Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Feedback--Naive readers and what kind of responses are helpful

Welcome new visitors. Here's what you've missed . . . I've been workingonanovel for just over two years. I've finished six drafts, developing and digging deeper in most of them and more recently moving to cutting and sharpening. I write in the mornings and work part-time/freelance in the p.m. to support it. Between drafts I typically have some weeks off while someone is reading it and I get some distance and energy. That's where I am now. It's been in the hands of three readers for the last month, and as of last night I've heard back from two of them.

So, last night, I met my friend at my favorite Indian restaurant. I asked the owner to seat us downstairs in the bar, which was closed, instead of the noisy dining room so we could talk while we ate. (Also, see previous post on shame. I didn't want the feeling that eavesdropping diners were thinking, "Right. Another writer.") So we had the place to ourselves with the owner coming to check on us once in awhile and to refill our sweet lhasis and bring us more nan. It felt like I was making a backroom deal with the mafia.

She gave me super positive feedback. She loved it in every way and couldn't say enough nice things about it and about how engaged she was with it. Couldn't put it down. Was totally wrapped up in the character and his development and his responses. So that was very nice, and I do accept the compliments as sincere. She's not the kind of person to pull punches. She would have let me know if she didn't like it.

But I couldn't help being disappointed anyway, because there wasn't a lot she told me that helps me make it better. I know that the book is too long and that there are parts of it that need to come out, and I need help figuring exactly where. What's essential and nonessential? This friend wasn't able to help me spot that and discuss it.

Now I knew going in that this would be a risk with her. I was up-front with the fact that she is my "naive" reader. That is, she's not a writer herself, not involved in editorial or publishing work, not a teacher. And she's not a particularly avid reader. A sometimes casual reader and not usually of this kind of book I think. I have other readers who are familiar with workshops, giving feedback, evaluating literature and other writing, but this friend doesn't fall in that category. She represents the kind of person who might pull it off the shelf at the bookstore or have it recommended to them by a friend. She's giving me a different kind of look than my more experienced critical readers are.

The naive reader is important and helpful. Every response is legitimate, even if they aren't experienced at saying where that response comes from, at categorizing problems or at forming advice on how to fix a problem. It's helpful to hear someone just say "I got bored at this part," even if they can't say why or what to do about it.

But this reader didn't have even much of that kind of feedback. I do trust her response, like I say, and trust that she would let me know if she didn't like something, but I guess I'm discovering that she's not a very critical reader. She's not looking for trouble the way that others might. She's more willing to surf over the problems in the book, enjoying the non-essential digressions.

Which is important information probably. I have to think about it. What does it mean that she takes in the book that way and another more experienced critic is pointing out dozens of places to trim? I'm going to have to think about that. It might mean that I can get away with a little more "bagginess" in the tale than I thought. Maybe it means the finer critical instincts honed by myself and my other readers are cutting too deep.

Up next? Well, leftover Indian food for lunch. And then a few days off while I'm out of town. In theory, I could start back to work on the book Monday, but I have one more reader to hear from. I'll have to decide how strongly to resist starting before hearing from her.


hippokrene said...

The majority of readers experience a book in a totally different mode than a writer, editor, agent, reviewer, or someone who’s studied literature. In general, they don’t deal on a good/bad scale but an enjoyable/unenjoyable scale and can only provide a vague idea of why a book was enjoyable or not.

That’s a great thing! Just listen to your na├»ve reader and don’t push her for what you view as ‘helpful feedback.’ The majority of people are not critical readers, but if she senses that’s what you want, it’s likely she’ll start responding to your work as such.

Anyways, you’re on your sixth draft? Have you queried any agents? Submitted to any editors?

Sometimes the urge to make a piece ‘better’ can just be a way of avoiding rejection.

RW said...

Thanks for the feedback. I'm chomping at the bit to start sending it out, but it genuinely is not ready. It took me this many drafts to really develop the emotional complexity of it and then to start to reel back in the length. (See previous posts on getting from 570 pp to 390 pp.) Next up, I hope, I can finally concentrate on making it hum--cutting it down to what's truly necessary and doing a lot of sentence-level sharpening.