Thursday, 29 January 2009
Who is my reader?
There is a kind of writer who rarely spares a thought for the reader. I’m writing my novel for myself, they’ll say. And if someone should happen to pick it up and something I’ve written resonates with them, that’s great. But even if no one ever read a word it wouldn’t stop me writing. Fair enough, I always think, as long as you don’t mind if it stops you being published either.
There is another kind of writer who hides their jottings in a drawer. They long to share what they’ve written but self-consciousness or fear either of failure or of being exposed as a sham or any combination of these things prevents them. Having been there myself I’m inclined to be a lot more sympathetic towards this kind of writer, though the bottom line, however cheap and tacky it may sound to those of a sensitive disposition, is still – to quote the lottery slogan - you’ve gotta be in it to win it.
I guess there’s a third kind of writer who’s found the middle way. There must be, or the shelves of bookshops and libraries throughout the land would be empty. Writers who’ve owned up to their split personalities – (I write for myself but I wanna be famous!) - thrown caution to the winds and sent their stuff out to an agent explaining how their particular novel may appeal to readers who enjoy Kate Atkinson or Marion Keyes or whoever it may be. Bingo. They may be in luck since there’s always room for another Kate or Marion. Provided enough of what you've penned is different from either.
Then there are writers like me. If you write for women’s magazines and make a living from it, you’ll know that your reader is your priority. Think first of her, then write your story. Do that every time and you’ve doubled your chances of being published.
How To books dwell at length on the importance of writing for your market. We all know to read the adverts and if it’s Stannah stairlifts and incontinence pads then it’s no use writing stories of false pregnancies or hot dates with your best friend’s beau. And that if the magazine is peppered with articles on your baby’s health and the five best foundations for a yummy-mummy complexion, nostalgia is a no-no, unless it’s about your schooldays in the late eighties.
But can you go beyond this initial research? Put a face, a name and a personal history to your reader? While remembering, of course, that if you’re subbing to a multitude of mags then you’re going to have to go through the exercise as many times as there are mags you’re subbing too.
Take- A-Break readers don’t carry briefcases, so I was reliably informed at a writers’ conference I once attended. Unless they’re stay-at-home mums, which many are, they’ll have childminders, not nannies. They work part time. They probably left school at 16 and aren’t overburdened with GCSE’s. Take-a-Break’s own website describes its readers as “ordinary” - a pejorative word in anybody’s book.
I met my Take-a-Break reader once. Let’s call her Mandy. She ticked all the boxes. And then some. I got to know her through a summer play scheme we both attended with our children. Our children, really, were all we had in common.
My life was comfortable. Hers was – is – a struggle, as I"ve found out little by little over the years. When she told me how she’d left her husband, taking her children with her, because he was violent, I wrote "Spellbound", a story triggered by the day the magician came to the centre to entertain the children. I gave the story a hopeful ending. I’d like that for Mandy too.
Now, when I want to write a story known in Fiction Feast as “One from the Heart” I think of Mandy and her life, the hurdles she and other women like her encounter every day. Conjuring up her face reminds me my readers are real, not ciphers. They demand respect, not condescension. No use trying to pull the wool over their eyes with a simplistic morality tale. Life is hard sometimes, often we’re completely thrown off balance by something we couldn’t have predicted. So we need to write stories to reflect that.
Next time you’re waiting in the playground for the kids to come out of school, or pushing a trolley round Tesco’s, keep an eye open for her – your reader. She may be in the middle of a domestic with her toddler, or on the phone to her best friend explaining why she can’t come out tonight. She may just be loitering by the swings, wishing her life were a bit more interesting. Like the stories she reads in the magazines. Hopefully, like the next story that you are going to write.