Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.
If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
In our last installment, we mentioned the importance of actually writing a first draft. This time, we will cover what to do once you have written it.
Step Three: Get Feedback
Having typed “The End” on a first draft—and having madly yet responsibly celebrated that achievement—you now have the raw material on which you may Revise Your Way to Greatness.
But revision cannot happen in a vacuum. You need to let someone see—and critique—your first draft.
This brings vulnerability. Maybe you cannot endure it. In that case, forget about being a writer.
There is no choice but to open yourself to others. Or do you write only for your own private amusement?
Of course it’s hard. When we’ve poured our time, effort, and care into a story, it becomes our baby. We see all its beauties and none of its faults.
For this reason, any revision you may attempt before seeking outside opinions is guaranteed to be trivial. You may fix a typo, change a comma to a semicolon, or break one paragraph into two. Because when something is basically perfect, it needs only little tweaks to become fully perfect. Right?
Enter the outside critic.
That would be anybody but yourself. They go by many names: collaborator, writing group member, beta reader, consultant, developmental editor, spouse. All these sources of valuable feedback have one thing in common.
They are not you.
They offer a perspective you cannot attain on your own.
Here is what will happen: You will share your manuscript with an outside critic, trembling a bit lest your brilliant writing style go unappreciated. You will fear being asked to make your language a bit less flowery—or a bit more flowery.
Instead, you will find out that your reader did not even grasp what you were saying.
When you wrote “There was a Prussian cast to Emil’s appearance,” you assumed readers would have the impression of a stiff German soldier, maybe even wearing a spiky helmet. But then your actual reader says, “Why was his complexion blue?”
And speaking of Prussians, Field Marshal von Moltke said, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.”
But your “main hostile force” is not hostile at all. It is your reader, who only wants to understand. She wants you to succeed as an author, and all she asks is that you say what you mean, in a way she can understand. Is that so much to ask?
Well, yes. It is.
Our mother tongue is a marvelous thing. It includes thousands of words, each with multiple meanings. You must string words together in a way that conveys meaning without ambiguity. (We mean, without unintended ambiguity. Purposeful ambiguity is an advanced technique we shall not bother with here.)
It turns out—stupid as this seems—that the only way to avoid confusing your reader is to go ahead and confuse a few readers, but ask them to report back to you.
Writing for public consumption is like lobbing artillery shells over a distant horizon. Your first shots fall short, or long, or to left or right of the target. That’s why gunners use spotters—remote observers who report where the shell actually landed. Then they change their aim and shoot again.
That’s what you must do as an author.
Perhaps you noticed the use of the plural—readers, spotters, observers—in the paragraphs above. That’s because any one outside critic will only trip over a few of the obstacles you have put in the way of understanding. You need reports from several readers to find all, or even most, of them.
Bill Martinez, a veteran writing coach, calls obstacles of this sort “snags.” They snag the reader’s attention away from the story, to focus instead on some verbal tic or point of confusion. You want to eliminate as many snags as you can.
This kind of feedback is so essential to your success as a writer that you need systematic ways to solicit, interpret, and exploit it. We recommend a tiered approach such as the following:
A first reader. The very first person with whom you share your first draft. It could be your spouse—if your spouse is intelligent and supportive, yet unflinchingly honest—and if your marriage can survive such honest critiques.
Or your first reader could be someone else with those same qualities. Someone whose judgment you trust, whose views you cannot help but respect.
If you cannot find such a person, then skip the first reader. But if you are lucky enough to have a first reader, that person can save you time, effort, and embarrassment by short-circuiting your worst ideas before they go any further.
One (or more) writers’ group(s). You need to join a small group of writers—no more than a dozen or so—who meet regularly to read and critique one another’s work. Wherever there are writers, such groups exist.
Writers’ mutual critique groups are all different, but the ones that work well have some things in common: (1) They meet regularly, usually once or twice a month. (2) They have procedures to allot reading, critiquing, and discussion time fairly among members. (3) They operate in a collegial fashion, with members offering sharp, yet supportive, critiques. The guiding hand of a seasoned, congenial chairperson/convener can foster these goals.
When you find such a group, treasure it and respect its ethic. You may need to lurk for months on its fringes to gain familiarity and to inherit a slot in the rotation of works to be critiqued.
Whether you are new or well-established in the group: Speak respectfully. Don’t hog the conversation. Diligently read the other members’ work and contribute your two cents’ worth, orally or in writing, or both. As you learn to give criticism constructively, learn also to receive it the same way. There’s nothing wrong with defending your own methods. But don’t do so out of a knee-jerk reflex that blinds you to the benefit of others’ ideas.
If you can get into one such group, that’s great. If you can be in two, that’s even better.
Beta readers. When you have revised your first draft, based on feedback from your first reader and your writers’ group colleagues, you may feel the resulting second draft is in pretty good shape.
Disabusing you of that foolish notion is the task of a small corps of beta readers.
Beta readers agree to read your entire manuscript and give you feedback. Choose them for specific strengths they bring. One beta reader may be expert in a field related to your book’s content. Another may be a writer of strong, graceful prose. Another may have a special connection with your story’s main character. Yet another may know the publishing industry, or may simply be a person of rare perception and judgment.
“Sensitivity readers” are beta readers who can alert an author to passages that may offend readers based on racial or other group identities. People with such insights can be of value—their services may even be mandated by an agent or publisher—to avoid alienating large groups of readers.
The best beta readers are intelligent, unsparing, distinguised, and willing to work for free. Some beta readers, however, charge for their services. And their advice may be worth paying for. That’s a decision you will have to make.
When you get feedback on your work, what do you do with it?
Evaluate each comment. What’s it worth? Should you make a change, or stand pat?
Remember: You are the author. It’s your work.
Some notes you get will be well-meant but ill-founded. Thank the originator graciously and move on.
Some comments will strike right to the bone and force a deep reconsideration of your approach. Major revisions are a lot of work. But it’s better you received this feedback now, not later. The earlier you discover a problem, the better.
Most comments will fall between the two extremes just cited. You should consider them, but how seriously should you take them?
If you get the same comment from two or three sources, you must address the issue. It’s not one person’s isolated impression.
But there is a danger that revision may lead you away from your first intention. The larger the revision, the greater the danger of undermining your own creative impulse.
Here’s a conservative approach: Correct your draft in the least obtrusive way possible. That is, address the issue, but undercorrect slightly. You may enrich your narrative and short-circuit the snag, yet without changing the rhythm or purpose of your prose.
Eventually, your outside critics will change from “readers” to “editors.” This change is inevitable if your work is to be published.
If you achieve “traditional” publication, by a royalty-paying book publisher or an established periodical publication, your work will be assigned to an editor who works for the publisher. If your book will be self-published, then you will hire an editor to prepare the manuscript for publication. (You could skip this step, but we’re assuming you don’t want to publish a pile of crap. And no, we don’t believe that you—besides being the writer and the publisher—have the skills and objectivity to do a good job editing your own work.)
If your work is intended for traditional publication rather than self-publication, you may think you’ve escaped the need to pay for editing, since the publisher will do that. Well . . . maybe.
But if you send your work to agents and publishers, and you find that even those few who actually read the work are not impressed, then maybe you would benefit from hiring an editor for your own enlightenment.
There are, in general, two kinds of editors: developmental editors and line editors. A developmental editor will help you identify structural weaknesses—major problems of plot and characterization, if you’re a novelist, or of general organization, if you write nonfiction. You may resist, resent, or reject the feedback of a good developmental editor. His advice may send you back to the early stages of story development. You may need to rip out and and rewrite large sections. But if you receive his feedback with an open mind, you may find the extra work is warranted.
A line editor, also called a copy editor, will help you correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and conform the copy to all the requirements of the Chicago Manual of Style or other governing style guide. This is detail-oriented work, with which many writers have little patience. But if you submit a manuscript that falls short of the exacting standards of the publishing industry, its other merits may not be enough to save it.
In a Nutshell
Whether you get their services for free or need to pay, outside critics—be they first readers, writers’ group colleagues, beta readers, or professional editors—are an essential step on your path to publication.
We live in an abundance of riches. The literary world is flooded with so many good manuscripts that your work must be first-rate to attract any attention at all. There is no shame in admitting that you need feedback from others to make it so.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step Four: Associate”
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author