I wrote last time (as, indeed, I have written frequently over the last year plus that I have been posting a blog) 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.
Trustworthy, in this case, means objective, and far too few aspiring writers get honestly objective feedback on their work before they send it out. Instead, they give it to relatives or friends, almost none of whom have any experience giving the kind of feedback good writers need. Nothing against them — I’m sure they’re all lovely people to a man — but what you need is well-informed, practical advice based upon a thorough understanding of your target market.
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. One of the miracles of love is that it can blind the eye of the beholder. So the same principle applies to 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. Even on a very casual basis. Being horizontal can have the same effect on truthfulness as tears on mascara: things get murky.
Far be it from me to suggest that anyone who cares about you might be sweet and generous enough to lie to spare your feelings, but frankly, it happens. Be grateful that you have such supportive folks in your life. Cherish them; appreciate them; cling to them with the tenacity of an unusually insecure 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.
I’m bringing this up now, since many of us have been known to spend holidays with relatives or friends who say things like, “I’d love to read your novel sometime.” Trust me, it will be better for both your book and your relationships with your loved ones if you thank them profusely — and say no.
I can feel that some of you still aren’t convinced. Perhaps you have kith and kin who just adore giving their unvarnished opinions to you, ostensibly for your own good. “Is it really worth worrying,” I hear voices out there saying, “that the cousin who told me I looked stupid in my prom dress will be afraid to tell me that Chapter Three doesn’t work? Since Grams has no problem telling me that she hates my husband, why should she hesitate to rip my novel to shredsm, if it needs it?”
This is the other primary reason not to ask your loved ones for feedback, even if they are noted for their blithe indifference to any pain their truth-telling might cause to others: if you care about the advice-giver, it’s hard not to be emotionally involved in the response. If your favorite brother critiques your book, rightly or wrongly, it’s probably going to hurt more than if a member of your writing group gives precisely the same advice. And by the same token, the emotional baggage of the relationship, even if it is neatly packed and generally non-obtrusive, may make it harder to hear the advice qua advice.
Also — and I hesitate to bring this up, because, again, I’m sure your kith and kin are marvelous human beings — but 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, many editing clients come to me in tears because their significant others 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? What you need is feedback on your BOOK, not on your relationships.
Or, at least, that’s what you need in order to improve your book. (The state of your relationships is, of course, up to you.)
Often, too, when you’re dealing with people unused to giving feedback, being overly-judgmental is not even a reflection of their opinions of your book: in many cases, being vicious is what people think giving feedback means. (And if you doubt this, take a gander at the first efforts of most movie reviewers — or, heck, if you happen to live in the Seattle metro region, at the majority of film reviews in the local free paper THE STRANGER, where most of the contributing writers evidently believe that the title “critic” means that they should never, under any circumstances, say anything positive about a movie that might, say, induce a reader to go and see it. Given their editorial philosophy, I’m surprised to see any starred reviews at all in that paper.)
I’m not saying not to show your work to your kith and kin — if it makes you happy, do. But 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 — as my mother. But for the brutal truth, I rely on my trusty band of tried-and-true first readers.
Yes, I know: finding good first readers is a whole lot of work, especially if you live in a small town. But, at the risk of wearing out the record, 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, editor, or contest judge. That way, you can fix the mistakes when the stakes are low — and, frankly, you’re far more likely to get usable feedback. If you are one of the many too shy or too busy to show your work to others, yet are 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 tangible feedback.
Because, really, will “We’re sorry, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time?” tell you whether that orgy scene in Chapter 8 is the problem, or if it’s your constant use of the phrase, “Wha–?” You need readers who will tell you just that.
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.
Do I hear some of you out there gnashing your teeth? “I HAVE been giving my work to first readers,” I hear you 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. I’ve gotten SAT scores back faster. 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 have a few suggestions about how to minimize frustrations in the first reader process.
First, never, but NEVER, simply hand a manuscript to a non-professional reader (i.e., someone who is not a professional writer, editor, agent, or teacher) without specifying what KIND of feedback you want.
Why not? Well, all too often, the amateur reader gets so intimidated at the prospect of providing first-class advice that she simply gives no feedback at all — or just keeps putting off reading the manuscript. (Sound familiar?) Alternatively, other readers will run in the other direction, treating every typo as though it were evidence that you should never write another word as long as you live. All of these outcomes will make you unhappy, and might not produce the type of feedback you need.
Second, as I have indicated above, avoid asking relatives and close friends for feedback. 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 first-time 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 third suggestion: stick to readers familiar with your genre. Someone who primarily reads 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 fiancé, 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, stunned. “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, holiday and revision conditions permitting, I shall share a few more hints on how to minimize first reader disappointments. In the meantime, enjoy the holidays, and keep up the good work!
2 Replies to “Getting the feedback you need, Part II: not over the eggnog”
Aside from the value of first reader/outside professsional critique, I believe a writer may help himself (herself), simply by stepping away from the project for a while. (IF POSSIBLE.) When the story or the particular chapter haven’t been at the forefront of the mental struggle every waking hour, I think one can see it a little more clearly. When you can read the first chapter (any chapter) and not know it by memory, you have a much better chance of spotting any flaws or typos. Ten word phrases that have been unchanged since the initial creation can suddenly be seen to make more sense written with one or two words. Typos that have been overlooked time and time again will stand out as if they are in day-glo orange type.
At least I have found such to be true with me. A couple of months ago I finished what I thought was a final polish/self-edit on my novel. Now it is printed out as a working copy and in a three ring binder. Occasionally while working on other stuff, and while the printer is doing its thing, I’ll pick up the binder and casually look through it. No matter at what section of the story I chance to glance, I can nearly always find one or two things that need correctiong or changing.
Great tips, Dave! The great Ray Bradbury used to say that he liked to stick a manuscript in a drawer for a year, so he could go back to it with fresh eyes — but he said that after he had been writing for an awfully long time, so presumably he always had at least one year-old manuscript awaiting eye-freshness at any given time.
I think every published writer has a story about having self-edited a piece 152 times, then printed it out to meet an imminent deadline — only to realize, upon glancing at a random page while stuffing it into an express mail envelope, that there was some very basic unfixed error. Horrors!