First, I’d like to cheer on my fellow writers participating in this year’s A to Z Challenge — wish you guys a LOT OF FUN! I’ll be regularly checking out your blogs.
And now to the matter at hand.
On the wide planes of the internet, an ideal reader is defined all across the spectrum, from an abstract “construct designed to represent your audience,” to an actual person, “a trusted partner, adviser and the first person to read the writer‘s first draft of a book.” But the best definition I found so far was this: an ideal reader is someone “whose persona you try to adopt as you read and re-read your own work in the process of composition.”
Or how Stephen King puts it, “all novels are letters aimed at one person,” the ideal reader.
While an actual person reading your manuscript and offering competent advice is technically not an ideal reader, but an ideal critique partner, often times our best critique partners become our ideal readers. Their attitude and level of understanding of our work seeps into the artificial construct that is our ideal reader, the fantastic being who both loves our work and remains impartial to it. Something we cannot, however much we’d like to believe otherwise.
“I write for myself” is a fairly common mantra in the writer world, but in my opinion, that’s a mistake. If we write for ourselves, we tend to either be overly confident in our capacity as a writer (which keeps us from learning and exceeding our limits), or we become overly critical of our work (which can stall or regularly block us, and often results in compulsive editing and the “never finish anything” syndrome). Neither is desirable.
Writers who write for an ideal reader other than themselves tend to keep away from such extremes, and often their work is more “readable” and less eccentric (or nonexistent). So yes, I believe having a good ideal reader can save us a lot of headaches. Which isn’t to say writers shouldn’t write what interests them, what they love. When we write, we always implicitly write for ourselves first and foremost. It’s when we read our work, when we revise and edit it that we should change our glasses and avoid drooling over our masterpiece. Here’s where the ideal reader comes into play.
But how do we know we’ve built ourselves an ideal reader, and not just a cheerleader or bully?
The rule of thumb is to balance enthusiasm with skepticism. To find the middle ground between friend and critic, between supporter and demolisher by giving the ideal reader a keen eye and very high criteria of quality, but not allowing them to become condescending.
It’s hard to talk about abstract beings, so here’s a few basic criteria that make up my ideal reader:
- he is a fan of my genre but not a die-hard, which means he’s still got an open mind about what science-fiction can or can’t do (and don’t ask me why, but he’s always a guy, a hard-to-impress and analytic guy)
- he knows a thing or ten about science, but he’s not obsessed with scientific accuracy in fiction
- he’s reading between the lines
- he’s not fooled by the plot into thinking the characters are three-dimensional, and the other way around
- he prefers profound implications rather than spectacular CGI
- he can’t stand gratuitous naivity and gullibility
- he hates redundancy and purple prose
- he drops the book if he reads more than two consecutive pages without a change (in setting or situation, plot, character, etc.)
Basically, my ideal reader has a lot of likes and dislikes that I have when it comes to reading science-fiction. In addition to those, however, he shares some of the characteristics of the people in my life who’ve been most critical about my perspective, my choices, my writing and sometimes even my convictions. He’s basically a mixture of my most intimidating friends and acquaintances (including the online realm), and my own inner critic when I read someone else’s fiction.
He can be terrifying, and definitely hard to please, which I think is crucial for an ideal reader. But while he won’t cheer me on (boohoo), he won’t punch me to the ground either. He’s an optimist. There’s always something that can be done to make a story better, and if he’s turning his nose up at something, it’s usually a good sign that more work is needed in that area. (Which also explains why I’ve been burying myself deeper and deeper into a certain part of my WIP and won’t move on until it shines, even if I won’t finish the rewrite in the time-frame I initially set).
Yeah. My ideal reader can be a total jackass sometimes too.
What’s your ideal reader like? Do you even have one, or can you make due with writing for yourself? Is your ideal reader abstract or real?