Seek out smart, thoughtful readers who will take notes on your work.
Believe it or not, one of the most difficult aspects of writing a book is getting honest feedback on your early drafts. Finding readers can be a difficult task in the first place, and even if you’re lucky enough to have achieved a level of popularity which simplifies that aspect, you’re still faced with the daunting task of weeding out the ones who can give you the criticism and critique that is so vital to redrafting (a process which I covered in my last blog entry). When you find someone who can give that kind of feedback — what I call a trusted reader — it’s like striking gold.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to cultivate a small but incredibly valuable group of trusted readers who I know will deliver honest, specific, unbiased feedback on early drafts of my work. This group includes a few old friends, a professional editor whose services I periodically employ, a select few internet friends, and my brilliant wife (who pulls no punches!). I am highly appreciative of all of these folks, and I place an extraordinary amount of value on my relationships with them. Quite simply: without their input, my work would suck.
When trusted readers give feedback, it’s the type of response that delves well beyond “I loved it” or “I hated it” (or even worse: dead silence). The Blood That Bonds has earned enough fans at this point that I could quickly put together a group of readers for subsequent projects, but not all of them would be able to provide the feedback I need. Make no mistake: I’m very glad that they’re out there! I love hearing from people who enjoy my work, and the rush of receiving an “I loved your book!” email has yet to wear off. I’m not sure it’s ever going to.
I’m just not always looking for that rush. In particular, when I’ve finished a first or even second draft, what I’m looking for is criticism. Hard, heavy criticism. Criticism that hurts, that makes me want to get defensive and start justifying my choices. Criticism that leaves me thinking, “Jesus … I guess I shouldn’t quit my day job just yet.” Not every reader is able to give that kind of criticism. A lot of readers don’t want to give that kind of criticism; they just want to enjoy the story!
The thing is: nothing gets better without criticism. This is why identifying and appreciating trusted readers is so vital to any author’s work. I’m not going to pretend that The Blood That Bonds is a work of high literary art, but it’s a hell of a lot better in its finished version than it was as a first draft. My friends Caryn and Josh pointed out glaring issues with that draft which required major rewrites in the second draft. My editor Lauren went over draft two with a critical eye, pointing out not only myriad typos and grammar errors, but also giving her input on plot, pacing, and characterization. These opinions were all invaluable.
I’m currently in the middle of a feedback round on two different books: The Broken God Machine (first draft) and Blood Hunt (second draft). In the case of the former, I’ve sent it out only to the specific few people mentioned above. In the case of the latter, I’m trying something new: in addition to sending it to my trusted readers, I held a contest and picked ten readers who said they wanted to read it and fill out a brief questionnaire once done. I’ve already received five responses, and all five have provided useful information! I may well consider using some or all of them as trusted readers on future projects. If you have existing fans, and aren’t terrified that they’ll leak your manuscript, I recommend giving something like this a shot.
Of course I can’t (and won’t) change every aspect of a book to suit the whims of everyone who comments on it. In the end, it’s my story, and certain plot details and character actions are set in stone. What I will do though is seriously consider everything they have to say, especially if more than one or two of the readers identify the same specific problem. Yes, it’s my book, but if some aspect of it’s not working for people, then that part probably needs to be either rethought, or rewritten to better accomplish whatever the goal was. This is the kind of invaluable information that can help you transform a rough first draft into a solid second draft, or take that second draft and build a polished manuscript that’s ready to be submitted to agents, editors, or publishers.
If you’re a writer, you need trusted readers. Without them, you’re going to have a very difficult time getting any kind of objective opinion on your drafts, and without those opinions, your work will never be as good as it could be. If you’re a reader, don’t be afraid to engage an author on a level beyond “I really enjoyed your book” … sending a thoughtful email with real critique in it might just land you the chance for an early look at new work. You’d be surprised how many talented authors, even ones who’ve been published before, are still actively looking for quality readers.