By Elizabeth Buhmann, author of Lay Death at Her Door (Red Adept Publishing, 2013)
Writing is a solitary occupation—up to a point. We confront the blank page alone, wresting plot from story idea, populating plot with characters, and putting words in their mouths. But you can’t get from first draft to final draft without feedback from readers.
In his popular book On Writing, Stephen King says, “You take your story through at least two drafts: the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open.”
King’s advice is to finish writing down the whole story—and to let it sit for a while and then revise—before showing it to anyone. I know writers who do very well letting readers’ comments guide them early and often during the creative process, but for me, King’s way is what works best.
For me, it’s a matter of not allowing other people’s input to knock me off-course. With early feedback, I am likely to lose access to what’s coming from within. If the story is still fragile in my mind, showing it around can be like letting someone sit in a chair I’ve just assembled before the glue has dried. The chair gets busted, the reader lands on the floor, and I am left with a pile of broken sticks!
Readers’ reactions are hard to predict. My first novel was pretty smooth, I thought, by the time I took it to a manuscript class. I was completely taken by surprise when no one understood my main character’s reactions to the events at the beginning of the story.
In chapter one, she learns that a man convicted on her testimony has been exonerated. Yet she shows no surprise, no fear, no consternation. She just sort of hunkers down. My first readers said, “She can’t do that! Why isn’t she angry, why isn’t she stunned? Why isn’t she afraid?”
It made sense to me. MY MC didn’t act surprised because she knew all along that the man was innocent. I was keeping that up my sleeve! I wanted it to come as a surprise a little later in the book. I thought readers might wonder why she was acting the way she was. I thought they might have suspicions, or even guess what was going on.
I was wrong. Instead of questioning their assumptions, my readers lost confidence that I was telling the story right. I knew how my character had to act, but my readers couldn’t accept what I was telling them. What a disaster!
Finding a big weakness in a story (especially in chapter one!) can be discouraging at first. But it often leads to much greater strength. This was how it worked for me (to my immense relief, after I got over my initial panic).
Oddly enough, I didn’t even understand what my story’s real hook was until one of my critique partners–Brenda Vicars Hummel, whose wonderful YA comes out later this year!–pointed it out to me. My hook was that my main character had lied. Her reactions in chapter one made perfect sense once I let the reader in on her secret.
And once the readers knew she lied, many of them were very curious about why she would have done such a thing. To quote one five-star review: “This mystery grabbed me from the two-word second paragraph. `I lied’…the lie is the elephant in the room…I want to know why she lied! Why, why, why?!”
I still had a good surprise up my sleeve for the ending, but I might never have gotten my readers past the first chapter without what I learned from readers when I opened the study door.