Stephen King and I have a couple of things in common. Unfortunately my books don’t immediately (or ever, so far) hit the bestsellers list but we do both have thick glasses and our spouses are the first ones to read our books once we’ve finished writing them. Stephen’s wife, Tabitha, is the person he always looks to for that important first opinion and so it is with me and my husband. You don’t need a spouse to be a first reader but you do need someone you trust to be that first reader. And not someone who will just say he or she loves it because they love you. A first reader needs to be honest as well as critical.
Like I said, my husband is always my first reader. I pass him a manuscript when it’s had about two good drafts: a first draft and then a solid editing and revising to make it a pretty good second draft. Then it’s time for opinions.
I always hand it over with trepidation and even anxiety. It’s hard to know when you’re the only one who’s read it, if the thing is any good or not. Or if it even works as a novel. That’s why others reading your work is imperative. And why you must trust your first readers. I’m also excited to give him the manuscript because now, finally, after such a long time having these people live in your head, someone else knows about them and you can speak about them out loud and someone will know what you’re talking about. You can say “or so Liz would say” and he’ll understand. Or, even better, your first reader will say, “when I saw that on the news, I wondered what Bob (a character) would think about it”. Your characters always seem more real once you share them.
I know other writers who would never let a spouse critique their work and I don’t blame them. It could get pretty nasty if the spouse hated it. I think part of the reason my husband is such a great reader is that he’s not a writer. I look to him not for literary analysis or spell-checking (not that he doesn’t pick up on those things) but for noticing technical details like “that road wasn’t built then” or “a brake job wouldn’t take that long”. He’s good at things like timelines and inconsistencies in characters or setting.
Most of all, my first reader can tell me if it makes sense and if he likes it. In some ways, he is my every reader. He doesn’t edit things professionally or even write and therefore ever have to edit himself. He reads the book as any reader would, but with a slightly more critical eye.
I think he’s my first reader not just because he picks up on all those little things I miss or the fact that he enjoys reading over my manuscripts for me. No, the reason is that I trust him, not just to find those things but to talk to me after he’s finished reading and give me his honest opinion. He is the only person I can get a critique from and not feel a teeny bit defensive or hurt or even angry and crushed. I know that when he tells me something he didn’t like about it or questions a character or something that happened in a plot, it is coming from a place that wants, more than anything, to help me make it better and nothing else. Because not only is he my first reader, he’s my first cheerleader too and no one wants me to do better than he does. If you find a first reader like that, you’re very lucky. Hang onto him or her. They’re invaluable. But other trusted readers are important to have too. And I’ll post about them tomorrow in part 2.