…in which Mr Poll blathers about the importance of test readers

Scream - Teaser ad v1.1How do, horror fans, and welcome once more to my darkened corner of the internet. If you’ve arrived here on the back of my teaser advert in Scream magazine then come on in and make yourself at home. The teaser ad is for a novel of mine called The Floors, which will be released on Friday 13th September 2013. If you have ever wanted to know what it’s like to be trapped in a maze of thirteenth floors then stay tuned! (You can also see my previous post for a gander.)

At the moment, however, you find me at a crucial stage of getting The Floors out there and into your hands – that of obtaining some feedback from test readers.

Skim through the acknowledgements section of a novel and you will often find the author thanking assorted friends, colleagues and peers for having read early drafts of their story. Now, unless you are a staggeringly gifted wordsmith and storyteller, with preternatural powers to shape the literary world with your expertly-crafted prose, then getting some early feedback is going to be a vital part of your writing process too, and doubly so when it comes to self-published work.

Why? Well, in the broadest terms, you wouldn’t want to sully your good name, assumed or otherwise, by peddling a shitty story riddled with errors. You aren’t going to get very far disrespecting readers like that. And if, like me, you are trying to make a name for yourself in the noisy world of self-publishing, then only your best work will do. Anything less and you are shooting all that writerly ambition of yours in the arse.

Hemingway, that hoary old source of a thousand and one tiresome Facebook quotes*, once said “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” This, of course, is true, but it isn’t a bad idea to also place your masterpiece under the noses of a couple of test readers.

(* For Neil Gaiman Facebook quotes, you can safely up that number to approximately 5.7 bazillion.)

Putting your work out for a test read can be a valuable experience, but you’ve got to go about it the right way. (Asking the opinion of a loved one, for example, really isn’t going to cut it. They will likely spare you the hurt of pointing out where your story stinks, but if they do rip into your story then the chances are they won’t be a loved one for much longer.)

So, some ground rules. First and foremost, take any pride you may have accumulated in creating your masterpiece and swallow it down hard. What you are looking for in a test read is an honest appraisal of your work. You’ll want to know where readers became frustrated with your story. You’ll want to know when a paragraph you rewrote fifty-odd times now reads with all the coherence of a Scrabble board. In short, you want to know where you can improve your story before you put it out there for real, be that for download, or in the hands of an agent/publisher. If you are simply seeking praise for your efforts then there are plenty of parasitic review sites that’ll gush as many superlatives your way as your credit card can handle.

Second, be sure to seek test readers that are sympathetic to the genre in which you are writing. You wouldn’t, for example, ask readers of The People’s Friend to test read American Psycho. (Actually, I probably would. Welcome to my sense of humour, world!) If at all possible seek critiques from fellow writers, the more published the better, and the opinions of those readers who devour novels like they’re going out of fashion. If you find a local writers group then bite your lip, develop a thick skin and jump on in. Otherwise there are plenty of reader’s groups on sites like Goodreads who you could tempt with a test read. Don’t spam forums, though. That only brings the banhammer down on your head, and rightly so. Respect the rules and ask for help politely.

Third, and this is crucial, remember at all times that your test readers are the ones helping you. They could just as easily be reading someone else’s story, but they have taken time out to read yours. Be heartened, because you know at least your story has a decent hook. Be thankful, and at least consider sending your readers a signed copy of the finished book. Give them a high-five in the acknowledgements. After all, it’s a pretty cool feeling to hold something in which you gave a helping hand.

The feedback you receive will vary. You just have to browse through the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads to see how different people like different things. What I’ve looked for in the feedback I have received thus far are patterns. If I see someone praising a part of the story and another criticising it, then that’s largely fine – the tie goes to the writer, as Stephen King would have it. If, however, I see a majority negative opinion forming over part of the story then I know I’ve still got some work left to do. I would reiterate my first point at this juncture and remind you to not get pissy at the criticism. If someone doesn’t understand the story then don’t go tearing a strip from them – it’s a failure of your story to connect. It happens. Move on. Only worry if nobody gets it!

You may have guessed at this point that these words are as much for my own benefit as anyone’s. They’ve stood me well these last four or five weeks as I’ve paced a trench into my carpet and bitten pretty much all the skin from my fingers and thumbs. Whether my composure goes all to shit with the first bad review I receive is another matter! 😉

I hope this diverting little posting has entertained more than it has lectured. I’ll likely post a few more reviews while I slave over the final draft, but will then return with a few words on what a professional edit entails. I hope you can join me.

Laters ‘taters.

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