Sunday, March 8, 2009

Why Writers Need Pre-Readers

Pre-readers fill a valuable role for us writers. We can overlook misspellings or missing words, plot gaps or mistakes, mis-assigned dialogue, and so forth. Readers, though, can look at the work with fresh sight, find what we miss, and even suggest different words or phrasing that can make a dull or okay passage come alive.

This past week, I finished a piece at a crazy hour of the morning, and immediately sent it to a small group of readers who have saved me from many potentially embarrassing errors in the past. This time, bleary-eyed and tired, I was under no illusions as to the, ahem, perfection of the story. And I was right. In one scene, I give the protagonist a gun. A couple scenes later, he doesn't have it. Ay-yi-yi. And there's a difference between conscious and conscience, did you know that? Apparently, typing at three in the morning leads to creative spelling. Though I was certain I'd assigned the correct speaker to a particular line of dialogue, I'd actually implied that it was spoken by his antagonist, which turns a tense exchange of challenges into a confusing bit of humor.

Sometimes, readers can ask questions or provide insights that lead the writer in unexpected directions, and readers' impressions, likes and dislikes, and emotional responses are valuable feedback. It's interesting to me to learn which readers connect with which characters, and why. My sister-in-law dislikes one character so much that she once told me she's annoyed as soon as this character arrives in a scene. By contrast, my best friend from college likes the character, and wants to know more about her. Each reader has her reasons; though those reasons conflict, they both tell me that I've succeeded with that character -- who, ironically, is a woman.

I was feeling iffy about a scene where firearms are in use, but where the main character and a crewmate employ unusual methods to end the fight, and neither involves bullets. So far, one reader likes it. Actually, she wrote, "Love it, love it, love it!" Always instills confidence, a reaction like that.

So, while readers can find errors and save us from embarrassment, they can also encourage, and let us know when our writing is on the mark. I recommend every writer surrounds himself / herself with trusted readers who will provide concise, honest feedback. These readers don't have to be writers themselves, but they do need to be specific with their responses, and unafraid to do so, which means we writers have to be ready for whatever they say, good or bad, and be able to see our work with clear eyes. The work will be better for it.


Alexander Field said...

I love this post. I am going through this now with a small group of reader friends and their advice, while hard to take sometimes, is invaluable. I think the more comfortable I get with taking the advice of reader friends, the more my writing improves. Thanks for the post.


Alexander - Thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad this post was of use to you.

A couple decades ago, when I was still a kid and just KNEW I knew everything, I was the world's worst advice receptor, and my temper showed it, but now I value solid, clear feedback as one of the best barometers of a story's success before sending it out into the world.

Thank God for people who respect me enough to be honest with me.

Eaglewing said...

True, always good to have somebody read and be willing to offer immediate unfiltered comment. My brother has done that for me and its always interesting to hear how he absorbs the story.

By the way, did the character have a conscious conscience about using his disappearing gun? Just kidding :)


Eagle - The disappearing gun has been permanently vaporized. In its place? A bag of marbles. Silly, but true.

In conceiving the serialized story at Ray Gun Revival, my plan was to keep things a little off-kilter, so instead of betting on cards, my guys bet on marbles. A stolen bag of marbles helps ends a fight.

I like to keep things moving, but I may need to expand the fight scene, because it seems to be over too quickly.