Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Targeting a Readership Part 14 - Readers Are A Moving Target

Targeting a Readership
Part 14
Readers Are A Moving Target
(but so are you)
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Previous posts in this series are indexed at:

Here I am stating the "obvious" -- but it is so obvious, many writers just plain miss it.

Whatever topic you are interested in, say Romance, or Finding Mr. Right, or Playing the Field, or Rebuilding Life After Divorce/widowhood, it interests you because of something inside of you.

See my series on Tarot

And see my series on Astrology

And note how over time, humans go through experiences as individuals and also, at the same time, go through experiences with their age-group, (Pluto)  and at the same time as all that, go through experiences (major and minor) that challenge or destroy or build the ability to cope.

In other words, like is about experiences. When we have time to breathe, we (because we are human) either think about what has been happening and state it as a "word problem" or we try our best to shut the chattering-brain down so we can rest.

Some people use alcohol or drugs to shut the brain down -- some use fiction, and some use "activism" (e.g. getting involved in supporting a Cause, political or social).

Writers are no different from readers.  Writers live, sometimes survive, experiences that become major questions about the meaning of life.

Such major questions, generated  by the experiences the writer has had, generate a myriad answers, each of which can become the THEME of a novel.

Themes are ANSWERS -- not just questions.  But usually themes are posed as questions.

The science and art of posing a question involves knowing the secret of questioning -- that the answer is fabricated into the question itself.

The worst experience most people have of early education is running into the buzz saw of the WORD PROBLEM.  The trick of doing the math is to figure out how to pose the question, how to state the words in numbers, and after that, it's easy arithmetic.

Wrong answers are generated by incorrect statements of the problem.

And trick word problem questions are created by the way the words lead anywhere but the correct answer.

Themes are like that.  The writer lives through (sometimes by the skin of their teeth) an experience which is blended from the writer's generational experiences (Pluto, Uranus) plus the writer's personal individuality (natal chart, houses etc.)

The generational experience, woven into the theme, gives the resulting fictional work a resonance, like a musical Key or an interior decorator's palate of colors, with a vast number of people born when the writer was born, plus or minus maybe 20 years.

The personal experience woven into the theme gives the resulting fictional work a resonance that induces readers to recognize the Characters as real people such as the people they know.  Everyone knows a "social climber" or a "boot licker" or a "own drummer" type of person, and such types are recognizable far beyond the generational boundaries.  But those close in age know people of those types who have been hammered by similar experiences.

So the Eternal Truths of a Theme, the truths that make the novel potentially a Classic that speaks to far-future generations, come from the generational experiences the writer has survived.  These experiences are cyclical - repeating every 80 years, or every 250 or so years, and so those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

The Spiritual Truths of a Theme, the truths that make the novel potentially memorable, with a high-impact on guiding a reader's life-choices (choice of college major, choice of walking out on a deadbeat husband, choice of having an abortion) come from the individualized, nuanced, personal and internal experiences the writer has survived.

Thus the most popular fiction of one generation might not "speak" to the next generation or the next, but might connect with readers a hundred years later.

So when targeting a readership, you have to blend two (often competing) streams of emotional force, the generational and the personal, and add something else, something contemporaneous, to say something relevant to the people of book-buying-reading age at the moment the novel will be published.

Publishers now have computers to sift/sort/surface information on book-buyers and what titles sell.  There might be ten manuscripts being shopped around by agents, but only one will be chosen to be promoted with Big Bucks (yes, promotion, advertising, marketing, cost enormous amounts of money).  Being chosen doesn't mean being better, wiser, or more important.  Being chosen means being more like whatever is selling now.

Analyses of what sells are very shallow.  Publishers, being in business to make a profit these days (unlike 50 years ago when they were designed to lose or break even, but do important books) focus on the numbers.

It matters what it costs to produce and deliver a book, vs how many copies can be sold at what prices.  That equation is very complex now because of ebooks, audiobook, print editions all at different discounts.

Editors choosing manuscripts look at Plot, Setting, and sometimes Character, but rarely if ever at Theme to choose a book.

That trend is changing.  Certain themes are being excluded, others emphasized in fiction publishing as machine-learning and AI begin to dig deeper into what makes a Best Seller.  But keep in mind, there's a difference between a Best Seller and a Classic.  Classics don't usually sell well off the bat.

So Targeting a Readership means Targeting an Editor who knows a lot more about the readership than you do.

See my series on what exactly the job of an editor is.

Think of it this way.  

You walk into a cocktail party, dressed to the 9's, full of news about your latest contract signing with a Big Publishing House, and just a little late.  You pick up a drink from a passing waiter and stroll into the room full of circles of people talking to each other (well, yelling by now).

You know some of the people, but not everyone, and hardly anyone recognizes you or pays you any attention.

So you drift into a circle of people having an animated discussion you can barely hear.  You listen intently, but the truth is you know nothing about the topic they are discussing, not because you're an ignoramus but because you just didn't see that New York Times Feature last Sunday.

Everyone has an opinion, and is trying to convince others.

This is your READERSHIP in symbolic microcosm.  The dynamics of selling a novel are the same as the dynamics of joining that conversation.

You might, after five minutes or so of being unable to get a word in edgewise, drift off to another group having a different discussion.

The publishing industry grinds out a steady stream of novels, trying to capture the attention of these circles of screaming, opinionated, intense and animated conversationalists.

Consider the Editors, who are your actual Readership, the first you must captivate, as the waiters at the Cocktail Party, circulating with trays of delights and noting what "everyone" is choosing.  They run back and forth to the kitchen getting more of what is being scarfed up, and less of what is just sitting there on trays.

You are in the kitchen, dispensing more of what the waiters pick up, and wondering what to do with the heaps of crates in the back room full of what nobody wants.

You have to choose from all the stuff on your catering trucks, and send out to the party what the guests are consuming.

In other words, you the writer have a million story ideas, and a lot to say about everything.  You have decades of life experience to distill into advice to those searching for a Soul Mate.  All that is in crates on your catering truck, backed up to the door of your kitchen.  You, the writer, run back and forth, selecting ingredients to grind, roll, and decorate into canap├ęs or mix into drinks.

If you're listening to the roar of the crowd, sampling the conversations in the various circles (watching Twitter and Facebook?), you guess more accurately what topic this crowd is addressing right now.

What people are talking about is usually what they are interested in.  Anyone who intrudes into a conversation trying to change the topic will be regarded as socially inept or ignored.

But just because you're talking about the same topic doesn't mean your comments will blend smoothly into the conversation, be picked up, and generate further thinking.

There is an art to conversation, and most of that art is composed of the ability to listen, and to hear what is not-being-said.

Why do you write novels?

A) Are you writing novels to reinforce what everyone thinks?

B) Are you writing novels to refute and disprove what everyone thinks, to challenge established assumptions?

C) Are you writing novels to weave a soft, pleasurable, comfortable world for your reader to escape into?

D) Or are you writing novels to lend your erudite talents in language and symbols to express the heart and soul of your Readership, to give voice to their subconscious beliefs?

Why you want to write this particular novel is the reason the Readership would want to read this novel.  That reason is stated in your theme.

The 4 Basic Readerships read novels to achieve those 4 basic objectives:

A) to relax into assuredness that the world really is what everyone thinks.

B) to articulate what's wrong with the world, state the word problem so a clear solution can be visualized.

C) to escape the rasping noise of life's experiences, to rest and heal

D) to grow spiritually by walking in another's moccasins, experiencing a different life, a harder life, but culminating in triumph.

Each of those 4 Readerships can be served by any Genre, often by all the active publishers.

Each of those 4 Readerships tends to go to different cocktail parties, or end up in different rooms of the house at a family get together (where the men are in the living room, the women in the kitchen, the kids in the yard, the teens off in a bedroom gaming).

You will likely have the best chance of success joining a conversation (getting a book published) that is about what most interests you at this point in your life.

Readerships age.

Just like the family party separating throughout the house by age group, readerships do that, too.

You have often heard, and probably experienced, "outgrowing" a particular genre, author, or setting.

People who were Star Trek fans in their teens have set the whole space-adventure-dream aside to live in their "real" worlds, or gone on to read in other fields, often non-fiction, but also Romance, Historicals, Mystery, and so on.

People "outgrow" interests when the subconscious questions raised by some Generational or Personal Life Experience have been satisfactorily articulated and a working answer implemented in their lives.

Themes are questions with proposed answers, all of which are rooted in assumptions.

Whatever is the fiery torch of absolute, riveting fascination at one point in life is the scattered embers at a later point.  It's done.  Burned out, and either answered satisfactorily or simply abandoned as unanswerable or unimportant.  The next generation will rekindle that torch, but it might become an LED instead of a Flame.

There is an art to capturing reader interest, as well as a science, but both are rooted in the writer's ability to listen, to hear what you are listening to, and to understand the subconscious resonances the speakers don't even know are in them.

What you have to say, or what you want to say, or what you MUST say, might not be what the people you are talking to want or need to hear.

Your job, as a writer, is not only to have something to say, but to find the people who want to hear it and to say it in a way that facilitates their achieving whichever of the 4 Goals of a readership those individuals are pursuing.

The upshot of all this is simple.  The adage, "There is no accounting for taste," is wrong.  Taste can be accounted for.  Mood is not random, and people are not victims of their moods.

The art of fiction writing is the art of evoking a mood, and using the nuances of emotion to cast new light on the old drudgery of life's routines.  To do that, you have to become part of the conversation, and not boorishly intrude and change the subject.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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