Monday, February 28, 2011

Virgin Readers and the Need to Say No

I’ve been saying “no” a lot lately, and I feel kinda bad about that. I’ve been saying “no” to several people emailing me, asking me to read their manuscripts and give them feedback. I know that my no is the right thing for me, and obviously, I don’t just email back a “no” but a very (I think) kind explanation of how I simply don’t have time to read every manuscript people want to send me, how to read a novel for someone takes an enormous investment of hours and energy, how I already ruthlessly guard my own writing time and can’t allow other commitments to encroach upon it, how I have a handful of trusted writer friends I exchange work with…but I feel bad because I know how valuable good feedback is for a writer.

I’ll talk about how to find your own trusted writers friend in a moment, but first, I want to talk about how valuable good feedback is for a writer. How valuable? So valuable I can’t imagine being a writer without it.

I’ll write a whole first draft of a novel before I show anything to anyone. It takes a full draft for me to feel the story truly belongs to me, for me to discover all I’m trying to accomplish with the story, to really know what my novel is about. Once I finish a first draft, I let it sit at least a week, then I’ll re-read and embark upon a first revision on my own. My first drafts are long, indulgent, and full of repetitive dialogue, so that first revision is usually about going back and cutting dialogue (I once cut a first draft in half solely by tightening up flabby conversations), consolidating and/or cutting scenes that fulfill the same purpose, and cutting any scenes that don’t move my plot (and my main character’s motivation) forward.

Then, and only then, do I allow my “first wave” of readers to see it.

What do I want from readers? I want—no, I need—them to tell me what’s working and what’s not. I’ve been working on this novel for over a year at this point (at least that’s usually the case) and I’m too close to it to really see it. I know what I’m going for, what my intention is, but it’s impossible for me to tell what’s on the page and what’s only in my head. So, especially with a first draft, I need readers to tell me what’s confusing, what’s missing, their honest reporting on how they feel about the story.

So, for example, I recently gave a first draft of my second young adult novel, Strange Katy, to three readers (well, four, because my parents deserve to be listed as two separate people!). I was so overwhelmed with gratitude to learn that they all found Katy to be bizarrely naive and that “she misses a lot of stuff” and noted the specific places where she did. When I told this story to a group of beginning writers recently, several of them look outraged. They asked me if I was angry at those readers. They seemed surprised when I said “No, not at all, I was grateful!” The students said, “But weren’t you crushed? Weren’t you hurt?”

No. Again, I was grateful. I want to know that my protagonist seemed dangerously naive so I can fix it. I don't see my character as naive at all, but as I reread with these reader comments in mind, I could see that Katy was pretty clueless on the page.

Critiques and suggestions that work—that are presented honestly but kindly, with the goal being to help me make my story as strong as possible—never crush or hurt me, but inspire me and get the wheels turning.

So, then I worked nearly another month, rewriting and strengthening the manuscript based on the initial feedback…before giving the manuscript to two new readers (and to my parents again, who, bless their hearts, both read the revised manuscript in three days’ time…and then took me to breakfast to discuss it. Am I lucky or what?). It was important that I gave the revised version to two virgin readers as well. This way, without telling them what the first readers said, I get to “test” to see if I corrected the problem (sometimes I go overboard and overcompensate). It can be difficult for readers to truly clear their minds of previous drafts.

This time Katy seemed kickass, not naive (yay!) but there were some other fabulous notes including: 1.) Katy seemed too intent on the mystery of what happened rather than truly mourning her dead friend, 2.) some inconsistencies in “the rules” of Katy’s extra-sensory “gift,” and 3.) my usual early-chapter mess of backstory dumping.

All. Such. Valuable. Stuff!!!

Of course, I thought Katy was grieving. She only exists in my head, after all, and when I think of her she’s floundering in an icy pit of sorrow…but was that on the page? Nope. Sure enough, it wasn’t (thank you, Kristi!) And I thought I had everything about Katy’s ability to communicate with animals crystal clear, but were there inconsistencies from scene to scene? Yep. Sure enough, there were (thank you, Sharon!) Is all of that fixable? Yes!

And I adore this stage. It feels like tinkering, like taking something complicated apart and putting it back together in better working order. I will stay up way too late into the night because I honest-to-God find this part so much fun (and frankly, so much easier and less fraught than making the story exist in the first place).

My dear friend Rachel is always my first and one of my last readers. We know each other well enough that she can be very blunt on a manuscript. She may circle a phrase I tend to overuse and write: “Stop it! You’re killing me with this!” Now, if someone I didn’t know well said that, I might want to punch them, but Rachel makes me laugh, the same way Kristi does by prefacing a really helpful suggestion with, “This is really bitchy, but—” But you want writer friends you trust to be bitchy or snarky when it’s called for.

Better your writer friends now than other readers later, right? The last thing you want is an agent or editor rejecting a manuscript for issues like the ones listed above. Or, if you’re lucky enough to get that far, to have readers or reviewers of a published work criticize it for the same implausibilities or inconsistencies.

I can’t stress enough how grateful I feel toward my trusted writer friends who read for me.

One young enterprising writer who emailed me asking me to read her novel responded rather saucily to my (I thought) very kind and gracious explanation of why I couldn’t. She asked how was she supposed to find trusted writer friends to read for her if I refused to do it? She was trying to establish such trusted writer friends by contacting me. So, what was she supposed to do if I wouldn’t read her work?

Well, she could do what I did: I took every writing class I could find in my area. I went to writers’ conferences, both local and far away. I went to the writers’ groups that meet in local bookstores (and which are listed in the store calendar of events). At all of those places, I looked for connections with other writers. I paid attention to other students and participants who were writing the same kind of fiction I was, whose writing I admired, whose senses of humor seemed in sync with mine, who seemed sane and friendly. If I was in a workshop setting with them, I paid attention to the feedback they gave (to me and to others)—was it insightful? Specific? Delivered in an honest but kind way? Delivered in the spirit of wanting to help the writer achieve their story’s potential?

At the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, I met several other writers I could be in touch with year round, not just during that one week workshop. Someone invited me to join an already established writers’ group that met weekly. After several years, I left that group, when life, schedules, and circumstances made it not what I needed anymore, but I stayed in touch with many of those writers. A handful of us still meet, not on any organized schedule, but whenever one of us has finished a draft and are ready for feedback. Same goes for writers I met while earning my MFA in creative writing (one of those workshops is in the photo).

When you have writer friends like that, you will read for them whenever they need it, and you rest assured that they will for you when you need it. Sometimes the timing is inconvenient, but it doesn’t matter: it’s what you do for each other. That’s a serious commitment to each other, built over many years.

When I’m able to, I lead workshops where I teach good writers how to give supportive, useful notes to each other and how not to be total assholes as they do it (seriously, the first class involves a section called “Don’t Be the Asshole”). My goal is always to bring writers together, to help them find connections. I’m thrilled as I can be when I learn that a group continues to meet and share work when our course is over. Honestly, it makes me do a little dance of happiness!

Just as with all things in the writing life, it takes time to find your readers. Just like writing a draft takes time, and rewriting that draft takes more time.

Impatience will not serve you in writing.

One of my favorite quotes on the wall of my office is from Goethe:
“Do not hurry. Do not rest.”


  1. I will be forever grateful for the day after your Craft class that Jeanne grabbed my elbow and said, "It seems like we are pretty well matched writers. Would you be interested in swapping work?"

    Jeanne and your classes have been two of the most influential improvements on my writing. Should I ever be published, both will be mentioned in my acknowledgments. A trusted, truthful reader is the best medicine for early and middle drafts.

  2. "Better your writer friends now than other readers later, right?" So very true! I've only recently started to gather my small group of trusted readers,and it's made such a difference in the quality and cohesion of my work.

    P.S. I LOVE that your parents are two of your first readers. And, discussion over breakfast = fabulousness! ~Amanda

  3. Thank you for sharing this with us all! It does take quite some time to build a group of close friends...its a good reminder that building a group of writing colleagues will take time too.

  4. What a great post with some wonderful advice!! Your dedication to your craft definitely comes across in your books.

    It's so strange to me how some people feel they are entitled or that authors should be obliged to read their manuscripts for them..

  5. Katrina,
    your post gave me the push (and the courage) I needed to ask the senior English teacher I sub for most often if she'd read the first fifty pages of my memoir. Then I was able to ask two others - strangers to me and my story - if they'd be willing. At the same time, it became clear that after a major reworking, the manuscript was ready to be read by others, a stage I had not reached during earlier revisions. So much about writing comes from a seed planted...your seed has sprouted. (And the English teacher wants to read the rest of the manuscript.)

  6. Good for you, Nova Scotia Country Girl! That's wonderful!