QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You and Your Readers

Our US-based readers are preparing for Thanksgiving Day, and for our non-US-readers, I'll just say it's a day when we nurture our gratitude by engaging in gluttony. If you go to sleep without having to worry about rats, freezing to death or having nothing to eat when you awaken in the morning, consider yourself blessed because you've got a leg up on most human beings through recorded history.

Writers have a special need for gratitude, and I'll put it bluntly: we're a little demanding. We have a hobby that consumes vast amounts of brain power and time. But our stories are not complete until they find a recipient. A listener or a reader. Neither listening nor reading are quick undertakings.

My step-father creates oil paintings. Their creation also consumes vast amounts of brain power and time, but when he'd call me over to take a look, my look was maybe five minutes. Here, come see what I did on this leaf -- see how the light plays on it? I would dutifully look at the leaf, note his technique, file away the information (I can actually discuss paintings as if I know what I'm talking about) and then I could squirrel back to my room to write more stories about angels.

Five minutes to look at the painting.

How long does it take to read your novel?

The commitment someone shows in order to read your work is intimidating. Moreover, if they're reading an early draft, it will have errors and possibly plot issues. A thorough critique might double or triple the amount of time they're investing. You can skim a crappy novel enough to say a couple of nice things about it. But a real read-through? That's huge. There's a reason book doctors charge a thousand dollars for that kind of editorial work.

We don't just owe that beta-reader a thank-you. We owe a huge thank-you.

What should that thank-you look like?  Well, a verbal thank-you is a start. But here's the way to let your early readers really know how much you appreciate them:
  • Consider their advice.
  • Engage with their advice. Ask questions.
  • Don't make a big deal of places where you disagree with them. Forgive them if they missed something obvious in the text (but do look back at your text to make sure it's obvious.)
  • Offer to critique their work.
  • Send them an email mid-edit to let them know you found something particularly helpful.
  • Carry those single edits out into the entirety of your work.
  • Improve. That's the reason they put in all that work in the first place.
After working with your manuscript, your beta-reader or critique partner wants your book to succeed as much as you do. Improving your writing is a terrific thank-you.

Most writers will do this naturally, but I've also given feedback and got nasty backlash in return: obviously I didn't understand, and they meant it that way, and on the next go-around, that same problem would be right there again. Not listening to your readers means not improving your writing. (I'm not saying you need to take every bit of advice you're given. Your work would be a pitiful mess. But however briefly, you should consider it all.)

Moreover, pitch a fit like that in a public forum and you've earned a one-way ticket to The Land Of Not Getting Any Further Feedback. To paraphrase my hero Weird Al Yankovic, most of us have "a personal policy not to waste our stinking time."

Sometimes an agent gives advice during a rejection. This is contentious, but I always sent a brief "Thank you so much for your feedback" after a personalized rejection. (Well, almost always. I didn't when the rejection seemed to address a different book.) Some say it adds to the agent's workload to have to read your line or two of gratitude. Personally, I think it's healthier for us as writers to keep in mind that editors and agents didn't need to give us any feedback at all. Humility leads to gratitude. So let's be grateful. 

This weekend I had the privilege of buying a friend's book. I'd worked with her on an early draft, so I turned to the acknowledgements hoping to see my name. She mentioned two other writers who had worked with her, but not me, and I admit I felt a little crestfallen. 

Then I looked to the top of the page, and there's the dedication. Three names, one of them my own. And I just sat, stunned, while that sank in. 

Be thankful for your readers. Be thankful for them all: the early readers who flinched at your ninety-six-word sentence but also talked you through that rough spot near the end; the later readers who pointed out your overwriting and places where the emotions were unclear; the agents and editors who let you know your character needed spark or your setting was just perfect; the editors who worked on your novel to polish it until it glowed; the readers who opened their wallets in order to buy your work. Be thankful for them all because without our readers, our writing wouldn't feel complete.

Lastly, to my own agent, to my early readers, later readers, and the writers who have generously allowed me to critique them -- I've learned so much from all of you. Thank you.

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Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.

1 comment:

Martha Ramirez said...

Great post! Beautiful painting.