In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Someone 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 a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’
Your ideal reader, at least in my mind, can be a real person, or it can be your idea of a person.
For Stephen King, his ideal reader is his wife, the novelist, Tabitha King. One of his favorite parts of the writing process is giving her pages of his book and listening as she reads. Waiting for that gasp. Waiting for the laughter.
He also thinks of Tabitha as his ideal reader because she will tell him when he’s writing bullshit. And she will tell him when the writing is working. She won’t hold back from what she truly thinks. And according to King, her opinion is almost always the right one.
As a novelist, you should absolutely have some kind of ideal reader in mind, but also realize that you should write the first draft of each novel for yourself. You should be telling yourself a story that compels you, that fascinates you, that makes your heart soar.
Do not — I repeat, DO NOT — write the first draft of a novel for someone else. Don’t think, hey, my ideal reader would love this story and not that one, so I’ll spend the next few months writing this new novel because he or she is going to love it.
You can’t write that way. You have to write novels that mean something to you, not others.
But once you begin revising, now you can start thinking about your ideal reader.
Again, it can be a real person or a fake person. If it’s a real person, think about what he or she might be expecting from your latest novel.
Don’t by any means change a part of the story to appease that ideal reader, but do maybe punch up some of the humor in your story if you think your ideal reader would be taken by it, or increase the tension by 50% if that’s something you know your ideal reader will love.
Because, real or unreal, your ideal reader will in the long run not be this one person but thousands of readers, millions of readers. All with expectations and concerns and hopes and dreams that will hopefully be similar to your first and foremost ideal reader.
This person can really be anyone. It can be your writing friend who looks at a lot of your work. It can be a family member or a best pal who’s not necessarily a writer.
Whoever it is, make sure your ideal reader is someone who will tell you the truth. Tabitha King tells her husband when the writing’s funny and scary and fantastic, and she also tells him when it totally sucks.
If your ideal reader is a real person, make sure it’s someone you can trust.
But keep in mind too — your ideal reader can be a mere idea of a person.
I don’t have a real ideal reader. Sure, I have some people in my world who read my short stories and novels from time to time, but unfortunately I don’t have that one ideal person I send all my work to and get amazing feedback from.
I guess I would have to say that my literary agent is currently and has been for two years my ideal reader, but that’s a little different.
For the most part my ideal reader is the young reader out there who I’ve never met, probably will never meet, but who is looking exactly for a novel like the one I’m currently writing.
It’s why I almost always have a major LGBTQ character in each of my novels, because I was always looking for characters like that in my fiction when I was growing up. And it’s why I have an element of horror and suspense in almost everything I write, because that’s what I adored reading as a kid.
Your ideal reader can be a real person who’s close to you or it can be your idea of a person who you hope is out there somewhere. Whoever it is, keep that person in mind when you revise your latest novel.
Having an ideal reader isn’t something that should make you nervous or intimidated. It should fill you up with joy. With great wonder and hope when it comes to the writing process.
Because all your ideal readers are out there. They just haven’t found your novel yet.