May 7th, 2008

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

About Books: third critical interpolation

Helping your first/alpha/beta readers help you.

We all need reader feedback.  In an ideal world, we would all have ample time to read stories aloud to our friends, who would all be erudite, expert critics and also sensitive and caring friends.   We don't live in an ideal world.  Your family and friends do not know what you, as a writer, need as feedback--either on the literary end or on the emotional end.  They may be afraid of hurting your feelings.  They may think anyone who wastes time writing stories is crazy and should just watch TV or play games on the internet or whatever.  They usually have, as basis for their feedback, some scattered memories of what they learned in school (look for spelling and punctuation the hidden's the theme?

But you can help your readers help you write better stories by communicating exactly what you need each time you hand them a segment, or ask them to listen while you read aloud. 

First, pick the right readers.   If you write romance, and your friends don't read romance...find some who do.   Ditto for every other kind of story.  Do not expect your very best friend in the world, who only reads cozy mysteries, to put up with your gory hack-and-slash vampire thriller.  Do not let yourself think, even for a moment, "If he/she really *cares* about me, he/she will *want* to read my stuff."  That's the way to lose friends, and it's unfair to both of you.   Writers need friends, including friends who do not read their work.   Find people who like to read what you write; they don't have to be close friends.   Second, pick the right method for the readers.  Some people can enjoy being read to, and think about what they're hearing. Others need to see it in print.  Never impose your reading on a visual-dominant reader, or hand someone who prefers audio books a stack of paper a foot high.   Remember that everyone else has a life, and often a busy, schedule-filled one.   If you come bouncing in with the latest story and your friend/reader has just been fired, found out they or a loved one has cancer, a child has been expelled from school... that's not the moment to say "Oh, that sucks...but anyway, here's this story I want to send off tomorrow,  so read it right now."  (And yes, writers will do things like that.  Not more than once to the same ex-friend, though.)   Try to collect a stable of readers that spans gender, age, social class, political opinion, religious lines.  You'll get more useful feedback that way.

So you've got a reader who loved spy stories and you've written a spy story, and your reader has time, and you hand him/her the story.   Don't stop there.  Before you hand it over (or right after) you should know the following about your story and yourself.  What draft is it?   What kind of critique are you looking for?   Are you prepared to deal with a factual report?   It's not fair to the reader if you say "Now, I want you to be harsh" and then burst into tears or storm off in a depressive rage if the reader says even one negative thing.  (And yes, writers will do that.)

For an early draft, you might tell your reader(s) something like this:  It's an early draft, please don't waste time on the spelling and punctuation and typos...a lot is going to change.  What I need to know is whether it feels like  a story to you, whether you're interested in the characters,whether you want to know what happens next.  If there's a place where you feel like it got mushy or slow, or you lost interest, or you got confused about what was going on, or didn't understand why a character did something, please mark those places right where they happen.  If there are places where you're completely locked in, turning pages as fast as you can, I need to know that, too.

For a later draft, when you think you have the structure nailed down, you might tell your readers this:   What I really need to know now is whether it still feels like a solid story: is there any place that throws you out of the story, any place you want to say "Huh?" or "Say what?", any place where a character doesn't seem to be acting right for that person, any place that feels slow or clunky or boring?   I want to be sure the transitions aren't too rough, that you always feel oriented in the story, always know where and when you are, and you feel connected to the story.  And if you find inconsistencies--someone's hair color changes, or I've confused left and right, or which ship someone is on--please mark that, too.  If you think the sequence of events is out of order somewhere, mark that.

For the final draft, you're ready for the nitpickers (who may be different readers than the early ones--nitpickers are a special breed and they often hate being told not to nitpick early on, when it only gets in your way.)   Now you turn them loose:  What I need is for you to mark every error in spelling, grammar, punctuation, continuity or anything else.

Notice that you are not asking your readers to fix the problems they find--in fact, you don't want them to.  That's YOUR job, as a writer.  A good reader comment such as "Well,  in chapter five I got bored because all Jim did was complain to Bob about his boss...I got the point already that David is a lousy boss; I got that point in chapter two..."  lets you know the problem.  If that conversation is plot-critical, you know you need to make it show.  But "I got bored in chapter five (etc.) and I think you should cut it" is going too far.    It is possible to talk over plot problems with friends/readers and *ask* them for ideas, or talk through your ideas with them, but that's a different process than asking for reader response.  The ultimate reader, when your story is in print, will not have the option of discussing plot problems/solutions with you....your early readers are clueing you to what ultimate reader response will be.

If you're having a bad stretch in the middle of a book, and you have the right reader for this, who has liked the earlier parts of the book, you can hand over a section and admit that what you really need right now is encouragement.  For me, there's always a bad stretch during which I feel it's a horrible mess and I'm completely incompetent.  I take 20 pages down to a trusted friend, say what I need, and he will read it carefully, and tell me that I'm not the worst writer who ever lived, and yes, it's still a story, and yes, he wants to see the end of it.  This is a legitimate request...if it's not your only request.  We all need reassurance at times, and it's OK to ask for it.  It comes best from someone you know likes your writing generally.

So what if the first readers you try don't like your work?   Yes, they like spy stories, but not the kind of spy story you wrote...Ian  Fleming and John Le Carre both wrote spy stories, but not the same kind.   How can you tell if their comments are "right" for you? can try to find readers who like the same kind of writing you yourself like, since your writing is probably going to reflect that.    Find out who they read--if they enthuse over your favorite writers, then it's likely you have your best shot at finding a reader who will like your work if it's well done.    Readers cannot be dragged into a new genre or subgenre or style by your manuscript--it's not worth the aggravation to either you or your potential reader to try to force past a mismatch in taste.

What if a comment makes no sense to you?   Then ask.   Suppose someone responds to a character with "I just didn't like Sam" but you know Sam's not supposed to be liked.   You can tell your reader that, but also (since you need to know this)  say "Well, Sam's not supposed to be likeable...where did I give you the wrong signal so you thought he was supposed to be?"   If comments make no sense in the early drafts, either your readers are wrong for your work or did not understand your instructions.  Quite often, if the writer doesn't start crying or screaming, a brief question and answer about a comment is the quickest, most efficient way for a writer to pinpoint a problem.

Can readers be wrong?  Sure.  That's why it's nice to have more than one.  Everyone has hot buttons--and though you need know about them, you can't avoid them all.  If eight of your first reader love a chapter, and one blows up because you  hit his/her hot can choose to ignore or go on.  If you only hear the hot button blowup, you'll think it's your writing (and it may not be.)   When it comes to comments,  I consider that any structural comment warrants rethinking and probably rewriting.   If the reader is a professional (other pro writer or editor) it definitely does.  If three ordinary readers trip over the same thing--that needs fixing.   I may be right, in terms of plot and characterization, but I have not conveyed what I meant in a way that showed I was right.   Readers (including the professionals) are most often wrong when they tell you how to fix a problem.  They are never wrong--NEVER wrong--when they report their own emotional response.  Their feelings are facts you have to deal with.   If you wrote the story in such a way that your reader becomes emotionally disconnected from the story--they're bored, they're so confused it's too much effort to try to figure  it out--it's a flaw in your writing.

Nothing improves storytelling as much as feedback of the right kind at the right time.