Monday, August 5, 2013

The Importance of Knowing Our Audience and Genre

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
Considering how much I post on Twitter, it’s amazing how little time I spend there (thanks to a handy-dandy free tool called “Social Oomph").
There are a few things that I see on Twitter that make me wince.  One is a BSP (blatant self-promotion) tweet that’s a variant of: my book is for anyone who loves a great story!
Well…sure.  We hope that anyone who enjoys reading will love our books, right?  Just the same, I know a good deal about who I’m aiming for with my books. I know how and where they shop, their general age range, their interests, their general thoughts on profanity and violence in books.  I know their gender and some of the things they enjoy doing in their spare time. I know what they're looking for when they pick up a mystery.
Clearly, not everybody is going to fit into that very general reader demographic. But many do.  I aim for them with my books.  How do I know so much about them?  Readers email me.  They’re my friends on Facebook and Pinterest. I listen to them and pay attention. My publisher helps me with demographics, too, and nudges me in the right direction if I stray too far (which happened in my last manuscript, as a matter of fact).  And I sure hear about reader preferences in the customer reviews…good, bad, and ugly.
This isn’t a difficult task.  And structuring a story for a particular genre or audience doesn’t much alter the most basic aspect of our story, either. We do this all the time…this process comes naturally to us.
For instance, y’all know I recently returned from a family vacation in Kenya (photo above. With baby elephant in the background). :) Upon my return, I’ve been asked about my trip by different friends and family.
When young children asked me, I talked about the big cats and the elephants we saw.
When my son’s teenage friends ask me, I share with them that we had a leopard and hyenas running through our safari camp at night.
When my parents asked me, I may have left out the bit about the leopard and the hyenas since they wouldn’t have been wild about the fact their grandkids were in a tent with wild animals around.
When an epicurean friend asked me about the trip, I talked about the food that we ate there and how it was prepared.
A well-traveled friend specifically wanted to know more about our flights over there and where we stayed for our layover.
You get the idea. And this is just filling people in on a vacation…in a way that hopefully makes the vacation story at least a wee bit more interesting to them.  We do this all the time, right?  Tailor our stories for different groups of people we know.  Our boss will hear one version, our parents another, our children another, our best friend a different one still.
If we’re writing genre fiction, it does help to know the genre…not to limit ourselves, but because we have a good picture of our reader.  We know some general expectations that readers of a particular genre may have.
So, for me, if I’m writing a story about a con man who gets murdered, I’m slanting it in a different way because I’m writing for readers who enjoy cozy (traditional) mysteries.  The con man’s death won’t be gory, or, if it is, I’m sure not going to describe it. My main character will be an amateur sleuth who is tangentially involved with the case and feels a personal duty to investigate.  Forensics won’t be included.  The dead man’s wife won’t be cussing up a storm when she comes across his body. The pace I’m aiming for is one that moves along, but isn’t afraid to have some gentler detours.
Now, let’s pretend I’m writing a story about a con man who gets murdered—but I’m writing a police procedural.  Now my main character is likely a cop.  I will probably describe the crime scene in some detail, since the police must examine the crime scene. Forensics will be there and my protagonist will be checking in with them later to get all the clues they need to help solve the case.  My victim’s wife can throw any kind of a fit she likes.  The pace of the story is fairly measured (but never slow) as the police investigate the crime with a structured approach.
Now I’m writing a thriller about a con man who gets murdered.  Maybe the reader is even in the killer’s head sometimes….heck, maybe we even know the killer’s identity (which we sure wouldn’t know in either of the other two genres I’ve mentioned) because the important thing in this story isn’t the whodunit puzzle, it’s the race against the clock. Perhaps the killer has a long-standing grudge against the man who conned him out of his life savings and all the people the con man cares about.  We’re in a race against time and jump from the killer’s POV to the cop’s POV with nerve-wracking parallel editing.  The mood is dark and tense and the pace is very fast.
The fact that I know what I write and who my readers are means that I’m not going to turn a thriller over to my editor for my cozy readers. 
When I get an occasional email from a teenage boy or a college-age woman saying they love my books…I'm thrilled. I really am. And it shocks me to pieces.  They aren’t the demographic I’ve shot for. And I’m delighted when I pick up readers along the way.
Who is your reader?