In early November, I sent my novel to three trusted friends for feedback. One is a freelance editor and writer. Another is a memoirist. And the third is a fantasy writer. They were all happy to take on the favor of reading my manuscript and agreed to an early December deadline to return feedback.
How Interpreting Silence Can Be Dangerous
While awaiting their feedback, I set the novel aside and caught up on non-writing tasks. I cleaned the house for the first time in weeks. I did gardening jobs for clients. I hosted my mother for Thanksgiving. I didn’t worry about their opinions of the book. But when early December came around, I was still without comments. Each day would pass without an email. Soon I worried that they thought the book was a mess. That it needed a mountain of work and were reluctant to tell me. “Rewrite the entire last third,” I predicted they’d say. “These characters are flat. The plot’s confusing. Why did you set in Paris? Why not Seattle? Where you live? Where more gardening things actually happen?”
My husband told me they were just busy. He wasn’t worried. So I distracted myself with more chores. I cleaned our office, raked leaves in the backyard, read the books on my “to read” pile. Drank tea. Just about anything I could do to avoid prodding them about the missed deadline. Still, at night, as I fell asleep, I’d imagine them reading it and cringing. Thinking it was so terrible they couldn’t bring themselves to approach me.
A Writer Friend as a Beta Reader, Like Gold
I wrote about how valuable it is to have a significant other be one’s first reader a few months ago. Having a writer friend read your work is as valuable in a different way. Yes, they too are invested in your feelings, but they have an artist’s perspective. They look at story logic, character motivation, plot points, imagery, sentence structure, and on and on. They’re not just sitting back and enjoying the story for what it is. They’re assessing it as a crafted work. So if you get a lot of criticism from writer friends, it holds more weight than criticism from a spouse or your mom. If a writer friend says the book is a mess, they’re probably right. They know firsthand what a mess of a book looks like. And that could be a hard pill to swallow.
It wasn’t long before I received my first feedback in email. “The story totally worked for me,” it said. My heart deflated with relief. And soon, there were more compliments, as well as criticism. Mostly in areas I had doubts about in the first place. But the problems were fixable.
Then I met with my memoirist friend, Ann. She’d marked up the manuscript, wrote comments at the end, and spent an hour and a half talking about it over lunch. She praised the characters and setting, liked the plot, didn’t think it was too horticultural, and offered thoughtful fixes on confusing parts. Wow. At the end she said she was confident it would be published. She hugged me and said, “I can’t believe you actually did this!” Tears filled my eyes. I didn’t want her to see me cry. “Yeah, I guess,” I said.
Writer Friends Can Be the Best Support
Now, weeks later, I smile at how silly I was to make up the worse-case scenario. But I also remember how stressed I was about other things in my life. We were selling a rental home, my developmentally delayed daughter was going through an anxiety phase at school, my husband had been working late for several nights, and I’d been preparing to host Thanksgiving. When I thought about that, I realized that Ann was right. Instead of being self-critical, I should have given myself a break. I did accomplish a writing feat — and they were just busy after all.
Last month I finished my to-do list of edits on my novel. The next step? It’s what it always is: ask my husband to read it. He’s my most trusted beta reader and best editor. I’ve come to realize how precious getting his feedback is.
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 on page one 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 wow, I think. He’s got stuff to say right off the bat. 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 change his opinion if I can locate another sentence or section of text to back up my point. But this time I haven’t so I take more notes. This goes on for almost two hours.
An Objective Logical eye
My husband is an engineer and he 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.
A Tender Approach
This 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 or 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. Usually your life partner is a person who thinks a lot like you do. Maybe the most of anyone. They will bring a similar but different perspective. They need not be an expert writer or artist, they just need 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 even more objective, scarier feedback from secondary readers of friends or colleagues.
In the meantime, I make it as easy as possible for my husband to read my work. If he wants to go over the manuscript later, we go over it later. If he wants to read it then and there, we do that. His opinion is one I trust and having someone’s opinion you trust may be the most valuable thing to have as a writer.
Do you have someone you trust above anyone else with your work? Let me know in the comments below.
If you’d like more information on writing, sign up for my newsletter. I send a monthly digest of writing tips, book discoveries, travel posts and gardening tips. Subscribe here.
In an issue of The Writer’s Chronicle from a few years ago, teacher Catherine Wallace wrote an interesting article on how to solicit manuscript feedback from editors, teachers, classmates, friends, family, whomever. She discussed the dangers of fault-finding criticism while outlining what kind of feedback she believes is most helpful. She argues that caring for a manuscript is not unlike raising children: you must praise them for behaving. Otherwise, fault-finding reverses creative momentum. It drives the writer back to what’s already written instead of onward toward the development of the essential vision and into more useful imaginative energy.