Saturday, February 28, 2009

Using a First Reader.

What is a First Reader and how do you use one? A first reader is a person or group of people who read your draft work and offer a critique. If you are lucky, you may find somebody who will read it at no cost, otherwise you will have to pay. Rates are usually three to fifteen cents per page in the standard editorial submission format plus a flat fee. A First Reader can be anyone with a good grasp of the language and/or somebody within the target audience. As an example, if you are writing for young adults as I do, then you may need two First Readers. One should be a child in the age range and the other should be an adult with an astute mind. Likewise, if you are writing detective stories, you should find somebody who enjoys them. You are not asking them to proof your draft and thus you should at least make certain that the text is comprehensible before submitting it. Group first readers, such as local book clubs, are even better because they can give you, the author, a wider range of feedback on thing you should do to improve the work. Some authors require their first readers to sign non-disclosure agreements, but if you are just starting out, it’s probably not worth the hassle.

The First Reader is no a proofreader, copy editor, or any sort of editor in any capacity, unless you choose to employ them as such. Make sure you clarify their role. The first reader is reading a draft edition which is subject to constant change. When I wrote “Haley Cork and the Blue Door” (ISBN 144047513X), I used one professional first reader and two friends. One of my readers was a nine-year-old boy who could easily follow the story and empathize with the characters. The other friend was woman who did not make a practice of reading children’s stories but was very well educated in literature. The professional service gave me a third point of view, which correlated with the other two nicely.

What do you do with the results? Listen closely to your first reader’s comments and consider every detail important. You may or may not decide to implement their suggestions, but should always look over the manuscript and consider the errata objectively. As an example in my latest book, I had the cat in the story die permanently. My youth first reader objected to this since it did not fit in the model of a happy ending. After much thought I changed the story in favor of the cat character and was rewarded with a better novel overall. If you are a poor note taker, then ask permission to record their conversations and transcribe them. If they don’t mind, they can even take notes as they read and especially after they finish, making things easier on you. Every minute you spend correcting problems at this point in the manuscript is worth ten down the line. If you use a professional first reader, make sure you have their terms in writing so you don’t get any nasty surprises, and ask them to sign a standard NDA. You should expect a written commentary with page references for specific items, but you shouldn’t expect them to send the manuscript back, so don’t send something you can’t replace!

Where do you find first readers? Look online, ask friends, visit your local junior college, or find a good local book club. Any of these options will give you good results. Other authors are also a good bet and can give valuable feedback. I occasionally act as a first reader and charge a reasonable fee for my time. I also exchange first reader services with other authors, and you may want to do the same thing.