Getting the feedback you need, Part IV: sometimes, you just need an accountant

‘Twas the week after Christmas, and all through the publishing houses, not a creature was stirring, not even that junior editor who swore to you at a conference last summer that she’d get to your submission within a month. So let’s let the literary world enjoy its long winter nap and move on to matters that we writers can control, eh?

For those of you joining this series late – because you have, say, lives or family and friends who might conceivably like to see you during the holidays – since neither now or immediately after the New Year are particularly good times to query or submit (half the writers in North America’s New Year’s resolutions include some flavor of, “Send queries immediately!” This leads to very, very grumpy screeners between Jan. 2 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.), this is an excellent time to get feedback, so you can revise between now and February’s submissions and contest entries. (Don’t worry, those of you who are eyeing the PNWA’s contest deadline nervously: my next series will be on contest entries.)

On Christmas Eve (hey, professional writers seldom get holidays; I wrote for hours yesterday, because I’m currently on a tight deadline), I brought up the notion of approaching readers in your book’s target demographic who might not currently be die-hard book-buyers. Tip #5 is essentially different than Tip #3, which advised getting feedback from inveterate readers of your chosen genre or field, who would already be familiar with the conventions, limitations, and joys possible in books like yours. Potential readers in your target audience may not yet have read a book like yours, however, may — for reasons that you are VERY eager to explain to your dream agent — need desperately to get their paws on your work.

Getting feedback from those who do not read voraciously, then, can sometimes give a writer great insight unavailable from any other source. If you can make a case that your book is ideally suited to address the under-served needs of your target demographic, that’s a great selling point (and a more or less necessary point in any NF book proposal). Feedback from these types of people will, obviously, provide you with tips on how to achieve that admirable goal.

Let’s say you’ve written a lifestyle book for former high school athletes who no longer exercise – a rather large slice of the population, I would imagine. Three of your five chapters are filled with recipes for fiber-filled bran muffins, salads, and trail mix. Naturally, because you paid attention to Tip #3, you would want to include among your first readers someone familiar with cookbooks, as well as someone who reads a lot of exercise books.

However, it would also be well worth your while to seek out jocks from your old high school who have never opened either a cookbook or exercise book before, because they are the underserved part of your target market. If you can tailor your book’s advice so it makes abundant sense for your old volleyball buddy, you’ll know you have a good shot at writing for people like her.

Hey, you might as well get SOME use from all of those nagging messages Classmates.com keeps sending you about getting back in touch with old playmates, right?

Word to the wise: if you are a member of a writers’ group, and you have not been getting overly useful feedback on your work, you might want to consider whether its members actually are in your target demographic. Just because a writer is intelligent and knows a lot about craft doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s the best last reader for your work before you submit it to an agent.

As an editor, I constantly get queries from potential clients whose creative NF is being ripped apart by the novelists in their critique groups, whose mysteries are being dismissed by literary fiction writers, whose romances aimed at the under-20 set are garnering frowns from the over-60s. In the early stages of the writing process, when you are concentrating on story and structure, intra-group differences may be minimal, but if I had a dime for every memoirist who was told by advocates of tight first-person fiction to scrap any effort at objectivity and add more sex and violence to the book, I would own my own publishing house.

Where I would publish all of you, naturally. Perhaps I should start soliciting those dimes.

As when you are considering any potential first reader, set aside for the moment whether you like the people in your group, or whether you respect them, or whether they have already published books outside your field. Look very carefully at their respective backgrounds and ask yourself: are these the kind of people I expect to buy my book? If they did not know me, would they buy it at all?

If the answer to either is no, go out and find some people who are and will, pronto.

Which leads me to Tip #6: solicit MULTIPLE first readers, not just one – and let your first readers know that each is one of several.

Unless you are dealing with a seasoned professional (such as yours truly), asking a single person, however well-qualified, to give you feedback loads too much weight onto every critical grunt and positive eye gleam. It’s intimidating to the reader, and thus usually harmful to the quality of the feedback. Overwhelmed by the responsibility, many otherwise conscientious folks placed in this position panic: one will drop the book like a live coal the instant they spot a grammatical problem, another will spend a week straight filling your margins with soul-searing arguments against the way you’ve chosen to tell the story.

Besides, your work is complex, right? It may be very difficult to find the single ideal best reader for it. So why not mix and match your friends to create an ideal composite reader? Which brings me to:

Tip #7: Find different readers to meet your book’s different needs.

Most of us would like to think that anything we write will invariably touch any given reader, but in actuality, that’s seldom the case. I, for instance, am no fan of golf (I dislike plaid in virtually all of its manifestations), and thus would be a terrible first reader for a book about any of its multifarious aspects – but my buddy Mary, who has written a terrific musical called FAIRWAYS currently gracing your better country clubs across the nation, would probably eat it up. Yet we’re both inveterate readers and writers with long histories of giving excellent feedback. (This should NOT be construed as my urging you to send her your golfing manuscripts, incidentally.)

Nor is it often the case that we happen to have an array of first readers easily at our disposal – although, again, if you join a good writers’ group, you will in fact have gained precisely that. In the absence of such a preassembled group, though, you can still cobble together the equivalent, if you think long and hard about what individual aspects of your book could use examination. Once you’ve identified these needs, you can ask each of your chosen readers to read very explicitly with an eye to her own area of expertise, so to speak.

In the lifestyle book example above, it was easy to see how readers from different backgrounds could each serve the book. With fiction, however, the book’s various needs may be harder to define. In a pinch, you can always fall back on finding a reader in the same demographic as your protagonist, or even a particular character – I know a lot of teenagers who get a HUGE kick out of critiquing adult writers’ impressions of what teenage characters are like. If a major character is an accountant, try asking an accountant to read the book for professional accuracy. Even if you are writing about vampires or fantasy creatures, chances are that some regular Joes turn up in your stories from time to time. If only as soon-to-be-sucked-dry victims.

And so forth. Specialized readers can be a positive boon to a writer seeking verisimilitude.

More tips follow tomorrow, of course. A heads-up to folks with questions on these and other matters: I may be a bit slower than usual getting back to you over the next couple of weeks. As some of you already know (especially those of you who were within complaining distance of me at any of last week’s many seasonal festivities), an editor at a major publishing house has asked me to revise a novel of mine fairly extensively between now and a mid-January editorial meeting. (For those of you who have been keeping track, this is the second such requested revision within the last three months.) Obviously, this task is sucking up most of my time and attention at the moment. But don’t despair: I shall get to your questions and comments as soon as I can.

Happy Boxing Day, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

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