Now that I'm done reading Steven Savage's upcoming novel A Bridge To The Quiet Planet and giving him feedback, I'm back to work on Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, based on the feedback he gave me — and to some degree, the things I picked up from reading his book as well.
Good feedback is hard to find. Most editors can tell you how to rearrange a sentence to make the clauses not trip over each others' feet, or how to pull out just enough commas, like someone who weeds a lawn without also denuding it. But good feedback is rarer. For that you need a reader who has some empathy for the material and the author — someone who can see what you're aiming for and say, "You need to aim a little bit more to the left."
Finding someone like this is akin to finding a good friend, and I strongly suspect only the best and most loyal of friends could also be the best and most thoughtful of β-readers. For that person, the stakes are a little higher. He wants to see you succeed personally, and he also wants to have the number of really great works of art in the world increased by one. From that dual vested interest comes more than just suggestions on whether or not this scene belongs before that one, but bigger questions and answers.
I'm a little more than a tenth of the way through the job, but so far Steve has supplied me with a couple of key pieces of insight. One is that there were times when the emotional content of what I'd put on the page felt muted, and didn't deserve to be. I always held back from such things compulsively, not because I don't like to have them in my stories, but only because I didn't want to bombard the reader with them. But less is not always more; sometimes less is just less. A little such material, skillfully placed, does go a long way; but it has to actually be there in the first place.
The other thing was that sometimes I had a tendency to allow the tone of me-the-author to seep into the tone of the characters, especially in moments of introspection. Some of that was because I was using a more freeform attitude towards mixing those things than I had in previous books. Policing the bleed-through between subjective and objective took more work than I thought. But that's what readers and drafts are for.
The last lesson learned, and perhaps the most important: By all accounts, I had a good book on my hands, and one that could be made all the better with a little work. I also had a good reader on my hands, someone I could trust to see the intentions behind any of my gestures. Find those people and cultivate them.