This past autumn, when I was couch-bound with mono, my SO decided that it would be a good time to adopt a new cat, as reclining while slowly petting a nervous animal was about as much exercise as I could muster. Because we like pets with a past, he trolled the local animal shelter for a kitty down on his luck, bringing home the largest, filthiest feline I had ever seen: matted fur, crusted eyes, snaggle-toothed. (I believe he was orange, but it was a month before we were sure.) In time, the kitty calmed down and began cleaning himself again, an activity he’d apparently abandoned while incarcerated. Gradually, as he wore away more and more of his layers of grime with his tongue and I with my brush, he became shiny, even fluffy.
A few weeks ago, he looked up at me while I was brushing him, and I realized that he had very pretty eyes. It had merely taken months of care and security before he could show them off.
Being me, I instantly thought of what a good parallel that was for editing a manuscript.
Trust me, freelance editors see some pretty mangy manuscripts: the trick is often to see potential under the matted fur, because much of the time, the problem isn’t a lack of talent or inventiveness, but of structure. Or of a writer’s not having completely found his voice yet — it’s exceedingly rare to discover it in the first draft of one’s first book. Or even simply not knowing how a manuscript should be formatted.
In days gone by, agents and even editors at major publishing houses had the time to take a comb to a manuscript that showed promise, to groom it for the big show. Now, unfortunately, writers are expected to make their work camera-ready unassisted by the pros.
And that’s where a good feedback-giver is can be a real boon. Slowly, gradually, and often much to the writer’s chagrin, it’s possible to comb out the snarls, to reshape the beast into something closer to the carefully-groomed animal an agent or publishing house would expect to see. And every so often, editor and writer alike are stunned when something of startling beauty emerges.
I’m bringing this up today because just as it’s hard to see (without special mirrors, at least) the back of one’s own head to check for wayward tangles, a writer can’t always see the snarls remaining in a manuscript she has been polishing for a while. A kind outsider with a good comb can help reveal the beauty underneath the problem, but to do so takes courage: one runs the risk of being scratched.
A careless outside observer with a heavy touch and a lousy comb, however, is just going to send the writer scurrying under the nearest couch, yowling.
Funny how this analogy sprang to mind again as soon as I began writing about first readers who hang onto manuscripts forever, isn’t it? From the poor writer’s perspective, these sorts offer the prospect of a good, thoughtful book combing, but leave the manuscript out in the rain to tangle still more.
Some of you know what I’m talking about, right? Yesterday, when I was discussing the desirability of setting time limits for your first readers, I’m quite sure I heard some chuckles of recognition out there.
But I also have been sensing some puzzled silence from those of you who have never solicited non-professional feedback outside a writing group. “Why is she setting up so many restrictions on who would make a first reader?” I’ve heard some of you muttering over well-bitten fingernails. “Why is she advising building as many fail-safes into the exchange as one might expect in your garden-variety nuclear test facility?”
In a word: experience.
As I keep pointing out throughout this series, 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. To be fair, writers proud of their own work and expecting people to plop down good money in bookstores for it frequently share this assumption.
A sharp learning curve awaits both parties. At least the writer is aware that some commentary over and above, “Gee, I liked it,” is expected.
Imagine the reader’s surprise when she starts reading, though, spots problems — and realizes that the writer might genuinely have expected her not to be a passive consumer of prose, but an active participant in the creative process. Imagine her surprise when she asked not just to identify what she dislikes about the book, but also to come up with suggestions about what she’d like better.
Imagine her surprise, in short, when she learns 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.
Okay, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to spare you some chagrin: 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.
Honest — for most people, it’s just a polite thing to say in response to the news that an acquaintance is a writer. 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.”
Not everyone who likes to pet a passing kitty is willing to get busy working out the tangles in his coat, if you catch my drift.
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, please consider adhering to my next tip:
Make sure IN ADVANCE that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do — and that no matter how gifted a writer you may be, reading to give feedback necessarily involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book.
Do I hear members of good critique groups shouting, “Amen!” out there in the ether?
As those of us who have been in the position of feedback-giver can attest, it’s not enough just to be able to spot the problems in the text — the additional challenge is to be able to phrase the requisite critique gently enough that it will not hurt to comb out those snarls, yet forcefully enough for the writer to understand why it’s a good idea.
In other words, it’s a hard enough challenge for those who already know our way around a manuscript. Imagine how scary the prospect would be for someone who didn’t. In my experience, 99% of casual offerers have absolutely no idea what to do with a manuscript when it is handed to them.
In fact, 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.
Don’t worry; the school district forced him into early retirement.
It’s not that Gladys doesn’t WANT to help, though. 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.
And that, my friends, is where the problems begin, from the writer’s perspective. 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 hate to leave you with a cliffhanger in the midst of our little tragedy, but like Gladys, time is running short in my day. But being a writer, and thus used to wringing time to write from a jam-packed schedule, I shall renew the tale tomorrow.
Trust me, appearances to the contrary, it can have a happy ending. Keep up the good work!