On beyond pushy

Hey, I’ve got a great idea for how to while away a long, dark winter’s evening: why not put together your entry for this fine blog’s Holiday Table contest? You may use any style you like — 8-line poem, play, novel excerpt, short story… Just keep it under 10 pages (standard format), and make sure it shows a holiday feast more interesting than the standard, saccharine, TV-movie version we so often see. Show us some drama; show us some comedy; show us some pathos. Heck, go ahead and show us some bathos, but for heaven’s sake, send in your entry (via the COMMENTS function, below) by December 15. Full directions in my post of November 24. Fame, if not fortune, awaits.

I’ve been writing all week about steps you can take to improve the feedback you get from non-professional first readers — for those of you just tuning in, that’s any pre-publication reader for your book who is not paid to give you feedback.

In other words, the vast majority of first readers.

Tip #8 advised you to give your first readers a list of questions, preferably in writing, at the same time as giving them the manuscript. That way, you will get your most important questions answered, and less experienced first readers will have the guidance they need to keep from floundering about in the text, desperately searching for something helpful to say.

Several of my loyal, intelligent, devoted readers have already informed me that they find Tip #8 far and away the most distasteful of the lot. They consider it pushy, if not downright presumptuous: empathetic souls, they feel that such a list implies doubt about the first readers’ reading ability, if not actual intelligence.

If anything beyond “Just tell me what you think” feels overly dictatorial to you, consider this: there is not a literary contest in the world that does not provide written instructions to its judges on how to evaluate contest entries. Those famous writers that you see touted in POETS & WRITERS routinely follow precisely the kind of lists Tip #8 suggests. Literary assistants at agencies are almost invariably handed lists of desirable traits to seek as they read through submissions, as well as lists of criteria for instantaneous rejection. If professional readers work along pre-set guidelines, why should amateur readers be expected to perform the same task without guidance?

To turn the question around, haven’t you ever noticed how first readers new to the task almost always have difficulty giving specific feedback, even if they loved the book? Haven’t you noticed how they tend to freak out a little if they are asked pointed questions?

As a former professor, I can tell you exactly what that panicked flash in their eyes means: it’s the fight-or-flight response of a student suddenly tested on material he thought would not be on the test. From the unguided reader’s POV, being grilled by an anxious author is like a pop quiz on material read for fun. Nip this anxiety in the bud: give your first readers a study guide, so they’ll know what’s going to be on the test.

Do you remember that professor in college or that teacher in high school who used to madden you at exam time with vague questions, ones so broad that they essentially invited you to spill out every minor fact you had managed to memorize? “Compare and contrast the Renaissance with the Middle Ages,” for instance, or “Was the League of Nations a good idea?” Or the ever-popular ploy of giving you a quote, and asking you to relate it to the reading — here’s a doozy

“There is no ‘objective’ or universal tone in literature, for however long we have been told here is. There is only the white, middle-class male tone.” — Carolyn Heilbrun, WRITING A WOMAN’S LIFE

Relate this quote to the works of Jane Austen, Dave Barry, Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, Anaïs Nin, Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, and Marvel Comics. Use specific examples.

Students look at this sort of question and wish that they would be struck by bolts of lightning — which, in essence, they have. “What the heck does “relate” mean in this context?” they wonder, surreptitiously sharpening their pencils into weapons of mayhem.

I like to call this the “what color am I thinking?” school of test-giving.

My dissertation advisor used to favor rambling quarter-page ruminations on the nature of politics, without ever articulating a question she desired students to answer. My high school biology teacher, more vague than most, simply walked into class on the day of our big plant life exam, handed each of us a three-foot-long stretch of butcher paper, and told us, “Show me everything you know about plants.” Was it an invitation to draw lilies for an hour, or an entreaty to write haiku? No one knew until after the exams were graded.

It drove you nuts in school, right? Well, first readers given no guidance by the authors who have handed them manuscripts often feel as annoyed and helpless as you felt when faced with those kind of vague exam questions, especially if they’ve never read a manuscript (as opposed to a book) before. The format is substantially different, for one thing (if that’s a surprise to you, don’t worry: I shall post a refresher on standard format soon), and let’s face it, it’s an intimidating thing to be faced with the task of evaluating the creative output of someone’s soul.

For the reader who is not also a writer, the implied obligation not only to point out problems but to suggest viable solutions can be completely overwhelming. All too often, the reader gets so intimidated at the prospect of providing creative advice that he simply gives no feedback at all — or just keeps putting off reading the manuscript. Alternatively, other readers will run in the other direction, treating every typo as though it were evidence that you should never write another word as long as you live. All of these outcomes will make you unhappy, and might not produce the type of feedback you need.

Following Tip #8 will decrease everyone’s stress levels — and providing written parameters for criticism at the same time that you hand over your manuscript is an easy way to minimize the potential for future misunderstandings. Even just one or two questions will be helpful to your reader.

There’s no need to turn it into a major research project, or to inundate your readers with ten-page lists of questions. Stick to a simple 1-2 pp. questionnaire about the book, highlighting the areas you feel could use some work. (For the sake of your ego, it’s also a good idea to include questions about parts that you know you have pulled off well.) I like to call this the “what color am I thinking of?” school of test-giving.

Be as specific as you can — questions along the lines of “What did you think of my protagonist?” tend to elicit less helpful responses than “Was there any point in the book where you felt the tension lapsed? At what point did you feel most interested in the plot?” I always like to add some offbeat questions, to make the process more amusing for the reader: “Did anything in the book make you laugh out loud?” and “What in the plot surprised you most?” can provoke some interesting responses.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of a questionnaire, make a few specific requests, either verbally or in writing. Verbally, I have found that coupling very pointed suggestions with compliments works best:

“You’re always so good at foreseeing plot twists in movies — what do you think I could do to make my book’s plot more astonishing?”

“You’re the best cook I know — I would really appreciate it if you would keep an eye out for sensual details that did or did not work. Did I bring in the senses of smell and taste enough?”

Remember, this is an exercise in getting you the feedback YOU need, so the more honest you can be with yourself and your first readers, the better. If you are feeling insecure, it is completely legitimate to say:

“Look, this is my baby, and I’m nervous about it. Yes, I would love it if you flagged all of the typos you saw, but what I think would help me most is if you told me what is GOOD about my book.”

And finally, all throughout the process, observe Tip #9: Be hugely grateful for your first readers’ help.

Yes, I know, I sound like your mother (are you sitting up straight?), but honestly, this is a situation where politeness really pays. Here is a wonderful person who has — for reasons of friendship, bribery, or idle curiosity — agreed to devote many, many hours of her time to giving your manuscript a good, hard reading. She has let you blandish her into that most difficult and dangerous of tasks, telling the truth to a friend.

If that’s not an occasion for sending some flowers, I should like to know what is.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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