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The Ideal Reader

Google Docs: The final cure for people reading over your shoulder.

Google Docs: The final cure for people reading over your shoulder.

I’ve talked a bit about writing novels in Google Docs now, and mentioned it often enough that you must know I’m completely smitten. I’ve been using it to write my novels for the last two years. I started doing that entirely for portability, because (as I said Tuesday) I work on lots of different computers.

I didn’t fall in love with it, though, until I started sharing my documents with readers. There’s a special magic in watching someone read something you’ve written, and Google Docs allowed me to do that without creeping them out, or pestering them with questions (or, just as bad, answers).

I got so addicted to the feeling that I started sharing out works-in-progress with some of my best test readers. There were times when I’d find myself working on a book, adding paragraphs as quickly as I could, and moments after I had one finished I’d already have a comment on it from a reader.

That got worse when I was writing Gods Tomorrow, and my friend Toby was hooked on the plot. As I approached the big climactic scene, three short chapters from the end of the book, I was plugging along and noticed in the top right corner, “Also viewing: Toby.” I smiled to myself, and kept going.

When I took a quick bathroom break, I came back to find an email from him, asking why I’d stopped. We exchanged a couple emails, and he let me know that he was glued to his monitor, refreshing it constantly to find out what happened next. Then he told me to stop wasting time writing emails and get back to the story!

It was exhilarating. I usually tire every couple thousand words and need some sort of break or distraction. Not that day, though! I knew he was hanging on my every word, desperate for resolution, and I could hardly let him down. So I worked for hours, sprinting through my scene list, diving deep in the most exciting part of the book.

At last, my energy waned. I couldn’t possibly keep that up forever. But poor Toby was waiting on the other end. He needed some closure, and I could hardly just leave him hanging. So, half out of mercy and half out of mischief, I started a new paragraph mid-scene.

“Then all the bay guys died, and Katie lived happily ever after. THE END.”

I left it there, and got some rest. When I came back to it the next day, I saw that paragraph, chuckled, and replaced it with the rest of the scene (and then, in a fit of productivity, the end of the book). I forgot to let Toby know, though.

Then over the course of the next week, I spotted some small flaws in that ending, so on Thursday or Friday I went back through and cleaned it up a lot, polished it to perfection.

Then over that weekend I was chatting with Toby. The topic of the book came up, and I said off-hand, “Oh, I reworked the ending a lot. It makes a lot more sense now.”

His brows came down, all angry, and he snapped at me, “Well I should hope so!”

Audience Analysis Gone Wild

As long as you’re not abusing your readers like that, there is a special magic in seeing how your writing affects them. That’s because we all want to be good. We want to write the scene that inspires laughter (or tears), to write the pages that just can’t be put down.

The only way to do that is to connect with a reader. That’s why it helps so much to watch them read — not just because you get to enjoy the thrill when you see that connection happen, but also because you get to see when the connection falters, when your reader sets the book aside to tell you about something that happened on their drive over, or when a huge plot twist doesn’t elicit a “Wow!” That’s an opportunity to get better, and it’s often much more valuable than the feedback readers can put into words.

Once you’ve got that feedback, though, you still have to figure out what to do with it. You know what needs to change, but you don’t necessarily know how to improve it. Luckily, those who have gone before have provided an answer. What you need, they teach us, is a tool to convert wrong words into right words, a working model that you can test your story against. It’s super useful, and it’s got a name.

The Ideal Reader.

The Ideal Reader

This isn’t the first time you’ve heard that name. I mentioned it before, only to subvert my lesson by talking about my girlfriend. There was an excellent description of the concept in that post, though.

One of the phrases you’ll learn in any serious creative writing class is “the ideal reader.” Or, more accurately, “your ideal reader.” In brief, it’s a phrase that refers to the perfect audience for whatever it is you are writing. If you’re writing high fantasy, it’s a reader who loves high fantasy. If you’re writing near-future science-fiction cop drama romances, it’s a reader who craves just one more page of near-future science-fiction cop drama romance.

It’s more than just genre readers, though. If you’re writing for women, your ideal reader is a woman. If you’re writing for young adults, your ideal reader is aged 18-25 (or however they classify young adults these days). If you’re writing a philosophical allegory rich with literary allusion, your ideal reader probably has a college degree. The ideal reader is an intensely focused, deeply personal thing and, like so many ideals, is entirely imaginary. It’s an incredibly useful device, but it’s not an actual person.

That last bit is important (even though I muddied the waters a little bit with that last post). The ideal reader isn’t just your best test reader. The ideal reader is a target for you to aim at, again and again, in a constant effort to improve your accuracy.

Targeted Style

The reason you need to improve your accuracy is because the target is tiny. Remember that sense of connection I mentioned earlier? That’s incredibly special precisely because it’s so rare. Most writers can’t make connections like that with most readers. The key here is in that old refrain: You can please some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time.

If you want to be a great writer, you can’t settle for pleasing all of your readers some of the time. Why? Because the moment you stop pleasing them, they’re going to put the book down. If they put it down often enough, eventually they’ll just leave it down. As soon as that happens, you’ve lost the very readers that you weakened your message to please.

Far better to focus on the ones you would have kept — the ones predisposed to like reading the sort of stuff you like writing. Focus on them, zoom in real close, and write the version of your story that your fans would want to read.

The ideal reader exists for that. Figure out who your ideal reader is — figure out what kind of story your most devoted fans will love best — and write that story directly to your imaginary friend. Write it like that’s the only person who’ll ever read it. Use your own voice, open up, and tell the tale you want to tell, as well as you can possibly tell it.

Let’s Get Real

Imagine the effect that will have on your actual readers. Sure, it’ll alienate some of them. Maybe your best friend will roll his eyes at some of the sentimentality, or your grandma will blush at the language. That’s okay, they’re not your demographic. The people you’re talking to, the people who overlap with your Ideal Reader, will absolutely love it.

Why? Because it speaks to them. By focusing on one perfect reader, you open yourself up to create a personal, one-on-one connection with every reader. So the readers who stick around, the ones who like your style, will feel like you’re connecting with them personally, individually. That sort of writing creates loyalty. It creates true fans.

And while you’re doing that, you’re also turning yourself into the kind of writer who deserves fans. By narrowing your audience, by speaking directly and openly, you begin to stand out from the crowd. You’re not just another pretty voice speaking Happy Ever Afters (or a tired cynic repeating boring realities). Now you’re a unique voice — an artistic style.

Now you’re a storyteller.

3 Responses to “The Ideal Reader”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    Is your ideal reader a 27 year old puerto rican personal development blogger from the midwest with a love for fine cigars and scotch and near-future science-fiction cop drama romances?

    Cause if so…I don’t know where the hell you’d find him.

  2. Dave Doolin says:

    And, another link. You’re scoring really well now!