Zero to One Archives

April/May 2011
The Perfect Ideal Reader by Chuck Heintzelman

Heh. This column’s title may seem redundant since “perfect” and “ideal” are synonyms, but I’m using “ideal reader” as a compound noun. Maybe I should hyphenate it? Oh well, on to the main point …

I’ve often heard the advice authors should write with an ideal reader in mind. Stephen King says his ideal reader is his wife, Tabby. I can picture him imagining her reaction to a bit of freshly written prose, him getting a vicarious thrill from her expected response. Such moments are part of the cache of secret pleasures the act of writing provides. Great! The more enjoyable moments you discover, the more writing you’ll do.

My perfect ideal reader is not a family member like King’s. Nor is he a friend. Nor is he an abstraction. No, he is a real, live, flesh-and-blood person. I’ll introduce him shortly.

Defining an abstract ideal reader is dangerous. Try designing one, with well thought out demographics, certain to love your story. Fix this amalgam firmly in your mind and try to write to him or her. It’s like writing fiction for a fictional character. That way madness lies.
In other words, you can’t write to twenty-something, professional, single women because you believe they’re the ones who’ll line up to buy your novel while it’s still printing press warm. You’ll end up sounding phony or condescending or both, and won’t connect with many readers. It’ll create a bogus sounding voice, which will curldle a reader’s enthusiasm like lemon juice in milk.

My perfect ideal reader is … wait for it … me. Recently, I’ve become my own ideal reader. I write to myself. Maybe this sounds weird, or egotistical, or even a bit certifiable, but bear with me a little longer before calling the men in white suits and I’ll explain why.
When you tell a story to yourself it’s easy to use a voice you like and understand. There’s no need to get fancy. You don’t need to impress yourself. It’s easier to write naturally. You’re keepin’ it real.

Say goodbye to my purple prose. (Try speaking this aloud like Al Pacino said “say hello to my little friend” in “Scarface.” Fun, huh?) Also, when you write to yourself, it’s easier to keep the paragraph-loads of backstory out. After all, you already know the backstory don’t you? No need to explain it to yourself. A reminder, a hint, even a small taste of backstory here or there is all it takes. Your ideal reader (you in the reader’s hat) is smart enough to get it, freeing you (in the writer’s hat) to get on with action and other juicy story bits.

In “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” the authors say it’s almost always best to resist the urge to explain, or RUE as they put it. Again, there’s no reason to explain things to yourself that you already understand. Suppose your character, Joe, is disgusted. Don’t write “Joe is disgusted.” Blech. That’s pure telling (or explaining). What if you wrote “Joe’s nose crinkled and his upper lip curled ” and came back six months later to read it? You’re smart enough to get it. If someone else doesn’t get it, who cares? I don’t understand every nuance of the fiction I read, yet I still enjoy reading.

Using yourself as your ideal reader allows you to stiff-arm self-doubt. Hey, you’re just telling the story to yourself. Who cares if the writing sucks, your idea’s stupid or has been done a million times before, you’re a hack, you’ll never publish anything and your kids will starve and you’ll be a laughing stock, the topic of those hushed whispers people are always making when you enter a room? You’re just telling yourself a story. Why worry about it? Enjoy the process. All those worries can wait until your story is done.

(Okay. The postponing self-doubt thing sounds good. Rationally, it’s easy to say don’t worry about it until later. Emotionally, it’s dang hard to do. Something I struggle with. Great, now this sounds like I’m whining. People are going to hate me. They’ll discover I’m a phony. I’ll never …)

Anyway, try using yourself as your ideal reader. You may find, like I have, that you are your own perfect ideal reader.

Until next month, keep writing.

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