Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Audience Appetite

The people who adore reading novels adore them passionately. But novel readers tend to gravitate just as passionately to a particular kind. Those starved for the straightforward will avoid complexity the way vegetarians avoid bacon. On the other hand, if you want a good chew, applesauce isn’t going to satisfy.

Where’s the spot for your own book on the huge buffet out there? Considering that question won’t just help you sell your book; it’ll help you write a much better one—with a better chance of selling, as well.

Italo Calvino observed that “Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature.” Calvino offers other valuable insights: “Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them,” or “A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.”

Isn’t this why some novels linger on the minds not just of individuals but of entire cultures? Why some fiction remains “true” even when everything else in the world has changed? But are “Overambitious projects” different in literature than in music, sculpture, philosophy, or science? Probably not.

Tip: The eye of the beholder determines what makes a “project” “overambitious.”

Can you visualize your ideal reader? Maybe it’s someone who’d choose the goodies that you would at the buffet. Maybe it’s a favorite teacher, your son, your critique partner, the guy from your lit class at West Point, or the cutie who delivers the mail. Picture the reader you want. Take your time.

Ready? Use your ideal reader to answer the questions every novelist faces. Like these.

~ Does it matter if the characters or plot seem a little familiar?
~ How much setting is too much?
~ Is there such a thing as too clear?
~ Is white space or *** a perfectly good technique? No matter how often?
~ If it starts to sound like poetry, is that a good thing?
~ Must the point of view be absolutely consistent?
~ Is it okay if most of the characters are “neurotic”?
~ Does backstory add insight, or is it just annoying?
~ How much dialogue is “just right”?
~ How “political” does a novel get to be?

There are no right answers! None. But you need to ask—and answer—such questions. Know your audience. That’s not just how you market adroitly. It’s how you write adroitly, too.

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