When I wrote about Finding Preliminary Readers back in September, I hadn’t yet asked anyone to read my current work in progress. But that changed in June, when I reached that place where I could no longer see the forest for the trees; I needed new eyes on the page, and I needed to know what works and what doesn’t. It was time for me to follow my two rules for asking for feedback.
- Rule 1: Tell your readers exactly what kind of feedback you want.
I queried ten different people, hoping two or three would be up to the task. They all said yes. This group includes people from every decade between twenty and ninety; it includes men and women; and the group represents a variety of professions: two high school English teachers (one retired, one current), a professional book reviewer, a physician, a carpenter, a fiber artist, a poet, an antiques dealer, a Jane Austen fan, and my agent. These are the instructions I sent them:
Thank you for reading Ellen. In addition to bearing witness to the work I’ve done over the past three years, here are other, specific ways you can help me finish the book:
- Praise: Tell me what you like about the book – what characters, scenes, circumstances – anything and everything that you liked, in detail.
- Tell me if and where you lose the thread of the story or have a question that you need answered to maintain your willing suspension of disbelief. Please tell me what your question is and where it arose.
- Tell me where you yawn and/or lose interest.
- Please alert me to typos, grammar, spelling.
- Also let me know about inconsistencies, anachronisms, repetitions, dead ends.
- It would be incredibly helpful to me to have your written synopsis of the book. What do you think it’s about?
Two things that would not be helpful and that I ask you to refrain from:
- Suggestions about how to fix problems
- Allowing anyone else to read this draft. In fact, I would like the hard copies returned to me and the electronic ones deleted from your machines when you are done.
- Rule Two: Listen to what your readers tell you without defending your work.
Two readers have already responded. They both had questions and comments. Hard as it was, I just listened. I didn’t try to answer their questions or explain what I was trying to do. And I didn’t blame them for not getting it; I accepted responsibility for not being clear. I noted where they lost the thread of the narrative or didn’t believe the course of the action or wanted less or asked for more. Lest you think I’m inhuman, it wasn’t always easy to refrain from defending my work as it stands. But what I’ve learned over the years is that the comments that rankle the most are invariably the most salient.
I’ve also learned to let my work ferment. While the book is out with my readers, I’m doing other things, some writing-related, like updating and filing my clips, and some not, like heading to Maine for a week’s vacation. All the while, I’m thinking about the book, but I’m not actually delving into the typescript. For the time being, I’m just letting it sit.
Deborah Lee Luskin is looking forward to reading the novels of Virginia Woolf while vacationing in Maine.