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Beta Readers

Before sending a manuscript to an editor or a proposal to my agent, I always try to chase down a couple of insightful reader/writer friends to look over the pages. Time and time again, my beta-readers have saved me embarrassment--and in some cases, almost certain rejection--by ferreting out confusing or overwritten prose, unmotivated character actions, lame dialogue, or slow stretches.

I've just finished reading Jon Ronson's fascinating and highly-entertaining new book, The Psychopath Test: a Journey Through the Madness Industry and loved what he had to say on the subject in his book's Acknowledgments.

"Being my first reader can, I think, be quite a stressful experience, as I have a tendency to hand over the manuscript and then just stand there exuding a silent mix of defiance and despair."

I can definitely attest that a writer is never more vulnerable or more hopeful than in the hands of that first reader. Going over and over the same chapters blinds us to our work's flaws, and sometimes, to its charms as well. Still, we cling to the mad hope that *this* will be the story that catapults us to the next level, that this will be the one that glides effortlessly through the submission and editorial process.

It takes a really good first reader to gently let us down and alert us to the work that still, inevitably, needs to happen before the project's ready to go out into the world. I can't thank my critique partners, particularly blog pals Barbara Sissel and Joni Rodgers, enough for fulfilling their duties so expertly and compassionately, and putting up with my outbreaks of "defiance and despair."


You're so right, Colleen. And I wish that way back when, when my novel was workshopped at UH, that I'd had the mindset to receiving feedback that I do now. I think I perceived the comments I'd gotten as a certain sign of failure, that I was doomed as an artist and nothing I did would work. It's funny--now I look back at those comments and see them for what they were: honest reactions to a novel's first draft.

The hard part is separating the merits and possibilities of one's story from the inevitability that a first draft will be crappy. One thing that often happens in writing workshops that is pernicious, I think, is the idea that a first draft should somehow not be rough. If you were to ask our workshop leaders and professors, they'd almost certainly say that they WANT rough, and yet what I found so problematic was the shaming attitude that often accompanied peer comments. I knew more than one person who just started workshopping very polished work as a result and refusing to bring in those embryonic first drafts. Truthfully, I do think there's a point where work can be read too soon, but I think there's also a point of overkill. The trick is finding the right time and the right way to ask for and receive feedback, and of course, the right critique partners!

Right now I am showing almost everything to Mark, mostly because he's familiar enough with the story to remember earlier drafts and assess the changes, but also because he's a very astute reader. A published poet, he'll pick up on problems with prose rhythm, and with his sense of logic, he'll notice character inconsistencies, as well as problems with their motivation. Sometimes I wish I could return the favor.

Oh, and that chapter is just about pivoting now, dang it!
Oh--and regarding novel critiques in workshop? It would also be better NOT to have a six-hour critique on one's first draft, where the same negative aspects are addressed over and over and over . . . Well over it now, but I'm just sayin'!
There's a big difference from getting a read from an ally who's going to tell you the manuscript's strengths as well as make suggestions that can make it better and the uber-competitive Lord of the Flies-style workshopping that goes on in some programs. I've done it before -- and ran away as fast as I could.
Ha ha ha Colleen, at some point when we are all together and in person, get a little wine in me and ask me to tell you my UH bathroom stories . . . They'll make your hair stand on end! :)

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