Finding your audience

In my (amazing, wonderful) creative writing class, we’ve been talking a lot about “moving your work out into the world” recently.

This topic – of finding an audience for your work – takes me back to the autumn of 2007, when I took my first and only creative writing class in university. I was terrified. My alma mater has a reputation for its creative writing program (both undergrad and MA). I wasn’t one of the self-assured kids who had already gained the academic seal of approval for their writing, I was just in an elective course in the English department: but still. The knowledge of the prestige was there, and it was intimidating.

It wasn’t a good experience. The process our teacher wanted us to follow felt like it was stifling my creative instincts, not serving them: to this day, I hate doing plotting charts. Opportunities for feedback were limited to those who were brave enough to raise their hand, meaning the same few voices would dominate our group of 20 or so students.

And then there was the final assignment: to write and submit a polished story, with a critical self-evaluation. Our teacher, whose first novel had been shortlisted for the Booker, for chrissakes, was going to read them, and give them a mark. Simple.

It’s not that I got a bad mark, per se. It was more the comments. Not enough energy in the plot. Main character is cold. Not enough depth to the husband.Of course, this woman wasn’t a monster; these relatively gentle criticisms were sprinkled in amongst equally tepid praise. But writers – well, we’re thin-skinned creatures aren’t we? Reading her critique, I felt as though every sentence was telling me I was a crappy writer, I was never going to be a writer, I should just give up now.

Which for a while, is exactly what I did.

The thing is, it is by far easier to sit on a bus and daydream stories about the people around you than it is to take those idle musings and turn them into a story on a page. Still harder to care enough about these blasted characters to shepherd them through three, seven, twenty-five edits, redrafts. Hardest of all to risk sending that work out into the world. Whether you’re pressing a copy into the hands of a loved one, reading a piece out loud to a writing group, or sending your piece out into the big old world o’ publication, it is scary. Whenever I hit send on a piece I can feel my hands trembling.

The reason for this fear isn’t some big mystery: I think many writers (especially writers early in their careers) fear getting the kind of critique I received in my university writing class. Writing is such an emotional process. It’s more than just an activity we do to pass the time, it is something we pour ourselves into. Rejection of our writing can easily elide (in our minds) into rejection of us, personally.

Here’s the thing though: you’ve got to do it. You need to find your audience. Because if you can learn how to listen to what other people think of your writing you will become a better writer. (As a side note, if you’re anything like me praise will fluster you as much as criticism – you just need to ride it out, and try to listen to all comments evenly)

Here’s my biggest tip on beginning the process of sending your words out into the world, and the thing that I wish someone had told me a long time ago. Find the audience that feels right to you, right now. Sure maybe you’re ready to start sending to lit mags and querying agents, and publishing daily blogs of your writing to your adoring fans, and if you do that’s amazing. Do that! If you’re not ready for that level of exposure? That’s also awesome.

Don’t feel pressured to do things on other people’s timelines. I know from personal experience that I felt like I had to send stories out to magazines way before I (and probably the stories) were ready because it seemed like what people who wanted to call themselves a writer were supposed to do. It’s ultimately counterproductive: I wasn’t ready for the (inevitable) rejection, and got discouraged. Start with where you’re at. Start small if you need to. This is going to sound ridiculous (and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it) but back in the day I would often read to my cat. No, she wasn’t the most attentive listener, and the amount of positive feedback (purrs) was likely more in response to the ear rubs than my scintillating prose, but to me it felt less weird to sit and read a story out loud to another living being than in a room alone. (I would probably still do this if I still lived with the cats – cats are great).


My biggest fan?

Once you’re comfortable sharing your work at one level, dip your toe into the next stream. One of the things that I’ve learnt over the last ten years or so is that while publication is a neat goal to have, and might still be your ultimate goal, there are so many other ways to share you work. Join – or start! – a writing group. Take a (hopefully supportive!) class. Join online communities, start a blog. Within reason, do things that make you nervous, things that make your heart beat a little bit faster, your hands get all clammy. This is advice that I constantly have to remind myself to take, because I am by nature incredibly anxious. What I try and focus on is how I felt when I tried something new – like the first time I read a piece for workshopping to a room full of people I didn’t know, and no-one walked out in disgust, and people had nice things to say (always lovely) but also had useful pointers for me on how to continue improving… That was thrilling. Whatever it is for you, keep trying to seek out those moments that thrill you, spur you on, motivate you to sit down again at your desk the next day and keep writing.

To try and bring this great big blog post full-circle, here’s what happened to that story that got me in such a funk seven years ago. It gathered digitial dust in my dropbox. I’d think about it now and again, still drawn to the characters and central idea, but I felt overwhelmed by the weight of the criticism attached to it. I’d open it now and then, read it to myself, and close it again.

Then, this past autumn, I was in a writing class and we were discussing blocks and negativity. This story came up, everyone was supportive, I felt better. And then I went home and looked at this story again. Really looked at it. Thought about the criticism – could admit what I thought were genuine faults in the piece, could objectively disagree with other comments.

And then I sat down with my notebook and started the story from scratch. I completely reworked the story – the characters names, jobs, interests – all changed. This story was the ghost-sibling of the story I wrote seven years previously.

I wrote all day. I edited all the next day. I sent it out to a writer friend who gave me invaluable feedback. And I felt really good about the story, and so I sent it out to a lit mag, and they decided to publish it in their January edition.

I guess the point of telling this story (other than shameless self-promotion, naturally) is to give my final tidbit of wisdom about finding your audience: sometimes it takes longer than you might think. Sometimes a piece isn’t ready, sometimes you aren’t ready. I think as writers we sometimes think the first draft is the “work” part and everything else is tinkering around the edges. But some stories take longer to be finished than others, and some stories take longer to be ready to send out into the world than others. Nothing you’ve written is time wasted or work lost – it’ll find its audience eventually, even if its just as the best goshdarn bedtime story your cat has ever heard.

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