Monday, December 3, 2012

Let the (reading) circle be unbroken …

Like him? He’s my gorgeous new neighbor! He lives in the trees near my new place, and a few days ago he fluttered down onto the railing of the footbridge out front for a visit. According to one of my featherless neighbors, he and a particular squirrel have kind of a coyote-and-roadrunner thing going on, so I’ve nicknamed him Wile E. I don’t know his species. Bird nerds, a little help?

We now return you to your regularly off-schedule blog entry …

Recently, a friend of mine mentioned that she was setting up a reading circle for a novel she’d written. For those of you who aren’t up on this kind of thing, a reading circle is a group of people who read a manuscript before the pros or the general public sees it. They make notes and suggestions to help the author improve. I’ve run quite a few circles in my time, and participated in many more, but my friend hadn’t really done this before, so I offered her the system I use. And then it occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve blogged about that system, so here you go.

I like to have a mix of perspectives in my reading groups—male and female, young and old, with a range of interests that are still likely to overlap with the subject matter in some way. Basically, I try to cover as much of my probable audience as I can. And I make a particular point of including artistic professionals (other writers, and usually at least one musician or visual artist) who know how to give professional feedback. However, I also make a point of including civilians, preferably at least one of whom has no prior experience with my manuscript. That person goes in cold, with no idea how the story or the characters will develop, to act as a kind of barometer for the reaction of an uninformed reader.

Of course, the civilians—especially the noob or noobs—often don’t know how to give feedback. Their idea of constructive criticism was probably formed around third grade, and perhaps not used since. They often have trouble articulating their opinions, so I get unhelpful notes in my margins saying things like “This scene sucks” or “[name of character] should be taller.” (I’m not kidding—somebody actually wrote that last one once.) And if the civilian readers realize their feedback is unhelpful, many of them stop giving it entirely. Then I get notes like “Yay!” and “Good job!” because they’re scared to criticize me.

To that end, I give you the modified Sol Stein system of critical notation for amateurs. I stole it from Sol Stein, of course, the author of Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel, but I added my own special twist.

Stein’s system is simple: have a largeish group of readers (I find six is a good number) and ask them to make, at minimum, two kinds of marks on the manuscript: a check mark beside bits they like and an X beside bits they don’t. I add to this one sophistication: a sad face or frownie next to any bit the reader finds boring or confusing. (Most readers quickly come up with the idea of repeating the marks for emphasis when they really like or dislike something. This is fine.) If the reader can add a note explaining why a particular bit is good, bad, boring or confusing, and perhaps how to fix it, so much the better—but it’s not absolutely necessary.

The goal here is lots of data. If one person triple-checks a particular passage and three other people triple-X it, I know that’s a love-it-or-hate-it (mostly hate it) part. If anybody marks a frownie, I know to give that part extra attention because it bored or confused somebody and I can’t afford to let that slide. And here’s the important part—if one particularly articulate reader writes a long comment describing the virtues or failings of a particular passage, but a number of less articulate readers mark that passage differently with checks and Xs, I know I may be dealing with a matter of the articulate reader’s taste. The fact that one reader can write an eloquent comment and the other three can’t doesn’t give the eloquent reader’s opinion any extra weight.

That’s the advantage of this system—it keeps the writer from listening exclusively, or primarily, to the most polished voice. I know how important this is, because I’ve been that voice in many circles and writing groups. I’m an editor in my dayjob; I know how to give feedback and make it sound brilliant. And while I flatter myself that I’m fantastic at editing nonfiction manuscripts, screenplays, and everything under the sun, very occasionally I can read a friend’s manuscript and, because it’s my friend and I think I know him or her better than I do, completely mistake the direction they were trying to take. And then I give bad advice.

I don’t think I’ve ever been stupid enough to suggest something as ridiculous as adding more fight scenes to a romance novel or more wizards to a science-fiction story. My mistakes, when I make them, are small. But I remember the lesson of the early Masks reader—a grad student in writing who usually gave excellent advice—who told me with a straight face that the book would be so much better if I’d just have it turn out at the end that Rae was not a superhero but a mental patient with an elaborate fantasy life.

I still remember the stunned blinking of the other writers in the circle as I stared at the young woman and asked, just to make sure, “You mean I should have it turn out that it was all a dream?

“Yes,” she said. “That would be a great twist.”

After a long pause, the professor leading the discussion gave me an exasperated look and called on someone else for notes.

Even professional readers can make mistakes, and the opinions of “normal,” non-professional readers matter just as much as those of highly articulate pros—more, in some ways, because most real-world readers aren’t pros. Professional feedback is great for finding weaknesses that average readers won’t spot, things that will kill the story later on, and it’s wonderful for actually showing writers how to fix problems. But pros have their pet peeves and hobbyhorses too, and they’re better at disguising them as legitimate criticism. You can’t afford to mistake someone’s personal crusade against unicorns for a reason to never, ever write a story about a unicorn. Maybe all the normal people—the ones who will be buying your book—actually like unicorns. You won’t know unless you listen to a wide range of viewpoints.

So get those normal people into your group. Teach them the way of checks and Xs and frownies. You just might find something better than your dream ending …

1 comment:

  1. Probably have this figured out by now, but I'm pretty sure that's either a coopers or sharp-shinned hawk. Not nearly as dignified as the falcons that Rae and Trevor emulate, but a lot more fun to watch. They're ambush hunters. I've watched them cruise through tree lines to take birds off feeders, blast into warehouses to blindside pigeons, and chase squirrels through treetops. So, yeah. Wile E. fits.

    Also, stealing your reading circle tips for some of my writing friends. Good stuff there.