THAT’S how dark it is up Seattle way these days, my friends: I took this picture at noon, and still the cats were battling for time in front of the lightbox. (As was, apparently, a small cactus, but that’s another story.)
Throughout this series, I have been examining various possibilities for finding non-professional (read: unpaid) feedback for your book before you send it out to agents and editors. The timing is not entirely accidental, of course: as I had mentioned several times before year’s end, the first three weeks of any new year are NOT a good time for either querying or submission.
Blame all of those New Year’s resolutions to send out materials: the volume of incoming mail in your garden-variety agency increases exponentially this time of year.
By Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — that’s January 21, for those of you outside the U.S. — however, most of those resolvers will have run out of steam. (I’m not being negative about good intentions; the average New Year’s resolution lasts a touch over three weeks.) Shortly thereafter, Millicent’s cohort of intrepid agency screeners will have dug themselves out from under the piles on their desks by doing what they do best: rejecting as many queries and submissions as quickly as they can.
Grumpily. It’s not the best time to query or submit.
Spend your time revising instead — and seeking out good feedback. Better still, try pulling together a team of first readers capable of catching a lot of different kinds of problems AND identifying your book’s strengths.
I’m not just talking about crackerjack fellow writers here. I’m also referring to readers in your target demographic.
Not to knock writers’ groups, of course: if the mix is right, they can be marvelous sources of trenchant feedback. But every group is different, and often, groups are organized on the basis of friendship or general affinity, rather than shared genre or level of writing experience.
All of these factor are worth considering because, let’s face it, not every talented writer may be the best choice to offer critique on a particular book, any more than any given agent or editor would be the right fit for it.
What you are seeking here is a specialist who can diagnose your book’s problems and prescribe workable solutions. Which means, alas, that even a critique group made up of the most brilliant, cutting-edge, eagle-eyed writers won’t necessarily yield the best feedback for your work.
After all, just because a writer is intelligent and knows a lot about craft doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s familiar with the specific likes and dislikes of a target demographic other than his own, or that a great nonfiction writer would necessarily be able to pinpoint the problems in a novel.
Admittedly, whenever any two writers are exchanging manuscripts for critique, lack of agreement upon what is and isn’t fair game for criticism can lead to trouble, but in a group, advance discussion of goals is even more imperative. If the mix of philosophies is not right — if, for instance, various members are writing in genres with wildly disparate conventions, such as literary fiction and mystery — or if members have different ideas about how much feedback is appropriate, being a member can be more frustrating than empowering.
I could give you literally hundreds of specific examples, but I don’t want to tell tales out of school. Suffice it to say that as an editor, I constantly get queries from potential clients whose creative NF is being ripped apart by the novelists in their critique groups, whose mysteries are being dismissed as characterization-light by literary fiction writers, whose romances aimed at the under-20 set are garnering frowns from the over-60s.
Considering how widely book categories and reading tastes can vary, this is perhaps not entirely surprising.
In the early stages of the writing process, when you are concentrating on story and structure, intra-group differences may be minimal, but if I had a dime for every memoirist who was told by advocates of tight first-person fiction to scrap any effort at objectivity, or women’s fiction writers told by thriller writers to add more sex and violence to the book, I would own my own publishing house.
Where I would publish all of your work, naturally. Perhaps I should start soliciting those dimes.
Writers’ groups can also become a bit stale over time, as members become inured to one another’s literary foibles and quirks. Resentment over past advice not taken can certainly add up as the months go by (for a really good example of this, please see the comments on Part II of this series), and it’s not uncommon for heavy commenters and light commenters to mutter under their breath at one another’s habits.
Not to mention how easy it is to find oneself starting to cater to the tastes of one’s writer’s group. No wonder some pros advise changing critique groups often, or joining more than one.
Am I suggesting that? Well, I might, if I thought you had more time on your hands. But frankly, most of the aspiring writers I know would have considered themselves lucky to be able to grab two consecutive hours for revision during the recent holiday season. Adding yet another time commitment (and if you hold up your end, a writers’ group can be a very serious one) may not be possible for everyone.
So I’m going to streamline my advice a bit. If you are a member of a writers’ group, and you feel that you have not been getting overly useful feedback on your work, you might want to consider whether its members actually are in your target demographic — and if they are not, either switching groups or adding a few outside readers to your feedback team.
As when you are considering any potential first reader, set aside for the moment whether you like the people in your group, or whether you respect them, or whether they have already published books outside your field. Look very carefully at their respective backgrounds and ask yourself: are these the kind of people I expect to buy my book? If they did not know me, would they buy it at all?
If the answer to either is no, go out and find some people who are and will, pronto.
Where should you start looking, you ask? Well, last time, I brought up the notion of approaching readers in your book’s target demographic who might NOT currently be die-hard book-buyers: a third-grade classroom’s worth of potential readers for a children’s book, for instance, or followers of a sport featured prominently in your novel.
This advice may have seemed a tad counter-intuitive: in an earlier post, I had advised getting feedback from inveterate readers of your chosen genre or field, who would already be familiar with the conventions, limitations, and joys possible in books like yours. All of which, of course, can be highly useful background for a critiquer.
Yet it’s also worth considering adding at least one first reader who isn’t a hard-core reader to your team as well. Getting feedback from those who do not read voraciously can sometimes give a writer great insight unavailable from any other source.
Why? Well, in marketing terms, if you can make a case that your book is ideally suited to address the under-served needs of your target demographic — in essence, that it provides those readers with something no recent book aimed at them delivers — that’s a marvelous selling point.
Feedback from folks actually in the demographic will, obviously, provide you with tips on how to achieve that admirable goal. This is especially true if you write nonfiction, as you will need to give details in your book proposal about who your target readers are and how you intend to reach them.
And you can stop rolling your eyes, fiction writers: these days, nonfiction writers are not the only ones expected to be able to say who is likely to read their books and why. Gone are the days when a writer could get away with a shrug and a dismissive, “Anyone interested in literature, I suppose.”
Let’s say you’ve written a lifestyle book for former high school athletes who no longer exercise — a rather large slice of the population, or so I would surmise from the fact that at my last high school reunion, a good two-thirds of my former female classmates seemed to be married to men who answered this description. Three of your five chapters are filled with recipes for fiber-filled bran muffins, salads, and trail mix. Where would you turn for first readers?
Naturally, because you paid attention to an earlier post in this series, you would want to include among your first readers someone familiar with cookbooks, as well as someone who reads a lot of exercise books, right? They would represent the parts of your target market who already buy books like yours.
It would also be well worth your while to seek out jocks from your old high school who have never opened either a cookbook or exercise book before, because they are the underserved part of your target market. In theory, if you can tailor your book’s advice so it makes abundant sense for your old volleyball buddy, you’ll know you have a good shot at writing for people like her.
Hey, you might as well get SOME use from all of those nagging messages Classmates.com keeps sending you about getting back in touch with old playmates, right?
Which leads me to my next tip: find different readers to meet your book’s different needs.
Most of us would like to think that anything we write will invariably touch any given reader, but in actuality, that’s seldom the case. I, for instance, am no fan of golf (I dislike plaid in virtually all of its manifestations), and thus would be a terrible first reader for a book about any of its multifarious aspects. But remember my buddy Mary Hutchings Reed, one of the authors kind enough to let me interview her on the ups and downs of self-publishing a few weeks back? She is an avid golfer, so much so that she’s written a terrific musical on the subject, FAIRWAYS, currently gracing your better country clubs across the nation.
Let me ask you: given the choice between a reader predisposed toward a subject and one who isn’t, which is more likely to get into a book about it deeply enough to give good feedback? Perhaps more to the point, which is more likely to take time out of her busy schedule to do you the favor of giving your book a close read, gratis? (None of this should be construed as my urging you to send Mary your golfing manuscripts, incidentally.)
Nor is it often the case that we happen to have an array of first readers easily at our disposal — although, again, if you join a well-constructed writers’ group, you will in fact have gained precisely that. In the absence of such a preassembled group, though, you can still cobble together the equivalent, if you think long and hard about what individual aspects of your book could use examination.
Once you’ve identified these needs, you can ask each of your chosen readers to read very explicitly with an eye to her own area of expertise, so to speak.
In the lifestyle book example above, it was easy to see how readers from different backgrounds could each serve the book: the cookbook reader could evaluate the recipes, the former athlete could comment on the ease of the exercises, and so forth. With fiction, however, the book’s various needs may be harder to define.
In a pinch, you can always fall back on finding a reader in the same demographic as your protagonist, or even a particular character — specialized readers can be a positive boon to a writer seeking verisimilitude. If a major character is an accountant, try asking an accountant to read the book for professional accuracy. I know many teenagers who get a HUGE kick out of critiquing adult writers’ impressions of what teenage characters are like. And so forth.
Even if you are writing about vampires or fantasy creatures, chances are that some regular Joes turn up in your stories from time to time. If only as soon-to-be-sucked-dry victims.
Naturally, another writer will probably give you more feedback on craft than the sculptor you asked to give his opinion on the use of clay in the book, but what’s wrong with that? You’re assembling a team of specialists, not looking for an all-wise, all-knowing single critiquer.
What does all of this have to do with the cat sitting in front of the lightbox, you ask? Your guess is as good as mine. As always, keep up the good work!