Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Readers and the Rule of Three

I mentioned in an earlier post about how letting close friends and family read your work with the expectation of constructive feedback can be dangerous and downright pointless.  When I finished the first draft of Finding Claire Fletcher I was very excited.  I loved it.  I had loved writing it.  I thought it had great promise but I knew that it needed work.  I had been so immersed in it that it was simply too hard for me to figure out where it needed the work so I gave it to a couple of close friends and family members.  They all raved about how good it was and I kept saying, “And?”  I wanted to know what was wrong with it but I don’t think they believed me.  I mean I don’t think they really believed that I could take the criticism.  I guess what they didn’t know or what I didn’t make clear at that point was that by the time I finished FCF I had reached a point in my writing life where my ego was completely out of it.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy hearing nice things but I had finally come to a place where I knew that negative things would only make my work stronger.  Sometimes when you are the creator of a work, you’re just too close to it to see all the cracks and flaws.  You need someone else to point them out. 
My philosophy then is the same as it is now and it’s quite simple:  It’s about the work, not about me.  I want the work to be good and if getting good means hearing some really painful stuff, then just bring it on.  My ego only limits me when it comes to my writing.  I don’t take it personally.  You saying, “This wasn’t believable” or “This part really stinks” or “The second half of the book just completely degenerated” or “You need to cut this character altogether” or even harsher things is not a reflection on me.  It’s a reflection on the work.  I don’t get upset.  I get frustrated, yes—when you work for years on something you certainly don’t want to hear that it needs to be completely rewritten or overhauled.  You definitely don’t want to face the possibility that the book is just not going to work—ever.  But being frustrated is not the same as having hurt feelings.  I get frustrated but I don’t get hurt. 
As I said, I really believed that FCF had great promise and I knew right down to my bones that in order to make it the best it could be, I would need some constructive criticism.  I didn’t get it from my friends and family.  I didn’t get one negative word, even when I asked for it. 
So I sent it off to agents.  As you know if you read my post on Agent John Doe, one agent actually took the time to send me a lengthy list of suggestions.  As I said in my previous post, perhaps I should have been demoralized but instead I was exhilarated.  Everything he said made so much sense and all I could think was, “Holy Sh*t, if I change the book with his comments in mind it is going to be a million times better.”  He didn’t tell me what to do or how to change the book.  He just said, “Here are the fifty things I think are problems and/or that need improving” and just reading all the things he had problems with got my creative juices flowing.  In trying to figure out how to change things so that they weren’t problematic, I came up with new ideas that I thought would serve the work so much better.
I told my friends and family members who had read FCF all the things that he had said and every single one of them said the same thing:  “I thought that too when I read it but I didn’t say anything”.  I grinned and nodded and then after they left, I punched the wall.  Just kidding.  But I was very angry.  They could have saved me months of time and about 50 rejections if they had just been honest with me.  So now it’s my rule, in terms of readers, to never give my work to someone I know unless I think it is done.  I’ll never give one of my books to a loved one or pal to read if I think it still needs work. 
If I think it needs work, then I will send it to a critique partner.  Critique partners are a relatively new concept to me.  I only started working with them this year, thanks to Nathan Bransford’s forums.  It’s fabulous!  If you want help then you have to give your work to someone who has no emotional stake in it whatsoever.  Someone who doesn’t know or care about you well enough to care about your feelings!  That’s a little strong, I know but you get the drift—you want someone to be honest with you.  Most of my critique partners have been wonderful and so gracious and able to be brutally honest with me in the most tactful ways.  I am so grateful for them and feel that because of them, I’ve come a long way in being able to evaluate my work for trouble spots.  (Incidentally, one of my critique partners, Nancy Thompson who I think is an accomplished writer in her own right has become a very, very close friend and confidant to me.  I’m truly blessed to have her in my life!)
So I think if you are looking for a reader who is going to help you make the work better, you need someone objective.  A critique partner, a beta reader.  I love working with other writers because they understand the process and know what you’re going through and they work hard to help you get to where you’re going.  I only had a couple of negative experiences with critique partners but those experiences barely register next to the great ones I’ve had.
Now to my Rule of Three.  This is a rule I’ve developed for loved ones and friends in my life who know that I write and show interest in my stuff.  I never, ever give my work to someone close to me to read unless they ask me three times.  On three different occasions.  Because people will ask you about your writing to be polite and that’s great.  Inevitably many of them say, “I really want to read your book”.  After awhile you get a feel for who really would like to read your book and who is just saying that to be nice.  For most people I say well when it gets published you can!  I think that’s the best tack to take.  I mean really if you do get published someday, you don’t want everyone you know to have already read your book.  You want them to buy it!  But I do have a few very close friends and family members who express interest in my work and I wouldn’t mind it if this small circle of people have already read it when someday (hopefully) it gets published.  I hope they’ll have liked it and tell their friends to buy copies.  But I still make them ask me for it three times and I never, ever give it to them unless I feel it is finished.  I would say in the last year I’ve had about 10 people ask me if they could read FCF.  Only two people actually have. Those are the people who were interested enough to ask me on three different occasions. 
So to sum up, if you’ve got family and friends who are nice enough to be worried about your feelings—don’t give them your work with the expectation of getting constructive criticism.  Get a critique partner for that.  When your book is done, if they still want to read it, make sure it’s finished and make them ask more than once.

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