By Carol Stilz
During our September meeting of Blue Sage Writers, we discussed the importance of writing to a market. We agreed keeping publishers’ guidelines and our potential audience in mind was vital when writing genre fiction. However, we thought it important in certain cases to write for ourselves. Did Jean Auel have a market in mind when she wrote Clan of the Cave Bear? Would the Harry Potter series have appealed to such a large, broad audience of readers had it been written for only one audience?
That afternoon I considered our discussion. The late poet laureate William Stafford came to mind. Years ago, I took a workshop from him, a writer true to his voice, which he called his muse. He said after writing a poem born of the Chernobyl accident, he asked himself, who would be interested in reading what I’ve written? He thought of the people near Three Mile Island, and sent his poem to a Sunday newspaper near there. That was his first audience, but in time the audience for that poem became much broader. Did he think of them as he wrote? From his comments, I don’t believe he did.
So I decided to share my thoughts on keeping one’s audience of readers in mind when writing. First, I can’t write and edit at the same time unless I am on deadline for a press release, news item, or composing facts only. As a publicist for a nonprofit organization I composed reader board announcements, often with missing letters or numbers, from whatever the donor had on hand. Facts yes. Creativity yes. Editing? Naturally, since I had to work with what I had available. Thankfully, most writers don’t face this predicament.
If I’m writing nonfiction, I do my homework with my readers in mind. When I wrote an article on world famous sandcastle builder Todd Vander Pluym I included directions for readers, ages 6-9, to build a simple sandcastle. Directions needed to be clear, specific, concise and produce the promised results.
Most often, I rely on what I learned and later taught from classes in persuasive speaking and writing. Treat your potential readers with respect, integrity, and empathy. Aristotle said it best in On Rhetoric. Audiences need logos or logic, ethos or ethics, and pathos or emotion. In nonfiction, this translates to me as drawing reasonable conclusions from facts (logic), being accurate to a fault in citing facts, quotes and crediting sources (ethos), and no fair playing upon reader’s emotions without substance or reason to support conclusions (pathos).
In writing fiction, logic applies in that the world I set up as a writer, and the rules that govern it, must be clear and consistent. If pigs fly on planet P, then I can’t change the rules without a reasonable explanation that becomes a major piece of the plot. I must be consistent. In that way I establish what Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Once the setting and its peculiarities are established, I must be true to the world established for those characters.
Ethics is vital in writing fiction as well. I trust the writers whose work I enjoy. I know I will get a good read, if the writer is true to the characters and honest with readers. No author intrusion, no reversal of plot, no cheap rescue of characters due to fate or contrived happenstance. No “it was all a dream” ending. I must be fair to my characters and audience. And I must never ever take credit for another author’s ideas.
Finally, I try not to play on reader’s emotions. If my key scenes show the characters’ emotions, and then narrate or tell the final scene, my readers will feel cheated. Just as the writers of Greek tragedy claimed, audiences want a story with which they can identify, release their emotions through the plight of sympathetic characters, and find the ending satisfying because it is true to the characters and their situation. So I do my best to have empathy for my readers and for my characters. I remind myself to show the crucial incidents in the story unfolding scene by scene. I strive to avoid preaching or talking down to my audience. My favorite authors are trusted friends who treat me with respect, integrity, and empathy. That is the author I want to be. Thankfully, the members of Blue Sage Writers hold me to these standards when they comment on my work.
Sites referenced in this blog and for further information:
“When I Met My Muse” www.litera.co.uk/author/william_stafford, 10/2/12
Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, www.ethospathos.com/index.html, 10/2/12
Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographical Sketches of MY LITERARY LIFE and OPINIONS 1817, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biographia_Literaria, 10/2/12