The Making of a Novel: A Test Audience of One

When I went off to college in the mid-eighties, I was assigned a college roommate from the opposite side of the country. I showed up in jeans and a "Haagen Dazs" T-shirt, which caused the roommate to think I spoke a strange and esoteric foreign language. Bridget showed up in a denim pinafore with a sailboat on the front pocket, which I thought was the kind of outfit only a third grader might wear. Despite our first impressions, we became best friends, and she became my best reader. Bridget had a sharp and finely-tuned editorial mind 25 years ago, and she does to this day. She is not a writer or editor, but she pays attention to the world, and she loves to read.

I sent her the first 100 pages of my novel because I was feeling pretty good about the pages. I'd done so much research, hammered out a fantastic plot, dug deep into my characters' motivations. I figured Bridget would be excited. I expected her tell me I was on the right track and to inspire me to keep going. I needed that jolt.

But alas, I was wrong. We spoke on the phone this morning (because we still live a continent apart.) "I love what's happening and I love the writing," she said, "but these characters feel like cardboard to me. I'm having a hard time caring about them."

I wish I could ignore her. I wish I could come up with some reason why I could discount her feedback. But I know she's right. Her criticism has that ring of truth to it. Somewhere in my brain, there's a bell ringing because she struck it. Darn her!

So it's back to the first 100 pages I go, rather than forward to the rough pages I was writing beyond page 100. It's not what I wanted in the short term, but it's the right thing in the long-term.

Do you want a fantastic test audience of one in your own life? You have to nurture this relationship as much as you do any other, but the payoff is huge: you get an insightful, honest and kind reader. Here are some tips that have made it work for me and Bridget:

  • Don't necessarily look for people who write or who are good with words. Look for people who know how to see the world and who love a good story.

  • Invite them to be honest with you -- and mean it. (It goes without saying that you shouldn't invite someone who is mean and sadistic to be honest with you. So don't choose someone who is mean and sadistic.)
  • Give them a specific deadline. I gave Bridget a week to read my 100 pages. I asked her if this was a good week for her to do that, and she said it was. The last time I asked her to read, she was too busy, and turned me down. I was okay with that. I've learned not to be too desperate and needy -- even though what I really want is for her to drop everything and read my pages NOW.
  • Turn over clean pages. Don't make the person struggle through work that's a total mess. Make sure it's as polished as you can make it. What this means is that you have to be patient with yourself. You can't turn over pages the second you write them and say, "Are they good?"
  • Be specific about what you want. Do you want a general sense of how things are going? A rip-em-up critique of everything that's wrong? You usually get what you ask for, so make sure you're clear.
  • Ask if there's something you can do for them in return. I recently helped both Bridget's children with their school application essays, and was thrilled to have something I could give her in return after all these years. I think I probably still owe her about a hundred favors, and would gladly do them for all she's done for me.
  • Respect what they say. You don't have to agree, or use the feedback. But dismissing it out of hand will ensure that they'll never read for you again.