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.

30 comments:

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Wow, Geri, what a useful post. Should be pinned on the wall of every aspiring writer. Sol Stein makes a point of saying this at the beginning of his book On Writing: you've got to think of your reader. I wonder how many writers actually write with a particular reader (like Mandy) in mind? I liked what you said about respect.
Susiex

Geraldine Ryan said...

Thanks, Susie for your lovely comment!

Nik's Blog said...

Great post, Geraldine.

Nik

Geraldine Ryan said...

Thanks, Nik!

CarolineG said...

That was a brilliant post, Geri. Has almost made me well up, actually. For some reason just really touched me.

I know who my reader is, in a very detailed way...he's just turned ten, got freckles and green eyes and is passionate about all sorts of subjects. He's my eldest boy :-)

Mummy said...

I really enjoyed your post - so very true and I would do well to remember it! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Wow - fantastic post, Geri. I liked the bit about respect, too. Great stuff.
poppyx

Sarah Fox said...

Great post, Geri. You are so good at cutting to the chase... and all power to your writing elbow.

sx

Jacqueline Christodoulou said...

Fabulous post, Geri, you put it so well.

Jacquixx

Luisa said...

I agree with everyone - this is a fabulous post. Thank you.

The Write Woman said...

All very true, and very well put! And it does apply to novels too - you always need to imagine 'who' would be likely to read the kind of book you're writing. One size doesn't fit all ... one style of writing / use of language doesn't appeal to everyone!

Samantha Tonge said...

It's a fine line between writing to please yourself and the person who's going to be paying to read your story.
I think about my reader most at the ending,i suppose, and go by what i like as a reader.

Thought-provoking post.

x

Gillian McDade said...

Excellent post Geri! Useful words there - and well put.

Gillian

Caroline Rance said...

Thanks for such an excellent and thought-provoking post, Geri!

Geraldine Ryan said...

Thanks so much, guys!

Rosy T said...

Wise words, Geri. I am always so impressed by your professionalism.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Bless you, Rosy, you're a star!

Jane Smith said...

This is a wonderful post, and I'm going to link to it when I can--it's just what writers need to know. Thank you!

Tam said...

I stopped by here from Womag's blog but have read some of your stories. Thanks for reminding me of something fundamental I'd let slip out of sight.

womagwriter said...

Know your reader - fabulous advice, thanks Geri!

BeckyC said...

Really interesting, Geri - especially the part where you describe meeting Mandy. I'd love to meet my ideal reader, but I'm not sure I'll know him/her when I find him/her!

emmadarwin said...

What a great post, Geri, and yes, very touching. I think it always shows instantly in a piece when someone's 'writing down' (condescendingly) or 'writing up' (pretentiously) to their imagined reader. You may only be engaging some aspects of yourself with a particular kind of reader - as you say, it'll be different aspects for different mags - but that engagement must be honest and empathic while it exists

I have to say that I don't envisage a reader who's different from me, if you see what I mean - does that mean I only write for myself? But I do rely very much on my editors to tell me whether what I'm trying to say is coming across, and I'm very willing to be told that it isn't, and to roll my sleeves up and change things. To that extent they're my representative reader.

Kitty said...

Sorry, Geri, I replied to your blog on the wrong site. But I am very interested in how a respected professional writer views markets and how scientific you have to be in aiming for them. For example, I think an older woman (like myself, I'm in my 50s) would be quite happy to read stories about younger women, whether they're about dating or bringing up young children. After all, we've all been that younger woman and part of her is still inside us. But perhaps a younger woman wouldn't be so interested in stories about amiddle-aged one. And when I was a one-parent family living on an inner city estate, I wouldn't have only wanted to read about people like me.
I think I tend to write what I'd like to read. On the one hand, I do fit the demographic of the mags I write for very well. On the other, I haven't actually sold any yet!
I do enjoy your stories very much by the way. If women's magazine stories weren't generally so good I wouldn't want to write them.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Kitty,
I read your comment on Womag's thread but didn't want to hijack her site.

I suppose what I am saying is maybe that if you write literary fiction you can pretty well write for yourself. There will be someone out there who will share your taste in reading matter. But women's mag writing is much more tailored to a particular market. The trick is to write for that market while still keeping your own voice.

Yes, I agree, if I lived on an inner city estate, the stories I read I wouldn't want to be about people like me - but I would want them to share my concerns even if they were living in palaces.

Ditto if I were an older reader I could read about someone younger - but it would resonate more if it were about a young person in my time not someone of the texting, Facebook generation using language I didn't understand. Or if it was about a younger person then the writer would have to find something about that character that I, as an older reader, could identify with.

Does that make sense?

Kitty said...

Yes it does thanks, Geri, although I'm not the only middle-aged person on my train to work who's often busily texting! I've even joined Facebook, although the only person I've so far invited to be my friend is my son - very disappointing for him!

This is a great site.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Thanks Kitty. I think though that if you're aiming your stories at WW you can be more up to the minute. Not sure how People's Friend readers would react to talk of being poked on Facebook though.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Emma, I think "rolling up your sleeves" is pretty well the same thing I'm talking about. There will always be someone who knows more than you what will appeal. If we are too proud to see that as writers, then we should really just be keeping a diary.

HelenMHunt said...

That's a fascinating post and a timely reminder to remember how real and individual potential readers are.

emmadarwin said...

Geri, I agree that we need someone else to tell us if we're getting what we want to say across. But... I was about to say that I'm not sure how I'd feel if an editor seriously started saying something I'd done 'wouldn't appeal', except that actually an editor has done that once, with something major in each of my so-far published novels. But with both I also hadn't done what I was trying to do well, and it didn't work from the artistic point of view, as well as the commercial point of view. Given enough time and another book, I'd have tried to make it work artistically, and sod the commercial side. I still might.

Going back to Kitty's point, it depends what you mean by 'identify with', doesn't it, as it does with 'what you know' in that old chestnut 'write what you know'. If a reader's external circumstances bore/disgust them, they may not want to read about that. (I'm bored to tears by women's fiction 'aimed' at my demographic, for example; the last thing I want to read about is what I can find by stepping outside my own front door.) But if the emotional and psychological core of the characters and their situations are true and something they can empathise with, it can be set in Ancient Egypt and it will still appeal.

Lydia said...

Thought provoking, Geraldine. I think I met your TAB reader once.In hospital on a ward with me, she was at once one of those people who tell you their life story in two minutes and one of the most courageous women I have ever met. I would do well to remember her next time I submit.