by Jane Choate
In various writers’ groups over the years, I have heard a number of writers who say, usually with a certain degree of self-righteousness, “I don’t write for others. I write for myself.” That’s great. For the rest of us, though, those who have struggled to get published and who are struggling to stay published, it doesn’t work. We write for ourselves, yes, but we write for others as well. We want our words to have an audience. Just as a painter or a sculptor wants his works to be viewed and composers want their music to be heard, writers want their work to be read. For it is in the reading that the work comes alive.
But anyone who writes for children and teens must ultimately answer a key question — just who is that audience? Are we writing picture books? In that case, the audience is the toddler and pre-school set; it is also the parents of those children as they are likely the ones to be reading the books to their children. Are we writing for early readers? For the ‘tween set? For young adults? Knowing your audience is key. Knowing their tastes, their needs, their wants, their expectations is vital in penning the kind of stories that will touch their hearts and minds.
If you aren’t certain who your audience is, try one or more of the following steps:
STEP 1: Know yourself. If you don’t know yourself, how are you going to know your audience? Know your comfort zone. Know what makes you uncomfortable. If you aren’t comfortable with angst-filled stories, you may want to steer clear of writing coming-of-age books. Know your likes and dislikes. Know your emotional and spiritual self. If faith is important to you, you may find that you want to write for the growing Christian market.
ACTION: Ask yourself some questions. Do you enjoy being around babies and toddlers and early grade-schoolers, but older children and teens send you running in the opposite direction? If so, don’t be afraid to admit it. Own that and embrace the fact that you are probably most comfortable writing for the preschool and early reader set. Likewise, if you enjoy the humor and sometimes angst of older children, such as ‘tweens and young teenagers, you will want to focus your efforts there. Or maybe you want to create stories for the YA market, to touch the lives of those teens who are on the cusp of adulthood.
STEP 2: Familiarize yourself with what’s being written now for the age group for which you are aiming your work. It’s wonderful to read the classics such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women etc., but it’s imperative that you know what publishers are printing now
ACTION: Read. Read widely in your targeted age group. Go to your library—a librarian can be a writer’s best friend—and ask for a recommended reading list. If you have children or grandchildren in this age group, you have a leg up, as you are already familiar with what kids are reading. Read books in other age groups as well. You want to know the differences between a board book and a book penned for the almost-reader and to understand what sets a middle grade book apart from one written for the ‘tween age group. Pay attention to vocabulary. Books for very little children repeat words over and over. For older children, the vocabulary is more varied. Read pages aloud and listen to the rhythm. This is particularly important in writing for small children who love repetition, not just of words but of sounds and sentence structure.
ACTION: Subscribe to industry periodicals such as Children’s Book Insider. Treat yourself to a current copy of Writer’s Market. Learn what publishers are looking for in the varied children’s and teen markets. Learn what agents are representing the kind of books you want to write and what their targeted audience is.
ACTION: Go to places where you can find your audience and hang out with them. For example, picture book writers can volunteer in a preschool or kindergarten. Teachers LOVE volunteers. Don’t be afraid to pick the brain of a teacher. Teachers know what kids like to read and what they avoid like the plague. If you’re writing stories for the middle-grade group, go to a third or fourth grade classroom. If you belong to a church, offer to teach Sunday School. If you don’t have children or grandchildren of your own, volunteer to tend the children of a busy young mother. Not only will you learn more about children, you’ll be doing a tremendous service for a woman who works harder than any brick-layer!
Young adult writers need to be online where teens are hanging out (teen book bloggers are a good place to start). Watch current TV shows for different age groups, especially MG (middle grade) and YA. Pay attention to the commercials that are sponsoring the shows. You can learn a great deal from what products are being advertised and how they are marketed. Go to movies. Find out who the current super heroes are and who the heartthrobs are.
For picking up on teen language and behavior, there’s no better place than a mall where kids roam the stores in packs. Settle in at a food court and listen. Be prepared to take notes, but don’t spend all your time scribbling in a notebook. Absorb the nuances of interaction between the teens. Identify the leader and the followers and watch the “pecking order” in action. Note what the kids are wearing. Fashion is a spot-on commentator. Each generation has its own style. The ripped jeans and cold shoulder tops of today are the poodle skirt and twin set of the ‘50s
STEP 3: Fit in. No, I’m not suggesting you try to join a clique of middle-schoolers. (As if they’d let you in!) Once you’ve established your audience, learn what is appropriate for the different age groups. You wouldn’t pen a gritty story of a child watching his parents’ marriage dissolve into a bitter divorce for a picture book, but you might write such a story for a ‘tween audience. What is right for a YA novel won’t be right for a middle grade one. Note: I’m not saying that you can’t tackle tough subjects for younger children, only that your tone, vocabulary, and other aspects will be entirely different than they would be for an older audience.
ACTION: Read again. Read this time with an eye and ear to the subtleties in language and style and tone and subject matter in books for various age groups. At what age can you talk about sexual activity and LGBT issues? What about cutting and other forms of self-mutilation and eating disorders? When is it okay to use curse words? Or is it ever okay? (This goes back to knowing yourself and what you’re comfortable with. For myself, I couldn’t use offensive language in writing for children of any age.)
Learning to know your audience is like any other writing skill, such as crafting characters, strengthening conflict, and writing sparkling dialogue You become better with practice. The best way to do that is to write and to keep writing.