Is it a young adult novel? Are you a young adult writer?
I understand the temptation to categorize fiction, but these types of questions deeply concern me. I suppose there is a sense of comfort in being able to package books (or all art for that matter) into neat, easily-identified cubby holes we call genres. But, as I said, I'm concerned. I don't want the books I read to be easily categorized. I don't want writers to feel pressured to describe their books in two sentences or less, or in a neatly prepared 30 second elevator speech. There must be readers out there who like their books a little more complicated than others...a little messier.
How can you create a true voice if you're asking yourself as you write: "Hmm, is this too young adult? Is it too adult? Will a 14-year-old cheerleader from Arkansas understand what I'm getting at? Will a 35 year old accountant from Philadelphia know what this refers to?"
By the time you're through sanitizing your story and dumbing it down for everyone to understand, it's going to be so generic and boring that no one will want to read past page five. Heck, you'll probably lose interest writing the darn thing yourself. You need to break down those internal editors in order to discover and connect with that kernel of truth that will ultimately define your characters and, therefore, your books.
But shouldn't you know your audience?
I hear that all the time. I can only speak for myself, and I often don't have a clue about my audience when I start writing. I follow an impulse, an idea, a faint heartbeat of a story that pops into my head while riding the subway or dozing into the morning cereal bowl. Maybe it's an image...maybe an overheard scrap of dialogue. Sometimes this spark actually turns into a story; sometimes it grows into a novel. Most times it is an exercise about character or plot or structure that is filed away for another time or never to be seen again. This is the way I work; everyone is different. When I wrote the first draft of my novel Tanker 10, I was barely a writer. I was a dabbler, conjuring some memories from childhood. I didn't stop to think about who would read my story. I just wrote, trying to focus on things like, "How can a make this work as a story?" or "Where's the truth of my characters?"
So, needless to say, I don't like hearing writers talk about how they plan to shape their stories toward a specific audience -- whether they're aiming for a particular age, a particular geographic region, a particular gender. Hey, I have no issue if a novel touches a 25-year-old African-American male reader from Portland, OR. Obviously, I want to that to happen. I just think that you're going to have a better chance of reaching that 25-year-old Oregonian if the story emerges organically from the creative process of building a character and nurturing a voice, as opposed to imposing restraints on it before you've even start writing. It's the process...the writing itself...the grueling work that should dictate the elements of our stories; not the other way around. Don't worry about the result. The creative process -- in short, your imagination -- will get you there.
There is no perfect answer or solution. I'm just a writer with an opinion or two, but do we really want our audiences to determine our work? Doesn't it make far more sense, and isn't it far more rewarding, for our stories to determine our audiences?
But Jonathan, all the big shots say that demographics equal sales.
I know, I know, I hear that all the time, too. But unless those big shots are knocking on your door with one hand and clutching a book deal in the other, I wouldn't worry about it too much.
Jonathan Curelop is the author of the new coming-of-age novel Tanker 10 which echoes his own life. He lives in New York City where he writes fiction and non-fiction for various publications.