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Robert's Rules of Writing #67: Find Your Ideal

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With rule #67, Masello suggests finding an intelligent, diplomatic friend to serve as an "ideal reader." In contrast with his previous rule, in which he advised writers to "doubt everyone" when it came to taking advice, with this rule he suggests that taking advice from someone can be beneficial -- as long as it's the right someone. But how do you find an ideal reader?

My first experience with the concept of an ideal reader took place in college. A friend I shall call F. got me reading science fiction short stories again by presenting me with a subscription to Asimov's for my birthday. F. herself was a reader of science fiction, and so for many years after that, every time I sat down to write, I kept imagining what F. would say about my work. I actually once told her that I was writing for her, an audience of one; she seemed amused by the revelation.

But in fact, F. wasn't actually serving as an ideal reader because she never looked at my prose in its raw form. And while Masello recommends this method, too (of imagining what a friend might say), it's far better if you can actually find an ideal reader to read and evaluate your work.

In my case, the ideal reader is my wife. I know I'm very lucky in that regard. Many writers have spouses who don't understand their desire to write. Nomi is an editor and writer herself, and has a very good eye and ear when it comes to prose. My general rule is not to submit any stories or essays anywhere without first running them by Nomi. As a result, she has become sensitized to the kind of errors I tend to make in sentence structure, which makes her even more of an ideal reader for me. (See, Nomi? I used "which" correctly this time.)

She's also very good at diagnosing plot problems and suggesting fixes. A few years ago, I finished a story that made me proud, and I ran it by Nomi before submitting it. Nomi liked the story a lot, but felt that the ending was a cop-out. I argued with her that I needed to keep the ending vague, but she would have none of that. So I rewrote the ending and sent it to Stan Schmidt at Analog.

When Stan called me to tell me he was buying the story, I said thanks and mumbled something about the flaw.

"Oh?" he said, his voice climbing in pitch. "What flaw?"

"Oh, there's no flaw there now," I said quickly. I described my original ending, and explained how Nomi hadn't approved of it.

"Oh," Stan said when I finished. He paused for a moment, then continued.

"Nomi's right. That original ending wouldn't have worked. From now on, don't send me anything until she's seen it first."

And so there you have it. An ideal reader can save you from story rejection and possible embarrassment. But, as I asked before, how do you find an ideal reader in the first place?

Well, if you're not lucky enough to marry one, I'd suggest (as Masello does) finding a fellow writer whose work you like and whose critique you trust. If the two of you can serve as each other's ideal reader, even better. A mutually symbiotic relationship can help improve both of your stories. And who knows? You might even end up taking that extra step and collaborating on a story.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein

Comments

Haven't found my ideal reader yet, but I agree, from what everyone says, it can really make the difference.

Hitchcock's 'first reader' was his wife, too. During the studio prescreening of Psycho, while everyone was applauding him, she pointed out a logical inconsistency in the shower scene and made him go back and reshoot to tweak it.
I actually once told her that I was writing for her, an audience of one; she seemed amused by the revelation.

from my "writing tree" (one of those "bunch of clips on sticks" photo holders, on which i keep writing quotes from various sources i've hand-copied onto cardstock) i offer one of three items i have from john steinbeck's advice to writers:

"forget your generalized audience. in the first place, the nameless faceless audience will scare you to death. and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn't exist. in writing, your audience is one single reader..."

i forget where i originally got it from.

the other two items i chose to copy, in case your curious: "abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day; it helps." and "write freely and rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down."
"you're" not "your." typed too fast. grrr.
Hmm. Maybe I should hire Nomi as an ideal reader. ;)
She does do freelance manuscript evaluation, but yeah, if you're not her husband, there's a fee. :-)
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