Getting good feedback, part IX: more wrangling with Gladioli


I’ve been writing epic posts for the last weeks, multi-page extravaganzas even by my unusually lengthy standards, haven’t I? In order to give both myself a bit of a break and my readers sufficient time to watch at least some of this weekend’s many award shows to celebrate people who already have been applauded to the echo several times before (as the late, great Noël Coward musically observed, “Let’s hope we have no worse to plague us/than two shows a night in Las Vegas”), I’m going to rein it in today and not post tomorrow at all.

Yeah, my SO says he’ll believe it when he sees it, too.

Throughout this series, we’ve been bravely tackling the thorny and surprisingly-seldom-talked-about-amongst-writers twin topics of the necessity of getting good feedback on your manuscripts and, if you don’t happen to have either the luck to be receiving critique from the agent or editor who are handling your book or the dosh to hire a freelance editor qualified in your book’s category, the ins and outs of trying to derive that feedback from non-professional sources. While it would be nice if the readers of the world broke into spontaneous applause the moment an aspiring writer tossed off an unusually good scene or description, it doesn’t happen all that much. In order to find out how potential readers might respond to a book, its author generally has to make the effort to find first readers.

The problem is, the first readers who are likely to volunteer first may not be the best ones to give you feedback on your book. Last time, I introduced the saga of one such hapless would-be feedback-giver, Gladys, a well-meaning soul who made the mistake of saying one day to a friend who happened to be an aspiring writer, “Oh, I’d love to read your book.”

Quite unaccountably, the friend heard this as, “Give me your book to read, please, and I will give you good feedback upon it.” Unfortunately, what Gladys really meant was, “I’m not a writer. Please like me anyway.”

What we have here, my friends, is a failure to communicate, one that is likely not only to result in the writer’s not getting the kind of feedback she needs, but also rather likely to end the friendship.

This particular species of miscommunication is more common than writers like to admit — and is all too often the underlying cause of those knuckle-gnawingly frustrating situations where a first reader holds onto a manuscript for so long that the writer’s already taken the book through three more drafts.

I’ll come clean: it happened to me more than once before I cracked the code. About ten years ago, I had a first reader who BEGGED for weeks on end to read a manuscript of mine. Having quite a bit of experience with both professional and non-professional readers, I did everything right: I took her out to lunch first and explained that to read a manuscript prior to publication was a large responsibility, gave her a sheet of questions I wanted her to answer after she had read it, and took her out to lunch in order to thank her for the effort she was about expend on my behalf.

Six nail-gnawing months later, I asked for the manuscript back, even if she hadn’t read it. As I expected, she hadn’t. Yet when I got the pages back, I discovered that she had positively filled the margins of Ch. 1 with glowing praise, concluding with, “You couldn’t PAY me to stop reading now!”

Someone must have coughed up some dosh, as she apparently stopped reading three pages later. When I asked her for some clarification, she said, “I liked it so much that I wanted to wait until I had time to enjoy it.”

Moral of the story: I should have told her I would buy her lunch AFTER she finished — and should have made absolutely certain that she understood the difference between a casual read and the scrutiny expected of a first reader.

Which includes an obligation to read the manuscript within a reasonable amount of time — or to let the writer know in advance not to expect back anytime soon. Unless both sides of the equation understand what is going on, it can only end in tears. Or, at any rate, in the writer’s tapping her watch to see if it’s still running, waiting for all of that luscious feedback that is never to come.

Naturally, such behavior engenders some resentment in writers against their Gladioli. (I’ve decided that’s the plural of Gladys, for those of you who didn’t tune in last time.) “Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,” we demand, “and make me travel forth without a cloak?”

Okay, so it was Shakespeare who said that last bit. But if you’d thought of it in the moment, I’m sure you would have put it that way, too.

Gladys intends to get back to the manuscript, really she 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.

Okay, we long for a LOT of 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. (Yet another reason that it’s a good idea to check the feedback expectations and practices of other members of a writers’ group before you join: it’s no fun giving out a whole lot more feedback than you receive.) 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 entail axing significant proportions of the book, trashing her primary storyline, and changing the race of a significant character.

Naturally, she called me in tears. I was an excellent choice: I had read the latest draft, as well as 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 is the kind of fundamental feedback that we really want our first readers to provide, if we’re honest about it, right? 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?

Like, say, the well-meaning but clueless Gladys?

No wonder poor Gladys feels put on the spot. Her writer friend’s expectations 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; don’t hold it in. It’s much healthier to vent it from time to time.

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 non-professional 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. Or a twelfth of it.

Logically, that’s a bit odd, considering that the agent is being paid to read manuscripts and the friend isn’t, but that’s the way we feel.

In recent months, I’ve been hearing even more Gladioli stories than usual, as well as many iterations of a twist of the usual writerly chagrin over long-lost manuscripts: the Gladys who volunteered to take a crack as first reader because she’s recently been laid off (or has a job she hates, or is recently retired) and has some time on her hands. Or — and this happens all the time — because she has a writer friend eager for feedback who has sought her out as a first reader, on the grounds that she may be less busy than their other friends. (Which often isn’t true: looking for work can be extremely time-consuming, as can, well, having a life.) Either through making the request herself or being too nice to say no, she just never seems to get around to reading it.

In some versions of this story, Gladys is even doing it for payment: the ranks of first-time freelance editors have been swelling bulbously of late. Yet like Gladioli everywhere, she never seems to return that manuscript or cough up any useable feedback.

In short, regardless of her motivation in agreeing to act as a first reader, Gladys is annoying a whole lot of writers these days by holding onto their manuscripts for unreasonable amounts of time. So what should a writer who discovers too late that she’s entrusted her baby to a Gladys to do?

I’m going to be straight with you here: once the situation has gone this far, it’s quite hard to fix it without generating resentment (our word du jour, apparently) on both sides. The only way to get out of it gracefully is to accept that she’s not going to give you what you want and cut your losses.

How? By calling the remiss Gladys and asking for your manuscript back.

Ignore her protests that she is really intending to get to it soon, honest, because she won’t. Offer to pay the postage, if necessary, but get those pages back from her.

Be polite, but be firm. Ideally, you’re going to want to do this BEFORE you’ve lost your temper completely, and definitely not when you’ve facing a deadline to get that manuscript out the door next week. If Gladys has already kept you in suspense too long for you to keep your voice even, send her an e-mail. Screaming at her may feel pretty good in the moment, but trust me, it will only make the situation worse.

There’s no need to be mean about it at all, actually. Cast your request as if it had 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 far less confrontational than almost anything else you could say. (Which, I suppose, means that it’s a really GOOD example of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression.) Besides, it honestly is rather expensive to keep churning out copies for first readers, especially if you’re mailing them.

If you are dealing with a retired or un- or under-employed Gladys, your argument is even easier to make, especially if you have inadvertently fallen into the oh-so-common trap of just assuming that she had time to read your book: just apologize for the imposition and insist upon rectifying it by taking your manuscript back. No need to grovel; a simple “Oh, my goodness, Gladys, I’ve just realized that I completely forgot to ask if you had the time to give me feedback on my book! No, no, you’re very kind, but I know what an imposition that amount of responsibility is, and I’ve already lined up another first reader. When can I come by and pick it up?”

See my earlier comment on the efficacy of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression.

Why is it crucial to get the physical manuscript out of her hands? Because you’ll keep seething about the injustice of it all otherwise, that’s why. Also, it’s good practice for setting boundaries with your next set of first readers — and for coming to terms with the fact that asking someone to give you feedback is asking a favor, as well as conveying a privilege.

Moral #2 for the day, and the axiom I hope you all will take from today’s lesson: at the revision stage, DO NOT TREAT YOUR MANUSCRIPT LIKE A BOOK.

That giant noise you just heard was the celestial choir intoning, “Huh?”

You heard me, heavenly flock of high Cs. When you are looking for feedback on a manuscript, it doesn’t make sense to think of it a book, a finished product that someone might, say, purchase or give to a friend as a gift. While it is still a work in progress, it is a lump of clay, not the bronze sculpture you will eventually cast from your clay model.

Don’t hand it to someone who will only see the clay. Hand it to someone who will help you perfect the form before you set it in bronze.

If you DO find yourself in a standoff with a Gladys, whatever you do, don’t sit around and seethe in silence. Say something, and don’t let it wait too long.

Seriously, just do it. 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. I always skip to the ends of books to see how the plot turns out.”

These all might be legitimate criticisms from someone who has actually read the manuscript — okay, all but that last bit — but from a non-finisher, they cannot be sufficiently 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. Gladys just didn’t know what to do with that ball of clay.

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.

“My secret, if I must reveal it,” quoth the illustrious Alexis de Tocqueville, “is to flatter their vanity while disregarding their advice.” 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, preferably one with the vision to see both the clay and the sculpture it will one day be.

Even if the prospect of dealing with defensive sniping terrifies you, don’t just write off that copy of your book. As long as she has it, her remissness going to keep sapping your energy, at least a little; resentment can suck up an awful lot of vim. 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 the world often do. They must be insulating their attics with their hapless friends’ unread manuscripts.

If she presses you the next time around, tell her that you’ve decided to rely solely upon professional feedback for the rest of your natural life, or have joined a writers’ group that made you take a vow of exclusivity, or that you’ve decided to hide your manuscripts in your attic like Emily Dickinson. Just keep her well-meaning mitts off your writing until it’s time to send her a postcard, telling her when she will be able to purchase it in a store.

Because that is precisely what she thought you were handing her in the first place, bless her heart. Keep her out of the process until she can support you by being the first on her block to buy your book.

Is this starting to make you fear ever handing your manuscript to another human being at all? Never fear — next time, 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 that you would like to share? If so, why not post a comment about it, so those new to the situation won’t feel so alone? Keep it G-rated, please, and don’t name specific names, for the sake of your grandchildren’s popularity; remember, what’s posted online may be floating around the ether forever.

Well, I tried: this post is a trifle shorter than the norm for the week. Enjoy the Oscars, everybody, and keep up the good work!

4 Replies to “Getting good feedback, part IX: more wrangling with Gladioli”

  1. In my rather short lived experience of seeking non-professional feedback, I’ve come across the entire spectrum of “first reader” variations. One, a friend and co-worker, who naturally may not have been the best choice, nonetheless has read both of my completed books in their entirety. In fact, he read the first when it was basically first draft, liked it, and when I mentioned that I would surely need to make changes, responded that he thought it was perfect as is was. Ego building for sure, but even then I realized it would need work. He likewise read the second in fairly quick time. I can’t say that he offered any real feedback, but his enthusiasm for my work was (and is) pure inspiration for me.

    I have another first reader that I have never met. She is an older lady who reads voraciously. One of my other co-workers is a mutual acquaintance, and he suggested that she might like to read my stories. Again, she read the first long enough ago that it was in it’s very early stages of development. Her overall reaction was good, and yet she took the time (without me asking) to offer several bits of well thought out feedback. (I believe she had been an English teacher for much of her life.) She read the second book this past summer and returned it with a page or two of comments and a list of typos she had found.

    At the same time I have a couple of people who have asked to read either or both of my completed stories who have had copies for a very long time. I suppose that in the near future I should gently hint that I would like the copies back if they aren’t going to get around to reading them.

    On another note, early in this post you mention that a manuscript is not like a printed book that one can cart around and read in one’s spare moments. That’s why I like to put mine in binders. And yes, I even print them out double sided. It saves paper and lessens the bulk and the weight. It also makes it more portable. And with so many of today’s binders having the clear plastic covers that allow insertion of a cover sheet, one can be a little artistic in making a “cover” for it. However, I don’t know if this is any real advantage, as those who have had the manuscripts for some time have them in that form.

    1. Oh, I’m glad you brought the binding issue up, Dave — it is easier for a first reader to tote it around that way. If I know that one of my first readers travels a good deal (and thus is likely to be pulling my MS out of a bag and shoving it back in with some frequency), I usually spring for some inexpensive binding. I tend not to mention it here, though, lest anyone out there derive the mistaken impression that a manuscript intended for submission to an agent or editor should be anything but a stack of unbound pages.

      1. I should have mentioned that as well, but by my standards I was running a bit long. I also keep my “working” copy in a binder for many of the same reason. So, Author! Author! readers, if you missed what Anne said: THREE HOLE PUNCHED MANUSCRIPTS IN A BINDER ARE ONLY FOR THE CONVENIENCE OF THE WRITER OR FIRST READERS. IT IS NOT HOW ONE SHOULD SEND IT TO AN AGENT OR EDITOR!

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