Had some questions after Wednesday’s post about first readers, so I did some Internet research on the idea. Apparently there’s a school of thought out there that says first readers are nice, but not essential. That you’re the best judge of your own writing. That you don’t need any one else’s opinion.
Pardon me while I snort derisively.*
Look, our opinion on our own writing is…how can I put this…skewed. We put a lot of work into this stuff, so it’s only understandable that we find it hard to be objective some of the time. Most writers are about as capable of coldly evaluating the shortcomings in their work as a parent is at admitting their kid is really kind of an asshole. Even when it’s staring you in the face, pushing other kids down and stealing their shoes, it’s just too hard to admit.
That’s what other people are for. They can point out the things you miss. And, trust me, you’re missing stuff. So am I. That’s why I have other readers. They’re fresh eyes when you need them most.
Here’s a list of things that first readers can do for you and your writing:
1. Catch Your Mistakes: You know the best way to find a spelling error? Let someone else read your work. You’ve read it so many times that your eye will skip over the place where you meant ‘bludgeon’ and instead wrote ‘bugger’, which raises questions if it’s a cause of death. But a first reader will catch it. And sometimes make fun of you for it.
2. Poke Holes in Your Plot: You might not think this is a benefit, but who would you rather notices a huge seeping plot wound: a first reader or a fucking submissions editor? First readers will tell you what makes sense, what doesn’t, and what is so out to lunch that it doesn’t make sense on this or any other planet.**
3. Turn the Knob to Eleven: I wrote a horror story once, and gave it to Snowman to read. And you know the first thing he said to me when he was finished? “Needs to be more fucked up.” And he was right. It was one of my first attempts at horror, and, frankly, it was less horror and more a mild case of the willies. But I rewrote it with that advice in mind, and now it’s horror. And it ended up getting published in Tesseracts Thirteen with some serious heavyweights in Canadian writing. “Needs te be more fucked up” was some solid advice.
4. End The Affair: We’re not supposed to, but all writers have their favourites. Characters, scenes, lines…we have ones that we really love. But sometimes they’re not as good or as clever as we think they are. And a first reader will catch that. General rule: if you love something, but one of your first readers doesn’t, give it another look and think about it. They might be wrong. But if all your first readers hate it, it probably needs to change or die.
5. Tell You Where You Rose To The Occasion: And, sometimes, you work on something so much you lose all sense of perspective. You think it’s shit, and you’d be better off flushing it before someone else notices the smell. First readers can reignite the good feelings for a story, point out where you did right. That’ll give you your swagger back. And we need swagger if we’re going to do this.
*All right, I didn’t quite manage derisive. I got as far as disbelieving and decided to stop before I sprained something.
**The end bit is especially important for sci-fi.