A reader’s report gives the author a detached look at their unpublished manuscript. Family and friends give support but, usually, they are not able to give a dispassionate analysis of failings or flaws in the work.
As writers, we get so close to our subject matter that it is difficult to distance ourselves and to see what is missing, what is excessive, what doesn’t flow, what doesn’t make sense, where the subplots need more substance, what threads in the tapestry have not been woven through to the end.
It is a fact that most writers don’t see their own typographical, grammatical and punctuation errors. They slip past our eye, even though we know perfectly well where the comma goes when there are quotation marks, and the placing of the apostrophe in isn’t and wouldn’t.
The cleaner and more complete a manuscript is when presented to a potential editor or agent, the better the chance of a favourable outcome.
There is no doubt that it is difficult to take in a reader’s report; it is usually the first time that someone has properly assessed it.
I recall pacing the dining room, years ago, holding a report on a manuscript. My daughter put her head around the door and said, in that loving way that only a teenager can, ‘And what’s wrong with you now?’ I told her that I had received the report on my next novel and that I was panicking, as I couldn’t see how to handle it. ‘You always say that,’ she said as she retreated.
It was only then that I realised this was the third time I was confronting a report, that I had managed to do what was suggested twice before, and that if I took my time and digested the content carefully, I could of course face the re-write.
With that came the realisation that this was just the next step; a different step, enjoyable in its own way, and while initially daunting was just as fulfilling as step one which was to sit down and write the story. Seven novels and two novellas later, I can say with confidence that I look forward to the report as I know it will help me to improve my story; in fact, the tougher the report, the more I know I can and will achieve.
I have a board on which I stick pictures of my main characters; these are taken from magazines or newspapers and guarantee that I don’t forget what they look like. On the same board, which can be wiped clean for each new book, I write the names of the characters and their imagined date of birth, their connections with each other, their likes and dislikes. Some of these facts don’t appear in the novel, but they create clarity in my mind and are designed to avoid contradictions. I also use a chronicle to remind myself of the mood of the era in which the story is set, what music was played, what books and plays were successful, what was happening politically and so on. This helps me to create an atmosphere and I immerse myself in it.
The moment I realise I am not in tune with what I am writing I stop. It may be tiredness, it may be that I am bored or distracted; but whatever it is, it is the moment to stop writing that section. I either take a break or I start another chapter and I go back to that bit later. If you are boring yourself you are definitely going to bore the reader.
A major issue that I come across in reading manuscripts for a report, is that too often the writer tells and doesn’t show. Dialogue lifts a story, as does showing what is going on through good use of imagery. The statement of facts doesn’t draw the reader in, and doesn’t create the images in the mind that we need to stay with the unfolding plot. The reader must want to feel engaged throughout.
We all have different tastes in our reading matter and are often surprised how a friend doesn’t like a book that we’ve enjoyed, and of course, vice versa. One of the advantages of the reader’s report is that no preference is given to one style over another or to one genre over another. It guides the author through the plot and subplots, looks carefully at the characters and imagery, works on the themes, the use of language, the voice of the writer and the techniques in the telling of the tale. It checks the pace of the story and, if there are distractions within the novel, it will point them out. It is detached, clinical and constructive and is designed to bring the writer further along the path to success.
(c) Mary Stanley