Using a Laser Instead of a Shotgun

by Katherine Pryor

This all started over a power lunch a few months ago.  Sitting across a linen-draped table from the owner and editor of a Seattle publishing company, I found myself trying to pin down the target market for my two unpublished novels. 

“Well, they’re contemporary women’s fiction….Except this last one, which guys would probably like, too….People who like books?  Yeah, that’s my target market,” I stammered. 

He raised a thick silver eyebrow. 

“What’s wrong with contemporary women’s fiction?” I asked. 

“Girl,” he sighed, “you’re using a shotgun when you need to be using a laser.”

Okay, I guess this really started seven years ago, when I decided I wanted to be a writer.  With no background in English, no connections to the publishing industry, and no savings, I sold my car to write my first novel, 50 Ways.  It felt good, so I wrote another, then another.

Over time, I joined writing groups and began attending conferences.  I published 50 Ways in 2004, and marketed my little heart out.  A couple people read it—and liked it—and I thought I was on my way.  Then efforts to publish my second novel stalled, and depression set in.  Efforts to publish my third novel stalled, and I began to wonder what I was doing wrong.  I began to question the validity of my dream.

A friend introduced me to a local publisher, hoping he could help me. I sat across the table from him, trying not to spit out my iced tea as he pointed out my mistakes in excruciating detail.

“You’re aiming at a huge audience and trying to hit anything that moves.  You need to be more specific.  Don’t just write for all women: write for women in Seattle.  Write for women who care about the environment.  Write for women like you.”

He cupped his hands together, and narrowed the space between them to fine point.

“Figure out how to use a laser, then break out your shotgun.  Go home and write another book.  Then write another one.  Then we’ll talk.”

As he pulled away from the curb in his red convertible, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.  It was hard to breathe.  My vision blurred.

What does he know?  My pride whispered.

The man had worked in publishing for 30 years, and eventually I had to admit that he knew what he was talking about.  I put down my shotgun.  I started looking for a laser.

In the months since that lunch, I’ve starting freelancing for environmental magazines and newspapers.  I accepted a pro bono position as Writer in Residence for a local non-profit, and am working with them on a non-fiction book for regional publication.  I’ve narrowed my range; I’m finding my focus.

I've faced some rejections, but I've also embraced some victories.  I'm researching stories on subjects that interest me, like building regional food networks, and interviewing fascinating individuals.  Although I've been warned against "writing to a market," the advice works when your market is yourself.

The phrase "Write what you love" has become a cliché of writing manuals and conferences, yet most clichés stick because they're true.  I'm researching the topics I want to read about, and apparently I'm not alone.  If I'd like to know more about, say, organic farming practices, chances are others are curious about it as well.  Authenticity is interesting, and writing about subjects I'm authentically interested in is building my reader base.  If I keep writing authentic articles, and attracting new readers, my chances of publishing for a larger audience increase.  I'm following my gut and my curiosity toward a lifetime of professional writing.

This is not the road I imagined seven years ago, but it seems to be taking me where I want to go.  I’m publishing on a national level, and being paid for my work.  After years of groping for readers, I found them in the publications I subscribe to.  The answer was in my mailbox all along.

My novels are still waiting for their day in the spotlight, but I’m building my name and my credibility by publishing for a select audience.  I’m honing my skills while building my platform.  I’ll write another book, then another.  Then, we’ll talk.

Katherine Pryor is author of the novel 50 Ways. She lives and writes in Seattle.