This is Part One of a Three Part Series on Rewriting, Editing, Scene Performance
©2013 by Robert J. Ray
Congratulations. Your rewrite is done and you feel good about the manuscript. The story is solid, the subplots writhe like snakes under the surface, which is glassy-smooth. Now you’re smelling money, you’re tasting the tang of writerly fame. You want action. So you print the manuscript, find a literary agent on Google Search, and then you mail the manuscript off.
Admonition: Before you send off your pages, get some feedback. The writing business is crazy. The worst mistake you can make is sending off a half-baked product.
Feedback comes when you hand your work to someone else and say, Can you please give me some feedback? When you ask for feedback, you give up control. Time to relax, pull out your trusty ballpoint, and take notes. Feedback opens up the manuscript, rips holes in the fabric of your prose. Better to sew up the holes now, before you send off the manuscript to an agent. There are four ways to get feedback:
1. Scene Performance. For feedback on a scene, recruit a group of friends – actors are better at scene performance than writers – and assign roles. Assign one reader for each character; assign one reader to read the narration (action and description). Keep yourself out of the scene-read. Your job is to listen, to take notes, to view your work from a perspective not your own. Use a timer on each scene. If a scene runs long, you’ll know to cut. If a scene is too short, you might merge it with another scene.
Don’t interrupt the reading with helpful hints to the readers. Surrender your words and see what happens. Take notes and let yourself sweat. Button your lip and learn fast.
Pay attention to your emotions – awe, horror, shame, nausea, joy, the taste of greatness, a whiff of fame – during the read. When the reading is over, ask for feedback from your cast. Author restraint is the big secret here. Keep the lines of communication open. You asked for feedback. Write down everything and don’t try to fix anything until you have your notes typed and printed. Let the notes cool. Read them over. Find a troublespot where readers had trouble, where they ran into a roadblock or ran off the tracks. Find those pages in your manuscript and deploy Operation Ratio.
Don’t fret about the work. Instead, use your tools. You started this rewrite with an empty tool kit. Your toolkit now bristles with writerly tools. Hang tight, keep writing. Let your left brain editor locate the problems. Let your unconscious do the fix.
2. Cold Read. Read with a friend across a table. Keep the page count low – 5-8 pages per session is max – and then you find a neutral zone like a coffee house and you sit across the table from your friend. There are two copies of the work. One for you, one for your friend. When you read, alternate paragraphs. When you come to dialogue, alternate voices. The balance is better if your friend also has pages that need reading. Take the mind off your sweat by listening to your friend’s voice. Where does it hesitate? Where does it sound bored? Where does it have trouble with a word or a sentence?
When the reading is done, ask your friend for feedback. Where did it slow down? How do I fix it? Help me with that word on page 3.
3. Single Reader Alone. Here’s where you ask a reader to read your manuscript and offer suggestions for making it better. You hand over the pages and wait. You bite your nails when you should be doing writing practice. You wonder what’s gone wrong. Is the book any good? What will my friend say? Be careful with your pages. Find a reader who can see deep into structure and story.
4. Critique Group. Here’s where you sit in a circle with a roomful of writers. Some groups listen while the author reads aloud. Some groups want copies of the work distributed earlier, to give people time to read and ponder. Other groups want the pages at the same time as the meeting. Reading aloud is better here. Everyone gets up to speed on the same words. Much less confusion. Some people read fast; some read slow. With an oral read, there’s less focus on line-editing.
Warning to the sensitive: Critique groups are really dangerous. If you are fragile, stay away. If your manuscript is unwieldy, think twice. You need rules for behavior. If the group is big – six or more – then you’ll need a time-limit for each critique. If there are wide gaps in skill-levels, don’t bite your lip. Instead, do lots of deep breathing.
To get the most from a critique group, take notes and say nothing. Keep your lip zipped. Don’t try to defend your work. If it hums, most people will hear the hum. If it needs work, use the tools. Thank the group for its insight.