Early July 2012 – Falls Church, Virginia (just outside of Washington D.C.)
Gretchen and Ai Rei have decided to exchange writing materials to give each other feedback. Gretchen is lying on her bed reading some short stories that are part of Ai Rei’s series. Ai Rei is sitting at Gretchen’s desk and reading an early draft of Terra. Gretchen finishes a handful of the shorts first while Ai Rei is only about halfway through the new draft of Terra.
Gretchen: I’m done.
Ai Rei: So… what did you think?
Gretchen: This is not YA (young adult).
Ai Rei: What are you talking about? The main character of my series starts out as a teenager. It’s YA.
Gretchen: That doesn’t make it YA.
Ai Rei: But… wait… it’s not YA?
Gretchen: Definitely not! There’s sex, and swearing, and violence, and gore, and scary stuff… you are not writing YA.
Ai Rei: Oh…. are you sure?
Gretchen: YES! (exasperated look)
And that was the moment when I realized that I hadn’t put enough thought into my audience for the book. I had simply assumed that I was writing for young adults because my main character starts as a 17-year-old teenage girl in high school at the beginning of the series. Little did I know that my protagonist’s age does not automatically equal to my target audience.
Thus began the process of putting some real thought into who I was writing for.
During the very early stages of the brainstorming process (back in 2008-2009), simply put, I was writing for myself. I came up with a story, a world, and themes that I enjoy reading and wanted to explore. Eventually though, if you want to be serious about writing, you can’t just write for yourself. Sure, you can include people like yourself in your demographic, but being selfish and closed-off in your writing will only deter others. You have to take your prospective readers into consideration.
After passing the phase of writing just for me, I came to the conclusion based on my protagonist’s age and situation that I was writing YA. It seemed like a fairly simple conclusion to come by. I began to read a lot of various genres of YA as a way to research this type of literature.
I found patterns, recurring themes, narrative modes and many other things that make a YA novel, well, YA. As the brainstorming process continued, I tried to incorporate some of these elements into my books, despite the fact that there was clearly something not working in the union. Still, I was convinced I was writing YA. Plus, it’s a hot commodity right now, so it could only help me with future marketing and sales.
But then, with 7 short stories and the first third of the second book written (I don’t write the books in order), Gretchen stepped in and said four words (well, technically three words and one acronym) that changed how I approached the series: “This is not YA”.
With the YA label ripped away from the series, I suddenly found myself to be equally confused and free at the same time. So much effort had been spent on trying to fit my series into an easy to identify type of literature that I wasn’t able to see the big picture of what I was really writing. My book had to find a place somewhere in the vast world of literature, which I had mistakenly thought I’d found. However, with the YA constraints gone, I was free to really experiment with my writing. For the first time, I let the story take over and really pushed the limits.
My target audience was no longer made up of 14 to 21 year olds. In fact, I didn’t have an audience, so I wrote as I pleased. I didn’t write for myself or for anyone else; I let the series write itself and I was just along for the ride. With no boundaries to block me, I eventually took a step back (not a physical step, more like a month long break), came back to my writing and realized that the series was for adults, maybe even the upcoming genre “new adult” depending on how you perceive the distinction between the two.
Of course, adult is probably the broadest category of literature there is, so it has to be narrowed down to find your niche market amongst the age group of 18+. Upon further evaluation, I deduced that it is of the supernatural horror genre with some books leaning towards psychological thrillers and others to urban fantasy. It’s safe to assume that I haven’t figured it all out, but at least I know that I’m on a path that I am both comfortable with and is organic to the series.
So why have I already spent over 800 words to describe this whole process to you all? It’s because identifying your audience IS IMPORTANT. By doing so, it will help give your story more structure and focus. Also, the point of sharing your work in any creative field is to touch something in the public, and you can’t do that if they feel like you are yo-yo-ing with their emotions and preferences. As an example, the first book of the series is a psychological horror thriller. If I plan on scaring people and making them uncomfortable, then there’s really no place for me to drop in a cheesy love scene where characters say that they are “destined to be together”. Cheesy love and horror don’t mix! It would be like taking Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and plunking him into the high school setting of Mean Girls. Sure, the image puts a smile on my face since the combination could lead to some rather strange and amusing scenarios, but on a more serious story level, it just doesn’t work.
Identifying your audience is also important on a marketing level (because it’s unfortunately never too early to think about marketing). You’ll have to stick your book in the pre-determined categories of Kobo, Amazon and Chapters if you ever plan on selling it. There is no such section as “undefinable” (although I know a few pretentious people who would eat that sh*t up), so drop the artist’s ego and find your tree to nest in.
I think it’s time to wrap this up. I guess the main piece of advice that I would like to leave you all with is to take your time when finding your audience. Remember, this doesn’t just apply to writing a book, but also to writing a movie or tv show, to composing music, to painting, to designing, ect. There is a public out there who wants to know your work. You just need to know who they are to make it more accessible to them.