In Praise of Readers

In the last two months I’ve had the good fortune to receive reviews from real readers on portions of both my novels Aligned and Riding the Blind.  All of this has been rather illuminating for me. I’ve been toiling away in my writer cave for the last five years or so, the only feedback I’ve gotten is from other writers, agents and editors. My world had become so focused on the opinion of expert readers that I had forgotten all about the difference in how real readers (non publishing professionals) connect with a story.

My first interaction with real readers was a result of Miss Snark’s First Victim First Line Grabber contest. I’ve been working to rewrite my first novel, Aligned, and was curious to see how the very first line resonated on the page.

“I almost married Christopher Bailey.” 

This one line generated a lot of feedback. Final tally, a whopping 71 comments!  Not everyone liked it, but in the end it got enough “Yes” votes to move on to the next round. I was then invited to submit the first three lines, and those generated enough positive feedback to earn a spot among the final five. This final, winner round included submitting the first 500 words of the novel for critique. Take a look my entry and the comments.

What struck me was how the agents who stopped by approached the story so much differently than the other readers. The other readers, many of them other writers, only sought to answer the following two questions: Is this a character I care about? Do I want to read on? The comments I received made me feel like I had achieved success on both these accounts. The agents who stopped by, on the other hand, focused on different things.  A narrator with a reflective voice generated concerns about my story having started with a prologue and the complex main character was discussed as being potentially unlikeable. I think real readers and other writers are able to trust the voice and approach of the author more, trust that if it is engaging interest on the page that the author will pull us along through the narrative in the best way possible. Who better to know how to navigate the story than the author?  In defense of the agent’s reservations, they see many of the same mistakes over and over again, so I can understand how they would be hypersensitive to stories that have unnecessary prologues, etc. Yet, I wondered while looking at this feedback if perhaps their view had narrowed to the point of missing the story, missing what was good and subtle on the page.

In the end, it was immensely gratifying to see this difference in perspective. Some readers really “got it” and enjoyed the opening of my novel. One agent expressed interest in it too, and I look forward to finishing my rewrite and querying her soon. I am very grateful for having participated in this contest, to receive valuable feedback on my work and have a nice reminder that opinions are subjective and what matters, in the end, is the reader.

My next set of reader reviews came by way of the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA). As some of you know, my my novel Riding the Blind advanced to the Quarter-Finalist round of the contest.  My excerpt is available for download here (Note: you will need Kindle software to access it, but you can download a free version to use on your computer).

One of the things I was most looking forward to in making it to the second round was getting reviews of my excerpt. I received two very flattering reviews from the Amazon Expert Reviewers. These are individuals in the Vine program, so they are real readers. Again, it was so gratifying to see how they connected with the opening of this novel. Here is what they had to say:

ABNA Expert Reviewer

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

The author’s use of language to portray Rachel’s thought process and the world she lives in is very well done. Metaphor and simile are used judiciously. Rachel’s postpartum depression is well-described and readers can easily identify with her character. Introducing Virginia through Sadie’s school project was a natural way for her to be brought into the story without it feeling forced. The author does an excellent job with “show, don’t tell.”

What aspect needs the most work?

At times the writer is a bit too descriptive. While the descriptions are beautiful and help the reader feel “in” the story, they become slightly distracting, and lose their impact, when used too frequently.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

I thoroughly enjoyed this excerpt; I thought it was very well-written, with compelling characters, and it made me want to read more. If I’d read this in a book at the bookstore, I’d be buying the book to find out the rest of the story.

ABNA Expert Reviewer

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

This excerpt has many strong points. Strong sensory descriptions put the reader right into each scene’s setting where she can smell the air, see the scenery, and feel the sun on her face. Characters that are like people we know, welcome the reader into the story, embracing the reader until she feels one with the story. The words flow easily, and the reader forgets she is reading. This is wonderful writing!

What aspect needs the most work?

I do not see anything that that needs work here. I would not want to change a thing! This is an intriguing and fluent start!

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

I am already invested in these characters, and, if I had the choice, based on this excerpt, this is the book that would keep me up late reading. It is unique, yet it has a universal theme, one with which generations of women can relate. In addition, there is a lot of mystery too. What does her grandmother’s ghost mean when she says, “Run!” Where was her grandmother during those years she left her family?

It will be very interesting to me to see how these Vine reviews compare to the Publisher’s Weekly review I will receive at the end of the month. (Did I mention that? How I get a PW review on my novel? Yikes….) Stay tuned to see how my foray into ABNA develops.

So, in conclusion I want to offer up my praise and appreciation for all the readers of the world. Thank you for caring about stories, thinking about the characters long after you finish reading, caring about the words on the page.

Image Sources:   Top via Flickr jimmiehomeschoolmom, bottom ABNA logo from Amazon.com

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