So I’ve started a new novel, and I have sent the first two chapters off to my writing group, and a few days later I’m sitting in someone’s living room sipping a beer as they take out their copies of the manuscript to critique it. And I can feel the same old tension rising in me — heart beating a little faster — prepared to convince myself that, even if they don’t like it, I know it’s pretty good. Or, at least, not too bad. Or something. This ritual with my writing group has gone on for a long time now — since the Carter administration, actually. Or maybe it was the Harding administration — the administrations all kind of blur together after a while. And I still get nervous.
It’s even worse when someone starts reading over my shoulder as I work on something. That terrifies me. If the person offers any criticism, I’m full prepared to say: Well, it isn’t done yet. Just some random ideas. I’m probably not going to finish it. And I know that paragraph sucks. I was totally going to rewrite it. Really, I was.
Writing is fun. Being read is hard — even by people who know you. Especially by people who know you. But the best way to improve your work is by getting opinions about it and figuring out what to do about them.
Here are some characteristics of good readers:
- They should know something about writing. It’s helpful to have someone say: “I dunno, it seems kinda long.” But it’s way more helpful to to hear this: “You should cut that conversations at the end of the chapter. The reader doesn’t need any of that information, and it doesn’t add to the characterization of the speakers.”
- They should have some understanding of what you’re trying to do. There’s not much point in showing your epic fantasy novel to someone who has never read Tolkien and has no idea of the conventions you’re working with. They may not realize that cutting the elves is just not an option.
- Most of all, they shouldn’t take your writing personally. Here’s the kind of conversation you want to avoid:
Girlfriend: “How come you break up with me in that story?”
You: “It’s a story. The characters are made up.”
Girlfriend: “Yeah? They broke up in a restaurant. We had a fight in a restaurant.”
You: “But the character is a redhead and you’re–“
Girlfriend: “You thought you could just change my hair color so I wouldn’t notice that she’s me, and you want to break up? How stupid do you think I am?”
Now, your girlfriend is probably right about everything, but she’s not helping you improve the story. And that, after all, is what matters.
Good readers are hard to find. I’ve been really lucky with my readers, ever since the Carter administration. Or maybe it was Truman. If you find some good readers, hold onto them. Hold onto your girlfriend, too, but keep her away from your fiction.