Who’s Your Audience and Why Should You Care?

winter-path-in-sunThe artistic process, whether painting or prose, is admittedly the child of self-expression. The long-standing image of the artist cloistered in her studio—hunched over a writing desk or standing before a canvas to create from the depths of his/her soul—is surely a truism. Artists create from the heart; we dive deep inside our often-tortured souls and closeted past to draw out the universal metaphors that speak to humanity and share—

Ay, there’s the rub. For to share is to have a dialogue and to have a meaningful dialogue is to demonstrate consideration of the other. Somewhere in that journey that began with self, others entered. It is, in fact, something of a paradox and a conundrum for many artists. One that has challenged the artistic community for centuries. It is also why many artists have relied on agents, benefactors, and advocates to effectively communicate, target — and even interpret—their often abstruse “message” to appropriate audiences.

Purists will tell you that a true artist need not consider her audience; because her self-expression naturally finds relevance with the culture and zeitgeist from which she writes through universally understood metaphor: her story is their story.

But is that enough?

I suppose it finally comes down to whether you are interested in sharing. I don’t know any published authors who don’t wish their books to sell. Every storyteller needs an audience to connect with and engage. That is ultimately what good storytelling does: engage, connect, rouse emotions and evoke empathic feelings. Make an impact.

Does identifying and targeting a specific audience result in more satisfied readers and ultimately better sales? Of course it does. The more you—and whoever is helping you market your work—know about your audience, the more likely you are going to attract them to your book, convince them to buy it and ultimately connect with them through story.

That’s the irony of art: it is a treasure that is created out of the depths of solitude but ultimately brought into the light and shared with the world. For your art to have impact, you must know and understand your world.

Knowing your audience will affect every aspect of your book project. It will help determine:

  • What your story is about and how you write it (e.g., language, “voice” or personality, narrative style, tone or mood/attitude, characters, setting and theme, even length)
  • What genre and sub-genre(s) it lies under
  • The look and tone of the cover and blurb (one that matches the story and its audience; I previously wrote about book jacket blurbs and book covers )
  • All aspects of promotion, including the language and images you use, where you direct your marketing and how (e.g., medium, timing, etc.)

For your work to succeed, it’s important to consider the following:

  • collision-with-paradise-smallWrite to the audience’s expectations (given the promise of your work): success of stories with readers will rely on the alignment of expected story structure, tone and endings. My romance SF therefore reads differently from my hard SF in so many ways.
  • darwins-paradoxWrite to the understanding level of your intended audience: how and what I write for my hard science fiction audience (with expectations on accurate and intelligent exploration and extrapolation on science) is different from the style I use for my historical fantasy. This will include “voice”, language and use of specific vocabulary, terms and concepts, sentence structure and pace.
  • Write with the knowledge of your relationship to the reader: how will you gain their empathy and buy-in to your story? This will depend on the genre of your work and expectations of its associated readership.

 

Understand Your Audience

Who is going to read your work? To what age group to they belong? What culture and sub-culture? What gender(s)? What education and intellectual capacity? Economic status? What regions? What political leanings? Prejudices and beliefs? What knowledge-base? For instance, you wouldn’t use a lot of multi-sylabic latinisms in an action thriller; but you might in a literary fiction or even high fantasy. If you research and create a profile of your intended reader, this will help you identify who you are writing to.  “Knowing or anticipating who will be reading what you have written is key to effective writing,” says SkillsYouNeed.com.

It isn’t enough to know who is reading, but why they are reading your writing. Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Who do I want to read this? Who are you writing for? They are your primary audience; the ones you will truly resonate with your story; they will be your fans: who are they?
  2. Who else is likely to read this? This is your secondary audience, readers who may not necessarily read your genre but are interested in the issues or premise of your story or will appreciate how you’ve handled it in your story: who might they be? 

 

Writers are Solopreneurs

In his 2014 article in Forbes, Jayson DeMers shares that: “Market research was once the purview of only big companies. If you weren’t a Fortune 1000 brand, investing in any form of customer research was outside the scope of what many businesses could afford. Today, advances in market research technology have opened a whole range of services to even the smallest businesses. Small enterprises and solopreneurs routinely test ideas before they take them to market, saving tens of thousands of dollars and years of time developing products and services that fall flat with the market.”

Given the current publishing paradigm—which offers less and less to the author, writers are now more than ever required to understand their audience, given their need to be solopreneurs, succeeding on their own know-how, rather than relying on some marketing department that no longer exists.

To know your audience is to know your story better.

A previous version of this article was published in the Clarion Foundation blog and presented by Lynda Williams.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Moving From Prosaic to Spectacular

woman-writing-a-bookWhat makes some writing stunning and other writing lackluster? Mostly, it’s the language—the words—you use. And, it isn’t just what words you use; it’s how you use them. Here are a few things you need to consider when translating your work into something that “sings”.

Use Active Verbs and Reduce Modifiers

Many writers, not just beginners, slide into the pattern of using passive and weak verbs (e.g., were, was, being, etc.). Then they add a modifier to strengthen it. It doesn’t. Actively look for strong, vivid verbs. This is the key to good writing. Active and powerful verbs move a story forward. For instance, which version is more compelling?

Jill was walking quickly into the room.

or…

Jill stomped into the room.

The second example not only more quickly and efficiently demonstrates how Jill entered the room, but demonstrates with what attitude. There is no substitute for the use of powerful, appropriate verbs in sentences.   

Avoid Excessive & Meaningless Prose

Novice writers often use too many words to describe an event, action or scene. An overabundance of words slows down the story and obscures plot and action. Excessive prose includes:

Repetition: many beginning writers will often first tell then show in a scene. You don’t need to do both; trust the reader to get the “show”.

Extraneous words: e.g. “he started to think” instead of “he thought”; use of the obvious such as “she saw the big man lying on the bed” instead of “a big man lay on the bed” (“she saw” is implied through her POV). This second example also demonstrates how you can shift the readers’ attention from “her seeing” (in the first phrase) to “the man lying” on the bed (in the revised phrase). This simple change can create a much more powerful sentence through the seamless shift in reader attention.

Dull description not related to plot: I recently edited a writer’s over 400-page urban fantasy that contained far too much ordinary detail. Detail that, in small doses, may have enlightened the reader on the qualities of the protagonist; but in larger doses ground the narrative to a boring halt.

When you look for a more efficient and purposeful way to say something, you cut out unnecessary detail. Remember that virtually all description should be related to the plot and theme of the story.

Alliteration, Metaphor, Simile, Personification

These devices bring lyricism and cadence and powerful imagery to your prose. However, as with anything powerful, you need to use these judiciously. Use them where you wish to convey a strong image and to punctuate your prose.

Be Mindful of Word Accuracy

More often than you might think, a writer inadvertently misuses a word to convey an idea or emotion. For instance, let’s consider the following sentence, which describes a character’s reaction to a dog being cruelly mishandled:

“What are they doing?” Jack said crossly.

The modifier crossly suggests that Jack lacks compassion; it infers petulant annoyance.

“What are they doing?” Jack scowled.

Scowled still suggests the same icy disdain, though it may have been delivered with false bravado or through genuine discomfort from a hidden compassion. If the writer wished to convey shock, disgust or compassion, the following would better represent that sentiment:

“What are they doing?” Jack said, eyes wide.

Or:

“What are they doing?” Jack stammered.

Avoid Using Words like “Felt” or “Seem”

These “telly” words prevent the reader from directly experiencing the story by imposing a level of interpretation. For example, “he felt himself falling” can be improved to “he fell”. If you want to spice up the phrase, use another verb: “he toppled” “he stumbled” or “he crashed”.

Read your Writing Aloud & Punctuate Your Pauses

It isn’t just a clever metaphor when they say your writing style is called your “voice”; because your readers “listen” to what you write. Reading out loud helps define cadence, tone and pace of your prose and streamlines your writing. When you read aloud, pay attention to where you naturally pause. You may wish to put in a comma, semi-colon or period there.

Size and Vary Your Paragraphs  

Paragraphs are visual elements that help people read; they break up text on a page in logical places to provide white space for reader ease. I’ve heard people quote the “two-inch” rule for maximum paragraph length and I concur. This is one of the reasons some passages are harder to read than others; long paragraphs are more tiring to the eye. Find those logical breaks and put them in. Varying paragraph length creates a more interesting story “landscape” for the reader. Don’t be afraid to go to some extremes like using the one sentence – or even one word – paragraph.

Size and Vary Your Sentences  cool texture

As with paragraphs, overly long sentences can try a reader’s patience and you may lose them entirely. Too many short choppy sentences can also reduce your prose to a mundane level. Varying your sentence length in a paragraph creates the lyricism and cadence that makes prose enjoyable to read.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

 

Do Your Research

timber pathResearch is something many writers dislike and find daunting or even intimidating. Research for your book or short story will take on many forms from subtle to obvious and from non-directed (opportunistic) to directed (e.g., library). Its form and rigorousness will vary according to your purpose and circumstance. And where you go to do your research will vary accordingly.

In truth, as a writer, you are doing research all the time: when you’re riding the bus or train to work, when you’re traveling on vacation, when you’re having a lively discussion—or better yet an argument—with a friend or colleague. Everything you experience and observe is research. This is what’s called non-directed research. Writers, like all artists, are reporters of life, actively participating and observing. A writer is an opportunist, gathering her data through her daily life experiences.

Why is Research Important?

You might be saying: well, that’s all well and good for a historical-mystery set in Budapest or a science fiction thriller set in the Vega system. But you don’t need to do research because you’re writing a fantasy or a memoir. Neither of these, on the face of it, appears to require research: the fantasy is based on a totally made up world, after all, and the memoir is all about you. So, why bother? As a matter of fact, they both need research. Most books do, particularly nowadays for our multiplex, intelligent and discerning readership. Readers of any fiction enjoy learning something when they read, particularly when it’s seamless and made easy through a compelling story. It’s a real bonus.

To return to the fantasy, you will find very quickly that in order to build a consistent world (even if it’s mostly from your own imagination), you will need to draw upon something real to anchor your imaginary world upon. Whether this reflects a powerful myth or forms an alternative version of a real society, you will still need to apply some “rules” to follow, so you don’t lose your reader.

With respect to the memoir, the need for research lies in placing your story in context with either some event, idea, theme or place of interest to attract readership. Unless you’re a world unto yourself (e.g., you’re a celebrity of some kind with an established following), your story will require this larger element within which to place your personal story. That’s where research comes in.

Internet as Resource and Risk

The Internet provides an excellent database that is rich with information, if you know how to get it and qualify it.

Chances are that your favorite newspaper or magazine has a strong online presence. The Internet provides an excellent platform for finding resources in a myriad of subjects. It is the largest single place where you can find current information relevant to almost anything.

With information so readily accessible and easy to find through Google and other search engines as well as giant amoeba-like encyclopedia wiki sites like Wikipedia, you needn’t suffer the frustrations of library and book searches. However, there is risk.

The risk is related ironically to the very accessibility of online information. You need to be even more vigilant of the veracity and reliability of your sources when conducting online research.

Optimizing Your World Wide Web Search

The Teaching Library Internet Workshop at Berkley University provides excellent tutorials on how to search the internet for topics. They recommend a search strategy that analyzes your topic and searches with “peripheral vision”. For instance, they suggest that you:

  • define for your topic any distinctive words or phrases, an overview of the broader topic to which your topic belongs, any synonyms equivalent terms or variants of spelling to include
  • not assume you know what you want to find. Look at search results and see what you might use in addition to what you’ve thought of
  • switch between search engines and directories and back

Verifying Your Research jungle light

When doing research, particularly on the Internet (but anywhere), you should do several things:

  • Use more than one source, particularly for important things; this will give you a wider range of material from which to discern accuracy and reliability
  • Verify your sources and preferably cross-reference to measure out objective “truth” vs bias
  • Try to use primary sources (original) vs. secondary or tertiary sources (original cited and open to interpretation); the closer you are to the original source, the closer you are to getting the original “story”
  • When going to more than one source, try to get a range of different source-types (e.g., conservative newspaper vs. blog vs. special interest site, etc.) to gain a full range of insight into the issue you’re researching

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Lessons from a Linguist, Part 1: Steven Pinker on Reverse Engineering

write anywhere-01 copyWhen I’m not teaching students how to write science fiction, or giving workshops on writing craft or marketing, I am teaching design engineers how to write clearly and convincingly. As Communications Instructor at the University of Toronto in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, I help young engineers navigate the dark and churning waters of fluent and meaningful English.

So, when fellow Montrealer, Steven Pinker starts Chapter 1 of his book The Sense of Style, talking about “reverse engineering”—one of the key features in the design engineering toolkit—I perk up.

Good writing, says Pinker, begins with “reverse-engineering good prose as the key to developing a writerly ear.”

I’d recently picked up Steven Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century after I watched several of his videos on language, and communicating science and technology.

Pinker starts Chapter 1 of the book with this quote from Oscar Wilde: “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” When Pinker asked several accomplished writers about which style manuals they had consulted early in their careers, the most common answer he got was “none”. Writing, they said, just came naturally to them.

“I’d be the last to doubt that good writers are blessed with an innate dose of fluency with syntax and memory for words,” says Pinker. “But no one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere. That somewhere is the writing of other writers.”

Which is why successful authors like Neil Gaimen tell aspiring writers to “read a lot.” Read the best authors. The classics. Authors in your genre; authors of other genres. Authors of other cultures and time periods. Read. Read. Read. My previous article on reading fiction is particularly germane here.

The first thing you need to do is develop a writer’s ear. “Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose,” says Pinker. He goes on to demonstrate this in his book Sense of Style by deconstructing several examples of good prose and providing great lessons on what great prose looks like and why.

So, why do we need style guides at all, then? Particularly given that, in Pinker’s own admission, “much advice on style is stern and censorious,” and a writer needn’t approach learning the craft like a treacherous obstacle course to be suffered and endured. Mastering the craft of writing is a lifelong pursuit and ultimately best approached with the passion that hopefully drives the writer to express. “Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice,” says Pinker, “it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.”

Pinker adds, rather pithily, that, “The classic manuals written by starchy Englishmen and rock-ribbed Yankees, try to take all the fun out of writing, grimly adjuring the writer to avoid offbeat words, figures of speech, and playful alliteration. A famous piece of advice from this school crosses the line from the grim to the infanticidal: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’”

Many style manuals, Pinker admits, “treat traditional rules of usage the way fundamentalists treat the Ten Commandments: as unerring laws chiseled in sapphire for mortals to obey or risk eternal damnation.” Language, he says, evolves and is meant to evolve over time. He adds that, “the graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens come not just from an under-appreciation of the fact of language change but from a lack of reflection on their own psychology. As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline—the illusion of the good old days. And so every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it.”

So, why use a style guide if you’re reading a lot and taking in the best from the best? While Pinker no doubt sprinkles many reasons throughout his style manual (I haven’t finished reading it), here are two of mine:

  1. Once you are on that path toward writing the very best you can, a style guide can help you improve your writing faster by helping you understand why you like a particular “style” used by a favorite master writer and how it is applied. Simply liking isn’t enough; it’s the first step. Mastering it and using it in your own voice only comes with understanding it. I, for one, learn and retain better when I understand why something works for me. My ability to apply that “style” correctly increases markedly when I understand the rules associated with it (whether that particular “style” was in fact following or breaking a particular rule).
  2. The style guide also helps the novice writer ultimately find their own voice, and move out from the shadow of their beloved master and their techniques. It does this by providing a toolkit that applies can then apply objectively to any voice, making it easier for a writer to discover her own unique voice.

 

Of course, there are—as Pinker already pointed out—style guides and STYLE GUIDES. I’ve included a list below of a few I like to use and why.

 

The Chicago Manual of Style. 2010. 16th Ed. University of Chicago Press.1026pp: a comprehensive, easily navigated style guide that is relevant, current and clearly presented, with examples and discussions on a wide range of writing from essays, to fiction. A go-to “bible” for writers and editors.

Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. 1918. Elements of Style. Harcourt. 52pp:Even though it’s really OLD, and contains some outmoded notions and prescriptions, this manual is entertaining, smart and still very relevant in many cases. Compared with the Chicago Manual of Style, it’s pint-sized and therefore highly mobile.

Pinker, Steven. 2014. The Sense of Style. Viking. 359pp: called “the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st Century, it is full of excellent advice, written with a engaging flare and with relevant examples, that speak to process. Read it more for narrative rather than reference.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire. 264pp: FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webnot just because it’s MY book, but because it’s FUN and contains the advice of over thirty experts in the craft of writing, including style and grammar. It’s easy to read and easy to learn with relevant examples and exercises. This book is more of a writing-storytelling guide than strictly a style guide.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

Finding the Muse … and Keeping It

lady-writingI often get asked how and from where I draw my inspiration. How do I find my muse? And how do I keep it? What I’m really being asked is: how do I defeat “writer’s block”?

 

The Journeying Muse 

Many writers complain of experiencing writer’s block at some point in their career—that affliction of not accessing one’s creativity, when the muses have all fled to Tahiti or someplace far away and you are left with a blank page or more importantly—and alarmingly—a blank mind. No desperate search, hot shower, long walk or discussion with a friend will seduce those holidaying muses back. You’re still stuck on page 49.

Here’s my solution: don’t sweat it. Embrace the emptiness and something wonderful will fill it. I said something; not necessarily what you expect. I believe that when your muse “leaves” you, it is on a journey. More to the point you are on a journey. You’re living. More often than not, our directed muse leaves us because something has gotten in the way. What you probably need to do is pay attention to that something. It’s telling you something. Ironically, by doing this, you open yourself to something wonderful. Okay, enough of somethings!…

Writing is a lot like fishing. In order to write you need something to write about. So, when the world gets in your way, you should pay attention. This is what you’re here for. A writer is an artist who reports on her society. A good artist, at least an accessible one, needs to be both participant as well as observer. So, take a break and live. Chances are, you will have much more to write about after you do.

 

Invoking the Muse & Defeating Writer’s Block 

In the over twenty years of writing both fiction and non-fiction I really hadn’t given much thought to writer’s block until recently, when I was challenged on it. This is not to say that I never experienced it. I did; I just kept on writing.

“What?” you say. “Then, you didn’t really have writer’s block!” Well, I did; but only for that particular project, and only for one aspect of that particular project. The key is to have multiple projects and to recognize that each, in turn, has multiple tasks associated with it (e.g., editing, research, discussion, etc.).

For instance, besides Novel A, whose plot had me stumped in the middle, I was working on two short stories and a non-fiction article. I was also actively posting science articles, essays and opinion pieces on my blog. In addition, I was writing news articles for an online magazine and doing my regular stint at the environmental consulting firm where I wrote interpretive environmental reports. I kept on writing.

I let the plot of Novel A sit for a while as I continued to write. That didn’t mean I couldn’t work on Novel A in other capacities: copy-editing or polishing language, for instance. The point I want to make is that it’s helpful to have other things on the go mainly because this will let you relax about the project that has you stumped. And you need to relax for it to resolve. It’s a little like looking for the watch you misplaced; it will “find you” when you stop looking.

 

Letting the Muse Return (on its own terms)

Each of you has felt it: that otherworldly, euphoric wave of “knowing”, of resonating with something that is more than the visible world: when the hairs on the back of your neck tingle as you write that significant scene … or tremble with giddy energy as you create that perfect line on a painting …or glow with a deep abiding warmth when you defend a principal … or the surging frisson you share with fellow musicians on that exquisite set piece …These are all what I call God moments. And they don’t happen by chasing after them; they sneak up on us when we’re not looking. They come to us when we focus outward and embrace our wonder for this world. When we quiet our minds and nurture our souls with beauty.winter treed path

Merry Christmas!

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.