We’ve all heard that it takes a village to raise a child, but what I never used to know, and I suspect many people still don’t know, is that it also takes a village to raise a book.
That’s right. We writers can’t really go it alone. We can’t luxuriate in the stereotypical image of sitting in a secluded office, hunched over the page, pen in hand, with a worried expression etched on our faces. We cannot surround ourselves only with dusty stacks of books, crumpled wads of paper on the floor, empty coffee cups and wine glasses, and one or more fur-shedding cats. We have to ignore the fact that, according to one report, 82.8% of us, as a group, consider ourselves introverted in the Myers Briggs survey, as opposed to 50.8% of the general population.
At least, that’s what we need to do if we want our poems and stories and novels to see the light of day. We need to create our villages, round up our village people.
Ernest Hemingway knew this, of course, when he famously hung out with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Henry Miller, and F Scott Fitzgerald. J. R. R. Tolkien was also good friends with C. S. Lewis. James Baldwin befriended Toni Morrison; Ralph Waldo Emerson knew Louisa May Alcott; Henry James was a pal of Edith Wharton. Truman Capote played with Harper Lee when they were kids. And Sylvia Plath shared a great deal with Anne Sexton, including her perspectives on death. Good writers have known for years that they need to support one another and help perfect their work through praise, criticism, and even solace.
“No one can understand the travails of a wordsmith as well as another wordsmith: the agony of a poorly turned phrase, the ecstasy of a finally-perfected work, the agony (again) of a nasty review,” wrote HuffPost culture writer Claire Fallon.
But nowadays, with the literary world having changed so tremendously over the past several decades, the demands on the writer’s village have also grown and become more important than ever.
In my mind, there are at least three essential communities within a writer’s village.
The Writing Critique Group
In Writing Alone, Writing Together, Judy Reeves explains why writers need other writers to critique their work. “We are too close,” she wrote. “We are inside. What we think is there may be there only in our woolly heads.” Saying it another way, critique groups help writers know “whether our crumpled ideas and manhandled images make any sense at all to anyone who isn’t inside our own heads.”
I know plenty of writers who are not in critique groups, and some have proven to be successful in their work. But I’ve found that a good critique group is essential to helping me discover whether what I’ve written is what I’ve meant to say. Or even to help me discover what it is I meant to say at all.
Each of the critique groups I’ve been part of over the years has brought something special into my life. In addition to the obvious–the so-necessary help in making my work better than it would have been without their sage observations–the groups have taught me that each reader comes to a story from her own perspective, that sometimes the harshest critique is the most important one, that a writer’s skin needs to be thick before she even thinks about sending her work out into the larger world, and that I can become a much better writer by learning to offer solid critiques to the others in my group. They have also brought new friends into my life and strengthened relationships with existing ones.
The Beta Readers
Beta readers are smart readers, and they are generally not writers. Unlike a critique group, they don’t help you develop the story, nor do they copyedit or proofread. Instead, they offer high-concept guidance about your work once you think it’s pretty much polished. The beta reader is a fan, and she tells you where your story is strong, but she’s not afraid to tell you where it’s weak or confusing or slow. In fact, she needs to, and wants to, offer constructive criticism because she believes in you, and in your story.
I didn’t use beta readers for my first novel, in part because asking someone to read an entire novel and offer high-level advice seems like a big ask. But I know other writers who rely heavily on their betas because they offer something different than what writing critique groups offer. And ideally they represent your target reader audience, so they can help you see whether you’re satisfying your audience. And usually (I’m told) they’re excited when they’ve been invited to do this important job.
So I took the plunge and invited a group of smart readers to take a peek at my short story collection before I send it off to my editor next month. I sent each of the fourteen stories to two beta readers. While any feedback will be appreciated, I’ve specifically asked my readers to consider the following questions:
- What is your overall impression of the story?
- Was the protagonist compelling, even if she wasn’t likeable?
- Were there any points of confusion for you, or places where you questioned plausibility?
- How did you feel about the length? Were there any spots where the pace dragged?
- Was the ending appropriate and satisfactory for you?
So far, about half of the stories have come back in with lots of praise (hooray, this must mean I’ve hit my target market!) but also with suggestions for improvement, for which I am really, ecstatically, grateful.
The Street Team
A street team is, theoretically, a group of people who hit the streets to help with product promotion. The idea’s origin is attributed to the music industry, when small record label companies needed to get the word out about their products through a loyal fan base who would generate street hype and “street-cred.” Nowadays, street teams are used in a variety of industries, including publishing.
A street team can be as ambitious as it wants to be. While some members serve as early readers of the published work who then post reviews on Amazon, others do more. They blog about their author’s books, hand out swag, and ask their local libraries to carry the author’s book. They tell their friends about it, they give the books away as gifts, they throw parties for the book. And sometimes they set up secret Facebook pages and meet with one another online, without the author’s involvement.
We’re talking grassroots marketing here, and the important thing to note is the reason the team members do this: they, like the beta readers, want to see the story–and the author–succeed.
I’ve been fortunate to have a number of fans and friends enthusiastically join my street team. In an effort to be sensitive to how busy everyone is, and a desire to keep my street team’s efforts sincere, I’ve promised the invitees that they won’t be asked to sell the books door to door or wear some sort of Power Rangers costume. What I have asked them to do is to be an early reader of the published work and to post a review of it on Amazon. In doing so, they’ll hopefully create buzz and help with the infamous Amazon algorithms.
If my street peeps choose to participate in other promotions, or otherwise do more on their own to spread the word about my work, that’s great. I’ll gladly send them swag to hand out, or talking points for their book clubs or other organizations. I’ll also enthusiastically listen to any other ideas they might have to find a wider audience for the work. But I don’t want to ask too much of them; I want my team to be successful and effective through a sincere and independent desire to support me, and my work.
So, in closing, I’m here to say, first of all, that I recognize how important my village peeps are, and I’m SHOUTING OUT MY GRATITUDE to each of them.
And also, I want to say that, given how many people are publishing books these days, there’s a pretty good chance you know an author or two who could use your help. Reach out to them! Ask if you can join their villages and lend a hand by reading, reviewing, or recommending their work. Because whether we’re raising a book, a child, or an entire community, things work out best, for all of us, when we come together.