Wednesday, February 18, 2009

First Readers

The thing about first readers we initially discussed is that there are actually two kinds:  the 'slush' readers for agents and editors, and the readers that writers employ to get feedback on their work.  Both got chatted about during the panel.  I'll just hit the key points.

Slush first readers:
*They're not the enemy.  Actually, they desperately want to read something good.
*Most of the stuff out there is not good.
*If you're a new writer, starting out slow won't work.  That's a luxury for established readers.  Hook hook hook! 
*Like agents and editors, slush readers can tell in a short time if they'll like something.  Sometimes within the first sentence.
*They have criteria to meet before they hand a manuscript to the editor or agent.  Don't send stuff that doesn't fit the guidelines--even if they like it, the first reader can't/won't send it up.
*They work fast.  In some ways it can be a kindness to have your manuscript rejected quickly by a first reader than to wait on the much-busier-agent-or-editor's desk for months, only to get rejected then.

Beta/first readers for writers:
*There are many kinds.  It's good to have a variety.  
*Fan/audience readers usually can give only a touchy-feely sense of the book, but this is good.  Fan readers are much less critical and much less apt to suggest story changes (making it theirs rather than yours) or spend huge amounts of time on inappropriate line edits.
*Skilled/writer/editor readers can give great technical critiques and can usually not only tell you when something isn't working but why.  Skilled first readers are much less likely to miss, give you a chance to redeem yourself or ignore a flat area that editors and agents will glitch on.
*Technical/educated readers can fact check for you or look at continuity.  These are often good at spotting logic problems, contradictions and missing pieces as well as many plot issues that other readers may miss.  They may also be scientists, historians or others with special knowledge in a particular area who will keep you from making obvious mistakes.

I suggested that it might not be the best idea to repeatedly send the same material to the same readers over and over again.  Yeah, there's the issue of burnout, but more importantly a writer needs to learn to rely on their own skills.  I think when writers are starting out, repeated feedback can be extremely helpful, but as they progress, one pass should do, unless there are radical changes made that change the story enough that it's practically a new story.  There wasn't noticeable (to me, oops) disagreement with this.  An exception of course would be in a cowriting or other close working relationship that is writer/writer, writer/editor, or writer/agent or equivalent.  For example, my DH and I sometimes reread each other's stuff, helping with the polishing process.  My two critique groups would kill me if I tried to do that!

We talked about how to find readers toward the end.  I think one of the more important options was to connect with pros.  Sometimes writers will make enough of an impression (or just catch a pro on a good day) that the pro will offer to look at a story or help with an aspect of it.  Don't let such an offer pass you by.  They're rare.  Follow up immediately.  Also, it's a good idea to take classes and connect with other writers that way.  Regardless of what you get out of the class, you'll meet like-minded folks, and that would be a great way to start a critique group.

Do you have first readers?  How did you find them?

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