Your Best First Reader May Be Sleeping Next to You

Last month I finished my to-do list of edits on my novel. The next step? Ask my husband to read it.

So we do what we always do. I send the chapters in email. He reads them on screen. Then we sit together and go through them, one by one. “These paragraphs about where they’re standing, on page 1, need to be longer. It’s difficult to picture what the protagonist is seeing exactly. So there are mountains on the left, a field in front of them, and a lake? Lay it all out for me.”

Oh boy, I think, he’s got stuff to say right off the bat about the first paragraphs. Ugh. I take notes. We move on.

A few chapters later: “Would [character] really get that upset about it? He seems to be picking at his son for no reason.” I debate him on that point. He makes his argument. I debate a bit more. He shrugs, but I know I haven’t changed his opinion. Occasionally I can, if I can locate another sentence or section to back up my point. But this time I haven’t, so I take more notes. And on this goes for over an hour.

My husband is an engineer and thinks like one. How do the various parts fit into the whole? How to build this? What is logical? He gives me feedback with a polite, cool eye. Sometimes I’m surprised by what I’ve missed or a weak link. I hadn’t been thinking about that aspect at all. Now I am. And more importantly I’m getting a feel for where I am on the “How much work does this manuscript still need?” spectrum.

This feedback time he gives me is precious. I wonder why it’s more special that he read it rather than a friend. It’s because the work is in its infancy and needs tender care. That tender care is most likely to come from him. Working with him makes me feel safe. He won’t be mean because he can, because of a power trip. (Any writer who’s been in a workshop knows about that.) He criticizes early, unpolished work in such a way that I don’t think I stink as a writer and should give it all up tomorrow.

I believe anyone in a happy relationship can benefit in this way. The partner need not be an expert writer or artist, he or she just needs to be delicate and want to help you. If it happens, I urge you to be gracious. Probe. Get details about what they think. Prepare a list of your own questions based on your doubts and get their thoughts. If you do, your work will be ready for the more removed, scarier feedback from secondary readers of friends or colleagues. And that of course will be another valuable, unique journey.

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