Saturday, July 7, 2012

Writing for an Audience

I recently read a Writer’s Digest article, “Writing a Novel People Want to Read,” by Corban Addison. Though I started out the choir, I quickly turned heathen, and it became one of my favorite articles to discuss in a mocking sort of way.

He starts out by criticizing the assumed (probably accurately) common thought that most authors “don’t write stories for an audience.” They tell him, “I write for myself.”

He proceeds to explain “at every stage of the writing process” he kept thinking about how to write the story for his reader, which is about as far as I think the effort went: thinking. From the article’s stand point, I was uncertain as to how he kept the audience in mind, and, furthermore, how it affected what he wrote.

His novel, A Walk Across the Sun, an actually intriguing idea about two Indian girls sold into sex slavery, was praised for not being too graphic. The author relates how John Grisham said, “this story could have been gross, but you made it tasteful,” and Addison goes on to explain, “I will never forget that statement, for it confirmed my intuition in the beginning—write for the reader, not for myself.”

Does that mean he wanted to make it graphic and gross and he refrained? He had an overwhelming desire to go into details on rape but didn’t because he wanted to write stories for “ordinary people,” i.e. those unlike him?

No. I don’t think that was in intention at all. Quite frankly, I think his motivation was to pitch his book and try to sneak in how John Grisham complimented it. However, from a non-critical standpoint, it could look like that’s exactly how he meant it, and that’s how I’m going to take it. Because it’s fun.

Now that I think about it, I believe the main issue with the article was that he was more intent on pitching his book than staying on subject. I do believe that he kept the audience in mind, though I don’t believe that he didn’t “write for himself,” in the process. In fact, on his website he states, “[A Walk Across the Sun] is a novel that brings together three of Addison’s great passions—storytelling, human rights, and the world and its cultures.” So, yeah, it sounds like it was meant for him. At least on some level.

I do believe that it is a mistake to disregard the reader, however, or the audience in any art form. Often the problem that arises at the beginning of our careers is that stubbornness that Addison talks about. People will often attempt to move forward by the road that should exist, not the one that does.

We make mistakes like not dressing up for a job interview because “they shouldn’t care how I look. It’s about what I do.” We refuse a commission to draw a book cover because, “I only work by inspiration.” Making decisions based on, “will this promote me?” seems more like selling out than being business-wise.

The American culture, as well as many others in modern day, I’m fairly sure, is taught to fight the system. Anyone who works with it, or manipulates it, is evil. To make decisions for the sole purpose of selling is not the creator’s way. The true artist is like those in Rent: musicians who can’t pay the rent because they spent the last year unemployed, yet still hasn’t written one song.

It is important in bookland to consider the audience, however, because quality is defined not just by the novel itself, but the ones it is being compared to. One of Fifty Shades of Grey’s worst criticisms is its relationship to Twilight. It is important to look around and think about current trends. Though one does not necessarily need to work with fads or write about things he doesn’t want to just to sell better, he can make changes on the aspects he doesn’t care about to fit ideas that readers do care about.

For example, let’s say that he has a twist ending. We’ll even say that hypothetically it is the most meaningful and life changing notion in the entire world. But until the audience gets to the ending, the book is abysmally dull and no one can muster interest. They won’t get to the end to see it’s greatness. It may be a good idea on his part to add in a second plot geared towards grabbing attention, such as a love story. Though it is appealing to the commercial aspects rather than critical, and he feels like it is a trite tactic that he should not have to resort to—people should be of a higher substance than that—if he thinks about it, it does not change the ending, just an appeal to a wider audience.

Decisions like this, attempting to entertain people as well as teach them, making variations and additions to the portions that he doesn’t care about can maintain the integrity of the parts important to him, can benefit a person far more than sticking to his guns. Not dressing up for an interview (not deleting a dull scene, refusing to change the title to something clearer, or not putting in punctuation) is far more likely to lose the job than make a mark on the world.

Often times, books, songs, acting that are made without the goal of appealing to the audience tend not to. The writer and the reader aren’t always interested or bored by the same things. And not just because of different personalities. It is the difference between your child screaming and a stranger’s child screaming. They’re both equally obnoxious, but yours will always be a little cuter.

What I remember about refusing to play the game is a deep down feeling of it being too much of an effort and the idea that I had other talents to compensate. Though I know that wasn’t the whole story, it’s the impression I get whenever I see other people behave in the same manner. There are other reasons, positive ones, that lead us to go out on stage in slacks, singing a song we barely have memorized and expect the audience to be impressed, but it is common for the listeners to believe that we’re not trying to impress them is because we think that it should be effortless.

So they have to prove us wrong.

It’s funny when stars get away with blatant disregard for the publisher and businessmen. I believe it was Earnest Hemmingway who turned in a manuscript with no punctuation, and when the editor returned it and asked him to put them in, he sent back a letter filled with periods and commas, and said, “This is all you should need. Place them where you will.” But, as Stephen King proved with Richard Bachman, a person’s success is far more about his title than his talent, and those of us with neither have to work the system until we get in the place to have both.