Finding Your Readers

I was giving a reading once, talking about writing the way I like to – which is to say encouraging everyone just to do it and ignore all the noise about how hard it is to get published and the shrinking markets and rejections and snappy openings and so on – when a woman raised her hand and said, “This is such a relief.”

Which I share not to brag but because I had found a like soul. This column has been a relief to me. For years I worked against the current of a story that went thus: Writing and publishing are hard. You have to be lucky or talented or preferably both, and don’t forget it’s a business, and be original but make sure your work fits into a category, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I hated this story, but I believed it was reality.

The more I wrote while believing this story, however, the more I felt the mounting discomfort of working against what I secretly felt to be true and useful. The discomfort – which I sometimes called failure, or writers block, or a bad day’s work – was actually a form of asking. The discomfort was saying, “Not this. It isn’t working. Go find something better.” And so the discomfort grew and grew until at last I started a magazine and allowed myself to tell a different story, and in the answering of my own question the strain and weight of working against myself were relieved.

It is important as a writer to remember that out there in the reading wilderness are strangers looking for what you have written. I suppose this woman was. Whatever suffering had been relieved that night had been her asking. I am sure she did not recognize it as such. I am sure she called it a bitter pill of reality she must swallow if she wanted to pursue this dream. In this way, my answer was her answer, my relief was her relief, and my story was her story.

And that, I believe, is what we call finding your readers.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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A Story Arrives

You cannot pick your audience; your audience must pick you. You can pick your characters and your story, you can pick your scenes and your sentences – but you cannot pick your audience. You can say you are writing for young women, or science fiction freaks, or mystery buffs, but you cannot pick which young women, freaks, or buffs—they will pick you.

Your audience will find you the way you found your story. You found your story because at first you knew only that you wanted a story to tell, the same as your audience wanted a story to read. There were an infinite number of stories you could have told. They drifted to you in glimpses and pieces – titles, protagonists, settings – seeking purchase in your imagination. Most drifted away unnoticed. Some you reached for, testing them idly in the car or shower. But you released them as well because they were the wrong story.

You wanted a story that met you where you were and pulled you forward. You wanted a story that summoned questions from you faster than you could answer them. You wanted a story that felt as if it needed to be told. You wanted a story that could keep you at your desk, keep you up at night, keep you interested from sentence to sentence to sentence.

How glad I am when I find the right story, how relieved. It’s like meeting a friend in a roomful of strangers. I can begin to feel like a stranger to myself as I wait for my story to come. How easy to name that space I have cleared for my story failure, the waiting laziness, the unwanted stories enemies. Yet the friend arrives just the same once I grow tired of all this naming, arrives with a name of its own, and I choose it even as it chooses me.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Beginning and the End.

Writers cannot write for praise from readers, friends, family, or critics. The quickest way to kill anything you are writing is to stare at your page or screen and wonder, “What will THEY think of it?” They – whoever They are – aren’t there, and so you can’t know what They will think, and so you cannot answer this insidious question. As long as you are asking it, you are probably not writing.

That said, hearing from appreciative readers can be very helpful. It is easy as a writer to become preoccupied with how successful a piece of work is, to become preoccupied with whether or not a story sold, and if so for how much; to become preoccupied with how many copies of it have been bought, or with its ranking on Amazon. It is easy, being a human who depends on such things, to become preoccupied with the numbers in your bank account and how these numbers are affected by the stories you have written.

It is tempting because all these things are measurable, and humans have developed a relentless love of measuring things – including, unfortunately, themselves. Yes, it’s no fun to be measured last and worst, but this is the price we all seem to be willing to pay so that we might be measured first or best.

Which is why it’s good from time to time to hear from an appreciative reader. To hear someone say, “I loved your book,” or, “It was just what I needed,” or, “It kept me up all night turning the pages,” can remind a writer why he or she picked up the pen in the first place: because we had something valuable we wanted to share with other people. Yes, there would be money and praise and maybe fame – but first there was that, the immeasurable impulse to increase the quantity of good in the world.

I know this sounds a bit altruistic, I know publishing is a business, I know everyone needs to make ends meet, but that cannot alter where this work begins, and where, in the end, we must return to every day at our desk.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Innocent

I often ask the lawyer-writers I interview why there are so many lawyer-writers, but it has occurred to me recently that all writers are lawyers of a kind. Who are our readers but a jury of our peers whom we must convince of our character’s guilt or innocence by showing the facts we call events, dialogue, and action? After all, no lawyer would stand up in court and merely tell the jury, “Look at my client. I’ve seen a lot of guilty people in my life, and you can trust me – she is not one of them. I rest my case.”

The difference is you have no opponent, and the jury wants very much to believe you. They want to believe you because it is not your characters’ innocence on trial, but your reader’s. Your reader will become every character as you became those characters, and to show your reader guilt or innocence is to allow her to go within herself and feel her own guilt and innocence so that she might put a name and feeling to what she has beheld.

And your reader desires guilt every bit as much as she desires innocence. The guilty in your stories will eventually suffer and maybe even die. All the guilt within your reader is a story she has forgotten to stop telling. When your guilty character perishes, for a moment the story of your reader’s guilt will perish as well, and she will perceive within herself the reality of life without the story of her imaginary guilt. For a moment, she will be free.

Free to become your innocent hero. Innocence cannot be taken from us by mere actions. Only the story we tell about those actions deprives us of our innocence. We put our stories on trial and condemn the worst stories to prison where we hope they will never be told again. Meanwhile, the hero within us is always free because only the hero believes he is free. His freedom is the only story he can tell – freedom to choose any book, any career, any city – a freedom so complete he will occasionally put himself in prison so he might once again seek himself.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

No Debate

I have noticed that writers sometimes believe they fall into one of two camps: those who feel they are writing for themselves, and those who feel they are writing for their readers. Those who believe they are writing for themselves say: I can only write what I like to read. I am the only one present at the desk while I write. In this way, I please myself, and then hope there are readers out there somewhere who will be pleased as well.

But those who feel they are writing for their readers point out that without the readers, writing would be a wholly different experience. We aren’t professional diary writers. We write to get paid and to be read by other people. If you are only writing for yourself, why bother submitting for publication?

I have come to understand recently that all writers exist in both camps. In fact, all humans exist in both camps. We are all of us living and writing for ourselves, doing what we can to create what pleases us. Yet without those other people, the readers and the friends and family and co-workers and strangers, not only would creation be impossible, it would be meaningless.

There are two moments within the creative process where I most clearly understand the value of what I have done. The first is when I find that which I was trying to share, that moment that feels both like discovery and remembering, a satisfying return to something I had forgotten I misplaced. The other is when I learn that another person feels similarly about what I had found and shared. How much harder at that moment to maintain the illusion that I was ever alone at the desk, or that any one thing actually belongs to any one of us.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Finding Your Readers

I was at a reading recently, talking about writing the way I like to – which is to say encouraging everyone just to do it and ignore all the noise about how hard it is to get published and the shrinking markets and rejections and snappy openings and so on – when a woman raised her hand and said, “This is such a relief.”

Which I share not to brag but because I had found a like soul. This column, and now my book (Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion), have been a relief to me. For years I worked against the current of a story that went thus: Writing and publishing are hard. You have to be lucky or talented or preferably both, and don’t forget it’s a business, and be original but make sure your work fits into a category, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I hated this story, but I believed it was reality.

The more I wrote while believing this story, however, the more I felt the mounting discomfort of working against what I secretly felt to be true and useful. The discomfort – which I sometimes called failure, or writers block, or a bad day’s work – was actually a form of asking. The discomfort was saying, “Not this. It isn’t working. Go find something better.” And so the discomfort grew and grew until at last I started a magazine and allowed myself to tell a different story, and in the answering of my own question the strain and weight of working against myself were relieved.

It is important as a writer to remember that out there in the reading wilderness are strangers looking for what you have written. I suppose this woman was. Whatever suffering had been relieved that night had been her asking. I am sure she did not recognize it as such. I am sure she called it a bitter pill of reality she must swallow if she wanted to pursue this dream. In this way, my answer was her answer, my relief was her relief, and my story was her story.

And that, I believe, is what we call finding your readers.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Little Light

Writers of all genres share many things: a love of language, a love of story, and early love of reading. Unfortunately, they also share a few unanswerable questions, chief among them: Will anybody actually want to read this thing?

It is a strange question to ask, especially when the people asking it know that the answer is, of course, yes. Yes, yes, yes, someone will want to actually read this thing. And yet that question is so seductively askable. It is seductive because every story is a choice. Using the light beam of her attention the writer illuminates a portion of the truth that is the whole of life. The writer must choose what part will be illuminated because she cannot illuminate all of it – not even the sun can brighten both halves of the earth.

The writer’s only job is to illuminate what she most wants to see. The writer brings all her skill, all her wisdom, all her patience, and works until the spotlight is bright and clear. Now anyone interested in that portion of the whole may see it too. The brighter it is, the clearer it is, the easier for those so wishing to can see it.

There will always be those, however, who are not interested in what the writer has illuminated. Perhaps they have seen it already; or perhaps it is too far from where their own attention is currently directed. The reasons are irrelevant. These others can find it when they want, if they want.

The writer may know all this, but in choosing to direct her attention, in choosing what her story is, she will likely also be aware of what her story is not, that portion of the truth her light cannot illuminate. And it is true – anyone craving to know what lies within the shadows beyond her spotlight’s radius will be disappointed. And it also true that truth lies out there as well, out there beyond what her story reveals.

This is why we ask, Will anybody actually want to read this? We are speaking, in our own way, for the readers this story wasn’t meant to reach. This is thoughtful, but unnecessary. Turn your beam back where it belongs and brighten what you can: somewhere someone is in darkness looking for your light.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Acceptance

My recent conversations with authors, including Tuesday’s Author2Author with Erica Bauermeister, seem to have included a discussion of the first-time novelist’s most surprising discovery: that complete strangers will buy your book, read it, and occasionally want to talk to you about it. These complete strangers will be moved, amused, angered, disappointed, or enlightened by what you wrote in the pristine privacy of your desk. How strange. Don’t they understand it’s just something you wrote and not a real book?

All writers are readers first, and it is perhaps for this reason that the reality of publication seems unreal. As a reader you are not granted a backstage view of the stories you love; they arrive in your lap fully formed and uncorrectable. That is what a book is. Until you write and publish one. For a moment, The Book’s magic is lost; for a moment it is cheapened. Why, anyone could have done this.

This does not last long, and what changes has everything to do with those surprising strangers. You thought you were writing for yourself, you see, because during the writing you were about the only one who actually cared that this book would be written. But then you learn the reality. You learn that you were also writing for those strangers. You didn’t know it, but you were. This is perhaps the most surprising reality of all. You can write in your pajamas; you can disconnect your phone and cancel your Internet; you can even write in a cabin in grid-less Idaho, but when you write, your thoughts are no longer yours alone. If you write and publish, your thoughts are going to travel far and fast.

This psychic intrusion is the primary force behind the dreaded Sophomore Slump. The truth is, of course, that your thoughts were never quite your own to begin with. Publication has merely heightened your understanding that your are a full member of the herd of man, and that everything you do, say, and think ripples out to all the other members of the herd. It has always been thus. In this way, to become an author is to accept responsibility. To become an author is to answer the question, “What do I actually want to see more of in the world?” Because to become an author is to publish not one book but, depending on your readership, to publish a thousand, or ten thousand, or a million books.

And so, you still un-published writer, you think you fear the silence of rejection, but you don’t. The truth is all about you, and you have known it in your heart. The world is already listening, poised at the edge of your thoughts. Accept that those thoughts are being heard, accept that they have always been heard, and you will know acceptance too.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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The Herd

Writers sometimes make reluctant capitalists, but whether we wish to discuss it or not, we are responsible for creating a product that we must in turn sell to the general public. The knock on capitalism, generally speaking, is its cold heartedness, a necessarily unfeeling engine of commerce whose deity, The Market, rights all wrongs through a Darwinian winnowing of the entrepreneurial herd. We writers, meanwhile, usually like to view ourselves as caring, empathetic people. Empathy is more or less in the fiction writer’s job description; how else to render believably all those people who aren’t us?

But there is something beautifully democratic about capitalism that every business owner, including writers, at some point understands. We all have our own crowd. We all have the people we eat and drink with, the people we seek out at parties. Society, in some ways, remains an extension of the high school cafeteria, with everyone gravitating to their respective tables. It’s not always inspiring, but it’s practical; easier to talk to people you like than to those you don’t.

But then you become a writer, and someone from another lunch table does something unexpected: they buy your book. In fact, you might look up to realize that only people from other lunch tables are buying your book. Now these people aren’t so bad after all. And not merely because they’re putting quarters in your pocket. When you meet your readers you discover for whom, beside yourself, you were actually writing.

Though I was the sort who bounced between different lunch tables, I have my preferences. While it is gratifying in a way to learn that someone I know and perhaps admire likes my work, there is something singularly uplifting about a stranger finding comfort in it. On the savannah, herd animals seek safety in numbers. Writers must go it alone to do our work, and our safety, in the end, depends on our willingness to accept all comers, to welcome round us anyone whose questions match our own. You see life then for what it is: a collection of curiosity, whose form must yield by and by to the answers received.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Rejected Readers And Other Myths

If you like to make things, whether those things are books, poems, movies, or quilts, you will eventually run up against someone who doesn’t like what you make. That person might decide to tell you they don’t like what you’ve made; they might even decide to tell you why they don’t like what you’ve made. The best response to someone who doesn’t like what you’ve made is to calmly and without any defensiveness whatsoever explain, “You don’t like it because it wasn’t made for you.”

This answer is the absolute truth, but it is easy to see why someone might take it personally. Writers have to contend with rejection all the time, but readers must contend with a form of rejection as well. Whereas a writer’s rejection comes in the literal form of a letter, a reader’s rejection can occur silently as they come to understand that the book they began reading is like a poorly chosen blind date. The writer, in writing this uninteresting book, has rejected the reader’s aesthetic.

But of course the writer hasn’t. The writer has merely directed the arrow of their story toward a target that lies outside the circumference of certain readers’ interest. We all shoot for the broadest target we can, but no target is so broad as to incorporate the entirety of the reading public. It may seem quite obvious that you, a writer, are not rejecting any reader, but it was worth considering. Some readers get very angry when they read books they don’t like. Some writers become very angry when they receive letters telling them an agent or editor did not like what they have written. Are the angry reader and the angry writer really so different?

In the end they are not. Rejection as we know it does not exist. It is a mirage of language we have come to believe. No one really ever rejects anyone, but sometimes people go where they don’t belong. It’s an honest mistake, and the honest answer is, “You don’t belong here.” Sometimes we learn this ourselves and sometimes people tell us, but in the end, the result is the same. We must go and find where we do belong. That is what you are looking for. You are not looking for any agent, for any publisher, you are looking for those agencies and publishing houses where your work belongs. When you find these places, it will not be a question of acceptance and rejection because you will soon see that in many ways you have always been where people are now inviting you to stay.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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