Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Audience Business

By: Deb Mcleod

5:19 am - Starbucks

I didn't sleep much last night. Was waiting for the alarm to go off so I could brainstorm the resurrection of my reincarnation series. Today is day one of my journey to... I don't know what to call it. And I need a name for what I'm doing and where I'm going.

My journey to my writing career? My journey to fame, fortune, and full-time writing?

It's a journey to somewhere where my novels are published and being read. For the first time I can see where I'll end up.

While I may not know what to call this revelation and new path for my work, I do know what it isn't. It's not the way I was taught to write. In academia, you seek the truths inside yourself and fashion stories around your deepest fears and thoughts. Your work is you and you are your work.

In the beginning I held the greats and their worlds in my sights - females, when I could find them. I loved Virginia Woolf's brain and sought to see the world through the inner thought - writing dry sorts of stories with analytical overtones and emotion held at a distance. Could I write like a dead, white, English woman? I didn't seem to have the right pedigree. I could see it waft up the family tree on my father's side, but I was always a visitor to the names and connections to old money and old power that had fizzled out by the time my father married my mother, the daughter of an Italian immigrant.

In college, my vision was opened by finding the maternal voice in Toni Morrison, finding Zora Neal Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Alice Walker, Bobbie Ann Mason and her white trailer trash stories and others. They were writing the people. They were writing the women. They were writing me and I wanted to be one of them.

The problem with that was twofold. It was a time of new discovery of the female voice, so lots of us were writing similar stories and the women's story began to have a life of its own in the trends that came in and out of publisher popularity. At the time I wrote too slow to stay ahead of the curve.

But I was taught that good writing always finds a home. No matter what. That was when there were more than 90? large, reputable publishing houses that decided what America wanted to read. Now there are five big publishing houses and they're playing catch up to what readers are saying America wants to read.

The second problem was that I was writing Italian, not African American, not Asian, or even more currently, not Indian, Iranian, Afghani or any of the other places in the Middle East whose voices readers are currently seeking out.

The Mafia sells Italian. There's a place on the shelf for that. In the traditional world, for women's fiction, apparently there's only room for a few books about Italian women -- a divorcee in Tuscany, who’s not Italian, by the way, and a divorcee eating her way through Rome on the way to prayer in India and love in Belize (or wherever). These are the two nods to my mother's culture, to the red blood that dilutes what little blue I carry in my veins.

"Paper Fish" Tina de Rosa's lyrical masterpiece in the tradition of the dead great greats has not been widely acknowledged, but it's brilliant and took years and years to find a home. And then only after a fight and only in Academia. I’ve studied it, written papers about it, tried to get book clubs excited by it. To no avail.

I was a successful creative writing student, educated in the ways of traditional writing to write the truths that were evident to my perspective of the world. And publishers didn't believe that there was a shelf to put me on. I am my writing and my writing is me. So I tried to write a commercial book - just something to self-publish and see what that's all about.

Four years later (I couldn’t help it!) I have a book that reflects my deepest truths and still has no place on the shelf. "Too creative, too different," senior editor at HarperCollins told me. "There's no audience for it. You’ll have to create one." 

I should thank her for firmly planting me in the self-publishing camp. But still I didn't quite learn the lesson. I was still coming from the writing first. And I wrote until reality hit once again. I had a good idea and I ran with it.
But I wrote a romance series whose Book One would sit on one shelf and Book Two would sit on another. It’s possible there would be crossover, but not likely. So I set it aside and began another romance series and this one had a shelf and could find a home.

But last week at a writing conference, something someone said triggered a reframe that might bring the first romance series onto one shelf instead of two and a place in the book world.

In a blog not long ago, Aaron Michael Ritchey said something to the effect of: “I'm out of the publishing business and into the audience-building business.” And I couldn't agree more.

I'm not going to try to sell to publishers or agents or their idea of what readers want. I'm going right to the readers. Audience building means knowing the shelves. Knowing the shelves means knowing the tropes and reader expectations of the books that live on their favorite shelves. It’s writing within a bit of a framework, perhaps pushing the boundaries and creating a new one.

For me, audience building means earning my way onto my own shelf.

 And today is day one.

About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For more than fourteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more, see

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