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A Few Tips on Pre-reader Selection

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Author’s Note: This is another post from summer of last year that I lost in a website crash and recently rediscovered. Hope you like it!

No, not THIS kind of pre-reader.

I was the guest of honor at The Writer’s Chatroom this past Sunday (transcript should be forthcoming soon) and was subjected to two hours of questions on a wide variety of subjects pertaining to my work as an author. One of these questions, which has been echoed on more than one occasion by critique partners and writers I’m mentoring, had to do with pre-readers and the editing process. You can read more about my editing process on Janice Gable Bashman’s blog, where she so graciously hosted my March 2011 Blog Tour in support of WILD.

Essentially, though, my writing process involves leaving the finished product alone for a few weeks until I can pick it up and look at it as though it were new to me, or as though it were someone else’s book or story, even. Editing, in my opinion, is primarily a matter of perspective. There are standard rules, of course, but they’ll only take you so far because your mind fills in gaps in your manuscript with the things it knows are supposed to be there. Taking a few weeks to work on something else before revising that first draft can help with a lot of this, but sometimes you’re pressed for time and can’t afford to wait. Sometimes you just KNOW you aren’t going to catch everything. Hell, sometimes you just want someone else to tell you that you rock. And that’s where pre-readers come in. Here, then, are a few tips on selecting pre-readers. This is by no means an exhaustive list of criteria, and I invite you to chime in in the comments section.

    • Pick the most brutal sonofabitch you know and trust. It’s good to be friends with your pre-readers; in fact, they have to be someone you trust, because I’m sure as Hell not sending my work to someone I barely know. But make sure it’s someone who isn’t going to take it easy on you. If I can’t trust you to tell me when I suck, why should I trust you when you tell me I’m good? So your best friend since grade school, your mother, etc. might not be your best choice, though there are always exceptions, of course. You can ask anyone who critiques with me; I will tear their shit up, and I’m not concerned about their feelings, because I care about them and I want them to WIN. And I demand the same thing of the people reading my work. If you don’t have time, that’s cool too. But I do need it done right, and will always do the same in return, which brings me to my next point…
    • Pick someone you can exchange favors with. You can always hire someone to do these things for you, -but I do prefer exchanging favors with other authors. It builds bonds and relationships that will last for years. The Secret Horror Cabal some idiots accuse certain midlist authors of being part of? That’s a load of hooey, but I will say that people that look like they always have each others backs in the community…do, but not because they’re looking to dick down the new crop of writers (the complete opposite, as a matter of fact). It’s because they’ve come up together, have traded favors, have pulled each other over the wall. I would never expect someone to continuously read my shit and advise me without offering to help them in return. And the people I offer help to, first? They’re the ones I end up workshopping with, partially because they owe me one, but also because in the course of working with them on their material, I figure out that they’re the sort of person that can offer me valuable insight, as well. If you can’t pull your own weight in that sort of relationship, I’d suggest moving on to another technique. There are great editors-for-hire out there. Here’s one. Here’s another.
    • Have more than one. This is for a couple of different reasons. One, because asking someone to take time out of their day to read your work and provide a critique detailed enough to be helpful can be time consuming. You are asking for a huge favor every time you do it, as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t want to impose on the same person every week; that’s just me. Mind you, I have a few close friends for whom I’ll drop what I’m doing unless I’m busy with my soldiers or my kids, but by and large you need to understand that any time spent on helping you is time NOT spent with their family, on their writing or relaxing. Which is fine, because my last point says you’re doing the same for them in return, or else. But hey, spread that shit around, huh? Also, different people have different perspectives. One pre-reader may always be counted on to catch all your grammar mistakes but miss subtle plot points, thematic details or whatnot. Different people enjoy reading different things and will look at your story each in his or her own way. Just like the millions of readers you hope to have one day, right?

That should be enough to get you started, or to give you a fresh take on something you’re already doing. And if you are already doing it, I’d love to hear your tips… I’m a firm believer that my way isn’t the only right way!

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Regarding Harsh Criticism

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The other evening, I read this blog by Amanda Palmer. For those unfamiliar with her, Amanda Palmer is a singer/musician best known for her work with the Dresden Dolls, who also happens to be the wife of author Neil Gaiman. Her best-known work involves her singing while playing the piano, accompanied mainly by an awesome drummer and occasionally other musicians, but recently she’s recorded and played a lot of shows featuring her on the ukulele.

The first few paragraphs of the blog post discuss a forum thread  started by a longtime fan who hates what Amanda’s been doing for the past few years (aggressive merchandising, more ukulele playing than piano, etc).  Amanda doesn’t mind the thread at all, but advises other public figure types not to read such things about themselves on teh Interwebz. I have an entirely different viewpoint on the matter. My perspective is that of a writer, not a musician, but I think you’ll get the idea.

I understand, as one of my pals pointed out, brand-new authors might hit a few snags when it comes to public criticism of their work. They’ll have to get used to it. It might sting a bit when someone slags a story they’ve spent weeks or months on. Some critics simply don’t carry themselves in a respectful manner, and we can’t change that, either, as crappy as it is. For a new author, hobbyist, or someone who can afford to not sell their work any more, not reading public reviews/criticism may be a viable option. Authors who take their work seriously, however, are slightly more limited in their choices, in my opinion.

Now, this probably isn’t the Gospel truth for every author, but I figure on average we should seek out what the reading public thinks about us and our work, especially if we make our livings (or hope to some day) from our talents and the appreciation of those gifts by others. I’d rather read a thread about how I’m doing too much superhero stuff and need to write Moar Horror, for instance, rather than just wake up one day and not have any readers.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t feel obligated to make my work conform to readers’ wishes. If I write two vampire books and feel a strong urge to write a third, I’m going to write it even if there’s a whole forum thread about how people wish I’d do something else. But I also understand that readers aren’t obligated to buy something they don’t like, whether their issue is with the quality of my work of the subject matter I’m dealing with. I’m advocating awareness, not conformity.

If you’re too thin-skinned to take criticism with a grain of salt, figure out what’s useful and gloss over the rest, you’re probably going to have a short career as a serious creator, anyhow. Besides, if people aren’t sounding off about your work, both the good and bad aspects of it, it means they don’t give a shit about it. Which would you really prefer, when you stop and think about it?

And in case you’re wondering, I personally love Amanda’s work with the Dresden Dolls, and her 2008 solo album. The ukulele stuff..? Not so much, but I definitely can’t wait to see what she comes up with once she moves on.

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