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Monday, February 21, 2011

Who Do We Write For?

Renee Miller had an interesting post about writing to taboos and offending readers. I don't deliberately go out of my way to offend or shock people. But, if I did my job right, I am bound to offend someone.

Why do I know this?

Because I write to a specific audience. The people who like my work are a profoundly elite group. They are most likely well-educated, curious, and eclectic. They aren't afraid of new ideas or stabbing the heart of old ones.

It took me MANY years to understand who I was writing for. Readers who like their heroes slight and dewy-eyed will not care for my men. We are talking alphas here, confident, hard-loving, bold men. I don't apologize for that. Those are the kind of men that appeal to me. And obviously, I'm not the only one.

My women are not doormats. They are self-assured and proactive. They might even be unlikable until you learn why they put up the barriers they do, the same walls you and I might put up in dangerous situations. 

The men and women in my stories are partners, companions, and allies. I expect them to be equals in the eyes of each other, regardless of actual status.

My writing is very deliberate and confident. I know what I want to say, and I don't try to be everything to everybody.

I think the problem a lot of writers face is that they desperately want to be liked and admired by everyone. And that's just not possible. Better that you wow a loyal hard-core group of fans who appreciate and understand your work, than to try to please everyone.

So my best advice is to learn who your core audience is. Who do you write for? That's not as easy as it sounds. But the upshot of this is that once you know who your market is, the easier it will be for you to brand yourself.

The way I discovered my brand (and by extension, my audience) was by listing the books already published as well as those in the wings awaiting publication. What was the thread that ran through each of them?

At first, I didn't see it. I had written science fiction, post-apocalyptic, paranormal, and romance. What did they all have in common? How were they connected? The parallels seeped into my subconscious gradually. 

Mysticism, the preternatural, and mythology were the three things that made them similar. Even though the stories and the worlds were entirely unique, these elements remained constant.

The people I write for delight in the unusual, the sublime, and the unexplained. That in itself is a pretty vast scope of potential readers that can be refined even further.

My mission now is helping them find me, and allow them to decide if my work is worthy of taking up shelf space--virtual or otherwise.

Writers: Who do you write for? Can you identify your brand?

Readers: Are you an adventurous reader, or do you prefer to stay in genres that make you comfortable?


Lindsay N. Currie said...

This is a great post. I actually must have been sharing brainwaves with you because I posted on a similar topic this morning after seeing so many conversations about gratuitous swearing. I like your take on knowing your audience and being confident about what you write!

Darke Conteur said...

I need to read more. I haven't been able to find anything I can relate to in years. I went to the book store and found nothing in the fantasy section that appealed to me. This is really frustrating! How can I write for my brand/audience if I can't even find it myself?

Maria Zannini said...

Lindsay: (I'll check out your post in a bit.) Confidence is critical. If you don't believe in your work, I mean really believe it, your audience will certainly pick up on that.

If I were to make a bold claim, I'd say the majority of published authors display absolute ownership of their writing. I imagine it's something editors and agents look for in a query and sample.

Maria Zannini said...

Darke Conteur: I hear ya! The problem, which will only magnify as the industry shrinks is that they only have enough money for bestselling authors, a few midlisters, and even fewer debut authors. No wonder the selection is diminishing.

I don't bother looking for new work at bookstores anymore. Instead, I troll Goodreads and book bloggers for new writers and more innovative stories.

You made an excellent observation! It's a shame traditional publishers aren't getting the message.

Mike Keyton said...

I write the books I want to read. And one day everyone else will want to read them too :)

Sherri said...

Lots of writers are talking about this right now :)

It's something I'm trying to keep at the back of my mind as I toy with my writing. I agree with Mike and write the stories I want to read.

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: We should always write what we enjoy first. The thrill of seeing sales is knowing someone else likes it too.

Sherri: Must be something in the water. I think I was feeling introspective today. Shocking, I know.

Dru said...

I'm more adventurous now, but there's still some genres I won't read.

If I can feel the love that an author's has in their work, it makes it easier to keep coming back again and again to read their work.

Linda Leszczuk said...

As one of the great unpublished, I have to imagine my audience. But I take my clues from what I like to read and hope someday, someone will be taking a clue from me.

Maria Zannini said...

Dru: What a perfectly wonderful thing to say! I think you captured the essence of story-love eloquently.

Linda: I think all of us are inspired by what we read, but even more by what we dream after the tale is told.

Angelina Rain said...

Writer: I write for myself. If I’m entertained by my own story and characters, then I did my job and could submit it for publishing because then, someone else might like it too. If I’m bored with my own work, I abandon the story because it wouldn’t be fair to the reader to read something that I myself hated writing.

Reader: I’m the adventurous reader. I read everything except horror, I’m too much of a wuss and every time I read horror, I found myself sleeping with the lights on. For me, what makes or breaks a story are the characters. If I love them, I will read the story and don’t care whatever genre it is. If I hate the characters, it could be the best book ever but I will abandon it.

Rula Sinara said...

Well said, Maria! Love this post.

As for reading, I'm like Angelina. Adventurous...except for horror.

Maria Zannini said...

Angelina: I'm with you on horror. Even though I have friends who write horror (I'm sorry, guys!) But I'm such a chicken, and dark stuff scares me. I have enough trouble falling asleep without adding to my nightmares.

Maria Zannini said...

Rula! We posted at the same time.

I even read literary (the natural enemy of genre :grin:) as long as there is a plot to the story. You can only read so much character analysis before you start chomping at the bit for story.

Tony Benson said...

Maria, this is really interesting. Even though I'm pretty clear about what I write it's less easy to be clear about who the audience is. It's not enough to say 'well, it's the people who read such and such genre' because that doesn't help to identify what's in their comfort zone and what isn't, and what appeals rather than irritates.

Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking post.

Kay Theodoratus said...

I'm one of those who writes to amuse myself ... because if I'm not interested in the book, how can I endure the time it takes to write and polish it? Someday, I'll worry about whether there are more people out there like me.

I second, third,???? the complaint about the lack of browsing material in book stores. They've cut back on shelf space so far, I think they are losing potential sales.

James Garcia Jr said...

Great post, Maria! I read it once, but feel as if I should come back again and allow the words to work through me once more. I find that there's this whole battle going on within me: writing what I want versus trying to be all things for all people so they will flock to me.
What I'm hearing from you is it is a losing proposition, right? The frustrating thing for me is the people who have read my novel seem to love it, but I just am having trouble getting the word out. Really, I think my problem is being in too much of a hurry to be that overnight sensation.
I take it you are feeling so much better now? 100% yet? Hope so,


Maria Zannini said...

Tony: Genre is probably the widest possible umbrella of audience, but even then we are divided among authors. By style, by theme, even by the way we handle material.

But it's a start.

Kay: The lack of titles is a post in itself. With Borders shutting down 30% of its stores, you can bet we're going to feel it even more significantly in the future.

But yeah, bookstores are more like boutique shops catering to a few well known authors. If you want something fresh, it'll have to be found elsewhere.

Maria Zannini said...

Jimmy: Still have my cranky cough, but good enough for hanging now. :)

Ref: losing proposition
Let's call it an opportunity to target a very specific market.

Look at your book for instance. Christian horror is a very exclusive subgenre. Rather than reaching for the shotgun, you'd be better off using a sniper rifle.

Slower, yes, but you are targeting a specific fan base, readers who LIKE what you write and want more. Success rarely arrives on the first book. It sneaks in, one book at a time.

The million dollar question is how do we reach our target audience--especially in this viral world?

Big publishers can inflate their authors and create big media events to drive sales. We have to do things the old fashioned way. We have to earn our readers.

Cathy in AK said...

Oy, that branding thing. I've been trying to figure it out and am still floundering. Who am I as an author and how do I get that across in a snappy line or two?

Who I write for is *somewhat* easier to define. SF/F/Paranormal and romance readers open to more than m/f relationships. Readers not looking for hard science in their SF, readers who don't mind the lack of ogres and elves in their sword and sorcery fantasies, readers who want an entertaining story and will come back for more : )

Barbara Ann Wright said...

I'll read anything, and I write the kinds of characters I like most: strong and capable. And slightly unusual looking. ^_^

Renee Miller said...

Thanks for the mention, Maria. I'm glad I inspired some questions. As a writer, I'm unpublished, so I write mostly for myself at the moment. But I do envision my readers as I create my characters and plots. I write for readers who like to think and question and who enjoy a laugh now and then even if the subject matter is dark. I also write for readers who are narrow minded. That seems nuts, but I do. I write to force a sliver of an idea into their cramped brain. Whether they do anything with that sliver doesn't matter. I just want to get in there.

As a reader I'll read anything. I don't look for a specific theme or idea. I look for writers who I feel care about the craft and enjoy writing. It shows quite often when a writer is simply writing to earn a paycheck. That writing lacks passion. If I enjoy the voice of the author, if it shows that the writer is as obsessed as I am, then I'm a fan for life.

Misha said...

Hmm... I actually write for me first. My life was threatened to be defined by the opinions of others. Something that I refuse to allow.

On the other hand. I think people who like darker characters with their own set of rules, people who enjoy the thought that characters reap what they sow and people that enjoy an immense story arc will enjoy what I am writing.


Maria Zannini said...

Cathy: You're halfway there. As I mentioned in the post, it came to me gradually. There was no Eureka moment, but rather an 'ah, there you are'. It's a comforting feeling to know where you fit in.


Barbara: Ref: And slightly unusual looking.

With pens. Lots and lots of pens. :grin:

Jennifer Shirk said...

I definitely write your sweet sappy love stories with your beta men. I love to read alpha heroes but when I tried to write one it turned ugly. LOL

Maria Zannini said...

Renee: I'd probably be safe to assume that most writers write for themselves first. After all, we are our own first readers. I suppose there are those who write to trend or market, but it usually shows. As you mentioned, the passion would be missing.

Misha: What I said to Renee above applies here too. We all write for ourselves first. If we're lucky, we'll strike a chord that touches many readers as well.

Jennifer: LOL! I love to read Regencies, but if you wanna see ugly that would be me trying to write one. :o) I know exactly what you mean. Best that we write to our strengths, and read those we can't emulate. Thank God for variety!

Clarissa Draper said...

As a writer, I write for both my readers and for me. But, like you, I know who they are and what they like to read. As a reader, I like to venture outside my comfort zone but then I like to take rest back in the zone every once and awhile.

Marianne Arkins said...

Dang good question... for certain, I write for the hopeless (hopeful?) romantic. But beyond that, I seem to be a little eclectic (serious stuff, comedy stuff, contemporary stuff, historical stuff, full length stuff, short stuff, and so on)


Melissa McClone said...

Great blog. I think for me it's a little easier to know who I write for since I write category romance. Our stories are defined by the line, but there are a wide range of character types you can use. My readers know what to expect from a Harlequin Romance, but my job is to keep it fresh and add a little twist when I can.

Charlie said...

As a reader, I do love my HEAs. I am very careful when straying away from known HEA genres. Within those confines I like to explore all sorts of settings, stories, and ideas.

As a writer I stick more to SFR and PNR and underneath that is a strong RomSus foundation.

Maria Zannini said...

Clarissa: When we get right down to it, it's all about sharing with like minds. We gravitate to those people who enjoy the same kind of writing we do.

Marianne: I like that. 'Hopeless Romantic' That's a PERFECT brand for you. And I think your blog and even your Facebook avatar reflects that. You've been at this longer than I have and I think you've always understood who you're writing for. Well done, Mariannne.

Melissa: You shameless girl, you! Damn straight you have it easier. LOL. All you have to do is change out the accessories (and the men). :wink:

Maria Zannini said...

Charlie: Ref: RomSus

That's your brand leverage right there. I can easily see that thread weaved into your brand.

Ref: reading
So are non-HEAs a turn off for you? I don't mind bittersweet endings (actually, I prefer them) but if I suspect a non HEA in the offing, I usually stop reading.

Charlie said...

I much prefer HEA or HFN (happy for now) endings. If I’m reading outside the romance related genres then I seek out satisfactory endings: ones that feel right for the story, treat the characters (and the reader’s love of them) with respect, and leave the reader with something positive or hopeful to cling to. I can’t stand when an author kills treasured characters for the shock value or for a cheap tug on the reader’s emotions. As an example, in Serenity no one minds that Book dies because it is integral to the plot. I believe the reason everyone despises the fact that Wash dies goes beyond the fact that he is a loved character—the death has very little meaning and that is what makes it feel wrong for the story IMHO.

Not every story should end happily, but I despise a book that makes me want to curl into a ball and cry at the end. I will generally avoid bittersweet endings unless there is some non pleasure reason I’m reading.

Kaye Manro said...

Great post and fantastic comments, Maria! Thanks for sharing and opening our eyes to some great thoughts here. Branding is not so easy sometimes and it took me a while to find mine as well-- and I'm still kind of experimenting. I do write SFR for sure, with erotic elements, and I do a lot of science and SF research for my stories. I love the techie aspact in my work. It's just what I do.

Maria Zannini said...

Charlie: Oh, boy. Don't get me started on Wash. I was ready to pull the tonsils out of those writers with tweezers.

I was so upset. That was totally uncalled for.

Maria Zannini said...

Kaye: We had some great participation today! I learned a lot myself.

Ref: branding
I don't know that our brands are ever really a done-deal. It evolves with us. As our writing matures, so does the brand.

And speaking of techie stuff, that's what appeals to me about your brand. I know what I'm getting when I reach your sites. You're someone who is very much in command of her research without a hint of dryness. It's accessible science melded into very provocative stories.

You really know your brand. Kudos!

Ellie said...

As a writer I can see I should be able to answer the question 'Who do I write for?' Excuse me awhile, I have to slope off to my bookshelves and determine who my target group is!

As a reader I used to stay in comfortable and familiar but now, as a reader and a writer, I'm pushing myself out of that zone. I'm bored with the familiar!

Maria Zannini said...

Ellie: LOL. Most of us have a fair idea. It's putting it into words that's hard.

Cate Masters said...

Great post. I've been struggling to identify a brand for the same reasons as Marianne, though my stories aren't always romantic. I simply love great stories. I'm an adventurous writer as well as reader, but how that translates to marketing myself, I have no clue. (sigh)

Maria Zannini said...

Cate: You have a treasure trove in your back list. In your case, I wonder given the volume of work that you shouldn't be looking at more than one brand.

It would be interesting to parse and see what you have to work with.

jackie b central texas said...

Adventurous reader all the way, want to stretch myself and try out new genres which is why blogging has been such a pleasant outlet as it has allowed me to "find" authors and their work that otherwise would have missed out on..

You do have "brand" I enjoy reading Maria, my curiosity for all things unusual is fully satisfied with your books!
I just prefer the real thing to the digital format... LOL

TerriOsburn said...

I applaud you for seeing your work so clearly. I know that goes a long way to making the work better, building your own confidence, and narrowing your promotional efforts.

My work is very mainstream, which you'd think would be a positive because that's a large audience. But I don't see it that way. In my mind, it means I must stand out even more, but with something very subtle. And I must compete with the big dogs who have the mainstream locked down as autobuy authors.

The only person I can really write for is me. But as a long time romance reader, that's not a bad target. I've been reading romance since the mid 80s and figure as long as I write stories I love, then others like me are bound to love them too.

As for marketing, I'm choosing not to think about it. :)

Love the cover!

Maria Zannini said...

Jackie: Thank you! I'm glad I can tickle the curiosity gene in you. And yes, I can tell by following your blog that your tastes run in a vast range. I think that's what makes you such a good book blogger. You're well-versed in many different genres and I haven't noticed the least bit of prejudice of one over another.

Terrio: A good brand evolves, and I'm still too new at this to say that this is it, but it's certainly close.

Ref: mainstream
Absolutely. In a way, you have an even more difficult challenge than those of us who write to subgenres. If it were me, I'd pick out two or three 'big' authors who are similar to your style and see what they're doing to distinguish themselves. Sometimes we can glean clues of what to do--and what not to do.

TerriOsburn said...

The writer closest to my style - and I don't dare put myself on her level - is Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Kind of hard to compete with. :)

Maria Zannini said...

Terrio: Ah, but look at what you can take away with. Notice the font she uses for her name. The clean white background of her web site. She writes about you and me and the neighbor lady down the street. Her brand is easy going, playful, comfortable. These are all traits you can incorporate in your brand.

PS That banner for her new book is brilliant. It exemplifies her style.

TerriOsburn said...

You're right, I've never thought of any of that! I haven't even begun to think about branding. For a business major who studied marketing, it's way easier to think of how to brand something else than brand myself. Thanks for the insight.