The answer seems obvious. Whether you write middle grades, YAs or picture books, you’re aiming for a very specific demographic. But when you’re writing, do you think “hey, this book will amuse and delight ten-year-olds everywhere”, or do you write with a specific person in mind?
In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that he believed 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?’” King went on to say that his ‘ideal reader’ is his wife, Tabitha. That is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever read. He wrote all those scary creepy stories for the love of his life.
It makes me feel a little guilty. My husband is supportive of my writing in a million different ways. He was the first person to ever call me an author (and that was after I wrote the first sentence of my first story.) But he doesn’t share my passion for middle grade books and he doesn’t read many of them. And I feel that having a basic understanding of the genre in which you are writing is a non-negotiable prerequisite for an ‘ideal reader’. So while my husband will celebrate my accomplishments, build me up when I’m anxious and listen to me read the same paragraph over and over again, he’s not the person I have in mind when I write.
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote her latest book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, for twenty-seven women. After coming to the conclusion that she could never satisfy the millions of readers of her best seller Eat, Pray, Love, she narrowed it down her small circle of female friends. She even named them in her forward. Sure, whittling it down from millions to 27 is a huge feat, but I can’t imagine writing while thinking about 27 of my nearest and dearest friends. It would be hard to keep them all in my head. Besides, they all have such definite personalities. I wonder, at what point, my loved-ones would start to argue about the direction to take the story. Would they come to a consensus about a single sentence? Twenty-seven is way too many. For me, it needs to be one.
I have trusted readers whose opinions I cherish. Sometimes it’s a writing buddy, other times it’s my school librarian friend who has read every single piece of drivel I’ve ever written (if that’s not a definition of true friendship, I don’t know what is), other times it’s my nephew (he’s grown now, but he was a boy when I started writing).
For my work-in-progress, my ideal reader is a person I will never see again.
I met her on the release day for Neil Armstrong is my Uncle. I spent the day at a school visit celebrating with 4th and 5th graders. It was quite a party. Ice Cream. Cards. Banners. When the day was done, I sat in the classroom alone waiting for the teacher (aka my sister) to do an errand somewhere in the school. I was so tired I put my head on the desk. When I picked it up, a 5th grader was standing in front of me.
I’d met so many children that day that I couldn’t remember her name. I know she told it to me more than once. I was too embarrassed to ask. I wondered how long she’d been standing there.
“What’s your next book about?” she asked.
I decided to be cagey. “What do you think it should be about?”
It was the question she was waiting for. She talked about two of the characters in my book. She wondered what happened to one of them. And she talked about friendship. She even gave me ideas for plots and themes. Then she put her hands on her hips. “And that,” she said, “is the story you should write next.”
Before I could ask her a single question she raced for the door.
While my w.i.p. has different characters than the ones she suggested, I keep her themes in mind. I still think about how confidently she spoke and how quickly she got to what was important. And when I write, I think of her. And I wish I could remember her name.