A Pact for Writers and Readers
Henry James to a woman seated beside him at a dinner party nattering nonstop about his latest novel: “Tell me, Madam, are you that elusive person commonly known as the Gentle Reader?â€â€œ
We all need Gentle Readers. Even if you and your writerly friends meet, for instance at the RWB Write-Outs, still the essential work takes place in solitude between the writer and the page (or the screen). When at last the Writer finds the book or essay has achieved some sort of pleasing shape, and past that first flush of pride, and joy, the Writer now needs to know if these words can speak to anyone elseâ€”which is to say, a Reader other than the besotted Writer. As the Writer what ought you to expect of your Reader(s)? As the Reader, what ought you to give back?
As the Reader: Remember you are not a full-on editor, not doing a line edit or a copyedit or any of that. If youâ€™re reading a short piece, a chapter or an essay, or a poem, give it at least two reads, one a plunge-in, no pen in hand, the second to make notes to yourself. If you have a paper manuscript, ask the Writer if you can mark on it. If you are reading via a Word Document, ask if the Writer wants all those crazy edit options possible. To my mind, for anything other than a line edit, they are totally distracting. The Writers needs, at least for beginnings, a broad overview, a canopy insight.
If you are reading a whole book, youâ€™re not likely to go through it twice. Still, plunge in, at first with no pen, just for the splash of it. As you, the Reader, go through the manuscript and see patterns or difficulties, make some notes to yourself. Keeping notes, either on the page or in a computer document, helps to refresh your recollection, especially if you are reading over a period of months.
Your task as the Reader is to provide the Author with response. A vague, general (I donâ€™t think it worked….I didnâ€™t get it…) helps no one. Not the Writer. Not the Reader. Be astute. The best readers and writers always ask why and how. Bring to this work your intelligence, your imagination, your careful eye. Ask questions of the material in order to shape your responses so they are coherent and useful to the writer. In doing so, you will become a better Reader. Are there places where the narrative flags? Where the material is confusing or bizarre, or perhaps too predictable. Are there scenes or characters or incidents, even language that are memorable, that stand out? Are there scenes or chapters, or characters, for that matter, that impede the story, dull the pace?
The Reader neednâ€™t necessarily come up with strategies to fix these problems; thatâ€™s the Authorâ€™s or the Editorâ€™s job. You are not being asked to rewrite or revise, but to pass the manuscript through your own intelligence and imagination. When I have shared my work in process, I have always been most grateful to Readers who can comment on the overall structure of the book, the portrayal and motivation of character. I appreciate a reader who looks at pacing, coherence, and those elusive qualities of voice and thematics. (And, if in addition to these large-canopy concerns the Reader also says: Laura, you use too many parentheses, well, so much the better!)
If the mss is new, and the story/material unknown to you, the Reader, ask the Writer to supply a brief list of important characters, or a timeline, or any other info that will help you focus on whatâ€™s important to the Writer. Perhaps ask the Writer to supply a short description, not synopsis (which is boring) but vivid presentation, 700 words, max.
When the Reader and the Writer are ready to discuss the Work, they should try to schedule some time when they can both concentrate. On the phone, fine, in person, fine, but when both your lives are not otherwise full of outside chatter. The Readerâ€™s conversation with the Writer should always begin with the strengths youâ€™ve recognized. All Writers work best from strength, and the Reader should acknowledge what those are. Move from those strengths into the areas where you see difficulties, problem patterns.
Grant yourself time. Not just time to do the reading, but time to think about what youâ€™ve read. In the midst of everyday life, to act as Reader for a long book might take months. Each time you return to the work, back up a few pages, or a chapter to get your bearings in the mss, to remind you where you were in the story before going forward.
As the Writer: Remember to grant your Reader time. Do not expect that this person will blaze through your mss in a matter of days or weeks. (If you are paying for developmental edit, however, you surely have every right to have it read and returned to you in a timely manner.)
In general you want to find your Readers among the people who are doing what you are doing: writing. They know the struggles you face because they face the same. Itâ€™s better to give your book to another Writer than say, to your mechanic or your dentist, or your spouse. Good writing is good writing, whatever the genre. But if yours is a light, and lively tale of family mishaps or falling in love, then probably you wouldnâ€™t seek out another Writer whose work is deeply dark, or gothic. Your sensibilities are not well-matched.
When your Reader has finished your book, and got back to you with responses, you should be able to ask questions. Clarify. Be certain you understand what they are telling you about your work. The best Readers become the Authorâ€™s resource. Later when youâ€™ve dived back into your book, revised, altered, you have ready-made someone who has spent time in the world you created on paper: the Reader as ally. And that is a wonderful gift to any Writer.