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Knowing your audience

July 24, 2010

As a speculative fiction writer, I often forget the importance of pandering to my audience.  And by pandering, I mean more than giving them what they want; give them something they don’t expect that resonates with them.

For instance, I am a big, big fan of USA’s original series Psych.  (I also enjoy Burn Notice…but that’s a different post.)  Everything about the show resonates with me.  I often (at least once an episode) have to pause the show so I can finish laughing hysterically and catch my breath before continuing.  Shawn (the fake psychic and main character) is my age, graduated high school the year I did, and says the things I’d never say myself but would love to if my wit was half as quick as his.  Gus (his best friend and partner) and he have some of the wittiest dialog (banter, really) I have ever heard.  The female detective is hot without being imposingly so.  Heck, Shawn dated the chick from the movie She’s All That. As wonderful as this stuff is, it’s become what I expect of the show.  I expect witty banter and low-key sexual tension.

This week, I got a nugget.  Out of left field, the aforementioned hot female detective asks Shawn what he’s done all day.  Shawn’s response: “Well, I watched some Phineas and Ferb, then…”  Pause.  Laugh until I can’t breathe.  Why is this so funny?  I watched no less than four episodes of Phineas and Ferb today.  (I do have a three year old).  P&F is also hilarious.   (Perry the Platypus versus Dr. Doofenshmirtz…but that’s another post)  The writers watch P&F.  They decided that their fan base would enjoy P&F if they had opportunity to watch it.  They knew it would resonate with me.  It did.

It’s not just that.  At his high school reunion, Shawn replaced his own name tag picture with one of Judd Nelson.  They throw references to 80s movies into every episode (maybe not so much of late, but the first couple seasons were packed.  It averages out.)  Some zingers miss me, others smack me in the head.  Pause.  Laugh.

I want to do that with my stories.  Not all of them, but some.  I want my target demographic of readers to feel like they just got something other people missed because I wrote it just for him/her.  It doesn’t have to be a joke.  It could be a character name that’s a allusion, a character quirk that they get because they’ve lived it.

This is hard to do.  I get it occasionally when I read, but not often.  Dumbledore’s name is an allusion to little moth creatures in Lord of the Rings.  I’m reading a detective novel where the character has realizations and observations I would make.  A Phineas and Ferb reference would be a tough score in a story, but I guess it could work.

I often find that I cut my clever quips and references because I doubt that the editor will get it.  I have had editors/beta-readers/etc. tell me I should cut those things.  Maybe I shouldn’t listen.  After all, my parents don’t really like Psych.  Why not?  They didn’t graduate in 1995.  The humor isn’t aimed at them.  Oh they’ll get most of it, but not the stuff that’s golden, the stuff that makes me want to watch it the minute I see Psych on my recorded list (bless you, DVR).  I am in their demographic.  Somewhere out there, an editor will be in my story’s demographic and that quip the other editors didn’t get will be what sells it.

There’s a lot about my style that could resonate with some people while others consider it nails on a chalkboard.  (How often do you see chalkboards anymore?  I have three in my classroom for graphing, but I don’t even use them.  I digress.)  See, that’s one there!  Did you miss it?  My parenthetical commentary.  If I wrote stories like that, I’d have editors coming to my house to pry the 9 and 0 keys from my keyboard.  I like parenthetical comments.  I teach with them (verbally), I blog with them (obviously), why not write with them?  I could get away with it in flash fiction most likely, and I concede that a novel written this way would be exhausting, but there’s a place for this.  (Yes, Shawn Spencer on Psych makes his share of aside comments in similar style, another thing that endears me to the show.  Or does it endear the show to me?  I can never remember which way it goes.)

Anyway, I want to reach out and poke people with little bits that work for them in a very personal way without getting in the way of the story.  Or sometimes getting in the way.  I have done this, to an extent, with my story TWHDotGMP (title redacted…there’s a post about that somewhere on here).  For instance there is reference to “…a group of Klinons that were barely dodging copyright infringement as it was…”  Not the most incredibly unique or obscure reference in the world, but it’s there to make a reader pause, reread, spot the difference, and chuckle.  Too many of those and the reader can’t get any inertia for all the stop-and-go reading, but a few peppered in can make a story that much more enjoyable.  TWHDotGMP is out on submission as we speak to IGMS; Strange Horizons already said no thanks.  But it’s early in the life of a short story and I really want this experiment in farcical humor to succeed, mostly because I want to know there are readers out there as wacky as I am, people for whom my humor resonates on a personal level.  And I want to get paid.

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