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.