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Reader Response Questions

My ideal reader (photo by Julie Velez of Phoxie Photo)

My ideal reader

Today’s post is more a story than a lecture, but it’s a story rich with writing advice. It harkens back to a creative writing exercise from January, and foreshadows a worthwhile topic for future discussion. It’s also a pretty sweet story, when it comes right down to it.

Anyway, one of the phrases you’ll learn in any serious creative writing class is “the ideal reader.” Or, more accurately, “your ideal reader.” As I said, I’ll need to dedicate a whole blog post eventually to what exactly that is, but in brief, it’s a phrase that refers to the perfect audience for whatever it is you are writing. If you’re writing high fantasy, it’s a reader who loves high fantasy. If you’re writing near-future science-fiction cop drama romances, it’s a reader who craves just one more page of near-future science-fiction cop drama romance.

It’s more than just genre readers, though. If you’re writing for women, your ideal reader is a woman. If you’re writing for young adults, your ideal reader is aged 18-25 (or however they classify young adults these days). If you’re writing a philosophical allegory rich with literary allusion, your ideal reader probably has a college degree. The ideal reader is an intensely focused, deeply personal thing and, like so many ideals, is entirely imaginary. It’s an incredibly useful device, but it’s not an actual person. Still, when I was taking all those college courses I got in the habit of talking about “my ideal reader,” and that got me in a little bit of trouble.

Why? Because my wife has never taken any serious creative writing class. Back when we were still newly married and I’d start talking about my “ideal reader” (who clearly wasn’t her), that bugged her. In those days I was writing mid-grade high fantasy targeted at adolescent males, so she really wasn’t my ideal reader, but I’d never taken the time to explain the concept to her.

Reader Response Questions

She didn’t really let me know she was bothered, either. Instead, she fixed the problem on her own. She decided she would become my ideal reader. Without saying a word about it to me, she committed to reading everything I wrote — blog posts, story snippets, first drafts of truly atrocious novels, she read it all. Not only that, she wanted to give me good feedback. She picked up, along the way, that the whole point of an ideal reader was to provide direction, and she wanted to be able to do that.

So several years ago, when I finished my second novel, she asked to read the rough draft. I printed it out for her, and the very next morning she got out a stack of Post-It notes and set to reviewing it. A chapter or two in, she called me up at work and asked, “Okay, what do you want to know?”

“I’d just like your honest feedback,” I said. “Tell me what you think.”

“But what specifically? Do you have any questions? What are you worried about? What are you trying to do? Give me a list of questions, and I’ll answer them.”

If you’re reading my blog, you’ve got an idea what that list ended up looking like. If you’re guessing it was  pages long, and detailed, you’re right. After all, I obsess about this stuff all the time. I started it off with a disclaimer, though. I said, “There are just some topics for discussion, some issues. I certainly don’t expect you to answer them all, I just wanted to give you an idea of a direction.” A little while later I got an email back saying she’d gotten my list, and politely thanking me for it.

My Ideal Reader

It took her about a week to read through the novel, making copious notes. Every day I’d come home to find the binder sitting out on the end of a couch, or lying open on the kitchen counter, new Post-Its decorating the edges. Every night she’d take the binder to bed with her, marking up more pages before she fell asleep. I noticed the little plastic pocket on the back of the binder had a print-out in it, too — my questionnaire, several pages stapled in the top corner, and every now and then she’d pull that out and glance back through my questions, before diving back into the book.

She finished the book during the day on a Thursday, and called me up at work. “I’m done,” she said.

I asked the first question I always ask, fear in my heart. “Did you like it?”

“Yeah,” she said. I started to ask more, but she cut me off. “I’ve got us a babysitter for tomorrow night. I thought maybe we could go out to dinner, and talk all about it. You can ask me any questions you’ve got, and I’ll answer as best I can.”

I grinned at the thought of it, and told her, “It’s a date.”

The next night, I took her to my favorite steak place, and she brought along the binder. We went inside, got our table and ordered our drinks, and then she pulled the binder out on the table and flipped it open. There was something new inside the front pocket, too — a little lined notepad. She pulled that out, and I saw on the first line she’d written out my first question.

The book is divided roughly into three sections: Jason’s childhood, Jason’s adolescence in the City, and Jason as king. Of these three sections, which one was your favorite? Which one was your least favorite? Why?

All of that in her pretty handwriting, in black pen — and beneath it in blue, her answer. Half a page of answer. I’ve taken Lit. Class essay tests that were less work than my questionnaire, and I certainly hadn’t expected her to answer every question. But she did, on page after page of that little notepad, and as soon as she started into her first answer, I fell in love with her all over again.

We’ve been married for eleven years this Saturday, and I couldn’t hope for anyone better. She’s an adorable woman, an admirable mother, an excellent wife, and more and more, every day, my ideal reader. As your writing coach, I advise you to get one, too. Find somebody willing to tolerate your questions, someone interested in the vast array of things you have to say, and how you say them. Someone willing to contribute quietly, to encourage patiently, and comment thoughtfully.

It’ll take some time, and probably some training, but it’s wonderful. Find somebody. Stay away from Trish, though! She’s taken.

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

6 Responses to “Reader Response Questions”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    Wow…Trish is amazing. How did you get so lucky? Your warning at the end made me laugh!

    That really is a great story.

  2. Courtney Cantrell says:

    You, my friend, have the most amazing wife in the world. And she has a pretty decent husband, too. ;o)

  3. That is a fantastic story. My wife reads most of my stuff but I only get cursory feedback, I guess I need to train her…

  4. Megan says:

    Just in case you forgot to today (because we all get a little used to our spouses) please tell your wife she is stunning – she looks both gorgeous and like a great friend in that photo!

    I so wish I could train my husband to be my reader. He’ll read my stuff – if I beg and guilt him into it – but all he does is mark grammar errors… very unhelpful.

    You sure you don’t want to rent your reader out?


  5. Aaron Pogue says:

    Thanks for all the comments. She is absolutely amazing. And yes, Megan, I told her as much just this morning.

    I know a lot of writers with spouses who are unwilling readers. I’m not sure exactly why it works out that way, except for the whole opposites attracting thing. I wish I could give everybody some great advice on how to convert (or train up) a spouse into a perfect reader, but Trish did it all on her own.

    Of course, if you want to ask her for tips, she might have something helpful to say. She’ll probably get to these comments eventually, but you could also pop over to her recent blog post that mentions me, and ask her there.

  6. Of course it’s all true. But that is only ONE reason why Trish is an amazing person. There are so many others as well.

    Love her to death. 🙂