Katharine Kerr March 24th, 2007
This post is a spin-off from Kate’s latest, “How to know when your manuscript is ready.”
We all assume that a first-time novelist will have someone read their book before they try to find an agent or send it off to a publisher. But picking that ‘someone’ can be tricky. Some much published authors like to have a first or second reader go over a book, too, but they have often learned who’s reliable by trial and error. For someone who’s yet to receive the validation of being published, getting the right first reader is extremely important. A good writing group is a godsend, of course, even if its members only have time to read the opening of a long work, but not everyone lives in an area with a selection of writers’ groups who have room for new members.
My thoughts: first and foremost, make sure your first reader has the time to read the ms. reasonably soon, like immediately. Well, no, not necessarily immediately, though you’ll want them to, but certainly they should have the time to start it within a few days. Writers can put themselves through enough self-enforced misery as it is, without wondering if the reader hasn’t started because the book is horrible and he or she is afraid to say so.
Second most important: honesty coupled a knack for phrasing criticism in a way that helps, no matter how much any or all criticism may hurt. The writer has to be ready to accept useful criticisms — that’s the whole point of the exercise. On the other hand, the writer should avoid thinking of the first reader as an infallible oracle. Readers have particular tastes and dislikes, quirks and stumbling blocks. Still, the writer needs to take criticism seriously when it’s backed up by specific examples from the text.
Obviously, then, it’s best to find a first reader who enjoys critiquing a text with reference to the text. A vague, “yeah, it’s pretty good” or “I dunno, it just doesn’t work for me” is not the kind of feedback a new writer needs.
New writers in particular want to avoid two types of first reader, the Gusher and the Competitor At her most extreme, the Gusher will tell a friend-writer that a disorganized heap of vague sentences is splendid, innovative, and engrossing. The Competitor is secretly envious that a friend has finished a book and he hasn’t. He (or she, of course) will go through a basically sound manuscript looking for every small error he can find, hoping to knock the writer down to his level.
What other pitfalls should a new writer be aware of? Any other opinions?