how to give yourself permission to write remarkable fiction




Call up a picture of your Ideal Reader in your head.

Write to (and for) that person and that person only.

Maybe your Ideal Reader is someone you know personally. Maybe your Ideal Reader is a person you compose from the materials of your imagination. Maybe your Ideal Reader is a mirror version of you.


So much of writing is about finding ways to give ourselves the permission that we need in order to write the book we want to write….not the book we feel we should write.

Write the book you want to write.


No matter how good a writer you are or will become, not everyone is going to like your stuff. Some people won’t ‘get it’ and others might actively hate it. In fact, the more fascinating your work (and your author-brand) is, the more likely it will polarize people.

Sally Hogshead observes that fascinating people (including writers) “get under our skin and into our conversations. They challenge and move us….change us in some way.” One of the hallmarks of a fascinating “message” (or novel) is that it provokes “strong and immediate emotional reactions”, a “love it or hate it response”. Which flows naturally into another hallmark: the message creates advocates, a percentage of followers who “become passionately dedicated to the attraction, or even consumed by it”.

These advocates become your tribe, your True Fans, and enable your career.


To have a chance at success in today’s extremely cluttered and competitive marketplace, you need to be the most remarkable writer you’re capable of becoming (with some sales and marketing savvy to boot).

One quality that a good writer requires that doesn’t get discussed in how-to-write-fiction articles has to do with self-awareness, self-knowledge, an ability to dig deep into the darker, private regions of the self — or, as we keep saying in my workshop, to “go there”. Fiction that doesn’t “go there” sits on the surface. It fails to engage the reader’s emotions, to grab her heart and shake up her soul.

The most powerful fiction puts its characters through a “crucible” – an intense and transformative experience. Whatever the external stakes of the story might be, the character’s very psychological framework is under threat. It doesn’t matter what the genre is. Would SILENCE OF THE LAMBS have been such a transcendent thriller if it was just about Clarice Starling’s search for a serial killer? No. The heart of that book is Clarice’s relationship with Hannibal Lector and the impact it has on her (and him). It’s Clarice’s revelation about a life-forming childhood experience – from which the book draws its title – and Hannibal’s ability to draw it out of her that gives the book such weight and power, that makes the story so unique. The author was “going there”.


We bring all of our selves to our work. In order to develop as a writer, you must know yourself, learn yourself, smash your inner boundaries, venture out to all your edges and write the view from there.

You have to give yourself permission to take risks….and also to play, to romp around with style and language and story, to experiment, see what works and what doesn’t (and if it doesn’t, so what — that’s what revision is for).

It’s easy to do this when we’re kids, but as we grow up we learn to be self-conscious. We learn to worry about what other people will think of us. We become apologetic about our abilities and wounded by senseless criticism.

We learn to hedge and to hide.

For our creativity to flourish, we need to create a mental atmosphere of trust and safety in which we can play out our writer’s obsessions and explore those deep-seated, personal truths that move our fiction, that we uncover through our fiction.

Trying to write for everybody isn’t safe. It isn’t even possible, and we compromise ourselves and our work in the attempt. It can also lead to creative paralysis, a mental stage fright.

You don’t want to write to the masses. You want to write to your True Fans, present or future, who love your work, love you, ‘get’ you, think you’re brilliant, follow you across the Web and read everything you write. Holding that image of the True Fan in your head can reframe your entire approach to your creative life. Sure, people will judge your work and many will reject it, but who cares? You write to deepen your connection with your Ideal Reader. Your work is a personal letter to them, and them only.

Your work is a gift of love.

That is your goal and your mission.


Who is your Ideal Reader? Are you as adventurous in your creative work as you could be? As you want to be? Why or why not?


Mar 3, 2010

8 comments · Add Yours

<3 this post. I've always been a fantasy reader so it was natural I'd write it as well, but the books I love most, that really stick with me, tend to be more classics or women's/mainstream fiction. So I said screw it and began writing it as well. It was scary for me not to have genre conventions and world-building to distract me!


This is so insightful and uplifting. Even though I never write fiction, let alone remarkable fiction, I feel that this blog post can still apply to other life activities/careers. THANK YOU!!!


That’s amazingly well said! I agree with everything you said in the heart of it — the importance of writing what’s true to you, and taking it all the way, and I could have preached that to other writers ten years ago.

It wasn’t until I developed and learned to recognize my Ideal Reader that I could really follow through on that, though. The ideas don’t necessarily seem related, but you nailed the connection between them. Without a strong understanding of an Ideal Reader, it’s impossible to connect intimately with the tale you’re telling.

Thanks so much for sharing!


I love the message, Justine! Thanks for sharing :)

The only bitty part I disagree with is your mention of the marketing/sales part of the process. I think many writers stop before starting because they are worried about that piece. My advice: Write your heart out, and worry about selling it later.

I love your call to shine and not be “apologetic about [your] abilities.”


I don’t know who my ideal reader is, but I AM taking risks with my writing. Far more than I used to…

This post is wonderful. It’s like seeing something ‘external’ that is giving me permission to do the scary things I’m trying at the moment. The story/novella I’m working on is taking me to places I never thought I could go. I really needed to read these words today & I thank you for them.


Again, wonderful insight as to the use of proper mental tools behind successful writing.

My ideal reader? Well, that would be me. ‘Cause I’m not crazy about reading fiction, unless it’s incredibly entertaining, and it takes me into concepts I haven’t thought about before. So, if I’m writing for people who hate to read, I better raise the stakes as to what I’m putting out. And what I’m putting out, at least in theory, is the most honest, deep, and humorous description of human nature I can possible put on a page. And by trying to do that, as you explained Justine, I must go inside MYSELF. And if I get pure enough about that journey, becoming raw and open, I find that my basic nature, with all its fears, is fairly universal. And by remaining totally honest, I bond with those readers who are tough sells like me. I try to give them the feeling I wrote THEIR story. And it’s a wonderful joy when I do.


I’ve been traipsing through your blog at random over the last couple of weeks. I’ve pretty much written off being an author…but maybe, just maybe I can start contemplating it again. Srsly crushing on you too. <3 Penelope


Yeah! I just started doing this tonight. Every novel I read is pretty boring to me. I love to read comics, but even that’s kind of limiting, especially when you can’t draw. So I’m doing exactly what you said. Writing ridiculously. As if no one will ever read it. Writing for my own enjoyment. It feels good. I just wanted to do a search and see if anyone else had felt this thrill. Great post.



  1. the power of your personal elite + one of the best pieces of creative advice I ever got | Justine Musk
  2. Sold! One soul to the man in the hat. | eyelashroaming

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