Care and Feeding of Ideal Readers


Care and Feeding of Ideal Readers

Last post, I discussed how valuable I found getting feedback from an Ideal Reader (IR). But even if you think you’ve identified a likely candidate, you need to treat her with care.

Make sure the Ideal Reader knows what she is committing to

Most people are flattered that you ask them to read your work but they may not understand what they are agreeing to and you need to spell this out to avoid damaging your relationship and the quality of the feedback.

  • Tell him what kind of time commitment you are asking for. A novel takes a lot longer than a short story and it needs to fit into his schedule.
  • Agree on a deadline. Since your Ideal Reader (IR) is probably volunteering, it can be awkward to do but if you have to wait six months, it’s not going to do you much good. You can say something like, “I know you are crazy busy. Would it be too soon to discuss this in a month or so?”
  • Let them know that you will be sending them a set of questions you’d like answered. More on that below.

Help her give you what you need

As I have mentioned in other posts, the job of the writer is to create a continuous dream in which the reader can immerse herself. The more successfully it is done, the less the ordinary reader can identify the elements which make up the continuous dream feeling. So, unless your Ideal Reader is himself a writer, it is unlikely he can give feedback in a writerly way. The IR won’t say the frame of the story doesn’t work but rather I got sort of confused.

To help your IR, you can and should provide a set of questions to be read after the IR has finished your piece. The questions revolve around areas where you are unsure. Here are some examples:

Sample question

What you are looking for

Did it get boring at any point? If so where?

Does the action slow down

Did you want to know what happened to Jill or did it not matter at some point?

Credibility and persuasiveness of the character

Did you buy [name event of which you are unsure] would happen?

Believability of the plot


Dos and Don’ts

Remembering that the IR is doing you a favor and that you are friends:


  • thank them profusely, write a thank you note, or send a small gift
  • react to the feedback respectfully even if, or especially if, you don’t agree. See my post on feedback.



  • bombard them with in-progress or repeat readings. They read for enjoyment and repetition can kill that. Use your writing group for that.
  • assume you can go back to them again. Ask again if you have a new piece.
  • go back months later to ask about details of your work. They won’t remember.

You need to make the experience a pleasant one for your IR, first because you are friends but also because you want them to continue to enjoy reading your pieces and not view it as a chore they do only because you’re buds.

You Need an Ideal Reader


You Need an Ideal Reader

What is an Ideal Reader?

 The Ideal Reader represents the audience you want to reach with your finished piece of work with two important additions.

Addition One: the Ideal Reader (IR) likes you enough to read your stuff.

Addition Two: the IR is articulate enough to provide useful comments. If you’re writing for children, this might be tough (although not impossible—you could watch the children`s reactions as they hear the story).

An IR’s feedback can be more specific than your writing group’s because she knows if the situation, characters, plot, etc. work for the target audience. In addition, he’s coming to the work cold (unlike your reading group which has probably discussed it quite a bit) and so can pick up big issues and blind spots which might have been missed in the minutiae of writing.

Why you need one—an example

This suggestion may not sound much different from getting feedback from your writing group, so I’ll give you an example of where I profited from having one.

I was working on my novel, Scam!, about four Canadian actors who pretend to be an intact British acting family to get parts on an American sitcom.

My first draft took on the feel of a heist movie. You know, where a group concocts a complicated and split-second timed plan to steal the crown jewels, the Hope diamond, whatever. With this type of plot, there is no movie unless they get to the actual heist. Similarly, in my story, there is no novel unless the actors get the sitcom parts. In both, the reader knows the intended end point, so the interest has to be built in how they get there. Therefore, I spent a lot of time creating roadblocks and close calls to maintain the tension which might otherwise come from the reader wondering how will this end?

I finished the novel and, although there was a little niggle that it wasn’t my usual style, I nevertheless thought it was done.

After reading it, my wonderful IR, Janet, thought that although the action moved, the characters didn’t grow (she said this more kindly than my depiction).

After a secret pout, my thinking went as: I think it’s okay. But I really respect Janet’s opinion. Maybe this is a novel where the characters regress rather than grow. If so, I don’t have to do anything. But I really respect Janet’s opinion.

I finally decided to devote a week to see if there was anything to her comments. And damned if there wasn’t! I realized that my characters were more acted upon (by the close calls and roadblocks, etc.) than acting. I was basically pushing the characters around to meet the needs of the plot.

The revamp provided a novel I was much more satisfied with.

Where do you find an Ideal Reader?

Can be almost anyone. Typically, they like to read and in the genre you are writing. That is, don’t ask a romance fanatic to read your scifi just because you are great friends. You try for someone who tends to the analytic. Otherwise, all you’ll get it is “Oh, it’s great.”

The next post covers an IR’s care and feeding.

(And no, you can’t have my fabulous IR’s coordinates. Get your own.)

Getting Pacing Right


Getting Pacing Right

You know how sometimes a novel moves so slowly that it irritates and seems to positively encourage you to put it down even if the story interests you? Or when events move so quickly that you’re saying to yourself, “Huh? Wasn’t he trapped in the underground cave?” Or, the best, when you move from revelation to revelation in the story in a satisfying way? That’s pacing.

It is subjective

Whether the pacing is right depends largely on the reader. If he revels in elaborate description, he won’t find things slowed down by it. If the reader prefers fast paced, he’ll skip over any moments of confusion or disconnection to get to the climax.

So this is annoying for the writer. There probably isn’t one right answer unless you already know your readership well as a popular mystery novelist might.

But there are some general rules which generally work.

Getting the pacing right

Mechanical ways

There are some standard ways to keep the pacing right

  • Description slows things down. Even beautifully crafted, heartfelt passages pause the action so we can admire the craft and heart.
  • Action speeds things up. When your characters are doing stuff, the pace of the novel picks up.
  • Slowing the pace of the action can build suspense. One of those counter-intuitive things but slowing the pace at the right moment can be more effective than barreling along.
  • Reflective/internal dialogue slows the pace. But may be necessary both for the story but also as a chance for the reader to recover from the previous fast-paced action.
  • Varying sentence length can break things up. It really can. Breaking up dialogue with bits of business (he tapped his fingers; she turned her head sharply) produces the same effect.

Soul-searching ways

You sometimes need to look deeper to ask yourself some hard questions.

  • Is the world you created more interesting to you than to the reader? [1] Writers can get very excited about the world they’re creating. They explore all the nooks and crannies of this creation, getting more and more enthusiastic about the possibilities. All to the good. And can certainly infuse your writing with that enjoyment. But by and large, this neat stuff is more important to inform your writing than the reader.

Long passages describing how fascinating the world is are probably interesting only to you. What hooks a reader is the action the characters take within that context. And the constraints and opportunities that arise because of the unique setting. The magic layer in your world may only start five thousand feet above the surface. The protagonist must figure out how to reach that layer in order to access the magic that will further his goal, whatever it is.

  • Are you rushing to the end? This is a particular problem if you’ve already decided how the novel will conclude. There is a tendency to write the scenes leading in a straight line to the climax. Which leaves the reader rather breathless and in addition, ignores the byways, asides, and subplots which not only give a fuller story but also slows things down enough for the reader to enjoy the unfolding of the tale at a more satisfying pace.

In summary, this is a Goldilocks thing. Not too fast. Not too slow. And varied pacing. Too much of the same pace—no matter how exciting—will begin to feel tedious to the reader.

[1] Lukeman, Noah The First Five Pages Simon & Schuster New York 2000

Sticking with One POV

Sticking with One POV

In the last post, I railed against (in a nice way) switching a POV (Point of View) within a story. It can be hard to identify why multiple POVs are an issue.

Encore—does switching a POV really matter?

I have discussed before, your job as a writer is to create a continuous dream. That is, you want your reader to be so completely engaged with your main character that s/he is swept along, totally immersed in the story. Anything which breaks the continuous dream, can kick the reader out of the tale and make it less satisfying.

Swapping POVs frequently is one way to break the dream. It discourages the reader from concentrating on your protagonist’s thoughts, fears, and hopes by introducing the same from other characters.

Fixing multiple POVs

Remember this passage from the previous post?

Mark was suspicious of the stranger in the dark hat. He ducked into an alley to catch a better look at him. The stranger kept going, looking neither left nor right, but admiring the beauty of the day.

Across the street, Mark saw Carla. He waved her over. She wondered what he wanted but crossed over nevertheless.

How do we fix it?

Mark was suspicious of the stranger in the dark hat. He ducked into an alley to catch a better look at him. The stranger kept going, looking neither left nor right, but admiring the beauty of the day.

Across the street, Mark saw Carla. He waved her over. She had a quizzical look on her face but crossed over nevertheless.

Often the fix is quite easy. The story is not enhanced by knowing what the stranger thinks. Similarly, you stay with Mark’s POV if Carla does something he can see and interpret, thus avoiding entering her thoughts.

When the fix is difficult

Fixing multiple POVs can be difficult if the shift to another POV contains some information or emotion important to the overall plot.

Say, for example, that the stranger noting the beauty of the day, is something you really want the reader to know. I dunno, maybe he’s unfairly being suspected by Mark or he’s quite a spiritual guy. You want to hint this.

If it’s important to your story, then don’t throw it in as a bit during Mark’s POV. Slow down. Take the time to establish this characteristic in the stranger. Allow the reader to see his good guy traits. Remember, the aim is not to get the reader to the end of the story as fast as possible but to make it an engaging one. Slow down when you need to.

Situations where it works

I should just mention that, as with all writing ‘rules,’ there are exceptions.

Moving from one character’s consciousness to another’s can be effective if the transitions are clumped in large blocks. Example: Character A speaks in Chapter One; Character B in Chapter B; and then back again to A.

You have to limit the number of characters who own a point of view and they all have a unique perspective which readers would enjoy exploring.

So, you can do it but you need a fair level of adroitness to pull it off. To try it, just make sure that you have a good handle on keeping within one POV before consciously launching into multiples.

Flashback Other Stuff


Flashback Other Stuff

In the previous post, I discussed the importance of the flashback. Here I will cover some of the more mechanical issues when using this technique.

Flashback order

It’s not a hard and fast rule but sometimes it helps the reader if the flashbacks themselves occur chronologically. That is, if the flashback scenes have a particular sequence, it’s less confusing if they’re presented that way.

As I say, not hard and fast. Sometimes the narrative demands an out-of-order presentation. But if so, cue the reader in some way where they are in the flashback story.


As I mentioned in the previous post, flashbacks should not take up the bulk of the story and as Carol Shields points out in Startle and Illuminate, there should be a reason for switching to them.

And while they need to be used frugally, neither can you use just one and then never again. Readers have some unconscious expectations of fiction and this is one of them—flashbacks are used in multiples or not at all.

You don’t need a big flag to signal a memory

Writers sometimes have trouble figuring out how to introduce a flashback. They often use phrases like “she remembered” or “he thought of his childhood.” Not egregious sins but can be a bit clunky.

It’s pretty easy to indicate a flashback. Just use a different tense. If you’re writing in the present, use the past. If the past, the pluperfect (‘had’). Reverse when you want to come out.

If you’re really worried that your reader won’t get it (and this isn’t usual since they are often smarter than us), double space or use a few asterisks to denote the switch.

By the by, you don’t need to use the different tense for the whole flashback scene. This is particularly true of the pluperfect. A lot of “he had had a problem” and “she hadn’t wanted to go,” is cumbersome and somewhat irritating. Use the pluperfect a couple of times at the top of the flashback and then switch back to the past.

At what point can they be used?

The placement of flashbacks, like any other technique which can slow the forward action of the plot (e.g. description), needs to be judicious.

Unless there is some really compelling reason in the plot that the character goes into a flashback at a moment of tension or drama, don’t do it. You dissipate whatever excitement you’re building by subtly pulling the reader out of the continuous dream you’re building for him.

If you need the character to reflect on the plot development or action sequence she has just experienced, by all means do it. But put her in a scene after the action where she can show her feelings or analysis of the situation. Just before falling asleep, riding the bus, waiting for someone or something, etc.

P.S. I can think of one time when flashbacks during the action are appropriate and that’s when the character is experiencing PTSD-like events. But then, these need to be part of the plot.

Anyhow, there you have it—the mechanics of flashback. Now let’s get back to the present.