This one may sound a little whiny, but it’s not meant that way. For me, I guess you could say it’s something of a breakthrough, in a way. Mostly in the sense that I realized a problem I’ve developed is probably common for a lot of writers: the lack of an Ideal Reader (Stephen King’s name, to give credit where it’s due).
I had a First Reader—that’s a bit different—before I switched to writing crime fiction, a friend I’ve known almost as long as I’ve been reading. But the last thing I remember him reading outside the sf/f field was The Satanic Verses, and I’m not even sure if that qualifies. To hear him state it, reading crime would simply be beneath him, even though it’s apparently still okay for me to read his stories. To be fair, I still like sf/f, so I guess I should cut him a little slack, but…well, all right. Never mind. Move on.
I have two people I consider my Ideal Readers, but neither of them will give me significant feedback, and basically for the same reason: they feel they’re not qualified. I think they’re selling themselves short, but I would never force them to do it. Besides, my daughter is pretty busy juggling her writing, new job and college classes. To expect her to find time in there to even read my stuff, much less critique it, would be unfair.
The other one is her mother. She likes my writing, but limits her critiques to, “It’s good.” Encouraging, but not very helpful. And she has other, very practical reasons on top of that, such as being a single mother and managing an apartment complex. Not exactly conducive to the kind of analytical thinking needed. When you spend 24/7 never knowing when you’ll be interrupted (it’s a rare phone call to her when I don’t end up sitting there holding a silent handset while she has to take a call from a tenant) makes concentration a bit tough, to say the least.
Okay, that’s pretty much it. And it leaves my writing group.
Now, I’m not at all putting down my writing group. Far from it. I’ll be the first to say that my writing has improved by light years thanks to this group. I don’t always agree with their assessments—who would?—but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize what they’ve done for me. I was so far behind one what the market wants from a writer these days that, at first, I wasn’t sure what language they were speaking to me. Thankfully, I’d put up with enough piercing criticism from my friend that theirs, while a little confusing at first, didn’t hurt my feelings.
And never, ever underestimate the value of multiple viewpoints on your writing. I mean that: never, ever. In a lot of cases, it even allows you to be democratic about it and do something like a Hollywood test screening. If enough people think you’ve done something wrong, even if you don’t agree with their opinion, you’d probably better change it. If it’s evenly divided, I call it a wash and leave it alone—unless it niggles at me that maybe those who don’t like it might be right. Looking at your work with fresh eyes is never a waste of time, either.
But there’s one glaring limitation to the writing group: the five-page limit per reader.
I understand it. It has to be that way or only a couple people would get to read. Even with that limit, there are nights that the group is large enough not everyone gets to read. And, since we meet on Thursday nights, I have a conflicting engagement on the 1st and 3rd Thursdays if each month that mean I can’t be at group. The result is that, most month, I get to read 10 pages—not exactly a blistering pace when your novel is over 300 ms pages in length.
I realize all this sounds a bit self-centered, except that I can’t talk about anyone else’s situation. I only know my own, and I’m using it for illustrative purposes—not to have a pity party. I’m realistic about my situation, and even more so now, because I started really thinking about it—something I don’t always do, regrettably—and realized I probably wasn’t the only one. What a shocker!
Well, okay, I guess we’re all guilty of that kind of thinking from time to time, so that’s cool.
I guess what brought this home to me was having an agent looking at my novel. I keep thinking, Is it even up to snuff? Is he gonna read this thing and wonder what the hell I was thinking shopping it around? Or will he be able to see the potential I believe it has, if only because I’ve been told so by so many other people?
Yeah, I know: it’s the usual self-doubt. We writers all secretly want to be coddled and treated like tortured artists. Well, okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but it does seem to me that many creative people have a streak of self-doubt. My brother is in a band, and I’ve heard him talk about it. He and his band mates have recently taken to doing some solo shows, and he was pretty tense about his first one. I remember him wondering how he was gonna be able to come up with enough material to fill a show. Keep in mind that, in his genre, most songs are about three minutes long, and since he plays clubs, that means he often has to fill a couple of hours.
I can relate. Kinda like sitting down at the computer with a bare-bones idea, and knowing that, to make it work, you gotta write about it in at least 70,000 words—and I prefer my novels to be closer to 90,000. And with my 1st draft minus 10% = 2nd draft formula, that means I gotta write 99,000 words. Might as well say 100,000.
Unlike musicians, though, writers don’t get immediate feedback. When you’re at the level my brother and his band are (see the Cletus Got Shot link over there on the side if you wanna know more), you tend to debut new songs in front of a live crowd. That means instant feedback.
But even if we have someone right in our own household as Ideal Reader, it still takes time to finish a novel. How much depends on what else they have to do in addition to reading our work. Can’t expect them to just drop everything. Who would cook our meals?
I can think of at least two members of my group that probably are in the same situation I am. And if I actually applied myself, I could probably think of more. It’s not necessarily all the uncommon.
So, the question is, if you’re in this situation, what do you do? Do you rely on your writing group? Or do you have some other way of doing it?
I’ll be I’m not the only one who’ll be interested in seeing some answers.