Getting good feedback, part VIII: more thoughts on timing — and a book that might help you name your characters


Before I launch back into my ongoing series on how to find good feedback for your writing, I have some joyful news to report: Askhari Johnson Hodari’s extraordinarily useful and interesting The African Book of Names, published by HCI Books, has just arrived in bookstores all over North America.

Why am I more excited about this book’s release than, say, the many others that came out this week? Well, in the first place (and in the interests of full disclosure), Askhari happens to be a friend of mine; we met at my favorite writer’s retreat of all time, the now unfortunately departed Norcroft. At Norcroft, the brainchild of mystery writer and generous soul Joan Drury, we resident artists were expected to take our work so seriously that we all operated under a vow of silence until 4 pm each day — which in my case, since I usually write in the evenings, frequently meant not speaking until 10 or 11. Which, throughout the course of a month-long residency, adds up to a whole lot of mime time.

But the fact that this book was written by the person who taught me how to build a fire successfully — while neither of us were speaking, no mean feat — is not the only reason I’m so pleased to announce its release to the Author! Author! community, or even the primary one. While this book is being marketed primarily to parents-to-be seeking names for imminent children, I think it’s going to make an additional mark as a tremendously useful book for writers.

After all, who names more people than a writer?

We’re constantly having to come up with monikers for characters — and, as we’ve discussed on this forum, it’s not always easy to come up with a name that simultaneously rings true for the character, is memorable, and looks good on the page. The right name not only identifies a character: it is integral to both the author’s and the reader’s conception of her.

Should anyone out there seriously doubt that, try this test: walk into any writers’ conference and ask all of the novelists present to raise their hands. Then ask everyone who hasn’t changed a character’s name midway through writing a book and felt differently about that character afterward to lower hers. Sometimes, not a hand in the room budges.

Askhari’s book is a wonderful place to seek out the perfect name for a character of African or African-American (or African-anywhere-else, for that matter), but it’s got a lot more to offer than the lists of names and meanings offered by the baby name books that writer so frequently troll for ideas. Yes, there are lists, but they’re organized regionally, to make it easy to find not just an African name, but a name from a particular part of Africa, from Angola to Zimbabwe. For a writer trying to establish the background of a character, this is an invaluable reference.

And that checklist of naming dos and don’ts might come in very handy.

The book also provides a great deal of insight into the technique and importance of naming — something that we don’t talk about much culturally, but a topic that will surely resonate with every writer who has ever thought, “Oh, the name I’m using just isn’t right.” I’ve been brainstorming character names for most of my life, having grown up around writers constantly searching for the apt one, and I kept finding myself saying as I read, “Oh, that hadn’t occurred to me.”

In short, this is a book that I’m definitely going to keep close to my writing desk for the foreseeable future.

Since we’re already on the subject of naming — always a topic that spurs a lot of interest on this blog, I notice — would you do me a wee favor? Over the next week, will you give some thought to how you go about picking names for your characters, what problems you have encountered, and how you have resolved them?

Why spend a week pondering it? Because I have a treat in store for you: next weekend, Askhari is going to visit Author! Author! to share some tips on how to go about it.

I’m looking forward to a very lively discussion, aren’t you?

See what I just did? Because I sincerely want to hear what all of you have to say on the subject, I didn’t just spring the question upon you or assume that you had leisure at your disposal to elaborate upon your experiences right now. Instead, I gave you fair warning that I would be asking your opinion a week from now, so that you would have time to think about it as your no doubt busy schedule permits.

As I asked you to consider yesterday, do the first readers you ask to give you feedback on your manuscript deserve less consideration?

At the risk of sounding like your mother (again), unless you are being airlifted to a trauma center, it’s seldom the best strategy to assume that other people are going to drop whatever they’re doing to pay attention to you. Not only isn’t it particularly polite — and courtesy is always due to anyone who is doing you a favor, right? — but it’s unrealistic.

To coin a phrase, people are busy.

Particularly, as I may have mentioned seventy or eighty times before, the fine folks who read manuscripts for a living. Aspiring writers who have just received requests to submit their first 50 pages almost invariably forget this, but the requesting agent or editor already has others stacked up waist-high next to her desk, waiting for her to have time to read them; so many, in fact, that they’re probably already routinely taking them home to read in their off-duty hours.

Translation: they’re not going to clear their schedules to read your 50 pages the nanosecond your submission packet arrives. Expecting them to do so, as hopeful submitters so frequently do, only leads to bitten-down fingernails, sleepless nights, and a self-destructive urge to call the agency a week after the packet arrived to demand what’s taking so %^&&^%$%! long.

Which everyone reading this already knows not to do, right? Right?

The same impulses tend to kick in after a writer has passed along a manuscript to a first reader, especially if the writer and the feedback giver did not synchronize their timing expectations in advance. Because the manuscript is so important to the writer, he often assumes — mistakenly — that the reader will more or less clear her schedule in order to read it regardless of whether he has actually asked her to do so. In his mind, he didn’t need to say so; what writer wouldn’t want to know right away whether the person he has entrusted with the dearest work of his soul liked it or not?

Of course, we want to know how our work impresses readers. We’re in this to communicate.

Just because that writer still hasn’t heard back by six weeks (or months, or years) later, his desire to know he has touched his reader probably hasn’t disappeared; it’s probably hardened into anger. Or, as often the case when an agent is slow to respond, into the writer’s feverishly constructing scenarios to explain why he hasn’t heard back. The reader’s reluctance to tell him that Chapter 3 should be cut altogether, for instance, or some sort of natural disaster. Perhaps the reader’s entire neighborhood has been quarantined for measles, preventing outgoing mail, and the commented-upon manuscript is languishing in the mailbox on the corner. Maybe the first reader submitted the book to an agent as her own work, and at this very minute, literati in some posh Manhattan loft are toasting your purloined book as the biggest hit since JAWS.

Some of you are shaking your heads ruefully right now, remembering past sleepless nights, aren’t you? Yesterday, when I was discussing the desirability of setting time limits for your first readers, I’m quite sure I heard some chuckles of recognition out there. We writers have an inborn ability to spin stories, after all.

What doesn’t make a good story, and thus seldom occurs to the waiting writer in those dark hours, is the single most likely possibility: he hasn’t heard back because that first reader hasn’t yet read the manuscript.

Which actually isn’t all that surprising, if the feedback-seeker did not have the foresight to set up a return date in advance. Unfortunately, to non-writers — i.e., the very folks that most aspiring writers neither involved in critique groups nor already committed to an agent or editor tend to select to give feedback on their work — the urgency of the situation may be far from self-evident. They may not even be aware that the writer is waiting for feedback. If the writer hasn’t told them otherwise, they may — and often do — treat the manuscript like any other book they brought home to read: something to look forward to enjoying when they have the time.

These facts are stressful to face, I know. If you find yourself hyperventilating, try breathing into a paper bag.

The important thing to remember is that lax first readers rarely delay in order to torture writers; like everyone else, they’re usually just busy — and easily distracted. Even if curiosity drives them to start reading the manuscript right away, chances are that the demands of the lives they were leading immediately prior to agreeing to read the book — small matters like going to work, eating dinner, maintaining relationships with their partners and children, and other frivolities — are not going to evaporate. Which means, in practice, that at some point, that first reader is going to want or need to put that book aside and turn his attention to something else.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Newton’s First Law of Motion could predict what is likely to happen next.

For those of you encountering Newton for the first time (Newton, meet writer; writer, meet Newton), an object in motion tends to remain in motion unless an outside force acts upon it; an object at rest tends to remain at rest. Or, as applied to manuscripts, while a reader is absorbed in a narrative, she tends to keep reading — until something else in her life intervenes. The phone ringing, for instance, or the necessity of getting the kids to school on time. Once she’s set down the manuscript, however, it takes more energy to pick it up again than to have kept reading in the first place.

And that, in case you had been wondering, is how feedback-seeking writers end up gnawing their nails in the dead of night, wondering what on earth could have been wrong with their manuscripts to cause their first readers to hold onto them for three months without saying anything. Most of the time, the delay has nothing to do with the manuscript itself: just as when agents and editors are slow to respond, the usual reason is that the first reader hasn’t yet gotten around to finishing the book.

An object at rest tends to remain at rest.

The less polished a manuscript is — generally meaning, from a non-writer’s point of view, the less like a published book — the more likely an inexperienced first reader is to set it aside, meaning to get back to it later. Also, the less prepared she is for the task at hand, the more likely she is to put off reading further until she can commit some serious time to it.

I can already feel my long-time readers smiling out there, anticipating what’s coming next, and I assure you, it doesn’t have anything to do with the laws of physics. Yes, you’re quite right: it’s time once again for our annual visit from Gladys, clueless first reader extraordinaire.

(Doesn’t that name help establish a strong mental picture of her? Would you be picturing the same character if I had named her Margaret?)

I’m always glad to reintroduce Gladys, because like so many kind souls who befriend writers, she just had no idea what she was getting herself into when she said, “Oh, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” Faced with a five-pound stack of paper and the abrupt realization that she’s expected to say something intelligent about it, she feels understandably overwhelmed.

Yes, overwhelmed, perhaps to the point of panic. As I have pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, for a non-writer — or for a not-very experienced-writer, even — being handed a manuscript and asked for feedback can be awfully intimidating. Yet in a publishing environment where agents and editors simply do not have the time to give in-depth (or often even single-line) responses to queries, writers hit up friends like Gladys who burble requests to read without knowing whereat they speak.

Friends like Gladys are all too often too polite to say no or, heaven help us, think that giving feedback on a manuscript-in-progress is a jaunty, light-hearted, casual affair, as simple and easy as reading a book on a beach.

To be fair, writers proud of their own work and expecting people to plop down good money in bookstores for it frequently share this assumption. A sharp learning curve awaits both parties. At least the writer is aware that some commentary over and above, “Gee, I liked it,” is expected. A reader who is not also a writer may well be unaware of that salient fact.

Gladys isn’t. Never occurred to her.

Imagine her surprise, then, when she starts reading, spots problems — and realizes that the writer might genuinely have expected her not to be a passive consumer of prose, but an active participant in the creative process. Imagine her surprise when she is asked not just to identify what she dislikes about the book, but also to come up with suggestions about what she’d like better.

Imagine her surprise, in short, when she learns that it’s actual work. (Hey, there’s a reason that people like me get paid for doing it.)

“Oh, come on,” I hear some feedback-seekers out there mutter. “I didn’t ask Gladys to edit my book. All I want to know is what she thinks of it. She can’t even manage to tell me that, after she asked to read it?”

I understand your frustration, oh mutterers, but pause for a second and think about the position of a friend impressed into first reader duty: how clearly did her writer friend explain what he was asking her to do? Chances are, Gladys committed herself to reading the manuscript without quite realizing the gravity of the offer — or perhaps not even that she’d made a promise at all.

Stop laughing. From a non-writer’s perspective, “Oh, I’d love to read your work sometime” is not necessarily an actual invitation to share a manuscript.

Honest — for most people, it’s just a polite thing to say in response to the news that an acquaintance is a writer. Among ordinary mortals, a conversational “I can’t wait to read it!” may most safely be translated as “I’m trying to be supportive of you,” “I’m looking forward to your being famous, so I can say I knew you when,” and/or “I have no idea what I should say to an aspiring writer,” rather than as, “I am willing to donate hours and hours of my time to helping you succeed.”

This is why, in case you were wondering, the Gladyses of the world (Gladioli?) are so often nonplused when a writer to whom they have expressed such overtly welcoming sentiments actually shows up on their doorsteps, manuscript in hand. She doesn’t like to say no — but by the time she has read enough to notice that the protagonist’s sister is named Theresa in Chapters 1, 4, and 6, but Teresa in Chapters 2, 3, and 5 (an UNBELIEVABLY common phenomenon, incidentally) and realize that she should have started taking notes the first time she spotted it, it’s a trifle late to be telling her friend that she just doesn’t have time to help him out, isn’t it?

Poor Gladys was just trying to be nice — and that got her into trouble. For the sake of Gladys and every well-meaning soul like her, please consider adhering to my next tip:

Make sure that your first readers fully understand IN ADVANCE what you expect them to do — and that no matter how gifted a writer you may happen to be, reading to give feedback necessarily involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book.

Do I hear members of good critique groups shouting, “Amen!” out there in the ether?

As those of us who have been in the position of feedback-giver can attest, it’s not enough just to be able to spot the problems in the text — the additional challenge is to be able to phrase the requisite critique gently enough that it will not hurt the writer’s feelings, yet forcefully enough for him to understand why changing the text might be a good idea.

In other words, it’s a hard enough challenge for those who already know our way around a manuscript. Imagine how scary the prospect would be for someone who didn’t. In my experience, 99% of casual offerers have absolutely no idea what to do with a manuscript when it is handed to them.

In fact, Gladys is generally dismayed when someone takes her up on her request. Like most people, dear Gladys did not have a very good time in school, and you have just handed her a major reading comprehension assignment; in a flash, you have become her hated 8th-grade English teacher, the one who used to throw his keys at kids who walked in late.

Don’t worry; the school district forced him into early retirement. He’s not torturing children any longer.

It’s not that Gladys doesn’t WANT to help. But in her sinking heart, she is terrified by the book report she is going to have to give at the end of the process.

So what does Gladys do? Typically, she doesn’t read the book at all. Or she launches eagerly into it, reading perhaps ten or fifteen pages, then gets sidetracked by the phone ringing or piled-up laundry or the need to go to work.

Objects at rest, etc., etc.

And that, my friends, is where the problems begin, from the writer’s perspective. Remember, our Gladys isn’t a writer, so she does not have much experience in wresting precious minutes of concentration time out of a busy day. So she sets it aside, in anticipation of the day when she can devote unbroken time to it.

Unfortunately for writers everywhere, very few people lead lives so calm that a week of nothing to do suddenly opens up for their lowest-priority projects. However good Gladys’ intentions may have been at first, somehow the book does fall to her lowest priority — and, like the writer who keeps telling himself that he can only write if he has an entire day (or week or month) free, our well-meaning Gladys wakes up in six months astonished to find that she hasn’t made significant inroads on her task.

Hands up, everyone who has ever been the writer in this situation.

I hate to leave you with a cliffhanger in the midst of our little tragedy, but like Gladys, time is running short in my day. But being a writer, and thus used to wringing time to write from a jam-packed schedule, I shall renew the tale next time.

Trust me, appearances to the contrary, this story can have a happy ending. Keep up the good work!

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