Last time, I waxed long, if not precisely poetic, on the desirability of getting some trustworthy soul to read your work IN ITS ENTIRETY before you send it out to an agent, editor, or contest. Trustworthy, in this case, means objective as well as truthful, well-read in your book’s genre yet not inflexibly wedded to its conventions.
Not, in other words, the kind of reader that you’re likely to find through the simple expedient of asking everyone at work who happens to think your impression of Groucho Marx is funny. It can be tough to find a good first reader, but from a professional perspective, necessary.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s essential from an emotional perspective as well. Think about it: what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a total stranger who, after all, has the institutional ability to change your life by bringing your book to publication? Basically, it’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency.
Maybe not the best FIRST choice, in terms of bolstering your self-esteem.
As I have pointed out several times this fall, amongst professional writers, agents, and editors, feedback tends to be honest to the point of brutality; professionals have no reason to pull their punches. If a publishing professional does take the time to critique your work — a compliment that has become rarer and rarer for submissions — the criticism comes absolutely unvarnished. Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.
I’m trying to save you some headaches here.
Far too few aspiring writers get honestly objective feedback on their work before they send it out. Instead, as I deplored last time, they give it to relatives or friends, whether or not they have any experience whatsoever giving the kind of feedback good writers need.
Even when these would-be helpful souls do have relevant reading or writing experience, the prospect of having to walk the thin line between being truthful enough to provide useful critique and crushing a loved one’s fragile ego can be awfully darned intimidating. (A recent post on Buzz, Balls & Hype gives an insightful peek into how and why — and many thanks to sharp-eyed reader Linda for calling my attention to it.)
Save your supporters for support. What you need from a first reader 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. One of the miracles of both love and hate is the emotion’s ability to jaundice the eye of the beholder.
So 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. The same principle applies to your siblings, your children, your best friend since you were three, and anyone who has ever occupied your bed while you were in it for any length of time since you hit puberty.
ESPECIALLY anyone who has ever occupied your bed. Even on a very casual basis.
And yes, in answer to the question hanging on the tips of so many tongues out there, that includes other writers. Being horizontal with a first reader can have the same effect on truthfulness as tears on mascara: things get murky, and lines previously well-drawn begin to blur.
Which is not to say that pursuing rich, full emotional relationships with fellow writers is a bad idea. It undoubtedly is — as long as everyone concerned has a clear understanding of when support is called for, and when no-holds-barred critique. (It’s also not a bad idea to talk about who has first dibs on milking shared experiences for material. Believe me, there are easier things than waking up one morning to find a baby picture of yourself on the cover of a friend’s book: ask first.)
But I digress. Yes, it can be hard to find a good first reader, but it truly is worth your while. If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback.
I know, I know: it seems as though I’m harping on this point. However, I regularly meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.
Trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you at that juncture.
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.
But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Emily Dickinson types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy individualists would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.
And maybe you are right. I am not saying that a writer can’t be a good judge of her own work — she can, if she has a well-trained eye, is not prone to coddling herself, and sufficient time to gain perspective on it.
That last condition is the rub, isn’t it? Ray Bradbury, I’m told, used to lock each of his manuscripts up in a desk drawer for one full year before taking them out for revision. After that long, and after working on so many projects in between (our Mr. B. has always been rather prolific), he could come back to it with a relatively unbiased eye.
I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings — hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.
Take that, Dorothy Parker.
However — and this is a lulu of a however – until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure how good your own eye is. Isn’t it just a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills? Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.
Ideally, you would run your submission materials past your writing group, or a freelance editor familiar with your genre, or a published writer IN YOUR GENRE. No matter how good a poet is, her advice on your nonfiction tome on house-building is unlikely to be very market-savvy, unless she happens to read a lot of house-building books.
However (and this is not an insignificant however, either), not all of us have the kind of connections or resources to command that kind of readership. Professional editing, after all, isn’t particularly cheap, nor are the writing conferences where you are likely to meet writers in your field.
And even then, it’s considered pretty darned rude for an aspiring writer to walk up to a total stranger, however famous, and hand him a manuscript for critique. As in any relationship, there are social niceties to be observed first. (If you’re in any doubt whatsoever about where the lines are drawn, please see the INDUSTRY ETTIQUETE category at right BEFORE you approach your first industry insider.)
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 pro.
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? Remember that intimidation factor I mentioned above? Well, the first-time manuscript reader often becomes 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.
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, in case anyone has missed the subtle hints I’ve been dropping over the last couple of days, RELATIVES, LOVERS, AND CLOSE FRIENDS ARE POOR CHOICES FOR FEEDBACK. Think very, very carefully before you place them in that particularly hard spot.
If you DO have them read it, make a positive statement when you give them the manuscript, limiting what you expect in response. 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.
Couching the request in terms of feeling reactions rather than textual analysis is a great way to make both writer and reader comfortable: “I have other readers who will deal with issues of grammar and style,” you can tell your kin, for example. “Don’t worry about sentence structure. I want to know if the story moved you.”
Better still, you can couch it in a compliment. “You know the world of the pool hall so well, my darling,” you can suggest to your lover, “that I want you to concentrate on whether the characters feel real to you. Don’t give even 38 seconds’ consecutive thought to the writing itself; I’ve got someone else reading for that.”
Notice how I keep bringing up other readers? If you do (sigh…) decide to use your kith and kin as first readers, it can been VERY helpful to cite other readers, even if they’re imaginary. Why? Knowing that others are available to give the hard-to-say feedback can lighten the intimidated reader’s sense of responsibility considerably, rendering it much, much more likely that s/he will enjoy reading your book, rather than coming to regard it as a burdensome obligation.
“Burdensome?” I hear some tremulous souls cry. “My delightful literary romp?”
For an ordinary reader, by no means — but did you seriously believe that handing your baby to your cousin at Thanksgiving, knowing full well that you were scheduled to meet again at Christmas, wasn’t imposing an obligation to read it, and pronto? Or that giving in to your coworker’s repeated requests to read something you’ve written, even though that meant her having to meet your reproachful, why-haven’t-you-read-it-yet eyes every week at the staff meeting, didn’t involve setting up a tacit deadline?
To appreciate the literature-dulling potential of deadline-imposition fully, you need only cast your mind back to high school for a moment: which did you enjoy more, the book you were assigned to read, the one that was going to be on the final exam, or the one you read in your own good time?
Still unsympathetic to first readers who hang onto manuscripts forever and a day? Would it help to consider that most people don’t understand that writers want to submit their work to agents, editors, and contests almost immediately upon completion?
I know, I know: that ex-lover with the three-book contract at St. Martin’s is starting to look pretty good as a first reader. NO, I tell you. It’s a bad idea.
So where should you turn? 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 would be 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.
In a pinch, if you all you feel you need is proofreading, you could always pick the most voracious reader you know or the person so proud of her English skills that she regularly corrects people in conversation. My litmus test is whether the potential reader knows the difference between “farther” and “further” — yes, they actually mean different things, technically — and uses “momentarily” in its proper form, which is almost never heard in spoken English anymore. (Poor momentarily has been so abused that some benighted dictionary editors now define it both as “for a moment” – its time-honored meaning – AND “in a moment,” as we so often hear on airplanes: “We will be airborne momentarily…” Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be in a plane that was only momentarily airborne…unless you have a serious death wish.)
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 lamentably devoid of, say, time travel. John Irving would be wise, then, to avoid my sweetie as a first reader.
As would I — oh, here’s a great opportunity for a pop quiz. 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 either adult fiction or memoirs on a regular basis! What’s that he’s reading on the couch right now, yet another SHARPE novel?” you get an A.
More on the care and feeding of first readers follows in the days to come, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!