The Right First Reader

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?

33 Responses to “The Right First Reader”

  1. Sherwood Smithon 24 Mar 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Good stuff…to the negatives, i will add the Owner. That is, the reader who feels that she owns you, that you should be writing to please her (and uncertain writers will often just do that, so grateful are they for an audience), and who moreover will get miffed if you seek other opinions. The Owner will also rewrite your prose for you.

  2. Mary Osmanskion 24 Mar 2007 at 5:44 pm

    I think it’s important to know what you want from that first reader and to be able to communicate this to that person.

    There’s no point in having a first reader who will hand back your 20-page first chapter along with 40 pages of notes finding fault with your word choice, spelling and syntax errors, etc., if what you want to know is whether the first chapter will engage (any) reader and make him/her want to keep on reading.

    If you are writing genre fiction, a first reader ought to be someone with experience reading that kind of fiction (and I suppose that also means someone who is favorably disposed to the kind of novel you are writing).

    More specifically, if I had a completed novel manuscript sitting here right now and I was wondering if it was time to send it out to a publisher, or if it needed more work, I’d want it to be read by someone who meets several criteria:

    –I would ask an already published author who is also a friend,
    –who I know already has experience with reading and critiquing manuscripts by people like me (a published short story writer who has not yet sold a novel),
    –who may have said to me in the past something along the lines of, “If you’d ever like me to take a look at a novel manuscript of yours…,”
    –who currently has good working relationships with the kinds of people who would be the next step toward getting my novel published (such as agents and editors),
    –who would suggest someone else to help me at this point if s/he felt that was a better way to go.

    I feel very fortunate that I know probably 20+ people who fit the above requirements. But they can all relax; I have no completed manuscript sitting here right now.

  3. Chazon 24 Mar 2007 at 6:03 pm

    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.

    That’s not actually a safe assumption. Things have changed, perhaps, and this is more the mood of the moment, writers are far more social with each other – and with readers – than we used to be; but when I was a wannabe, my first readers were always the agents or editors I wanted to sell to. I don’t think it crossed my mind that an amateur opinion might be more useful than a professional response.

    Which is not to say that any of the above is bad advice; only that it is not the only way to go. No one need depend on friends or family for good reports before they start submitting; it is both possible and legitimate to keep your professional ambitions entirely separated from your workaday life. If you choose to do that. Some people (like me, at the time) just don’t know the perfect critiquer, or anyone whose opinions they’d be inclined to trust; some (again, like me) are too shy to show their work to anyone they do know, but content to be one more anonymous hopeful in the submissions-pile.

  4. ehjoneson 24 Mar 2007 at 6:32 pm

    I’d have to add the caution about another type of first reader: Family. Now, I admit, I have three “first readers” that I count on, and two of them are close family members. But these two family members are ones I can count on to give me valuable criticism. In fact, for the first draft of my first novel, both copies came back with more red ink (or green, since I made each use a different color so I’d know who said what) than black. The third “first reader” I have is the mother of a good friend of mine. The friend is not someone who reads my kind of work, but his mother is, and she’s a good sounding board.

    I have a problem finding new readers, though. I post requests on my blog, ask my friends, or preferably ask them if they know anyone who might be interested that I don’t know. The stranger factor can be very helpful. However, I don’t get a lot of takers, and it’s frustrating. I correspond with a couple of professionals, but I definitely don’t feel that any of them are what I’d consider close enough to ask them for a reading. So, what’s a guy to do to find first readers? I mean, I know WHO to look for, I am just having trouble with the HOW.

  5. KarenMilleron 24 Mar 2007 at 7:30 pm

    I think it’s important to be clear in your mind what it is you need from a beta reader. And frankly, if you’re actually ready for a beta reader. A lot of people say they’re after critical feedback, but what they really want is validation. Which is all well and good, except it won’t actually help you to improve.

    There’s as much an art to receiving critical feedback as there is to getting it. If you haven’t reached the point where you are objective, and can depersonalise the work, chances are you’re not going to hear what’s said, even if it’s brilliant and spot-on feedback.

    One of the most obvious places to get feedback is a crit group, but yes — you need to be careful. Especially when you’re dealing with face to face critiques. Agendas exist. Undercurrents swirl. Dominant personalities dominate. I think aspiring writers should investigate an online crit community like OWW or Critmonsters. There you can not only receive a really useful broad-spectrum analysis of your work, but hone your own editing skills by critting other people.

    I don’t think you can ask a pro writer for a crit, not unless it’s a paid transaction or you’re good personal friends. Pro writers are generally too busy keeping a roof over their head.

  6. Ariaon 25 Mar 2007 at 11:21 am

    I’m still in the process of writing, and I have two friends of mine who read it when I get a chunk done. Well, one actually kind of fell of the charts…and the other one…sort of did. Okay, so they arent going to be the perfect editors, but they’re a start. While they might not pick out little things, they can tell if, say, a character is out of character or if something doesnt quite fit.
    I dont let my family read it…I dont want them to until I (hopefully) have it published (if that ever happens). But that’s more on the basis of the fact that I dont really want them to see it and think I’m depressed or something because of the way I write – okay, so it’s not that depressing, but it gets a tidbit dim and dark in some places.
    So what I’d recommend on first reader, even though I really wouldnt know, is someone who isnt going to analyze you through your work – okay, so this is probably being a little paranoid, but still – it’s just my personal opinion.
    When I finish writing I personally want to get together with the two friends I have reading my story and talk with them in person about it…but after that I’ll still need ot find a “real” first reader. That should be the fun part, huh?

  7. Alma Alexanderon 25 Mar 2007 at 12:22 pm

    I’m lucky – my husband. As an ex-newsman and editor, and a lifelong reader with a very good eye, he works on all levels – he will point out infelicities of grammar or spelling (often spelling, because he gets annoyed by my British spelling in his American world [giggle]) when I commit them and also tell me about things which in his opinion I either need to move offstage or drag into the story FROM offstage – and often I’ll kick and scream and generally whine and complain but 85% of his comments I will take on board and do, and it makes the MS better. And sometimes the things he told me I should do and I didn’t come back to me from the editors anyway as something I should pay attention to.

    I don’t know that I would have had the nerve to ask a published author to “do a crit of my work”, no matter how friendly I was with that person, not unless we really had grown up together from the cradle – and perhaps I’d have reservations even then. I have had to refuse a couple of earnest requests of that ilk myself since I myself turned “pro” – and people who did ask, to their credit, did so diffidently and took my gentle “no” with grace. But like Karen says the pros are for the most part far too busy trying to juggle all their own balls and pay their bills.

    I think having a first reader is important, because there is no way you can be totally objective about your own MS – you need an outside pair of eyes. But you DO need to pick carefully. Here, as with most writerly issues, a bad first reader is probably worse than no first reader at all…

  8. Carol Bergon 25 Mar 2007 at 1:10 pm

    The problem with relying on editors or agents for critique is that they rarely give it. They see huge numbers of submissions and, generally don’t have time to give individual feedback. Oftentimes they don’t read past your page 1. Besides, they expect (and rightly so) that you have done everything in your power to make this ms the best you can BEFORE you submit.

    The problem with relying on published authors is just as several people have noted. Who has the time? I am regularly asked to read work by people who read or admire my books. I couldn’t possibly read so many. Critiqueing is a serious commitment. I read unpubbed manuscripts only from people who are in my critique groups, ie. people I exchange work/time with, and people whom I have specifically asked to see their work. As Karen mentions, one of the best ways to learn about critiquing is doing it yourself. Just because someone is unpublished does not make their critiques “amateurish”.

    The problem with relying solely on oneself (and yes I do ABSOLUTELY believe one has to develop a dispassionate eye and learn to self critique) is that it is so very easy to gloss over ugly little plot knots, deceiving oneself that “No One Will Ever Notice.” And, sad but true, there are some things that your own eye just will not see. You know your characters and their motives (or the setting or choreography that is intrinsic to your action scene or the wherever that your writerly pecadillos leave problems) intimately, but oftimes it is impossible to realize that you just haven’t conveyed them to the reader.

    For my own critique partner/first readers, I look for people who

    1. Are serious readers – that is, they read widely and across genres. Good character development, description, action, plot dynamics, and storytelling are not genre specific. I want at least one reader who is familiar with fantasy/sf literature/convention, but I don’t sweat this so much. I am familiar enough with fantasy cliches and fantasy readers’ peculiarities that I can usually root out such problems. But I certainly don’t want people who look down on sf/fantasy!

    2. Are serious writers – that is, they pursue their own learning of the craft. Anyone who tells you or acts as if they have nothing more to learn about writing is wrong! I think people are less likely to try to rewrite YOUR work (a common complaint about critique partners) and more likely to give insightful critique if they are putting their own work out there and striving to learn and improve along the way.

    Good critiques are lists of reactions, whether to a larger issue like plot or character or to something so small as confusing sentence structure. You should be able to treat a good critique as a list of symptoms, which you the physician can diagnose and treat.

    Now, back to Breath and Bone revisions…

    Carol

  9. Stephanie M.on 25 Mar 2007 at 2:07 pm

    The problem I see most often with crits is that the feedback you receive is vague, sometimes because the reader doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, but also because he (or she) just doesn’t know how to say what she means, or doesn’t know which parts of the story to zero in on.

    I think that you can get much better results by including a list of questions with the ms. For example, “Did you find plot twist A surprising?”, “Did you think villain X was sympathetic or unlikable?”, “Were there any boring parts that you wanted to skim over?”. Specific questions get specific answers, and that’s the only useful kind of feedback.

    KarenMiller brought up the most important thing, I think, about crits — that many, maybe most, amateur authors beg for beta readers because they desperately want encouragement. It’s why I don’t like doing crits, I feel like I’m kicking puppies.

    (P.S. Good luck with Breath and Bones, Carol, I look forward to reading it when it’s out. I’ve enjoyed your other books very much. ^_^)

  10. Mary Osmanskion 25 Mar 2007 at 5:04 pm

    I feel the need to clarify some things about my earlier post about asking a published author to offer an opinion on the readiness of a manuscript to be submitted to a publisher.

    I was thinking of my own situation and some authors who have been personal friends in a social context for a decade or more (the “more” in one case being almost 30 years). I wasn’t meaning to suggest that a couple of conversations with an author in the context of workshops, conventions, or book signings means a person with an unpublished novel ought to ask that writer if s/he would be willing to take a look at it. The two writers I’d be most likely to approach are good enough friends that, when I call on the phone and say, “Hi, this is Mary,” they don’t ask, “Mary who?”

  11. Seleneon 26 Mar 2007 at 2:19 am

    My impression is that many newbie writers look for critique partners too soon. I.e., when they are still not quite sure what they want to accomplish with their novel. Novels aren’t written by committee, which is what happens when you’re not confident enough to tell which advice jives with your book and which doesn’t.

    Personally, I have a one first reader I trust and I consider myself very fortunate to have her. I’ve had many more readers in the past, but realized over the years that they weren’t right for me. Some simply couldn’t articulate their impressions, some were stuck on copy-editing the prose into their own Voice, and a couple even wanted to change the plot and were miffed when I refused. (Luckily, I didn’t show anything to anyone before I had completed a couple of drafts and knew what I wanted to do.) My only regret with my present reader is that she mostly reads mysteries, whereas I write fantasy. The one reader I found who shared my taste to a T, I had to abandon after her “new” work used the same premise as my own(!).

    Mary Osmanski–You’re positions certainly seems ideal, but I think most people aren’t on familiar terms with multiple published authors. :-)

  12. Debbie Whiteon 26 Mar 2007 at 12:08 pm

    My first reader goes through my manuscript to check for grammar, spelling, confusing parts, and boring parts. She’s not a fantasy reader nor a writer and so ells me what’s wrong rather than trying to re-write it for me. This wonderful resource is my own mom. :)

    Once my mother had her pass through the manuscript, I handed it off to a fellow that I thought could write fantasy pretty well based on his first 13 lines. It was a trade: I’d read his first few chapters if he’d read my first two chapters. My heart sank when I read his work, and I was right to start worrying that his advice wouldn’t be much help. He basically said that the writing was quite good, but my characters really ought to do this, that, and the other. He didn’t like how my main character acted in a certain situation. He thought that ‘monarchy’ meant ‘despotic ruler’ and that my ruler could chop of her high minister’s heads for annoying her without any repercussions (yes, that really was his advice). It took a lot of patience and a long series of questions to finally pull out that I hadn’t explained/hinted well enough about my ruler’s reservations on acting out in that situation. So I got something useful out of the exchange, but I’ll never work with him again because he so strongly wanted to re-write my story for me instead of helping me clarify what was already there.

    Is this behavior (re-writing instead of advice) more common in wanna-be writers or is this a danger with anyone?

  13. Carol Bergon 26 Mar 2007 at 10:00 pm

    Debbie, I think the “wanting to rewrite” behavior is common among the same people (most often very well intentioned) who believe that the only way to help someone with a life problem is to FIX it or tell them how they ought to fix it. These are the same people who keep making suggestions on how to fix matters when we vent frustration, instead of just listening, which is what most of us want when we vent. They feel like “fixes” are what you’re asking them for, and it’s the only way they know how to help.

    Oftentimes all it takes to repair that behavior in a critiquing situation is to point it out. Like Stephanie said [and, BTW, thanks for the kind words, Stephanie!!] it helps to tell a new critiquer the kinds of things you are looking for, and to point out that you are not asking for solutions. This is why working with people who are interested in learning is so important, because together you can learn how to give and take critique. When my group started out, we had some of this problem. We discussed it, along with the persistent problem with defensiveness, and we learned together how to give better feedback. (There are also some excellent group guidelines around that will make people think about these things as you get going.) It really makes a difference if you are exchanging rather than just having someone read your work.

    Yes, some people are into the know-it-all power trip. It’s the same thing you see in the work place, in engineering design reviews, for example. Those people you just have to leave behind.

    And yes, Selene, lack of self confidence in a new writer can lead to over-reaction to critique. But that is also a fixable problem.

    Carol

  14. Katharine Kerron 26 Mar 2007 at 10:38 pm

    The problem with relying on editors or agents for critique is that they rarely give it.

    This is so true! In ye old days, new writers worked with an editor to make their books as good as they could be. These days, editors have very little time to do more than a quick read-through with comments, and that’s only if they buy the book. Most ms. are returned with a printed form and little else.

  15. Seleneon 27 Mar 2007 at 1:46 am

    I just realized I jumped into commenting on this site without saying what a great place it is! So many of my favorite authors in the same place. :-) Thanks all for doing this!

    Carol,

    And yes, Selene, lack of self confidence in a new writer can lead to over-reaction to critique. But that is also a fixable problem.

    I find it easier to deal with the defensive newbie author, because with a little bit of patience and communication, things usually work out. It’s the ones who take my comments as gospel who make me hesitate to critique anything in these days.

    Oh, and I have to ask (going off topic here)–I am also a software engineer, and I find that designing software and programming have a lot in common with writing. In both cases, you’re creating something which in a sense is without limits, but at the same time uses a given set of “rules”. And you’ve got all the different parts and aspects making up the whole. I was wondering if you have the same impression? Certainly, a lot of non-engineers think the two fields couldn’t be further apart. :)

    Selene

  16. Carol Bergon 27 Mar 2007 at 9:40 am

    Selene,

    Absolutely yes – I feel like my software background gives me a great foundation for writing. Semantics, logic, “if, then, else,” building whatever you want as long as you lay down the premises and connect them with logic. I use modular design principles when thinking about chapters and scenes – not consciously, but I know that’s how I think when I’m deciding what goes where. Problem solving – sheesh! Many of the most creative people I know are engineers. They invent new worlds every day. They just use different languages.

    Carol

  17. Darcyon 27 Mar 2007 at 9:25 pm

    I’ve been a first reader a few times and while I enjoyed the experience I also found it very difficult, especially when the work had major flaws and I was reading for a close friend.

    There’s such a fine line between criticism and constructive commentary. As a first reader I’m not always sure which side of the line I’m on when I comment on something.

  18. Seleneon 28 Mar 2007 at 8:32 am

    Carol,

    Thanks! I can see we’re on the same page here. How nice to have my theory confirmed (because, you know, two people are proof enough ;-)) I plan less before I start writing than I do before I start coding, but plotting, information flow, dependencies… it’s just basically the same.

    Many of the most creative people I know are engineers.

    Oh yes, I couldn’t agree more.

    Selene

  19. Stacyon 28 Mar 2007 at 11:09 am

    I’d never have an agent or editor be my first reader, simply because I know when I read I miss typos, as my brain inserts what should be on the page and might not actually appear. My husband, luckily, is a great copyeditor because he does not get caught up in the storyline (maybe a fault of mine there) and will catch just about every typo first time. I don’t expect any other feedback from him, knowing that if there is a problem he will tell me. My second line readers are Critters from critique.org. They are SF/F writers (almost all amateur or neo-pro with the rare sighting of a professional), not personal friends, and range from not-at-all-helpful to extremely insightful and constructive. On a short story I’ve averaged over 20 critiques per piece, so the common themes really come out. For my novel I’m hoping for three or four readers, when it’s finally ready for that stage. After that feedback and no doubt a massive revision, I think I’d be agent-ready. I simply have no relationship to a published SF/F author, and I doubt I will get to know one well enought to ask for a critique before I get my first novel in print.

  20. Betsy Dornbuschon 28 Mar 2007 at 5:23 pm

    Oooo, one of my favorite things to do! I love critiquing and getting critiques. I’ve got a TOUGH skin now–very handy for rejection letters.

    I particularly like a reader who asks me questions. If they’re the questions I WANT them to be curious about, then I’ve done my job. But often I think “Oh dear, you should have figured that out. Back to that scene again!”

    My critique group is invaluable. We do follow several unwritten rules:

    1. Sandwiching negatives between positives. (We do actually learn from the things we do RIGHT, too.)

    2. We don’t speak while recieving the critique beyond maybe a nod or yeah. Afterward we can ask questions or say something like “I was trying to do this. How do you think I can improve the chapter with that in mind?”

    3. We often provide for some informal brainstorming time AFTER all the formal crits are finished. We even meet once a month just to chat about writing and our projects in more general terms to keep our critique sessions as businesslike as possible.

    4. We provide general support in a friendly way. For example: I recieved a particularly “brutal” critique from a friend last night–today he emailed me and reminded me that he thinks I’m a great writer and that’s why he’s pushing me to do my best.

    5. We laugh… a lot!

    Great topic.

  21. Carol Bergon 28 Mar 2007 at 6:11 pm

    My husband doesn’t copyedit at all. In fact, he is the one who listens when I read the work aloud. (He really likes being read to.) The things he catches are usually science, gineering and medical things – which may seem strange in a fantasy, but they’re there. Such as does a shapeshifter give off heat when shifting from smaller to larger or larger to smaller? (Larger to smaller!)

    Carol

  22. Wenamunon 28 Mar 2007 at 9:45 pm

    Let me add another basic pitfall, or how to avoid one:

    Know your reader’s prejudices. Hates first person POV? Can’t stand present tense? Won’t abide stories with religious allusions? If a dog/cat/horse/child dies, that event will taint how they see everything else in the story? Etc.

    A prejudice doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t use the reader, but keep it in mind when you receive their critique.

  23. Betsy Dornbuschon 28 Mar 2007 at 10:04 pm

    That’s a really good point, Wenamun. One of my critiquers is particularly sensitive to slights against female characters.

  24. Charleson 29 Mar 2007 at 4:12 pm

    Finding a reader is a difficult undertaking. I’ve had a few people read some early draft work of mine, given to them to read at the time purely for curiosity’s sake as to their response. The responses were interesting — and largely influenced by their personalities and little to do with what they actually thought about the storytelling and writing.

    I think I may have discovered that my closet cousin may actually be the right first reader for me. One thing I know I don’t have to worry about is her being afraid to express her opinion. Added to this is that she is a fan of Fantasy, but reads widely across the spectrum.

    My older brother is a possibility as well — but only now that we are both grown up.

    I shall see. I should know by late summer if either is actually a good choice.

  25. Constance Ashon 30 Mar 2007 at 1:52 pm

    This is slightly off-topic but the discussion reminds me that in certain ways writing fiction is easier than writing non-fiction, though generally I hold the conviction that nothing is more difficult to write than really good fiction, period.

    The thing that is easier with fiction though, vs. non-fiction, is fixing errors, especially logic errors and errors of plausibility. There are certain fiction writing skills that allow one to create fixes within that area of the manuscript where the flaw is located, while leaving the rest of the text alone.

    In non-fiction, especially history, that doesn’t work so well, if you’ve gotten certain facts wrong . . . .

    And also, in non-fiction, your editor will be a very tough critic and send that finished ms. right back to you with a lot fixes that s/he sees needed. This happens no matter how hard you’ve worked to turn in the very best possible ms. you can, with no matter how many really quailified reader-critics have gone through it.

    And in the end though, it is still the author(s)’s decision.

    Not easy!

    Love, C.

  26. Mark Tiedemannon 31 Mar 2007 at 7:31 pm

    My wife is my first reader. She wasn’t good at this until I came home from Clarion. She went through all the manuscripts I brought back, saw what others were doing, and we talked a LOT about what went on. Somehow, without intending to, I “trained” her to edit my work.

    All she really does, though, is ask questions. If she stumbles on something that prompts a “Wha.–?” response, she marks it, comments on it, and goes on. If it’s answered later, she’ll go back, but it is the question-asking that seems to work the best. I will know if it is good that she has a question at that point or not. It’s by now symbiotic and it works well.

    I have other readers for specific things, which I don’t require for each story. Because of what I’m working on now, I have a reader who speaks fluent French. Another is a better historian than I.

    But the thing all writers need to know–to learn–is when to ignore their reader’s comments. Sometimes what they catch or comment on is not broken, just them knowing you and at that moment thinking what they’ve read needs something. In other words, unless that reader is a professional of some sort, this is a long learning process, and not only do they have to learn to be honest with you, you have to learn that it’s okay to ignore their comments sometimes.

  27. EAWhitton 05 Apr 2007 at 9:33 am

    What a great topic.

    I’m an advocate of in-person critique groups and separate first readers, but what works for me may not work for others, and vice versa. My current critique group is set up through my graduate program (Seton Hill University – Writing Popular Fiction – it’s fabulous, but I won’t gush here). We met in person in January and have submitted monthly excerpts from our novels for critiques. We’ll meet again in June and repeat the process for the second half of the year. I find it easier to take a critique from someone I’ve met in person, especially when I’m asking for more than a general “does it make sense/is it interesting” response. That way I can temper what I know to be their preferences and tendencies in writing with my own. For true (in-depth) critiques, I think exchanging work is a good idea because then we’ve both invested time in each other. It also means that I can satisfy my instinctive tendency to point out typos and tiny problems by noting common issues once or twice and then turn it off and focus on the larger issues like whether characters are acting in character, whether themes and plot lines work, and where I’d like more info about a person or setting – sometimes even a note that I’d like more info, but it doesn’t need to come right away. Just that by the end of the story I’d like a more fleshed-out view of this or that.

    I’ve got three trusted first-readers, and I use them to get an overall first-impression feel of my work from a non-writer’s perspective. All of them read widely, two of them across many genres and one of them mostly within fantasy, which works out well for me. All of them point out typos and grammar problems when they find them, but are particularly useful for pointing out when I haven’t laid enough groundwork for a character’s actions. All of them send me their reactions and questions and then at some point in the next few days I’ll catch them online or call them up and talk about how I might fix it. My dad’s really great about that part – he has such a fantastic way of putting a new spin on things that I usually hang up the phone just itching to write. The key thing for me is that all three of these people are good at giving feedback I can work with and use to help shape my story into something better.

    The one person I *don’t* let see my wildly unfinished ms is my husband. Not because he’s not supportive (more often than not he’s the one who tells me to sit my butt down and get to work) or uninterested, but because most of the time all he can say is, “I really like it, when can I read more?” While that’s tremendously flattering, it’s not particularly helpful as I’m writing. I have a feeling he’ll be one of my final readers before sending this monster off to agents and editors, but until I can hand him a completed plot, he’s out of the loop. In the end, he’s pretty good-natured about it.

    In the end, it’s all about finding the right balance for each individual person. I like when my critiquers give me ideas about ways to fix things – but only if they don’t expect me to immediately incorporate it. I can’t count the number of times an off-hand suggestion has turned into the seed of an entire subplot, just because it got me to look at a problem from a new direction. Suggestions can be extremely valuable when they’re used well.

    But again, you have to be able to judge when you, as the author, have a better idea of what should be happening than your readers do. Knowing when to make a change based on a critique and when to stick to your guns is one of the hard parts.

  28. Kate Elliotton 06 Apr 2007 at 2:28 am

    Can you talk more about the Seton Hill program?

  29. Katharine Kerron 06 Apr 2007 at 4:25 pm

    Indeed, EA, feel free to gush.

  30. EAWhitton 06 Apr 2007 at 6:17 pm

    Well, it’s a low-residency program is based at Seton Hill University, outside Pittsburgh, PA. Students travel to the SHU campus in January and June for week-long residencies, with workshops, seminars, critique sessions, and a chance to meet and socialize with other students. The writing terms last 4 months after residency, with monthly deadlines for completing a certain number of pages (determined between student and mentor) and sending them to your mentor and crit group. The mentors are all published authors, and most are fabulous people besides. Each student also has five books (both novels and non-fiction) they’re required to read each term, again chosen together with the mentor to focus on areas the student needs to work on and/or examples of how another author has dealt with a particular problem.

    It’s a two-year program (four residency-writing terms and a residency to wrap it all up), aimed specifically at producing marketable popular fiction manuscripts. It is a Master of Arts program, so there must be a thesis – and that is a full-length manuscript of publishable quality in your chosen genre. Possible concentrations include mystery/thriller, sci-fi/fantasy/spec fic, children’s lit, and romance – or any combination of them. One of my favorite aspects of the program is its gearing toward customization for each student/author’s individual interests and needs. There are required modules, of course, but in the end each person can get their own best education out of it.

    My other favorite aspect is the incredibly supportive community – students, faculty, mentors, and alumni are all interested in each other’s success and stay in touch regularly. Everyone cheers the successes (like Maria V Snyder’s recent nomination for a RITA) and mourns the losses – contracts that fall through, never-ending agent searches, and everything else – in addition to offering ideas and help for dealing with those problems. That’s relatively uncommon within any group of widely disparate people, and from what I understand it’s almost unheard-of in many creative writing programs.

    This is getting long, so I’ll stop here and give a link to the program’s website, but feel free to ask more questions if anyone’s interested!

  31. Mark Tiedemannon 07 Apr 2007 at 7:56 pm

    A good friend of mine is one of the mentors and has spoken highly of the program.

  32. Bad Breath Remedieson 08 May 2007 at 8:14 pm

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  33. Aurynon 25 Jun 2007 at 9:23 pm

    I’m not a published author, so my opinion might not help that much, although I do write short stories which are published online on an international website. One of the best ways I’ve managed to find my three first readers is to offer to be a first reader for them. While non-writers can have valuable things to add, usually the responses I get are too vague – “I like it” or “not my thing” – or else they pont out problems that I know exist and can’t figure out how to fix. Other writers often know what you are looking for, and often have creative work-arounds that actually make sense. Also, if I find writers whose stories really work for me I trust what they say quite a bit more. So when I started writing, I joined an online web community of people who write in the same genre (and write the same things – stories vs novels vs poetry) and offered to proof for two or three aspiring authors.

    After a couple of obviously bad choices (their spelling/grammar/ideas were worse than mine, or they got extremely defensive when I suggested they change ‘there’ to ‘their’), I found several authors whose works were appealing and whose initial drafts weren’t horrendous. I then gave them a ‘test’ by submitting a short-short story I had already published with good reviews, and asking for feedback. I didn’t feel guilty in asking for their time, as I had already spent some helping them as best as I could. I went through four or five authors this way, but now I have the three I use currently.

    The way I know they are the right three for me is that they often pick up on the same major problems (and I get three suggestions as to how to fix them), don’t get offended when I ignore their advice on smaller problems, and noticeably improve every piece I’ve submitted to them. That initial piece I used as a test to see if their reviews helped me? I’ve republished it, and my positive reviews turned into rave reviews.

    The best thing is those three people have turned into some of my best friends, biggest supporters, and harshest critics when I was was being lazy and needed a good butt-kicking. It’s also a great way to get to know published authors – two of my three now have printed either books of short stories or novels. And I helped.

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