This time last summer, I had just finished school. I was two weeks away from starting at the Publishing Institute. I wasn’t really sure what I intended to do with myself out here in my new adult life.
Okay, so the big not-so-secret is that I still don’t really feel like an adult, and I’m beginning to suspect that the feeling may never show up—at least not like I’m imagining it in my head. But I’m getting better at having the occasional adult thought, and what I’ve been thinking about is this: last summer was the first time I ever considered audience beyond writing specific short stories to please specific professors.
Chizine was having their annual dark fiction contest and they were advertising Neil Gaiman as their tie-breaker judge. I thought, I like Neil Gaiman. Okay, so it was a little more extravagant than that, because I love love love Neil Gaiman, but for the purpose of this post, I figure I should be at least marginally self-contained. I thought, I like dark fiction. Maybe I, too, could write a dark story.
I then exhibited some of my most methodical behavior to date: I sat down, wrote a draft, and showed it to Syl and J. Then I took their comments, and wrote another draft. I gave that draft to Syl, took her new comments, wrote a third draft that didn’t really resemble the first draft except in the sense that the characters had the same names, and submitted it. Then Chizine published it, which ultimately makes this a happy anecdote. I keep bringing up this particular short story because, thus far, it’s the only thing I’ve published that falls within the realm of what I actually enjoy writing.
The idea I’m getting at, in a roundabout fashion, is that even while I was thinking about publication, I still wasn’t thinking about what fiction does to actual live people. Syl and I spent a very nice afternoon sitting at her kitchen table, drinking black tea, eating chocolate chips, and talking about gore. She kept laughing and making witchy faces, acting out hypothetical scenes in which the character of Farid did ominous, creepy things. She kept pointing out all the places where it could go darker. We had lots of things to say about momentum and tension and the viscosity of blood. I was happy with the story because it was like an exercise, a test of how well I could adapt to the larger world of actual salable fiction.
Then, Syl’s sister asked to read it. In my naivete, I thought that was a good idea. She made it roughly two pages before putting it down. If this were a morality tale, the lesson would be that you shouldn’t expect everyone in the world to jump up and cheer just because you feel like you mostly did what you set out to do. However, from a more practical standpoint I’d have to say the lesson is: don’t inflict a story about a butcher shop on a vegan.
I’m not at the point where I have to think about audience in a Very Serious way—which is not to say that audience isn’t crucial when writing fiction for public consumption. But I don’t have an established readership expecting certain criteria to be met each time I sit down at the computer. I would like to/aspire to/intend to, but right now, it’s still just me and a couple people who volunteer their time. Even so, the subject keeps creeping to the front of my brain lately. Audience awareness, giving readers what they want. And having the sense to know who you’re writing for, that’s it’s not ever going to be everyone. Picking your readers without knowing them in person and then combining the particular elements that constitute a good story for them. I’m pursuing immediacy, urgency, vicarious appeal, and I’m not sure that I understand the mechanics of any of this yet, but I keep trying. I figure I should at least write it down here and that way I’ll remember. I’m working hard at being one of those people who Delivers.