Speeding the plow

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For the last few posts, I’ve been writing about how to improve the feedback you’re getting from non-professional readers — i.e., first readers of your work who are neither freelance editors, agents, editors at publishing houses, or paid writing teachers. In a publishing environment where agents and editors simply do not have the time to give in-depth responses to queries, writers hit up their friends — who all too often are too polite to say no or, heaven help us, think that giving feedback on a manuscript-in-progress is a jaunty, light-hearted, casual affair, as simple and easy as reading a book on a beach.

Tee hee. Imagine their surprise when they start reading, and learn that you expect them not to be passive consumers of prose, but active participants in the creative process.

Writers tend to complain about the feedback they get from kind souls decent enough to donate their time to feedback, but let’s pause for a moment and think about the position of a friend impressed into first reader duty. Chances are, this friend (I’ll call her Gladys because it looks good in print) committed herself to reading the manuscript without quite realizing that she’d done it. From a non-writer’s POV, “Oh, I’d love to read your work sometimes” is generally NOT an actual invitation to share a manuscript; for most people, it’s just a polite thing to say.

For the sake of Gladys and every kind soul like her, adhere to Tip #7: Make sure IN ADVANCE that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do — and that it is significantly more complicated than merely reading a book.

I can tell you right now that 99% of casual offerers have no idea what to do with a manuscript when it is handed to them. Gladys is generally dismayed when someone takes her up on her request. Like most people, dear Gladys did not have a very good time in school, and you have just handed her a major reading comprehension assignment; in a flash, you have become her hated 8th-grade English teacher, the one who used to throw his keys at kids who walked in late. In her sinking heart, she is afraid of the book report she is going to have to give at the end of the process.

So what does Gladys do? Typically, she doesn’t read the book at all. Or she launches eagerly into it, reading perhaps ten or fifteen pages, then gets sidetracked by the phone ringing or piled-up laundry or the need to go to work. (Remember, she isn’t a writer, so she does not have much experience in wresting precious minutes of concentration time out of a busy day.) However good her intentions may have been at first, somehow the book falls to her lowest priority — and very few people lead lives so calm that a week of nothing to do suddenly opens up for their lowest-priority projects. Like the writer who keeps telling himself that he can only work if he has an entire day (or week or month) free, our well-meaning Gladys wakes up in six months astonished to find that she hasn’t made significant inroads on her task.

I once had a first reader who BEGGED to read a manuscript for weeks on end. Six months later, I asked for it back, even if she hadn’t read it. As it turned out, she hadn’t, but she had filled the margins of Ch. 1 with glowing praise, concluding with, “You couldn’t PAY me to stop reading now!”

She stopped reading three pages later.

Gladys intends to get back to it, she really does, but my goodness, when is she going to find the time? It’s not as though a manuscript is bound, like a book, rendering it easy to tote around and read in spare moments. Over time, she tends to start to resent the task. Most often, this resentment manifests in holding on to your manuscript indefinitely.

Frankly, this is maddening. We expect our friends to devour our books, relish them, and call us in the dead of night to say that it’s the best book they’ve ever read. (C’mon, admit it.) While most of us are astonishingly patient with agents and editors who do not respond to queries or hold on to manuscripts that they’ve asked to see for months at a time, we’re seldom as patient with our first readers, are we? The writer too timid to call an agent who’s had a requested three chapters for a year will often go ballistic at the friend who’s had the same pages for the same length of time. Odd, considering that the agent is being paid to read work, and the friend isn’t, but that’s the way we feel.

Once the situation has gone this far, it’s quite hard to fix it without resentment. The only way to get out of the situation gracefully is to call the remiss Gladys (or send her an e-mail, if you’re afraid that you’ll yell at her) and politely ask for the manuscript back. Ignore her protests that she is really intending to get to it soon, honest, because she won’t. Cast your request as having nothing to do with her: “Manuscripts are actually pretty expensive to produce, and I’ve just found the perfect person to give me feedback on it. Would you mind if I saved a little money by passing your copy on to him?”

This may sound a bit nasty, but believe me, it’s less confrontational than almost anything else you could say. Just accept that Gladys had no idea how much time it would take, and move on. And say no the next time she offers. (Astonishingly, the Gladyses of the world — Gladioli?) — often do. They must be insulating their attics with their hapless friends’ unread manuscripts.) Tell her that you’ve decided to rely on professional feedback this time around.

Whatever you do, don’t sit around and seethe in silence. Say something, and don’t let it wait too long. If you do not take action, Gladys will eventually have to come up with a strategy to deal with her obligation — and what she comes up with may not be very pleasant for you.

Often, Gladioli will turn their not having realized that reading a book draft is a serious time commitment into a critique of the book. Well, I would have read it, but it was too long. I was really into it, but then a plot twist I didn’t like came in, and I just couldn’t go on. I liked it, but it didn’t move fast enough. These all might be legitimate criticisms from someone who has actually read the manuscript, but from a non-finisher, they should be disregarded. They are excuses, not serious critique. Please do not allow them to hurt your feelings, because they are not really about the book — they are about the feedback process.

When you hear this type of critique used as an excuse for not reading, thank Gladys profusely, as if she has just given the Platonic piece of feedback. Tell her that you know in your heart she is right, and you don’t want her to read another word until you’ve had time to revise. Get the manuscript back as soon as possible. Then rush out and find another first reader.

“My secret, if I must reveal it,” quoth the illustrious Alexis de Tocqueville, “is to flatter their vanity while disregarding their advice.”

Advance planning can go a long way toward avoiding this situation. Observe Tip #7a: give a deadline at the outset. While you are explaining what it is you would like your first reader to do, mention that in order for the feedback to be useful to you, you will need it within a month. That’s long enough for a spare-time reader to get through pretty much any manuscript without sleepless nights, so you need not feel as though you are proposing a pop quiz. After that (you will explain kindly), while you will value Gladys’ opinion, you will not have time to incorporate it. Being able to turn the book around that quickly (you will tell her) is the difference between being the kind of helpful friend who gets thanked in acknowledgments and the kind of friend who is appreciated in private.

After you state the deadline, ASK if it will be a problem. If Gladys hesitates at all, tell her that it’s perfectly okay to say no. In fact, you would appreciate it, because you are at a point in your career where you need prompt feedback, and while she was your first choice, you do have others lined up. (Say this whether it is true or not; it will make it easier for her to decline if she feels overwhelmed.) By allowing her the chance to bow out BEFORE you’ve gone to all the trouble of printing up a complete manuscript, you are underscoring that you realize that she is promising something significant, and you appreciate it.

A week before the deadline, call or e-mail, to ask how the reading is going. This will give Gladys another opportunity to back out, if she is feeling swamped. (If she asked to read your manuscript out of simple curiosity — a very common motivation — she will have realized it by now.) Set up a specific date and time to get the manuscript back. Promise to take her out to lunch or to bring her chocolates — after all, she’s been doing you a big favor.

If Gladys can’t make the deadline but still wants to go forward, set another deadline. It may seem draconian to insist upon specific dates, but inevitably, the writer is the person who loses if the feedback relationship is treated casually. If you are open at every step to Gladys’ backing out, you will significantly reduce the probability that she will let you down after two months. Or four. Or a year.

If you present these requests politely and in a spirit of gratitude, it will be hard for even the most unreasonable Gladys to take umbrage. Actually, by taking the time to learn her literary tastes, ascertain that she has time to give you feedback, and not allowing your manuscript to become a source of guilt for months to come, you will be treating Gladys with respect. If you respect Gladys’ opinion enough to want her to read your book, you should respect her ability to make an informed opinion about whether she can commit to doing so. It is your job to inform her.

Your writing deserves to be taken seriously, my friends — and the more you take it seriously, by seeking feedback in a professional manner, the better it will become. Tomorrow, I shall discuss how to elicit specific information from your first readers, to get answers to problems you already know exist in the book.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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