Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Your Ideal Reader--Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

My ideal reader is a confused teenage girl; she feels like an outcast because her best friend just moved to Montana and nobody understands her at school or at home.

My ideal reader is crazy about fixing old cars. He's got three in his backyard, if you could call it a backyard.

My ideal reader is forty-two, a discouraged mother and homemaker who is looking for the spark in her life that disappeared too many years ago.

My ideal reader manages an art gallery; she's fascinated with Renaissance art. She wants a new system for managing exhibits.

My ideal reader is gay, single, and loves helping others. He volunteers at hospice and soup kitchens. He really wants to learn how to balance his life, though. It's too crazy...so he thinks my book will help him.

Readers wait for your story, like a group of beautiful still life objects in an artist's studio. They wait for your attention, your interest in their particular shape and size and need. When you start thinking about them, your art changes. In a good way.

As I write this, my class of twenty-seven book writers at the Loft Literary Center is exploring this question. They are busy researching this aspect of book-writing, one they may not have ever thought about. As they ask about their readers, the answers will shape their book journey--how the chapters are structured, what is added or omitted, what benefit (take-away) they present. Why would anyone read this book? Who is this "anyone" anyway?

Write to Please One Person
Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” When I heard this writing advice as a beginning writer, I couldn’t imagine what it meant. He’s a funny guy, but I didn’t see what was funny in this. Now that I’m an experienced book author, Vonnegut’s advice makes all the sense in the world.

Many professional writers talk about this idea. Some visualize their ideal reader—maybe modeling her or him after someone they know. As they work on their book idea, they imagine asking that reader, What would you need here—more time to digest the idea or more information? More character or more plot? It’s not so far-fetched to begin this kind of dialogue. It’s, again, another guidance system to keep your book on track as it develops. You can also watch your reader’s profile change, as you discover more about what you really want to write.

Vonnegut also said (both of these quotes are from his book, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999), “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

This is another reason to consider a reader from the get-go. It’s unreasonable and a bit self-absorbed to think that a total stranger would take time to read your book, even if it’s fascinating to you, without being invested in its story.

This week, think about your reader. Who will read your book, who will get the most from it? Spend ten minutes describing your ideal reader--what you know about him or her, what you'd like to know.