I recently finished a novel and mailed copies of the manuscript to thirteen people to read. These are friends and colleagues who live across the country and who cross a wide spectrum of demographics. They range in ages from 24 to 65. The novel is set in Appalachia Tennessee, so some of the readers are from that territory. The workshop members are women and men from a variety of cultures: African American, white, Filipino American, Mexican American. Two have MFAs in Creative Writing and have published. All of them are book lovers. And they’re very honest people.
I’ve created my own workshop, and I’ve made it big for a reason: because I’m marketing. Or rather, test marketing. Now, this is a big step for me; I haven’t subjected myself to a workshop in twenty years. I got my MFA in ‘98, and when I graduated, said Fuck if I’m gonna go through that hell again. But this novel was particularly difficult to write. I need input from people who will do what must be done: tell me whether or not it’s working. Whether or not it’s a book that they would buy.
What should you expect out of your workshop? Honesty, first of all. Ask people who are willing to put up with whatever tantrums you throw at them. They should be able to put up with your dropped, pouting lip and your sudden bursts of defense over a character or a scene. I’m speaking from experience, on both ends. I have made others’ lips pout; and my own lips, when I really feel sorry for myself, can hang low enough to sweep the floor.
Here are some of my concerns about the novel:
What parts of the story will my workshop members find weak? Will they empathize with the characters? Are there sections that are vague, confusing? Does the story flow, or are there moments where it lags, or spends too much time on a scene, thus boring the reader? Are there places where I’m falling in love with my voice, and am showing off my writing skills? Are there superfluous scenes, or enough imagery, or too much imagery—can the reader nearly taste/feel/hear the novel? And the setting—does my reader feel like she’s truly there, in the woods of a strange valley in Tennessee, alongside my lost, frightened protagonist?
Does the novel keep them in suspense, hold their attention so much that they forget to turn off the stove and supper burns down the house, or, even better: Do they forget to do social media for a few hours, because they’re so involved in my book? Man, if that happens, I’ll be a happy camper.
But, if some of those things aren’t working, I’ve got more rewriting to do.
I’m nervous, of course. But I’m also excited, because these thirteen good souls are my first audience. Once they read it, and once I rewrite it with their notes in mind, I’ll send it to the next audience: my agent. It must pass her test. More on that later.
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