Who Do You Write For?

I’ve been struggling with this one. “Who do you write for?” keeps getting tangled up with “who’s your audience?” They’re related, but they’re not the same. Who are you writing for before you have an audience out there? Let’s leave the out there audience aside for now. We’ll come back to it soon, I promise.

Aside: Yes, I do know that purists will insist on “Whom do you write for?” or “For whom do you write?” At the moment I’m not writing primarily for purists. Be warned.

So the other morning, while procrastinating warming up, I went over to Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and found “When Words Stop” by Beth Taylor. Beth Taylor was writing for me, whether she knew it or not, so I had to write back:

Been there . . . For me writing is a conversation. If no one’s listening and (maybe more important) if no one’s speaking back and otherwise responding, the words dry up. Any actor can tell you that monologues are hard to pull off. One-person shows are even harder. In a one-person show, the actor is rarely talking just to her- or himself. Sometimes she’s talking to the audience, or a particular person in the audience. Other times she’s addressing a character that only she can see at first, but in doing so she makes that character visible to the audience. Writers can do that — we’re often doing it without knowing it.

When I write, I write alone -- but there's always someone there.

When I write, I write alone — but there’s always someone there.

Aha. That’s who I’m writing for: someone that only I can see but that I’m in continual conversation with when I write. That someone has evolved over the years. She wasn’t always there.

At first I wrote to keep from cracking up. I also wrote to turn myself on — remember the desert fantasies? This was back in the day when writing on paper was the only option. Most of the paper I wrote on got burned in my parents’ fireplace or, later, ripped to shreds and put out with the trash. This was a big clue that I wasn’t writing for anyone else. I destroyed most of what I wrote because I was afraid someone else would find it and think I was crazy.

The time came — and it came pretty quickly — when writing for myself wasn’t enough. I wanted people to read at least some of what I wrote. I thought it was worth reading. In college I reviewed books and the occasional concert. I wrote regular op-ed columns, mostly political commentary. Most of my published writing since then has consisted of reviews and commentary, with significant forays into poetry, journalism, theater, and, most recently, fiction.

But that doesn’t explain why I sometimes hesitate over a phrase and think: No, that’s not right or That’s going too far. Or why I make choices that I know bloody well aren’t commercial: they limit my publication options, which weren’t all that great to start with. Who do I write for?

Turns out that the choices I make are clues to the identity of this mysterious entity, the reader who makes writing worthwhile.

I’m writing for the person who’s willing to read about and even identify with characters who aren’t like them in some ways.

I’m writing for the person who’s willing to be momentarily perplexed or even pissed off but doesn’t want to be hoodwinked for no reason.

I’m writing for the person who once in a while will be struck by a turn of phrase and think, That’s exactly right. Who might even toy with possible alternatives and finally conclude, Yeah, you made the right choice.

All of which, come to think of it, describes the sort of reader I’d like to be, and try to be: one who’s brave enough to venture into unfamiliar territory as long as she trusts her guide, and one who appreciates the effort that goes into the writing.

Let's see where the road goes, huh?

Let’s see where the road goes, huh?

Who’s Driving This Bus?

I’ve been thinking a lot about characters lately. Fictional characters, particularly the fictional characters that show up on the paper in front of me. They rise in the compost that is my mind, slide down my arm and into my pen, and manifest in colored ink on a lined white page.

No doubt about it: writing is weird.

Essential tools for character development

Essential tools for character development

“Write what you know,” say the sages. Characters are forever showing me how much I don’t know. No sooner does my protagonist set off down a footpath than I’m scrambling for the name of the pretty blue flower she sees over there. She’s an artist and a website designer. I know more about pigment and graphics than I did when she first showed up, but I still couldn’t play a painter on TV.

Necessity is the mother of invention — and research.

The other day, another character’s almost-five-year-old brother was watching a movie on his family’s big-screen TV. What was he watching? No clue. I don’t know any five-year-olds. It’s been a long time since I was five. I do hear car sounds from the hallway, and I know that when he’s not watching TV the kid likes pedaling his racing car around the driveway. I could leave it at “a movie” and come back to it later, after consulting parent and grandparent friends, but I want to know now, goddammit.

Google can be the world’s worst procrastination tool, but right now it’s my friend. I start typing: Popular movies for k . . . Google fills in kindergarteners. Sounds good: this kid will be in kindergarten next year. After consulting a couple of “top ten” lists, I slip Chitty Chitty Bang Bang into the DVD player. Or maybe it’s a Blu-ray player? I’m a total idiot about all things cinematic, unless they were made before 1980. DVD vs. Blu-ray can wait. Maybe the movie won’t turn out to be Chitty Chitty Bang Bang after all, but for now it is and that’s good enough.

My first novel, The Mud of the Place, took an unexpected turn when a minor character told my protagonist something she didn’t know. I hadn’t known it either. It changed everything.

First-drafting is like watching actors on a stage. I’m the stage manager: I write down what they’re doing and saying. If someone’s standing around looking lost, I send someone else in her direction. That usually stirs things up. Sometimes a ker-thunk offstage signals that interesting stuff is happening just out of sight. I pull back the curtain: “Gotcha!”

All these years I’ve been saying confidently that my fiction is “character-driven.” But of course! I watch my characters move around. I shamelessly eavesdrop on their conversations. If my characters aren’t driving my fiction, who is? The opposite of “character-driven” is “plot-driven.” “Plot-driven” means that the characters serve the plot; “character-driven” means that they create it. Right?

While I was procrastinating the other day, a website informed me that I had it wrong: “A plot-driven novel,” it said, “has a recallable plot and not-so-recallable characters; a character-driven novel has recallable characters, and a not-so-recallable plot.”

Other writers and editors have different ideas, I discovered. I also discovered that there’s no shortage of advice out there about how to create memorable characters and memorable plots.

Sometimes Google is my friend. Sometimes Google is a trickster. Sometimes I need to stop Googling and get back to work.

Back in March I blogged that editing is like driving. So’s writing. The author’s driving the bus — she’s the only one with a valid license — but there’s all sorts of acting and interacting going on behind her. Sometimes she stops to pick up a hitchhiker. She thinks she knows where she’s going, but she’s open to other ideas.

And in case you wondered where this bus image came from, I walk past the West Tisbury School parking lot at least once every day. This is what I see. The dog is my Travvy. He’s a character too.

The backside of the buses, seen from our usual route. In early May, a brushfire scorched the woods hereabouts.

The backside of the buses, seen from our usual route. In early May, a brushfire scorched the woods hereabouts.

Travvy talks to the school buses.

Travvy talks to the school buses.