Friday, March 16, 2012

How to be a "Wise Reader"

So, your friend who's dying to become a writer has shoved a manuscript in your hand and asked you to read it for them.  How hard can that be, right?  You've done this a lot before.  You've done it in school, you love to read books in your free time.  And you're very opinionated.

Well, reading for an author who wants feedback is a little different than reading for fun or reading for school. When there were writing assignments in school, there were basically two things that people did with your writing after they got done with it.

1. They edited it.  They looked for grammar mistakes, run-on sentences, typos, misspellings, and other errors.  They marked each of these with a red pen.

2. They graded it.  On a scale of A-F, they said whether it was good or bad.

What you are now is different from both of those.  You have become what Orson Scott Card calls a "Wise Reader" and your job is unique.  It's something that nobody in school cares about.

 It's about what you, as a reader experienced while you were reading the story.

Nobody ever cared about that, right?  Nobody ever cared what you felt at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows.  If you were confused in the middle of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that was your problem.  Nobody cared if you found that one chapter of The Scarlett Letter so boring you could scream. 

Well, guess what?  Somebody cares now.  See, your friend wants to be a writer, which means they want to create certain experiences for their readers.  And so what they need, more than anything, is someone who can tell them what it was like to read their story.  What the experience is like right now.

Think of yourself as the first test-passenger on a roller coaster.  You get to come back and say how it felt as you went through each part.  Were the loops too intense?  Were the straightaways too slow?  What was it like?

This means you don't have to worry about finding your friend's typos or grammatical mistakes.  It might be, after getting feedback, the writer is going to decide to cut out the whole scene the grammatical mistakes are in, or combine it with another scene, or do something else all together.  So don't worry about it.

It also means you don't have to worry about telling your friend how to write the story.  There's no need to tell them what to do to fix any problems you have with it.  That's their job--they're the writer, let them figure it out.  Besides, the best you can do is tell them how you would have written the story, not what the "right" way to write it is.  The writer is going to figure out what the "right" way for them is, so let them sweat that.

So all you have to do is let them know what it was like for you to read their story. Laura Christensen has a great blog post on alpha reading here.  She sums up the things you should be thinking about really well.  (I particularly like what she describes as "Impact.")

Author Orson Scott Card  has a similar list, which he sums up in three questions that you're looking for.  As a wise reader, you're looking for when you're asking yourself:

"Huh?" This is when you're confused. Something doesn't make sense.  It might be because you don't understand something about the crazy sci-fi world your friend has created.  Or it might be because you just can't picture what's happening the way your friend described it.  You want to let your friend know anywhere that you kind of lost track of things.

"Oh yeah?"  This is for when the book is straining believability.  All books require some suspension of disbelief in order to work--they're all made up, after all--but this is for when something was a smidge too unbelievable.  Maybe the hero has been shot six times and hasn't fallen down yet.  Or maybe it's that a side character has acted a certain way all through the book, and now they're doing something that seems totally unlike what you've come to think they'd do.  Or maybe your male friend's female characters aren't coming across like women.  Any time something is kicking you out of the story, thinking, "The world isn't really like that," you're doing your friend a favor to let them know.

"So what?"  Who cares?  I'm bored.  I can come back to this later.  These are moments your friend needs to know about.  If you ever find your mind wandering, mark that place in the manuscript.  Even if it's just that you put the story down to go get some food, unless you carried it with you there's a good chance that might be a signal things are slow, and the writer needs to know.  This might be a single scene or it might be a whole sub-plot, but knowing when readers lose interest is gold for a writer.

Now, you might be worried at this point.  "What if my moments are the wrong moments?  What if I'm just bad at this?"

Well, here's the good news:  As Card points out in his book Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, the Wise Reader is never wrong.  How can you be?  All you're sharing is what you felt and experienced when you were reading the story.  And there's no one on this planet who's more of an expert on that than you.

If you find your friend argues with you, or contradicts you, or tries to explain why that scene you thought was boring should have been interesting, then stop reading for them.  Or, stop being honest.  They're not really looking for help, they're just looking for affirmation.  So if you do read for them again, forget all this and just give them that.

On the flip side, don't take it personally if your friend does or does not make any changes based on things that you suggest.  It might be that other people read the story, too, and in the "vote" of readers, yours wasn't the winning opinion.  That doesn't make it wrong or invalid, and it doesn't lessen your friend's appreciation that you stuck up for your thoughts.  You remain awesome and brilliant and never wrong.

Just like writing, Wise Reading is a skill that develops over time.  At first, for me, I found that I was sometimes looking too intensely for the three questions.  I was just looking for anything I thought anyone might say, "Huh?," "So What?," or "Oh Yeah?" to, instead of being honest about whether I was having to ask those questions.  Other times, I worried too much about what the writer would think of me after reading my review, and that kept me from being honest enough to help.

However, in getting feedback from readers, I've come to realize that the kindest, most generous thing they could possibly do for me is be stone-cold honest even if it might hurt my feelings.  I need to know what I can improve, and having friends tell me is better than just getting a form rejection letter from a publisher.

Because what you're doing really is an act of charity.  Your friend is forever in your debt.  Exploit that for free food whenever you can.

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