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):
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!