Hello! I’m alive! A high-needs newborn nearly killed me. Now she’s a rambunctious toddler who lets me sleep at night. Owning a business, working at a paying job (to make up for the resource-sink that a business can be), and keeping a toddler thriving while she engineers possible deathtraps are activities that cut into personal time. At some point, I realized I was finding time to read without a tiny human attached to me and that meant I could write instead. My stories are developing at the running speed of a sloth.
We’ve all heard it. “Know your audience.” It’s basic writing advice in all areas of fiction and non-fiction. Without knowing who you’re writing for, you can’t really know when you’re done. Writing requires choices and a way to limit them.
My problem with this advice is self-denial. When struggling to write fiction, I try to pin the wrong audience to the story.
For technical writing, the question typically prompts an easy answer. When I was an administrative assistant in government, I always knew my audience. Business emails, letters, and project summaries were the same. I wouldn’t simply decide to spend my limited working hours writing up a report for my own sake, so I could always ask myself “What does the requester need? Does this matter to that person?”
The audience for a story isn’t as clear. I’m not an established author guided by an editor. Friends occasionally make requests, but I notoriously respond in ways they didn’t want. (“Why don’t you write an upbeat story?” I greet the challenge with an enthusiastic, “Sure!” What I come up with a short about a case of mistaken identity involving a woman dying of cancer. It doesn’t quite meet specs.)
No matter what I write, I’ve struggled to figure out who would read it. Why? Stay with me for a moment — I’m going into flashbacks.
Growing up, writing was a guilty secret. I was an artistic child, interested in sketching, painting, photography, sculpture, and writing stories, but I had a love-hate relationship with art. My life was full of little traumas…and maybe a few big ones…and not much in the way of creative support. I would watch my father draw, paint, and build. He inspired me. What he couldn’t do was encourage. That wasn’t his personality. He did his own thing and expected others to excel without relying on anyone. He also had strong opinions about was cool and was was lame.
Non-fiction could be cool. Fictional books were lame.
I was afraid of his scorn.
Story ideas, outlines, and chunks of stories were stuffed in my closets, under my bed, and under piles of clothes, buried in notebooks alongside homework or hidden between black pages. I wrote often on napkins and scrap paper, scribbled over with phrases that seemed for the moment too perfect to keep in my mind. They were easy to throw away once they were out.
I told myself that the characters in my head were too boring to need their own adventures. The plots that developed in my dreams were too strange to be understandable. No one would care about the worlds that formed throughout each day.
I couldn’t be a writer. No way. Writers were lame, starving artists, who opened their souls to the red-eyed wolf that was the reader.
It didn’t help when the private lives of big-name authors would be ripped apart by readers. See? I’d think. Writing is stupid. Suicidal. Strangers won’t only criticize your work, they’ll attack who you are. They’ll question why you write and make assumptions. Don’t you deal with that enough?
Even more complicated was that I didn’t really understand anyone else. I still don’t. When coworkers and clients talk about their personal history, I listen carefully. Something could work for a story. But, what the hell? Happy people who have lived well-balanced lives gripe about challenges that only come to the lucky, and they wonder about events that seem common to me. The ones who struggle with unique and more dangerous issues seem more familiar, but their preferences and aversions take longer to figure out.
Sometimes, I want to write to the people I don’t understand. Sometimes, to the people I do.
Always, I feel as if it doesn’t matter. Words need to be buried, anyway. Right?
Whenever I try to fit the story to a particular person, the story shifts away from that person’s preferences. Whenever I try to figure out what particular group wants, all I can think about is what the people in that group don’t want. Eventually, the entire story seems like a waste of my time. Readers will hate it.
I’m not good at writing stories for others. Not yet. I’ve lived with too much fear to connect to readers that way.
So, how do I finish anything? What do my finished stories have in common that my unfinished ones don’t?
It’s obvious, but I’ve refused over the years to accept it.
Nothing I write fits easily into a genre. I can’t honestly say I’m writing for young-adult science fiction readers, because I’ll throw in themes that are more appropriate for adults or blend the sci-fi with surrealist fantasy. My first readers tease me about the common themes in my stories — if they don’t outright complain about those themes continue to make them uncomfortable. Clearly, their opinion only matter to my subconscious as far as I can throw a story into a new direction. Editors have sent back personalized rejections that kindly explain that while they like my work, my stories aren’t a good fit for their publications. (Note: I haven’t submitted anything since my baby was born. This is old info. What’s changed is that I no longer like what I’ve submitted before. Ahhh.)
So, the answer is obvious.
Who is my target audience? It’s me.
Everyone else who likes what I write is a happy addition.