Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What’s Important

Kroyer-- At the Museum--1888 I was busily writing at home last week when my husband called me up and asked if I wanted to meet him for lunch. I hopped in the car and drove the 25 minutes over to his office to pick him up.

Usually when we have lunch, we eat at a sandwich shop or get some Chinese food…nothing fancy.

This time, though, my husband was interested in going to the City Tavern—a white tablecloth-type establishment.

It sounded good to me. But then my husband hesitated. “Do we look all right?”

I glanced over at him—blue jeans (he works in IT) and a golf shirt. I looked at myself and I was wearing something such as a person writing at home might wear on a warm day—flip flops, capris, tee shirt. “We’re good!”

I was driving us over to the restaurant and chatting away about my morning when he asked again if I thought we looked okay.

I said something like, “Sure we do!” and continued on my train of thought.

But the third time he said it, we were about to go into the restaurant. I said, “Sweetie, I don’t think they’re going to turn away paying customers. We don’t look that awful.” He seemed so reticent, that I finally realized that even though I rarely care what I look like, it was important to Coleman. He’s a professional person. He might run into people he has a work relationship with.

I peeked in. I saw other people in jeans. One person had flip flops. We were okay.

Just because it wasn’t important to me, didn’t mean it wasn’t important.

I think that’s why it’s vital for me to have first readers (my parents, mainly) before my manuscript goes to my editors. Sometimes there are book elements that I don’t spend a lot of time writing (I always need to fill in more setting). Just because it’s not important to me, though, doesn’t mean it’s not important to a reader.

My mother is a great first reader for me. “I can’t really picture the porch at the barbeque restaurant,” she said.

I could picture it plainly…in my head. But I hadn’t put my vision on paper at all. It was as if, if I could see it, I thought everyone could see it.

A content critique is vital, I think. Sometimes I think I’ve established the relationship between different characters very clearly—but, again, it might have just been clear to me and I didn’t share it with the reader.

And then, like at the restaurant, there are things that I just don’t enjoy developing in a book. But I need to know when readers need more information: on setting, on character description, on backstory. Those are things I don’t incorporate a lot of—but that sometimes are more important to readers than I think.

Do you have a first reader that you give your manuscript to before its submitted?


Keith Raffel said...

Elizabeth, relatives are always good for a read. My sibs are on the list along with my oldest friend. How can they say no? And they know they can say anything and we'll still be sibs/friends after. Mostly what I look for is finding out if it's good enough to send to my agent without risking being fired as a client.

Paul said...

Do readers really need more information or do they merely want it? Put another way, are some readers conditioned to have all of the holes filled for them so they don't have to bring their imagination to the table?

I've found that I am sometimes surprised when the writer gives me a description of the clothes a character is wearing and they are completely different from what I had envisioned. It's rare that a character's clothes are important to the plot or even the characterization, and I know a few readers who interrupt the flow of the narrative to give a clothing inventory (I guess because some book told them they had to).

Still, first readers are critical. I was going over my "final" draft of my work in progress the other day and found that not one but three of my characters had two different names each. A relic of an earlier draft, but embarrassing!

Lisa Bork said...

I have several trusted first readers, all other writers who are not related to me. They do help fill in the holes.

I did have a critique once from a multipublished author who told me I needed to "tell her" what everyone was thinking and why they did what they did. Personally I like to have the reader interpret some things for themselves. Makes them more involved in the story, I think.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Keith--You are so right. All I need is for my agent or editor to wonder what the heck I was thinking! My family does a good job of setting me straight.

Paul--That's what I don't know. I'm a reader who *doesn't* like a lot of description...for setting or character. In fact, I skim those sections when I'm reading. But am I in the minority? I don't know. My editors at Midnight Ink and Berkley both ask me, regularly, to add more description, so I figure that I must need at least a *little* more. But it doesn't appeal to me as a reader or writer.

Too funny about the names! I've done that before, too. Trying to train myself to do a find/replace before that point.

Lisa--You're lucky to have several good first readers!

I don't understand why the author would have given you that criticism. Dumbs things down for the readers, who usually like inferring things on their own!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Alan Orloff said...

I let my wife have first crack at me--she tells it like it is (good thing I have a thick skin).

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I also have first readers - my manager and an old boyfriend. And both bring different talents to the reading table.

My initial draft is always light on description and I don't worry about it. It's in the next go-through that I add it if I feel it's needed.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Alan--I like getting the truth and nothing but the truth!

Sue Ann--Readers with different perspectives are great to have.

Sometimes I add more description later...sometimes not! :)

Beth Groundwater said...

I'm going to be the exception. I found early on that I wasn't getting useful feedback from relatives who read my manuscripts, feedback that I could use to fix problems and improve the writing.

Instead, I use my writing critique group as my first readers. Their comments are enormously helpful. We've been together for 10 years with a few membership changes, but of the original 5 unpublished writers who started the group, 3 of us are published in book-length fiction, 3 in short stories, and all five have won or placed in writing contests. This shows you the power of a GOOD critique group, where the main goal is to help improve each other's writing.

G.M. Malliet said...

I'm too suggestible to have early readers or critique groups.