Do you have an ideal reader? You know the one reader that you think about as you are sculpting your prose; that reader who is sitting on your shoulder as you look for the proper way to turn a phrase, or escalate a series of events? This idea has come and gone throughout my writing career, though not an idea that has necessarily stuck per se; however, it has once again presented itself in discussions I have had with other writers recently.
The thought is that with an ideal reader you are able to really push your prose to somewhere it might not go otherwise. I sort of think of it like going to the gym. When you are at home and you are doing a workout video or running on your treadmill, you can take a break if you need to. The lady on the television is telling you to bring your knees up to your chest, but you are tired, do not want to… and no one is looking. As a result, you do not bring those knees up, lifting more in the vicinity of your thighs, or maybe just turning the television off all together.
But, at the gym, when in one of those classes with all those other people, it is a different story. At the YMCA I used to take my son to they had a kickboxing class that was in the open gym area, where the basketball hoops are located. This area is two stories, with a balcony like area surrounding the top half. That second story area is where the classrooms are located, so after singing ring-around-the-rosy a couple million times, my son and I would pause to look over the balcony at these rows and rows of people doing kickboxing.
Most of them were trying really, really hard. Even the ones that looked like they were struggling, looked like they were giving it their all. The reasoning is simple enough: people were watching them. Having people watch you is a wonderful motivator.
Apparently, the ideal reader is supposed to work somewhat similarly. By imagining that we are writing for a specific person, it brings our writing from the privacy of our home and out into the public, from the very beginning. Of course, editing and all that does it later, but the ideal reader allows a small space of awareness before we even get to the point of editing.
In previous conversations, people have told me that they use their spouse (I believe Stephen King does this with his Tabitha), or their best friend, and some even use famous authors. I thought about the famous writer aspect, trying to discern what famous author I would use as an ideal reader and came up lacking. Mostly, this is because my favorite authors are people like Virginia Woolf, or Cormac McCarthy… and I can just see the disdain on their face as they read over my prose. Brilliance is the name of their game; me, not so much.
Then someone suggested I look at it a bit differently, and instead of thinking of a famous person, or even someone I know, just think of the ideal reader as a more discerning version of myself. Write a book that I would want to read. I have heard that advice before, but never really thought about it in terms of an ideal reader. In the ocean that is the writing life, however, sometimes it is enough to get a bit of direction, and I liked this idea of writing to myself, with a few added tweaks.
The end result: a reader that likes science fiction with a bit of romantic angst, big questions broken into characterization, and simplicity of prose. In other words, my ideal reader is a version of me, and a version of Madeleine L’Engle. I am okay with this, and though I do not know if it will actually help my writing, I plan to use it.
If this is something that strikes you as being beneficial, I urge you to try it with your own writing. As stated, the ideal reader can be a spouse, significant other, best friend, child, or a famous person. Or, perhaps, your ideal reader is a version of yourself.
In order to get a good grasp on your ideal reader, to make them real in other words, write out a profile. What do they like? Not like? What would they expect of you? Boil it down into one sentence and write it out on a post it note. Now put that note where you can find it. A gentle, but constant reminder that you are writing for someone, not just to the void of the Universe.
The void of the universe brings me to another thought, a quote that I just remembered from Kurt Vonnegut: