Who is your audience? I don’t mean who is going to buy your book, though that crowd is undoubtedly your final audience and their needs certainly need to be considered at some point. That’s especially true with nonfiction – are they war buffs, diabetic patients, young mothers, career-minded executives, or lay scientists? But let me talk about audience for fiction. I know Janet Evanovich keeps fans in mind when crafting her stories for them. But I want to venture even further into the process and talk about the audience in your head when you are actually in the middle of writing (not editing). Who are you seeing in your mind’s eye as your reader?

Many authors say they are writing for themselves. In fact, J. D. Salinger said, "I love to write and I assure you I write regularly... But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it."

Eudora Welty didn’t see her audience as a person, instead, she said, “I don’t write for my friends or myself, either: I write for it, for the pleasure of it. I believe if I stopped to wonder what so-and-so would think, or what I’d feel like if this were read by a stranger, I would be paralyzed. I care what my friends think, very deeply – and it’s only after they’ve read the finished thing that I really can rest, deep down. But in the writing, I have to just keep going straight through with only the thing in mind and what it dictates.” I like her notion of keeping the “out there” audience at bay when I’m still in the middle of the writing, not editing, part of the process. That way I can let things flow more organically and freely.

Paul Auster, however, acknowledged a different singular reader. “You see,” he said, “the interesting thing about books, as opposed, say, to films, is that it's always just one person encountering the book, it's not an audience, it's one to one.” This makes sense, because, readers aren’t feeding off each other (unless they are in class or book group). It is a very personal relationship. But what is that elusive one reader really like?

Some authors have a very clear view of their type of reader. Maya Angelou noted she did focus on the reader, “But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say.” I find myself being that kind of reader, and because of that, I think I’m that type of writer. I don’t want to spoon feed my readers. I want them to bring their ideas, their intelligence, and their baggage with them to my stories, so they can dig into deeper terrain that mere words allow. Or maybe that’s an excuse I use. Yet, I did notice that when I asked several people to read and give me feedback on the book I just finished about five generations of women in one family, I was amazed at how each of them identified with a different character in the book as their favorite character. They saw themselves or their mothers in those characters and brought along their own perceptions about how decent or cruel each character was.

If none of these audiences seem to fulfill the need for you, you can always take Annie Dillard’s advice for imaging your reader – good advice to keep you on track: "Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.... What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?" That reader should be around when you’re editing too.


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