Creative Writing Fiction 2020-02-10 00:00

Using Different Types of Readers to Improve Your Story

The writer writes the book and a reader reads it. What could be simpler? Of course, in between there are agents and editors and reviewers and all sorts of other people whose jobs seem to be to interrupt the sacred journey from original idea to published novel, but personally, I love having other people go through my manuscript. It’s not because I crave their approval or even their critique, but rather because of the insights that come when someone reads a text through a lens completely different from my own. Those other perspectives allow me to see things inside the text that are otherwise invisible to me, even if some part of my creative brain knows they’re there and knows those issues are getting in the way of me telling the best possible story. Over my relatively short career, I can already see how for each of my ten published novels, one of those perspectives—one of those other lenses—was crucial to pushing the book past the goal line to become something I could be truly proud of putting out into the world. I’ve reached a point now where I can finish a draft of a new manuscript and know which of my friends I need to send it to in order to find the missing piece that’s eluding me. Those readers are, in short, a crucial part of my creative process. With that in mind, I thought I’d break down my own perspective on what those different ways of reading a manuscript look like and how they can hopefully benefit your next book.

  1. 1. The Conceptual Reader
  2. 2. The Craft Reader
  3. 3. The Literary Reader
  4. 4. The Genre Reader
  5. 5. The Industry Reader
  6. 6. The Cross-Media Reader
  7. 7. The Social Impact Reader
  8. Many Readers, One Writer

1. The Conceptual Reader

Stylized illustration of left and right hemispheres of the brain Imagine reading a novel, with all its characters and events and twists, all the while searching not for what’s there, but for what’s not there. I don’t mean spotting plot holes, but the far more difficult task of recognizing something deeper that the author is exploring—something that can only be detected in a few interesting choices, motifs and symbols that get mentioned but never quite come to fruition. Many would call this a “developmental read”, but to me it’s more complicated than making sure the story “works”. In fact, the only person who can do this for me is a friend who understands who I am as a writer and who I strive to be. Someone who can glean from a first draft ideas I just dipped my toe into without realizing it and ask me if I’m serious about exploring those ideas or whether they’re just distractions from what I really want to write about. Not every author is the same, of course, and many of you may know the essence of your novel long before you start writing. But if you’re like me and feel like that first draft is a mystery box and no matter how hard you shake it, you can’t figure out what’s really inside, then having a friend who knows you as a writer can give you an edge in the quest to get to the book you most long to write.

2. The Craft Reader

Group of writers around a table There’s more to a book than big ideas and broad themes. For a story to flow, every scene relies on those big elements of writing we all talk about: characters, plot, conflict, and prose. (Yes, prose does matter, despite how it often gets glossed over in writing guides as if style were just a coat of varnish you slap over an already-finished house.) Many readers can tell you when a story gets boring or confusing, but not only can most of them not tell you how to fix it, few of them can even point to the actual source of the problem. How often have you written a scene that’s not working? You know: the kind of scene that suddenly leaves you with writer’s block? Over the days or weeks or months you spend fighting through that block, I’ll bet as often as not you discover the problem wasn’t with the scene where you stopped, but an entirely different one that came earlier and didn’t set you up properly for the next scenes. Finding these trouble spots and translating the problem into the language of writing (e.g. “In chapter eight your hero picks up a sword and runs after the villain but in chapter two you showed him as cowardly and you never gave us a beat where he finds the motivation to push past his fear”) is where writing groups can be helpful. Seven years ago a friend and I put a group together, and we’ve been meeting weekly or bi-weekly ever since. Fellow writers speak the same language as you do, and make great detectives for tracing problems in your story back to the source. These days there are online groups that can be great, but my advice is to also see if there are other people in your town with whom you can meet in person and get out from behind the keyboard once in a while.

3. The Literary Reader

Woman sitting cross-legged reading book next to shelves I’m using the word literary here not to mean “fancy-pants novels about the inner lives of college professors”, but in the sense of someone who reads your book as a story rather than a piece of commercial genre fiction. In this era where people define themselves by the products they buy (“I’m a fantasy nerd!” or “Fantasy sucks! I only read crime novels!”) there are still those who are just looking for good stories regardless of genre. I’m not a romantic comedy “fan”, but I adore Richard Curtis movies because of his characters, his humour, and his dialogue. In other words, I just like his stories. To me, the best books in any genre are the ones that anyone with an open mind could enjoy. Finding someone who can read your book that way can help you find the universal, maybe even timeless threads from beginning to end that aren’t about magic swords or meet-cutes but are instead compelling narratives of human beings dealing with conflict that challenges them to the core. Where do you find those people? My advice on this (as it is with all seemingly unsolvable problems) is to marry a librarian. If that seems drastic (or would require your current spouse having a very open mind), then look for a friend or colleague whose shelves are packed with so many different kinds of books you occasionally worry they may be developing multiple personalities. If you can keep that kind of reader excited, you’re doing something right. Again, I think marrying a librarian is easier, but as the saying goes, you do you.

4. The Genre Reader

Reader in glasses holding stack of books Genre readers? Didn’t I just get through telling you how important it is for someone to read your book who isn’t a genre reader? Yes, but there are some very specific reasons why you’ll want an expert reader in your chosen genre, too. Genres are defined by feelings and tropes. Horror novels are scary. Thrillers are . . . well, thrilling. Hard science fiction deals in big ideas about the relationship of human beings with technology, space, and alien life while epic fantasies let us explore worlds in which societies contend with magic and wondrous beasts who needn’t conform to our understanding of physics and zoology. Every genre has emotions it’s expected to evoke and tropes with which it evokes those emotions. Romance novels allow us to experience vicarious love by using time-honoured plots like “friends to lovers” and “second chance at love”. Crime novels novels need a detective, whether a by-the-book police officer, a hard-boiled rule-breaking private eye, or a quirky cat owner in a small town. Many of my friends who are authors read far more widely than the genres in which they write. That’s a good thing: it means their stories are informed by other traditions. However few of us read so deeply in our own genres that we know every series and can spot every trope. More importantly, few of us can tell when one seemingly recent trope is played out whereas another one we think of as cliché is making a resurgence. Having someone who’s deeply invested in a particular genre read your book gives you a heads-up in case you’re stepping on turf that’s so worn down by other recent authors that no one will see the original aspects of your story. Where to find a genre reader? Luckily, the Internet is full of people who read dozens—if not hundreds—of books in their chosen genre every year. Many of these people love books so much that they’re excited to be beta readers for new authors. Choose someone with whom your own taste aligns, however, because no matter how well read someone is, they’re still coming to a book with their own perspective and biases.

5. The Industry Reader

Man in suit blocking the way If you’re writing for publication, then at some stage your work is going to pass through industry hands. This is true whether you submit to traditional publishers—at which point there’s a ton of people who have to “approve” it—or if you put your book out independently where it’s going to compete in a crowded marketplace and figuring out how to position it is crucial for success. I’m going to focus here on some of the different ways in which industry insiders on the traditional side look at your book because I find indie writers tend to be savvy about their end of the business and also there are so many wonderful resources out there to light the way (two quick ones I enjoy are The Creative Penn and The Self Publishing Show). One of the things new authors sometimes don’t realize is just how many levels of industry people it takes to approve a book. We know about agents, of course, who are looking for new authors with potential breakout debuts and the attributes that point to a long career, and editors looking for the next great series that will not only sell but distinguish itself as work they themselves can be proud of investing so much time and energy shepherding to market. But there are loads of others, too, which is why we now have the dreaded “acquisitions meeting”, in which you’d swear everyone and their cat gets a veto over whether to publish your book. The odd thing is, the longer I’m in this business and the more of these people I meet, the more I’m amazed at how each one brings something different to the table. The editor who champions your book might be the only one who ever reads it, but the others each poke at their case for the book, looking for those elements that can make it successful. Marketing staff want to know what makes this book unique—what details they can use to excite a wide audience of potential readers into checking it out. Publicists, on the other hand, want to know what in the book can entice media and book bloggers into devoting hours of their limited time to this particular author. Sales reps (the people who have to go into bookstores and convince the people who decide what gets on the shelf that your book is worth their precious space), want to know that it’s in a sub-genre that’s moving right now. And that, friends, can be the toughest job in the business. There are entire categories of books that suddenly drop in sales so far that few bookstores will stock them, which means publishers won’t touch them. In recent years, historical adventure has taken a beating, while psychological suspense is brimming with new authors. You’ll still see books in troubled categories on the shelves—maybe even on the bestseller lists—, but you’ll notice they’re from top established names and not debut authors. All of this is why people sometimes shake their fist at the clouds when the word “gatekeepers” comes into the conversation, but the truth is that your work, however good it is, co-exists in a world with millions of other books. You have to not only fit in, but also stand out, and that’s a tricky balancing act. So how do you figure out if you’ve just written the best new novel in a category no one is buying? Where do you find your own “industry reader”? While there are no end of people who will happily take your money in exchange for their “professional evaluation”, this is one area where doing your own research is probably going to work out best. Go to the bookstore shelves and see what’s there. What patterns do you see in the debut books in your chosen genre and what can you learn from them? Last year I was surprised to keep seeing books about dragons by debut authors—weren’t dragons played out? Nope. In fact, it’s a trope where readers are actually keen for fresh new voices with their own take on the well-worn but beloved dragon. Now go back to your manuscript and ask yourself where on those shelves your book would fit. Don’t use this as a reason to doubt your story, but instead a source of inspiration—a way of picking out what you’re going to highlight when it comes time to either pitch to an agent or emphasize on your back cover when you publish independently.

6. The Cross-Media Reader

Man cosplaying as fantasy knight Never in all of those countless hours working on my first novel did I think I’d write the term “cross-media reader” on anything. It’s not a subject that comes up in the context of writing a new book, yet it’s actually turned into a perspective that helps me enhance my story worlds. These days, books aren’t just books: they’re the basis for movies, merchandise, stage plays, comics, games, and all kinds of other media. When I sit down to write the draft of a new book, the last thing I’m thinking about what kind of role playing game someone can make or whether I’ve come up with some cool insignia that people will want to wear as a badge on their collars. But actually, those things matter to readers. They’re elements of the world you’ve built that they get to participate in. One of my absolute delights these days is when readers send me photos of themselves wearing a coat they designed to look like one of my swashbuckling magistrates from the Greatcoats series, or the fellow who got actual tattoos of the magical bands detailed in my Spellslinger novels. These are all ways that readers now engage with the stories they love—but only if the author gives them the chance by bringing that sensibility into the books. Find a friend or colleague who isn’t a bookworm. Someone who plays games or spends every weekend at the movies. Ask them what details fired up their imaginations. Then ask yourself what made you put those into the story in the first place. Are there objects, talismans, clothes, or other elements that you kind of wish you could hold in your hands? I’m always surprised when someone asks me, “when are you going to sell decks of the Argosi cards from the Spellslinger series?” Not a bad problem to have.

7. The Social Impact Reader

Foot about to slip on banana peel The first time I gave a talk about the different ways of reading a manuscript that can help a writer improve their book, I’d never heard the term sensitivity reader. Now it’s everywhere. So why didn’t I title this section “The Sensitivity Reader”? Because I have no expertise in that area, haven’t worked with any in my career, and most of all, because I don’t want this article to send fellow writers into a flame war over the issue. So instead, I’ll focus on things almost all of us—regardless of political or social affiliations—can agree on. If a book can entertain and inspire a reader, then it follows that a book can also hurt them. There’s a difference between something that bores us and something that actively makes us feel like crap. Writers may disagree as to how much potential emotional or psychological harm should affect their creative choices, but in my life I’ve never met an author who set out to hurt people intentionally. They may be out there, but I sure don’t want to hang out with them, and probably you don’t either. But the key word here is the one that’s easiest to miss: intentionality. When I write a novel, I hope to make people laugh, cry, and cheer for the characters. I want them to leave the book excited, thoughtful, maybe even sad. But I never want them to feel personally targeted. I never set out make a fellow human being feel horrible for no reason. Sometimes that’s unavoidable. On occasion I deal with issues in my stories that people might find not just controversial but wrong-headed. I’ve had a book come perilously close to being compromised in translation for having a positively-depicted gay character in a young adult novel. If that sounds bizarre to you, well, it did to me, too, because I wasn’t aware there’s an actual Russian law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”). I’ve also had a novel banned by the Arizona Department of Corrections because apparently all those sword fights promoted violence (and if anyone from that august committee is reading, please be reassured that my upcoming book, How to Plan a Successful Prison Break has no sword fights at all. I promise). I’ve also had people write me because they’re horrified by scenes of violence or abuse in one of my novels. Sometimes that’s just part of the business of being a writer. But in not one of those cases (not even in regards to the poor Arizona Department of Corrections) did I write something with the intent of harming another person. The problem is, the intention of my writing isn’t always the same thing as its effect. While I’d love to say people should all just ignore the things they don’t like, it’s not always up to me to decide how other people experience a book. More importantly, I’d never want a simple, fixable mistake in my writing to suddenly situate my work within a debate in which I’m neither qualified nor interested in participating. Here’s a simple example from my own work. In a recent fantasy novel, I created a religion that was—for me—a passing exploration of how a theology based on six competing holy books would affect a culture. This was, as you might guess, an agnostic writer’s way of looking at the ways in which different bibles might affect a person’s view of their god. The parallels to the Christian old and new testaments are obvious, but there are holy texts across many religions that produce different visions of their gods. Problem was, the culture I was writing about was set in a desert climate, and coupled with the fact that I referred—just in passing—to a kneeling prayer ritual taking place several times over the day, the fantasy religion I was creating could easily have been seen as a sideways jab at Islam. Fortunately for me, a friend read the book with a perspective on religion and mentioned that I might lead readers to picture Muslims when reading my book that has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. My editor, by the way, seeing a different version, pointed out that using the word “bibles” in the book would make readers assume I was pointing to a pseudo-Christian religion. So I fixed it. Nobody died as a result. Nobody told me to “stay in my lane” nor was my tremendous-work-of-incomparable-magnificence compromised as a result. Someone I trusted read the book from the perspective of how it might affect other people and that gave me the opportunity to ask myself whether that was the impact I wanted, or if it would distract from the real story. Maybe you’re writing about people or subjects you want to explore but are farther afield from your own experience. If so, it’s always worth considering whether there’s someone who can read your story from that perspective—through a lens you may not have—and give you insight to make your book even better.

Many Readers, One Writer

Novelist working on her book using typewriter There’s an argument to be made—a solid one, too—that putting your manuscript in front of others compromises its artistic integrity. There’s an even better one that putting it in front of so many people, each with their different lens, risks confusing the writer and watering down the story. But my experience has been that if you believe in your own work, it’s incredibly easy to toss away bad advice, and much harder to see all aspects of a book from its underlying concept to where it sits on the store shelves to whether people will want to dress up as your characters. The insights I’ve gleaned from some of these different types of readers through their special lenses has been not just invaluable to the books, but exciting for me as well. I can now see things in my own manuscripts that eluded me before, and that makes me even more excited to begin the next book. And that, friends, is the best way to decide which readers you give the draft of your next manuscript to: the ones who make you want to get back to the keyboard and keep writing.

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