Fangirling: Stop Singing into Your Hairbrush

I should just start a Taylor Swift series. Would you guys be cool with that? Because, seriously, as a writer, you should be watching her and taking notes.

Last Wednesday, Taylor performed her song “Red” at the CMAs. If you don’t know, the CMAs stand for “Country Music Association Awards.” But if you’ve heard the album RED then you know it’s really not a country album. Not in terms of the genre guidelines. And the song “Red” is definitely not country sounding. In fact, here’s the album version of the song.

It doesn’t twang. It doesn’t drawl. It doesn’t talk about trucks, dust, summertime, or suntanned legs. It’s a pop song and the album is pop record. The closest thing that comes to a country song on the album is “All Too Well,” and if you listen to it you might end up somewhere in a corner crying…oh, that’s just me? I’m the only one who loses it on the line, “You call me up again just to break me like a promise?” Got it.

Anyhow, Taylor performed the title track of the album, “Red,” but she stripped it down. She brought in two country music heavyweights (Alison Krauss and Vince Gill) to sing it with her and she played to her audience. The crowd loved it. I loved it.

But this is what Taylor does well: she knows her audience. She started out as this country music princess. Her original fans fell in love with her over “Our Song,” “Tim McGraw,” and “Picture to Burn,” all of which were cut and dry country songs. And then she decided she wanted to try something new and experiment with her sound. She let go of the “Sparks Fly” vibe and produced the album RED. The album made it pretty clear that she wanted to produce pop songs for pop radio. I admit, I was skeptical. I’m a big advocate of playing to your strengths and as far as I could see, Taylor’s strength was rooted in her country sound. But I was wrong. Her strength is not in her sound, it’s in her writing, it’s in her interpretations of each song, it’s in her fans. Swift’s real strength is being an entertainer and performing.

When Swift performs, she connects with her audience. She knows who she’s performing for and she thinks about them. Yes, she wrote the songs for herself originally, but she understands that unless her fans connect with the songs it all means nothing.

When she performed “Trouble” at the Brit Awards, she took it to the pop extreme.

When she opened for the Grammy’s with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” she took creative risks in terms of costume, lyric changes and introducing her new style.

But when she performed “Red” at the CMAs, she didn’t force the award show to accept “Red” as a pop song, she gave the audience a version they would love and accept.

She performed appropriately for each venue. She doesn’t rely on shock value or wardrobe malfunctions to get people’s attention. She relies on the connection. This is her strength and it should be yours too.

As a writer, you start a first draft for selfish reasons. You like the story. You like the characters. You like the plot. And if you were the only one who was ever supposed to read that story, you could stop there. The only person who would have to like the book would be you! But you can’t stop there if you want to be published.

If Swift was unable to connect with fans, all she’d be any good at was singing into a hairbrush in front of her mirror. And while there’s a time and a place for hairbrush singing, that isn’t her goal and it probably isn’t yours either.

You can’t write in a way that leaves you dancing and singing in front of your mirror, off key and lip syncing. You want to write in a way that makes people show up, stand up and cheer. To do that, you have to connect with an audience. If you’re writing a young adult novel, you can’t write characters as mini adults inside teenage bodies. You have to write actual teenagers. And guess what? Writing teenagers doesn’t necessarily mean sex, drugs and abuse. Sometimes those things are important to your story, they’re part of your characters and your plot. But if you’re using those elements because that’s what you think most teenagers want to read about or you think those shocking, salacious details will sell more books, you’re doing it wrong.

Your audience doesn’t need to be shocked for shock’s sake. It doesn’t need you to pull a Miley Cyrus. Your audience wants to connect with your characters and your plot. Audience turns to fans when they connect with the art that someone has produced, whether it’s a book, a song or a painting. Fans becomes fans because they all share that connection.

Whether you love to write YA or adult novels, romance or thrillers, realistic or fantasy; what matters most, beyond creating the actual book, is connecting with the audience. So no matter if you’re writing your tenth young adult novel or you’re trying out a totally new genre, remember your audience. Give them a reason to fangirl over you.

“The fans who come to the shows with the shirts you’ve made for yourself and the look on your face, that’s why I do this. Thank you for this moment.” – Taylor Swift, on her 2009 Entertainer of the Year acceptance speech