Monday, January 30, 2012

Using projection/anticipation to improve your manuscript

In the last few months I've started using a new technique to improve my novel in progress, thanks to my lovely and insightful beta-reader, Jamie Todd Rubin. The fact that he's my beta-reader was initially something of an accident - I'd been talking with him about my novel and he offered to read it, to which I replied "are you sure?" and out of that insecurity only sent him one chapter, but then he asked for another. And another, and onward. (Thanks so much, Jamie!)

One of the things he told me (and it probably won't surprise you) was that he didn't want me to tell him anything about what I was currently working on, or any details about where the story was going. Okay, so I did that. But at a certain point I asked him a question that opened a whole new kind of door for me in my writing process. The question was this:

What do you think is going to happen next in the story?

The results of my asking this question were so fabulously useful that I've since done it multiple times, and now I'm recommending that you try this as well.

Ask a reader - one who does not know where the story is "supposed" to go - to tell you where he or she thinks it is going.

I often think about the arcs of my story: what I've constructed up to a particular point should give some indication of where the arc will go in the future. Asking Jamie where he thinks the story is going allows me to get an outsider's view on the arcs as they appear on the page, rather than as I imagine them. Because I know where the story is going, where it is supposed to go, I can miss places where I've misdirected readers, or places where I've left open a possibility that isn't actually a possibility. Jamie helps me figure out where I've left the wrong doors open, and based on his comments, I can then go back, see more clearly what I've done, take those wrong doors and close them.

Honestly, I lucked into this. Jamie is a perceptive reader, and very creative about thinking through the possibilities - someone like him may be hard to find. During our last conversation of this nature he didn't feel like he could address the general question "where you do you think the story is going?" so instead I asked him the same question on a smaller level, i.e. what he thought would happen next for each of the three main characters. As a result he came up with the most amazing hypothesis for my protagonist I could possibly have imagined. It wasn't what I had planned, but it was incredibly informative. What it told me was that my character trajectories were right on target: that he had precisely the right idea about where my protagonist wanted to end up (i.e. not as a straightforward "winner" of the competition), and he had developed respect for one of the secondary characters that was exactly what I was hoping for (challenging, because this character is very oppressed and doesn't have lots of opportunities to look powerful).

So to think about this in practical terms, it's worth not telling every one of your writing friends everything about where your story is going. Not that this is a risk for you, necessarily, but it is for me! It's worth having some people you can hash through plans and world details with, and having others whom you only speak with about what they've experienced so far. The person who starts knowing nothing and builds up as they go along is the person most like your future reader. That person's ability to anticipate and to project the story can be absolutely invaluable.


  1. He sounds like a great reader :). This is one of the things I've been doing on OWW when I review a novel chapter. Though I prefer reading the whole thing all at once, there's a lot that can be learned even in a single chapter. In my crit, I add a section for characters that talks about who I think they are and where they're going, and a second for "threads" which looks at what I think is going on in the story, what stands out as important, what should have (when I come in the middle) been built out before this chapter, and where I think the threads I see are headed.

    But yes, only an untainted reader is useful for this.

  2. I should start doing this more mid-book, but I always ask "where do you think this is going?" after the first chapter. It's a great way to see if those opening pages are promising the kind of story the reader's actually going to get. Great post.

  3. Margaret, as I said, I got lucky. I think there's a place in critiquing for those who read the whole thing at once, and another place for those who don't. The two help in different ways. Thanks for commenting!

    MK, after the first chapter is a good place to do it. Another good place is where I am now, right before the climax starts. Thanks for the comment!