I’ve just finished The Girl You Left Behind, by Jojo Moyes, one of two books I’ve been reading over the last week. It’s the lighter of the two, and I admit I skimmed some sections. In my defence, this was a novel that was passed on to me, rather than one I chose. I started it in order to clear some space on the shelf, thinking that if, after a few pages it wasn’t working out, I would give it away.
Something kept me reading. It had a plot. There was a little too much coincidence for my taste; some events were too clearly engineered to misdirect us, and the characters seemed predictable, and glossy. Yet I was hooked. Why? Well, perhaps because it offered a different view on how society and the media works on the individual. I did not just want to find out how it ended, I wanted to follow the twists and turns of the story.
I’ve been thinking about this question of reader engagement for the last few days, because I’m struggling with my other read. It’s a novel I’ve been looking forward to for months. Other people have loved it, the reviews were good and the blurb on the back seemed to promise the kind of story I love.
It is has strong, flawed characters and lots of interesting and unexpected action, but, and you may have seen this coming, I find myself hoping for sections I can skim. I want to know what happens, so something is working, but I find it easy to put the novel down.
So far, so obvious. Yet, it set me thinking about who I write for. At this point I offer a quote from Stephen King,
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…
‘On Writing’, p256
It’s a quote that is so well worn it’s practically crumbling at the corners, but it is worth a writer thinking about, whether you are publishing or not. What kind of a read are we offering? Regardless of the message we are sending, how are we hoping to keep it being read?
Famously, Stephen King’s wife, Tabitha, embodies his ideal reader. This means he has a tangible and fully formed audience he can keep in mind as he writes. Notice I did not say consult. One of his key rules is that he never discusses a work in progress.
Of course, this ideal reader business may not suit everyone. I’m sure there are plenty of successful writers who can give us a whole directory of alternative systems. What I like about it is the way writing for a specific person focuses the mind.
So, here’s me, composing my thoughts into some kind of coherence and posting them onto the net one day, working away at a short story another. Am I clear about my ideal reader?