Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Don't Think about Your Reader (But Do Care about Them)

During my sabbatical from Novel Spaces I toyed with ideas for a year’s worth of columns – and often resolved to write them while the were fresh in my mind. I did not. And this morning, when I realized my first column for 2018 was due, I was caught completely flat footed.

While flapping in circles wondering what to do, I came across some old advice about never thinking about your audience or market when you write, just write! I realized I had something to add to that. Because, like all absolutes, it’s not really.

My current novel series, Dirt and Stars, is young adult science fiction. The protagonists’ ages are 15 to 16 in book one, Down to Dirt, and age through 16 to 18 over the course of books two and three, Life on Dirt and Rise from Dirt. The market for YA fiction is, of course, everyone, but publishers usually target readers a year or two younger than the protagonists – in this case, 13 to 16. This perception of who will be reading the novel impacts how the editor and publisher feel topics like cursing, sexuality, emotional trauma, social issues, and other potentially sensitive issues are addressed.

And they’re right to be concerned – I live and have taught in a North Carolina county where Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian is banned from public schools and libraries because a 15-year-old boy describes the joy of – not the act of – masturbation. The novel intelligently depicts eating disorders, racism, poverty, alcoholism, suicide, and cultural identity – topics that should be addressed and discussed in middle and high schools. But that one paragraph has kept it out of untold numbers of school districts – which translates to the loss of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of copies sold to English classes.

Dirt and Stars is written in multiple first-person, told through the frequently-intersecting journals of five characters. Mara Duval of Tombaugh Station must write about her visit to dirt (Earth) for academic credit; Jael Alden intends to do great things and her father (half jokingly) told her to keep a record so she’d have the facts right in her memoir; Beth Duval writes because her best friend Jael writes; Lije Bronislav dreams of being an entrepreneur and believes great ideas can come from random observations; and Fatima Kielani has a social communications disorder and records her daily interactions for discussion with her therapist.

For thirty years I taught in an alternative high school, or taught “those kids” – the ones in the self-contained room at the end of the hall – in a traditional school, was a community support case manager, and did in-home and community “coaching” for family preservation services. When you’ve been around teenagers long enough that you’re part of the furniture, they’ll converse about all kinds of things in front of you. (Especially if you cultivate the impression you’re a little hard of hearing.) I drew on the things I learned and observed working with kids in crisis when creating my characters, how they thought and felt and how they spoke. And my first try was pretty upsetting for everyone who saw it. Eventually I figured out that realistically depicting what I’d experienced didn’t work for my story – all of my characters came from stable homes, were clean and sober, and didn’t have kids of their own. I had to draw on what I knew, not reproduce it; be authentic without being graphic; and make my people accessible without being generic.

Cursing, as Maggie King wrote so well about on December 22, Do You Let Your Characters Swear?, was an issue. Science fiction tends to attract younger readers and has a tradition of using made up curses. Firefly gave us gorram an evolution of “goddamn” and Battlestar Gallactica simply replaced “uc” with “ra” to give us the ever-popular Frak!
There’s one actual curse word in Down to Dirt, and it’s there for legitimate effect. The rest of the time the dirt kids say “crap” a lot and Mara says “blow” – which is, you guessed it, a made-up curse word. The trick was making this work without being too cute about it. I imply, but do not explicitly state, that while they only say crap "on camera", they use other words in other situations. And, about a third of the way in, after Mara vehemently exclaims “blow”, I have her explain it in this entry from Beth’s journal.

“Why do you say ‘blow’ like it’s the f-word?” I asked.
Mara looked at me sharply ... then the corner of her mouth twitched. “Because it is like the f-word,” she said. “Only not about that.”
“Oookay,” I said after waiting for her to add something more. “How is it like the f-word only not about that?”
“A blow is a catastrophic decompression,” Mara said. “Like a hull breach, or when you’re outside and your EVA suit is punctured, or the seals on your waldo rupture.”
I didn’t know what a waldo was, but evidently having its seals rupture in space was really bad.
“So you’re saying that if someone in space has a blow,” I said carefully, “they’re pretty much f-worded?”
“Pretty much,” she agreed solemnly.
Jael laughed. “Beth, you are the only person I know who says ‘f-word’ when there’s no one around.”

Conversations about sex can be both realistic and PG if neither character is sure of the other’s limits or expectations (or orientation) and they’re both sounding each other out without being explicit.

Late in Down to Dirt Mara is sexually assaulted. That scene went through more rewrites than the rest of the scenes combined. In the final iteration I describe just enough of the physicality to give context, but focus not on the act but on Mara’s panic—evoking the horror without detail. In the end, I think this worked better than any graphic description would have. And, relevant to the point, it made the scene accessable to the reader who might be overwhelmed (or offended) by a rawer telling.

So. Don’t worry about your reader when you write? Maybe not in the first draft, when you’re getting everything out so you can work with it. But at the same time, you should be mindful of the person listening to your story. Not readers in the generic – that’s the publisher’s concern, when they’re marketing the story you wrote – but that one reader you want to read, remember, and share what you’ve given them.


Liane Spicer said...

The protocols vary from genre to genre. I learned from the editor of my first novel that the word 'rape' will be removed from romance and the euphemism 'forced' substituted because, I assume, romance readers (at least the ones targeted by my publisher) don't want the fantasy tarnished by harsh realities. Sex may be described in graphic detail in romance novels, but the body parts themselves must be referred to by euphemisms. Use the informal names for naughty bits and the scene/story becomes reclassified as erotica. So yes, we need to banish the reader from our heads in first draft, but later on his/expectations must be respected.

Linda Thorne said...

Interesting post and the comment Liane made makes a lot of sense. I don't write romance, but I can see why changing certain words and descriptions for sex scenes so that you don't cross the line of the genre.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I love this post. Quite often, editors are the gatekeepers for what finally gets published. I remember in my first book I had a back story of the protagonist's mother who was gang raped by someone she loved and his friends. My editor told me take it out. In the backstory she did not describe in detail the rape, but the idea that somebody could be so scarred did not fly well with my editor. Of course I took it out and it didn't change the story dramatically.
However, many editors misunderstand the readers. For many years dealing with death was avoided in books for children. Harry Potter changed much of that because the readership was younger and it dealt with death head on.
Many great bestsellers are those where the authors ignore what they think the readers want to read and justs write the story, curse words, violence, sex and all. Quite a few of them has changed the landscape of novels.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, wow. Same publisher, same editor, also my first novel. I could not even have the heroine use the word 'rape' in the story. Because romance readers generally want to escape from the horrors of reality? Escape to a fluffy pink world where nothing too horrible ever happens? Maybe that's why I don't write romance anymore. I was told by my agent that the second novel was 'too dark', but I really can't do pink and fluffy anymore.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I feel you Liane. Sometimes genre writing gets cliche and restrictive. Still write what you will. If it gets published it may change the genre or it may fall flat, but still be true to your writing. My very first novel is still unpublished-- subject matter too dark for romance's fluffy pink world.