Thursday 17 December 2009


I've talked before [and elsewhere] about how, as writers, we need to know our readers. All readers are different, thank goodness, and we can't write for all of them, but we need to have a sense of who our intended readers are. More than a sense, in my humble etc: we need to know the way their hearts beat, how to shiver their emotions and wrench each kink in their colons.

It strikes me that one of the most useful and practical ways to do this, given that we cannot actually examine the thankfully well-hidden parts of their anatomy, is to know what other books our intended readers enjoy. In other words, what sort of a reader is your reader?

It's another way of asking yourself what sort of a book yours is. What is it like? What do you want it to be like? What are your aims for it? Of course, you want your book to be different, not just the same as something else, but it will have to be sufficiently like some other books for it to attract some readers. Humans like patterns; we need to know what sort of thing to expect, to be able to identify meanings and intentions. Yes, we love to be surprised, too, and sometimes shocked. But we don't like to be deceived or confused or messed around with. As readers, we may want to be challenged but we want to feel we went on a journey with the author and weren't just sent tumbling off a cliff in the dark.

When you have decided what your readers read, this does not mean you then spoon-feed them more of exactly the same. It does not mean you sell-out and give them exactly what they ask for: it simply means that you know how to engage and hook them, how to keep them with you, how not to let the buggers go till the very last page and way beyond. It means you'll stay with them, haunting their thoughts for long after they've finished your book. And it means they'll come back to you for more.

So, my unusually succinct advice for today is: decide what your intended readers also read. And if you don't know, then I rather strongly and even crabbitly suggest that you read my previous post because it seems to me that if you don't know, then you are not reading in genre. And if that's the case then I rather think you should go to the back of the class and stand in the corner with a large conical thing on your head.

When you know what your intended readers also read, you know them as readers, which is all you really need to know. Because then you can do very satisfying things with their innards.


Harry Markov said...

Like all the advices here, it's simple, yet not so easy to get around to. I have particular difficulty with this one, because I would love to go all Japanese, when I get into the dark/horror story telling mood and these people are truly horrifying with their horror.

But then I do know what my target readers aka Westerners do read and I conform to that [it also appears to be working fine and mighty as far as my test subject beta reader experiments indicate] but every once in a while I would develop this auto-censorship, because so and so wouldn't fit what the readers like. This gets me stuck in a rut and doesn't get me to push the envelope, so I get daring again and the cycle repeats itself.

It's a touch and go thing, trying to spark recognition and yet stand out without alienating people. An art form really.

Nicola Morgan said...

Harry - you make some good points but I think you are missing the point too, possibly. Because I'm not saying give readers exactly what they want, and I'm certianly not saying "conform" or suggesting you don't push the envelope. I'm just saying know them, know what sort of things get under their skin, how to make them laugh cry or be afraid. And know what sort of book yours is, absolutely. Even if it's avant garde.

Also, you say that "Westerners" are your target readers - wow, that's pretty broad! I'm meaning something much more specific and personal than that. It's Stephen King's "ideal reader" idea. And your ideal reader can be anyone, as long as there are enough people like him or her.

But I agree it's tricky, and touch and go, and not a science. There are no easy answers but you know what happens when your eyes get used to the dark: you find you can gradually see better in it

Sulci Collective said...

I think most of my readers died in a cataract of post-structuralism and meta-analysis in the Universities some time in the very early 1970's. Such is my fate to be born out of time...

Good post, but are you saying to indicate the other authors we are like in our query letters since I have been advised against that? One can represent one's target market without resorting to other authors - maybe not in the established genres of YA, SciFi, chiclit etc, but in Literary Fiction ? What's your take on this one point please oh Crabbity font of all wisdom?

"I rather think you should go to the back of the class and stand in the corner with a large conical thing on your head." ooooer Mrs...

Nicola Morgan said...

Sulci C - the point about what to say or not on this subj in covering/query letters is a tricky one. It's tricky because a) different agents / publishers take a different view and you usually don't know what view one takes until you get it wrong and b) it depends how and how well you express it. My agent has told me that she positively wants an author to indicate what authors/books in the intended genre she/he admires, partly to indicate knowledge and passion and partly (though not so essentially) to indicate what any influences/aims might be. Suggesting that one's book is in some way within the same area of interest can be helpful if done correctly. Writers can, however, get it horribly wrong if they indicate, eg, that their book is as brilliant as, or better than such-and-such. My view, and it's echoed by many agents and publishers, is that it *can* be useful to say something along the lines of "my book aims to appeal to readers of ****** and *****" or "readers of ****** could be expected to enjoy my book, ******" But it *must* be said within context, in an undeluded spirit, and it must be meaningful. Eg to say "My book would appeal to readers of Ulysses and Jeffrey Archer books" would cause the agent only to fall about laughing before ripping up the letter. I'd also say only do it if it feels very obviously helpful and if it adds something to what you've already said. Don't just fish around for comparisons for the sake of it.

Advice against putting such things in covering letters tends to be because so often writers get it horribly wrong, and it would be better not to do it unless you were sure you were saying something meaningful, correct, undeluded and helpful to the recipient.

Yes, one can represent one's target market in other ways, in which case that would be good; but those other ways also risk being equally unmeaningful (etc) when done poorly. Do you agree? So, in the end, it comes down to nuance and appropriacy, rather than a tick-box science.

You can stay at the front of the class, and have a gold star for asking a sensible uestion tinged with flattery.

Sulci Collective said...

You misunderstand, One felt a certain frisson at the command to place a 'large conical thing on your head'...

Thanks for the reply to the query about the query letter (told you it was meta). I wonder in these market led times, whether one plays up the target market not in terms of typical readers (unless you're writing specifically genre fiction) but in terms of demographic groups: eg you sell Garland's "The Beach" as 'would appeal not just to thriller fans,liteary fans of the heart of darkness novel theme, but also to Backpackers and adventurists etc.'

Joyce meets Archer, now that I WOULD read! Better than reading either individually in all likelihood.

Jemi Fraser said...

Gread advice, as usual :)

It's a different way of looking at it. I don't know if I could write outside my reading field. I think I'd feel a little lost.

Fi said...

This seemed like quite a simple task until I started thinking about it.

I know very well the audience for my scripts - am dram groups, fundraising organisations and schools - easy one to start.

However, when I look at the potential readers of the novels that I write, it isn't so straightforward. Fans of fantasy. That's a starter, but fantasy in a modern setting. Lovers of magic. Probably romantics at heart. Ooh, this is difficult. I need to put some more thought into this.

Thanks for getting me thinking.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Loved this post, because of what it is making me realize aka marketing. My novel initially went out to a particular demographic who it wasn't intended for. Not good for sales. Lots of reasons for this, long story short, we're now focusing on reaching the actual intended demographic, and not the one that on first glance would seem to be the demographic.

When writing it I had a particular reader in mind. It was NOT the reader targeted initially by my publisher. That's okay, any exposure is good (I think), but now the challenge is to get it in the hands of that reader I was writing to. As that happens, sales will improve.

Anonymous said...

Another question about query letters and this subject, I'm afraid. I think I have a fairly good idea what sort of books my (potential) readers read; Charlie Higson's Young Bond series, Eoin Colfer and Anthony Horowitz. But I also think I have a fairly good idea about what they watch, namely movies like the Indiana Jones series (even though I know it's an old series now but thanks to the magic of marketing, still quite alive). Is it risky putting the Indiana Jones thing in a covering letter? It's just that my book features 1930s archaeologists and I suspect the link is fairly obvious anyway, so perhaps it's best I acknowledge it? Although I should say other than the fact my main characters are archaeologists and they're from the 1930s and it's an adventure story, there are no other Indiana Jones links. Sorry, rambling a bit, I guess what my question is in general is 'when thinking about your potential readers and talking about your potential readers, do you stick rigidly to the subject of what books they read only?'


Jo Treggiari said...

My readers are all exceedingly clever and have marvelous senses of humor.
And they are very good-looking.
And humble.

Harry Markov said...

Yeah, it sounds like I am missing the point. I used generalization a bit too much than I really needed to both in my example and what I was trying to explain.

I'd like to try again for the sake of not sounding like a person, who has no clue what he is talking about. The main idea was that this skill is like tuning a radio to a station that works for you as an individual and the others as a group. It's getting the right frequency that catches the wave length of both what goes under the readers' skin and what you do.

I hope it's better this time with the explanation.

Rebecca Knight said...

This is great advice :). I've thought long and hard about what kind of book I wanted to write, and it turned out (surprise!) it's the kind of books I love to read.

Good stuff to ponder, Nicola!

Sarah said...

Loved this post as well! I do need to make sure I know the sort of story my readers want.

It also dovetails with something I read a few days ago in Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. She said that for her, one of the keys to establishing the voice of a story was knowing who the narrator was "talking" to. In some books, authors had a very specific listener in mind (the good friend of a middle aged woman, for instance).

I think she was speaking in a much more specific sense than you were, Nicola, but it really struck me. I guess it goes back to what you'd said before about writing with the reader in mind.

Unknown said...

Very good comments, as a writer of children's historical and fantasy fiction, shall enjoy thinking this through.

Nicola Morgan said...

Harry - perfect!

Sulci C- my mind is boggling, with or without conical things. On a serious note - I can't account for what others do, but I'm much more general in my approach. More kind of metaphysical and -phorical. It's a feeling, an intuition, and attempt at bridging the existential void between writer and reader. (Wine has been taken.)

Jemi - precisely

Fi - good! Don't think too literally though - just kind of feel the vibes of your reader. Tune in. And then do your own thing while maintaining a vague tuning. (Wine has been taken.)

Karen - interesting. Can you tell me what the novel is, so I can work this out?

Lacer - your specific question: "when thinking about your potential readers and talking about your potential readers, do you stick rigidly to the subject of what books they read only?" - no, definitely not. I'm not really thinking of tailoring your subject-matter, nothing so big and broad. I'm thinking on a more nitty gritty level, being aware of them and what they expect and like (and possibly sometimes giving them the opposite, playing with them a bit, but always thinking of their ultimate enjoyment).

Regarding your earlier specific question re mentioning similarity to film - no problem if that's what fits the picture and if it really really really helps the agent/pub understand your book. Mind you, if it's too obvious there's no need to say it, so you shouldn't. It really depends on the exact circs. To be honest, those authors you mention are so similar that I'm getting the gist, so I feel that adding Indiana J would be unnecessary. Only say what is necessary. Make every word count.

Thanks, everyone. Rebecca - good place to be!