Saturday, December 29, 2007

An Unusual Litmus Test

Anne Mini has recently been talking about who should and shouldn't be a valued feedback-giver to the aspiring writer (parts I and II). If you haven't read her posts yet, I highly recommend you do so before continuing reading this post of mine. I can wait!

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Now that you have returned, let me first note I certainly agree that Anne's logic applies to almost every situation. However, most people tend to believe there are exceptions to every rule, and of course they tend to believe they fall into the minority that is the exception. Especially when it comes to issues like this.

Interestingly, I've read several published authors who noted their spouses were their first reader/editor. Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, and Bill Watterson (who wrote/drew the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and thus wasn't truly in this industry) all come to mind. I'm sure you could come up with many other examples.

There are two points I'd like to make on this score. First, readers would do well to remember that what a person says when publicly thanking his/her beloved is not necessarily the full truth. Secondly, most of these writers noted looking for general reaction from their spouse, usually on a chapter-by-chapter or realism basis, rather than on a line-by-line basis. But I'm sure it varies. At any rate, aspiring writers would do well to not just blandly take such comments of published writers at face value.

That said, I do believe my wife is an incredibly valuable first reader/editor to me, even on a line-by-line basis (and I believe I have a good litmus test for objectively determining she is -- more on that below). First of all, she has a degree in comparative literature, and is a voracious reader of the same genres I write in -- she's much wider read than me in general, actually. Secondly, she's done enough writing to know what she's doing. She hasn't written as much fiction as I have, but it's not a race.

All of that just gets her into the ball field of being a potential first reader, except for the pesky issue that she's my spouse -- and here's where my litmus test comes in. Ask yourself this: would you or your spouse be offended/upset/surprised/displeased by trading constructive critiques post-coitus? As in, “that wasn’t very good for me?” If you’re uncomfortable answering that to yourself (don’t tell me -- I really don’t want or need to know) then your spouse probably can’t be your editor regardless of his/her other qualifications.

But if you’re so uninhibited around each other that giving direct, un-couched feedback on your most intimate acts is a normal and accepted practice between the two of you (after all, the comments are only designed to help), then you can probably be reasonably certain they aren’t couching things when discussing your novel. Although, even then, be on guard at first -- it’s far too easy for your beloved to want to be supportive at the expense of not being constructively critical at first. Here’s a good law of editing (in the mathematical sense) I’d like to propose: if all your feedback from your first reader is unequivocally positive, it wasn’t helpful. Even if the person loves your book to death, he or she should find about ten thousand things wrong with it, and tell you just why each one is wrong (or say it just doesn’t rub them right if they can’t tell).

So that’s why I think my wife and I are one of the very few exceptions to this particular rule -- yet even then, she is my first reader, but certainly not my last before querying. I think my litmus test holds water, but I’m not aware of many people who seem likely to pass it (of course, it isn’t exactly a topic I ever discuss with anyone), so for most aspiring writers this is probably a moot point in the first place. When in doubt, follow the advice Anne has already laid out in her posts on this subject.

13 comments:

Linnea said...

My son is my first reader. He reads far more fiction than I have time for, he's blunt and has no problem letting me have it. I stay away from beta readers or professional editors because I find they 'rewrite' according to their own style and voice. I don't want a line-by-line edit, I only want to know if it's easy to follow, holds interest and keeps the reader turning pages. I think one can have too many prepublication readers and like 'too many cooks spoil the pot', too many readers can spoil the plot!!

Christopher M. Park said...

That's another great point, Linnea -- children as first readers. I think a lot of kids probably find it easy to give their parents a hard time about things. Though I'd imagine that it still takes a special relationship to be able to strike the proper balance in a critique.

But you do make an excellent point that too many cooks can certainly spoil the story. I've seen that sort of thing when I solicit feedback for my hooks through the blog. Sometimes having a lot of feedback can provide good through lines to changes that you should make (and might never have thought of on your own), but sometimes people's opinions are too colored by their own experiences and tastes to truly serve the author's vision of the work. Not to mention that sometimes their personal vision of the work is just plain different.

Seems like everyone finds their own balance -- thanks for sharing yours!

Stephen Parrish said...

Your litmus test shows why spouses almost always do not make good critique partners.

Friends rarely do, either.

Neither do acquaintances, even though there's much less relationship at stake. How many times have you seen aspiring writers post samples on blogs, samples that prove the writer has little to aspire to, only to read lavish praise in comments?

Unfortunately the only reasonably reliable pre-submission criticism comes from paid freelance editors. And even they aren't perfectly reliable because they might stroke you for future business.

The person providing the critique must have a vested interest in honesty, which is why the most useful critiques come from agents and editors.

vespican said...

Dave McChesney here. Yes, Christopher, your guess a couple of days ago was correct.

In a way, I agree with Linnia. One can certainly have too many "first readers." I suppose the trick is in knowing when enough is enough. Still that next one may point out a potential flaw that would prohibit the work from being as successful as you would like. Personally, I want as many people as possible to read my work, as each reads from a different viewpoint and offers a varying style of feedback. Some might read it for the overall effect, while others will look for every grammatical, spelling, and typographical error they can find. Additionally, it is my understanding that any changes recommended by nearly any pre publication readers are just that, recommendations. It is the writer's choice to incorporate them. (It may get a little harder to do when an agent or publication company editor insists on changes.)
As I see it, one should use those first readers available to him/her to ensure that the work is as perfect as can be before submitting it to the professionals. For those who have been following Anne Mini's blog, you understand how easy it is for the Millicents (agency screeners) to stop reading a submitted manuscript.
Happy New Year Everybody!
Dave

Rosemary said...

Hi CMP,
I'm here via Ann Mini's blog and first would like to say thank you, I am finding both your blogs extraordinarily helpful. Also your pictures are amazing!

Posting a comment is something very new for me, so I apologize in advance if this comes across poorly.

I chuckled reading about your litmus test for spouse/first readers. I showed Ann's recent blog to my husband yesterday. He has been my first reader now for the past four months, and I think he is relieved finally to be off the hook!

Speaking of hooks...
As I have been reviewing past posts, I am sending along a couple of comments here about your hook, though I'm not sure whether you are still interested in readers' comments. Like I said, I'm a newbie floundering my way around and just noticed the comments you and Iinnea posted about 'too many cooks'. But previous to reading today's blog just now, this evening I was on a thread from your November 30th blog about Hooks. Sorry if I'm inappropriately stirring the pot!

I like your hook. I just thought I'd mention that I was a little shaky on my initial grasp of the Lela character. I was confused about her on my first reading, though it is probably a situation of my faulty brain acting up again.

I thought that maybe the 'Lela' 'daughter' word order, could be altered somewhat.

My suggestion is to change the last sentence to read Darrell is 'searching for Lela' first before 'searching for answers and his daughter'. I know it is totally subjective to say it like this, but as a parent I guess that is my first instinct -I would search for my daughter and then 'answers' in that order -probably seems nit pickish, sorry.

Also, I would describe Lela in your second last sentence as 'daughter' there, right after you finish the previous sentence ...'particular interest in Darrel's family' to better underscore the familial relationship.

Perhaps, when you first mention Lela it might be an idea to describe her as 'young' or 'four years old' there, right at the outset, so the reader has the picture of that character earlier rather than near the end.

Regards,
RM

Christopher M. Park said...

Hi Dave,

Glad I guessed right! As usual, you bring up excellent points -- especially the fact that pre-publication reader suggestions are nothing more than suggestions.

I'm a bit on the fence with this one, as I do believe that having lots of feedback can be good, and can find issues that otherwise wouldn't surface... but on the other hand, many aspiring writers are not fully confident in themselves just yet, and are still creating their voice/style/etc. I'd hate to see someone compromise their voice just because it runs counter to what any small group of people thinks. After all, depending on where you live and what you write, you may not know a single person that is in your target audience (even if outside your hometown you have quite a large audience).

I suppose there is no "one size fits all" answer to anything in this business (as in life in general), but my personal preference is to find a smaller group of people who all seem to "get" my vision for the book. That way I know that any suggestions they make are legitimately aimed at enhancing the book I was trying to write, rather than the one they thought I should have written.

I suppose if you are able to find one or five or fifty people who fit that criteria, and who are willing and able to help you out, you should certainly make use of them! I'm just wary of people whose tastes who don't match mine past a certain degree, and always take those opinions with a larger grain of salt.

Happy New Year!
Chris

Christopher M. Park said...

Hi Rosemary,

Thanks very much for stopping by and for commenting! I'm glad that you are finding my blog helpful, and are enjoying my pictures, as well. I should point out that if Anne and I disagree on something, feel free to consider what I say (of course), but remember that she is a lot more expert than I am. I'm still trying to figure everything out, and documenting what I learn as I do, while Anne is already fully in the game, and has quite a literary pedigree to boot.

Also, I'm almost always open to feedback on things I've written! I don't always take every suggestion, but I understand that people don't have to offer their comments and am always grateful when they take the time to (when I don't yet want feedback on something, I don't post it in a public forum).

As to your comment on the word order between "Lela" and "daughter," I think you are right on. The "answers and" bit had been added late, and I'm not sure why I put that first -- probably because I was thinking that the answers would have to come before he could fully get his daughter back (based on what actually happens in the story, this is true), but I can see how in this short format this makes it seem like the priorities are reversed! In my next version (not yet posted), I have not changed this.

As to your confusion on Lela's identity, I'm not quite sure how to handle that, but I very much appreciate your bringing up the issue. I only have two named characters in my hook, one male and one female, so hopefully that won't generally be too unclear -- and I'm wary of restating her relationship to her father, as that sort of repetition tends to tick off professional readers (from what I hear, and in my limited experience). I'll have to think on that one more, and see what an editor friend of mine thinks on that score. Thanks for the heads up!

I do very much like your idea about saying "his four-year-old daughter, Lela" in the first paragraph, to go on and let the reader have the correct mental image of her. I'll have that change in my next version. That does diminish the image I was going for in the second paragraph, however (which I now think might have been too subtle for a hook, anyway), so I've changed the sentence in question to "Lela, young as she is, discovers clues to the twisted logic that drives them."

Again, thanks for stopping by, and for your feedback!
Chris

Christopher M. Park said...

Stephen,

My point was definitely to show why spouses almost always do not make critique partners. I think that most people think that they are exceptions, but the point of my litmus test is that most people are probably incorrect (which Anne had already established, but I was trying to quantify it -- though she did shoot a few holes in my test in comments on her blog).

You are absolutely right about the samples on blogs, etc -- not often helpful. Work acquantances are often equally useless, I've found. And I have seen the problem you mention with freelance editors, too. And with critique groups, sometimes people are overly positive or negative about a work because of the group dynamic, or overblown personal pride (seems to be a lot of that going around in some critique groups).

So you're right, the aspiring writer is definitely in a tight spot. I like to think that close friends or spouses who have exceedingly open relationships with the writer can provide valuable feedback -- often they do have a somewhat vested interest in providing honest feedback, at least if they understand something about how polished manuscripts have to be to be published. Hopefully they come to understand that being gentle with the writer is only going to get the writer that much more pummeled by the professionals, later.

But honestly, it just doesn't seem like there is a clean solution for the aspriring writers. Things tend to either take connections, money, luck, or an excess of talent. Persistence also comes to mind. Or a combination of the above. In an economic sense, I'd almost say that this is a "closed market," since the barriers to new firms (writers) entering it are so high. I'm not sure quite what to think about that.

Karen Mahoney said...

Interesting post, Chris. My muum is actually reading my manuscript right now and I've been pleasantly surprised by how helpful she's been. Her help has been more on the line-edits, but still... valuable feedback that has enabled me to tighten the manuscript in many, many places. And she reads widely and knows what she likes - the fact that she's been kept up late reading my book is definitely a good sign! ;)

But I do think it's important to have a few different readers - for me it's 2 non-writers and 2 writers. That should be enough for me.

Happy New Year to you and your wife!

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

I think a lot of the should you/shouldn't you questions about leveraging your spouse as a reader are parsed at the operational definition of "reader."

Beta reader/first reader/trusted reader?

Or critiquer/editor?

There are different functions for different readers.

Assuming your manuscript is a metaphorical car, your beta readers/trusted readers are driving enthusiasts. They can do a great job of articulating the experience they enjoyed while "driving" your ms.

Critiquers and editors are mechanics. They'll offer you specifics about why stuff isn't working and make suggestions how to fix it.

Mechanics don't always make objective enthusiasts and enthusiasts don't always understand the "why" of a broken ms.

Or, to beat another metaphor to death, it's like you are hosting a big dinner party for a VIP at your house. (VIP = agent).

Your critiquers will help you cook test versions of the dishes. They'll make recommendations about which spices work and which appetizers are horrible. Critters will point to the toenail clippings you dropped in the potted plant next to the couch and gag.

Once you have the dishes and details finalized, you invite a test group of good friends to a practice party. You pretend it's the "big night." You make it as real as possible. (Heck, I even put my beta reader copies into a format that looks exactly like a published book.) At the end of the party, you politely ask for feedback and suggestions about which dishes/music/details they liked and did not like.

Then... you send the invitation to your VIP in the form of a query.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

...Which isn't to say that a beta reader isn't perfectly capable of pointing at the hallway floor and saying, "Hey Dude, I think your cat is dead."

Christopher M. Park said...

Hi Dwight,

I think you make some excellent points there -- and I think they are particularly valuable because it seems like most people don't think in terms of "types" of readers that they have. But that's definitely a really good way to look at it!

Christopher M. Park said...

Hi Karen,

Sorry for the slow reply -- holidays, you know. I'm glad to hear that you have such a great resource in your Mom, and that also you have the network of others to rely on. That sounds like a really good balance to me.

Happy (belated) New Year!
Chris