And no, I’m not talking Dick and Jane and "Look, look, Jane! See Spot run." (Although I have to admit that I loved those, despite the weak plots and stereotyped character roles—Father coming home with a briefcase, Mother always there in the kitchen with her frilly little apron tied around her very unmatronly waist.)
No, I’m asking who is the first person to read your work-in-progress? The one who casts the first critical eye on the pages you’ve slaved over?
Are you part of a writing/critique group? Do you give it to someone only after the book is completely finished or does someone read the pages of a daily printout?
I began thinking about this when I heard a recent interview on NPR. Anne Patchett described how Elizabeth McCracken is her first reader and that she writes primarily for herself and for McCracken, who gives her helpful comments.
Kathy Trocheck (aka Mary Kay Andrews) sends each chapter to her editor as soon as she writes it because she wants the instant feedback.
Carolyn Hart’s first reader is her trusted agent, but only after the book is finished. Ditto Dorothy Cannell and Elizabeth Peters.
As a self-taught writer who wasn’t much of a joiner in those early days, I never showed my work to a critique group. To begin with, once we moved to the country, it was too much of a hassle to get dressed and go into any town where I might find one. Too, I had heard that such groups often consisted of people who weren’t all that good at writing, but were experts at pulling apart another’s work in mean-spirited ways. I knew I didn’t have the self-confidence to withstand anything like that. So I stayed in the country and sent my stories off to faceless editors who could accept or reject without my having to see their sneers.
This worked just fine until I edged my way into writing novels. At that point, at that length, I needed a little feedback, and voila! There was my intelligent, literate, and normally kind husband. The only drawback I envisioned was that he didn’t read much fiction and the fiction he did read had nothing to do with mysteries. On the other hand, he did enjoy Mystery! on PBS, so I began giving him chunks of the book.
It was a disaster. A divorce-in-the-making. I would hand him a couple of chapters and they would come back all marked up. And not tactfully marked up either, but a total line-edit with editorial suggestions and changes. My mild-mannered art professor turned into a draconian defender of literature, complete with lectures. The discussions got a bit heated. I have no problem taking editorial direction from an editor or agent; from a husband was a totally different matter, especially when I thought he was missing the whole point. "I’m not asking you to correct my punctuation," I said crisply. "All I want to know is whether or not it’s working. Are the characters believable? Are the plot elements meshing smoothly? And would you please put down that effing pencil and just read?"
But he was constitutionally unable to read without that pencil in his hand. He truly intended merely to mark a passage for discussion later, but the simple mark soon morphed into a paragraph. He would decide that I had overlooked a crucial scene that needed to be there and he would helpfully write that scene. Had he waited until the next page, he would have discovered that I had not overlooked it, but by then he was so enamored of the scene he had written (which was usually nothing like mine) that he was ready to defend it to the death. This is not to deny that many of his suggestions were useful and extremely on-target. Some of them were pure gold, which is what kept me coming back even though it was often a frustrating experience. At times, I would tell him who the killer was so that he could understand why a seemingly minor character kept coming to the foreground. When he knew who the killer was though, then it all seemed too obvious. If I didn’t tell him, he never guessed.
"I don’t care who dunnit," he would say in matching frustration. "All I care is if it flows smoothly and realistically."
Both of us came away from those sessions bruised and wounded, until halfway through the third or fourth book, he said, "I can’t do this any more. Our marriage is more important than any #%*&@#$ book."
It was then that I had a stroke of pure genius. Instead of giving him parts to read, I read them to him aloud.
For the last few years, when I finish a chapter, we have lunch together and I read. If he has questions or objections he can voice them then and there, but there is no pencil in his hand, and I can say, "Just wait. I take care of that a little further into this chapter." I may still disagree with the comments he makes, but I have learned that if he interrupts me to question a point, then I need to take another look at that passage.
As a bonus, reading the chapters aloud lets me hear the dialogue in a way that reading only with my eyes does not. It keeps my characters speaking naturally in clipped sentence phrases that might otherwise become too pedantic, too formal, too wordy.
Best of all, after 24 novels, the marriage is still intact!
So who’s your first reader?
[Margaret Maron’s last novel, Hard Row, examines the lives of migrant workers in farm camps where the landowner cares so much about the bottom line that he loses simple human decency. Visit her website at www.MargaretMaron.com]