As the Bard told us, “All the world’s a stage,” and that includes your work of fiction. The parallels between a stage and a book are compelling. You, like all authors, create “characters” in a “setting” who speak “dialogue” encased in “scenes.” Most importantly, you—like the playwright—have an “audience.” His audience views the story from in front of the footlights, gathered into a large mass; yours views the story from a chair or bed, one at a time.
As you write, how aware should you be of your audience? How much should you be shaping your material to please that audience? And what do those people out there want, anyway?
What kind of show is it?
In general, fiction is divided into “literary fiction” and “commercial fiction.” Nobody can definitively say what separates one from the other, but that doesn’t stop everybody (including me) from trying. Your book probably will be perceived as one or the other and that will affect how it is read, packaged and marketed.
Literary fiction pays more attention to style than does commercial fiction. Usually, it also probes characterization more deeply. It’s often slower paced than commercial fiction, because added description and character development take up many words. The worldview implied by literary fiction is complex and ambiguous, trying to be faithful to the complexity and ambiguity of life. A traditional “happy ending” is possible, but not usual. Its themes are timeless. Ezra Pound defined literature as “news that STAYS news.”
Toni Morrison writes literary fiction. So do John Updike, Paule Marshall, Anne Tyler, Dan McCall, Alice Hoffman and most of the short story writers published in The New Yorker. Literary fiction usually is published in hardcover and/or “trade paper”—those oversized paperbacks with tasteful covers. Editors who buy it have definite, often idiosyncratic ideas of what constitutes “quality writing.”
Commercial fiction can be just as well written, but in a different way. It’s usually faster paced, with a “stronger” plot line: more events, higher stakes, more danger. Characterization can range from good to practically nonexistent. The style is usually “transparent,” which means the writer wants to tell the story in words that don’t call attention to themselves, so the story itself—and not the style—receives the attention.
What makes commercial fiction “commercial” is that editors expect to make a profit from selling it (not always true of literary fiction). The larger the audience, the better. And audiences for commercial fiction are larger than those for literary fiction. (As Mickey Spillane pointed out, “Those big-shot writers … could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”) Commercial fiction is usually hardcover and/or mass-market paperbacks, with covers designed to attract browsers. Editors look for strong storylines that they believe will attract the “average reader.” Commercial fiction writers include Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz and John Grisham.
Just to complicate matters further, there also exists “genre fiction,” which may be literary or commercial. Genres include romance, science fiction, fantasy, romance, Westerns and mystery. These are invented marketing categories that once didn’t exist. George Orwell’s 1984 wasn’t marketed as “science fiction”; it was just another novel.
For commercial books in a genre, readers’ and editors’ expectations may be fairly rigid. Some romance lines, for instance, issue fairly detailed writers’ guidelines explaining exactly what must happen in a book they publish (and what must not). Other commercial genres have their own expectations: a case successfully solved, a slain outlaw, a human triumph over the alien.
Literary genre books, in contrast, have more in common with the characteristics of literary fiction as described above. Some examples: Ursula K. Le Guin writes literary science fiction; Larry McMurtry writes (among other things) literary Westerns; P.D. James writes literary mysteries.
Thus, your first step in considering your audience is to define what sort of book you’re writing. Why? Because the answer will determine what your book must include to sell it to an editor. It may be a graceful style, or penetrating character insights, or a happy ending, or detailed and accurate descriptions of police work. You discover what your kind of fiction requires by reading it. A lot of it. Constantly. With interest and—one hopes—some amount of appreciation.
Suppose your book falls between genres—a sort of historical mystery, say. Should you still write it? Yes, if it’s the story you really want to tell. Just be aware that marketing it may be much more difficult—not because the book isn’t good, but because of the way the publishing world is structured.
Who’s buying the tickets?
Now that you know your general audience, it can be helpful to picture the specific audience for whom you’re writing. Many authors say that writing to someone specific helps them better focus on what to say, in what order and with what effect. Who should you imagine reading your words?
Some writers picture a specific market segment, a faceless mass made up of certain readers. Kathleen Norris, novelist and spiritual writer (Amazing Grace), writes “what I think other women would like to read. If what I write makes a woman in the Canadian mountains cry, and she writes to tell me about it … I feel I have succeeded.” Narrowing your imaginary readership to a specific group—women, or 10-year-olds, or sophisticated mystery lovers—also may help you get a feel for what will make your novel work.
A perverse but effective-if-you-can-pull-it-off variation on this is to picture your audience, decide what they want … and then write something else. Umberto Eco, author of such erudite mysteries as The Name of the Rose, claims to do this. According to The Writer’s Quotation Book: A Literary Companion, Eco has said,
Usually the recipe for a bestseller is to give people what they want. My challenge is and was: Give them what they do not expect. Be severe with them. The world of media is full of easy answers, wash-and-wear philosophies, instant ecstasies, what-me-worry Epiphanies. Probably readers want a little more.
Do you think they want a little more? If so, then picture a group of sophisticated readers who like to be surprised and challenged, and write for them.
Other authors imagine not a group of readers, but one specific, fictional individual and write for him or her. Also from The Writer’s Quotation Book, John Updike, author of Rabbit, Run and Couples, says he pictures his ideal reader in quite specific detail:
When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.
Who is your ideal writer? Does it help you focus if you describe him or her to yourself and then write to please that person? Try it and see. Or try John Steinbeck’s (Of Mice and Men) trickier variation: writing to please a specific real person you know. Pick this person carefully. Make sure your reading tastes match before you begin mentally addressing your fiction in that direction.
Finally, there are writers who picture their audience as a clone of themselves. These writers imagine someone identical to their own selves, but unacquainted with the book. Would their other self like it? If so, such writers reason, so will other readers. This group includes John D. MacDonald, Marianne Moore and Stephen King. The technique might work for you, too.
How do you like to work?
All this advice can be applied in two ways. First, you may be one of those writers who holds a dual image of what you’re writing as you write it. Part of the dual-image writer’s mind is immersed in the story, living and breathing and feeling it along with the characters. The other part holds itself back a bit, looking at the words on the screen from a distance, weighing and judging. If you are this sort of writer, it may indeed be helpful to assign the weighing-and-judging to a definite image of your audience. Let him/her/them decide what to keep in, what to delete, in what direction to move the plot.
If you’re a different sort of writer, however, don’t split yourself in two while writing. Every atom of your being is involved in the story, and trying to please an imaginary on-looker only paralyzes the creative flow. Forget the audience while you write your first draft. Evoke that audience when you go through the second draft, revising and polishing. After all, an audience may be more welcome at a dress rehearsal rather than a first readthrough.
All right, everybody, places … open the curtain.
Nancy Kress is the author of 17 books, including two on writing fiction; Beginnings, Middles, and Ends and Dynamic Characters (both Writer’s Digest Books).