Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Why I trust my trusted readers, even when they don’t agree - Lari Don

Over the years, I've been incredibly lucky to find a small team of readers whose opinions I trust and respect, so when deadlines allow, I ask them to look at nearly finished manuscripts. I think some writers call this group their ‘beta readers’ but I’ve always called them my trusted readers.

Sending out half a dozen copies of a manuscript is easy. Reading the notes when they come back is not so easy. I spent last week reading through all the notes from all my trusted readers on the second book in my Spellchasers trilogy (rather an odd thing to do while also promoting the first book, which is launched next week, but authors often have to write one book and talk about another book at the same time.)

My trusted reader team are all friends or family: my husband, my mum, my best friend, but also a university friend who is now also writing kids’ books, a storyteller, a poet. And I have young trusted readers too: one of my daughters, one of my nephews.

And what do they do?

They tell me what they think. They point out typos, factual errors, sloppy punctuation (particularly my mum and my daughter.) They comment on my use of language (that’s my mum again, and the incredibly perceptive poet.)

They make very specific comments and suggestions, from the reader’s perspective. In the first Spellchasers book, I used the word ‘tattie’ a lot (tattie field, tattie digging, tattie howking - it’s set on a witch’s farm) and two of my trusted readers pointed out that’s all very well for readers who speak Scots, but potentially confusing for anyone else. So they both suggested that I use the word ‘potato’ early on, to introduce the vegetable. I did.

And some readers get very attached to particular characters and can be very good at analysing the story from that specific point of view. (Someone got very upset at the team's unfair treatment of the sphinx in this current manuscript, so I'm considering going back in to sort that out.)

They tell me what lines and scenes they like or think work particularly well. And they tell me what paragraphs or scenes they think are unnecessary, incomprehensible, too long...

The only problem is: they don’t always agree. They very often contradict each other. My trusted readers’ opinions are often 180 degrees opposed to each other. This time I had one reader absolutely adamant that a line of dialogue was appalling, he hated it and it had to go. (They don’t mince their words, my trusted readers!) And another reader said it was one of her favourite bits of the book.

So, what do I do?

I have to make up my own mind. It’s my story. I know what happens, I can see it happening in my head. The manuscript is me trying to find my way towards the right words to share that story. I am unbelievably grateful for other people’s thoughts because they often enable me to find much stronger and more vivid ways to tell the story. But in the end it is my story.

So if two readers disagree, I am the referee and I decide.

Though I don’t always do what my trusted readers suggest, even if a couple of them agree. If for example four readers don’t comment on a scene, and two readers say they don’t like it and why, I will consider those comments, then I might change the scene, though possibly not in the way they suggested, or I might decide to stick with what I had.

Other peoples’ comments, whether I agree with them and follow their suggestions or not, force me to question my story, my writing style, my word choice. That questioning is always good for me and for my story, but it might not result in a change. I might agree that this line is shocking and dark, but realise that I want to shock the reader there, so I’ll keep it. I might agree this line of dialogue is a bit cheesy, but decide that it reflects how the character is feeling at that point, so I’ll keep it.

My trusted readers improve my books, one line at a time. But they are also improving me as a writer, by challenging me to consider why I make the writing decisions I do, and why I stick by them even when I’m questioned or criticised.

Books need writers. But they need readers too!

Reading these notes is draining and exhausting. Not quite as viciously painful as reading my editor’s notes, because these trusted readers, love them through I do, have no actual power over the final printed words. Reading the notes is tough, because I’ve asked them to be honest, I trust them to be honest, and honesty is not always easy to read. So when I spend a week reading a different trusted reader’s notes each day, by the end of the week, I feel like my story and I have been sliced up and stitched back together several times.

But afterwards the story is stronger and I am more certain of it. And that's why I trust my trusted readers.

 Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales, a teen thriller and novellas for reluctant readers. 


Penny Dolan said...

How satisfying to have such trusted readers, and to know what their strengths are as readers too. Good luck with that Spellchaser trilogy!

Lari Don said...

Thanks! And yes, as well as discovering a lot about myself as a writer through this process (and I hope I keep discovering for the rest of my writing life) but I'm also discovering lots about my friends and family as readers. And it's all good, honestly!

Lynne Benton said...

I agree, Lari - my trusted readers are invaluable! (Though I sometimes forget that it's actually my story, so I am allowed to disagree occasionally.)

Lari Don said...

Aha yes Lynne, always a good thing to remember! And that's one good thing about readers disagreeing, it puts the writer in charge of the final decision.