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  • Chris OBrien

When someone reviews your writing, ask them leading questions

In 2017, I published my first novel (Toilet Bowl) which breaks into two parts, Book 1 (Meet the Godfreys) and Book 2 (Tour de Bathroom). I have decided to unpublish it, make a couple of changes to the text, and then republish it but doing so through a more old school approach than the Amazon KDP route I originally did (chronicling all of this in a series called Unpublished).


One of the passages that I'm changing involves a proofreading error on my part. See, if you're from Michigan, you refer to where locations are by where they fall on the hand test (since our great state is shaped like a hand). I made the gaffe in my book of writing that Sutton's Bay is located at the "tip of the index finger." What I meant was the ring finger, but even what I meant was wrong. It should be the pinky. And it's "near the tip" not "at the tip." At the tip would be Northport.


My parents, who live up north, give me crap for this mistake (rightfully so). And I've tried to play it off as, "Um, well, maybe the main character (Tim) is just really bad at geography?"


But if I'm going through all the trouble of editing this passage and republishing, I wanted to make some other changes while I was in the shop. I wanted more local Michigan shoutouts. Prove that I've been up there and I'm not the guy who mixes up a pinky with an index finger. Also wanted to get in some foreshadowing. Character development. And some Easter eggs for the future sequel.


And if I'm going through the trouble of all that, it's really worth having a second set of eyes go over the passage. I don't want to make another location mistake and I also want it to read well. So I sent the passage to my friend Michele who has a great eye for improving rough drafts.


The trick in this process is to ask leading questions. Don't simply ask, "Is this any good?" That's too broad and encourages your reader/reviewer to pick between a black and white, "Yes, it's good," or the more harsh, "No, it's not." Leading questions take out the tension since you as the author are saying, "I don't think it's ready and here's where I think it's weak. Any tips on how to make these parts better?" By saying you already know it's not perfect, it opens up the feedback to be more pointed and honest.


You can also point out things not to focus on. For example, you might say, "Hey, I know the grammar is a mess right now, don't worry about that, I just want to know if my description of this sunset is interesting or goes on too long."


I'm going to show what the original copy was, followed by which questions I asked, what Michele replied, and then what it looks like after a re-write with the changes/added passages in red (my guess is there will be a couple more tweaks before it's ready to be published in the book, but what you see below is pretty close to being done).


Original Draft


The Godfreys all share a mansion in Sutton’s Bay, Michigan. In terms of the Michigan hand test, Sutton’s Bay is almost at the tip of the pinky finger; north of Traverse City and about 12 miles south of this little village called Northport. Two quick things about Northport, first they have one of the best breakfast items on the planet (the cinnamon twists at Barb’s Bakery. Mark once ate 12 of them) and the town hosts an annual dog parade, an event that one of my English teachers enters every year wearing a matching costume with her cocker spaniel.
Traverse City. Sutton’s Bay. Northport. Up there is “M-22 country”, which was another thing I had never heard of before meeting the Godfreys. If you see an M-22 sticker on a car, that is a Michigan badge of honor. M-22 is like Michigan’s Lake Shore Drive or Pacific Coast Highway. The views are unbelievable, and the winery stops are supposed to be as good as Napa Valley, or France, or Italy because there’s something about the grapes and the longitude/latitude lines. I don’t know, Grandpa G can explain it better. But M-22 and the Leelanau Peninsula as a whole are high-status symbols to anyone down state. Leelanau is about as close to paradise as it gets if paradise also has seven-month winters.
About a fifty-minute drive west--depending on who’s behind the wheel--from the Godfrey mansion are the Sleeping Bear Dunes. I was going to say the Sleeping Bear Dunes are like our sandy version of [blank]—but I don’t know what I would put. The Sleeping Bear Dunes aren’t like anything else, because nothing else is like the Sleeping Bear Dunes. The Dunes should be on one of those seven wonders of the world lists and get the same bucket list street cred as Machu Pichu or Mount Everest. Good Morning America actually threw Michigan some love in 2011, naming the Sleeping Bear Dunes as the “Most Beautiful Place in America.” There’s this one massive bluff in particular on Pierce Stocking Drive that’s over 400 feet tall and ridiculously steep. It can take over an hour to climb and your legs will be sore for two or three days after. Every year, around six a.m. the morning of the 4 th of July, Ryan’s Dad takes Ryan and Nicole over to Point #9 on Pierce Stocking Drive. He times the climb with a stopwatch, pushing them to beat last year’s mark; which they always do. Ryan says his dad barely even breaks a sweat. “I swear, he could do that climb into his 90s.”

Leading Questions


What I emailed over to Michele:

So I'm dropping you in mid-novel with this one, so things like, "Wait, who are the Godfreys? Who is Mark & Ryan? Am I supposed to know these people?" no need to worry about any of that. What I'm looking for help on is how to make it read smoother/less Michigan book reporty and then if there's any point as a reader where you're like, "Ok, I get it, Michigan is great, let's move on." 

Michele's Reply


Okay, I ended up just editing now...
It does sound a bit like a book report and I think that's because of a few things. The measurement of time and distance is so specific. "12 miles south of this little village" really will only mean a lot to people that actually know the area. You can just say, "It's near Traverse City and this little town called Northport."
There is a lot of exposition with very little scene or dialogue. For some of the things you are describing, it would either be great, as a reader, to experience it through a scene. Or described through the narrator's eyes. "The views are unbelievable" for example. What views? Put me there!
Or when the narrator is describing the Sleeping Bear Dunes, as a climb that can take an hour to climb... did he/she climb it? If so, describing it through that perspective would be really effective.
I will add that I LOVE the voice! Play that up more!

Updated Draft


I've put the changes in red with a note in parenthesis on which part of Michele's feedback led to this change.


The Godfreys all share a mansion in Sutton’s Bay, Michigan. In terms of the Michigan hand test, Sutton’s Bay is almost at the tip of the pinky finger; north of Traverse City and close to this little village called Northport (less book reporty, get the specific mile counts out of there). Two quick things about Northport. First, they have one of the best breakfast foods on the planet (the cinnamon twists at Barb’s Bakery. Mark would order those things by the tray full). The town also has an annual dog parade, an event that one of my English teachers enters every year wearing a matching costume with her cocker spaniel. She offered us extra credit if we would make the drive up north. Double if the costume had a literary theme. (not exactly a scene or dialogue, but a little bit more tie-in to the main character's life rather than just rattling off facts about a town). 
Traverse City. Sutton’s Bay. Northport. Up there is “M-22 country,” which was another thing I had never heard of before meeting the Godfreys. If you see an M-22 bumper sticker, that is a Michigan badge of honor. M-22 is like Michigan’s Lake Shore Drive or Pacific Coast Highway. The views are unbelievable. There are times when you look out the car window and it’s hard to tell where the water stops and the sky begins ("put me there!" What's it like to drive on M-22? What's it like to look out at the lake/bay?). And the wineries up there are said to be as good as Napa Valley, or France, or Italy because there’s something about the grapes and the longitude/latitude lines. I don’t know, Grandpa G can explain it better. But M-22 and the Leelanau Peninsula, as a whole, are high-status symbols to anyone down state. Leelanau is about as close to paradise as it gets if paradise also has seven-month winters. 
About a fifty-minute drive west from the Godfrey mansion are the Sleeping Bear Dunes. I was going to say the Sleeping Bear Dunes are like our sandy version of [blank]—but I don’t know what I would put. The Sleeping Bear Dunes aren’t like anything else, because nothing else is like the Sleeping Bear Dunes. They should be included on any “Seven Wonders of the World” lists. Good Morning America even threw Michigan some love in 2011, naming the Sleeping Bear Dunes as the “Most Beautiful Place in America.” There’s this one massive bluff in particular on Pierce Stocking Drive that’s over 400 feet tall and ridiculously steep. It can take over an hour to climb and I remember the first time I did, I woke up the next morning with sore thighs, a sore back, sore neck. “Do you know if your dad has any Advil or like a thing of Icy Hot?” I asked Ryan when we were all in the kitchen pouring bowls of cereal. “Tim,” Mark said. “You have the athletic prowess of a 75-year-old man.”  (put in a mini-scene of him climbing it, the aftermath, some dialogue, and establish both the character of Tim and Mark. There's another scene or two in the book of Mark making fun of Tim's athleticism)
Every 4th of July, around six o’clock in the morning, Ryan’s Dad takes Ryan and Nicole over to Point #9 on Pierce Stocking Drive. I forgot what the reasoning was, but somehow the 400+ foot climb was the ultimate patriotic way to kick off the day. He times their climb with a stopwatch, pushing them to beat last year’s mark; which they always do. Ryan says his dad hardly even breaks a sweat. “He just sings Bruce Springsteen songs the entire way. I swear, he could do that climb into his 90s.” (little bit more scene. Piece of dialogue. Playing up the voice. Establishing that Ryan's dad is a big America guy and, hopefully, the reader views details like singing Springsteen while climbing a big dune with your kids as a really likable quality).

In Conclusion


It's not an easy process. I'll be honest, when I read through the feedback, my first reaction was more of a groan. Dangit, I have to go back and do this again??


We can't avoid wanting to hear, "It's great! No need to change anything!" That's just human. We want the writing to be accepted. But it's worth fighting through that internal struggle, because the second attempt with the guided notes will always produce a better draft.


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