The keepers of the books

‘Twas the week after Thanksgiving, and all through the publishing houses, not a creature was stirring, not even that junior editor who swore to you at a conference last summer that she’d get to your submission within a month. So let’s let the literary world alone for its long winter nap and move on to matters that we writers can control, eh?

First, don’t forget to start polishing up your entries for the Holiday Table contest (details in my Thanksgiving post). Wow me and the editor of a respected literary fiction website with your piece about the holiday table, and you’ll gain eternal fame, via being posted here and on said literary site. (And yes, you can legitimately use that as a publication credit, quoth the ghost of query letters yet to come) So keep those entries rolling in — the deadline is December 15.

I devoted yesterday’s post to a few helpful hints on how to get good feedback from non-professional readers. (The standard professional readers are agents, editors — freelance and otherwise — and teachers, but agents and editors seldom have time to give significant feedback, and classes and freelance editing cost money.) Yesterday’s hints, as you may have noticed, concentrated on asking the right people to read your manuscript. A LOT of standard first reader problems can be avoided by simply not asking people who are not qualified to read your book to read your manuscript.

I hear some of you out there humphing. “Yeah, right,” some of you are grumbling audibly, “she’s a professional writer and editor with a Ph.D. She probably doesn’t think ANYONE is qualified to read a book.”

Actually, depending on your genre or field, a highly-educated person can be the WORST first reader imaginable. If you were writing for, say, fifth graders, your ideal first readers would be a classroom full of kids, not a symposium full of philosophy professors.

However, relatively few aspiring writers actively seek members of their target audiences as first readers. Why not? Well, most of the ones I’ve polled have said it’s just easier to ask people they already know — and it turns out that writers aren’t necessarily aware of what their friends do or do not read.

So how do you find a qualified reader? Tip #3: ask people about their reading habits BEFORE you ask them to read your manuscript. Do this even if — and perhaps even especially if — someone has expressed an interest in reading your manuscript simply out of friendship. In my experience, such people, while kind and encouraging, often do not realize just how much time it takes to read a manuscript carefully. Often, these folks end up not finishing it at all or giving inadequate feedback, just because they did not budget adequate time to read well.

You need not give potential readers the third degree; take ’em out for coffee and spend half an hour chatting about books. (This is also a pretty good idea to do with members of any writing group you are thinking about joining. How a person speaks about his literary likes and dislikes will tell you a lot about whether he is a good reader for your work.) You may feel as though you are conducting a job interview, but honestly, you will be trusting your first readers to hold a significant part of your ego in their hands. You wouldn’t trust your teeth to a dentist without credentials or previous mouth-related experience, would you? Are the nerve endings in your mouth really more sensitive than your feelings about your work?

Having this little chat will make it significantly easier for you to implement Tip #4: get feedback from people in your target audience.

This is slightly different than yesterday’s Tip #2, which advised getting feedback from inveterate readers of your chosen genre or field, who would be familiar with the conventions, limitations, and joys possible in books like yours. People in your target audience, however, may not yet have read a book like yours, but for reasons that you are VERY eager to explain to your dream agent, these target readers need desperately to read your work.

For instance, let’s say you’ve written a lifestyle book for former high school athletes who no longer exercise — a rather large demographic. Three of your five chapters are filled with recipes for bran muffins, salads, and trail mix. Naturally, you would want to include among your first readers someone familiar with cookbooks, as well as someone who reads a lot of exercise books. However, it would be well worth your while to seek out a jock from your old high school who has never opened either a cookbook or exercise book before. If you can make your book work for your old volleyball buddy, you’ll know you have a good shot at writing for people like her. (Hey, you might as well get SOME use from all of those nagging messages keeps sending you about getting back in touch with old playmates, right?)

If you are a member of a writers’ group, and you have not been getting useful feedback, you might want to consider whether its members actually are in your target demographic. Look very carefully at your first readers and ask yourself: are these the kind of people I expect to buy my book? If they did not know me, would they buy it at all? If the answer to either is no, go out and find some people who are and will, pronto. I know an excellent children’s book illustrator who, every time she finishes a rough draft, routinely hangs out with her sketchpad in the picture book sections of bookstores, stopping every kid she sees to ask if the pictures she has just completed match the captions well enough. She gets TERRIFIC feedback, from precisely the right people.

You may have noticed that from talking about one or two first readers, I am now speaking of several for a single project. Your work is complex, right? It may be very difficult to find the single ideal best reader for it. So why not mix and match your friends to create an ideal composite reader?

Tip #5: Find different readers for different needs.

Most of us would like to think that anything we write will invariably touch any given reader, but in actuality, that’s seldom the case. Nor is it often the case that we happen to have an array of first readers easily at our disposal — although, again, if you join a good writers’ group, you will in fact have gained precisely that. In the absence of such a preassembled group, though, you can still cobble together the equivalent, if you think long and hard about what individual aspects of your book could use examination. Once you’ve identified these needs, you can ask each of your chosen readers to read very explicitly with an eye to her own area of expertise, so to speak.

In the lifestyle book example above, it was easy to see how readers from different backgrounds could each serve the book. With fiction, however, the book’s various needs may be more subtle, harder to define. In a pinch, you can always fall back on finding a reader in the same demographic as a particular character — I know a lot of teenagers who get a big kick out of critiquing adult writers’ impressions of what teenage characters are like. If a major character is an accountant, try asking an accountant to read the book for professional accuracy. Even if you are writing about vampires or fantasy creatures, chances are that some regular Joes turn up in your stories from time to time.

And so forth. But make sure when you approach these people — or any others — you follow Tip #6: couch your request in a compliment. Ideally, you would like these potential first readers to be flattered that you asked. Try asking like this:

“I trust your eye implicitly, so I am really looking for proofreading here.”

“Your comic timing is so good — would you mind flagging the jokes that you think don’t work?”

There’s no need to make up extravagant praise — just be very clear about why you are asking that particular person for feedback. Why is this person THE person to read your book?

Next time, I shall discuss how to frame your request for feedback in ways that will encourage useful commentary. In the meantime, ponder this: note how I have turned the issue of who makes a good first reader from a question of who your friends are to a question of what does the book need. This was deliberate, because this is the single biggest mistake I see good aspiring writers make in seeking feedback: they forget that the feedback process is not about helping the writer, but about helping the manuscript.

Keep that vital distinction foremost in your mind, and I promise you, you are far less likely to hand your beloved baby over to the first careless coworker who says, “Gee, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” The writer may be flattered by such attention, but the manuscript deserves not to be sent on blind dates. Choose your first readers with care.

Have a lovely weekend, everybody. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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