For the last six years, I have been part of a writing group. There are only three of us, and I think the world of them, but I don’t show them my works in progress, not anymore. I share ideas, details I find challenging, thematic issues. I give them copies of my manuscript only after I’ve completed a second draft when I’m relatively certain of the characters and the plot.
I have a good reason for holding back. First impressions are indelible. With few exceptions, I think it is almost impossible for someone to reread a manuscript and see it clearly, to pick up the subtle changes between drafts. It’s a lot to ask of any reader, let alone one who has become a friend. I don’t ask, and I don’t think you should either.
So what do you do? Where do you go for a fresh read? The next logical stop seems to be friends and family. I do this often, and it can be helpful, but I wonder if you ever get an objective reading from people who know you well. Sometimes it works, but I don’t think it’s optimal.
What you really need is a focus group. In the same way that other industries test products, you need to test your story. You need to find out what works, what is clear, what confuses or repeats. Would readers root for your protagonist? Do the characters arc? It’s important to answer these questions before you put your book out there for real, because the same single reading rule applies in the marketplace. Agents and editors are not likely to reread your manuscript. You’ll be very lucky if they read it once.
So where do you find this focus group? My recommendation? Look to your local book clubs. They have everything you need: members who love to read and discuss books and plenty of frank opinions.
I found my first book club through my local independent bookstore. I asked the manager if any of the book clubs they worked with might be willing to help out a fledgling author. This was a store I’d shopped at for years, so I wasn’t just someone off the street asking for a huge favor. The manager wanted to think about it and promised to get back to me. A week or so later, I received a call. She had found me a book club. I thanked her, made copies of my book, handed them out, and waited a month while the group read.
I hosted the book club meeting at my house. They were a great group, one that had been together for over ten years. They were accustomed to frank discussions of the books they read, but this was new to them. As our conversation began, it became obvious that the biggest challenge I was going to have was to get them to be as honest and opinionated as I needed them to be. These were nice people. They didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
I stopped the discussion. “I am so flattered to hear this,” I said. “Of course I want to know what works, but what would help me most would be to hear what doesn’t work. I need you to be brutally honest.”
Their polite comments were soon replaced by remarks that really helped. Within minutes, I was being told everything that was wrong with the book. Where they agreed, I took copious notes. Where they disagreed, it became even more interesting. I was able to listen as they argued the points of my story. I learned which characters my readers empathized with, and which ones were not yet fully developed on the page. I realized that I had to simplify my timeline and draw a clearer contrast between past and present, because the story jumped back and forth too often for the readers to follow.
I had a prepared list of questions I wanted to ask, and at the end of their regular discussion, we went through that list. I asked about character, about pacing and consistency. But there was one question that was more helpful than any other, and it is one I encourage you to try: “Where did you stop reading and put the manuscript down?” There are points that lag in every story. You have to know what those points are, because they may not be as obvious to you as they are to a reader. I had always joked that one of my goals with the book was to keep my readers from sleeping. At what point did these women decide they needed some well-deserved rest?
You might assume that rest would come at different times for different readers, depending on their schedules and how long they’d been reading. This wasn’t the case. Almost every reader stopped reading at the same points throughout the story. For the most part, these were not my intended breaks in the story, they were places that needed rewriting.
I tested the book with three different book club focus groups before I felt it was ready for the world. Each one taught me something important, and I am grateful to all of them for their generous help. I think we all enjoyed our collaboration, and when the book was finally published, they passed the word to other clubs.
Whether you decide to use the focus group approach or not, I urge you try your work out on many readers before you set it free. As writers, we often fall in love with our creations and see our characters only as we intend them to be. Since our stories exist as much in the minds of our readers as they do on the page, getting a glimpse into the reader’s POV is a valuable and necessary insight. A good reality check in service of our work is one of the best things we can do.
Who do you ask to read your work? Have you ever tried the focus group approach?
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