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Imagining Your Ideal Reader

Who is your favorite writer? The one you’d most like to sit down with, have a cup of coffee and talk about writing?  What would you tell them about the time you read the book you love the most?  How old were you? How did it transform you? Why do you love it so passionately?

Really. Think about this.  What is the book? Who is the writer? Why is she/it your favorite?

It doesn’t matter if you have several. Just pick one for right now and hold your memories for a moment, because I want to talk about readers. Our readers, yours and mine.

Or rather, your one reader, the one who feels about your work the way you feel about that writer you love.   

Naturally, we all want to be mega-super-stars with followings like JK Rowling or Elizabeth Gilbert or whoever you want to name, and I hope for every one of us that kind of success. But even if you become that star, you should always remember that one, single devoted reader.

Why? A few reasons. The first is that books are not judged by a single standard. It’s impossible to point to a book and say, “That is best book ever written and everyone will love it,” because it simply is not true. Certainly, some books have stood the test of time and so might be considered a cut above the rest (looking at you, Jane Austen) but we don’t have the advantage of knowing what future generations will love. We have to write today, now, for the climate we occupy, for the people who are reading now.

For example, when I first started writing, the vast market for women’s fiction we now enjoy did not really exist. Some women wrote domestic stories. Some women wrote romantic suspense and big, sweeping historicals with a woman at the center, but modern novels about contemporary women? There were not that many.

It took me a little while to realize I wanted to write for women, but when I did, it was dismaying to realize how few outlets there were to tell the stories that burned in me. At the time, I was absorbed with the ordinary dailiness of a young married mother—my joys came in small moments, in making dinner for my hungry husband and grimy little toddlers, in the quiet of a growing garden, in the long stretch of generations and history connecting me to women through all of time. I wanted to write about the experience of being female.

There weren’t many outlets for that in literary magazines, though I tried. What did exist—and still does—is a gigantic market for romances. I could find my readers there, I was pretty sure, so I gave it a try.

The freedom! Hallelujah!

Another reason to zero in on a single reader is that we’re all writing for different reasons. Once I got the overall group angle, that I specifically wanted to write about women’s lives, and for a primarily female audience,  I could narrow down a bit more. On a writer’s email loop at the time, we talked about our ideal reader. I was secretly jealous of an Ivy league-educated romance writer who said, accurately, that her reader was a 30-something, single, urban lawyer. Her person sounded glamorous. Mine was a young woman like me, a mother and sister, a woman who loved the natural world, the outdoors, animals, cooking.  Wiser for me to imagine the realistic ideal reader rather than the one I thought might make me look good.

What are your reasons for writing?  What do you want to communicate? Who wants to hear that, or needs to hear it?

I was pretty much born with a crusade in my hand—I want to make life better for all the underserved on the planet. Feed the hungry, rescue the abused, shed light on the issues of culture that get trampled in our society. As a romance writer, I knew I would whisper my wishes for the world into my books, writing about multicultural communities and social issues like domestic violence and the rights of indigenous people.  Not overtly, of course, but I did it and I knew I was doing it.

So my reader was also someone who could hear me, who would be motivated to act by my simple romances. Or at least a woman who was open to changing her mind about things.

Another thing that knowing your idea reader does is create the luxury of ignoring those readers who are never going to be fans of your work. Ray Bradbury said, “Remember, in writing, what you’re looking for is one person to come up and tell you, ‘I love you for what you do.”

In some ways, your reader is you. What would you like to read? What is no one else doing?  Do that.

Realize, too, that your idea reader will shift over time. These days, my ideal reader is a warrior of some sort—she’s working hard at things that will actually change the world, inch by inch. (Maybe she, like me, has grown up over these years of our acquaintance.) She has sore feet when she comes home, and she wants a big hot cup of tea or a nice glass of wine, and some quiet.

I stand there, waiting with my books, to offer her escape. It’s a sacred thing, an honor, to sit there with her. I have to write well so that nothing makes a noise to draw her away from that world of escape, and because she is a bit exacting. My research has to be solid and true, and I mustn’t strain her credulity too much.  Because my reader is who she is, I have to acknowledge the horrors and sorrows of the world, but my entire goal is to also gently direct her toward hope. I’d like to make her laugh a little, and definitely have a good cry at some point, and maybe want to nourish herself with a delicious bit of food.

By writing for her, my reader, I take seriously my task to never let her down. It’s more personal and specific than writing for “readers”.

Now, go back to that idea of your favorite writer, and cast yourself as their ideal reader.  How does she satisfying you? What does she deliver?

Now, imagine your own ideal reader: Why does he love what you do? What would you talk about if you had dinner together? What does she do, who does she love, what matters to her?  What do you want to deliver?

I’d love to hear what you discover in the comments. Who are you the ideal reader for?  And who is your ideal reader?

About Barbara O'Neal [1]

Barbara O'Neal [2] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [3], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [4].