I’m a bit blue today: Blossom Dearie, one of my favorite jazz musicians, passed away last weekend. As remarkable for her arrangements and unusual touch on the piano as for her inimitable little-girl voice, US kids of my generation knew her best as sweet voice in the Schoolhouse Rock song about the 8x multiplication tables, Figure Eight. She also sang Unpack Your Adjectives and Mother Necessity.
So thank the lady, children: you may well know your eightsies because of her. Not to mention what to call those words you use to describe things.
Practically everybody in my elementary school did: my frequently-hysterical fourth-grade teacher used to slap Multiplication Rock onto the record player (remember those?) just prior to rushing into a corner to breathe into a bag until her most recent panic attack had passed. She had, Mama said, Problems At Home.
“Once Upon a Summertime,” “Rhode Island is Famous for You,” and “Peel Me a Grape” are perhaps my favorite songs in Blossom Dearie’s repertoire, but in general, her jazz is marvelous background accompaniment for writing, if you happen to like to write to literate and crisply-articulated lyrics. For the same reason, I often write to Joe Jackson, Jill Sobule, and Elvis Costello. Sometimes I want music that matches the mood of the scene I’m writing, but if I’m on a long writing jag, I prefer lyrics that will occasionally catch me off-guard. Sometimes outright opposition is best. Jerzy Kosinski claimed that he wrote the entirety of his underrated novel PINBALL, a story that deals with both rock-and-roll and the difficulties of playing Chopin, while listening to the punk band the Dead Kennedys — but given his ever-varying accounts of his life, how can we ever be sure?
It’s interesting to look back on the Kosinski scandal from the midst of the current crop of literary scandals, mostly memoirs that turn out not to be entirely based upon fact. Accused at one point of plagiarism (most often for allegedly having borrowed the premise of a Polish novel written before the advent of television as the basis for BEING THERE, a comedy about a man who cannot tell the difference between what he sees on television and reality), the most enduring critique of his writing is that he didn’t actually live through the events he depicted in THE PAINTED BIRD. Instead of being an abandoned feral child during the Second World War, he may have in fact merely been cowering somewhere with his family.
That’s right: he stands accused of having written fiction. In a novel, no less, the cad.
But I digress: I started out eulogizing Blossom Dearie — her real name, we’re told. If we can believe anything we see in print anymore, that is — and lo and behold, I seem to have fallen back into the cynicism about artistic veracity that’s so fashionable these days.
There’s a good reason for this subject to keep popping to mind in the midst of this series on finding useful feedback. Believe it or not — the latter, most likely, in the current environment — the ever-roiling tension between objective truth, subjective perception, and just plain making things up is important to consider with respect to our topic at hand.
Why? Well, if you’re going to take the major emotional risk of handing your manuscript to another human being (and one who can’t help you get it published at that) for commentary, don’t you want that feedback to be honest?
Honest feedback is not the only kind out there, you know. As I’ve kept harping upon throughout this series, a writer’s nearest and dearest often cares too much about the author to tell the absolute truth about her reactions as a reader — or even to form genuinely trenchant criticisms in the first place — because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. (I know: the cad!) Or because, having birth to the writer, she is predisposed to find everything he does semi-miraculous.
My point is, it’s not wise to use it as one’s only source of unbiased feedback because, well, it isn’t. No disrespect to your mother intended.
A reluctance to be entirely straightforward is not necessarily the sole province of the people who love one, either. Little white lies are, after all, a rather pervasive social lubricant, a most effective one. Most of the time, they do little harm; no real social good would be served, for instance, by telling the apparently color-blind guy across the street that God did not intend for some colors of shirt and sweater to be worn together, or by informing the jolly celebrant of every holiday, no how minor, that her special Arbor Day commemorative sweatshirt is in fact quite hideous. A non-committal “Mmmm” has saved many a social situation from degenerating into a quarrel.
When a writer is trying to elicit feedback on her manuscript, however, a non-committal “Mmmm” is not only totally useless; it’s maddening. So is the vague, “Oh, I liked it,” that everyday etiquette would dictate is a nicer response than, “I lost interest in the middle of Chapter Two.”
The problem is, if slowness in Chapter Two is actually the manuscript’s main stumbling-block, the writer absolutely needs to know that.
I’m sensing some puzzlement out there, amn’t I? “So what are you suggesting, Anne?” the confused many inquire. “That I should march up to the rudest person I know and beg him to read my manuscript? That pleasing social skills should disqualify someone from being my first reader?”
Not at all. Although I could see where an inborn lack of concern for other people’s feelings might render Millicent the agency screener’s job a bit easier.
What I am suggesting is that it’s in every writer’s best interest to track down first readers who can be counted upon to read carefully — and to tell the truth about their reactions to what they have read.
So how do you figure out whether a potential first reader is likely to do that? By asking some probing questions BEFORE you ask someone to read your manuscript. For starters, how about ascertaining a potential first reader’s reading habits, to see if she is familiar with your genre? Or finding out if s/he even LIKES your type of book?
Which is, I can tell you from long experience, information that many people who ask to see a friend’s manuscript will almost certainly not offer spontaneously if you DON’T ask. And even fewer will cough up the news that they seldom read anything longer than a magazine article, even if asked.
No need to be rude in pressing your inquiries: “So, what do you like to read?” is usually sufficient. If not, “Can you tell me about the last book you absolutely loved, as well as the last you absolutely hated, and why?” often produces a perfect flood of insight into a reader’s personal literary taste.
You may feel as though you are conducting a job interview, but honestly, you will be trusting your first readers to hold a significant part of your ego in their hands. You wouldn’t trust your teeth to a dentist without credentials or previous mouth-related experience, would you? Are the nerve endings in your mouth really more sensitive than your feelings about your writing?
You need not give potential readers the third degree, of course; just take ’em out for coffee and spend half an hour chatting about books.
This is also a pretty good strategy to adopt with members of any writing group you are thinking about joining, incidentally. How a person speaks about her literary likes and dislikes will tell you a lot about whether you’re going to benefit from spending the next few years swapping chapters — it can be far more informative than reading a writing sample. Writers tend to harbor pretty strong literary preferences, after all, and the ability to convey useful critique (as opposed to mere sniping) is not…how shall I say this?…distributed equally across the population.
Besides, do you really want to entrust your manuscript to someone who positively hates your favorite book?
Having this little chat will make it significantly easier for you to implement my next suggestion: seek out feedback from people in your book’s target audience, rather than readers in general. Someone with a deep and abiding love of your kind of book is not only far more likely to be able to identify certain types of problems in your manuscript — defying the conventions of the genre, for instance — than someone who has read only a couple of similar books, but is also significantly more likely to tell you the truth about it.
Why? Because an inveterate reader’s devotion to her favorite kind of book usually overrides her impulse to sugar-coat her response. She wants your book to be as shining an example of the genre as you do.
Be as specific as you can in identifying your target readership. I know an excellent children’s book illustrator who, every time she finishes a rough draft, routinely hangs out with her sketchpad in the picture book sections of bookstores, stopping every kid she sees to ask if the pictures she has just completed match the captions well enough.
The result: she gets TERRIFIC feedback, from precisely the right people, not one of whom has any formal affiliation with the publishing industry — and she gets it for free.
I’m hearing a bit of grumbling out there. “But Anne,” some of you point out indignantly, “isn’t it my agent and publisher’s job to figure out who is going to buy my book? I’m the creative side of the equation, remember?”
Yes, yes, I know: you’re a writer, not a marketer; it’s the publishing house’s job to figure out how to reach your target audience. And technically, it was Jerzy Kosinski’s publisher’s job to do a little fact-checking before they started marketing THE PAINTED BIRD as thinly-veiled memoir. But guess who gets hurt if that research stage is omitted?
If you are writing for ultimate publication, rather than for your own pleasure, it can only help your chances of success to learn to look critically at your own work, see it as a reader would, and implement that view.
In other words, if you’re writing for fish, you should take into account the view from inside the fishbowl.
On a practical level, too, your chances of pitching and querying your work well will rise astronomically if you give some thought to who your ideal reader might be BEFORE you start submitting your work. Especially with nonfiction, it will definitely win Brownie points with anyone in the industry to be able to say, “I’ve solicited extensive feedback from women aged 35 to 50″ (or whatever demographic fits your ideal reader) “and they find my protagonist’s dilemma both unique and true-to-life.”
A word to the wise, though: when speaking to industry insiders, be as specific as humanly possible in describing your demographic. “Women everywhere,” “every American citizen,” and “everybody,” while popular choices, do not come across to agents and editors as reasonable target audiences. Hyperbole will not serve you well here.
Why? Well, they know from personal experience that no single book appeals to everybody.
Do I hear some murmurs of discontent now? “Wait just a demographic-describing minute,” I hear some observant souls calling. “You’re shifting the focus of the question. So far in this series, you’ve been talking about who does and doesn’t make a good first reader. Throughout this post, though, we’ve moved from a question of who might be willing to do it into a question of how to find what the BOOK needs.”
I cannot tell a lie: that shift was not entirely coincidental. The single biggest mistake I see good aspiring writers make in seeking feedback is to forget that the feedback process is not about helping the writer per se, but about helping the manuscript.
To be blunt about it, if you intend to become a professional in this field, your primary goal in soliciting feedback should not be bolstering your ego. That’s what your support system is for, and there is absolutely no shame in saying to those who love you best, or even your best writing friends, “Look, I can get critique from other people, but you are uniquely qualified to give me support. May I give you the job of cheerleader, rather than drill sergeant?”
Your book, however, probably could use a workout with a good drill sergeant. Perhaps the one who lives in that nice fishbowl.
More tips on finding truthful feedback-givers follow next time. For now, I’m going to put my feet up and sing along with my Blossom Dearie records.
Keep up the good work!