Sometimes the freshest eyes are those of readers who don’t also write. And without minds muddied by picture book writing rules or market madness, Average Mike (nicknamed after my husband who sometimes fills this role) readers can offer a quick, clear assessment of where your story works or doesn’t. With just one read under their belts, they’re also a barometer for complexity of picture book plot. After all, they won’t have multiple reads to figure it out.
So here’s how best to use an Average Mike reader.
Pick an Average Mike – someone who doesn’t write. Maybe even someone who doesn’t often read in your genre. Ask him to read your story slowly and carefully and tell him that you’ll be asking him several questions when he’s done. DO NOT tell him what to look for in the story or what questions you’ll be asking. If your chosen reader loves to “edit” or catch grammar, punctuation or spelling mistakes, tell him that this isn’t the draft for that. That you’ll be turning to him for help with that in a later draft.
When he begins reading, leave the room. Have him call you back in when he’s done. Have him hand the manuscript back to you so that you can take notes on it and so he doesn’t peek or scan it for answers.
Then ask him to do the following/answer the following questions (if any of the questions are not applicable, simply eliminate them):
- Retell the story in simple terms – in particular describe the cause and effect of each plot point.
- Who is the main character?
- What does he/she want most?
- Are there significant secondary characters?
- What do they want most?
- Describe each of the significant characters in the story and how you see them?
- Retell the story in terms of actions and motivations of the significant secondary characters?
- Describe significant character emotions during the story. Describe the cause of each.
- Where did the logic of the story trip you up?
- What makes the main character stand out? How is she/he different?
- What is the climax of the story? What happens there? Does it work?
- How is the main character’s problem resolved?
- How are any secondary characters’ problems resolved?
- Does the solution/conclusion of the story make sense? Why or why not?
- Did you find the ending satisfying? What questions were you left with at the end?
- What did you like best?
- What bugged you most?
- Where did the language or rhythm of the story trip you up?
- Did anything in or about the story surprise you? What and why?
- How did you feel as you were reading the story?
Notice how none of the questions are YES/NO. Let your reader talk. You should simply listen and take notes. Try to refrain from explaining or even reacting if your reader has misunderstood your story or has understood something incorrectly.
Feel free to tailor the questions with specific character names or plot points as necessary. But beware of directing your reader to the answers you want. They may not be the answers you need to hear.
What questions would you add to the list?