Envisioning your reader

One of the basic bits of advice given to a writer is to envision your reader. It’s one that’s always troubled me, though. Could it be because I carry multiple identities as a writer? Poet, novelist, Quaker, retired journalist, with overlapping interests?

As a poet, I can’t describe the audience that shows up for a reading — the individuals seem to represent all types. Picture my readers? They could be anywhere in the subway car I’m riding!

OK, maybe it’s a younger, or at least more hip, crowd, but not entirely.

Until my novel What’s Left, I’d eschewed genre when it came to pitching my fiction, feeling it pigeonholed the book and limited the audience. Isn’t literature supposed to be much broader than that?

May novel though, soon set off in directions unlike anything I’d previously tackled . I vaguely sensed it would fit the Young Adult Fiction genre, but was later chagrined to learn I was taking “adult” too literally, the category had shifted down into early teens. Here I was, picturing a reader in her early to mid twenties — someone, albeit, a precocious teenager might want to listen in on.

So I finished a major revision of the manuscript and put it aside to season, as I’ve done with other works. Returning to a text after a few months away from its pages can provide crucial, critical distance to see it entirely anew.

Still, I was content enough with the novel to send it out to a circle of beta readers for their perspective.

But then something else happened. As I confessed:

Well, having made it through Christmas I decided to reopen the novel to make a few tweaks — and was quickly embarrassed that I’d sent out the manuscript in the condition it was in. My deepest apologies.

Since then, in an obsessive flurry of revision (the eighth), I’ve cut more than 50 pages and then wove in about 16 pages of new material in an effort to tell the story more through Cassia’s voice than though what she was seeing and hearing and to get the tone more conversational, even clipped. Equally important has been the conversion of details to more tactile or suggestive alternatives and the transformation of some sentences into questions to invite the reader to agree or argue.

Half of the chapters even got new introductions as the focus of the novel grew clearer.


I thought I was finished. I was wrong.

After reading the opening to a small group and watching the rapt attention of the younger faces in the circle, I realized that’s where I needed to center the story — take it more into their age range. So a ninth revision was under way, moving much of the awareness and activity into the early teen years, even when Cassia and Sandra were delving into their great-grandparents’ lives.

Envisioning my readership had me listening and watching the age group more intently, asking them questions, when possible, or incorporating some of the experiences we shared. Once again, there were major cuts and another round of new openings and endings for most of the chapters. And some of my favorite lines popped up.

This time, I see the potential reader in the 13- to 17-year-old range, but imagine Cassia’s voice is one that young women (or the New Adult genre) could eavesdrop in on with pleasure. We’ll see.

Give me some advice. Who do you picture reading What’s Left?



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