Carving My Niche

My Hue & Cry: Many of you reading have come to know me as a member of your online writing community. I’ve often written about how important community has become to my writing journey. I’m not afraid to use the word tribe when describing those I’ve connected with in the writing world. I don’t know quite where I’d be without the help and support of my tribe. Last week I struggled, and admitted to it in this space. The outpouring I received in response to my call was astonishing and humbling. It made me realize not only how much I’ve grown to enjoy this form of communication but how nourishing it is to my life as an artist. In our tribe, we take care of our own.  

Orange Appled: Even with my new appreciation for blogging, questions linger. One of the reasons I resisted blogging for so long was my belief that writers’ blogs had very little to do with cultivating a reading audience or finding one’s Right Readers. I felt as though the two—my future readers and my writing community—were a bit like apples and oranges: both desirable but entirely different. This seemed particularly true because my genre, historical fantasy, and my tribe’s primary home base, Writer Unboxed, seemed to have little in common. But it seems like the distinction is blurring over time. I’ve met more fantasy writers in WU than I would’ve dreamed possible two years ago, primarily though the WU facebook group.

Hitherto: While I was writing my trilogy, I had absolutely no idea who would read it—who my Right Readers might end up being. It might not be fair or wise, but I’ll admit I consider it a point of pride that I didn’t try to gauge the marketplace while I wrote it. I’m not knocking those who can find the pulse of the market and then tap into their creativity to serve it. But I don’t think the approach would work for me. For me a writing project has to start with passion, and I rarely feel passionate about anything in mainstream culture. I can’t recall the last bestseller I read or the last time I bought any music from a popular top twenty list, and I very rarely go to movies. But I know I’m not alone in the things I love.

An Elan: (élannoun \ā-ˈläⁿ\ Ardor inspired by passion or enthusiasm.) One of the amazing things about the internet is its diversity. It may sound bass-ackward,  but I believe that very diversity can actually be a unifying force. David Byrne of the Talking Heads recently commented on the fragmentation of music through the diversity of satellite radio and the internet. He said, “It makes you a member of a tribe. And your taste in music ties you all together. That need is almost more important than the music itself.”   

In almost any artistic niche, one can become a member of a community. Through shared passion tribes are born. Just as with my tribe (we are all passionate about our writing), so too are there tribes built around epic fantasy, midcentury modern décor, and Lady Gaga, to name three of a million-plus unifying passions. Having an élan can be delicious, but sharing it only makes it all the more enchanting. And today any élan, no matter how unique, can be a shared experience.   

Seekers Who Are Lovers: For the sake of illustration, I’ll share one of my musical élans. I love The Cocteau Twins. I clearly remember the first time I heard their music playing in a funky little college record store (remember record stores?) in the late 80’s. It was instant attraction, but it only grew. In subsequent years, I sought out and bought all of their previous releases, most at import pricing, and instantly snatched up everything they did thereafter. Before the internet, finding rare cuts and import EPs was not so easy. All through those years I didn’t know another soul who felt that kind of passion for them. Their music is not an easily acquired taste (although over the years my wife has grown fond of them, thank God!). In fact, I know several people who dislike them. But it never mattered much to me. I love everything about them, from their overdubbed echo-laden ethereal sound to their unintelligible lyrics to their otherworldly album artwork. Heck, I even love their song titles. [Side-note: Each of this post’s subheadings is a Cocteau Twins song title.]

Treasure Hiding: At some point in my early days of internet browsing, I decided to search The Cocteau Twins, and (you guessed it) to my amazement, there is a large and thriving international community of ardent CT fans–to this day. They even have an annual festival in the UK (in spite of the CTs  having disbanded in 1996). There are remixes and rare cuts shared, and fan forums, and hundreds of videos, and so on. I don’t participate much, but the Cocteau Twins community makes me feel less alone and my élan  all the more enchanting. With the advent of the internet, treasures I once had to search out are now hiding in plain sight.

Atlas Dies Laughing: Back to writing. I mentioned my lacking when it came to preconceiving who might read my work. It’s actually worse than most of you know. I always enjoyed reading fantasy that featured elaborate world-building. So naturally, I built a fairly elaborate world for mine. But in the pursuit of my own passions and interests, I did things fairly uniquely.

For example, I’m not particularly fond of dragons, or any kind of intelligent non-humans for that matter. So I didn’t include any. Also, I am often put off by systems of magic in fantasy. They can feel like a cheap way for the hero to gain the upper hand. So I have no magic. I’ve also long felt that fantasy series with an overt delineation between good and evil were too simplistic. The real world is complicated. There is no black and white, only shades of gray. So I created antagonists with complexity and what I hope are relatable motivations. They believe they’re doing the right thing. They think they’re the good guys!

Turns out the joke’s on me. To many readers, all of these elements I neglected or rejected are the de facto definition of epic historical fantasy. The elaborate world I built fits into almost no one’s preconception of the genre I selected to explore.  

But I’m Not: I understand I won’t convert fantasy readers who expect dragons or elfin magic. And a large portion of the established epic fantasy community might reject the strong elements of romance in my work. But I’ve come to see my work’s uniqueness as a potential strength rather than a weakness. I don’t need to conform to anyone’s preconceptions regarding genre. I never had even the tiniest hope that the trilogy would be a bestseller. But those who do like a bit of romance for the MCs and complexity in their antagonists, and who aren’t so enamored of magic or dragons, might be all the more ardent about my work.

Cathy Yardley recently wrote a post I love called The Slow Writing Movement. Do yourself a favor and go read it. In it, she says, “I believe that writing means connecting with readers. I think that it’s important to know who you’re writing for. I think that this audience should be larger than simply yourself, although I think it can be considerably smaller than most would have you believe.”

I’m still striving toward figuring out exactly who I’ve been writing for, but I’m starting to get a handle on it. With the help of my beta readers, Cathy, and my tribe, I’ve come to believe a niche of Right Readers exists, that it can be more easily cultivated than ever before, and that it’ll be large enough.

Grail Overfloweth: I harbor no illusions that the readers of this blog will be the readers of my books, nor even a significant portion of you. I’m sure a few of you might read, and even enjoy them, but still not be my Right Readers, and that’s all good. After all, just because someone might occasionally enjoy hearing a Cocteau Twins song, it doesn’t mean they’ll start collecting albums. Like the CTs, epic fantasy is a distinct taste, let alone adult epic historical fantasy with romantic leanings and no dragons or elfin magic.  

But I clearly see how much my tribe and this forum are contributing to my understanding of who my Right Readers are. And as my journey progresses, and my career continues to grow, the content here will undoubtedly morph and change, and its readership with it. In the meantime, I feel quite blessed to have you beside me along the way.

Hearsay Please: Do you see a niche for your work, or does it have broad appeal? How do you think you’ll find your Right Readers? Who are your Cocteau Twins? Are you fond of something no one else seems to know about or care for? If so, who or what?

25 comments on “Carving My Niche

  1. I have a feeling you’re going to surprise yourself one day. I’d read your books in a heartbeat. I like a little magic and dragons, but the complexity and romanticism of your work appeals to me. Once I’m done with this book and it’s out for the world to read or line their gerbil cages with, I’ll be in touch. I have an idea for a ya fantasy and would love to talk turkey with you.

    I wonder, too, what readers will find my book. It’s a tough one, deals with teen suicide and I’ve essentially built a world- the afterlife- in this book. To me, it’s tricky. I’m at the point now that I’m saying dammit, if it reaches one reader, and gives them a brief glimpse of hope and beauty, then all the long hours have paid off. I may be their Cocteau Twins, but what of it? If my Ideal Reader cries where I cried, or loves Evie a little, awesome. Is that bad? Hope not. If I get mired in readership and sales, I’ll lose sight of why I started this gig.

    Okay, that’s me, off on a tangent again.

    I’m always digging around, finding music. My current love is Bon Iver, specifically his track Skinny Love.

    Yet another provocative post, Vaughn. Thanks. 🙂

    Like

    • First, Thanks for the vote of confidence, and I’d love to talk turkey!

      Next, I too love the idea of being somebody’s–even if it’s oh-so-few somebodies–Cocteau Twins. I have so much faith that you’re handling a delicate subject and heart wrenching themes with a deft touch. You’re smart to avoid being mired in the numbers, but you’ve already got at least one built in sale. I can’t wait to read it!

      Lastly, LOVE Bon Iver. A current fave (for obvious reasons) is his song Michicant. Have you heard his story? How he struggled with his band for years, never breaking through. Then when he broke up a long relationship, went to his dad’s hunting lodge in Wisconsin for the winter, and wrote and recorded For Emma Forever?

      Oh, if you love Skinny Love, have you heard Birdy’s rendition? She breathes fresh emotion into it. It’s almost like another song, but the same–so gorgeous. Here’s a link (for my muse-music buddy): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lT67liGjZhw

      Thanks, as always, for being such an awesome tribe mate, Tonia!

      Like

  2. katmagendie says:

    Well, I’m not a fantasy reader, but I never say “I will never read so and so genre” because I’ve been so happily delighted by writers I’ve met in social networking, and I’ve bought their books to support them and come away glad I did. So, I can’t wait to read you book.

    Interestingly, some genres I LOVE in movies and not so much in books, and some genres I LOVE in books and not in movies. 😀

    I love reading essays – I buy the “best american essays” book every year – yeah. I do. Not many people I know read those, but I love them.

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    • Hmm, can’t say as I’ve discoved the power of essays yet, but I never say never, either, Kat! 😉

      I’m the same about books and movies. For example, I rarely enjoy reading thrillers, but often love the genre in movies. In books I need a certain cadence thriller writers rarely seem to capture. With fast-paced thrillers I often I find myself ‘falling asleep at the edge of my seat.’

      I’m honored by the thought of having you read my work someday, Kat. Thanks! 🙂

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  3. You ask many questions, Obi-Vaughn. Seriously, your posts are always so deep and thoughtful. I feel like a piece of fluff!

    In all seriousness, I don’t know who my readers might be. What I’m hoping will happen is that someone will learn about a story of mine and enjoy it. Then they will tell someone else and then the word will travel. I just hope to have readers!

    I like popular things – music, books, etc… I think my story reflects that, but not because of any contrivance on my part. It just is who I am. The only caveat is if something is too popular I avoid it, and my trouble is I combine the popular into weird mixtures like Urban Chick-lit Fantasy with serious themes. What can I say.

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    • First off, I’m no Obi-anything, and you’re certainly no padawan. Maybe a bit of the opposite, but thank you nonetheless. 🙂

      I think the weird mixture thing is brilliant, Lara! Justine Musk had a great post about ‘finding the edges’ and talked about mixing genres and pop culture at it’s edges to find a new plane. You’re doing just that!

      Also, I think word-of-mouth is the only reliable means of giving a book legs. I don’t have an ounce of faith in any other means (although I’ll probably try other things when the time comes). I think that’s the brilliant thing about the concept of Right Readers–finding your key fans, the ones that really ‘get’ you, and they are the ones that sing your song on the street corners, so to speak. Nobody likes self-serving bluster, but everyone listens when someone is passionate about someone else’s work. They convey their elan, which is something you can’t really do about yourself. After all, you’ve already poured your elan into your work. It doesn’t translate to promoting the vehilcle of the elan (if that makes any sense).

      Long reply, but you got me going. Thanks, Lara for weighing in and making me think, too! 🙂

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  4. karenselliott says:

    My writing is fairly standard stuff – horror, poetry, memoir/historical. I figure there is an audience for all of it. May be a small audience, but I’ve already accepted that I’m not going to be able to quit the day job! I simply hope to entertain. I write my best, re-write even better, and have an editor. I read a quote a while back that sort of defines how I go about my tribing/social networking – “Become someone worth knowing. Then your book will become something worth buying.” – C. Hope Clark. My CT is ELO – Electric Light Orchestra. I’ve been listening since H.S., and every time I post a song by them, I get a few comments from old high school pals.

    Like

    • Oh, Karen–Don’t Bring Me Down… No, the song, by ELO–it’s such a fave! 😉 Also love Mr. Blue Sky. Loved them throughtout my school days, too! I went and saw them live in about ’75, and it was phenomenal!

      The Clark quote is powerful and apt! That’s a keeper. Writing it down as soon as I hit enter.
      Thanks for sharing, and for the wonderful ELO memories! 🙂

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  5. I’m definitely up for reading some “adult epic historical fantasy with romantic leanings and no dragons or elfin magic.”!! (though I do fancy a dragon now and then — I wish I could breath fire sometimes, don’t you?) Seriously, I’m already a fan and I have great faith in your trilogy.

    As for me, I am stumbling around in revisions, trying to figure out a better way to tell this story so that I’ll find any readers, let alone the Right ones. 🙂 I think it’s important for me to keep in mind what you’ve written about growth, change, and process — I’m not “done” yet, as a person or a writer. I like things to be neat and tidy, so I’ve a tendency to want to curtail the process, arrive at the destination. Finish line! I always have to remind myself to just . . . write. Be. Learn.

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    • Wow, I feel like you dove into my ramblings and, undaunted by my verbosity, fished out a bit of zen, Lisa! Thanks for that! 🙂

      I hope you realize that I write these things as much to convince myself as anyone. I’ve so ardently wanted the trilogy to be ‘done’ and to cross the finish line, many times. But I know it’s unfurling at the intended pace, and I see it becoming what it was meant to be. Patience will make it worthy of being the elan of its Right Readers.

      And I know the same goes for you. Your talent shines through in your beautiful posts, and I know it’ll happen for you in the long form. There have been, and will be roadblocks, but we will win through! If we keep reminding each other, together we can… write. Be. Learn. (Love that!)

      Thanks for letting me know your up for my niche, and for sharing and being so supportive, Lisa! Have a great weekend! 🙂

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  6. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says:

    I cried myself to sleep when Beth died in Little Woman.

    I mourned the loss of Juliet, and reveled in the horror of Lady Macbeth.

    I am a huge fan of both Phillip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, and Anne Rice’s early works can bring me to my knees.

    Of Human Bondage left an indelible mark on my psyche as did Logan’s Run, as did Mrs. Dalloway.

    One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, left a scab that still sometimes festers and breaks open.

    I have had a mad crush on Edgar Allan Poe since my teacher read The Raven to my third grade class, and I fall in love with John Keats all over again — whenever I read his poetry.

    I listen to everything from Pantera to Mozart. And all of it in its own way, has brought me to the Houses of the Holy.

    I love my TV from Breaking Bad to Dr. Who.

    Midnight In Paris is one of my favorite all time movies–but I love many, many others from RoboCop to Dr. Zhivago.

    John William Waterhouse and Van Gogh are among the many painters who have taken my breath away.

    Where is the thread of commonality?

    I think it has to boil down to making me feel things and see things that on some basic level–even if it takes me to somewhere I’ve never been–I can relate to in, the story of me.

    Unleash my story with your work, and a part of me will stay with your work forever.

    All the reasons above, and more, are why I rebel against fingering a target audience.

    There are universal truths that we all know when we see, watch, hear or read ’em. And we love the illumination that these truths awaken in our human hearts and our immortal souls.

    I think you underestimate your audience, Vaughn.

    Like

    • You list things that have moved you. Well, this comment takes my breath and quickens my pulse, Bernadette. And the first thing I’ve got to say is… Oh, no! Beth dies in Little Women?!

      Seriously, what a wonderful list. You’re obviously more cultured and well-read than I am, but I recognize everything you’re relaying and I appreicate the sentiments. I had The Raven read to me in my youth, too. Isn’t it wonderful to experience aloud, from the mouth of an adept reader? And I’ll never forget seeing Dr. Zhivago on the big screen. It was one of my mom’s favorites, and it was the first ‘adult’ movie I ever went to the theater to see as a child. I came away feeling like I’d lived another entire life. It’s one of those indelible marks you mention.

      Your point is well-taken. I sometimes allow myself to fret over ‘the collective’ or someone else’s expectations. It’s no small wonder one of the points of inner conflict in my MC’s story is ‘the weight of expectation’ he feels. Others want to thrust his ‘destiny’ upon him, and only through breaking free of their expectations can he find his way to his true self. I’m sure the theme didn’t just ‘appear’ in my work for no reason.

      I love how you evoke me to look deeper, and challenge me, my friend. I’ll never underestimate you! Thank you. 🙂

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  7. liz says:

    Oh Vaughn, I need more tea before pondering all of this! I think I write the type of books I love to read, because my favorite authors don’t quite write fast enough to keep me busy all year long. And I am inordinately fond of mango/jalapeno jelly candies, which everyone else seems to think are truly disgusting.

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    • It really shows through, that your work reflects the niche of your elan, Liz! I’m all for you getting your tea, but around here it’s getting darn close to time for a stronger beverage. 😉

      I’m up for jalapeno flavoring in anything. Either that or bacon–you can’t go wrong. Thanks for reading and sharing, Liz! Have a wonderful, tea and mango/jalapeno kind of weekend, my friend! 🙂

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  8. Such a thoughtful blog post Vaughn. I enjoyed reading it and could relate on so many levels. I’ve never really been one to buy into popular culture (with a few exceptions: James Bond is one, as is Downton Abbey) and I tend to like what I like. Growing up, everyone knew I loved history and beautiful old clothes and writing. I really couldn’t share that love with anyone else (of course, growing up in a town of 1,600 PLUS being a farm kid probably didn’t help). I didn’t care. I still went my own way. However, with the advent of the Internet, I was able to connect with so many people that shared my interests. It’s been a true blessing in my life.

    I really like that you’re going your own way with your writing – that is how it should be, IMO. If we contort ourselves to fit into the box, we are not being true to ourselves or to our work.

    And even though I don’t read fantasy, I would read your stuff simply because it sounds intriguing, and I know that with all the thought you put into your blog posts and the energy you put into the community at WU, I would expect no less from your fiction. 🙂

    Like

    • Thanks, Melissa! I’m so glad you could relate. Now I know I share at least a couple of elans with you: James Bond and the WW2 era! I can now image, better than ever, growing up in a town of 1,600. I live in a town of 450 (2,000 in summer, but still), and I am known as the ‘reclusive writer guy who sometimes does carpentry’ by most everyone here.

      I’m am honored that you would be willing to read outside your normal genre preferences. I appreciate your support and your friendship, Melissa! You’re a part of my online blessing! 🙂

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  9. ddfalvo says:

    I read, falling into the beautiful lull of your words (as always,) the effortless transitions from concept introductions to the fullness of their meaning. The ever-present hint of melody that is song and literary rhythm woven. Nodding my head– “In our tribe, we take care of our own.” Then,
    “I rarely feel passionate about anything in mainstream culture,” a quick smirk and the thought–Trailblazers rarely do.
    And, Eeeee! Élan is one of my MCs. 😛 And you have exposed her for all that she is. You understand her draw.
    Because it’s not the dragons, or elves, or grumpy wizards that make fantasy magical–it’s the possibility that something ordinary can become extraordinary in an unexpected way. It’s life stretched with possibilities that reshape preconceived notions and open doors once locked and rusted shut.
    I have read fantasy all my life. But I didn’t want to write what I’ve read. I wanted something of my own, something that would draw in readers that never thought they would like fantasy; something credible but still took their breath away.
    It’s possible.
    Tradition is a cookie cutter that delivers consistent pleasure, but if you want real fantasy–then, by the very definition, you have to break the mold.
    Sounds like you already have that all figured out.

    Like

    • I can’t believe you have an Élan in your work! How is it we’ve never spoken of this, D? The heroine of my prequel ms, who is oft mentioned thoughout the series, is also Elan (in no small part due to the Cocteau Twins). Can’t wait to read and know yours. 🙂

      “I have read fantasy all my life. But I didn’t want to write what I’ve read. I wanted something of my own, something that would draw in readers that never thought they would like fantasy; something credible but still took their breath away.”

      Oh, D!… By Odin’s beard, that is so gorgeously and brilliantly said. We talk all the time about writing what we love or know or would want to read… But this is such a spot on aspiration. Thank you, as always, for finding the beating heart (somehow) in what I struggle to say in a 1,200 word post.

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  10. Nicole L. Bates says:

    You put so much time and thought into each post Vaughn, very impressive. I am not certain about my niche audience. I suspect readers who are interested most in characters and interpersonal relationships (vs. technology, magic, fiction, or non) will be my supporters. That is something I love about Anne McCaffrey’s work. She was a science fiction author who many called a fantasy author, but it doesn’t matter how you categorize her work, it’s about people. She truly had an understanding of people, how they think, how they interact. She wrote them beautifully in all sorts of amazing, creative places. That is what I strive for. I think I’ve slowly been finding a tribe, but it certainly takes time, especially before one has a lot of work out there to share.

    Like

    • I’ll admit, this post took me a few extra hours (getting CT titles to match up to what I was laboring to say was a bit more difficult than I first imagined 😉 ). I STILL haven’t read McCafferey (in spite of your recommendation to me months ago), but I absolutely will. She sounds right up my alley. I wanted the freedom fantasy offers, and I also wanted to explore a few of the tropes by turning them upside down. But you hit the target here. More than anything I wanted to explore the people, as you aptly put it: ” how they think, how they interact.” Fantasy offers such a wonderfully broad canvas for exploring characters of all kinds, interacting in uncountable ways.

      I absolutely consider you a part of my tribe, and you can consider me a future member of your reading audience as well, Nicole. 🙂 Thanks for your ongoing support and insight!

      Like

  11. Story Addict says:

    Thanks for introducing me to Writer Unboxed, Vaughn, I followed! I find it interesting that mainstream stuff doesn’t really get your attention. I’m the opposite, but I like both mainstream and niche, so long as it’s a good story and well written. Just about anything can get my attention, even though that’s rare. I completely see eye-to-eye with you in having difficulty finding your audience, since I also wrote what I wanted to write. None of that black and white good/evil or elements that have simply been over-killed. But stepping outside the box often does mean you’re putting yourself in a risky position. I’m all the more for it, we need more original stories and less worn out concepts, even if it means facing more resistance. Rooting for your story! 🙂

    Like

    • Oh my goodness, introducing writers to WU is always such a pleasure. It’s a treasure trove and the people there are the best! I’m so glad you’re another ‘shades of gray’ fan. No, I don’t mean the book, I mean the ‘no black & white’ kind. 😉 Here’s to stepping outsdie the box and winning through the resistance. Thanks for your support, Margaret! 🙂

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  12. […] (A Design for Living): Being a Cocteau Twins fan from early on (which I wrote about here), I was vaguely aware of DCD because the two bands shared a record label in 4AD records. Both bands […]

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