I’ve been publishing nonfiction for quite some time now. Interestingly, in all the time I’ve been writing nonfiction, I never thought much about the nature of the audience for which I was writing. While my nonfiction books have always been for general audiences, they have always been targeted to people interested in a specific subject. It was so simple to imagine this audience that I never seemed to do so.
Writing fiction is different in an abundance of ways, but one of them is that one’s perception of a potential audience is entirely different. Few people come to fiction because of the subject. They will read a novel if a story sounds appealing, but they’re less likely to respond because the main character is a teacher or has restless leg syndrome. (This is good news from my perspective. The main character in my novel Crossing the Bridge works in a stationery store. If I were targeting only small retail enthusiasts, I think I’d be in a lot of trouble.) Instead, fiction readers are going for the feeling the author evokes: tears, warmth, thrills, wonder, and so on.
It’s much more difficult to imagine this audience. After all, the readers of Dan Brown and Nora Roberts are both seeking thrills, but they are seeking them in different ways. Readers of Pat Conroy and Jodi Picoult might both be after poignant explorations of intimate relationships, but they’re after very different experiences from these explorations. The novels I write offer readers close examinations of people undergoing huge changes in their personal and interpersonal lives. In my first novel, When You Went Away, the main character has just lost the wife he adored, he has a small child to raise, and he needs to deal with his unexpected feelings for a colleague. In Crossing the Bridge, the protagonist is struggling with the death of his brother ten years earlier, the aimlessness he’s felt since, and what happens when his brother’s girlfriend walks into his life. In The Journey Home, one of my main characters has lost his memory and only knows that he needs to get back to his wife, another is fighting to live in her head as Alzheimer’s ravages her, and another is watching his mother fade while he tries to conjure a way to bring her back. To whom do I target these novels?
When I started writing fiction, I tried to imagine a reader as I wrote. I tried thinking of other writers and about writing for their readers. Neither worked. Ultimately, I needed to write for the only audience I truly knew: myself. I know what I look for when I read fiction. I want honest emotions from the author, I want characters that evolve, I want relationships with dimension and complexity, and I want a life-affirming sensibility. Since I think many fiction readers want the same thing, writing to satisfy what I wanted in a novel was neither particularly selfish nor particularly risky. I managed to appease myself with these stories, though I’ll admit that my critical faculties might have been compromised by the writing process. Whether they appease anyone else is something I’ll always be in the process of finding out.
Michael Baron is a nationally bestselling author. He is currently at work on the follow-up stories to Leaves. The first novella, Recovery, is out now. Learn more about Michael and his books at our website.