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Who Am I Writing For?

I got an excellent question from a reader a few weeks ago. This is actually something I wanted to post about myself, because it’s a frustrating disconnect about the whole getting-published process. There’s also stuff here about critique groups. Let’s hear her question and my answer:

I have been satisfied with the vast majority of my MS (YA Paranormal Mystery Romance) for many weeks and my “critique group” (mostly avid readers not writers) feels the same. My struggle is this: Who am I writing for?

My critique group, all readers who spend actual money to buy actual books, all have (gasp!) individual tastes! Their feelings about my MS are very much tied to their personalities, educational level, interests, etc. My friend who adores TWILIGHT loves the funny voice and the beginning and insists that TWILIGHT started out slow and so did HARRY POTTER. My English professor friend with a Master’s could take or leave the funny teen voice but prefers the vivid descriptive prose. My young adult niece finds the voice a tad grating and the beginning a bit slow but adores the entire rest of the book. My brainy teenage niece, in contrast, likes the funny voice of the first chapter and says the rest isn’t her genre but her friends like that sort of thing.

I feel torn. At the end of the day, not all writers have Masters Degrees in English. How do I resolve that when my readers like what I am pretty sure agents would reject?

Here’s the thing. Before your book can get into the hands of casual or even very experienced readers like the friends in your critique group, it has to get through the gates of PROFESSIONAL readers. First, agents, then, editors, the editors’ bosses, their bosses’ bosses, the sales team. Once all those readers who read professionally and with an eye toward the marketplace love your book, only then will you get a publishing contract. Then your publisher will pitch and win over the professional readers who work at bookstores and who will stock your books on shelves for those hobby readers to finally get them.

Ideally, you should be writing for the end user: teens (or adults who read YA, of course). However, to get to those teens in the first place, you’re going to have to volley over lots and lots and lots of people who AREN’T casual readers at all. And those are the people you’re going to have to impress years before your book comes out. So, even if your end user, the reader or teen, doesn’t have a Master’s degree in English, the people who decide whether or not that teen or reader is ever going to see your book often will.

I urge you, seriously, to get a critique group of other writers. Writers who are not friends and especially not family. (What are they going to say? That it sucks, to your face?) Not only is yours not a critique group (If they don’t write, what are YOU critiquing? We learn as much about our own writing when we critique the work of others as when our work gets critiqued.) but you might be doing yourself a disservice by getting feedback from people who aren’t intimate with the writing craft. If you can swing it, get feedback from people who are contracted to be published or already published. You learn and grow by putting yourself in a challenging situation. An audience of readers-but-not-writers sounds like you are being easy on yourself, sorry to say.

That’s why I’m skeptical of sites like Authonomy (Yes, the site is run by HarperCollins but the majority of people who gather and comment there are laypeople and not editors or publishing professionals). So what happens there? Writers post manuscripts. Hobby readers go on there and rave about these manuscripts. Then the writers who produced those manuscripts query me and give me “blurbs” from people who loved them on Authonomy. When I see that, I ask the writer, in my head, “So what? Someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about is talking. Great.”

Let me put it another way. I know nothing about cars. That’s why I’m in trouble if I ever go car shopping again. If you show me a car and it’s shiny enough, and has a sunroof, I’ll think it’s good. Only someone who knows what happens under the hood will be able to tell me whether it’s actually a lemon or not. A person who doesn’t know all of the complexities of writing a novel can usually be won over without much effort. It’s easy to impress the easily-impressed. Don’t stunt your own growth.

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  1. Olleymae’s avatar

    The car analogy is spot on!

    This is one reason why my family never sees my manuscripts, even if they beg to. My work only gets seen by other serious writers who study craft. My friends and family will see the finished product in the store someday (hopefully), but until then, I don’t want their opinion. ha.

  2. ChristaCarol’s avatar

    Yes, loved the car analogy. And I have to completely agree with all of this. As a writer, I truly saw my growth spurt the moment I became involved with workshops (both online and in the real world). You have to immerse yourself into the world of writing, and part of that is learning from other writers. Especially published writers. There is nothing better than having a mentor to guide you. As well, actually critiquing definitely grows those brain cells in the area of writing a good book. By picking through someone else’s work, you eventually learn to become more analytical with your own, noticing things you probably wouldn’t have noticed before if it weren’t for you critiquing someone else. And you don’t just get this from workshops, critique groups, or online writing forums like Absolute Write, but beta readers, too!

    Mary, some great advice. And Lindsey over at the Elaine English agency blogged about audience the other day. Not sure how to link text on comments, so here’s the straight up link: http://elainepenglish.blogspot.com/2010/03/your-audience.html

  3. write-brained’s avatar

    Mary, this is so so TRUE!!! My casual readers NEVER point out what my critique group does–sentence structure, overused words, changes in tense, etc. It is INVALUABLE to have a crtique group or beta readers who are also writers!

  4. Bane’s avatar

    How much you know ’bout bridges? :)

    Knowing one’s audience is critical for consistent voice, but can be very difficult to pinpoint.

  5. Thermocline’s avatar

    You’re point about the differences between feedback from writers and readers is right on. My critique group has been fearless in pointing out the little language quirks that have slipped past my non-writer beta readers.

  6. Kay’s avatar

    Thanks you for underlining a couple a points which have come up in discussions with NCW (Northern Colorado Writers) members:
    1) you need critiquers who know something about writing and are engaged in the process, and
    2) if you want to write for the YA audience you need to read the publications aimed at that group, watch the TV programs, and volunteer as a teachers aid.

    The latter probably applies to any demographic, but so many people seem to be writing YA that I edited my thoughts for that example.

  7. Krista V.’s avatar

    Mary, I appreciated your comment about BEING a beta reader, and not just having one. Quite often, the problems that stick out to you in someone else’s manuscript are the same problems your manuscript has. (It’s hard to slip anything past your subconscious.) And there’s no better way to find a beta reader than to be one for someone else.

  8. Bane’s avatar

    re: the car analogy is somewhat specious, methinks, though I can’t think of a more suitable one at this moment. The problem for me is that the end-user (driver) is not the agent/editor/publisher, it’s the reader, and unlike the more quantifiable dynamics of car mechanics, writing is subjective. Take Twilight — I’d imagine many agents would have considered it a lemon, but a lot of readers most certainly didn’t.

    Perhaps agents/editors/etc. are like blind mechanics — you know all the ins and out and how to fix issues w/ the familiar, but you might not see that new glittering cam lodged in the engine (how’s that for a warped stretch :).

    Know you weren’t going for ironclad, more just gist, but my damn left-brain couldn’t help itself.

  9. Daisy Whitney’s avatar

    Brilliant post Mary and I agree about cars too!

  10. Becky Levine’s avatar

    Wonderful post. My critique group talks about this all the time, and I’ve heard the subject come up many times with groups of SCBWI members as well–will the kids care about this? Do the teen readers notice things like this? I’ve had many discussions with my 14-year-old son, who’s a pretty sophisticated reader, about craft issues that I notice that he could care less about. BUT…as much as we have to make it work for the kids/teens, just as you say–we FIRST have to make it work for agents & editors, and they ARE looking for those craft issues, that voice, that fast opening. Not to mention, I do believe worrying about/revising for those craft issues just makes us write a better book, which has to be one of the big goals.

    Lovely–thanks!

  11. Kendra’s avatar

    Critique groups of honest (scary honest) writers is a must. The pain is worth the struggle. I’m part of an online writing workshop and I’ve never met my crit group face to face. We’ve become friends through interaction and email, but we have enough distance to lay it on the line if a submission needs work.

    Usually when I get a tough crit:

    a) Stomp about the house a bit (What do they know, anyway?)

    b) Then get a little sad (I can’t write, I should go back to bed)

    c) Think, well, that was a weak chapter…maybe they had a point

    d) Get motivated to start rewrites that are much better and stronger than the original

    It really is worth it. My writing has improved a ton since I joined my critique group a few years ago.

    As for writing for teens…I’ve found having a few teen beta readers take a gander after the novel’s been thoroughly workshopped and edited is a good way to see if it rings true.

    Reading everything YA I can get my hands on helps, too.

  12. Julie Hedlund’s avatar

    I write picture books, so the only family members that are helpful in giving critiques are my 4 and 7 year old. They are brutally honest without intending to be mean, and it gives me a great sense of what works and doesn’t work in the story.

    The rest of the family is disastrous. As nice as it is to have my mother indignant about a rejection letter because, “But the story is so good!” That feedback doesn’t help me become a better writer. Neither does having my husband (who is not a writer), hand me a red-lined version with all of his edits that make no sense.

    So now I am taking Olleymae’s view – they can wait until it’s fully polished and ready to be submitted or, even better, after it’s published!

  13. Bryan Sabol’s avatar

    I think another important part of the answer should be to follow your own muse. First and foremost, you should be writing for yourself.

    Of course it’s a huge benefit to receive quality feedback and improve your story, but if you start making significant substantive changes in order to time the market and catch what’s hot, or adopt a different voice to parallel the tone of the latest popular author, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Keep in mind every change you make should be done because you think it makes your story better. Nothing more or less.

    Sure, if you’re fortunate enough to land some sage advice from a professional, by all means listen. I’m just saying that we writers who are yet to break out into the published realm may be tempted to try too hard to “reach the market” and wind up with a weaker story because of it.

  14. Erica Olson’s avatar

    Krista, good comment. Last week I submitted my edits to a critique partner and she replied to my lengthy diatribe on “show don’t tell” by saying “You do that, too” and pointing out a paragraph in my ms that was very similar to the one I didn’t like in hers. Phooey.

  15. Livia Blackburne’s avatar

    What you say is very true, Mary. Although then I wonder if that’s a flaw of the system — that the gatekeepers/suppliers have tastes that may differ greatly from the end customer. What would publishing be like if books were selected like youtube videos, going viral from the ground up? We might find out, if POD continues to grow…

  16. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Thank you Mary. I loved your analogy about car shopping!

  17. Mary’s avatar

    Livia — It’s their job, though, to know the marketplace and supply books to appeal to their market. Sometimes they may have a hit, sometimes they miss. As for POD and content delivery being determined by the marketplace, there have been instances of this but it’s just like a fledgling band trying to make it big by putting their songs up on MySpace… don’t forget that everyone else is doing the same exact thing. There is “cream” that rises to the top this way, but when people provide content for the Internet audience to consume, there’s stiff competition from all the other content out there. And the Internet will have to be the place for something like this. Getting books into brick and mortar stores via channels besides today’s ordinary distributors is getting harder and harder. Midlist authors published by traditional publishers aren’t even finding themselves on shelves anymore… why would some self-published or POD author?

  18. Livia Blackburne’s avatar

    Lol, don’t worry, you don’t need to convince me of the perils of fiction self publishing. I was more making theoretical speculations about how the industry might be changing, with it becoming more important for the author to appeal to readers first, and then taking that platform and showing it to publishers. We see that more and more with nonfiction, with bloggers getting book deals, and we’re seeing it more with fiction as unpublished authors are advised to build platforms before publishing their first book.

    You have a good point about editors and agents needing to know the market. I still wonder though about how much their criteria overlaps with a typical teenage reader. Everyone can agree that you need a good story. But what about, to choose a toy example, inconsistent POV? Alot of writers and professional readers would take issue with that, but would teenagers notice? Certainly not explicitly — no teenager would come up to you and say “I found the headhopping to be disorienting.” That leaves two possibilities: 1) that the teenagers, even though they didn’t explicitly see the problem, would still subconsciously enjoy a book less or 2) it has no bearing on a teen’s enjoyment of the book.

    Don’t get me wrong — I’m not arguing for writers to stop improving their craft, (and you gave awesome advice last week on my manuscript), just as I’m not arguing for fiction writers to self publish. It’s just something that I think about on Saturday afternoons :-) If the industry were different, and books were spread based on popularity with end readers, what would be the bestsellers?

  19. Jessie Andersen’s avatar

    I just joined Scribophile.com. It’s a great resource for writers to critique each other’s work. I’ve already learned so much in the little time I’ve been using it.

    I’ve found the same problem in my own work. My friends and family won’t give me constructive criticism even when I ask for it, so a site like this is extremely helpful.

  20. Alice Beesley’s avatar

    Excellent question. I’ve been wondering about this very same thing myself. I’m more like the English major who prefers descriptive prose over the funny teen voice. My daughter says a lot of the popular books out there where adults try to sound like teenagers don’t get it right. She says, “Do they really think we’re that stupid?” I don’t know what the answer is. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve been reading a lot of YA fantasy to learn about voice. Some I like and some I don’t like so much. I have an good critique group of writers who are pretty tough. We all have different strengths and weaknesses that we learn from. I guess it’s a matter of perfecting your craft and voice and then finding an editor and agent who likes your style and subject matter.

  21. Toni’s avatar

    Over the years I’ve learned that different people have their areas of strength when it comes to critiquing. While one person is better at line editing, another might be tops in seeing the overall picture and another might help with the brainstorming of plot points. While working on a ms. I do a fair share of self critiquing, thinking about what I’m struggling with. Then I go to the person I think is best at helping me mediate that particular rough terraine and I throw myself on their mercy : )

  22. Katie’s avatar

    Toni, I think that’s a really good way of doing things with your critics group. It’s true that some people pick up on things better than others and having a hodge podge of fellow writers really covers more than anything you can do on your own. I might take that tactic up with my critics group instead of having the members send everything out to everyone at once. Hmn….

  23. Toni’s avatar

    Katie, look beyond your critique group as well. Over the years, I’ve met some great teens who love to read and write and they are graciously willing to read my stuff. Again, I remember what their strengths are (their stage of life, their ability to “get” what is and isn’t an authentic voice, their enthusiasm for what might be a trend)and also their weaknesses (being a bit afraid or intimidated about critiquing an adult, especially one that is published. For this reason, I sort of overlook their compliments and focus more on their criticisms). When somebody is an excellent reader, like my sister-in-law, who is EXTREMELY critical, I know something is good when she says it’s good and that I’ve truly earned the compliment : )

  24. BubbleCow’s avatar

    One thing I always try to keep in mind is that agents are looking to sell books to publishers, whilst publishers are looking to sell books to booksellers. It is only the booksellers that are actually selling to the public.

  25. Anthony V. Toscano’s avatar

    Caution: No matter what piece of advice a writing member of a critique group offers you, another writer will give you an opposite opinion. In the end, your story — and how you write it — is just that, your story.

  26. Ilima’s avatar

    I LOVE my crit group, which includes a writer teen…so invaluable! So much of what I’ve learned comes from critiquing their manuscripts. It really is night and day compared to when I just had friends and family read my work.

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