Yesterday, I drove to Portland to meet with a class of twelve university students who read and critiqued my historical novel Down The River. I received the opportunity from Ooligan Press at Portland State University who read the manuscript and liked it, but not quite enough to publish it. Not yet. By having strangers read the book I could get a good sense of what is working and is not working. How could I pass up on the opportunity? I was too late for the winter term, but got into a spring term class.
Each student read the book (133,000 words, over 400 pages) and took notes. They broke into groups to discuss certain features. Then each wrote a detailed critique of from four to fourteen pages which I got via email last week. And boy were they detailed. The students wanted to meet with me and scheduled me for 5:30 p.m. yesterday.
We met in a library-like conference room seated on sofas and chairs in a circle. First I thanked them for their effort. Such commentary is incalcuable to a writer, or at least very expensive to purchase. I explained to them the origins of the book, a real family story, and how it evolved. I summarized for them the more common concerns that they had and how these were all good ideas. Some of their ideas I have already accepted and introduced into the text. Other ideas I will pass on and many I have to really chew on in order to work into the story.
One thing I had to clarify with them was the two central mysteries of the story, never explicitly answered, but for which there was ample evidence. (you have to read the book to find out what they are.) Some got the answers, some did not. When I explained the mysteries there was slappling of foreheads, etc. I enjoyed very much discussing my characters who the readers really engaged. In many cases the cry was more! more! they liked them so much. I will grant some of these requests, but not all. In writing, less is more.
In balance they all enjoyed the book and since the class was on story development, they offered ways to develop it. They were remarkably professional in their approach to a work they had to read and the extent to which they commented is a tribute to how much they enjoyed it. At the end we applauded each other.
So, I am really pumped to get into this thing and make it really sing. Once that is done, I will resubmit to Ooligan and see if they will nibble again.