Thursday, February 4, 2010

Test Groups

Throw my manuscript to the dogs, if you please! I want to watch their reaction. By God, I need it!

At this point in my writing career I really value a good B*tch of a reader in my Test Group. Interpretive reading of critiques just plain old sucks, if you ask me. A good B*tch reader will give it to you straight—none of this walking on eggshells bull people try to hand over to preserve your “feelings.” Blah.

The learning process slows when people try to smooth over the more difficult truths. There’s too much to comprehend and too little time!

However, I understand that the readers in the Test Groups are mostly strangers to me and cannot know that I am at a level where I will not be hurt by criticism. Conveying this to them with words is not enough, obviously. And I have yet to divine another way to communicate this truth in a convincing manner. Everything I think of seems inadequate. If you have a suggestion, please feel free to comment.

So when I find a good B*tch reader, I always carry them over into the new Test Group, if they are willing. By the way…I mean B*tch in the most respectful of terms--they rule the pack in this analogy.

Anyhow, a teenage reader—a pup--from one of my earlier Test Groups heard about the current rewrite for “Nightmares” and made a comment along the lines of… “Oh, so there won’t be that endless introduction of that Commander now?” In her defense, she meant it as a compliment.

I admit, in the earliest draft, the introduction was too much. My problem lay in the fact that she never once mentioned any serious complaints while in the Test Group. Nothing showed up on the manuscript or on the questionnaire afterwards. Naturally, I laughed off the comment. But it got me to thinking.

I knew that readers were not going to be completely harsh with me--not all of them, anyway. Of the group in question, two were excellent (they let me learn!). That is a low percentage, but not unexpected. From the rest, I was able to gain a bit here and there. Everyone allowed me to learn something—not everyone was a mine of information. Then again, with the large percentage of teenagers, I seldom find mines of the sort I hoped for. A teenager can be a B*tch reader, though they rarely have the guts.

On the other hand, the response was very encouraging. I am too realistic to let that do anything for me for more than seconds at a time, though. Still, I remember what a certain author told me (I don’t know if she would care if I mention her name, so I am going to err on the side of caution). She said… “If you have the teenagers, you have it.” I had discussed the group with her briefly and the early results, which showed a practically perfect score and all these great comments from the teenage audience. None of the adults were in yet, and I was a bit worried on that count. She helped me through a really stressful time, and I’ll never forget that. But I digress.

When I think on the teenager readers in that Test Group—some were hardcore readers, but I managed to get a range including a high school football player—I wonder about the ones who were probably being easy on my feelings unnecessarily. What did they really think?

So I thought about what my recent conversation had revealed in comparison with what a B*tch reader from that group had to say, and they match up pretty closely. The emphasis with teenagers is definitely on issues that have to do with their attention span. I’ve already been working on these problems for quite awhile.

I’m going to have another Test Group for “Nightmares” in the late spring, I think. The results should offer some great comparisons.

I hope this will be the last one. They are expensive propositions…I have to pay to print all of those copies of the manuscripts (single sided, double spaced), the questionnaires, to buy more three ring binders if the group expands or I need replacements, to ship (and return ship) to people beyond an hour’s drive, etc. But this is one of the best ways to learn, to perfect my work, to get detailed feedback, and eventually have contact with readers who are NOT family. I try to make sure most members of the group are strangers to me, and keep a good distance from them throughout the “experiment.”

Perhaps one might call me crazy for doing a Test Group. I’m not sure anyone else does them. I’ve not heard of it. If anyone does, and they read this blog, I’d love to trade stories. :)

Maybe the expense is a deterrent. Maybe people don’t believe they can learn from it. I made it work for me, but I can’t speak for anyone else.

The design of the Test Group is unique to me, since I had no model to base it on. The questionnaire took some time to compile and perfect (though the first copy had a typo that a reader caught!).

Finding readers is very difficult. I am always looking for them and I usually plan for twice as many as I have slots. The reason for this is simple: by the time Test Group rolls around half of them will drop out. Most of it will be personal issues, whatever life throws at them.

Test Groups…they are a lot of work and stress. Very rewarding though.

By the time I get this manuscript edited, back from eval, and through the Test Group, my query letter should be ready. Hopefully, I can make any adjustments I need to the manuscript at that time, have Laura slap my hands away from it long enough to query the select group of agents I have been researching, and we’ll see how it goes.

I wonder how my book will read then. It just keeps getting better. Most of the time, I’m nervous as heck about the whole thing. The roof is going to fall on my head, right?


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