Still Baffled After All These Years

Published by: Penworthy on 4th Oct 2017 | View all blogs by Penworthy

With my current W.I. P. creeping along like an arthritic tortoise who has just done his weekly shop at Sainsbury's, I have decided to have a bit of a sideswipe.

My purpose in taking time to write this blog is to voice a bafflement that has been bothering me for years.  It is a bafflement on two fronts.

First, anyone who has ever read or heard advice on how to write will be familiar - even weary of - the advice "write for your target market".  What is that?  What should it be?  How on earth are any writers supposed to know what kind of person is likely to read their books?  It presupposes that there is only one type of reader for their genre, which could be crossover anyway.  

What kind of person reads a detective novel, for instance?  There is surely more than one.  Who would read fantasy - eccentrics with wild imaginations?  What about historical novels: are they read opnly by people living in the past?  If these are the assumptions, then writers of how-to books and advisers of would-be authors need to explain to authors how their work can be tailored.

Surely, though, the only result of doing this would be to drive writers to total distraction by forcing them to write agaisnt their natural mental inclination.  The result of this would probably be dire.  Not only that but writers would actually be confining their market to a fixed readership, failing to cater for readers who are omniverous in their choice.

Something else that I find puzzling is the advice to read, read, read, other people's books.  Why, other than for pleasure?  A child would certainly improve his or her vocabulary and spelling by doing this but, directed at writers who are adults, it seems to be a way of saying "we want more of the same".  In that case, there is no place for originality and, if this advice had been followed over the centuries, we would all still be writing like Chaucer.

It's all nonsense.  All you can do is write what you want to, doing the best work you can, and hope that at least some people will want to read it - preferably many.

Write for anyone.  Don't even think about a target. Write to your own inclination.  When all is said and done, it's the only way you'll gain real satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment from your writing.




  • bazbaron
    by bazbaron 9 months ago
    The market you choose to write for is easier than you think. If you're a reader, then you have a particular genre you enjoy. Let me ask you this, are you the only reader out of the millions who buy and read books of that same genre? Of course you aren't, the trick is to write better stories in your chosen genre. How you go about that is the hard bit.
  • Woolleybeans
    by Woolleybeans 9 months ago
    Reading widely means you are aware of what is already there, both so you can build on and innovate what is already there. I say that not having made it through an entire book not related to work in a good while now, but it is valuable.

    As for the target audience, I'd say that is also easier if you read widely in the genre you like/write for, but trying to predict exactly what sort of person would read it seems like a mind-game I will not be playing.

    I've read advice saying to write for your imagined 'ideal reader', so you are thinking how someone would respond, but, yeah, not everyone who reads the same genre has the same mindset or is from the same demographic in other respects than being a reader of that genre.
  • Raine
    by Raine 9 months ago
    I think when people say 'write to your target audience,' they mean two things - 1) age-appropriate language, and 2) know your genre. Knowing your genre means reading in your genre so that you can see what makes those stories work & learn from that (in terms of writing as a skillset, not producing carbon copies).

    Likewise, when people say 'read, read, read,' they dont mean it has to become work or a chore. I would imagine we all read for the love of reading, and that's not going to change just because as we become better writers, we become more aware of the background processes, if you like - figuring out the reasons *why* you did or didn't like something, rather than just liking/not-liking it. Reading both in your genre and more widely is bound to bring benefits to our writing in lots of ways, from broadening your vocab (yes, even for adults - we're none of us Shakespeare), to making us braver. I don't see how reading widely would make anyone more likely to produce a 'more of the same' type book, because reading & enjoying a book doesn't mean you automatically want to write it, and also the more stories you read, surely the *less* your chance of treading over old ground!?

    Another bit of universal advice is that you need to write the story you feel passionate about. So yes - if you are writing against your natural inclinations, then you need to stop and figure out what it is you *want* to be writing. And if you are fighting your own instincts to try to fit a niche or a singular imagined reader, again, you aren't being true to yourself. I think there's a big difference between learning from other writers to improve our own storytelling, and trying to fit in with other writers.
  • L.
    by L. 9 months ago
    The problem with writing and publishing is that it is a business of opinions so frustratingly there are no absolutes. I do think that you can know who you're writing for, such as are you writing for readers looking for character driven stories, people who likes to dive into people psyche and those readers can be found across different genres, or people looking for escapism, etc...

    And I think reading widely helps seeing how how authors do twists, build tension, appreciate and learn from what's done well or the pitfalls and clich├ęs to avoid. I don't think it has anything to do with wanting commercial success more wanting to better one self. I personally think that commercial success is a wrong reason to write but that's my opinion. Told you a business full of them!
  • Dolly
    by Dolly 9 months ago
    I've come to the conclusion, that no matter how well you've written a novel, if the agent or publisher thinks it won't sell, you will struggle. I rarely decided what I'm going to write, what I write has already decided for me, so I write it. I'm on my second novel, which is odd, eccentric, and a bit off the wall, as was my first, so I don't know who would read it. Someone whose curiosity has been roused?
    As for reading, I don't read as much as I used to, but even so, when I do, I always learn something, no matter how small. I'm also a singer songwriter and write poetry along with short, humorous pieces, and other stuff that just happens to pop into my mind, and sometimes doesn't doesn't make any sense at all. Write what you feel to the best of your ability try your hand!
  • bazbaron
    by bazbaron 9 months ago
    Wise words, Dolly. Can you give us a flavour of your first novel - sounds like my cup of tea if, having read your recent blog, It's of the same calibre, I found it hilarious
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 9 months ago
    A few years ago I came upon a blog by an American writer (I forget her name) who attributed her success to carefully studying the market and closely tailoring everything she wrote to that. She wrote purely to sell, and her own tastes and inclinations didn't seem to come into it at all.

    I found this profoundly discouraging. If this is what you've got to do to get published, I thought, I'd rather not bother. Shortly afterwards the inspiration descended that resulted in my first proper (as apposed to half-arsed attempts) novel, and I quite consciously decided to write the book I wanted to write and worry about the market afterwards. The result, I was advised, was a fine piece of writing that was unmarketable.

    I've tried to take that into account with my latest one, but it's still mainly what I wanted to write. I spend very little time in bookshops (the nearest one is over ten miles away, and that's only a small Smith's), but less than ten per cent of what's in the fiction section of my local library has any appeal to me at all, so maybe I'll always struggle to meet the market.

    Penworthy, I do think you're taking the advice that annoys you a little too literally. Don't forget that we're also often advised, sometimes by the same people, to do exactly what you propose: to write the book we want to write. If your heart isn't in it, it'll show.

    For some fortunate souls, writing for the market and writing what they want can go hand in hand. Many of the rest of us may always struggle to reconcile the two,
  • JtF
    by JtF 9 months ago
    Dear Penworthy, musing in the longest queue @ Sainsburys or fighting with the self service tills? I believe you have ended up here as you have an interest in perfecting your craft of writing. Of course the starting point is writing what you like, maybe unconsciously in the style of a writer you enjoy. If you were an artist I'm sure your first picture would be something that captivated you. Would it be a pencil drawing? {My lack of pictorial enthusiasm extends from the many naturals in my schoolboy art class whose drawings resembled black and white photos!} Or something more colourful? Small or large? With hidden meanings or just a trick for the eye?
    These naturals seem so because they have been refining their own style for years. You own can evolve or be enhanced almost by rote. Once you know the rules (your own plus the accepted formal ones) then have the freedom to break them, possibly creating your own personal niche. Whether or not a formal publishing house has the moral fibre to embrace your new style is the subject of more than half the content on ere! Most importantly, you have to please yourself (in a "is this the very best I can deliver" sort of way)
    All best JtF
  • Penworthy
    by Penworthy 9 months ago
    Thank you very much everyone for responding to my blog in this way. There are many valid comments in there and I promise I'll try to take them on board. Yes, perhaps I can gain something from wider reading, without becoming a copycat but I'm afraid Dolly's first sentence is spot on.

    I once received a rejection letter from Robert Hale after they had seen the whole of my book. In two places they praised the quality of my writing but they made the comment that it had "no commercial future". (A bit ironic this, as they ceased trading in 2015.)

    I think the whole thing can be best summed up by saying: never deviate from what you want to write because, as Richard B says, if you do, it will show. We're all seeking to write better in our particular sphere, and, though none of us will ever be able to say we have achieved perfection, we can get as near to it as possible.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 9 months ago
    As has been said, you can take stuff on board from your reading without being a copycat. I'm well aware that the novel I'm in submission hell with at the moment wouldn't be the book it is if I hadn't read certain other books, but I don't believe I've actually copied anything - that shows, that is. More a case of 'If (s)he can do that, so can I.'
  • Monica Handle
    by Monica Handle 9 months ago
    @Penworthy - I'm with you on this. If I ever manage to finish any fiction, to a standard that I'm pleased with, I know I'll have written it to be something that I'd enjoy reading, and not something that I think some imagined other person would like. But I have enormous respect for authors who take a different line, and who make a living by writing for a well-defined target audience. In some ways, I think that must be a bit harder.

    Having said that, I occasionally take pleasure in imagining the unlikely pitches for books which have become huge best-sellers or have been developed into epic films. "This book is about a dying man and his son, miserably traipsing their way across a dying landscape while dodging murderous, starving cannibals. None of the characters has a name." The Road, Cormac McCarthy. "This book is about a failed novelist who meets up with a would-be professional darts player, who is plotting to kill a woman who is plotting her own death. The novelist tells us the ending right at the start of the book." London Fields, Martin Amis.

    I know, I know ... McCarthy, Amis et al could only do that stuff after years of toil and earlier success. But I say: why not cut to the chase? Why not write now what you might otherwise hope to be your output after a long and successful career?
  • Squidge
    by Squidge 9 months ago
    I had 'not commercial enough' thrown my way for years. I was told my novels were well written, good plots etc, but they couldn't sell them because they wouldn't stand out.

    Having now published two novels after even more editing, I can say that the agents who told me that were absolutely right. But - it also depends on what their definition of commercial is. If they mean 'we want to sell thousands of copies', then no, I'm not a commercial author. But if I accept that I will sell a few hundred copies - still commercial - and a publisher will publish me, then it's not all about making huge bucks.

    Just keep working at it, and you will get there!
  • Philippa
    by Philippa 9 months ago
    I agree. I think there's a spectrum. If you want to write a "best-seller", you sort of have to write to order. A 'best-seller' crime novel needs to have this kind of style, these kind of characters, these many twists. Standardised for the masses? At the other end of the spectrum is the novel someone's written based on their auto analysis of their own belly-button fluff, which probably has a target audience of N=1 (the writer). I think many of us fall somewhere in the middle (if we're aiming for publication). Firstly, we have to write the book that's in our hearts BUT we also have to know enough about the market to know if there's an appetite out there for what we're writing - and perhaps 'shape' our work accordingly. That is a fine balancing act.

    The read, read, read thing makes sense to me. I'm suspicious of writers who don't read. :)
    It's a bit like if you had a musician trying to write a great pop song or symphony who had a collection of just 7 CDs, or a wanna-be chef who never dined out. Reading is how we discover the vast landscape of story-land that exists, shows us what's possible, teaches us what good writing is, and is a way to live all kinds of human experiences that might inform our writing without having to live them ourselves. I liken it to getting your hands on a million past exam papers. For me, reading is simply about discovering stories - and discovering stories is also what we're trying to do in our writing too, me thinks.
  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    Dear Penworthy,
    But what of Ishiguru?
    The most imaginative story I read about a private detective was written by Ishiguru and he has just won the Nobel prize for literature. The novel is called 'When we were orphans' I first came across his writing with 'An Artist in the Floating world" quite some years ago and I think he has always been a popular novelist. I can barely recall 'When we were Orphans' but I think Ishiguru was playing around with the detective genre. Maybe playing around with the detective genres is, in itself, a genre of sorts.
  • Penworthy
    by Penworthy 9 months ago
    These further comments are welcome. I've already started to improve my reading habits with Joanna Trollope's "City of Friends", since she's a very popular writer. The book is possibly a far cry from Ishiguro (although, never having read him, i don't really know. Perhaps he should be next on my list.) I'm at the earliest stage of reading so it's difficult to make any real comment, except that perhaps my writing is meatier but I like the way she paints a picture. Although I always try to do this, perhaps I could do it better.

    Cloudies are obviously an intelligent and helpful lot!
  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    If writing a popular book is your aim, then I would look at the light comedy genre. This can include detective fiction. I saw a film last week called 'Hampstead' and I glanced at the reviews afterwards. It is the sort of film, apparently, that people with freedom passes go to. They watch sliver screen presentations with a cup of coffee and biscuit thrown in. The lead stars were underused. Well, I never!!!
    Joanna Trollope is v very skilled novelist and middle-brow, like me. If you want a clear prose style,look at P.G.Wodehouse, He constructs his sentences for more than is apparent,.
  • Penworthy
    by Penworthy 9 months ago
    Thank you, Mike.
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