Getting the feedback you need, Part VI: the trouble with Gladioli

Yesterday, when I was discussing the desirability of setting time limits for your first readers, I heard some chuckles of recognition out there, from those of you who have been down this road before. But are those of you who have never solicited non-professional feedback outside a writing group starting to wonder why I am advising building as many fail-safes into the exchange as one might expect in a nuclear test facility?

In a word: experience.

For a non-writer (or for a not-very experienced-writer, even), being handed a manuscript and asked for feedback can be awfully intimidating. Yet in a publishing environment where agents and editors simply do not have the time to give in-depth (or often even single-line) responses to queries, writers hit up their friends. 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.

A sharp learning curve awaits them. 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. Imagine their surprise when they are asked not just to identify what they dislike about the book, but also to come up with suggestions about what they’d like better. Imagine their surprise, in short, when they learn that it’s actual work.

Hey, there’s a reason I get paid for doing it.

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 the gravity of the offer — or perhaps not even that she’d made a promise at all.

A heads-up to all of you: from a non-writer’s POV, “Oh, I’d love to read your work sometime” is generally NOT an actual invitation to share a manuscript; for most people, it’s just a polite thing to say. Among ordinary mortals, a conversational “I can’t wait to read it!” may most safely be translated as “I’m trying to be supportive of you,” “I’m looking forward to your being famous, so I can say I knew you when,” and/or “I have no idea what I should say to an aspiring writer,” rather than as, “I am willing to donate hours and hours of my time to helping you succeed.”

This is why, in case you were wondering, the Gladyses of the world (Gladioli?) are so often nonplused when a writer to whom they have expressed such overtly welcoming sentiments actually shows up on their doorsteps, manuscript in hand. Poor Gladys was just trying to be nice.

For the sake of Gladys and every kind soul like her, adhere to Tip #10: Make sure IN ADVANCE that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do — and that it involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book.

Why? Well, 99% of casual offerers have absolutely 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.

It’s not that she doesn’t WANT to help. But 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, our Gladys isn’t a writer, so she does not have much experience in wresting precious minutes of concentration time out of a busy day. So she sets it aside, in anticipation of the day when she can devote unbroken time to it.

Unfortunately for writers everywhere, very few people lead lives so calm that a week of nothing to do suddenly opens up for their lowest-priority projects.

However good her intentions may have been at first, somehow the book does fall to her lowest priority — and, 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.

Hands up, everyone who has ever been the writer in this situation.

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

She apparently stopped reading three pages later. “I liked it so much,” she reported, “that I wanted to wait until I had time to enjoy it.”

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 — NO MATTER HOW GOOD THE BOOK MAY ACTUALLY BE. Most often, this resentment manifests in holding on to your manuscript indefinitely.

Maddening, isn’t it? 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: in the depths of our dark little souls, we long for positive reinforcement. If we approach our work professionally, we also yearn for our first readers to make the two or three constructive suggestions that will lift our books from good to superlative.

And if we’re conscientious members of writing communities, many of us put substantial effort into providing precisely that kind of feedback. Like most freelance editors, my earliest editorial work was unpaid. The moment at which I knew I should be doing it professionally was, in fact, when I was doing a favor for a friend. A good novelist, my friend was living the writer’s nightmare: after having taken her book through a couple of solid drafts, an editor at a major house had dropped a raft of professional-level feedback — which is to say, a ruthless, take-no-prisoners critique — on her, feedback that, if followed to the letter, would necessitate axing significant proportions of the book and trashing her primary storyline.

Naturally, she called me in tears. I was an excellent choice: I had read the latest draft, and the one before it, and was able to produce practical suggestions on the spot. If she began the story at a different juncture, I pointed out, and rearranged certain other elements, her plot could still work.

There was a long minute of silence on the other end of the phone when I’d finished talking. “My God,” she whispered, “that could work.” And it did; the editor bought the book shortly thereafter.

This, if we’re honest about it, is what we want our first readers to provide. Since I had been giving feedback on novels since I was a bucktoothed kid in braids, I was able to come up with answers — but is it really fair to ask someone who has never pieced a plot together to pull off a similar feat?

No wonder poor Gladys feels put on the spot. Her writer friend’s expectations of her are pretty high. And by the time the writer has become impatient enough to ask where the heck the feedback is, she is not only dealing with her guilt over having procrastinated, but also with the additional trauma of an angry friend.

Yes, I said ANGRY. 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 a third of that time. Odd, considering that the agent is being paid to read manuscripts, 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 generating resentment on both sides. The only way to get out of it gracefully is to call the remiss Gladys (or send her an e-mail, if you’re afraid that you’ll yell at her) BEFORE you have lost your temper completely and ask for the manuscript back. Politely.

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: “I’d love to hear what you have to say, but 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, an example of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression, 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 just say no the next time she offers. (As. astonishingly, the Gladioli of our lives 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 unread 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 such statements to hurt your feelings, because they are not really about the book — they are about the reader’s resentment of 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 – and get the manuscript back from her as soon as humanly possible. Tell her that you know in your heart she is right, and you don’t her to read another word until you’ve had time to revise. 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.”

Is this starting to make you fear ever handing your manuscript to another human being at all? Never fear — tomorrow, I shall talk about how to deal with a Gladys situation that has already extended past the friendship-threatening point, and give you some tips about how to plan in advance to avoid its ever getting there.

In the meantime, do any of you have a Gladys story? If so, why not post a comment, so those new to the situation won’t feel so alone? And, of course, keep up the good work!

P.S.: Hey, those of you looking for a crash course in publishing: journalist, novelist, and old college buddy of mine Sophfronia Scott has just come out with THE BOOK SISTAH’S 21-STEP GUIDE TO WRITING, PUBLISHING & MARKETING YOUR BOOK, available on her website, The Book Sistah. If you’d like a foretaste of her advice style, check out her blog on the writing life.

3 Replies to “Getting the feedback you need, Part VI: the trouble with Gladioli”

  1. Since no one else seems to be commenting on this series except me, I’ll do so once again, and make it look like someone actually reads it.
    I think that what one wants from a first reader might depend upon just what part of the creative process one is in. If the story has just been completed, first draft, rough, and with awkward portions, it might be a good idea to have someone read it for a general overlook of the effort. At this point I would be looking for basic comments and suggestions. Did they like the story? Was it plausable? Were there any basic construction techniques (flashbacks) that were confusing? Did the reader get lost during the flashbacks?
    When a story is more polished, having been edited and revised based on basic feedback from the initial first readers, then one would want more detailed, precise, and typo noting feedback.
    I’ve mentioned before that my “working” copy of my novel is printed on both sides, punched, and in a three-ring binder. It saves paper, this copy won’t go to an editor or agent, and being “bound” in the binder, it is a neater package, both for me or any first reader to carry around. I can even print out a copy for a first reader for not that much of an expense, especially if I use a lesser grade of paper than I would use for submissions.

  2. I’m reading too. I was lucky to have a friend read an entire manuscript and put in his comments–much of which was line editing–but it was a great help as it was my first novel and I was still learning. He also was a retired prof in Education and had good writing skills. Another 1st reader for this novel had been in the military and was knowledgeable about WW II in Norway.
    I haven’t tried the ring binder method yet, but heck I’m trying to burn my manuscripts so that I don’t have a Mini breakdown with my hard drive.

  3. I really like the binder idea! That’s really considerate of your readers. And it wouldn’t have occurred to me, having grown up in a family where one could not so much as send a short story written for school to an uncle without huffily being informed of the strictures of standard format…

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