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Wise readers - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Wise readers
I've been re-reading Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (whatever you think of Card's politics, I recommend this book and his other, Characters and Viewpoint; they're good books about writing with good, solid, specific advice), and he mentions toward the end that someone a writer really needs is a "wise reader." One of the things he points out is that the wise reader is not an editor or a copyeditor--those are different functions. And he said something interesting, which I realized really cuts to the heart of what we mean by "good feedback." What he says is, "But first you have to understand that a Wise Reader is not someone to tell you what to do next--it's someone to tell you what you have just done. In other words, you want your spouse or friend to report to you, in detail and accurately, on the experience of reading the story."

I think that's a really important distinction between the Wise Reader and the beta-reader or editor. Beta-ing a story may include, "Wow, I liked that image," but it's mostly about saying, "You need to watch your commas... this plot twist is odd... SPELLING!!!... Dialogue is off here." The Wise Reader is the one who says, "When I read X, this is what it seemed to be." It may lead to a revelation that does change planned events, because the writer may see something that's in there clear as day for WR that s/he never suspected while writing it. Or it may lead to scaling back a character because too much attention has been paid to him and WR is (rightly) perceiving him as more important than he is. Then again, it may show an interest that the writer didn't think she had, and the character might be bolstered, made more central, and so on, if you're doing an ongoing story. (I've been lucky enough to have WRs on a couple of ongoing stories, and this sort of thing happens a lot.) A one-shot may use these things in another draft, or they might be used in the next story.

Card suggests "training" WRs by asking questions at the end of a reading--like, "What did you make of the character So-and-so?" or "How does such-and-such event strike you as read?" I guess if I'm going to toss a question out for discussion, it would be, would it be a good idea for writers and artists seeking feedback to ask specific questions? Not things like, "Do you like my story?" or "Isn't Marisu the coolest?" or leading questions like, "Did my attempt to make the scene look dark make the action more sinister?" but things about how the reader has experienced the story or chapter, just kind of, "These are things I'd like to know," or would that seem pushy? Or would it seem stifling if other things happened to be what struck a reader's eye?

Then again, the suggestion is just for one Wise Reader--maybe the questions should just be directed an individual person.

Or not at all.

Comments? Thoughts? Bueller?
20 comments or Leave a comment
From: nothing_gold Date: May 1st, 2005 10:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
You should check out one of the texts for my Language and Comp class, Being a Writer. There's a lot in there about responding to other people's work and getting good responses to your own work. A lot of it is very similar to this concept of a "Wise Reader." The problem is that being a Wise Reader is hard, as my entire class has been discovering. Once you find someone who is good at that kind of criticism, though, they're invaluable, as they often help you articulate the problems you know are there but just can't seem to pinpoint enough to actually fix.
maple_clef From: maple_clef Date: May 1st, 2005 10:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hmmm. Personally, I do tend to read things more carefully and thoughtfully when I'm looking for something specific on which to provide constructive criticism... If you were looking to get a reader's first, general impressions then questions *might* be stifling, but on the other hand you'd be sure of coverage of any issues you were particularly concerned about.

My two cents would be to ask open questions if you're looking for targeted feedback on a specific aspect of the piece. If you want a 'natural' reaction also, you could always question a proportion of your readers but leave feedback open for others?
forked From: forked Date: May 1st, 2005 11:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
As a reader, I'd get a kick out of having the author ask such questions- though I'd definitely prefer the question(s) to come at the end of the story. I like to read with a 'fresh' eye.

I do think actually coming up with a question of three might be a bit difficult- something not too specific or leading, yet not so general you might as well not ask (i.e., 'Did you like the story?').

I'd be more likely to feedback if presented with such a question- it invites discussion yet doesn't seem as risky to reply to as sending a critical comment is. Well- depending on the question. But I figure if an author asks a specific question, they probably genuinely want an answer to it.

Eh- I think it's a neat idea, but that's coming more from the perspective of a reader who enjoys discussing stories and less as a writer looking for input during the creative process.
erised1810 From: erised1810 Date: May 1st, 2005 11:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I guess this confirms I'm a better wise-reader thana beta. if i'd ofer to hel psomeone I'd try m ybest to do both at once but I know i always focus more onwhat a story does to me? if someone wants to know specific stuff about a story I'd at leastwanthe questions after the read. that's why I get wibbly with explanatory notes in advance (nothe random 'spottha so-and-so refeence'/'this is based on/inspired by' but I've literally had the 'i wanted to show {......} I hope it comes acorsto you too.) hat's what gets me to read with a prefab image and I mostly wantto freshly step into a story with no foreknowledge of what brought someone there or what they want.
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: May 2nd, 2005 01:59 am (UTC) (Link)
Hum! I feel much more confident about my skill as a beta now--my writer and I (I just can't figure out how to phrase that properly) have email discussions about "You've made Remus look stupid again here" and "This part doesn't make sense; maybe you need to explain more first?" And then she asks me questions back and it's so dandy, I love it.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: May 2nd, 2005 03:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I wanna be a wise reader.
readerravenclaw From: readerravenclaw Date: May 2nd, 2005 03:59 am (UTC) (Link)
I think the LiveJournal format lends itself very well to prompting Wise Reader feedback. :) If I came across questions like that at the end of the a fic, I think I'd be very likely to respond.

And I've read both of those books by Card; I'll second that they're absolutely fantastic. :)
kokopelli20878 From: kokopelli20878 Date: May 2nd, 2005 01:58 pm (UTC) (Link)

Wise Readers

I have appreciated the wise reader in my own writing. As to asking questions, I think that's probably a good idea. The argument against that is that if you're trying to get fresh, authentic feedback, it should just come bubbling out of the reader without any prodding - which is rather like the old chestnut of "I'm mad at you and I'm not going to tell you why - you should know why I'm mad at you."

I think there's a not-so-fine line between collaborators, betas and wise readers. A collaborator takes your first draft, corrects the howlingly obvious errors, re-writes the sections that seem lame and then appends the text with a few paragraphs of comments that send your own writing down several (incompatible) trails.

A beta does what a good proof-reader does - checks for style, spelling, etc.

A wise reader will tell you what connects. And by this, I don't mean gushing praise (what one colleage referred to as "intellectual blow-jobs") but rather visceral responses to the writing - such as "I wanted to slap her after she left in that scene, doesn't she see what she's doing to him?" or "why did that scene have to drag on so long - I felt like I needed a warm shower after that one - which, come to think of it, is what your character did too."

All of this takes time, of course. A good BETA is busy - often so busy to not be able to collaborate on writing.

A collaborator may or may not be credentialled to serve as a beta at a particular archive.

I had a small yahoo group of wise readers and lurkers, but after a while, that group dried up, so I reverted to sending drafts to two wise readers, asking them for specific feedback.

I hope that this is of some assistance.
mrintel From: mrintel Date: May 2nd, 2005 02:27 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you for pointing out these books on writing. I have a few others lying around that are too much like hearing my junior-high english teacher's clearly enunciated lectures on grammar and character exposition. As a fan of OSC (politically and as an author) I'm going to pick these up at B&N today.

As to the wise reader, Kokopelli has got it pegged. One wise reader may not be enough, however. My wife serves as an excellent one -- her perspective often curtails the tangential nature of my writing -- but she tends to think in narrow canyons that prevent her from seeing the big picture. If at all possible, find someone who can wade the depths of your characters' lives and sit astride the full arcs of every plot you weave. And if you find someone that fits that bill, let me know? :P

tesseract_5 From: tesseract_5 Date: May 2nd, 2005 09:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
heh, I haven't read any Card, though I read a LOT of other fantasy, sci-fi and am very interested in the mechanics of writings as explained by other writers. However, this statement struck me as odd:In other words, you want your spouse or friend to report to you, in detail and accurately, on the experience of reading the story." in that one looks for objective con crit, not so much the sympathetic reader.

Someone who is good at con crit will find the positive things and then settle down to nudge and direct the writer towards a more coherent approach to telling their story, along with the commas, grammtical errors etc...

realreview is one attempt to try to do a good con crit by people other than one's friends. *shrug*

interesting, thanks for posting this to the Snitch. :)

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 2nd, 2005 10:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's not about concrit or sympathy--that's the difference between the wise reader and the editor that we were talking about. The reader isn't there to tell you what to do, but to tell you what you've done. The entry I did earlier today is a good example of what the WR does, as opposed to the beta: I wrote a piece where I thought of one of the characters as being emotionally manipulative of the other, to a point of sadism. But when readers read it, because I wasn't particularly clear, what they saw was someone who was remarkably understanding of her friend's grieving process. Reading the comments made me really start thinking about how I was portraying it.
tesseract_5 From: tesseract_5 Date: May 2nd, 2005 10:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
okay, but isn't a worthy beta supposed to point out things like that as well? Especially if one asks specific questions, re: did this go too far, not far enough, etc...

Depending on one's depth of invovlement in fandom, size of flist, and all that, finding a compassionate (willing to invest major time) beta or two is hard enough, without stipulating that a "wise reader" is also necessary to the production of good prose.

I'm playing Devil's Advocate here partially, ;)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: May 3rd, 2005 12:18 am (UTC) (Link)
re: did this go too far, not far enough, etc...
Those are still prescriptive questions: Did it go too far? is a leading question asking for advice, not an answer about what the story did.

I think a WR could do a beta, but not until after the initial reading (Card thinks the two shouldn't be the same person, because after the first reading, you can't get an unemotional read on it). The WR is simply reacting as a reader. An illustration, in some ways, is a WR response--"This is what I see when I look at what you wrote."
_inbetween_ From: _inbetween_ Date: May 2nd, 2005 10:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
I guess when I beta I always wise-read anyway. Like there are all sorts of betas, maybe it is one distinction (I enjoyed nothing more than betaing a 2-page fic that evolved into a 10 page scarf (i.e. multicoloured discussions on various aspects of characters and plot)).

I like your suggestion re. the feedback as you immediately exclude leading questions. I just don't see it happening *g* just as in fanart the "concrit" option is seen les these days, it would take lots of usage by many people. I for one would be very interested in it, as it also overcomes some peoples hesitation to say more.
karaz From: karaz Date: May 2nd, 2005 11:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hurrah, now I have a term for it. If I'm reading a WIP (and I know I won't offend the author) I will often do this: Here's what I'm getting and what I don't get. This part came alive for me, or I think you were going for ___ but I'm not feeling it. I see the motivation behind this as ______ is that what you meant for me to think?

Most of the time the authors can't give too much back to me without ruining the plot. I have noticed some of those issues addressed later in the work. I think it was beneficial for them to see another interpretation of their work. Particularly from someone who has no clue where they will be going with it.

I see your dilemma about the questions. I don't find them pushy and I'm sure many reviews would still be the usual, OMG! SQUEE! You are right, even wise readers may not think to comment on some particular aspect that you wrestled with writing unless you ask them. However, the questions may alter the interpretation, so they would need to follow the work.

Maybe there should be a wise readers welcome in AN to let readers give feedback they may have kept to themselves. Or a group, sort of like the second step after beta reading? You would be free to ask them specific questions after they gave you their feedback.
kokopelli20878 From: kokopelli20878 Date: May 3rd, 2005 12:02 am (UTC) (Link)

giving away the plot

While I rarely put plot spoilers in the author's notes, I was never one to be too coy about what was coming - I'd tell my circle of wise readers (and anyone else who bothered to ask) where my story was going - saving the really odd details, of course, but all of the plot developments in my long fic (200K words) were heavily foreshadowed. Of course, afterwards, people would say "I know you foreshadowed it, but I never saw it coming."

Some authors are too tight lipped on where they are going with a story, in my opinion.

karaz From: karaz Date: May 3rd, 2005 01:29 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: giving away the plot

Some authors are too tight lipped on where they are going with a story, in my opinion.

I agree, but I think sometimes they are just undecided. They have a general outline of where they want to go, but their writing style is very loose so they just can't tell me. Or... they think they have something very clever and don't want to ruin it. Sometimes I'd rather not know.
kokopelli20878 From: kokopelli20878 Date: May 4th, 2005 02:59 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: giving away the plot

I've been keeping secrets for years (professionally - I'm a lawyer) so I have a lot of experience with that, but when I'm discussing, writer to writer a WIP I find it a bit beyond annoying when people clam up on where the story is going.

Your mileage may vary.

If you don't have a clear idea of where your story is going and you are writing by the seat of your trousers (or skirt as the case may be) then I would contend that you're not very far along in the craft of writing - or you're perhaps light years beyond me.

karaz From: karaz Date: May 8th, 2005 11:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: giving away the plot

I would contend that you're not very far along in the craft of writing - or you're perhaps light years beyond me.

I would bet it's the latter in most cases, because the people who are writing fabulous things aren't asking me for help. ;)

volandum From: volandum Date: May 4th, 2005 11:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
What would happen if you made it completely leading?

In other words, let someone read a summary written by the very writer (suitably weighted and brief) of each scene before that scene? This would just share out the job of looking at contrasts between intention and results among the Wise Readers instead of leaving it to the author.
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