Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Generous Writer

Here is a question: for whom do you write?

If you’re like Sonya Hartnett – “…I write only for me, and for the few people I hope to please, and I write for the story.” (read article here) – your initial answer might be ‘for me’, and if you’re writing a journal entry, or a missive designed for catharsis (which will be ceremonially burnt on completion), or a piece of story that you have no intention of sharing with another living soul, ever, or if you are Sonya Hartnett, then that may be true. If, on the other hand, you are writing to have your words – whether fiction and non-fiction – read at some point, then you’re writing for an audience.

Understanding who your intended audience is can be advantageous when writing. More importantly, keeping in mind that you are writing for a reader can help you to be a more generous writer. 

Writing for an Intended Audience:

Considering who we are writing for is an important guide point for our fiction (or non-fiction). At times, an audience may be general in nature (gender/age non-defined), or we might find ourselves writing for a specific group: children, young adults, women, men, or any of the dozens of sub-groups that fall within these categories. Writing for each of these audiences requires thought on our behalf to ensure that our target reader receives a story that they will find satisfying (e.g. one that scares the bejeezus out of them, or makes them laugh like loons, or feel giddy with the romance of it all). If we’re writing for children or YA audiences, there is a range of criterion that our work will need to meet in order to, firstly, get past the gatekeepers (that is, publishers) and, secondly, impress our young readers. Here are a few websites that discuss what would-be writers of children’s fiction should consider:

Write for Kids: (2 links here & here)
Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators: Q & A (America) & (Australia).

Considering our audience is also important when we’re writing for a specific publication or competition. There is no point sending a romance story to the online horror magazine, Nightmare – unless there’s a dark, dark twist, of course  they won’t publish it, and we’ve wasted our time and theirs. Likewise, when we’re writing for competitions; we must think about the potential audience. 

I learnt this lesson the hard way when I wrote a story for a competition in a magazine that had a rural-inclined audience. My story explored intergenerational relationships and notions of love across times, and was woven with literary allusions related to the specified theme of ‘South.’ I really liked this story, and still do, but it didn’t even get a look in. The story that won was about a farmer’s wife giving birth on her kitchen floor while her husband built a fence down in yonder paddock. What was my mistake? Not reading previous winners, and not considering the readership of the magazine. A little bit of research and knowing our purpose can go a long way to helping us succeed as writers.

Being clear in our head about who we are writing for assists with clear and engaging writing. Although Sonya Hartnett claims to only write for herself, she is also aware of the type of audience who will be reading her work. “Would a portion of audience actually prefer me to write of boy meeting girl, boy getting girl, boy losing girl? If so, then that portion of my audience is not my audience." Hartnett writes stark, beautiful, engrossing and challenging stories, and she pulls no punches with her words, and that’s cool because she understands her audience and where she wants to take them through her work.

Writing for a Specific Reader:

Like many great writers, Hartnett is generous writer. A generous writer is one who seeks to deepen the reader experience of a story, who takes them below the surface of the words and helps them to encounter the meaning in and purpose of their writing. There are many ways to be generous in our writing. Eileen explored one – symbolism – in her last post, but there are numerous other devices that we, as writers, can employ to engage and assist our readers. Visit http://literary-devices.com/ or http://literarydevices.net/ for an extensive list of literary techniques and their use in fiction. Four of my favourite literary devices are: foreshadowing, irony, repetition and literary allusion.


Most literary devices are a win-win game that generous writers play with their readers. In foreshadowing, we weave clues to a future event or revelation into our plot, thus driving suspense, and lending veracity and naturalness to the moment when it arrives. Astute readers will have an ‘aha!’ experience as they connect the dots. Here is an example of foreshadowing from the brilliant Shirley Jackson story, The Lottery:

The morning of June twenty-seven was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square…The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones…

The beauty of the day, the innocence of the children, and their simple act of gathering stones are clues about the events to come and serve to deepen the horror the reader feels as the intention of the Lottery is revealed.


One of the lessons I took from my university lecturers was to never underestimate the intelligence of my reader. Irony is a device that allows a writer to excite a reader’s intelligence with the clever, comical or searing use of word play. Irony can be verbal, situational, or dramatic (or a combination of all three), and develops in the space between the implied meaning and the literal meaning, or what is expected and what actually occurs. A classic example of irony is evident in the climatic final sentence of Richard Matheson’s, Button Button (and as a special treat watch The Button for an overdose of comical irony).


When editing creative work, one of the most frequent comments I make is to avoid repetition – of words, actions, gestures, dialogue tags, ideas, settings, punctuation etc. This kind of repetition is unplanned, and is particularly obvious in short stories. Intentional repetition, however, is clever, integrated, and always adds to the work at a thematic level. There are numerous types of repetition (visit http://www.literarydevices.com/repetition/ for further info and examples), which can instil deeper layers of meaning in a story (and poetry, of course). A classic example repetition appears in Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Tell Tale Heart, which employs the technique to intensify the conflict, drama and tension, and to give the writing a
rhythm akin to the heartbeat that vexes the narrator:

When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little ­– a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it – you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily – until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye…

Literary Allusion:

This is one of my favourite generous writing devices, which I often employ in my stories, and look for in the fiction and films in which I immerse myself. Literary allusion occurs when a writer makes a brief reference to another thing of cultural significance. This could be anything from literature, art, music, historic events or people, mythology, philosophy, or architecture. The point of allusion is to deepen the meaning of the principle work through association with relevant secondary texts. That sounds complicated but, in reality, we use literary allusion every day:

Common Allusions:

Beautiful women were her Achilles’ heel (Greek mythology).
He thinks he’s Romeo but she’ll never be his Juliet (Shakespeare).
They’ve sent another Trojan into the system (Greek mythology). 
I wouldn’t waste my time asking for a loan. He’s as tight as Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens).
Everybody wants fifteen minutes of fame, even if it means looking like an idiot on YouTube (Andy Warhol).

They also appear in commercials, and in many of our favourite films. Good examples of literary allusions are in the Madagascar franchise, Small Soldiers (1998), and in a recent example, Pacific Rim, which gives nods to the old Godzilla films, Frankenstein, and the work of Ray Bradbury, and includes this allusion to Star Wars IV:

   by Zennie Abraham [on Flickr]

and from the Star Wars original:

by Insomnia Cured Here [Flickr]

Literary allusions in film are fun, and can deepen meaning, or help the viewer connect to the characters, events or setting. The same is true in writing. Referring to other literary works that reflect our story’s preoccupations adds layers of meaning and can be intriguing for the reader. For example, if you were writing an anti-war novel, you might refer to classic anti-war novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque), Farewell to Arms (Hemingway), The Thin Red Line (Jones), On the Beach (Shute) or Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut)

A word of caution: Literary allusion is brief, and may include the mention of a title, or a line or two from a work (however, be careful with lyrics), or reference to a character without incurring a copyright penalty/fee. If longer sections of a works are used, copyright permission must be sort from the holder of the copyright. We’ll write more about this in the future; for now, keep allusions brief and make sure to acknowledge from where the idea, character, words etc. have originated.

The abovementioned techniques are fun to play with and add wonderful, subtle and nuanced layers to a work. They also take the experience of the reader into consideration, and try to deepen their engagement with a story, exciting their intelligence and giving them something to ponder when they finish your work. This is the gift of storytelling, given by writers with generous hearts.

So, for whom do you write?


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