Four Questions When Writing — Part 1

There are four questions that any author should be able to answer.  These questions drive success — both writing success and marketing success.  This post is Part 1 one of a two part blog series and addresses two of those four questions:  Why are you writing, and for whom are you writing?  Part 2 of the series will cover where can find your ideal reader, and can you summarize your book in an elevator pitch?  A big shout out to Judith Briles, who published her take on these questions in recent post (see below).  

So, without further ado:

Why are You Writing?

I’ve covered this before in some detail, but a recap is useful. I believe this is the most important question an Author needs to answer. This is because:

People buy why you do something, NOT what you do.

This is not my insight. It belongs to Simon Sinek, who posits that in any organization you can find people who can tell you what the organization does. You can also find people who can tell you how the organization does what it does, but they will be fewer in number than the first group. Finally, there will be very few people who can tell why the organization does what it does.

I wrote an earlier post about this complete with a link to Simon’s Ted Talk where he describes this insight in greater detail, using Apple Computers as the example organization.

In writing, the author is both the organization and the person answering those three questions:

  • What do you do?
  • How do you do it?
  • Why do you do it?

Many authors, I would guess, can answer the first two questions, and probably struggle with the third.

Most importantly, when asked about their work, they will answer easily about what they do, followed — perhaps — by how they do it, with very little on why the do it.

Simon calls this Outside-in Communication.

Here’s the example I used my other post:

I write fantasy novels involving strong women. ‘Western Watch’ is about a flawed heroine fighting for her life in a fantasy world of steel, leather, and horse. It’s 120,000 words of fast-paced action, brutal situations, sly schemes, and believable characters. Want to buy it?

Lot’s of stuff about what I do, and a little about how I do it. Nothing about why I do it.

Inside-out Communication begins with why you do what you do (in my case, write),then moves to answer the questions of how and what.

Here’s the Inside-out Communication version:

I believe people must be able to temporarily escape from their lives to rest, relax, and recharge themselves mentally in order better meet the challenges life presents.

I help them escape using the tools under my command – the written word, images, and sound – to craft compelling stories that draw a person away from their daily cares and into worlds they would never otherwise visit.

One of those stories happens to be about a flawed heroine with few friends and many enemies fighting for her life in a world of steel, leather, and horse. Would you like to read about her?

Here’s another example of Outside-in Communication:

My novel is about a young woman finding love in post war London, England. “Terms of Surrender” follows the story of Anna, a nurse from the working class who meets a dashing RAF Captain by chance. Strong willed, she initially resists his charms and the allure of marrying into the upper class until she is accepted for who she is.

This is my attempt at writing an “outside-in” description of a historical romance novel. The description talks a lot about the book plot, (the “what”), but not very much about the how and the why.

Let’s try re-writing it from the “inside-out”.

I’ve always believed the strongest love is a partnership between equals, and for most of history women have had to choose between between love and equality — when they were given a choice at all. I want to give women hope they can have both while acknowledging the necessary struggle to realize that hope. Storytelling a powerful way to convey messages, and I wrote my novel “Terms of Surrender” to relate the story of Anna, a working class nurse in post war London, as she struggles to find love and a partner who treats her as an equal. Would like to know more about Anna?

This re-write places the “why you do something” front and center. What follows is how the does it (storytelling) and “the what” is a novel, as opposed to poetry, short story, or script.

In my opinion, this is the most important question to answer:  Why do you write?  It’s the most important question because it drives everything else you do:  genre choice, audience/reader selection, writing, marketing, sales, reader interaction — everything.

For Whom are You Writing?

This is the second most important question, in my view. Answering this question correctly feeds directly into your marketing efforts. You must have some idea who your customers are.

This idea (or question) is not new. There are countless blog articles on determining your “target customer”. I reviewed a book dedicated to helping authors determine their target reader, and a recent blog article by Judith Briles caught my eye.

Judith takes the idea of figuring out who your target reader is a bit farther by asking:

  • For whom are you writing your book?
  • What are their needs?
  • What is their pain?

And further, can you ” … follow up with a line or two that offers ‘relief’ to it [the pain]”?

This are standard marketing questions that must be answered.  Your book is a product.  You want people to buy your product, to do that you must understand — to the greatest degree possible — who your “target market” is and what motivates them to purchase a particular item. 

Many authors are not comfortable with idea they are in business and need to market, and attempt to side-step the issue by saying their book is for everyone. 

Judith observes, as many others have, that you cannot say your book is for everyone.

It’s not. Get over it. You need to focus on who is likely to buy your book. What do they look like? What are their interests? What else do they read?

I struggle with this still.

One technique to use is to visualize your “ideal” reader is to picture what they look like, and describe their motivations. 

Here’s my brutally honest answer to who my ideal reader is:

My ideal reader is a early twenties to later forties man who is attracted to strong women. He probably isn’t in a relationship with one, but wishes he was. He’s attracted to the dominatrix image, even if he would never act on it. He’s employed, likely in a cerebral type of industry — writing, IT, teaching, something like that and reads action adventure and likes sci-fi. He’s not really interested in the horror genre, and never reads what he considers to be romance novels.

A casual dresser, he’s likely to be found in a coffee shop, and not a bar. He’s probably single, and wishes he wasn’t, though he’s not consumed by a lack of companionship. He worries he’s a bit ordinary, which is part of the reason he’s drawn to “dangerous” women. They would add excitement to his life, and he feels he could offer stability to theirs.

He likes my character, Lady Merreth, because she’s dangerous, single, and somewhat broken. She’s someone he could complement. Western Watch will let him live in Merreth’s world, get to know her, and project himself as someone she could trust and ultimately care for.

Holy crap! That’s me! Sort of. I actually do date/live with a dangerous woman, so that’s a little different, but the description does raise an interesting point.

How do you ensure that your ideal reader is not merely a carbon copy of you? I confess that I don’t know the answer to that, though I find the exercise of describing my ideal writer to be valuable nonetheless.

It gives me a starting point in my marketing efforts.  My simple description has already told me quite a lot about who might buy my book:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Reading interests
  • Likely income
  • Relationship motivations
  • Mode of dress

Just as important, it tells me something about who my idea reader is not — they are not female, interested in romance novels, very old or very young, or turned off by the idea of women in leather.

Now, be clear — this is just a starting point and may turn out to be somewhat inaccurate for two reasons:

  1. It’s very difficult to keep from describing yourself when crafting your ideal reader — after all, you’re writing a book that appeals to you, so it’s easy to decide your ideal reader is more or less like you
  2. You may completely miss an “unknown” reader group — for example, some members of my writers’ group have suggested that Lady Merreth might appeal to younger women who read YA urban fantasy

Nonetheless, no matter how inaccurate your initial ideal reader description may be, it provides a starting point.  You can always refine your ideal reader over time.

That’s it for Part 1 of this series.  Do you know for whom you write?  Can you describe your ideal reader?  Let me know in the comments below.

In Part 2 we’ll look at finding your ideal reader so you can connect with him or her, and tackle the idea of an elevator pitch.

Thanks for reading, and I will see you again next time.




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