I love the concept of this post because it essentially boils down what we do. Do we write what I call "airport fiction" for the glory, moolah and fanfare or do we scribble down what WE, as writers believe in?I wish I knew… Sometimes the airport crap get you to the place where you want to be. I work in a newsroom and I have to ask certains editor and writers on a daily basis, "who's gonna read that crap?"You'd be surprised… Our top stories of the year on our website? The BachelorJersey ShoreAmerican idolSee what I mean?

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  2. I reckon if you actually try and write something to fit in it almost always won't. Something about the tale won't ring true because you were forcing it. I've found most of my rejection have come from markets where I've actually sat down to right a story that I hope fits the theme instead of just sitting down and doing my own thing.Then the other side of it, if offered a publishing deal and a wedge of cash would I sit down and write whatever they wanted? Answer if probably yes lolI'm all confuzzled now!

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  3. always, always always – my favorite writes get a me reaction and ones I feel meh about are loved by others. it is not completely universal but happens way more often than i understand. i think the adage that we can't get distant enough from our work to see it as others do comes in to play. more and more i let my pieces sit, often unfinished, some for weeks, some months – and only then come back to them to see them in a whole new light. splatterpunk??

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  4. I've written a certain way for specific markets and done well . . . in the past. Plus, it was a struggle assuming a style. Lately, the stuff I honed for a particular market-that was rejected by said market-I'm having a hard time placing elsewhere. I suppose a writer should follow their instincts, but, honestly, writing from the heart will always sparkle more.

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  5. I think an audience is fickle – if you start writing with them in mind, they'll have moved on to something else by the time you've completed it.Writing from the heart is at least honest…and more satisfying for you. You'll find your audience. As for publishing – it's changing as we speak.

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  6. Erin — it's tough. As you know, I went with a small press, and I was lucky to have them as they loved my work and completely believed in it when the other 60 agents/publishers I sent it to were like "No!". I see other novels and I'm like, "This got published by a big 6 and mine didn't?!"The publishing industry is changing so much with all the new technology, Amazon, that making a buck is harder and harder to do for them, so they're going with what sells, not necessarily what's intelligent, meaningful fiction. Not to say that intelligent works still aren't being published, but it's I think it's harder to get in the door.It all comes down to this — do you want to write something that will appeal to a wide audience and sell like hotcakes (vampire romance or erotica), or do you want to write what you love? Keep the faith and be true to yourself and your work will find it's spotlight, trust me!PS — you may have been a step-child, and red-headed at that, but I doubt you were ever ugly ;-) You're a cover model after all ;-)

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  7. Erin, I don't know about the publisher side of things, I have never had the experience. But I can tell you my experience from the bookseller's POV.Even though here in Oz we don't have the massive market you guys have, I know that people here are wary of trying new authors – rather, they will stick to the "airport" fiction as Anthony called it. I suppose publishers know that, as well as booksellers. In the horror genre (not that there is much of one over here), unless you are Uncle Stephen or Dean Koontz, forget about it. Rarely will I have someone come in and ask for Clive Barker or Dan Simmons…it just doesn't happen.So, how does that answer your question? It probably doesn't except to say that the market here is dominated by a few authors and people aren't willing to risk $35 (for a trade paperback) or $22 for a regular one on an author they don't know.

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  8. You all have some interesting input:Ant – I believe it. The media is definitely a strain for writers of all genres! Lee, Rebecca, Laura, Nicole: writing from the heart is timeless advice, no matter the genre or the era – thanks for that!MJS: splatterpunk is more graphic/violent horror:) Paul: yes, you ring in with painful truth…until we get recognized, win awards, etc., we'll be running the revolving door!Thanks for your feedback everyone.

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  9. I like my fiction the way I like my music – honest and independent. There are big names that I just can't read because the writing is so formulaic. I want to be surprised, but mostly, I want honesty. That said, I also find that people tend to like the pieces of my writing that I am less fond of. Perhaps the moral is that we are not our own best judges – just our best critics.

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  10. Hmmm, you've given much to ponder. Personally, I don't know why I write what I write. I'm a firm believer in going where the story takes you, whether that's to Athens, Georgia or to a specific ring on Saturn.Should we write with a target audience in mind? Yes and no. Yes, if we are responding to a piece we're getting paid for or a contest/theme and such. No, if we're writing to see what our mind will surface on the page– self-entertainment, so to speak. I think, in general, whenever we read, we're looking foremost for entertainment (unless we claim literary snobbery and read to impress those around us with fancy book jackets).Think about this: some of the biggest movie-adaptions in recent years have not been from novels. They've been taken directly from the comics. The Dark Knight, Wolverine, Ironman, even the great (yes, I consider him great) Mark Millar's Kick-Ass has faired well. What does that say about our audiences?I love the graphic novel (comic) medium. In fact, my creations always play out like either an episode of Tales From the Crypt (also a comic) or the old Warren classic magazines of Creepy and Eerie. I think I'm ranting now.You wrote, "I questioned myself why I was even entering it…" I don't think this feeling ever leaves any of us writers. But is that so bad? Especially when we keep on submitting anyway. And more importantly, keep getting feedback from our, albiet small, group of writers who are of course, readers…

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  11. Erin,I read this last night on google reader, and I've been thinking about it today. You bring up some good questions, and all I can say is this: Write what ever comes to you and try not to judge it. I told someone once that I can never tell whether my story is actually good or actual crap. This person couldn't believe that I wouldn't be able to tell that about my very own work. All I can do is send it out and be willing to take that risk that I will either succeed or I will fail. Exactly what you did for the Kay White Contest (congrats btw! I was so excited when I saw that on your site awhile back)As far as audience, a harper collins friend of mine told me he wasted years trying to write for an audience (this is what they taught him when he went to school for MA in writing.) It wasn't until he wrote what he truly loved (which is a weird blend of genres) that he was picked up by Janet Reid. His book is due to come out late this summer.I read this article about a week ago. It renewed my confidence http://www.examiner.com/x-562-Book-Examiner~y2009m3d20-20-famous-authors-who-were-rejected-repeatedly-and-sometimes-rudely-by-publishersJodips. The same honesty you wrote in this post is what comes through in your work. THIS is what attracts people to you, whether you writing shorts, novels or poetry. Keep going, Erin.ps. You mentioned Chelsea Cain here. I've just been diving into her novels. Your writing style is very similar to hers. Yours is darker, and has more seductive appeal. ;-)

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  12. Erin, My advice is this. 1. Decide you are going to tell your audience what they like 2. Be very hard on yourself during the thought process of it 3. go easy on yourself while writing it 4. Take breaks. If you have to walk away for two days when it's stressing you out. 5. Love what you wrote, but understand that some of our favorite plots look better in our minds than on paper. This is universal. It happens to everyone. 6. If someone offers you a large sum of money to write crap, disregard 1-5 above and TAKES DA MONEY, LEBOWSKI!!!!!. -M.C.

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  13. Laurita – such an excellent moral, "we are not our own best judges – just our best critics," I might have to quote you on that.Angel – you bring up a very good point about the comics (I loved Tales From the Crypt! and I can definitely see that style in your writing); those pieces are succeeding as blockbuster hits, though upon their creation, it was the magic of a writer letting the story take them. Keep ranting; it's good stuff!Jodi – You rock! I can relate to that feeling of is this good or crap? Thanks for the info – now lets get our badass novels published!Mark – damn, you really are an editor; excellent advice, I'll take it!

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  14. Hi! First of all, you're not ugly. Well, not unless you avatar showed your best side, heh. Yeah, I know it's a figure of speech; go ahead and snort at me. :PAbout the audience thing, I'm as clueless as you are, but I agree with Laura and Jodi that you have your voice and your audience will be attracted by it sooner or later. We all hope that it'll be sooner, but who can tell? All I know is that I like your work. When reading your post it came to mind an article that @annetylerlord shared through her @writers_life account: Author's Glow, in which some good points are made as to an author’s feelings toward her own work. I think it might be interesting to understand those fool's reaction to a piece you didn't like at all. Hope it helps. :)

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