IT goes without saying that the most important thing a writer needs is readers. However before your work gets exposed to the great reading public, you need someone closer to home to look at it and decide whether it succeeds as a story.
The professional writer probably has an agent or a publisher who will look at their draft and tell them what they need to do to polish it. For the rest of us we need a critical friend to tell us whether we’ve done what we set out to do.
This is not a comfortable process if (a) they are honest and (b) you aren’t already the greatest writer the world has ever seen. Every story can be improved, and you aren’t the best person to see where those improvements should come. As I said before, the story in your head complete with pictures and character backstories, is not necessarily what you have managed to convey on the page. Even if it is wonderful there will be typos that your word processor has either missed, or more likely “autocorrected” to be a different one from one you meant. Unless you are a very good proof reader you will see what you expect to see and not what is there.
Starting my career as a print journalist means I’m used to my work being chopped about – often for no reason other than the hole in the paper it has to fill. It still is uncomfortable, however, to hear that I haven’t described the setting or characters enough, parts of the dialogue are not true to those characters, or my ending is too rushed. (my ending is always too rushed – I want to know what happens as well).
I am lucky to have two good readers. The first is my wife Jules. Despite not really being a reader, or perhaps because of that, she is always spot on in identifying where I have not been clear in what I write. She is also very good at making sure what I write is really me. One story I drafted was rejected because the core characters – a trio of disabled young people nicknamed The Three Wise Monkeys – were good, but the story was too dark for them to be in. I’ll keep them for something else, along with the Detective Inspector who narrates the story – and ditch that plot.
In another story she identified that the core issue was whether the lead character was a compulsive liar or a sociopath. Depending on which it is he has either been cleverly stitched up or killed three people. We then researched the behaviours of both types so that (a) his dialogue (and the story is told entirely in the transcribed dialogue of a police interview) was consistent with either type of mental condition and (b) the questioning by the DI was designed to identify which of the two was true as well as moving the story forward.
The fact Jules is developing a career as a stand up comedian (julesmaxine@iamjulesmaxine on twitter or Jules Maxine on facebook) helps as she is used to editing words down to have enough meat to ensure the audience gets the jokes, but not enough to allow them to lose interest between one joke and the next laugh line.
My second reader is a writer called Laurence Ramsey – you can find his stuff as Kindle ebooks on Amazon. I knew Laurence when we both worked in the e-Government field four or five years ago. He is not as good at identifying if a story is “me” but great at identifying if the mood is right for the type of story, maintained properly, and whether I describe settings and actions enough. I have tendency to use dialogue too much to drive the story forward without saying what is happening in physical terms – a bit like reading a film script without seeing what the actors do. I know William Gaddis can get away with writing a classic book with nothing but unattributed dialogue, but I’m a long way from that stage.
The other useful technique I am developing is to put story aside after first draft – which I am good at rattling off pretty quickly – and not looking at it again to edit it for at least several days. That means I’ve forgotten the detail of what I wrote and look at it as a reader. IT’s not a substitute for having someone else read it, but it is a good additional tool to improve the story on second draft.