Revising the Novel: Finding a Good Reader

Countless essays have been written about the importance of finding a “good reader” for your writing. Lots of these articles focus on horror stories, too–the friend who turned into Punctuation Satan (i.e. useless), the professor who stole the plot line, the guy who always criticized but never turned in his own work…you’ve heard it all before. But how do you know when you’ve found a good reader for your work, and is that reader always the same person no matter your project?

I got to meet with my author friend last week for our first attempt at being “readers” for each other. We’re both far along enough in our careers and our practice as writers to know that we were feeling each other out and finding our way toward, perhaps, a common style of critique. It was a wonderful situation to walk into, because here was someone whose work I respect, whose personality I greatly enjoy, and whose insight I value. I didn’t have to feel nervous, because I knew if we weren’t a good fit, we’d both recognize that and just finish the bottle of wine and call it a good evening.

Our guidelines before meeting were simple and informal: send 20-30 pages by a certain date, meet a few days later, and discuss “general direction and structure.” We both agreed we didn’t need “line-level” feedback. When the time came to discuss our work, we stayed true to our intentions. After all, we both have many other pressures on our time and schedules and were equally hungry for useful feedback. But the point I’d like to make here has more to do with balancing the conversation. There’s a fine line between sticking to your guidelines and leaving the door open for discovery. As with writing, giving good feedback needs to both follow a track and leave space for deviation.

So as our conversation wounds its way through the “general direction and structure” of each of our stories, what I took heart in most of all was the fact that we were each able to intuit where the conversation needed to eddy. These moments of pause, these chances to “think out loud” and zoom in on a moment or opportunity on the page, are were the real magic of “finding a good reader” come in. They also require more than just “a good reader”…because you have to be a receptive writer in order to get the message, too.

From one of these moments, I learned that a character in my novel, Sergeant Major Chaffen, doesn’t need to be as complex as I’m trying to make him appear. I learned that even though I know how the novel is going to end, I don’t need to write this particular character as though he knows, too, and I certainly don’t need to use him as a prop to inorganically hint at what’s to come. As my author friend told me, quoting Henry James: “A novel is an impression, not an argument. You can’t make a point. You just have to reveal what’s there.”

…which is really what a “good reader” does, too–helping you see what’s there, and by extension, what isn’t.

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