“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who always wore a red riding hood. . . .”
It’s a familiar story, and it’s been told a million ways. If you’ve got a group of writer friends, you could make a parlor game of it:
Tell it as a board book for a 3-year-old.
Now tell it as a spy thriller.
Now tell it as a historical romance.
Tell it as a deep-space science fiction.
You get the picture. Same story plus different audience equals different experience.
You probably already know about the importance of crafting your marketing materials to your novel’s target audience, but what I’m advocating here is that if you want to communicate your message — your story, theme, world — you need to start talking to your audience at “Once upon a time” and continue through “happily ever after.”
Which comes first, the target audience or the message? That’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum that I won’t attempt to answer for you. The important thing is to keep your audience in mind as you write and to understand that if your target audience changes — and it might — it means a root-level revision.
Here are some places where your target audience will influence your writing.
Most genres carry a target audience with them like a parade float. Children’s books? Kids and the adults who read to them. Literary fiction? College-educated, liberal arts degrees, mostly women. Romance? I don’t even need to tell you. Science fiction? This realm that was formerly a masculine domain has divided into more subgenres than I can count, but it’s also divided into “soft” SF and “hard” SF. Guess which has more women readers.
If you’re a reader, you know a lot about your genre’s readership just from what you’ve absorbed without thinking. It doesn’t mean that only women read romance or only men read hard science fiction. Nor does it mean that the same women read every subgenre of romance. What it does mean is that there’s an ambiance that readers expect when they enter that world. As a novelist, you violate that expectation at your own peril.
You like cross-genre? Me, too. The trick to cross-genre is to cross the genre but not the audience. You can blend hard SF and hardboiled detective or a cozy mystery and romance. But put a hard-boiled detective in a soft romance, and it had better be funny, because neither the hard-boiled nor soft romance fans will relate to it.
Chances are that you’ll choose the theme from deep within your own experience and worldview. If it’s not negotiable, that’s a credit to you. Still, you’ll be wise to recognize that a theme of “Life sucks and then you die” is going to resonate with one group of people and “Love conquers all” with another. Again, you cross your audience at your peril.
3. Knowledge of Milieu
If you’re writing in an arena with a specialized vocabulary — medicine, law, ancient Rome, the space program, a fantasy world — you can capture the flavor of the place with well-placed jargon. Part of the appeal for readers is what they can learn about the milieu you’re writing about, so everything you can do to convey a sense of what it’s really like is a plus. But remember that if your readers want to know about the milieu, it’s because they don’t already. Bolster the jargon by illustrating it with action — not infodumps — and make your reader feel like he or she has been there.
4. Reading Level
Be realistic about who is going to read your book. If it’s a kids’ chapter book, it will be geared to a reading level a couple of years younger than your protagonist. If it’s literary fiction, you can use a more advanced vocabulary and more complex sentences, but I’ve known some smart people who couldn’t stand William Faulkner. I love Faulkner and his two-page sentences, so I’m not saying don’t ever do that. I am saying, be conscious of what you’re doing and how it’s going to affect your reader.
The second factor to keep in mind is an international readership. Most of the English-speakers in the world speak English as a second, third, fourth, or fifth language. Maybe your spy novel would be of interest to some of the hundreds of millions of Chinese English-speakers. If so, keep the language down-to-earth and everyday. If you use idiomatic expressions like “chew someone out” or “Elvis has left the building,” make sure it’s clear in context what they mean.
5. Literary Sophistication
By literary sophistication, I don’t mean intelligence or education, just an appreciation for unusual narrative techniques for their own sake. There’s a novel, Time Zone by Tom Lichtenberg, that shows time travel as a process that changes the traveler. The story is told in vignettes that only gradually reveal the relationships between the characters. The storytelling illustrates the concept of the book.
Not everybody’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but I love it.
If you need an unusual technique to tell your story, by all means, go for it. Know, though, that not everybody is going to like it (not a bad thing in itself). But as you write and market the book, be aware of who enjoys these techniques and watch for ways to communicate specifically to those people.
6. Character Identification
Who in your novel will your audience identify with? It might be your protagonist, but maybe not. It might be your Dr. Watson. Or maybe if your book is Winnie-the-Pooh, some of your readers will identify with Pooh, and some with Eeyore.
If one your characters belongs to a professional, social, or ethnic group, your readers might identify with that character, protagonist or not.
If a character suffers from a common condition or ailment — homelessness, schizophrenia, autism — you might be able to make a connection with people who have someone in their lives who shares the same affliction. You might also be able to get a nonprofit dedicated to that affliction to promote your book for you.
Target Audience and Your Fiction
The truth is, we use target marketing every time we try to communicate with anybody. If we talk about some topic to a friend, a small child and our mom, the conversation doesn’t come out the same. We adjust our words, our tone, our approach to reach the people we’re talking to. Your fiction is the same way.
Red Riding Hood is a classic story. But when you tell it to a specific audience, it takes on new resonances and new power. Keeping your audience in mind will give your story a deep unity and help you make the right decisions to connect with your audience, in both the writing and the selling.
About the Author
Jan Bear helps writers establish a web presence so that they can connect with their audience, build a following, and sell more books, even if they’re new to the web. She is the author of a new book, Target Marketing for Authors: How to Find and Captivate Your Book’s Target Audience.
(NOTE from Larry: I’ve known Jan for years, she’s one of the smartest and most analytical writers I know. This is must-read stuff for writers who are looking to build an effective platform. Which we must if we’re serious about seling what we write.)