Monday, January 19, 2009

Focus? Not so hasty.

Vicki here, ready to wade in on Charles' provocative idea: focus groups for books?

He notices that movies are created with the help of focus groups, as are advertising campaigns. Why not books?

My opinion: Yes and No.

No: Books are not movies or music and they are not ad campaigns. Books differ in one enormous way from those other art forms in that books are at their very essence solitary activities. Solitary on the part of the writer (in most cases – there are writing pairs; I know of no writing teams other than TV and movie tie-ins) slaving away in her lonely garret, fingers worn to the bone, blinking at the sunlight when he ventures out of doors once the magnum opus is complete. Compare that to a movie where the credits roll for about ten minutes and the writer (there might be many) is listed far down the line. The consumer of books is also engaged in a solitary activity. With the exception of storytime at the library or the rare instance of a J.K. Rowling reading to ten thousand people in a football stadium, the reader reads alone. The experience of reading is not enhanced by the participation of someone else (Whatcha doin? Wanna go for a walk?) in the way that listening to music or watching a movie can be. A novel cannot be ‘spoiled’ by interpretation in the way that a good screenplay can be turned into a bad movie with the help of a lousy director and no-talent actors. Music, no matter how well written, can be ruined, by bad acoustics, a poor arrangement, out of tune instruments.

For these reasons, I think a lot of attempts to consider the future of books in terms of music or movies, or even ads, is not taking into account the unique aspects of books.

Yes: I doubt if the book has been written that doesn’t need help. Thus we have editors, proofreaders, copyeditors. (I will relent a bit on my previous point and admit that a book littered with grammar and spelling errors might well spoil the reading experience). Coincidently, my own editor just this morning sent me her thoughts on my new MS, Winter of Secrets. It’s a sad story, she said, make it sadder. Reading her comments, I agreed, and I will change the ending.

No: I once joined an online critique group. It was awful, and if I'd taken their comments to heart it might have scuppered my writing career. It’s been said that a poor critique group is worse than none (or is that an agent?). One member insulted, literally, me personally as well as my character. Someone took a section of dialogue, re-wrote it and said “there, this is much better.” If I’d taken their advice it would have ended up as a book written by committee. Knowing what makes a book work, or not, is a skill. There isn’t much point in someone saying to you, “I really didn’t like John.” Not if they can’t tell you why they didn’t like John, and certainly not if they didn’t know whether they were supposed to like John or not.

Yes: I now have a good critique group. We meet in person, once a month. The members are all good writers, and I value their opinion. Does a critiquer have to be a writer? Probably not, but they have to know what the heck they’re talking about. One of the benefits, I’ve discovered, about belonging to a good group is that it causes me to rethink my own impressions of my own work.

Bottom Line:
I’d be very, very cautious about submitting my work to a random focus group.


Susan D said...

"Make it sadder"??? Now that's intriguing.

And you changed the ending. That's even more intriguing.

Vicki Delany said...

If I told you how and why, Susan, I'd have to kill you. 'Cause then you'd know the ending! The scheduled pub. date of Winter of Secrets is Dec. 2009.