All Hail the Test Readers
It’s out there right now. People are reading it. My beloved first fantasy novel. People are reading it. This is terrifying. It’s not out out yet, but my test readers have it, and there is bound to be some lovely, skin-flaying reviews that make me feel raw and naked all over again. At least it will be from friends this time.
I’m doing things different this time around. My first novel, Elly in Bloom, is doing fantastic, so much better than I expected or dreamed. It was a novel that I had closed the door on, only to have it thrust open, the book thrown into a much bigger and brighter arena. It’s been a twisty path, but I finally feel like my feet are on solid ground.
It no longer feels like I’m trying to enjoy an earthquake under my feet.
It is my first novel, and I’ve learned quite a few things since then about publishing a novel. The publishing school of hard knocks is a very real place, especially when your book is on Amazon and Goodreads.
One of the first things I’ve learned: the things that you think that people might not like aren’t the things that people don’t like. I worried that people might not like the conclusion of Elly and Isaac. I worried that people would root for these two, and that they would be upset that there was no happily after ever there. I was…wrong. In fact, people seem to dislike Isaac much earlier in the book that I had expected. That’s just one example – I have dozens. I never thought that people would have a very passionate reaction to the fact that Snarky Teenager does not have a name. To me, that was just the perfect name FOR her. For readers, they either HATE it or they ADORE it.
Also, the scenes that I love aren’t the scenes that real readers love. And the scenes that I thought were just okay, people love. I can’t tell you how many people have mentioned the scene in Elly in Bloom with her mother. That’s usually the first thing people tell me if we are talking about the book. “That chapter, about her mother – oh my gosh, I sobbed.” I had no idea that that chapter would be the standout chapter of Elly in Bloom for so many people. My favorite moments in Elly in Bloom are not the ones being mentioned to me. They are other, random scenes that people have connected with. It’s fascinating, and to be honest, a bit disorienting as a writer. The idea that what I love might not be what others love seems really simple, but in all reality, I can’t imagine that there isn’t a moment in every writer’s life that that doesn’t seem like a tsunami-sized revelation.
And that is why you need test readers. I had test readers for Elly in Bloom. A handful of them, who helped immensely. There was even one bit of feedback from a test reader (ahem, Michelle) that completely changed the epilogue. I used them then, but my fatal flaw was that I didn’t use them ENOUGH. That was my fault. I didn’t ask the right questions. I was so hungry for feedback that I rushed the process.
I will not do that with my fantasy novel. I refuse to rush it.
The book is twice as long as Elly in Bloom, that’s twice the story with about eight times the characters and history. The story is complicated and epic. As my first editor Erin put it “Elly is to a Julia Roberts comedy what Queen of Hearts is to Lord of the Rings.” It’s big, it’s complex, and it was so quietly elating to write. This book is going to need more eyes. More feedback. More people looking for plot holes, which can be so obvious to someone outside the story, but never the author.
With my husband’s help, we designed a great system for the test readers this time around. I hand-picked my test readers: they represent a broad look at readers, demographics and target audience members. They are male and female, young and old. Mostly, they are people who read a lot. These test readers will give feedback after each chapter. They will list questions they have, things they liked and didn’t, their overall emotions and reactions to the chapters. Then they will indicate whether the chapter needs work, needs A LOT of work, is pretty good to go, or if they hated it. The beauty of this system will play out when I look at all the sheets together – gathered from a dozen test readers – and then view them as a whole. I’ll see IMMEDIATELY what chapters need work. If I see the same questions come up again and again, I’ll know those are the most important to address first. While every bit of criticism might not lead to changes, I will see any glaring problems immediately. Especially with the chapter forms, having a group consensus to view is going to be a priceless asset in my court. Will it hurt my feelings to look at everyone’s harshest criticism all at once? Oh, FOR SURE. I’ll probably have myself a good cry as I look over them. But it will be a constructive cry.
The cry that means “Looks like there are more than a few things I need to fix.”
At the end of the book, the test readers will give their general feedback. I only asked them about a million questions. Questions like “What genre does this book belong in? What was your emotional reaction to the book on the whole? What are the symbolic themes in this book? What would say this book is about? Were you surprised by the twists? How did you like the epilogue? Were you satisfied with the conclusion of the story? What were the best and worst parts of this book? What would you rate it on Amazon? What do you see the cover looking like?”
See. Not so fun to be a test reader, maybe. I’m hoping none of these amazing people think “UGGHH….WHAT DID I SIGN UP FOR?” when they are reading it. I’m hoping that they think it’s fun. I’m hoping they aren’t banging their head against the wall, thinking of my smug face and muttering
“Off with HER head. Off with HER head.”
As my friend Stefanie put it: ” It’s kinda interesting because I am reading slowly and often pondering the characters and plot. Usually when you read a book it’s already published. It’s a very freeing feeling to be able to write notes and give comments that may influence the book before it’s published! “
I hope everyone feels that way. All Hail the Test Readers!!
When she was in 4th grade at her public elementary school, Colleen told her teacher, Ms. Brown, that she wanted to be a writer. Ms. Brown agreed and began giving her special writing projects. Out of this came the brilliant four page novel, “Why I hate Casey The Most”, complete with illustrations. It has yet to be published.
She attended Denver Lutheran High School for most of her high school career, where she had the good graces to befriend many wonderful teachers and students and the occasional homeless man. She graduated in 1998 (to Greenday’s “Time of Your Life” the anthem of everyone who graduated that year) and continued on to college at Concordia College in Bronxville, NY.
In Bronxville, she truly hit her stride, and excelled at art, academics, journalism and having more than two friends. (She had four.) Her junior year she wrote a play entitled “The Problem with Faith” and it was performed at the college over a long Spring weekend. In addition, she wrote frequently for the newspaper and the school’s literary journal. She graduated in 2002 with Honors and a membership in the schools Fellows program.
In 2001, Colleen met her husband Ryan, a handsome and intimidating Seminary student, while they both worked at Camp Luther, a Lutheran Camp outside of Schyuler, Nebraska. It is still amazing to her that she managed to hook this great guy while being covered in sweat and dead mosquitoes the majority of that summer. They married in the summer of 2003 at that same camp, while a monsoon raged outside. Colleen joined Ryan in St. Louis (the location inspiration for Elly in Bloom) for the remainder of his Seminary years. While he was in school, she worked at several florists and did everything from designing to delivery to closet organizing to driving an owner’s grandparents to Wisconsin. After he graduated with his masters, they moved to Colorado, where Ryan was called to a church in North Denver.
Colleen opened up a wedding florist out of her home, and they sailed along smoothly for a few years. One day, Colleen opened up a document on her computer that she had written long ago, so long ago that she can’t remember exactly when it was for this bio. It was the first chapter of Elly in Bloom, and she decided that it was time to finish the book and begin her career as a novelist, something she had dreamed about for a long time.
Elly in Bloom debuted in September 2012 via Amazon Publishing. Colleen and Ryan continue to live in North Denver and are awaiting their first child through adoption. They have two naughty dogs and are total pop culture nerds. She is currently at work on Elly in Love, the sequel to Elly in Bloom, and an epic fantasy novel.
You can visit her webpage at: www.colleenoakes.net
Some random facts:
Favorite Movie: Moulin Rouge
Favorite Musicians: Missy Higgins, Mumford and Sons, The Autumn Film, Sia, Josh Groban, Joshua Radin, U2, Greenday.
Favorite Books: The Poisonwood Bible, Bel Canto, Jane Eyre, Peace Like a River, the Harry Potter series, Life of Pi, State of Wonder, Ready Player One, The Song of Fire and Ice Saga, Eragon, Middlesex, The Nanny Diaries, Little Earthquakes, Every Woman for Herself, Plainsong, The Fearless Flyer’s Handbook, Shopgirl, Jurassic Park and about a thousand others.
Most Embarrassing Moment: Falling down on a fishing boat, in the Caribbean, into the splits, in front of two rich British dudes.