Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Putting My Manuscript to the Test

by Stephanie Black

On Saturday while I was sitting in the car waiting for my daughter, I finished draft three of the book currently known as Rearview Mirror. Side note: I love writing when I’m in the car waiting for a kid. It tends to be productive time, because there’s no Internet to distract me. No email. No blogs. And on this particular day, taking my daughter to her meeting was a special bonus, because if I’d been at home, I would have been helping my husband finish our project of getting the garage ready for the termite guys to come treat it. Our garage was a trash pit from heck—the inspector’s initial report said something along the lines of how he couldn’t inspect the garage because it had a lot of storage. Ha. Very tactful. That’s like saying a slab of rotting meat has lots of vibrant life forms. Technically, it’s true, but it doesn’t hint at the scope of the disgustingness involved. So needless to say, I wasn’t at all sorry to bail out on the garage project and go sit peacefully in the car, working on my book.

With draft three done, it became time for . . . yeeks! . . . test reads. This is my current modus operandi: go through two drafts, then print out the second draft and read it to see how it works. Do a third draft, then send it out to test readers. Get their feedback, do a 4th draft, then send it to my editor. With this system, no eyeballs but mine see the book until draft three, so getting that very first feedback is a BIG moment of truth. What will the readers say? WILL THEY LIKE IT?

Here’s the list of questions I sent to my test readers:

Opening: Did the opening grip you and hold your interest? Did you want to continue reading? Or did it take you a while to get interested in the story?

Pacing: Did the story move at a good pace? Were there spots where you found yourself getting bored or where you felt the story was dragging? Did suspense build throughout the story? Did scene and chapter endings make you want to keep reading?

Clarity: Was everything clear, both in the backstory (events that happened before the novel opens) and the current story? Were there spots where you got confused?

Characterization: Were the characters believable? Did they think and act and react like real people? Did the dialogue sound realistic and appropriate to the character speaking? Did character motivations make sense, at least to the character? Did you like the main character? Were you rooting for her?

Mystery: Were the mystery elements of the book effective in raising questions in your mind as you read and in building suspense? Did you wonder who the villain was and consider various suspects, or did his/her identity seem obvious from the beginning?

Resolution: Were you satisfied with the ending? Were there any questions you felt were left hanging?

The good news is I’ve heard back from two of my test readers, and . . . and . . . they liked it! Hooray! I’m thrilled! Their feedback is super helpful, both in letting me know that overall, the story works, and in pointing out places where the manuscript could be stronger. I’m excited to work on the issues they spotted—for instance, a character action that doesn’t seem quite credible, a character who’s a bit flat, redundancy, and so on. Oh and there was that red herring I completely forgot about—never did resolve the deal with that. Oops. Thank heavens for test readers. Since every reader notices different things, I’ll likely have additional issues to address once I hear back from my other readers. There is no way I would ever consider submitting a manuscript without having test readers look it over. It’s impossible for me to notice every problem with the manuscript, no matter how many times I go through it. The fresh perspective that test readers bring to my work is vital.

To all the writers out there, at what point do you seek feedback on your manuscript? Chapter by chapter? First drafts? Second, third, or later?


At 11/10/2010 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I be a test reader?

At 11/10/2010 10:28 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

What I'd like to know is if you had this system before your first book was published or if you gathered your faithful test readers only after you were working on your second book and could say "I want to make sure this is perfect before I send it to my publisher." Those are powerful words when getting friends interested in spending hours and hours reading a manuscript.

Congratulations on your progress. I can't wait for this one to be in print. I need my nails trimmed and my teeth don't have anything better to do. ;)

At 11/10/2010 11:07 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks for the offer, Anon! If I need more test readers, I'll keep it in mind that an unknown person has offered to test read for me :)

Debra, with my first book, I didn't have it down to any kind of system, but I did use test readers--my family. I was WAY too shy to let anyone outside my family read the book. My first test reader was my sister--I think she read the second draft. Other family members read the book at various points, and I went through so many drafts on that book that eventually I lost count.

And thank you! I hope you like this new book (and I sure hope my publisher likes it).

At 11/10/2010 11:16 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

Oh, thank goodness. You sound like a normal person--writer--author! I think I can talk my sister into reading my manuscript. She has to be exhausted from unpacking all her boxes after her move, and probably could use a good excuse for sitting around and reading a while.

I'm sure your publisher will love this latest installment of your nail-biter mysteries.

At 11/10/2010 11:38 PM, Blogger Melanie Jacobson said...

I have my sister read after my first draft and then I have 6-8 people read it after the second draft. Then I do a ton of rewriting, go to my last reader, and barring any glaring errors, I send it in, which is ALWAYS a happy day!

At 11/11/2010 12:03 PM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

Good technique - supply your readers with questions about things YOU are concerned about before reading. That keeps their eyes sharp for the feedback you most need.

I'm okay with getting critiques on sections of early drafts, but for a full novel I'd want to have gone over it at least 3 times.

At 11/11/2010 2:36 PM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

I take feedback whenever I can get it. Because I'm sometimes dense, I don't always use it. We're not supposed to have pride within us, but I often fall victim to this trap.

Good luck with your ms test readers, Stephanie.


At 11/11/2010 3:33 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Charlie, if I disagreed with a test reader's suggestion or criticism, I wouldn't feel obligated to follow it. Opinions can vary widely, and ultimately you're the judge of what you will or won't change in your book.

Debra, I've found that sisters can make great test readers.

Thanks for the comments!


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