When I finished the first draft of my manuscript, I wanted to start sending the thing off to agents and publishers, because it seemed like getting criticism from those total strangers would be a lot easier than taking notes from someone I would see next week at dinner. The downside of going straight to an agent or publisher is that you're using up your first impression on a first draft. It would be like rolling out of bed and going to a job interview. That would be a stupid thing to do and so would sending a first draft uncritiqued.
Once my pragmatic side won at the game of pro and con, I decided to go to five of my friends and ask them to be the first readers of the book. I wanted variety in perspective, so I asked friends from different parts of my life. My first five picks agreed to read and so my list of my readers were 2 of my best friends (one who is always brutally honest and the other who might gloss things a bit but will still give you a straight answer), 1 former boss who has aspirational style and direct knowledge of some of details as they pertained to my protagonist's career, 1 former co-worker who has one of the best eyes for editorial content I've ever seen, and 1 friend-of-a-friend who I knew had similar literary tastes to my own. Those were my five and I still feel like I chose wisely.
When I delivered the hard copies (Note:All were given the option of electronic versions, but opted for paper. Take that e-books!) I also brought them supplies, a questionnaire, and an instruction sheet disguised as a welcome letter. The supplies were simple; a red pen, because who doesn't like to play teacher every now and then, and pastel (this is chic lit after all) page flags. In the welcome letter/instruction sheet I thanked them all profusely and then asked they be as honest as the could while using any method of critique that they preferred. You want to write in the pages? Go crazy. You want to keep your notes separate? Tag the page so I know where to look. Don't be bound by anything tell me what you think. I wanted them to know that I was looking for the truth. If the manuscript sucked, I wanted them to tell me before an agent did.
I got a lot of valuable feedback on the manuscript, which I'll get into in a later post, but the process of asking people to read my work forced me to look at the manuscript as I would if I were a reader. It was the first time I had considered it from the perspective of the person on the other side of the page and that alone opened my eyes to some of the weaknesses in my work. Opening myself up to the criticism, even to my friends, was nauseating, but in the end it really helped. A lot of this writing thing is a solitary activity, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a little help from friends.
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