Friday, January 18, 2008

Reality Check

Before getting to today's little chat, I'd like to indulge in a rare bit of BSP (blatant self-promotion). I finally got to see my name in print yesterday, in print in the same volume as Michael Connelly's that is. An advanced copy of The Blue Religion landed in my mailbox. The book, to be put out by Little Brown this year, is an anthology of mystery short stories, all inspired by a single thought: "It's not about how the cop works the case, but how the case works the cop." I'm thrilled to have my story "Such a Lucky, Pretty Girl" appear in the volume. Connelly is one of my favorite authors, so having my work appear alongside his, and that of other bestselling authors is like ... wow! I have to pinch myself -- give myself a reality check -- to make sure it's real. Plus, response to my latest book, Darkness and the Devil Behind Me, has been quite good. So yes, I'm smiling. (Ahem. She takes a deep breath and becomes serious again.) Now, back to today's subject.

The Art of Choosing Your Readers

Writers need and want to have feedback. It's an important part of the process, that process of polishing and rewriting that can make even the boldest, most disciplined writer cringe. And it's the part where family, friends, acquaintances and sometimes even strangers can become an integral part of the "writer's team."

When people think about a writer's team, they often think of the agent, editor, contract attorney or publicist. Not many think of those individuals who step back and let a writer write when he needs to be writing, and step forward when he not only needs support but supportive critique. Few think about the readers, the guinea pigs, the brave souls who agree to set aside valuable time, read (or re-read) an unfinished work, and share their unvarnished opinion.

There is an art to choosing readers. There are questions to be asked. "Does this person read a lot? Does he read books in my genre? Have a discerning mind? Does he possess strong analytical skills and is he able to give solid constructive criticism? Is analysis one of his strengths to begin with? Is he astute enough to recognize my 'voice' when reading my work, and believe in me well enough not to think I should sound like someone else?"

Your circle of readers should include people who share your socio-economic background, profession, or tastes, whether it be in literature, sports, or ice cream. But the circle must also include those who differ from you significantly. The first group can provide critique from the point of view of those "in the know." The second can give you insight into the universality of your story.

I recently read a remarkable manuscript about a young girl of mixed heritage who is growing up under strict parentage in the Caribbean. Before passing it to me, the writer had given the manuscript to a reader who is white and Irish. The reader said she identified with the main character's struggle for personal development because it reflected issues that she too had faced, issues that surpassed ethnicity, nationality and geographic location. "It made me feel very good that she connected (with the story) in so many ways," the writer said. She also handed her story to a male reader, who saw enough of the human story in it to enjoy it and not simply dismiss it as "women's literature."

So try to have a diverse group of readers. It's good to have at least three; better to have four. After all, people do get busy. The most important thing is to have people who really do love to read, who are passionate about it, and to have people who respect and support your efforts as a writer. Please avoid naysayers and dream-killers.

All of this sounds obvious, doesn't it? The need to have readers and how to choose them. But over at Gentle Pen, we've been surprised at how little thought some writers put into selecting their readers. They haphazardly ask spouses, parents, folks they've run into. The results can be disappointing at best, hurtful and damaging at worst. So think before you ask someone to read your work and choose wisely.

Until next week, I wish you the best!



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