Fred G. Leebron—
At one point my novel came back from the publisher’s copy editor with the particular query: ‘Are you sure you want this five-page paragraph?’
Oh, the fantasies! How many times during the months—years—you’ve spent writing your novel did you envision shooting it off to an agent and receiving a reply with the subject line, “Let’s Talk?” The agent writes, “This is excellent, doesn’t need a word rewritten. Sure to be a quick sale and global bestseller.”
Into every fiction writer’s life a little nonfiction must fall. If you think about it, how far is reality from a well-crafted plot with it’s lengthy second act spiraling in ever tighter, ever tougher dilemmas? The trouble with our fantasy is mislabeled story elements. We had viewed finishing the novel as our journey’s denouement when it was the plot point pushing us into Act II.
Editing is an ongoing process. Like writing the book, you can’t pick an end date at the outset. It involves read-through after read-through after read-through. A point will come when you believe you’re done. More than likely you still have a ways to go. Let’s turn up the critical heat.
Not everyone on the playground is going to like your kid.
As Margaret Atwood says, “You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat.” To get objective feedback, give your book to friends whose opinion you respect before submitting it to an agent.
Writers routinely seek the help of readers to find out what is and isn’t working. Outsiders can spot oversights, holes, and unclear passages, as well as relate their experience reading the book—what they enjoyed, what they didn’t enjoy. Feedback can be helpful, brutal, or ridiculously unhelpful, but it’s worth sifting through.
Recommendations for Soliciting Feedback from Readers
- Specify the kind of help you want. Let your readers know if you want them to note or ignore typos, if you prefer they read naturally to get a sense of their organic response, or if you’d like them to read with questions in mind.
- Follow up. If you didn’t provide them with questions prior to reading, do so afterwards. Ask productive questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Possible questions might be:
- What about the novel’s opening grabs your attention and makes you want to read the book?
- What about the novel’s opening makes you question if you want to read the book?
- Are the characters believable? Likeable? Identifiable?
- Did you have any trouble following the story? Did you find any transitions confusing? Any passages confusing?
- Did you come upon any passages that seemed slow? How about any information you thought was unnecessary?
- Were their sections that seemed to go on too long? Were there areas that you thought could have been more developed?
- In a word or phrase, what would you say the book is about (theme)?
- Be open-minded. Listen to your readers’ feedback. Try not to get defensive and don’t argue. If something confused them, it confused them. You want to see the writing through their eyes, not browbeat them into seeing it the way you do.
- Make your own-decisions. If you don’t agree with your readers, thank them for their time and move on.
Negative feedback is an invitation to question an element. It’s easy for writers to attribute a problem to the reader, but remember who you’re writing for. Sit with the feedback until your bruises fade, and then mull it over. When people identify something that doesn’t work for them, they’ve usually hit on something that can be improved. That doesn’t mean the solutions they’ve suggested are right.