For Each Story, Somewhere A Reader

Photo credit: T. Voekler

Newspaper Reader; Photo credit: T. Voekler

I am not biting my fingernails. It’s such a little thing, this book of mine, meant for toddlers to chew on. But a select panel of readers are digging Draft 9 out of their mailboxes right now. I feel the tug of all two hundred ninety-seven words, all my hopes and meager skill tied like kite strings to my wrist. I wonder what it is I have managed to write, after all, and I wonder about the people reading it.

Whom can writers trust to give feedback on their work-in-progress?

As I strive to ready my book for the eyes of agents and editors, I have gone beyond the polish I can achieve in isolation, and yet the work is still not ready for the hands of children, parents, librarians and teachers. I know this, because every time someone reads my book and talks to me about it, I can still find ways to make it better. Shaping these few hundred words into exactly the story that I want to tell turns out to be more than I can accomplish on my own. So where do I turn for help?

Some people suggest (and many MFA programs are constructed around this ideology) that what writers need are tough readers. I like Ann Darby’s response to this, in a letter to the editors of Poets & Writers (Jul/Aug 2009):

“Stories don’t live on the page. They live in the mind of the reader. Give your work to an ordinary mind, and you will get an ordinary reading. Give your work to the heartless, and you’ll find all your characters expiring on the floor in an airless room. No, no, find yourself neither a forgiving reader nor a hateful reader, but an inspired reader. Great readers are golden. We should treasure–that word is no exaggeration–treasure good readers. The cost of trying to write something worth reading is too high to be glib about this. You owe it to yourself, and your family, to show your work to the right reader, the one who can best help you see your work clearly–for what it is, not just for what it isn’t.”This makes me realize that the endeavor of sending my drafts out to readers is just as much about interviewing them–determining who my inspired readers are–as it is about garnering feedback on any particular draft. When I get feedback from my readers, I assess their feedback in terms of its value to the work, its ideas and its questions, but I also evaluate the probability of my ever sending work to that reader again! I am already deeply committed to this story–it’s been the focus of my creative life for almost a year. Choosing readers of this unfinished work is more complex than imposing upon the time and goodwill of my friends; it’s about building a team. Inviting a reader into the project at this point is to invite them into the creative act, and as the story’s author I must ask myself–whose sensibilities does this story need?

Draft 9 is in the hands of fifteen of these very inspired readers. The extent to which my readers will be “forgiving” depends on their sense of my vulnerability, I suspect. Since I’m pretty business-minded about the project at this point, I hope that people feel free to unleash their own particular perspectives and ideas upon their experience of the book. This readership includes four fellow writers–two from each of my writing groups–my Husband, and my mom. All of these folks have seen earlier drafts. On the second round of feedback, I am beginning to REALLY appreciate my Husband as a reader, in spite of the fact that he doesn’t like to read at all, and even less the kind of stuff I like to write. He brings the unique mindset of CEO and small-business owner to the work, which is helpful in the world of publishing today. And he’s gradually learning to find and say what’s good in the work, too. My mom will be the most inclined to gush, perhaps, but she’ll also bring her forty years of experience with small children to her reading of my work. She’s toted more board books than babies, sacrificed pages and ink to learn which books hold more thrall as a story than a teether.

New readers include another nine folks: among them seven teachers, five moms, one statistician analyst, one man, and one boy. That’s my son, Agent 006, who spontaneously began illustrating my story in his journal solely based on the table talk about it at dinner. So I read the entire manuscript to him, including art notes, and gave him an illustrator’s copy. If he finishes the drawings before the end of the year I may also share the book with his classmates, students in my weekly Writers’ Workshop.

I’m glad I sent the draft out to such a wide group; I realize now that this decision was as much about gathering a readership as it was about getting feedback on the book. It makes me think that if I ever get published, I will not only give each of these people acknowledgments and a free copy of the book, but also write them individual emails asking them to promote the book via button or link or whatever from their websites and Facebook pages. After all, they will have been intimately and indispensably involved in the creation of this book, and may be similarly invested in its distribution. The March/April 2013 issue of Poets & Writers includes an article about crowd funding for writers, with more ideas along these lines.

Ultimately I am not looking merely for readers to help me solve the problems of Drafts 9-19. The people I really want to connect with are the ones who want my story. How do I find them? How might choosing a panel of draft-readers help direct me in that search? I read an interesting article today in Digital Book World about Jim Hanas, the new “Director of Audience Development” at HarperCollins. He says “every piece of content…has an audience of a certain size…and audience development…is the role of building systems and maintaining content strategy that make it as easy for us to reach that audience with that piece of content.”

I suppose this is what people mean at writing conferences when they talk about “developing your platform.” But I am still really keen on the idea of paying a traditional publisher to do this work for me, so I’m thrilled that one of the Big Five seems to have a man on the job. I’m also relieved to hear his opinion that “the book is still a package of content that we are accustomed to paying for.” Because I still believe, for young children at least, that the tactile experience of turning a page is an inseparable kinetic component of the experience of getting lost in a book.

This is the first time I’ve ever been at this stage in the writing process with any of my work, so these questions about shepherding a draft in its later stages are new to me and inherently intriguing. Experienced readers, if you have any advice, I would be most grateful if you would offer it here!

  • What is the best way to select and recruit readers for draft feedback?
  • What kind of feedback do you solicit?
  • How do you begin to develop a readership for your work, especially as an unpublished author?
  • How do you communicate your appreciation to your treasured readers?
  • How do you know when you’re done revising/editing, when it’s time to step away from the feedback loop and put the package together?

Thank you for reading!

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5 thoughts on “For Each Story, Somewhere A Reader

  1. Well, one reader’s feedback is on it’s way back to you! I just dropped my SASE off at the post office. I got your envelope yesterday, spotted it on the counter where my husband deposits the mail when he gets home. I waited to open it until supper was over, dishes were done, counters were wiped, girls were off to bed with daddy, and I had a cup of tea by my side. Then I opened it. And read it. And read it again. And one more time. Then I picked up my pen and made a couple small suggestions – the first ones that came to me – I wanted to capture my own first responses. I hope it’s helpful to you in your process. It was thrilling to read a draft of a REAL book! You’ve crafted it so nicely. One suggestion that just occurred to me as I read your blog post is that it might be helpful in the future to include a feedback sheet – with the parts you love, the parts that maybe didn’t flow for you, etc. Just an idea. 🙂 Lots of love to you.

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    • Wow, that is the fastest turnaround ever in the history of writing feedback. Thank you! I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to know that your envelope is already on its way back to me. I love the idea of a feedback page! I will definitely include one the next time I send out a manuscript. One of the things I think about is how to accommodate the differences between my readers. Some are really readers, some not so much, some writers and used to giving and getting feedback, others have no experience with that at all. I want the experience of looking at the manuscript to be inviting, positive and fun. Maybe I could include a teabag with each package! Thank you again for being one of my very own inspired readers!

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