The Importance of Readers

I have written a book.

Two people have read the book.

I have received their notes and the assessment has begun.

Both of my readers liked the book but their questions, the strengths they perceived, the weaknesses they detected, and the things that resonated were different, except where they met.

One thing is certain:  everyone LOVES Shockey Robbins.  Though no one could possibly love him more than I do.  Only two people have read the entire book but quite a few people have read through the first three chapters.  It is gratifying to me that everyone loves Shockey.  He came to me as one of those complete fictional and necessary beings, not comfortable, but real and with a backwards charm that comes from god knows where.

I knew I couldn’t approach the third draft without outside perspective.  Everyone kept telling me it was me who needed to back off and take some time to let the story breath.  Get some distance.  Take a break.  What I really felt was that there was no way for me to see the problems at this point because I have become so damn close, so enmeshed that I fill in all the details as I proof that maybe other people need but I don’t notice they’re still only in my head and not on the page.  I knew I needed other eyes.

Emma and Lucy did this honor and I will try to express how much it means to me that they were willing to take on the first readings.  This, I realized after I got both of their notes, can’t be easy.  Writers are known to be a pretty sensitive lot.  Who wants to  be the person to say “Hey, this isn’t bad, but how come your head is up your ass?” and be the cause of a whiskey bender of mythic proportions?  When I gave them the book I was confident that I could take whatever they had to dish.  I think you just know when it’s time to set a work free to other eyes.  It was time.

Still, I was unprepared to feel as stripped as I did.  Some of this feeling is for reasons too personal to even say out loud.  I got both their notes the same day.  That night I felt weirdly naked even though neither of them said anything alarming or unhelpfully critical.  My two friends were both incredibly thoughtful and diplomatic.  I realized that this is just one more part of the process of writing a book.  I have always cringed when writers talk about a book as a baby but I understand the analogy now.  It’s a creation, it’s something you spend an inordinate amount of hours working on, labouring over, investing everything of yourself in (hopefully), and then you let it go.

You let it go and suddenly it is a thing.  A thing that exists outside yourself.  It’s a thing that isn’t just an excited conversation you have with your friends about what you’re up to.  It has a life of its own when it leaves you and enters someone else’s head.

If you’ve never written a book before this will be new to you.  This was new to me.  The work of over a year, largely done in private, always in my head.  It’s just weird.  Having readers give you notes on it is like getting a report card for your kid.  It doesn’t really matter what the grades are, it’s a little unnerving to know your kid has to live his or her own life and have complicated relationships you won’t be part of.

Maybe this part of the process won’t interest others but I record it here because it interests me and I wish that I could dig into the intimate process of writing a book as other writers experience it.

I think it’s really important that you choose readers who you trust as people.  Whose opinions you already know you respect.

After reading both sets of notes the fact that I had them to compare to each other was a big help.  They each had a different take, a different perspective.  The thing I most wanted and needed to know was what needs the most revision in the whole book.  Which chapter, or aspect, is the roughest.  It was immediately obvious to me that anything my readers mutually agreed on as needing work is not to be ignored.

Both Emma and Lucy agreed on this:

They want the story to go DEEPER.

With regards to both plot and character motivations/characterizations.  This is something I felt I needed to do as I was writing but was so focused on getting a complete working plot and decent dialog that I didn’t feel I could go too deep yet.  When I finished the last chapter I felt it was too short.  I knew from word count I had plenty of room to develop the plot and characters better.  So everyone agrees.

That’s my biggest broadest goal for the third draft, to go deeper.

Next I used their diverging opinions to come up with a blueprint for the tackling of smaller, but not less important details.  Lucy thought Cricket was unlikable and unrealistic because I show her to be really pragmatic but then have her acting in obstinate irrational ways.  Emma loved Cricket and understood her character and motivations really well.  Lucy’s questions about her character have got me doing some really good thinking.  For two days now I’ve been considering Cricket’s nature and her actions and asking myself why – why does she refuse to listen to any of her friends who are trying to help her?

The answer I came up with was instinctual.  Cricket, in spite of a pragmatic nature, won’t let her friends help her pay off her big financial tax debt because then she’d be in their debt too much.  She would feel beholden to them in an untenable way.  Why?

I will take food, temporary shelter, clothes, and pin money from friends in times of great need.  A year ago when we kept getting to the point of no money in the bank on a Friday, not particularly desperate by desperate standards, more than one friend gave me beer money.  I accepted it as the warm and thoughtful offering it was.

I wouldn’t allow any of my friends to discharge any large amount of money on my behalf.  No matter what my trouble was.  I’ll take the necessities but I will not let any friend pay my mortgage, I wouldn’t let any friend pay a chunk of money down on my house to lower my mortgage.  This is essentially what Cricket’s friends are offering.  It is, to her, unethical to take large sums of money from anyone but closely related family.  Cricket’s close family are all dead.

These are important things to know.  To be able to explain.  It might not be likable and I can understand Cricket being hard for some people to sympathize with.  Part of the issue, and something Lucy pointed out, is that I don’t take full advantage of the potential for internal dialog to explain why Cricket makes the choices she does.  This is a fact.  I am not actually all that much like Cricket myself, she is who I wish I was, but we do have some things in common and those things I take for granted are obvious.

They are not.

So I am taking both Lucy and Emma’s thoughts on Cricket and her motivations (Emma had a lot more questions about the nature of Cricket’s relationship with her parents) and I’m coming to some point in the center because readers at large are a whole lot of individuals who are going to all have their own perspectives but I want to aim for the most amount of people to understand Cricket and what drives her because I love her so much and wish I had half her spirit.

Another point that it’s clear I need to work harder on is: A Sense of Place and Time.

Again, Lucy and Emma had very different reactions to the question of when this story takes place.  What’s clear to me is that there needs to be a little better anchoring in time and place sooner than I establish it in the second draft.  I refuse to declare a specific year that my story takes place.  It’s in the future between 60 to 100 years from now.  There is no catastrophic event that leads to the end of oil supplies.  I don’t believe we’re going to have an Apocalypse.  I believe we’ll just slowly drain our resources until there just is none left for the average person.  This is speculative fiction so it’s how I imagine it’s going to go down.  This is how I imagine my community is going to be when we don’t have access to gasoline anymore.

I don’t intend this book to be a heavy political commentary.  I don’t intend it to be a big speech about what our wicked ways will reap.  It’s a fictional story about how I imagine my community will be down the road when there’s no money for the consumption we’re used to now.  When manufacturing isn’t completely over but everything is really costly so you have to make hard choices about what you’re going to buy.  This is about what happens when there’s no middle class anymore.

Place and Time.  Every novel needs to anchor the reader in place and time.  I have missed my mark a little.  While I don’t want to write a heavy handed cautionary tale for fat capitalist consumers, I want readers to understand that this slow demise has transformed the simplest of activities into more strategically difficult ones.  Between Emma and Lucy’s take on Place and Time (I capitalize that for emphasis) I see where I need to fall and I’m not sure how to achieve it.  But I will.

My first chapter really needs some radical change.

A lot more needs to be accomplished with it and I am starting to see, now, how I might achieve it.  I need to let this all percolate a little longer.  My head is swimming with the notes, digesting them, putting them in context, considering them against the immutable aspects of my story.

I am motivated to make Cricket and Grey a piece of great writing.  I am not so concerned about writing the great American novel, nor do I expect to write a Pulitzer winner, but what I do expect of myself is that anyone can pick up my book, read it, and regardless of whether they really like my style or not, recognize a piece of well written fiction.

The way I feel about Bukowski and Steinbeck, both of whose style I LOATH but whom I respect deeply for their skill and brilliance.

The best thing about having these valuable notes is that some of my worst fears have been laid to rest.  Neither of my readers seemed to think the dialog was reprehensible and neither thought this story a paltry embarrassing romance.  Things I didn’t to believe I’d created but which I deeply feared.  Maybe I should trust myself a little more not to create a bodice ripper out of a genuine story of growth out of grief and partnership with friendship.

I’ve got a lot of ground to cover with the third draft and I wouldn’t even know where to begin if it weren’t for Lucy and Emma.

Ladies: It’s such a privilege to have your help with my first novel.  I promise not to go on a whiskey-sodden bender.  I’m encouraged, energized, and percolating my next move madly!

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