Avatars: Your Ideal Reader

imagesRecently at Agile Writers the topic of what is “allowed” in certain genres came up. In particular, a couple writers are working on Christian Inspirational fiction and wondered what words or topics were taboo.

In that genre, readers are very sensitive to words that are perceived as “swear” words. Our own Cat Brennan related a story of how a Christian writer had a villain who had a foul mouth. The writer allowed only one swear in to the text. But when a bookseller found that word he called and complained bitterly to the publisher. The publisher then recalled all the books and removed the offending word.

This is an example of how you, as the writer, regardless of your genre, need to know your audience. You need to know what language your audience will be willing and able to read. You also need to know the conventions of the genre and the expectations of your readers.

I recommend to my writers that they create an ideal reader. The “ideal reader” is an idealized representation of the person most likely to read your book. Steven King, for example, claims that he writes with his wife in mind. He reasons that if she likes it, others will too. His wife then, is his ideal reader.

So, to figure out who the ideal reader is, think about the age, gender, educational level and expectations of the person reading your book. When I ask new Agile Writers who will read their book, almost invariably they answer “everyone!” But of course, not everyone will want to read your book. A book that appeals to a 12-year-old girl likely will not appeal to a 65-year-old man. It *can* happen, but it’s not likely. And as a writer, you can’t be expected to write a book that appeals to everyone.

So consider the age of the reader. If you’re writing a cozy mystery, you’re likely aiming at an older person: perhaps in their 50s or 60s. If you’re writing a young adult dystopian novel, you’re probably going to want to appeal to 12- to 15-year olds.

Gender is also a good identifier for your ideal writer. If you’re writing a spy/espionage thriller – you’re likely going to appeal to a male audience. And if you’re writing a romance novel, you’re book is probably going to appeal to women.

If this sounds like stereotyping, it is. And in this case, it’s not a bad thing. These are not negative stereotypes. This is knowing your demographic and writing to please them. You’re not telling a woman that she cannot read or enjoy your cold-war thriller. It’s just that the majority of your readers are likely to be men. And so, you’ll want to keep them in mind as you write your work.

I encourage writers to go an extra step in this process and create an “avatar” of their ideal reader. An avatar is an outward representation of a hidden concept. The word comes from the Sanskrit meaing “to descend”. It used to represent Hindu gods who came to Earth and needed an Earthly visage for people to see. In modern terms, people use “avatars” as pictures or cartoons that represent them on Facebook or in chat rooms. These are simple images that represent their true selves.

In the case of writers, an avatar is a stock photo of someone who represents their ideal reader. I tell my writers to create a full backstory for their ideal reader, and go onto the internet and Google search for an image that looks like their ideal reader.

For example, Cat is working on a Christian Inspirational cozy mystery. Her ideal reader might be a woman in her 50s to 60s who bakes, sews, quilts, and knits. I’d give this woman a name, say, “Melinda.” Melinda lives in the midwest and has three children and two grandchildren. I’d then ask Cat to go onto the internet and find a picture of this ideal reader to act as her avatar. Finally, Cat should print the picture out and tape it next to her computer screen so that she can keep her ideal reader in mind as she writes.

Keeping your reader in mind is an important part of writing your novel. Choosing an ideal reader will help you to make the right word choices, cultural references, and situations that will resonate with your readers. And having an avatar – or picture – of your ideal reader will keep you on-track as you write that first draft.

Not Just Hump Day

Untitled design(1)To most people Wednesday equals Hump Day.  They have made it halfway through their work week and the weekend is just around the corner. They are one step closer to Friday. But, not Agile Writers members. To us, Wednesdays mean that we can leave our working lives for two hours and enter the world of writing. Which for most is usually a solitary event, with just you and your computer, but this one night a week you are joined by others. And every week you leave with a little more knowledge to take home and help hone your craft.

Last week, July 27th, Agile Writers were lucky to have Richmond Writers organizer, Joe Erhardt, as our guest editor. Every month two members courageously offers up ten pages of their working manuscript to be thoroughly dissected. The pages are then put on the screen, red ink and all, for the entire group to see. I promise you, it’s not as scary as it sounds. Everyone leaves with valuable knowledge. Not just those whose pages were put on the chopping block. Each month you get to see, first hand, what editors are really looking and how to stay out of the rejection pile.  Our session with Joe Erhardt was no exception.

One of the most important things Joe said was to “write for the reader.” Although, I had heard this before I think it’s important enough to hear again. Many times as a writer you get caught up in the world you are creating and the message you are trying to get out that you forget this simple piece of advice. You are focused on you, and not the one that will be the buying your book. One thing I noticed about Joe is that he actually edits for the reader. All the while he is explaining the red ink throughout the pages he makes statements such as, “This will be easier for the reader,” “The reader would like/love this,” or “I think this would be confusing for the reader.” He edits and makes suggestions with the reader in mind.

Here are a few more things I learned from Joe:

  • Don’t write “off of.” Simply writing off is enough. For example, He jumped off of the cliff. Should be written-he jumped off the cliff.
  • Using the simple past –ed version of a word is more forceful than –ing. Use he rolled instead of he was rolling.
  • Using “as if” waters down whatever follows. Ask yourself if that phrase is really needed or wanted.
  • Try to avoid using “due to.” Unless it is being said by a character in dialogue.
  • Do Not have too many blank spaces if it’s not indicating a scene break. An editor may think you do not know what you are doing and you will be in the rejection pile.
  • Don’t say something is “unusual.” Describe it!
  • “Adverbs are cockroaches that need to be stomped on!” This was Joe’s response when asked by a fellow member what he thought about adverbs.

Of course, Joe Erhardt gifted the group with more knowledge than I can write here but I will leave you with this: If you can make readers care about your characters and their situations, it DOES NOT MATTER if what you are writing has been done before.

Authorpreneur

imagesConfession time. Half of this word really scares me. Also, it makes me a little angry, a little frustrated, and a little unsure about my ability to succeed as a writer.

Here’s why: I’m not so sure that the skills needed to be a successful writer can cohabitate with the skills necessary to be a great entrepreneur, brander, marketer, social media mogul and sales executive.

I’m afraid I only have the former set of skills. I like to be alone, I like psychoanalysis, probing deep questions, imagining alternative realities, crafting language, and communicating my most dearly held truths.

The following things, on the other hand, make me feel icky: self-promotion, money, too much time on the internet (especially social media), strategizing, marketing, thinking about the salability of my most dearly held truths.

Am I doomed in the new arena of writing and publishing?

I hope not.

But I worry that developing the skills to hold up the entrepreneurial end of this equation will take place at the expense of the author end. Time spent in strategizing, marketing and social media blasting is time not spent writing, after all. And I only get the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, unfortunately.

The alternative, of course, is to hire others to do the parts of the business that I don’t have an affinity for. This upsets me for an entirely different reason. Are we kidding ourselves about the great egalitarian wild west of self-publishing on the web? If time and money must be invested now by the author, instead of by the traditional publisher, aren’t we empowering some kinds of authors (those with an abundance of time and/or money) over others even more than we were before?

This troubles me. I don’t have the answer.

But, if I may be permitted to play devil’s advocate against my own argument for a moment, I can see some of the proclaimed advantages of this new author-centric system of publishing. For one, authors have greater creative control over the final form of their work than ever before. If you don’t want to listen to a bossy editor or publisher, you don’t have to. You want to write an 800 page debut novel? Knock yourself out. “We don’t see a market for that” is no longer a full-stop for writers seeking publication.

Authors stand to take home a greater slice of their profits than ever before, too. People are not writing novels in the hope of becoming millionaires by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nice that the time and energy vested in such a long project can be rewarded by a higher percentage (if not all) of the profits of the book’s sales.

And I do think that for some, the skills used in the writing process are transferable to the realm of entrepreneurship. After all, entrepreneurs must also be highly creative to be successful. Blogging is just more writing (a good place to put all the ideas in your brain that don’t fit into your novel!). And many writers also have a knack for the visual arts, making designing their own covers a fun challenge, rather than an overwhelming chore.

I’m still hoping to be picked up by an agent and a traditional publisher. But, in the meantime, I’m learning how to build a platform, generate blog posts, and talk about my project to any willing listeners. Dogged determination, after all, has always been a part of the writer’s toolkit.

Agile Writers, what do you think? Are you as ambivalent about the term “authorpreneur” as I am?

What Does it Mean to Be a Storyteller?

Brand-Storyteller“If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.” -Joseph Campbell

“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.” -Plato

We have been reading Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit as our group selection for the craft of writing portion of our weekly meeting. What has struck me most profoundly in the book so far, is the small section in Chapter 5 when Block makes the case that the most important skill a novelist can possess is to be a good “storyteller.”

Being a good storyteller, according to Block, is far more important than being a good stylist. The largeness of the plot structure will buoy up a novel with lackluster style. On one level, this seems utterly true to me. On another, I am shocked by it. I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms.

I came to Agile Writers above all to get help with crafting a plot. I was familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell, and recognized that in his study of the “Hero’s Journey” he had distilled the human story. I wanted to somehow use this template to write a novel. Enter, Greg Smith, who—to my total astonishment—had made the leap from Campbell to novel already.

But even after the rigorous process of Storyboarding and planning my novel, a first draft and half of a second draft, I find that what I think of as good writing still leans heavily on good style. My fiction is pretty stylized and I admire writers and books that have a definitive voice.

The other element, the element of plot—storytelling, theater—still seems foreign to me. I am so grateful for the help I have received at Agile Writers to structure my plot. But, I find myself often scratching my head, not knowing if what I am writing is compelling on that larger level. Is it exciting enough? Dramatic enough? Compelling enough? Not just my usual question: is it beautiful enough?

But, is it going somewhere?

This may just be the middle/muddle talking (I am 150 pages into the rewrite. . . ), but that is the hardest question for me to answer. Am I telling an important and interesting story? If not, all of the style points in the world don’t rack up to anything. They are hollow.

The only way I can feel confident in my plot, in my story, is that it is written in the spirit of the Hero’s Journey—the oldest and most compelling human story. I can trust that, with the help of the Agile Writing Method, I am reaching toward telling a true hero’s tale. My readers will recognize the story deeply, in their bones. And they will feel drawn along by it. At least, I hope so.

Agile Writers, what does it mean to you to be a storyteller?

Learning to Read like a Writer

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Reading and writing are akin to inhalation and exhalation. Technique can be taught, but the essence—the art—of writing is not a one-to-one transferrable skill. It takes so much of who we are, what we have experienced, to make writing that resonates. It is deeply personal. An internal probing of our own experiences and sensations.

So, how do we learn to get better at the essential art of writing?

The first way, which cannot be understated, is to write. Write often, in every mood, in any circumstance—badly or beautifully, slowly or quickly, painfully or joyfully. Write.

The second is to read. Read widely and voraciously. Most of us do that. Otherwise, we would not have come to writing. Children learn to read before they learn to write. It is the love of books as a reader that first ignites in us the desire, the need, to write.

So what does a novelist need to read?

Allow me to trace my own evolution on the subject. I wrote my first draft while reading only nonfiction. Truth be told, I have read mostly nonfiction for the last couple years. I have always read in cycles—nonfiction or fiction predominating for periods of time throughout my life.

The alternation depends on what I need. Sometimes I need hard facts, new ideas, theories and postulations, mega structures to fit the individual pattern of my life inside. Sometimes I need to witness specific human experiences, to cultivate empathy and connection, to make deep soul-sense of my life and recognize my own humanity. These needs are served for me by nonfiction, and fiction, respectively, with very little overlap.

When I began my first draft, it was with the fear that I might unintentionally steal from another work of fiction. Therefore, I thought, I needed to restrict myself to reading nonfiction. (With the occasional poetry thrown in to maintain contact with beautiful language.)

I was wrong.

When I finally started picking up novels again—still interspersing them with works of nonfiction—I realized that what they gave me was not temptation, but inspiration. What they revealed to me was the depth of my own creative impulse, the strength of my desire to write. A reminder of the importance of the novel in the literary landscape.

Fiction touches a place in me that nonfiction simply cannot reach.

And I discovered something else—my ear had been attuned by the process of writing, and so I was no longer reading in the same way. Rather than ruining fiction, which I was afraid could be an outcome of trying to write it (no one wants to eat sausage after they see how it’s made), what I gained instead was a new appreciation, a deeper recognition of the elements at work in good fiction.

Reading fiction gave me back the music, the playfulness of words, their transcendental power. The nonfiction I read had helped me be precise and more comprehensible in my writing. (This was especially true, of course, of books explicitly about the craft of writing.) But, the fiction was rewilding me, giving me license to play, to experiment, to explore unknown corners of my mind and my work. To more easily access my intuition—the birthplace of creativity.

Reading fiction reminded me of the purpose of creative work, the purpose of art, the way in which, as Picasso said, “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Isn’t that, after all, what we’re trying to do?

Agile Writers, let me know, do you read mostly fiction or nonfiction while you are writing?

. . . and Where?

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On to the question of place. Much like time, place is an under-examined element of creating a compelling and intelligible story.

I, for one, was not sure how to get my character’s bodies gracefully around the space of my fictional world. There was a lot of walking into rooms, and climbing into cars, and other mundanities in my first draft. Some of that is necessary. After all, nothing loses a reader faster than an inconsistency in the hard rules of time and space. (Unless of course, that’s your thing. Sci-Fi writers, you may be off the hook on this one.) If your character walks in through a slapping screen door, she can’t suddenly walk out of the same door and have it be squeaky sliding glass. The mirage is broken. And your reader will likely stop reading.

So on the micro level, both varying these specific transitions, and paying careful attention to their consistency are of paramount importance.  But there is a macro level of place which I also struggled with mightily in my first draft: where are my characters on a map? Where do they live?

Some novels have a very strong sense of place—so strong that it functions in the story like another character. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts could not exist anywhere but India. Similarly, Pat Conroy’s works need South Carolina, and Rodes Fishburne’s debut novel Going to See the Elephant can’t be separated from the city of San Francisco. These authors began with the question of place, it seems, and built a story around it.

But there is an alternative to this model. One can create an entirely fictional place. Stephen King is the master of the fictional town(s)—having created three of them situated within the state of Maine to act as backdrops for various works. They borrow heavily from the reality of Maine, with which King is intimately familiar, but they do not exist. They are no-doubt composites of real towns and the artfully imagined.

This was the most appealing of the options to me. I wanted a fictional place. Much of my novel draws from my own life experiences. But it is fiction and I didn’t want to tie the book to the factual locations of my life, lest someone confuse it for a memoir or even creative nonfiction. It is decidedly not those things.

The problem is that I didn’t make that decision until midway through the second draft. In the first draft, I refused to commit. I waffled. Do I set the book in Virginia? In Richmond? In an imaginary town? What should I call my imaginary town? Should I have the secondary characters live in real towns? Imaginary towns? In Virginia or another state? On and on I circled, not knowing. The result was a decided absence of place. I, who love novels that embrace place as their very fabric, had written a first draft with no notions of place.

Correcting this problem later has proven difficult. But, I think writing the first draft served to answer some of those questions, too.

How have you handled place in your novel, Agile Writers?

When?

UnknownWho? What? When? And Where?

Somewhere in elementary school we were all told that these are the questions you must answer to write a story. I want to focus on the last two, which often get overlooked. Without them, a story is incomplete. The seemingly trivial matters of time and place are two elements of storytelling which are as integral to a well-wrought novel as any other. But they are not as sexy. You won’t find many chapters dedicated to these two elements in Craft of Writing books.

First, time. When I launched into my first draft, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had two major problems with the element of time in my book. I realized quickly that all of my chapters were starting with some version of “she got out of bed…it was morning.” Yikes. The alarm clock was getting as much screen-time, so to speak, as most of my supporting characters. Boring.

And yet, the problem persisted—how do I get my hero—and other characters—through the maze of time? How much time do they need to do what they are doing? It has to be slow enough that the reader feels like they’re getting the whole picture (spoiler alert: I was moving them through time too slowly), but fast enough that some real growth can occur inside my heroine. People don’t change their whole lives in a day.

And I need to give my readers enough clues about time that they know how much is passing, and that time does, in fact, exist inside the world I am creating. Part of what makes the human condition so poignant is the constant press of time. But, I don’t need a clock and a calendar printed in the margins of every page, either.

That brings me to the second observation I made about my writing process the first time through. I was writing about the seasons in real time. In other words, because I wrote the first draft in six months (woohoo, Agile Writer Method!) spanning winter and spring. . .my novel also took place in six months. Spanning winter and spring.

But, actually, my main character and plot needed a little more time than that to evolve. They needed about a year, actually. So, I needed to slow time down, and allow for gaps, and adjust the changing of the seasons accordingly.

I think there is one thing that can help you with these sorts of transitions more than anything else. Reading fiction, particularly other novels. I think that reading fiction as a fiction writer is such an important topic that I plan to write another blog post devoted entirely to exploring that subject. But I think that seeing how other author’s handle elements of storytelling, such as the passing of time, is enlightening and informative. Who knows? You might stumble on an example of how to treat time that you wouldn’t have conjured on your own.

Next time, a few thoughts on the element of place in crafting a novel.