Getting the feedback you need

Hiya, campers —

I’m a little giddy today — it’s snowing. In Seattle. Before Christmas. Obviously, the weather gods are tireless readers of my blog, and they took umbrage at my contention that PNW holiday seasons didn’t even LOOK like all of those New England frosty Thanksgivings and white Christmases we keep hearing about. So never doubt the power of the written word.

Speaking of which, don’t forget to get to work on your entries for the Holiday Tables contest being sponsored by yours truly and this very blog site. (Check out my posting for Thanksgiving Day, November 24, for details.) Winners will have their fabulous words posted HERE and on a marvelous literary fiction site, both of which are gen-u-ine publication venues that you may proudly boast about in query letters yet to come. So get those creative juices flowing! Deadline for submission is December 15.

All right, back to business: I know, I know, I promised you a heaping helping of practical advice on how to deal with your first readers — and I promised to deliver it to you on Tuesday, two days ago. Well, apparently the human body isn’t really designed to withstand months of vague legal threats and highly personal attacks against its creative products. Either that, or Thems As Don’t Cotton To Me have dug out their voodoo dolls of late. (For those of you just tuning in, the Philip K. Dick estate began threatening back in early July to sue my publishers if my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY, comes out next winter, as planned. Such threats tend to linger in the air, particularly when repeated. Even though it was midsummer when they first went on the offensive, and there’s snow on the ground now, I still can’t tell you with any precision what exactly the estate wants me to change in the text. Go figure.) In any case, I have not been at all well, and thus the delay in posting. My apologies — and if any of you out there knows a good cure for off-site voodoo doll pokes, I’d like to hear about it.

I wrote last time (and indeed, for quite a bit of August and September) about the advisability of getting some trustworthy soul to read your work IN ITS ENTIRETY before you send it out to an agent or editor at a small press. If you belong to a writers’ group, you already have a built-in problem-catching system in place — or you do if you belong to a good writers’ group. If you have been hanging with other writers too kind to tell you about logical holes in your text, grammatical problems, or the fact that your protagonist’s sister was names Myrna for the first hundred pages and Myra thereafter, it really would behoove you to have a few more critical eyes look over your work before you send it out.

If you are going to be called on a mistake, it is FAR better to be a little embarrassed by a good first reader than rejected by a hyper-critical agent or editor. So if you are one of the many, many aspiring writers out there who has been too shy to show your work to others, yet is willing to send it out to be evaluated by grumpy literary assistants hyped up on seven lattes before lunch, consider carefully whether you really want your first reader to be someone who does not have either the time or the inclination to give you useful feedback.

Worth some thought, I think.

And it really is worth your while to get feedback that is actually objective. Translation: it shouldn’t come from people who already love you. Or hate you, for that matter. No matter how supportive, kind, literate, critical, eagle-eyed, or brutally honest your parents may be — and I’m sure that they’re sterling souls — their history with you renders them not the best sources of feedback. Ditto with your siblings, your children, your best friend since you were three, and anyone who has ever shared your bed. ESPECIALLY anyone who has ever shared your bed.

Far be it from me to suggest that any of these people might be sweet and generous enough to lie to spare your feelings, but frankly, that possibility should occur to you. Be grateful that you have such supportive folks in your life. Cherish them; appreciate them; cling to them with the tenacity of a leech. But get other first readers for your manuscripts, because a first reader who will not tell you the truth reliably is simply not useful for a writer.

If you need proof, ask the next agent or editor you meet at a conference how many times she’s heard a rejected author cry out: “But my mother/husband/wife/best friend LOVED it!” It’s one of the miracles of love, apparently, that it can blind the eye of the beholder to grammatical errors.

Incidentally, critique by loved ones often runs in the other direction, particularly if you happen to be loved by the type the psychologists used to call passive-aggressive. I have had many editing clients come to me in tears because their boyfriends have pounced on the first typo of the manuscript as evidence that the writer should never have put pen to paper at all. Long-repressed sibling rivalries often jump for joy when they see a nice, juicy manuscript to sink their teeth into, and are you quite sure that your best friend ever forgave you for the time that your 4th-grade soccer team beat hers? The critique you need is about the book, not about your relationships.

I’m not saying not to show your work to your kith and kin — if it makes you happy, do. But all of my experience tells me that even if your Aunt Mary won a Pulitzer in criticism last year, you probably should not rely solely upon her critique of your manuscript. I speak not just from professional experience, but from familial as well: my mother is one of the best line editors I’ve ever seen. She’s been doing it since the late 1940s, for some pretty top-notch writers. I do show my work to her — but for the brutal truth, I rely on my trusty band of first readers.

I can already hear some of my readers gnashing their teeth. “I HAVE been giving my work to first readers,” I hear them grumbling, “and they never give me feedback. Or they hold onto the manuscript for so long that I’ve already made revisions, so I can’t really use their critique. Or they so flood me with minute nit-picking that I have no idea whether they even LIKED the manuscript or not. I really feel burned.”

If you do, you are not alone: trust me, every freelance editor has heard these complaints hundreds of times from new clients. In fact, freelance editors ought to be downright grateful for those poor feedback-givers, as they tend to drive writers either to despair or into the office of a professional.

At the risk of thinning the ranks of potential editing clients, I do have a few suggestions about how to minimize frustrations in the first reader process. First, as I have indicated above, avoid asking relatives and close friends. If you do have them read it, make a positive statement when you give them the manuscript, limiting what you expect in response: “I have other readers who will deal with issues of grammar and style,” you can tell your kin, for example. “I want to know if the story moved you.” By telling them up front that you do not expect them to do the work of a professional editor (which at heart, many manuscript readers fear), you will make the process more pleasant for them and heighten the probability that you will get some useful feedback.

Ideally, your best first reader choice (other than a professional reader, such as an editor, agent, or teacher) is a fellow writer in your own genre, preferably a published one. Second best is a good writer in another genre. Third is an excellent reader, one who has read widely and deeply and is familiar with the conventions of your genre.

Which brings me to my second suggestion: stick to readers familiar with your genre. Someone who reads primarily nonfiction is not the best first reader for a novel; an inveterate reader of mysteries is not the best first reader of literary fiction or a how-to book. Readers tend to impose the standards of the books they like best onto anything they read, with results that can sometimes puzzle writers and readers of other genres. For instance, my boyfriend, an SF/fantasy reader since his elementary school days, shocked me on one of our first dates by confessing, in the middle of my rhapsody in praise of John Irving, that he had not been able to make it all the way through THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. “I found it boring,” he admitted. “Not much happened.”

“A character gets castrated in mid-car crash,” I pointed out. “How much more action do you want?”

From his reading background, though, he was right: it’s rare that more than a page goes by in a good SF novel without overt action, and mainstream novels tend to be devoid of, say, time travel. John Irving would be wise, then, to avoid him as a first reader.

As would I — and here’s where I see if you’ve been paying attention: why SHOULDN’T I use my SF-loving boyfriend as a first reader? If your first impulse was to cry out, “He’s double-disqualified! He’s more or less kith and kin, AND he doesn’t read memoirs on a regular basis!” you get an A.

Tomorrow, voodoo doll and legal conditions permitting, I shall share a few more hints on how to minimize first reader disappointments. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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