Know your audience…
As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, in order to give myself a good kick up the arse and get my creative juices flowing again, I joined a local writers group that I saw advertised in a local newsagents.
If I am completely honest, before I went to the very first session, I prejudged the group and what I was likely to happen. I had a rather clear mental image of me turning up to a room full of retired ladies who wrote romantic fiction. Actually, at the first meeting, only around 70% of the attendees fell into this category. There was also an elderly gentleman who wrote stories about vegetables and animals with human characteristics, another gentleman who had a historical fiction novel published a few years ago, and a guy only a couple of years older than myself who wrote comedy screenplays and radio plays.
The first week was all about introductions. When I mentioned that I had written a lot of Flash Fiction, the group were intrigued and it was decided that we would all write a flash fiction story to present to the group when it met a month later.
That meeting happened on Wednesday night.
I arrived at the meeting, to find that the comedy script writer had not turned up, however there were another three older ladies in attendance. I was probably at least twenty years younger than the next youngest attendee. The meeting was called to order, and people started reading out their work. Each writer had a 10 minute slot allocated to read their work and get a critique on it from the group.
After the first few stories, I started to get a little nervous.
Themes were starting to appear. Members of the group were commenting on how “Mothers and Daughters” were a common, reoccurring thread between peoples tales. Families also played a big part.
Uh oh…my story was not about stuff like that AT ALL.
There were stories about children who inflated a three foot across balloon in the family dining room that created havoc when it was accidentally released. Stories about the difficulties in learning to knit and the triumph of creating a single sock. Stories about circular conversations with elderly relatives. Stories about the hateful experience of attending a new mother group. Slightly bawdy, amusing stories about a bantam cockerel called Barry White. Mostly light hearted, sweet natured tales with a touch of gentle humour.
I shifted in my seat, and wondered if there was any way I could slip out unnoticed.
The time ran down, and there I was. The last person in the group to read out their story. I swallowed my doubts, looked at my neatly printed manuscript and read.
I finished the story a few minutes later and looked up to a room full of open mouths and wide eyes. Yeah, that was sort of the reaction I was expecting. I waited for people to throw things.
Instead there was silence for another minute or two, as people struggled to find something constructive to say about “Playing with fire”.
In the end, I did actually get a couple of comments back that I could have used to improve the story and give it some added depth. I was asked why the ghostly father was holding the hammer? Was he scared of the girl? If so, what could possibly have instilled such fear in a grown man that he would need to arm himself to deal with her?
To be honest, when I wrote the story, I didn’t think much beyond “that’s a pretty scary image, let’s use that”. I had concentrated on atmosphere in the story, without really thinking the back story through.
Why had the father killed his daughter in the first place? It can’t have just been because she burned the house down with them both in it – his natural instinct would have been to save them both, not beat her head in with a claw hammer as the place burned around him. I’m now trying to come up with the reasons why. Its playing on my mind a little if I am honest.
I probably won’t rewrite the story. Its OK in its current form, and is already in the public domain. If I start tinkering with this one, I’ll start going over my back catalogue and rewrite half of them. Better to move on to the next story and do it better.
So the night was not a complete bust. Truth be told, I think I learned a couple of things.
Even in Flash Fiction, your characters need to have believable motives, even if they are not explicitly stated. You need to understand why they have done things in their past, and why they are doing things now. It’s not enough to use a cookie cutter psycho bad guy, even in really short fiction. It’s a valuable lesson that most writers know, but occasionally forget.
The thing I will take away from that group most of all, however, is you need to use work that is appropriate for the audience. If you are sending stuff to a publication, look at the sort of thing that they publish. That tells you what they like, what they want. If you don’t want to change your writing style, then find another publication that suits your work a little better, or you will almost certainly wait around for three months before getting the inevitable rejection letter that said the story was not a good fit for them.
I won’t be going back to that group after last night. I’m not sure how well some of my other work would be received. Mr Whiskers or Silver Screen probably would have been a better fit for that particular audience. At least I didn’t take along Two’s Company or On the Third Day.
If I had, things might have gotten nasty.