Funny how some things work out. As I was thinking of a topic to write about today, I got an e-mail from a good friend of mine. He and I attended Antioch University of Los Angeles, where we got our MFAs in Fiction. While there, we worked together on a few stories, exchanging, reading, editing, and the like. What we found was a special kinship, a mutual respect for each other’s writing.
After we completed our work at Antioch, we agreed to continue working together. This accomplished several things. First of all, it allowed us to maintain our friendship. Secondly, it forced us to be accountable to someone. It’s much easier to write when you know someone will be calling you on it if you don’t produce. Thirdly, it sharpened our visions for our respective project.
At the time, each of us were knee-deep in novels. We sent each other the work we’d done on the novels to that point. Then, we gave each other some structured comments. Though we didn’t do much line editing (we understood that each novel would have to undergo a rewrite), our comments helped shape the remainder of our novels. At the end, we both completed our projects. We found some time to meet half-way (he lives in LA. I don’t) and have dinner together to go over the first drafts. We enjoyed some good food, great conversation.
Long story short—we make each other’s writing even better. While I have several readers, they generally look at a project after completion (or at least after the first draft is finished). Their comments are greatly valued, but it takes a special kind of person to be able to help guide you in a project as ambitious as a novel.
Here are some things to consider when looking for a reader:
1) Don’t have too many. Try to limit the amount of people who see your rough work to one or two. Though some say you can never have too much of a good thing—you can. Too many comments may stymie you. They can halt your forward progress, your momentum. Also, they may contradict each other with their advice. I generally work with one at a time.
2) Pick a writer. Sure, you’re brother-in-law may have a Ph.D. in Literature from Harvard, but can he write? There’s a huge difference between someone who is trained to read and someone who is trained to write. The difference is subtle: While one says, “This doesn’t work,” the other says, “This doesn’t work because…maybe you could try it this way…”
3) Pick someone who is firm, but fair. This may go without saying, but you don’t want to choose someone who will simply bash your work. You want constructive criticism (see above). You want someone who will hold you accountable and say, “Dude, where are your pages? I need to see them.” They should spend equal time critiquing and encouraging. Ultimately, they should contribute to your process, rather than detracting from it.
With all this in mind, I’d like to give a quick shout out to my two readers: Dennis Fulgoni and Heather Luby. Their advice is always spot-on, and they help spur my imagination and creativity. Thank you both.