Storyville: Writing for the Ideal Reader

So today we’re going to talk about writing to your ideal reader. I’m sure you’ve head of this concept before. Let’s dig in to some ideas on what that means, and how I think you can approach this concept. I think it can help you out quite a bit, but maybe not in the ways you might expect.

YOUR FIRST IDEAL READER IS YOU

When you write your short stories (or novels), the first person you need to write for is yourself. If you write something and you’re bored, uninterested, lost, or rather apathetic about it, how can you expect your readers to feel differently? When I sit down to write a new story, I ask myself several questions. What genre is this going to be? If it’s for an open call or a private invite, what is the theme, the topic, the vibe of this anthology or publication? Are there any concepts that I’ve been dying to write about (spontaneous human evolution maybe, as in “Ring of Fire,” or emotions manifesting in actual fleshy, concrete creatures)? First or third person? (It’s almost always first for me.) How long does this need to be to fit any appropriate guidelines, or if it’s wide open, how long do I think it might be? And then I’m off to the races.

The title, the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, the first scene, and if it’s a novel, the first chapter—I’m thinking about my hooks, my setting, my character/s, the conflicts (internal and external), what the inciting incident might look like, and what story I am promising my readers. I’m a feast or famine writer, so if it’s working and I’m intrigued, digging the voice, immersing myself in the setting—then it tends to flow pretty well. I need to be engaged right away, I have to be curious, and it can’t feel cliché, or expected. What kind of dark weirdness am I starting here? It has to have depth, be unique, and set up expectations that I want to read, and keep reading, or why bother?

YOUR IDEAL READER MAY BE AN ENTIRE GENRE

If you write something and you’re bored, uninterested, lost, or rather apathetic about it, how can you expect your readers to feel differently?

Before we get to your specific ideal reader, think a bit broader first. If you are writing a horror story, then what exactly does a horror reader expect? There are so many different kinds of horror out there, you may want to write a story that has some of these aspects—psychological horror, Lovecraftian horror, violence, quiet, the supernatural, cosmic horror, gritty realism, Gothic settings, or certain creatures. And once you have a sense of the vibe, tone, and atmosphere of this tale, you have to remember that this kind of story has two crucial elements—terror and horror. It is the pairing of that terror (suspense, clues, hints, the unknown, evidence, lore, history, etc.) and then all of that leading up to the horror (the reveal, the truth, the monstrous, the rippling effect, etc.) And then on top of the broad needs of horror in general, what kind of horror are you known for? I tend to lean into the psychological, the immersive, something maximalist, and a bit weird, with emotional impact. Keep that in mind. For fantasy, look at world-building. For science fiction, look at your technology and science. For magical realism, look at…the magic!

YOUR IDEAL READER AS A REAL PERSON

You may have an actual person in mind, and if you do, that’s totally fine. Not just you, not the genre as a broad readership, but somebody specific. It may be a peer or associate in one of your workshops who really gets you and gives great feedback. It may be a significant other—partner, spouse, friend, or child. It may be an editor that has liked your work in the past, and said kind things, gave encouraging comments, or it may just be the actual editor at the publication or press where you are sending this (as a cold submission or an invite).

I don’t write for my wife, because my work is too intense for her. I don’t write for a specific peer or workshop, as I’m not in any right now. I don’t write for my kids, typically, but now and then they have been on my mind, if the story involved kids/teens, or is something that may appeal to them. I do for sure write for editors in general (thinking of people like Ellen Datlow) or any gatekeeper that may see the work. And if I’m writing for an anthology where I’ve been invited, I for sure think about what Doug Murano or David Ward or Michael Bailey might want from me, what their expectations are.

YOUR IDEAL READER AS AN IMAGINARY PERSON

This may be the place where you can have the most fun and success. This will combine all of the things we’ve spoken about already. This imaginary reader can be a combination of what you like about your work, as well as the genre expectations, adding in a peer or spouse, and then a specific editor. What might that look like? Let’s sort it out. I’m going to fantasize a bit here.

• WHAT I LIKE: Dark, new-weird, maximalist, emotional, and unique.
• GENRE EXPECTATIONS: Add to those elements tension, atmosphere, and that play between terror and horror.
• ACTUAL PERSON: This editor likes all of that plus innovation, addressing the theme, of course, and any other expectations.

So when I sit down to write my next two stories, which I’m currently on deadline for, I will do all of these things. I have ideas in mind right now, but how far do I have to push it in order to keep my work at a certain level? I don’t  want a good story, I want a great story—something special. I will think about what these editors like, what I want to do, and then the expectations of the genres I’m writing in. That ends up creating this kind of multi-faceted entity (I keep thinking about Motley in Perdido Street Station) that has 5-10 demands, 5-10 likes, and then anything else that can take the story to the next level, really pushing for something that is soundly my voice, but innovative, emotional, with impact. Not easy, right?

IN CONCLUSION

When thinking about your ideal reader, it may vary from story to story. Perhaps the new fantasy you are writing is an homage to a college professor, and you’ll keep them in mind. Maybe the magical realism is for your daughter. The horror story may be your attempt to get into Nightmare, or Black Static, or The Dark. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have gotten invited into a project, and you are thinking about that editor and their taste. Add to that your own passion, desire, and interests as well as any genre/s you are writing in, and you should have an exciting combination of expectations, openness, and discovery. Good luck!

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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