The first thing I do is read through a piece “for fun”, as a story-reader. If I finish reading and think “Wow! How interesting! (and for an unfinished piece) “What happens next?” then I am happy to say that the story is successful in its current form. Yay! Not everything needs fixing…
If I am kicked out of the story by boredom, bafflement, irritation etc. then I try to note where this happens, and why it has happened: “I was finding the description of the spaceship launch really exciting until I got bogged down in the 4-paragraph description of the acceleration couches.” Sometimes at that point I can climb back on the narrative horse and continue the story-journey; sometimes I can’t, and have to continue in Second-Read mode. All stories will in any case get a Second Read.
In fun-read mode I’m hoping to be your Target Audience. In Second-Read mode I am trying to be your worst, pickiest critic, concentrating on looking at the trees rather than the forest. That phrase sounds awkward. Too many “s” sounds. That paragraph contains three sentences starting with “unfortunately”. Would anybody really say “By the way, Conrad, I wouldn’t mention Randall’s indiscretions to Captain Langford”? You don’t need those italics. Hang on, Randall is now bareheaded; wasn’t he wearing a hat on page 2? When did it fall off? Maybe during the fight on page 4; does that need mentioning or am I being too picky here? I need a better description of these aliens. Who is Arnulf? I didn’t notice the gun over the mantelpiece, you maybe need to paint it red, but that heavy hint about the Portal of Doom felt like having a brick dropped on my foot, couldn’t you just have it open with a menacing creak? All that stuff about the acceleration couches doesn’t really interest me, even if you’ve just spent 3 months designing them.
And then, after I’ve spent a while getting bogged down in the details, I read the story again. This time I’m thinking “Why is this story interesting/important/worth telling?” And, because I’m working on a personal theory that interesting stories don’t need Conflict, but they do need Causation and/or Transformation and/or Discovery, I try to identify actions that have consequences, causes that have effects, and I also try to identify what has changed or transformed in this story, and I ask myself what I have learned, what have I seen that’s new? Does this story raise some expectations in me as a reader, and then satisfy them? If I’m not satisfied, why is that? Is the story a pleasing shape? Where is my attention being directed? Do I like looking at this? And so on.
I have a fairly limited reading-comfort-zone, and I have failings as a reader. There are genres I never read for fun (horror, misery-memoirs), and story elements I struggle to enjoy (characters I don’t like or can’t engage with, for example). I dislike feeling that I’m being indoctrinated, condescended to, or manipulated. And sometimes I’m just stupid or ignorant; I miss the point, I misunderstand, I don’t get it. But sometimes reactions from someone who is not your Target Audience can be useful to a writer. No story can please everyone. I would like your story to work for me, but maybe it won’t. Maybe it can’t. Sometimes you should ignore everything I say about your story.
May I read it now, please?
Sue Thomason lives in rural North Yorkshire, near the sea, with an ex-GP and up to 5 cats. Varied involvement with written SF has included a handful of published short stories, reviewing for both VECTOR and FOUNDATION, co-editing an anthology of locally-based SF/F stories, and being Chair of Milford. She writes fiction mostly for her own entertainment and to find out what happens (often this surprises her). Her other interests include outdoor pursuits, gardening, classical/early/folk music, and collecting interesting or unusual paper clips.