Writers should be proactive when sharing their work and ask questions of their readers. They should also be passive and let the reader make their own mind up about a text. These two statements might seem to contradict but if we focus on one very important question, they actually make a lot of sense. We should ask of our readers “What do you understand from this text?”
Pictures in the head
We start off with a picture in our head. Surely our main aim is to recreate exactly that picture in the mind of our reader. So, to see if the text works, we give no extra background material, no explanation about the setting and no backstory. It must all be contained in the text and not in an explicit way.
Does our reader “get” it?
How my character magic exercise works
This exercise involves writers creating two characters, putting them together in a scene, and then sharing that scene with readers. They create the characters by thinking about the attributes of the character, prompted by a series of questions which deal with the character physically, intellectually, emotionally and which establish their motivation within this particular story. After the reader has finished, the writer asks the same questions that they used to establish the character. They also ask extra ones. Readers get over 70% over the answers correct – more often than not achieving 100%. Clever readers, then? No, actually, clever writers. And really- not so clever. They’ve done their homework. They’ve written with absolute knowledge of their character. Even though, as good writers, they’ve not included every single detail, somehow what they’ve written carries the whole message about the character.
Is this perhaps subconscious speaking to subconscious?
A similar exercise can be done with setting and it’s very important for fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction to really think out, know well and understand your setting.
For my Peace Child trilogy I spent months sitting in cafés making notes about how that world worked.
The role of the critique group – and a warning
Once that all-important question has been answered, the critique group may be able to establish how the writing has worked so that the writer can do more of the same. They might also pinpoint where the picture has been less complete and what the writer might be able to do to improve clarity.
However, this does mean that the readers will be less objective the next time; they are already beginning to understand how the writer’s mind works. It’s probably also quite important that you work chronologically through the same text, otherwise they’re not getting a true reader experience.
These are people in the know who read your text once it’s complete. They read it cold, with not so much as a blurb to give them any clue as to what it’s about. They might resemble your target reader, they might be other writers or they might be people who know something about the theme or setting. Again the most useful questions in “What do you understand from this text?”
They’re really worth using once your text is as good as you can get it – they may be able to point out any remaining holes.
A caution here as well, however. Don’t be too despairing if they get a detail wrong. I once asked a young beta- reader about a character in my novel.
“He’s got blond hair,” said Matthew.
No, he hasn’t. I was relieved to find the passage where I’d very definitely said he had dark hair. I queried this with Matthew.
“Oh. But he’s so much like Sam.”
Yes, he was right, though I hadn’t consciously based him on Sam, a mutual friend. Sam has blond hair. At least I had the personality right. I decided to alter the character a little so that he was less like Sam and was allowed to have dark hair.
So, in the end, it was still very useful feedback.