Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Who Do We Write For? - Nicola Morgan

I've been thinking about this a lot recently because some people I respect have contradicted a belief of mine. See, I think - thought - that writers should think of their readers. Of course we need to have confidence and belief in our own writing and to love what we do, feel inspired and fulfilled by it; but, for me, each sentence is there for the enjoyment of readers. Therefore, I'm thinking of them while I'm writing.

I also believe that the main reason I failed to be published for so long was that I was writing purely for myself, with little or no thought for the reader's enjoyment. I was so up myself with the beauteousness of my prose that if I wanted two glorious sentences where one would do, hell, I'd put them both in. After all, they were Good Sentences so the reader could damn well read them and enjoy them as much as I did. I was thinking of myself and my enjoyment way too much. I was being self-indulgent, which is what doing something for yourself is.

So, quite often on my Help! I Need a Publisher! blog I have blogged to aspiring writers about the importance of thinking of readers when we write. I don't mean that we should just give them everything they want, just as parents shouldn't give children everything they want. I mean that for me the desired end of a book is the satisfaction or excitement or inspiration of the reader - or whatever other emotion I happen to wish for in them - and that my own pleasure is only in achieving that. I have quoted Stephen King's thing about his Ideal Reader, the person he has in mind when he writes, the person he imagines looking over his shoulder. He talks about writing the first draft with the "door closed", in other words without too much thinking of readers, but the second and subsequent drafts with the "door open", very much with imagined reactions flooding in and affecting what he writes. And that's in a book on how to write - On Writing - so he is offering it as guidance, even a rule.

But I'm aware that this is not the only way to look at things. I recently interviewed Ian Rankin and Joanne Harris and asked each of them where they stood on this question and they were quite clear that they don't particularly think of their readers. Now, considering that they are both phenomenally commercially successful, I find that interesting.

So, have I got it wrong? Or does it just depend how you interpret the question? Are Joanne Harris and Ian Rankin just lucky that they've hit a way to write which indulges both them and their readers, so they don't have to think consciously about the reader? Am I too mired in YA/children's writing, where we have to do a bit of mental gymnastics in order to satisfy a reader who is patently not the same sort of reader as we are ourselves? Or what? To the writers among you: how much do you think of your readers, either as an imaginary generalised bunch or a specific group?

Yes, we write because we want to and because we love doing it, and it's therefore somewhat selfish, but to what extent is your actual choice of ingredients in each book for the sake of your reader more than yourself? What is your relationship with your reader when you're writing?

And take your time: I'm not thinking of readers or writing at the moment because I've got a building disaster. Six days after my lovely plumbers started what should have been a simple bathroom refurb, this is what we've got. (Actually, now it's worse because even the wooden frame has gone and they've started to dig up the concrete floor to the depth of half a metre into the solid ground.) Flood, broken pipes, damp, leaky steps above it, original poor building of the extension, missing damp-course, a running-a-mile insurance company and a home survey when we bought the place six months ago that detected "no sign of damp"... Sorry to go off point but sod readers - I need to think of myself for a bit!


Stroppy Author said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head when you say it's different with young readers, Nicola. It's not that writers for adults don't need to think of their readers but that (a) their readers are not as different from them as our readers are and (b) there are, statistically, so many more adult readers than young readers that it's not necessary to appeal to as many of them with each book.

We need to think about what our readers will understand - from words to themes and ideas - as well as what pleases them (not the same as pleases adults). We also have readers passing through our target age group in a few years, while the Ian Rankins of the world have readers that stay in their target pool for 60 years! They can afford to please themselves more.

catdownunder said...

Mmm...I can see what you are getting at - I think. But, if you write for children, do you need to write for yourself as a child?

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

Please accept my apologies in advance because I'll probably get wearisomely esoteric. This is something I've thought about a vast amount - and argued about with my critical conscience (aka the wonderful Marc Nash) - for about two years - since I made "Writing is for Readers" the slogan of Year Zero.

The long and the short of it is that I think both positions are right. The problem AS a reader with gaining something from a text is that as readers we are individuals living in a world made of specifics, or actual relationships and real problems. There ARE NO generalities, or universals or "issues" opr "principles". There's just the noise in YOUR head. At that level, no book will speak to you.

But they do speak. And the books that do - the ones that address that noise, either to soothe it, or clarify it, or amplify it, are very rarely ones that deal in generalities. They take individuals, tiny, exact lenses on life - the kind of lens through which we see our own life.

Yet many writers, when they start thinking of readers, will suddenly switch to universals, issues, generalities - because they are speaking to a group, or an ideal. Whereas what they need to be doing is not trying to connect by finding commonalities, but zeroing in even further on specificities. And (and I don't mean write what you know - there is a VAST difference between confessional literature and autobiography of any kind - cnfession has to do with telling not your story but your truth - and a truth can be as specific as a story, and we can dress it in a million fictional clothes) the one real specific one has is oneself. Therefore, the only way to connect best with one's reader is to write oneself.

Katherine Langrish said...

'The one real specific reader one has is oneself'. That hits the nail on the head for me. I am both author and audience. I don't think about the reader as I write, but when I go back over what I've written, as a reader I see what's wrong, and I cut stuff and prune stuff out and rewrite and rewrite...

Ms. Yingling said...

The reason there are so many horrid books for middle grades is that some authors are not paying any attention to what children want to read. There are so many boring, didactic books about quirky misfit children, and I NEVER have a student come and ask for that sort of thing. Is it that many authors were quirky, misfit children and they are writing for themselves as children? That would be a mistake as well. All writers should be required to talk to actual members of their target audience on occasion!

Elen Caldecott said...

There is also - for more experienced writers - a sense in which you write for your publisher, no? You know what kind of thing they will like and you edit your ideas to fit. If you write for more than one house, then you have a bit more scope.

Nicola Morgan said...

Elen - damn, I forgot about them!!

Stroppy Author said...

Yes, Elen, you're so right! If one of my publishers turns something down, I don't know what to do with the thing as I know I've written it for that editor/list and it will take a bit of changing to fit another.

Penny Dolan said...

Having a keen and helpful builder hammering and scraping away at the damaged pointing on the wall just outside my desk at this very moment, you have my total and extreme sympathy, Nicola.

As if you didn't have enough frantic trouble trying to move in! Forget the "think of yourself for a bit. Go "Cossett yourself for a bit!" And oh, that awful depressing smell of damp. Poor you!

Linda Strachan said...

Ms Yingling you are so right. 'All writers should be required to talk to actual members of their target audience on occasion!'
This is especially true if that target audience is at either end of the spectrum, very young or teens.

Little children will get totally bored if your book doesn't connect with them, and a teenage audience are always a challenge. They will almost always let you know immediately if you are being pompous, boring or if you book is not working for them.

When I am writing I have things at the back of my mind like what the gatekeepers (publishers etc) might not let through - this might be something like not encouraging and lauding dangerous activities.

Also the interests and problems faced by my potential readers in their lives- so that what I write will enlarge their view of the world or give them a look at possibilities they might not have thought of.
The information about who I am writing for and what works for the reader is always there somewhere in the background.

But all this is hopefully deep in my subconscious mind -
It's a bit like when I am writing for a strict brief for an educational publisher, when I need to follow their guidelines so that the books will be fun to read but also useful for teachers. With these I read the brief, so that I understand the basics, then put it away so that the ideas and the story can come first.

But perhaps it is also like the knowledge that if I pick up a hot dish from the oven I will get burnt so I reach for the oven gloves - I don't need to think about it but I know what not to do!

Linda Strachan said...

Penny is right, Nicola, cosset yourself for a bit. What a nightmare -hope it all gets sorted soon.

Andrew Strong said...

I'm a headteacher in my other life, and if there's one thing I keep reminding my teachers it's that each pupil needs teaching strategies and resources suited to his or her abilities. Of course I don't expect a lesson plan for each child, but I do expect material to be differentiated into at least four levels within each year group. This can be a nightmare for the teacher if no published resources suited to the children's needs are available. So, when I'm writing for children how can I possibly write for all of them, or even a particular age group? It isn't possible. Instead, I write for me. I write for the ten year old me, and what I would have liked at that age. The limitations of working in any other way are too complicated for my poor brain to contemplate.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I write because I have something to say. If one reader gets back to me and says I've touched them then its all be worth it.