Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Is this a Sign? (on Beta Readers)

I suspect this might be a sign of something. A sign of what I’m not quite sure.

I am a firm believer that a writer needs a test reader. Someone who is not intrinsically a part of the story through living and breathing it through months of writing and editing it. A fresh set of eyes. Someone who can read it as a new reader will, getting enthralled or bored, revelling in the characters or getting lost in a confusing plot. Someone who will immediately pick up on things the writer left out that is vital to the story that the writer missed because they already know it, or is confusing to the outside reader.

As the writer there is so much of the story, back story, pre-story, and post-story in your head. There is the life and dreams and unknown driving forces that make up the characters and surround the events that don’t make it into the story. All the behind the scenes stuff that adds to the vibe the writer puts into the story is in the writer’s head. Things you thought you hinted at but happen later, and missed the hint, leaving an obvious story gap in earlier chapters.

It’s almost inevitable for the writer to miss things; things that the reader will pick up because they don’t know what you know. Things that if left out will make the reader go “Huh? What was that? That made no sense.”

Here’s where the sign comes in.

I have two finished books (and untold works in progress).

One of these books is a 120,000 word novel. Something of a murder thriller with kidnapping, murder and an antagonist who is tortured by his own actions and his past. There are twists and surprises, psychological suspense, and an ending that is hinted at but may take some readers by surprise. (At least that’s what I was going for).

I’ve written this book (and re-written it) over a number of years and have spent so much time editing and re-editing and re-editing again (repeat many times) and have come to that point where I just can’t find anything else to change or fix.

I know the book isn’t perfect. There’s no such thing as a perfect book. Writing is art and as such is open to the very fickle interpretation of the individual.

I also know the book could use some improvements before calling it publishable and that I’m just not seeing them. That’s where the test reader comes in.

My spouse started reading the book.

To be fair, I do have to point out that with a major career change for him involving now working on shift work, and some weeks doing almost a double shift with overtime, and our lives being a big hodgepodge of irregularity and zero routine stability, he’s had little time for things like literary pursuits. He also is not a book reader. It’s just not his thing. He’s read maybe two or three books in his life outside of required school reading as a kid and teen.

The second book is my first attempt at a kids’ chapter book. I made a list of what a good chapter book needs according to the experts (a couple kids I asked) and set out to write it. I’m on book three of the series. I’ve gone through the first round of edits on book one.

The problem is, how do I know I’ve done it right? If it’s too easy they’ll be bored and uninterested with it. If it’s too hard they’ll get frustrated and not read it. It has to be just right.

So I gave it to the first test reader, my nine year old. This kid loves to read. And, like me, she loves to read horror (that’s my girl!).

Now here’s the sign.

The husband hasn’t even gotten through the first couple of chapters, and that’s after weeks. He did note a few suggestions and very good ones – two in particular that are more than just missed spell-check errors and will involve minor rewrites of those two scenes.

And then he seems to have abandoned all interest (and yes, I do know that lack of time is a factor too).

The daughter similarly has quickly abandoned her reading effort. She was initially miffed that I hadn’t spent endless hours creating a wonderful and colorful cover picture for it before presenting her with the draft manuscript. Quite frankly I just haven’t had the time and I’m not exactly the artistic type who can just sit down and draw a fabulous picture. Her initial response after pouting about the lack of a proper cover was to toss it aside with no interest in the story. She read just a little bit and abandoned it. When asked about the story she made some vague reference to something being confusing and that has been the end of that. She was uninterested in elaborating on what was confusing.

The question is – what do I make of this?

I could just chalk it up to the fickleness off a nine year old girl and forty year old non-reader.

I could peg it as being a lack of time in our disorderly lives.

One must also not forget that those closest to you, family and friends, are not going to share your passion just because it’s what you love any more than you share theirs for hockey and grade four playground melodrama. They are their own people and have their own interests.

Then again, maybe they just thought the stories sucked and are afraid of hurting my feelings, so they won’t tell me that.

But they are just one reader of each story, and their opinions will be just as subjective as every reader’s will be to their own personal tastes, experiences, and relationship to the writer. One reader might hate it, while a hundred others might love it. You might have a problem if it’s the other way around, but good luck finding 100 test readers when many of us can’t even find one.

So, maybe the stories do suck or maybe those two test readers were just uninterested.

“Is it me or is Memorex?” (Remember that commercial?) Maybe I need to scrap or rewrite the stories or maybe I just had the wrong test readers. Of course, I may never really know since generally speaking I am my own test reader and that is not such a good thing.

The important message here is to never put too much into what any one person’s reaction is.

Opinions of the people closest to you will be the most biased. Either they’re afraid even the gentlest criticism or suggestion might hurt your feelings, or they might go the opposite way and are unnecessarily rough just to prove they are not holding back.

Opinions of people who might harbor any jealousy or ill feelings will be even worse. Probably the worst next to the people who need to tear somebody else down just to make themselves feel better.

It’s not the opinion of the individual reader that is the most important. What is more telling is the general response by multiple readers.

And if you are like me and don’t have a pool of available test readers, and don’t have the money to pay readers, put on that tough outer shell and take no offence if that one person who does agree to read your manuscript doesn’t show the interest you were hoping for.

It might just not be their thing.


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