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You Think You’ve Got it, but You Don’t . . . OR . . . Does it Pass the Smell Test? The Magnifying Gl

Mystery Readers, share your examples of stories and novels where, in your opinion, the writer missed the target.

I’ve recognized a theme in the past month, and it’s this “Ah, ha!” moment I relate to you now. It’s about the hard work of beta-testing your plans. Recently I had the joy of transporting teenage athletes one hundred miles to a high school sports tournament. I expect many of you have done this more often than have I. The tournament arena zinged with energy, noises, and bodies. Athletes, trainers, coaches, referees, parents & relatives, sports vendors, tournament organizers, and emergency medical folks each added their own special gemmeinschaft to this controlled chaos. I gravitated toward my peers—the parents—and my preconceptions were dashed.

Having embarked on my last pregnancy more than fifteen years ago at an advanced maternal age, according to my doctor, I am a mother with more in common with other children’s grannies. This landed in my lap, or the proverbial foot landed in my mouth, when spying a team dad wearing a shirt bearing my college’s emblems, I asked, “Cass of ’81, right?”

“No . . .” was his insulted reply. I was off by almost ten years. I covered by gaffe by remarking on how old I must be, and I ended up making a friend. Much of the endless day I cogitated on the differences in generations. I once considered writing young adult (YA) sports fiction. At this tournament, I observed teen male and female athletes cheering, competing, resting, and eating and concluded I was out of touch. I’d need to do a lot of footwork to have a clue about writing for this audience (unless I set the story in the 1970’s when I did have a clue). The conversations within and between the sexes had a marked difference, as did those between players and their coaches and parents. The player hairstyle culture alone was foreign to me. The girls spent their free time creating elaborate braided styles on one another. The boys’ styles ran from man-buns and top-of-head hair “fountains” to various headband-assisted looks. Whereas I am pleased to report the demise of the male buzz cut, I am nonplussed that these boys had hairstyles far more hip and vastly superior to mine! Conclusion #1: My YA sports fiction would never pass a smell test, let alone a magnifying glass test.

Two other projects drive home the theme. One is my work developing a presentation for library professionals. Of course I have a great plan. Lucky for me, I also have a great co-presenter. Her plan to run our rough draft past some librarians for a “smell test” will probably save my keister. In addition, our discussions led to another keister-saving realization. We’d assumed our audience would be public library staff. Then we reviewed the scope of the conference and realized that our session attendees could also include staff from elementary/middle/high school, university, museum, and private libraries, too. A presentation that would reek at a smell test is on the path to instead produce a pleasant aroma. Conclusion #2: Apply a smell test to every draft product. Use the magnifying glass test when the stakes are high.

Finally, all this contributes to my preparation as panel moderator for Reading a Book from the Author’s Point of View at the October 1, 2016, Williamsburg Book Festival. Checking expectations with festival staff about panel content was my first step. To me, reading a book from the author’s point of view meant something along the lines of examining a book’s fiction craft—how the author organized the story, how he/she used dialog, setting, pacing, exposition, detail, metaphor, etc. Festival organizers, however, envision the panel as a discussion among genre writers as to what readers expect from a story—the predictable narrative—and how authors work within a “formula” to create satisfying plots and characters. Each genre has its set of conventions, and use or misuse of these affects whether the story passes the smell and/or magnifying glass test. In the Mystery genre, for example, convention demands that a body to turn up within the first three chapters, more murders to take place along the way, the writer provides clues and several red herrings, and the guilty are brought to justice in the end. In the Westerns genre, the setting is expected to be in the American western frontier in the late eighteenth to late nineteenth century. In Romance, a hero and heroine fall in love, their love is thwarted, the problems resolved, and they unite in the end. The upcoming panel includes writers of Mystery, Historical, Romance, and Steampunk, and I look forward to a lively event.

It all boils down to checking assumptions about your audience, meeting (or exceeding!) their expectations, testing your product, and revising. Reading a book from the author’s point of view, for the purposes of this panel, presupposes that an author put himself in a reader’s shoes to see if a story meets or surpasses what the reader expects.

This meandering is one writer’s take on respecting your audience. Cheers, and thanks for reading the Lethal Ladies Write blog.

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