A funny thing happened on the way to the Dalai Lama’s house. Okay it didn’t. But I find it amazing that the world is so connected via the virtual interwebs that His Holiness is on Twitter. How crazy is that? The mind reels. I want to go searching for other religious leaders. The Pope, maybe, or Captain America.
| Photo: Reuters|
Maybe I’m the only writer with major neuroses, but I kind of doubt it. It makes the ninjas in my stomach do Cirque du Soliel-level acrobatics, the idea of writing for people. Mostly I’m just writing and then saving it to my computer and knowing that unless someone breaks my super complicated CIA-level password combination, no one will ever read what I write. But what’s the point of that? I write because I must, that much is true. But what good is it if no one ever sees it? It’s like singing in the shower. It’s great fun and it makes you feel like a rock star, but if Adam Levine only ever sang in his shower, we’d all be missing out. Plus he’s dreamy.
|Adam Levine... sigh.|
Okay, the point. Audience. Who are you writing for, or to? Obviously Nicholas Sparks and Tom Clancy have a different group of readers. And that's where genre comes in. Most writers can fit each story into a genre. Your story should fit into a genre, even if you as a writer go cross-genre, like me. If you can’t find a genre, your story is probably not going to find a publisher. It’s just part of life. But most every story fits into a genre—even a manual on underwater basket weaving would find an audience with underwater basket weavers. You need to be specific to your audience, even if one day you're writing a love story and the next it's an anti-romance submarine story. Side note: blog writing and journalism target different audiences than fiction. It sounds obvious, but when people read this blog I sometimes wonder what they will think of my fiction. It's not about ninjas or zombies or alien monkey clowns.
I really like what Stephen King says about your one reader in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. The copy of the book I have is a used copy and the person before me underlined a bunch of random sentences that don’t make sense, like “He wrote humongous novels.” Why did that person think that was important? I feel like there is a dude out there who bought a copy of the book, underlined random sentences, and then donated it to a used book store and is now home laughing hysterically at my neuroses as I lie awake at night trying to figure out the why of it all. But probably not. Anyway—King talks about the ideal reader, the first reader of anything you write. Usually not your mother, unless your mother is Anne Lamott. Mothers are the best ever, but they have a hard time being objective when it comes to their children. I know because I’m a mother and I probably say to myself about fifty times a day that one or another of my kids must be a genius. And they are pretty remarkable, but I have a feeling that an objective third party would be largely unimpressed by my son’s ability to identify his belly button.
Your ideal reader, according to King, is the person that you are thinking about when you write. You write, and as you write, you wonder what they will think of what you are writing. Stephen King is lucky, because his wife is also a writer and she’s his ideal reader. That’s not always the case—if you’re writing romantic chick lit stuff, and you’re married to a hard-core Michael Crichton fan, you may not have an ideal reader in your spouse. They may read your stuff and tell you it’s good, but do they really have the most objective view?
Audience is a tricky thing, because you might be writing for a particular ideal group of individuals, but you can’t stop any person off the street from picking up and reading your book and then criticizing or commenting or lambasting or fawning. I’ve met a lot of people who were forced to read books in high school that they refer to like they would a really bad stomach virus. Did you read “Macbeth” for English class? Groan. Yes, I did. It was awful. Comments like that hurt my brain, because I love all things Shakespeare and it’s sad to see people not appreciate some of his best works just because they were forced to read them. And I doubt Shakespeare was writing for a bunch of 21st century ADD teenagers who would rather be out piercing stuff than reading iambic pentameter, but that’s who reads his works now.
I really think King has it spot on though. It’s all about that one person—your story should still hit an appeal level for a large audience, and you still need to make sure it’s relevant to that crowd, but when you put the ideal reader at the forefront of your mind, you do your best work because that is the person you want to be your best writer self for. They are the one you revise for, the one you think of when removing clichés or taking out sentences that make you cringe. They are the wind beneath your wings. See—my ideal reader would hate that sentence. And I know it. But he helps me. He gives me good feedback and tells me when my grammatical rule breaking has gotten out of hand. I want to revise every word until I know that what I’ve written is my best work. I know a piece is finished when I read through and think of him reading, and I know he will approve.
I sort of hope the Dalai Lama doesn’t find his way to this blog. I feel like he’d advise me to do some meditating and stop being so crazy. But crazy is what I do. I’m writing several short stories right now and one novel, and every single one has at least one character who isn’t quite right in the head. But His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not my ideal reader. If I tried to write with him in mind, I would probably sound stiff and awkward and unnatural and like I was trying too hard. Your ideal reader doesn’t do that to your head. They make you better because you can be yourself.
Julie Simmons-Wixom is a storyteller and on windy days she goes outside and dances pretending to be a leaf. If you have a thought you’d like to share, email her here.
Please comment below on this blog. You know you want to. Who is your ideal reader? How do they help you? Are you someone’s ideal reader? Do you like pistachios?