Monday, September 5, 2016

Finding Close Readers--How to Be Smart with Feedback on Your Manuscript

Feedback is a tricky process.  Lots of danger if you choose feedback partners that have something to prove--they're smart, literary, better than you could ever be.  Or if you exchange with readers who just don't put in the effort, time, attention.  Both extremes can wear a writer out, best case.  Worse case, they can cause you to lose faith in your book.

A blog reader, Jason, is from the Midwest.  He's writing historical fiction and has been through his share of writer's groups.  Good ones, bad ones.  But now that his novel is ready for whole-manuscript feedback, he wants to play the feedback game a little smarter.

Even though he's in a couple of writer's groups, nobody is at his stage--they are still crafting chapters.  He needs a few really good close readers for his entire manuscript.

He's been in my classes, so he knows these readers will mostly be reading for content and structure.  Waste of time to spend effort on language-level editing at this stage.  In other words, it's too early to work on the proper placement of commas and clauses.
The content (what the story is about) and the structure (how it flows) comes before any fine-tuning.  He doesn't want to get hung up on word choice, when he really needs big-picture comments. 

He emailed me this week for suggestions.  What are some good ways to find close readers who can give your whole manuscript good attention?

I've only found  few whole-manuscript readers in writer's groups I've attended.  Like Jason, most of my colleagues in writer's groups are working on earlier stages, building chapters or developing characters or researching.  Most meetings focus on snippets of a story.  That's absolutely necessary, and yet there's a point where a writer needs more. 

You can hire someone.  There are plenty of published writers, writing teachers, and coaches who will give whole-manuscript critiques for a fee.  That can range from $1000-2000 (or more).  But before Jason pays for professional-level comments, I suggested he take two online classes this fall.  Use the classes as a way to find good readers. 

In workshopping classes, like the ones I teach online for the Loft (see sidebar to the right for more information--they begin September 21), you'll get to post work and hear comments from both your peers and the instructor.  Some intermediate level and advanced level groups will have small work groups to share chapters.  You give and get feedback each week.  You can learn a LOT about your fellow writers, their skill at giving suggestions that open doors for you as a writer. 

Close reading isn't an easy skill to learn.  It usually comes after years of giving and getting feedback. 

The way I usually tell a good close reader: 

1.  They write more than a few sentences in response to your post.
2.  They both compliment and offer suggestions--never just what's wrong, but also what's going well.
3.  They welcome suggestions on their own work and take the time to say thanks or respond back in some small way, so the exchange is alive and mutually beneficial.
4.  They listen to your requests about what you need help on.  They don't get sidetracked with the language-level edits when content and structure help comes first.

My best readers have come from classes I've attended.  Some are fellow students, some are instructors.  After the class, I'll email them privately to ask about exchanging a couple of chapters, then see how it goes.  If they are interested, if the good feedback continues, and if they are steady with their writing and the exchange continues past the first weeks, I know I've got a good partner.

It's taken about three years, but I now have five really good close readers, each with a different specialty.  One is great on details, another really good with characters, a third excels at plot.  We exchange large sections of our manuscripts.  Some read whole manuscripts, some only chapters.

Jason needs to consider the time this method takes, and weigh it against the high risk (in my opinion) of contacting unknown writing partners and the high cost of hiring a professional reader.

Your weekly writing exercise this week is to assess where you are in this process--how close are you to needing close readers?  Who do you have in mind?  Get started now, before your manuscript is ready, and try out an exchange.

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