Background artiste from 'Better than Stars'

Friday, 3 June 2016

Who Do You Write For? The Curse of the Gatekeeper

So, who do you write for?

My target reader, of course.

And your target reader is ...?

Well, at the moment it's a young adult female, as it was when I was writing Better Than Stars; but I wrote Timehikers for a 9-12 audience, and people told me it would appeal mostly to boys: in which case, I am also a boy - which, if you haven't noticed, actually I'm not. Sorry, getting off the point - or maybe not as much as it might appear. I write for young people, or more accurately for the young person who still exists inside me.

And who out of the people who've read your book for 9-12 year-old probable boys is actually 9-12 years old?

Interesting you should ask that. Timehikers has been read - in full, not just a sample - by a lot of different people:

      MA tutors
      fellow writers
      competition judges
      and one ten year-old boy;

and - you've guessed it - the only reader who belonged to my target audience was the last one. And, since you ask, yes he did like it. All the other people were adults like myself; and quite a lot of them were what we call "gatekeepers": people who control access to the child audience. Had the book passed that first circle of gatekeepers and been published, it would still have had to pass the second circle. Although some books are chosen by children for themselves, a significant number are selected by parents, teachers and librarians. As writers, we have to have an eye to pleasing them as much as our "real" readers.

Don't worry, this isn't going to become a moan about my own experience: rather, it was stimulated by discovering a delightful book which would probably be marketed today to 9-12 year-old boys. You can find out more about The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively here. It was originally published in 1973, and reissued in the edition I've been reading by Egmont in 2006. I loved it, but I'm a bit suspicious of my own enjoyment as a recommendation. After all, I'm typical of many gatekeepers, and I've a feeling the book was appealing to the wrong bits of me, the bits no child would share.

So there you have it: the curse of the gatekeeper. We want to write for people who are children today, but we can only reach them through a narrow entrance controlled by people who were children yesterday.

I suppose it works the other way too. I imagine there may be a few gatekeepers cursing us, the writers, for our inability to deliver what young people really want. But until 10 year-olds develop the ability to write their own publishable stories, it looks like it's always going to be that way.

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