Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, January 27, 2010 18 comments
In Monday's post, I mentioned that I'd spent the week working through crits with delta readers. Yeah, I probably did coin the term. I've begun to wonder if I'm something of a feedback junkie, roping in as many readers as I have.

I thought it might be helpful for me to describe my unusual process with WIP-1, mistakes I've made along the way, and valuable lessons I've learned.

Throughout drafting WIP-1, I fed drafts to my ALPHA readers. These are folks who are happy to see anything you put in front of them and who encourage you no matter what. They might make suggestions or frown at something you didn't get quite right, but your alphas are mostly cheerleaders, not critiquers. My main alphas are my husband and a wonderful teenager from my church who begs to read every single draft.

If you write for teens and don't have your own personal fangirl, by all means go find one NOW. I would have given up long, long ago if I didn't have Connor (yes, a girl named in honor of Flannery O'Connor. Cool, right?) telling me again and again that yes, real live teenagers will like what I write. She adores my characters as much as I do, guffaws at my humor, swoons over my romantic subplots, understands my religious themes and remembers all my best lines and quotes them to me. Seriously, does it get any better than that?

When I'd completed and cleaned up my first draft, I went trawling for BETA readers to look at the whole manuscript with a critical eye. I looked for a wide range of ages, from teens to empty-nesters, figuring each would identify with a different generation and make sure the kids, parents and grandparents were all believable. I had a voracious reader in her 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, as well as several bright, urban teenagers. Most were church acquaintances, including a 20-something artist with a British dad and American mom, like my protagonist. A few were close friends who were usually willing to be brutally honest. What I didn't have in the mix were writers, aside from one who wasn't able to find the time to crit at that point.

I gave my betas each a nice ring binder with a double-sided copy of the manuscript and a two page sheet of questions (which I will share in another post). It felt like a huge investment at the time, and I could have shopped around for better photocopying prices. But compared to how ridiculously expensive conferences are, it was pretty reasonable to shell out $125 for the amount of feedback I got.

My betas did, indeed, give valuable feedback. They pinpointed places where they "weren't buying it," where the story dragged, where the characters motivations weren't clear. The 60-something had the absolutely best advice ever, so do seek out the help of mature mentor-types in your life. They're wise and experienced about human behavior and relationships.

Unfortunately, none of my betas read like a writer, with a writer's sensibility for suggesting constructive changes, especially with plot and pacing problems. In other words, they gave me ideas of what wasn't working, but not how to fix it. Thus, I spend a long, long time flailing around trying to fix things without a clear road map.

Had I been in a critique group at the time, I would have harnessed them AND my network of thoughtful readers of all ages. That's the plan for WIP-2.

Enter the GAMMA readers: Philly Literati, an exceptionally eclectic critique group--male and female, covering diverse genres including literary, fantasy, magical realism, YA, memoir and nonfiction features.

I initially took my partial to the gammas for a reality check after test marketing to about a dozen agents. Was it them or was it me? My gammas agreed it was me. The story started in the wrong place. I wasn't giving adequate space to the most compelling parts of the story, but getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. With their help, I've begun doing the work I should have after a beta critique. Live and learn, right?

So, how did I end up DELTA readers? I got invited to a second critique group, Milestones Children's Critique Circle, that does only children's literature. They asked to see what I was working on, so I figured it might be a good idea to have insights from folks who know the industry. I gave them the first three chapters, post-gamma-critique revised. And guess what? They found more deep changes for me to make.

Now what I have is something of a mess. To keep up active participation with my gammas in Philly Literati, I've been feeding them a chapter at a time of revisions. I've only finished up to chapter 6. My MC3 deltas are chomping at the bit for another chunk of chapters to crit in late February. I'm not sure how long I'll be able to keep the one group read ahead of the other, especially since the middle of the book needs to be rewritten, not just tweaked. I'm starting to hyperventilate just thinking about it.

What bothers me most is the fact that to get the best crit of a novel, your reader needs the whole manuscript. Otherwise, it can be hard to see if the story arc is actually cohesive. Carefully planted clues crucial to the climax will look like stupid diversions when chapters are read in isolation.

My cure? You guessed it. I've planned to seek another set of crits: EPSILON readers to look at the whole revised manuscript and give it a final dusting down. For this group, I hope to pull in a few betas, a few gammas, a few deltas and some entirely fresh eyes that won't be checking to make sure I actually followed their earlier suggestions.

So what have I learned?

1. Have a fangirl to squee and obsess with.
2. Get writers on your team early.
3. Seek a wide variety of readers.
4. Seeking feedback as you go can be encouraging and keep you going, even if you have to take critiques of partials with a grain of salt.
5. Don't drib-drab chapters at different paces--it's stressful and confusing.
6. Make sure your first and last sets of crits happen on the entire manuscript.
7. No method is perfect. You have to be as forgiving of yourself as learner as you would of your child learning a new musical instrument. Practice makes perfect.

Do you have any insights about best practices for seeking feedback on your work? Please share!

18 comments:

  1. Um...compared to what I just read, I am an amateur when it comes to feedback insights. I will just soak up your great ideas and move forward from there, I think. :-)

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  2. Wow, that is a lot of readers!! I'm impressed.

    For me, the best readers are those I've known online for awhile that I know will be honest with me. And I have a live critique group too, but it's so slow that it's not really the best way to get through an MS quickly.

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  3. Shannon: I was hoping to show what an amateur I am too! LOL. As far as I know, the real professionals don't have this many hands in their work. Sigh.

    Elana: I know what you mean about the slow feedback from crit groups. It's great if you're feeding them smaller pieces as you're working, but can cause bog-downs when you want a whole-ms. read, preferably tomorrow. (-:

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  4. great post. i love hearing about all the different writing processes that people have!

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  5. Great post! I have my critique group and a couple of them serve as alpha readers, but I reserve a couple for later because you can't read a ms for the first time twice. Then, I have some friends who read, write, and/or line edit (I guess you'd call those my betas.) Then back to the other crit groupies who haven't read it yet (gamma).

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  6. This is EXCELLENT. I immediately started thinking of a couple teen girls I know whom I might ask to read my YA historical fiction. I already have a grandma reading it, her time period. AND, my writer friend and I were just discussing how we like to share a bit as we go, with each other, because it keeps the momentum. Thank you!

    Also, thanks for connecting w/me. I'm also listening to S&G - it's the CD in my mini-van.

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  7. I've always had a hard time finding more than a couple readers. I've finally joined an on-line crit group of four, all YA writers and at about the same writing level. And all eager to grow as writers, so I'm more hopeful for a quicker process when it comes to accurate revisions.

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  8. I love this post! I wish I could have read it a year ago when I was going round in circles. I finally found my way thank heavens. I agree with you though, it's hard to get great feedback when you can only give one group stuff one chapter at a time.

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  9. You gave some great highlights! My critique group is the first stop for, I'm still new and building that tough skin!

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  10. Ash: Thanks. I hope especially that others will avoid my dumb mistakes. :-)

    Karen: sounds like you have a good solid plan in place for who sees what and when.

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  11. Mary: Having teens in on the process is amazingly fun. They're your target audience after all. And good for you getting a grandma in your circle of readers! Age diversity is really helpful.

    The S&G CD in your van--is that Simon & Garfunkel? If it is I will be totally floored, because I know I didn't mention it on your blog BUT...their Greatest Hits album is the only thing I listened to all day today. I think I played it like nine times in a row.

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  12. Elle: I feel very blessed to live in an urban area. If I still lived in my rural hometown, there's no way I could have fed my addiction to feedback to this ridiculous degree. No one *really* needs 20+ people to crit their work.

    Sounds like you are working hard exploring your options. Thinking outside the box might be necessary--like using local librarians and teachers and book club members and your kids' friends.

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  13. Bethany: Thanks. The floundering part of my experience was not so fun--I wasted so much time! The chapter-at-a-time thing I've been doing with my gammas is mostly for accountability, so I steadily produce.

    Tamika: I hope your crit group experice is better than you can even imagine. When you make revision a collaborative effort, so much of the burdensomeness lifts. Really!

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  14. As the cheerleading husband and someone in the ALPHA-group, I was glad to have my gut feeling vindicated by the GAMMAs - that the story started in the wrong place and the first chapter just had to go. Having seen the whole messy process all along the way, I wasn't sure whether to trust my own judgment anymore! (And why I am still awake?)

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  15. I'll definitely have to find me a fangirl. :0)

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  16. I do lots of rounds, just like you. And I have twin sisters who are 15. My books are a little young for them, but they are still excited to read everything--which is awesome. Fangirls=good self esteem!

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  17. Well, I think you about covered it there! I do agree that writers make the best readers, and it's certainly been a pleasure watching your ms evolve. You've certainly had quite a journey with this novel, but every revision brings BTL closer to a sure thing. Go you!

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  18. Hon, you are a paragon of patience. Thanks for sticking with me and my crazy dream.

    Kristi: praying you find a fabulous kid to enjoy the journey with you.

    Natalie: You might just find my readers begging to steal your sisters to be their fangirls!

    Simon: Thanks. I am finally learning to have perseverance after making lots of impatient mistakes.

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