Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Three Cheers for Test Readers

by Stephanie Black

It’s New Year’s Resolution time again, where we set our goals for self-improvement. Fortunately, tradition dictates that these resolutions expire around February 7th, so no sweat.

Actually, I do have a goal that I’m determined to complete this month. For a while now, I’ve been working toward submitting my contemporary suspense novel to my publisher in January. It’s January and—cheers and celebration!—I’m almost finished. This week was a Big Step—running the novel past a cadre of test readers.

I don’t seek out feedback when I’m drafting a novel. I admire the heck out of writer Matthew Buckley, but I could never write a novel in a Wiki-style format, getting feedback and suggestions along the way (I can’t wait for your new book, Matthew!). While I’m creating a novel, it’s a private process and I’d rather get eaten by ants than let anyone read it. Not until a few drafts into the book am I ready to hand it to someone and say, “Does this work?”

(Out of curiosity, are there any other writers out there like me—whose first drafts are a mess unfit for readers’ eyes and who need to work and rework a book before they'll let anyone see it?)

Since I am a world-class chicken (defined as “too scared to let Rob or Kerry have a look at the manuscript, though they did offer”), my test readers are usually my siblings and parents. Some people feel that family/friends don’t make good test readers because they’ll be too nice, but I’ve found my family to be an extremely valuable source of feedback. Since I want to get this manuscript submitted as soon as possible, this time I asked for readers who could read the book within a week and get back to me with feedback. Several siblings signed up for this quick-read program, bless them.

It’s always exciting and scary to send out that e-mail attachment containing my work of genius, or semi-genius, or at least my fervent attempt at writing something coherent. I push send, close my eyes, curl up into a little ball and wait.

Okay, I wasn’t that petrified. I’d snuck in a couple of pre-readers a few weeks earlier. I’d printed out the manuscript so I could read straight through it to see how it flowed, and I didn’t intend to let anyone read it until I’d checked it, but then one of my daughters was so antsy to read it that, well, okay. I’m not immune to the implied flattery of her eagerly seeking a peek at the manuscript. Then I ended up sending that draft to one sister and she gave it the thumbs up, so whew, I at least I knew the book wasn't utter rubbish. But I still didn't know what my test readers would say.

Though sometimes it's not fun to get told that something in the manuscript doesn’t work, what is fun and exciting is when I look at a problem and/or discuss it with my test readers, and they have good suggestions, and I think hey, I could fix the problem this and this way, and I’m off and running, and I know the book is going to be better for the changes and I want to kiss my test readers’ feet for their perception in pointing out problems I hadn’t realized existed. So far, my readers have reported on two principal issues: a problem with the main character, who needs strengthening, and a problem with the villain, whose actions need more credible explanation. Neither problem should be a difficult fix, and I’m excited to improve the book by attacking these issues.

So I’m on target for my first goal of the year—to submit my suspense novel this month. Check that out—a resolution I’m likely to keep! How often does that happen?


At 1/03/2007 8:32 PM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

As one of the test readers, I can swear that it's an excellent book and I can't wait to see it in print.

At 1/03/2007 11:02 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thank you!

At 1/04/2007 3:48 PM, Blogger Sabrina2u said...

How does one become a "test reader"?
I think that this would a great way to contribute.
I seem to read book after book and never seem to get enough.
Oh, well, and suggestions would be greatly appreciated......where have you heard that before? he he he

At 1/04/2007 5:52 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Some authors use critique groups of other authors for test reads; others (like me) use family (I think Rob's brother gives him feedback on his work). I remember reading about how Orson Scott Card trained his wife to be his expert reader so she could point out things that needed work.

Some publishers use groups of readers to give them feedback on submitted manuscripts; I don't know how publishers go about choosing and hiring readers. I think that would be an interesting job!


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