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: (élan – noun \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?