Monday, March 3, 2014

Who Are You Writing This For?

“The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself.” So says Patricia Highsmith in her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. I think this is true when writing fiction. Indeed, I have just completed the first draft of a novel, which now stands at over 135,000 words. I have some editing to do!

In some respects, I think this is one of the biggest differences between writing fiction and non-fiction. When I write non-fiction I am writing for the market. I think about the reader. Who are they? What do they know? What life stage are they at? What do I have to say that will interest them? As non-fiction writers we need to know all of this in order to tailor our non-fiction to them. A travel article about Newquay in Cornwall might discuss the clubs, bars and entertainment if you’re writing for a young readership (potentially the young stag/hen party readers), but may focus on the zoo and the pirate adventure centre for a young family readership, or perhaps the golf, spas and gardens open to the public for a more mature readership. That’s because the magazines have a clear readership they’re trying to target advertisers with. This doesn’t mean that stag and hen parties don’t want spas, or to play golf, or that mature readers are not interested in clubs and bars! (I know many mature readers who’d be interested in clubs and bars!) But my point is, a magazine has a clear idea of who their readers are, and if I’m writing something for them, that’s who I write for.

When writing fiction, things are a little different. Admittedly, there are some fiction magazines that still have their clear readership and style. A Fiction Feast story will not interest the editor of The People’s Friend, or vice versa. But when it comes to writing longer pieces of fiction, such as novels, things begin to get a little more complicated. 

I was watching the Meet The Author interview on the BBC News Channel, where Nick Higham chatted to JoJo Moyles. In it, he commented that many of her books were labelled as women’s fiction, but she hated that term. Indeed, she commented on the fact that since the advent of ebooks, where people can’t see what you are reading, the number of letters she receives from men has rocketed. Her attitude then is, if she writes ‘women’s fiction’ why are so many men reading her?

Indeed, Patricia Highsmith comments several times in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, that she never understood why her novels were categorised as ‘suspense novels’. Whilst having genres may help readers choose their next book, Highsmith’s comments reveal that she never set out to write a suspense novel, she set out to tell a story.

And many literary agents are often quoted as saying don’t write what you think the market wants, because this year’s bestseller was written at least two years ago, so by the time your book comes to print, the fashion will have changed.

I do think Highsmith is right when it comes to writing long fiction. Don’t write for a specific market, write for yourself. My first novel was (supposed to be) a suspense/crime novel, but it didn’t work, because I wrote it for a specific market. I wrote it for a market - I didn’t write it for me. It was hard work, but more importantly, I didn’t enjoy it. And that shows in the writing. Whereas the novel I’ve just finished writing I’ve written for me. And I enjoyed writing it. It was still hard work, but it was fun too. Whether anyone else will like it, is yet to be seen.

So, next time you sit down to write something, just ask yourself who you’re writing it for. And remember, it is okay to write something for yourself from time to time, too!

Good luck. 

PS - I can recommend Patricia Highsmith’s book, Plotting And Writing Suspense Fiction. It’s a personal account of how she did it - not a prescriptive recipe for how it should be done. Remember she was writing in a time before computers, so there are lots of comments about typewriters and carbon copies, but it’s interesting to know how and why she wrote what she did and how she overcame the difficulties and problems she had.