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. Kind is a plus, but not actually necessary to the task.
In other words, not 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, it’s imperative, even for the most gifted self-editor.
Why, you ask? Because even the most coldly rational of us cannot read our own manuscripts the way another human being would, especially after repeated readings. There’s no way that a writer can truly assess beyond a shadow of a doubt whether her protagonist is genuinely likable, for instance, or if that plot twist is actually surprising. It’s just too easy for the writer’s mind to fill in the logical gaps that might confuse an independent reader, as well as to gloss over grammatical or spelling problems because it looks right to me!
And don’t even get me started on how difficult it is for a writer to judge plausibility in her own work. While even a prescient independent reader will seldom greet an unlikely plot twist with, “Oh, I’ll buy that, because if this doesn’t happen now, the denouement the author wants will be impossible,” authors are all too prone to tell themselves, “Why does that happen? Because the plot requires it!”
Memoirs present especially difficult self-editing problems. Having written both my own memoir and somebody else’s (long story), as well as having edited many, I can say with absolute authority that there’s nothing stranger than having someone else edit your life story — even when it’s done with sensitivity and tact, it feels as though the editor is critiquing one’s life — but for a memoir to work on the page, it needs to be dramatically satisfying, as well as true and interesting. Even when a writer pulls off the difficult tightrope act of being simultaneously intimately in touch with her own memories and objective enough to write about them well, standing outside oneself completely enough to perceive one’s own memoir’s protagonist purely as a character is well-nigh impossible.
Ditto with true stories told as fiction, or real-life characters imported into novels. At the writing stage, having a life experience upon which to base an account can be a considerable advantage, permitting richness of observation and detail. Throughout the revision process, however, the very intensity of that recollection tends to lead the self-editing writer to assume that everything he recalls mentally actually ended up on the page.
But the problem of objective distance not the only reason that feedback’s so useful to a writer who genuinely wishes to improve his work. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s essential from an emotional perspective as well.
Is that widespread guffawing I hear out there a response to something I said? “Yeah, right, Anne,” guffawers everywhere chortle. “It took me years to work up the nerve to start querying, much less to submit my manuscript. While I have queries out or materials circulating, I have minor panic attacks every time the phone rings, lest it be an agent offering to represent my work; when I’m gearing up to pitch, I have nightmares about agents and editors bursting into mocking laughter at the second line. So how precisely will handing around my manuscript render me less anxious?”
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? It raises the stakes of that first reader’s reaction to stroke-inducing levels. 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, as we discussed earlier this week — 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 — which is why, as my long-term readers already know, I like to run a series on feedback-acquisition once a year or so.
Oh, they may be getting some feedback — although I think we have all met the aspiring writer who scribbles away in private, not telling even her nearest and dearest about her project in anticipation of the great day when she can bounce into her living room with a published copy like Jo March and reveal herself to her astonished kith and kin as a published author — but it’s probably not feedback that actually helps them revise the book.
How do I know this? First, from taking the novel approach of asking many, many aspiring writers how they solicit feedback, and second, from long experience listening to writers at every stage of their writing careers, from just having started a novel to the short list for the National Book Award, complain about how little actual information they have gotten from the first folks to whom they handed their manuscripts.
Most of the time, there’s a pretty clear reason for this: as I deplored at length last time, the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers show their pages only to relatives or friends, whether or not these otherwise worthy souls have any experience whatsoever giving the kind of feedback good writers need. Even when these would-be helpful folks 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.
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.
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, your best work buddy, the person upon whose shoulder you last wept, and anyone who has ever occupied your bed while you were in it for any length of time for any purpose other than engaging in profound, contact-free slumber 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 can be immensely fulfilling — as long as everyone concerned has a clear understanding of when support is called for, and when no-holds-barred critique. You might want to reserve at least a small handful here’s no rule that dictates that when two or more writers get together, they must perforce exchange manuscripts.
(Psst: it’s also not a bad idea to talk about who has first dibs on milking shared experiences for material. As I can tell you from personal experience, there are easier things than waking up one morning to find a baby picture of oneself on the cover of a friend’s book: ask first.)
You don’t actually need to hide your writing from your nearest and dearest, of course — just don’t use them as your only first readers, or at any rate the ones you rely upon for determining what, if anything, you need to revise. It’s perfectly acceptable, for instance, to hand the first two chapters of your magnum opus to your boyfriend, kiss him on the cheek (or any other body part you two might happen to favor; it’s none of my business), and say, “Honey, I want you to come up with three things you LOVE about this. Feel free to come up with more, but don’t worry about telling me what’s wrong with it — I have other first readers for that.”
This strategy works with pretty much anyone emotionally attached to you who expresses a desire to read your as-yet-unpublished book, by the way — but it works best when that last part is actually true.
Lining up a couple of reliable first readers does require more effort than simply using whomever’s around, 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 can’t even begin to calculate how often I 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 polite 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 Jo March 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; not having read your manuscript, I can’t say for sure. It’s certainly not completely out of the question for a writer to be a good judge of her own work — he can, if he has a well-trained eye, is not prone to coddling himself, and sufficient time to gain perspective on it.
That last condition is the rub, isn’t it? In our eagerness to land an agent and get into print, who has time to let a text marinade for a month or six?
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.
Relatively unbiased is the operative term here, as complete objectivity about one’s own work is not possible — or even, I would argue, a desirable thing were it practically achievable. Someone, after all, needs to be able to make the final determination about whether a paragraph that every first reader said should go should remain in the text.
Ooh, that hit a sore spot for some of you, didn’t it? I’m not too surprised; since writers love words so much more than other people, we probably shouldn’t be astonished — as agents and editors sometimes seem to be — when we exhibit deep infatuation with some particular sentence, paragraph, chapter, etc. that evidently holds few charms for anyone else. Or, frankly, that might not entrance even the person who wrote it five months hence.
Love’s like that: when we fall, we fall hard. Then we wake up one day and think, “Hey, what was I thinking?” One of the great gifts of seeing one’s exes from time to time is to remind ourselves how much our tastes change over time.
No offense to my college boyfriends. I assume the feeling’s mutual.
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, I warn you – until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure whether those darlings deserve to live…or, indeed, how good your own eye is.
That being the case, 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.
“But Anne,” I hear some of you wailing, “where would I FIND such estimable souls to ask? And how can I figure out who is too fond of me to be objective?”
Excellent questions, oh heartfelt wailers — fine enough that they deserve a post of their very own. Tune in next time.
As always, keep up the good work!