Louis earned his living by the written word—as a copywriter, editor, playwright, journalist, and novelist—for more than a quarter of a century.
Louis wanted to see how much of the novel was evident to readers as well as what was not working in terms of plot, theme, character, and dialogue. Were there characters, storylines, arcs, descriptions, scenes, or paragraphs that the majority of the members of the writer's group just didn’t get? If most of the group didn’t get what he was trying to convey, most readers wouldn’t get it either.
He also wanted to know how well the story was flowing. When are they in a flow state. When people are reading a book they “can’t put down,” they are in a flow state, where they look at the clock and it’s 1:00, then they look again and it’s 2:30. He was confident that several rounds of feedback on drafts of the manuscript would enable him to delight and engage readers.
1. What doesn’t work and why?
2. What pulls your head off of the page and why?
3. What makes you wince and why?
4. What did you not get?
1. The plot would be clear enough to understand
2. The characters would need development—especially the female characters
3. Some scenes would be unnecessary, some would need to be added, some should appear in a different order, and others would need revisions
4. Some of the dialogue would be clunky
5. The themes would be evident, but would need some polishing through rewrites
He gave his novel to his writers group, a collective of writers who have met monthly for 30 years, publishing over a hundred works. The group had a month to read his draft. They all sat down together for their critique and Louis took notes on everything that was said. Additionally, group members marked up their manuscripts for Louis to read on his own time. The group talked about what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they didn’t understand, and how he could develop the characters, build the plot, and work in a sub plot.
Louis took special note when there was a consensus on what was working and what wasn’t.
The plot was mostly clear, the themes were mostly evident, the characters needed development, and the dialogue needed refinement. Characters in a novel ought to be believable in the context of the fictional world in which they dwell. A character’s motives have to make sense if a reader is going to be sympathetic to that character and engaged by the character’s story arc. But sometimes, the writer puts plot over character, and the result is behavior that doesn’t make sense to the reader.
A character has to be motivated to act, not merely set into motion by the author. Louis learned two things: the group generally liked what he was working on and they felt that it needed development around deepening the characters, massaging the dialogue to make it sound more natural, cutting a few scenes, and adding a few scenes in order to better serve the story.
Louis spent a few months going over every note and doing a round of rewrites to address the group’s concerns.
Rinse and repeat. This is an iterative process. Louis ran around four (of 11) drafts by the group. At long last, the novel got picked up by a publisher and will be released in the summer of 2020. 🎉
This method of “outside eyes as lab” can be applied to any creative work. Leave your ego at the door, don’t talk unless you are asked a question. Don’t defend your work. Just listen, take notes, then fix what wasn’t working—and then show it to them again.
Louis Greenstein is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor. In addition to writing for numerous magazines, he is the author of the novels The Song of Life (Sunbury Press 2020) and Mr. Boardwalk (New Door Books, 2014), and co-writer of the hit cabaret show One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro.