All novels are really letters aimed at one person- Stephen King
It’s half past midnight and I’m breathing somewhat heavily, smiling in excitement. A thousand miles away, the man I love is quite likely in a similar state. We are hunched over our respective computer screens and contrary to popular expectation, our giddy delight stems not from a video call, but from the shared editing mode on Google docs, where we’ve spent the last hour fine-tuning his latest story. For some alien version of the FBI keeping tabs on us, this is a scenario repeated every few weeks, the only difference being that we take turns being the recipients of painstaking criticism.
Among the many gems of literary advice that Stephen King delivers, there is none that resonates more strongly with me than the concept of the Ideal Reader, IR for short. No matter how much we like to say that writing must, first and foremost, be for oneself, I don’t think any of us can deny that when we’re setting it out on paper, we imagine telling the story to certain people. Every character is intended to make them think, every pause imagines an intake of breath, every joke is written in the hope that they will find it funny. Indeed, as King mentions, he is extremely nervous while his IR, wife and fellow author Tabitha King, reads his first draft, waiting to see if she will laugh in the right places.
As a writer, most pieces that I write, albeit sprinkled generously with imagination, arise out real-life experiences and encounters. Each story, poem, essay is as such, a baby, if not one that I’ve birthed, definitely one that I am godparent or babysitter to. The concept of the Ideal Reader, hence, as mentioned by Kimberly Vargas, revolves greatly around the concept of trust. Your IR has to be someone you’d rely on to literally raise your baby and raise them well. And two years ago, I found mine.
Several authors might have their reservations about making a loved one their IR. Of course, the concerns are legitimate. A partner, close friend, sibling or parent has the ability to turn around the way you think about your own story, in both good ways and bad. Criticism, if you’re not up to receiving it, might seem unduly harsh when coming from someone who means so much to you. And often if they dislike certain parts of the story, you might be tempted to throw away the entire draft altogether and wallow in your misery. If this is how you work, it is definitely a safer option to stick to an anonymous reviewer, someone from the writing circles that you don’t interact with personally or a paid service online.
To quote Veronica Sicoe, “My ideal reader can be a total jackass sometimes too.” He is possibly the only person I know who will tell me outright when some thing is horribly written. But one of the best parts about having someone you love, who knows some of the most intimate stories of your life, as the IR, is that they know where you’re coming from and where you’re trying to take things. They will pick up the strands that are high quality but hopelessly tangled and show you exactly how to weave the masterpiece you dreamed of. In the same vein, they will also tell you when you’re letting a particularly grandiose idea take you away from your objective- showing people what your story is all about.
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”- Neil Gaiman
Unless they’re writers.
So, what, one might ask, are the prerequisites of an IR? Well, as a minimum, nothing much other than the fact that they must enjoy reading your writing and be committed to telling you nothing but the truth. I’ve lucked out because I have an IR who is a writer, and he in turn will tell you the same (I hope). If you ever get blessed with this combination, you’ll realize that your work becomes tougher and easier simultaneously.
You get criticism worthy of Gordon Ramsay, pointed enough not merely to circle the mistake but rip apart exactly what doesn’t work. But you also get ideas on how to patch things up, and instances of why a certain plot point or character aspect doesn’t sound plausible, rather than a vague “Something seems off.” Which means that for both of us, our edit times get cut by half if not more. What I bring to the table in terms of grammar checks, he complements by pointing out the lapses in character development. And while it’s strictly not necessary that two writers be each other’s IRs, I find that, as of now it works rather well for us.
If only for the mutual backslapping two broke authors can occasionally indulge in.
For those writers who haven’t read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, please go and do it this week, irrespective of your personal opinion about the author. (No, I don’t get paid to state this here.)