Friday, December 3, 2010

1,2,3, Who Are You Writing For? :: One Story, Many Audiences

“A writer is, after all, only half his book. The other half is the reader and from the reader the writer learns.”
PL Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins 
Until you start writing about the lives of kids and their families, you don't fully grasp the genius manner in which JK Rowling moved her characters from scene to scene with minimum chit-chat and precious little mono-syllabic grunting in response to questions posed by authority figures.

I don't mean that last part in a snide way.  I uttered my share of monosyllables in my day, and I raised eye rolling to such a level of athleticism that it was seriously considered for inclusion in the 1988 Olympic games.

The Soviets threatened a boycott and I lost my shot at a gold  medal.

To be honest, I spend as little time as possible thinking about my audience.  I think that if most writers were honest with themselves and you, they do too.  Partly because art is always created for the artist because that's when our imaginations are most free of boundaries, and partly because it's easy to freeze up from the imaginary rotten tomatoes you can just see coming your way.  Nevertheless, there's a point in any story when the writer must decide on the intended audience for the story.  As Travers said above, the writer is only half of their book.

Because thinking about who your words are aimed at intrinsically changes your storytelling. It's the old saw about a tree falling in the forest not making a sound without an ear to hear it.

Without your audience, you're just killing trees.

This is complicated when each genre carries with it a whole passel of responsibilities and expectations.  Not only a responsibility to be respectful of the history of the genre itself, but also familiar with the peculiar ecology of the place, knowing what pitfalls to avoid, and the expectations of... (wait for it) ...the audience.

I don't want this to get sidelined and wrapped up in the whole "Perils of Genre" debate.  I covered that already here and discussed my own peculiar sub-genre of "Nerd Adventure" as well.

I've written widely across the spectrum, but never encountered a dance quite like the one in which I am currently engaged.  I've said that Howard Carter is a book for kids, but really it's a book about kids.  And I think it's a book kids would like.

When you are trying to breathe life into a younger character, you have to decide which kids you want to write for.  Are you creating stories for the actual young people you wish to enjoy your work or the young stalwarts their parents wish they were (or think they are, which amounts to the same thing).

We all remember being twelve or thirteen and I'd wage that not one of us was exactly what our parents thought we were and the world in which we lived was hidden from them.  All an adult has to do is walk into a room of chattering children and watch the ripple effect their presence has as they cross the floor.  The world of children is not the world of adults and that bears exploration and consideration because the books written for kids are almost entirely written by adults.  Adults who remember at least enough to sound genuine.

I've often thought that one of the main reasons that books and movies like Stand by Me and American Grafitti and even Goonies hold such sway is that they remind us of a time when our worlds didn't extend beyond what we could see, and that peculiar parallel culture of which we were all too briefly citizens.  And you will notice that not one of these feature young people acting like little angels.

       One cold winter’s day back in the fourth grade, Howard stayed home sick from school and he and his dad had their first “Don’t Tell Mom I Let You Watch This” movie marathon.  That day they watched some of his dad’s favorite movies from when he was a kid. Stand By Me, Goonies and The Christmas Story flickered on the screen one after the other as Howard's fever soared, his hallucinations joining the adventurous bands of misfits gathered to outsmart murderers and teachers and pirates and parents.
      In some ways, that day set the tone for their relationship as his dad began thrusting movies and books into his hands that inevitably featured clever kids besting spies and pirates and evil wizards mostly by breaking every rule they came across.  Howard learned pretty quickly that adults loved those stories right up to the point where their kids began acting anything like the characters.
      Howard thought of it as The Goonies Paradox: "This is awesome, but don't ever do or be anything like this."

Howard Carter Saves the World, Chapter 7: The Goonies Paradox

Most all of my favorite authors wrote for both children and adults: JRR Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Roald Dahl, Michael Chabon... the list goes on.  And some of my most favorite authors wrote books that were shelved only in the kids section but draw adults like moths.  Norm Juster and JK Rowling spring to mind.

To turn what Travers was talking about in the quote at the top of this post on its ear, I'll say that when writing for or about kids, you're really only a third of the whole.  The other two parts are kids and their parents and that's a balancing act indeed.  Will your young characters talk, act and think like real kids, or are they going to speak, act and think in a way that will not draw any ire from their parents?

JK Rowling knows this.  I think every successful writer does, especially those who manage to stand astride the two worlds by speaking to the youthful reader while awakening the last lingering echoes of childhood in the adult half.

I have no idea whether or not I can pull this off, which is why I'm doing it.  Keeping my young characters alive and funny was my primary concern going into this and now my primary concern as I find myself in the middle is keeping them alive in the minds of my readers.

Because no matter who you're writing for, that is the real magic trick.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).