Writing Tip #10

February 8th, 2012

Okay, so you’ve finished a draft of something.  At least, you hope it’s something.  But so far it’s just been you and the words, and right about now you would love some outside confirmation that you have a real book here.  You’re not ready to ship it off to an agent or editor yet, but you would like a fresh pair of eyes to look at it.

So who do you ask to read it?

Let me start with who not to ask: anyone whose opinion you don’t value.

Because what’s the point?  I mean, seriously–what’s the point?  

Believe me, it happens: you think, “Oh, so-and-so should read my book,” because so-and-so is a close relative or a good friend or the person sharing your bed or something, and then so-and-so reads it and hands it back saying, “This is great,” or “I have some notes,” and your immediate internal reaction to the former is, “Yeah, but what do you know?” or, to the latter, “Why would I take notes from you? You don’t know anything about writing.”

See what I mean?  Pointless.  Don’t waste their time or yours.

Here’s who you should give it to: someone you’re comfortable being naked in front of.  Not literally.  Well, maybe literally (my husband’s my favorite reader), but mostly I mean it figuratively: it’s pretty agonizing showing someone something you’ve written that may or may not be good.  Seek out the same qualities in your reader that you’d look for in a sex partner–look for someone who’ll be kind, supportive, and very much on your side.  (Good-looking is a nice bonus in both cases, too.)

Being “on your side” doesn’t mean “will always tell you it’s good,” by the way.  Someone who’s on you side will be honest with you–IF THAT’S WHAT YOU WANT.

See how I capitalized and italicized that last phrase?  That’s because it’s very important.  Sometimes you want the truth.  And sometimes you just want praise.  You need to know going into this stage of things which you want and then be clear about it.

When someone asks me to read his manuscript, the first question I ask is, “What would you like from me? Do you want notes?  Are you actually planning to rewrite it?”  (Because if he’s not planning to rewrite the manuscript, I’m not going to waste my time notating it.)  “Do you want me to tell you it’s great?”  (Yes, I’ve asked that question and I really want people to answer it honestly, because sometimes that’s all you DO want from a reader.  Which is fine: I can gush like a proud mama if that’s what you want.)  Also: “Do you want me to pass it on to my agent?” Because if that’s really what you’re going for, and you’re a good enough friend, I don’t even have to bother reading it.

In other words, know what you want from your reader and then TELL your reader what that is.

Better yet, choose your reader wisely: if you want unconditional praise, pick the sweetest, most supportive friend you’ve got.  If you want painstakingly detailed notes, ask someone who’s a smart, knowledgeable reader.  If you’re looking for a referral to an agent or editor, ask someone with connections.  And if what you really want is harsh, unrelenting criticism, then go see a therapist because you’re clearly a masochist.

But above all else, remember these words of wisdom:

Don’t ever show a work in progress to your parents.  People who once changed your diaper are incapable of objectively reviewing anything you do as a grown-up.  They’re incapable of seeing you as a grown-up, come to think of it.  Show it to them when it’s published.  They’ll like it then.

And, hey, congratulations–you finished your novel!  Go have a glass of champagne.  It’s on me.  Figuratively.

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