Kim Wright has been a freelance writer for 25 years with a special emphasis on food, wine and travel. She lives in Charlotte NC and Love in Mid Air is her first novel. You can find her at www.loveinmidair.com and http://www.amazon.com/Love-Mid-Air-Kim-Wright/dp/0446540447/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1268018577&sr=1-1
I teach writing workshops and one of the questions I'm frequently asked is at what point you should solicit feedback from other writers. My thinking on this has changed over time - the longer I write, the more eager I've become to get feedback earlier in the process, at least from amateur readers.
By “amateur” I mean people who aren’t agents, editors, or teachers in an MFA program. It’s up to you who you ask, but it’s worth taking time to consider who might serve best in this crucial role of first readers.
I only show work in progress to other writers. A lot of my friends are writers so it’s an easy call to also make them my first readers. For other people, avid readers work just as well. And some brave souls use their spouses, lovers, mothers or siblings as first readers. It’s really a matter of personal preference. I like using writers because once they tell you what they think isn’t working – the beginning is slow, your narrator is coming off like a shrew, you have too many scenes of people sitting in restaurants talking – they often have suggestions for how you might correct this problem as well. I appreciate this sort of feedback, but some writers find it oppressive. They prefer getting raw reactions from people who represent their future readers, i.e., people who love books but aren’t writers, and who thus aren’t apt to offer so damn many suggestions.
But there’s one group you definitely don’t want as first readers: talented, even brilliant writers who can’t seem to get working on anything of their own. They’re blocked…they’re torn between two projects….they’re still recovering from the savage rejection they suffered in 1994….they’re waiting until they get their office feng shuied or their eldest son gets out of juvie…..The list of reasons that writers don’t write is endless, but the point is you can’t afford to deal with these people right now. Yeah, I know they’re smart and I know they have all kinds of time on their hands. They may even volunteer to read it. If they do, just mumble something vague about not being quite ready to show your work yet.
Because blocked writers tend to be bad readers. They may be unconsciously jealous that you’re actually doing what they’re just talking about doing and be overly critical of your work. They, again unconsciously, may try to talk you into writing the book they can’t write and will thus come back with extraordinarily unhelpful advice such as “This story would work much better if it was set in Paris on the brink of World War I.” Or they may be blocked because they’re perfectionists and carry that same perfectionism to their read of your work, giving you a line edit when what you really need is a big-picture analysis of the book.
How many first readers do you need? I’d say the perfect amount is between three and five. For starters, different people are going to catch different things, so you want some variety in your first reader circle. If you only have one or two people read it, any comments they make will have too much impact on your thinking. Let’s say you have a rather graphic sex scene. If you only had one first reader and she objected to the scene, there’s a chance that she’s coming out of a personal place. Maybe she simply doesn’t like direct sexuality in books or something about the scene was triggering for her, so cutting that scene based on a single person’s read could well be a mistake.
But if four people read it and they all thought the scene was too much, you need to consider cutting it. Note that I said “consider.” You don’t have to cut it. First readers are just that, readers, not ultimate judges of your work. But if you show a manuscript to a variety of people and they all stumble over the same scene or dislike the same character, you owe it to yourself to take their comments seriously. Nothing is more annoying than the writer who solicits feedback and then ignores it. Most often these people were pretending to want critiques when they really just wanted praise, and serious readers soon tire of working with divas, no matter how talented they might be.
At the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to have too many readers. If you show work to ten people you’re likely to end up with such a mishmash of opinions that you’ll be confused. Ellie loved the ending. Josh felt it faded out. Caroline felt the dialogue just needed some tweaking, and Mark insists that the real ending of the story is twenty pages earlier and the last chapter is superfluous. Too much feedback can be paralyzing, worse than none at all. If you try to incorporate everyone’s suggestions, your book may ended up with that “edited by committee” feeling sometimes seen in books that were spawned in MFA programs and have been subsequently workshopped to death. These books don’t have any mistakes but they also don’t have any life. The author listened to everyone, taking out any possibly offensive and therefore any unique parts of the manuscript, and the result was a story with all energy and individuality of a dial tone.