Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Carry on Camping – with Trusted Readers

What is a trusted reader? It is someone you give your manuscript to, for close reading and comment – whatever it be. Short story, novel, novella, single poem, flash, poetry collection, flash collection - the list goes on.
There are no doubt many definitions, and timings – but for me, the peer critique process is one thing, useful when the work is in the process of revision, and the trusted reader is one of the final stops on the manuscript’s journey away from you. As you are letting it go – it is, if you like, that stage when you check your offspring is correctly kitted out for the long road ahead.
Have you packed the right clothes for all weathers, the right food, the right safety equipment, phone, the means to get cash, passport plus copies. Maps. Oh, and if you were my late Mum – a vest. (Vests had to go everywhere!)
Your trusted reader is metaphorically speaking, checking through the rucksack, making sure everything is as right as it can be made.

You wouldn’t entrust your offspring’s wellbeing to just anyone. You would not just stop the car, grab a passer-by and say, “go through this there’s a dear – will my child have the best chance possible?”

So. Having established that you need someone you can trust with your baby’s wellbeing, who might that be, if we are going down the analogy started above? (I’ve started, so I’ll finish…). Good friend of the family. Older sibling. Or even better, a godparent or the equivalent. Someone who cares that everything is as OK as it can be, and who may help you to repack if all is a bit chaotic in that rucksack. Who might even suggest a different tent, because the one you’ve put in has a hole in it.

Seriously, camping aside. You must choose your final reader with great care, and I suggest you consider the following:
Someone who knows you and knows your work.
Someone who is prepared to be honest with you, and who you listen to.
Someone who is an experienced reader in the genre you are working in, who knows what works and what doesn’t.
Someone you can trust.

Now we’ll get controversial. Should the trusted reader be someone you have worked closely with, in a writing group? The final decision on that has to be yours, but I would ask you to consider one thing. Is there a chance that the person you are considering might be jealous in any way of you?
Are you considering someone you have not met face to face? Perhaps someone you’ve worked with online? Again, controversially perhaps in this age of emails, forums, facebook, twitter and messaging of all types… if you are asking my advice, I’d say this. If you have not met them face to face, and felt completely at ease, think again. NOT that one then!
Even then, you can get it wrong. But knowing your trusted reader is important. Knowing that they have your interests at heart and would do nothing to harm you or your work, is important. Knowing that they would not hold back if they feel something is not right, is important. And knowing that when you are successful and your manuscript is picked up by a good publisher – they will raise a glass with you and mean it, is important too. Just as you will celebrate with them when their time is right.
On the other hand, there are superb professional consultancies around who will do the job for you. I would love to hear from anyone who has used one of these, and find out what the experience was like?
This wasn’t as easy to write as I thought. It just goes to show what a difficult thing it is to find a good trusted reader, and I hope it doesn’t mean that lots of writers just ask the person next to them on the bus…feel free to start debate, ask questions…


E.P. Chiew said...

I think it's a very sage point. It shouldn't be controversial. It is though damn near asking the impossible. Not even your twin sister can read so capably, fulfill all those criteria. Dearest friends have your interests at heart, they care about you, but they may not know good writing, or genre writing, or may not even have read enough to be able to offer you the kind of perspective you need at a certain level. But yes, be careful of which writer group one shows one's work to. I confess I've basically given up. I will only show my novel to my agent.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks Elaine.

perhaps the answer is, that once an agent has expressed an interest, and unless you are working in a professional capacity with someone, where contracts and cash change hands in exchange for final reading and adherent advice - we ought to be bloody careful about trusted readers.

I would like to make people THINK! I did, and was caught as a result, losing my work.

TOM J VOWLER said...

I like the rucksack metaphor.

This is a subject occupying my mind a lot as I near the end of my first draft. Obviously I'll revise heavily myself, but eventually I'll need to shove it out the door, drop it off at the school gates (see what you've started, V!) and see how it fares in the world on its own.

My agent will read it, yes, but there are one or two others I'll give it to first. And I'll get very different responses from each. They are long-established friends, who read voraciously and know my aesthetic well. (As a naive beginner some years ago, I would give sections of my first novel to just about anybody who'd read it. Passers-by, distant relatives - none of whom were ever gonna offer anything of value really: 'It's wonderful' (It wasn't.))

I blogged about this a while ago, and concluded that the writer has to learn to trust their own criticism as much as possible.

But, yes, it's a tricky one. Being so close to the work, you'll likely miss something, be too subjective, too inextricably bound to the process that created it, to see the weaknesses.

You also don't have to accept everything you receive as feedback.

McEwan sends his mss to a friend in the first instance, who pens FLF in the margin next to any cliche (flickering log fire).

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks, Tom. The ideas of those long-established friends reading and giving you their feedback sounds wonderful. And I will remember FLF - That is a marvellous anecdote, guaranteed to put out a few log fires of my own!

yes, you are right - we have to trust ourselves. But I know, (just me here!) that I am wobbly about that first novel. Need help to polish, edit. Im very much a a short story writer - there is precious little in common in the structure between ss and N.

I had another response to this via email - and hope that will be posted as comment, as it raised such fab and useful points.

But just to reiterate - I am talking about the final final final draft here. The one you were just about to send to agent - not at the earlier draft stages, when you may have been wanting feedback as critique for possible edit input.

Sara Crowley said...

I've been thinking about this a lot. Your trusted reader not only has to be trustworthy, s/he also must "get" you. I have shared work with a number of writers in the past couple of years and often have received useful, helpful feedback (and sometime disastrous feedback!) However, the special reader has to be able to understand where you are coming from, where you are going. I have been lucky enough to have encountered a few writers who have understood my words even when they have been unsuccessfully written. They have seemingly magically felt the depths I am aiming for, the theme, the heart, despite me fucking up the delivery. These are the writers to be treasured, and I hope that one day I may finish my bloody novel and ask one or two of them for their honest thoughts despite me having not met them all.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

For me - you are right, S. Absolutely. Thats why I stuck with colleagues, friends, to my cost - but hope that I will get over that ridiculous and extremely rare episode and get on with doing things as always.

An agency, however great, dowent know you, do they?

Mind you having said that - when the work is on the point of going out - when it is ready to send to agent - publisher whatever - you need someone with an eye for smoothness, coherence, a totality - and someone who will say 'I cant see this on the shelf because of A B C - tweak those and you'll be fine.'

Sara Crowley said...

Agreed. And it is also a big ask of someone - to give up plenty of their time and devote it to you - another reason why paying and keeping it professional can be beneficial. It's a long way off for me - this end, and I am not so sure how I will feel when it comes.

You are one of the best readers I have ever encountered Vanessa. I imagine you are burdened already by far too many writers asking you to read and critique their work. Another reason not to stretch a friendship and making awkward requests of people they may not know how to answer. A mine field really innit.

Good luck with finishing your novel, and finding the right person to look it over for you.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks, S - for the good luck stuff and for the nice words.

Am I a good reader? dunno. But I feel my way, understand some people's impetus/themes better than others, like we all do, I'd guess.

For the record. If I am still upright and sane, and only when you are ready, I would be honoured to read your final draft.

Sara Crowley said...

That is absolutely lovely of you, Vanessa. When the time comes I would be delighted to have your thoughts. Thank you. And if I can be of any help to you please just ask.