[Note: I’m at Thrillerfest in New York right now, and it may take me time to respond to comments. I will, of course, get to them all eventually! Best, AJH]
I was serving peas with dinner the other night, using a slotted spoon to get them out of the pan, and I had one of those idiot moments of wonder at the sheer usefulness of the utensil in my hand. I mean: it’s a spoon—and therefore excellent for collecting things—but it has holes in it so all the unwanted water doesn’t wind up on your plate. Brilliant! Simple but effective and requiring absolutely no skill or training to use. And who invented the slotted spoon? We know not. If we did, we’d put up some kind of spoon-shaped monument. With holes in it.
My point. Some things are so fantastically useful that you just stand in awe. Today I offer one of those things. First off, let me say that this is not my idea and you may have come across it before. I heard it at a conference and, though I can’t for the life of me remember who said it, I feel sure that she wouldn’t mind my reiterating it here. So here it is, a slotted spoon for writers.
Specifically it’s for dealing with beta readers. Most people to whom you give your manuscript, especially if they know you well and are (horrors!) related to you, give advice which, though well intentioned is muddy, self-contradictory or platitudinous. Worse, some beta readers really want to be alpha writers, so their advice is colored by The Way They Would Have Done It. So. The slotted spoon idea below is designed to take as much of the waffling out of the process, making it as easy as possible for your readers to clearly convey their experience with your manuscript.
You ask them to read the manuscript (hard copy or electronic: doesn’t matter) and ask them to periodically mark any passage that strikes them with one of the first 4 letters of the alphabet. This is not a ranking system, and you might prefer to leave the A out entirely. What it stands for is this:
A=Awesome. Something about this just blew me away. Excellent.
C=Confused. He said what? The people of Anth believed in what? He can get out of the rabbit burrow because…? Huh?
D=Don’t care. Ten pages on minor character’s lineage? So what? Yeah, I’m sure it’s really clever and all but… I’ve got QVC to watch.
Exactly how you spell them out doesn’t really matter, beyond the key word (bored, confused, don’t care). Use this and you’ll discover two of the secrets of the universe:
- Giving readers nothing but one of 4 letters to use makes them more honest. They don’t have to explain or be polite because they know you don’t expect them to.
- Left by themselves for long enough, slotted spoons multiply (explains a lot about that caddy on your stove, doesn’t it?). The first multiplication is that the Really Good Idea works for both you and your reader. The reader doesn’t have to worry about how to phrase (or remember) their thoughts (esp. their critical thoughts) and they don’t have to keep extensive notes. You get clear, precise feedback which—whether you agree with it or not—will help you address potential audience response to your book.
Without other clutter to think about, your readers get better. They can go with the flow of the narrative without getting bogged down—pausing only to scribble a letter periodically—so what you get is much closer to actual reader response rather than Attentive, Thoughtful Beta Reader who Must Think of Something Smart to Say if Only to Prove I READ IT response. Put a few of these marked up narratives together and see if patterns begin to emerge (more multiplying spoons here). If reader 1 gives an A to what reader 2. gives a B or D, chances are it’s a wash and you need someone else to break the tie. In the end, it will come down to your instincts anyway. But where patterns do emerge, you can concentrate on figuring out what’s wrong and how to fix it.
One final note. If you find yourself disagreeing with the patterns that emerge you have one of two problems. The first, and easiest to deal with, is that some or all of your Beta readers are wrong for this book and don’t reflect your target audience. If so, fire them politely. You don’t have time to be polite to readers who wish your dark urban fantasy was Jane Austen (the original, not the one with zombies). Find the right readers for your genre and move on.
The second problem is more serious. There’s no point having readers of any kind if you don’t listen to them. If you can’t find readers whose input you value, and you persist in giving your own work A’s where your readers give it B’s, C’s and D’s you need to seriously re-evaluate your work and your goals. It’s fine to write for yourself, but if you want to be published and read by others, you have to pay attention to what people think of your work. If you have to explain to practically everybody why your book (or chapter or sentence) is actually good, it probably isn’t.
And that’s it. This will be my shortest post ever on Magical Words, because if you over analyze a slotted spoon, the thing loses its mystery, and no one wants that.