When writing a novel or short story, feedback from what I call “first readers” is extremely helpful. These aren’t professional editors although they may be published writers, and the group should include non-writing readers, but there is a hitch.
The ideal reader will be someone who likes and often reads the genre of the book or story. In other words you might not get market-related feedback for a sci fi tale when you ask someone who mainly reads romance, unless it’s a sub-genre piece like Avatar. Then you have romance with a sci fi bent and it is more likely the reader will relate to your story.
If you write the kind of piece that depends upon nuances, slow buildups and veiled clues, a person who is addicted to fast-paced thrillers might find it too slow moving and boring. By the same token a person who reads warm fuzzy books could be shocked and appalled by a gory horror tome. However, sometimes this feedback tells you that you accomplished what you set out to do, and in your evaluation it becomes a positive instead of a negative.
When that happens—right story, wrong reader—don’t get discouraged immediately. Instead, learn to read between the lines.
Here is an example from my recent book Devil’s Dance written as Arliss Adams: “It was so sad just reading this book that I had to stop and get myself together. I mean how can a teen like Jen go through so much and at the same time still gets the bad luck?” A later comment from the same reader: “I’m going to read the 2nd book and see what happen with the mother-in-law and see if she is going to go that low to beat Jen and take her son away and see if Jen changes her confidence up and takes charge of her life and kicks that in-law’s butt. Oh it’s nice that Vince will be there beside her and Viola and Nadya.”
The reader gave the book three stars, but I translated that to five. Why? Because looking at the whole review, it may not have been her cup of tea. She obviously likes to read happy book. But her reactions were exactly what I was going for. It wasn’t a warm fuzzy story. It is the story of a teenage dancer who is kidnapped, raped and left for dead. It’s her struggle to build her life again and find her inner strength. There is no way a kidnapping scene could be happy unless it is a comedy. The mere fact that the reader wants to go on to read The Devil’s Due to see how things turn out tells me the story grabbed her despite the fact that it wasn’t what she generally likes to read.
Feedback from a non-writing reader during the draft manuscript stage: “I see where you’re going, but as a woman I found that scene a little too violent for me. Men might like it, but can you tone it down a little for us women and still get the same thing across?” I did and the manuscript improved. My friend gave the new scene a “thumbs-up.”
Always be open to evaluating what a reader says, even if you don’t like it. Often there is validity when it is coming from a writer friend who asks questions that might not be asked by a non-writer. I love working through a first draft with a reader who is also a writer. It helps me see it through their critical eye and I have the choice of accepting or rejecting their comments. They will pick up on things like a recent feedback I received on a novel I’m in the process of finishing. “Everything in the last several paragraphs has been Jennifer’s inner thoughts. I would like to see her say something.” Wow. How valid. I’d skipped right past that several times. Or, “I would think she wouldn’t let that roll by. Why didn’t she get angry?” Again, spot on. A few mini-rewrites and the manuscript grew stronger.
Any feedback you get from Aunt Agatha—we all have someone in our life who thinks everything we write is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize— can be discarded. She is going to love even the mushiest or poorly written passages. That’s a given. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share it with her. She loves you and is oh so proud that her niece is a writer. Just don’t depend upon any useful critical comments.
Ideal readers (or listeners) abound in critique groups. Every writer should have a connection to one whether large or small. Even if only a few chapters are read aloud for critique, it sets the tone of what to look for in the rest of your creation.
How many of you have been readers for a friend’s manuscript? Think about whether the friend took action on your comments or explained why they appreciated it, but didn’t. As an author, always extend the courtesy to people who are helping to polish the manuscript. It doesn’t matter whether the comments are negative or positive. If they open your eyes to something, that’s been a great help. If you take no action, your friend still invested their time. Appreciate it.
Writers tricks of the trade appears every Thursday in the Las Vegas edition and every Friday in the Los Angeles edition.
For more information about Morgan St. James (also writing as Arliss Adams) visit her websites: www.morganstjames-author.com, www.silversistersmysteries.com, www.arlissadams-author.com and www.devils-dance.com
Check the list of all Examiner articles for more Writers tricks of the trade. Morgan’s books may be purchased at online bookstores like Amazon, BarnesandNoble, Fictionwise, Powell’s Books and more, or order at your favorite brick and mortar store.