We get a sinking feeling whenever a client or prospective client talks about submitting her/his manuscript to the book club before sending it to us for review. What makes us tremble is the prospect of having to sort out a book written by committee, going every which way and not really adding up to anything. But really, it only takes one misguided reader to send an author down the wrong path.
After almost twenty years of editing, we become more and more convinced that reading, the way we do it as editors, is a skill. We characterize this as reading with the mind rather than the heart, and it is surprising how few people actually do it. Most people read into books rather than actually reading the words on the page. They bring what they know and believe to the process and experience the book through those filters, almost as if it is their book. Our book club does this, and we even know agents who read this way.
This put authors in a dilemma. Almost everyone needs someone to act as book reader, to help give needed perspective and helpful advice. Obviously, finding that special reader is a matter of trial and error. Here are some red flags to watch out for in the search for a good reader:
Beware of readers who seem to be reading a different book than the one you thought you wrote: If you are writing a murder mystery and your reader gets caught up in a secondary love story and sees that as the main arc of the book, don’t abandon your mystery to play up the love the story. You may need to do more work to bring your mystery center stage, but don’t abandon it for a different book. You’ll end up with a strange hybrid.
Do not trust readers who make your book all about them. You are not interested in their emotional response to your book. This can be hard when the reader is saying flattering things like, “Your book really spoke to me.” “I really identified with the main character.” Uh-uh. That person is not reading your book; they are reading their fantasy about your book.
Be afraid of your friends, very afraid: How many of them are likely to risk hurting your feelings by saying something negative, even if it might be helpful? Asking friends to do this really isn’t fair to them and puts the friendship in jeopardy.
You are not looking for new ideas or a co-author: You have worked for months, if not years, on your book; you don’t need a co-author now. The reader, who tries to horn in on your manuscript with lots of “great ideas,” is not helping you so much as ego-tripping. Don’t let this person distract you.
Trust your gut, trust your gut, trust your gut: Sometimes the voice coming from your gut can be very small and faint. You really have to cultivate this voice and you have to trust it. This can be easier advised than acted on. We recently suggested a major change to one of authors. “Oh,” the author said, “I knew it. I knew I should do that.” The author then went on to explain that the manuscript had been give to a reader, who got caught up in a secondary story line that distracted from the main story. The author went with it, ignoring the gut.
You have a vision for your book; deep down, you know what is right for it. Don’t take any counsel that isn’t sitting comfortably down there. A good critique should make you think, “Oh wow, why didn’t I see that?” Good advice will resonate.
When your gut speaks, hold on to that reader. You will need him/her for the sequel.
Here is a cartoon that illustrates another pitfall of reader/writing groups.