Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

On going out to readers

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Working on the acknowledgments section of The Icon Thief this week reminds me of the debt I owe to a special group of people: the readers who looked at the novel in manuscript. They pointed out inconsistencies and inaccuracies, gave me suggestions for where to cut or tighten, and helped me find the heart of the story. Some of their feedback even reshaped the course of the plot itself: the single most powerful moment in the novel, which nearly every subsequent reader has singled out as a high point, was the direct result of those early comments, and it forced me to rethink the ending of the book. So I’m quite serious when I say that reader feedback is an essential part of my writing process, which wasn’t always the case.

Once you’ve decided to go out to readers, the question is who and how many. While it’s best to get more than one reaction, too many can be a problem as well—you’re looking for focused, intelligent criticism, not taking a survey. Before I went out to agents, I ended up showing my novel to five readers, three of whom provided detailed comments, which strikes me as about right. They also came from various backgrounds, although this was more of a happy accident: they included a journalist, a doctor, a lawyer (who also happened, crucially, to know Russian), a poet and memoirist, and a film student. Because my novel had a female main character, four of these readers were women, which worked out nicely, because my editor and agents all turned out to be men.

So it’s safe to say that I ended up with a pretty good group. An equally important decision, though, is when to go out with your material. Personally, I think that it’s a mistake to show unfinished work. As much as my agent might prefer otherwise, I’m not showing him any part of the sequel to The Icon Thief until the entire first draft is finished. A novel doesn’t evolve in a linear fashion—a word choice in Chapter 44 can fundamentally change something three hundred pages earlier—so involving readers too soon can only disrupt the process. But you don’t want to wait too long, either, because if the draft is overly polished, you lose the chance to make surprising discoveries. The director Paul Feig, in a recent interview with the AV Club, talks about something similar in relation to focus groups:

Judd [Apatow] actually has this whole thing they do with side-by-side screenings at two theaters right next door to each other and do a “P” version, which is a polished version, which is the one we think is close to what we want to have be our final cut. And then another one called the “E” version, the extended version, which is the dumping ground for everything we think might work, or we wanted to try, or we’re just curious if it’s gonna work. And out of all of those screenings, you’ll always get about five or 10 new things that you didn’t think were ever gonna work that go through the roof and you plug ’em into the polished one.

The “E” version, perhaps tightened very slightly, is what you want to show your readers. If anything, I waited too long with The Icon Thief: I didn’t send it to readers until I was just about ready to go out to agents, which meant that I wasn’t able to make the wholesale changes that, in retrospect, the novel still needed at that point. For the sequel, I’m hoping to share it fairly soon after finishing the first draft, though not until I’ve followed Stephen King’s dictum and cut it by ten percent. (My compressed schedule, with a final draft due in September, means that I couldn’t wait too much longer, anyway.) After that, it’s in the hands of my readers, hopefully the same group as last time. And I have a hunch that I’m going to learn a lot from them.

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2011 at 9:54 am

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