Sunday, August 26, 2012

Finding Your Reader

In today’s Internet age, finding someone to read and critique your work is like tripping over piles of dirty clothes in a teenage boy’s bedroom – it’s not that hard. 

While a lot of book reviews on Amazon and other review sites are pretty spot-on, you can’t always take it as the gospel (as evidenced by this New York Times article “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy”).  How else to explain gushing five star reviews for crappy books?  Seriously, did we read the same book?  On the flip side, sometimes, people are just downright vicious in their criticisms.  It’s clear they get off on putting people down and nine times out of ten, without the anonymity of the Internet, they wouldn’t dare say even a fraction of those nasty things in person.

In short, sometimes you just have to take the feedback the masses give you with a grain of salt because you can’t please everyone all of the time. 

As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, I’ve decided to take the plunge into self-publishing via Kindle.  As a girlfriend of mine declared when I told her of my plan, “let the people decide!”  Now, while I fancy myself an okay writer and have even managed to make a living as a freelancer for the past five years, I’m realistic.  As much as I would like to rush and upload the manuscripts that have been collecting virtual dust on my computer for the last ten years, I realize I need someone to vet me first.  It’s one thing to dash off a one-page press release, quite another to birth a 70,000 word manuscript filled with multiple characters and a plot. 

In his brilliant book, “On Writing,” Stephen King makes the case for the “IR” or “Ideal Reader.”  The Ideal Reader is the audience made up of one person you try to please with your writing (for King, this is his wife, Tabatha).  Will they bust a gut at this passage?  Will they cringe?  Will they think this is a sparkling piece of prose or the worst piece of shit they’ve ever read?         

In trying to think about who I’d like to read my completed manuscript, I agonized.  A lot of folks give it to their significant other, but since I’m currently single, that’s out for me (of course, my ex didn’t like to read, so he probably wouldn’t have done me much good anyway).  There are friends, of course.  To be honest, most of mine are loaded down with toddlers and newborns at the moment and just don’t have to time to sit down and read anything that’s not a picture book.  

I finally settled on my youngest sister as my “IR.”  I chose her for a few reasons.  One, even though she’s family, I knew she wouldn’t sugar coat it.  In fact, she’s pretty much renowned for hating everything.  It’s kind of her shtick.  Two, she’s extremely smart with an unusually high bullshit meter.  Three, she’s a voracious reader.  While she doesn’t read suspense, which is what I write, she wouldn’t be jaded – I knew she could give me a good perspective from a pure reader’s point of view.

I asked her if she’d be willing and she gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. 

Yay!

After fiddling with the manuscript based on the feedback I got from my weeklong writing class, I sent it to her, bracing myself for the onslaught of criticisms.

I was happy to hear she liked it (yay! I mean, since she hates everything).  She had some good, solid suggestions for improvement and with one exception (remains to be seen if I’ll implement), I incorporated everything she complained about.  She was thoughtful in her criticisms, which I appreciated.   

While in Toronto for class, one of my fellow students offered to read anyone’s manuscript when they were ready.  I decided to take her up on it.  I think this will be worthwhile because she doesn’t know me from Adam, so she’s certainly not obligated to give me a good review, plus, it’ll be good to get another perspective.  I’m curious and nervous to see what she has to say.

It can be nerve wracking unleashing your baby onto the world, but getting solid criticism from others can only help you.  Joy Fielding said that in addition to her husband, she has two additional people that she always gives her manuscripts to before she submits to her publisher.  She said it was based on the feedback of one of those readers that necessitated rewriting the first ten chapters of “The Wild Zone” three times.  Stephen King says he has a group of four to eight core people he lets read his work while in draft stage.  Tabatha even shamed him into cutting two pages of back story in “Bag of Bones” down to two paragraphs.

Choose your IR wisely.  You don’t want someone to blow sunshine up your ass; you also don’t want someone to tell you it’s terrible unless they can give you solid feedback as to why.  Either way, look for people who will help you improve your work.

It can only help.

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