Ideal Reader (Further musings on King’s On Writing)
In On Writing, Stephen King describes what he calls the “ideal reader”.
Someone—I can’t remember who, for the life of me—once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. As it happens, I believe this. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of the story, the writer is thinking, “I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?” For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.
A few pages later, following a Hitchcock anecdote and further description of King’s process for releasing his work to a few trusted friends, he picks up on the concept of the Ideal Reader again.
Do all opinions weigh the same? Not for me. In the end I listen most closely to Tabby, because she’s the one I write for, the one I want to wow. If you’re writing primarily for one person besides yourself, I’d advise you to pay very close attention to that person’s opinion (I know one fellow who says he writes mostly for someone who’s been dead fifteen years, but the majority of us aren’t in that position). And if what you hear makes sense, then make the changes. You can’t let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter most. And you should.
Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilirating days of the first draft, when the door is closed. And you know what? You’ll find yourself bending the story even before Ideal Reader glimpses so much as the first sentence. I.R. will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would while you’re still working. This is perhaps the best way of all to make sure you stick to story, a way of playing to the audience even while there’s no audience there and you’re totally in charge.
I’ve been thinking, over the last couple of days, about whether or not Stephanie is my Ideal Reader. I had a brief conversation with Stef and Anisa about this over the weekend, during a short hike we took Kaylee on along the New Hampshire Heritage Trail in Bedford. The thing is that I do trust Stephanie’s opinion of my work, probably more than anybody else’s, but I don’t think that I’m writing specifically for her. I’m not sure I’m trying to wow Stephanie in the same way that King claims he is trying to wow Tabby. I want her to like it, sure. But I also know that she doesn’t dig all of the same things in stories that I do.
In the end, I suppose it’s a silly thing to wonder about. Stephanie has had a tremendous impact on the novel I’m working on, and she does essentially fill the role of Ideal Reader. I guess I’d just never thought of her in that way. When I’m in the zone, when I’m writing, the only person I’m ever really trying to please is myself.