How to Be a Good First Reader

Hi friends.

Last week, I handed off my first draft to my friend Claire Cameron to read. She’s been giving me thoughts on bits and pieces of it for a while now, but she hadn’t read all of it as a 300-page book. Last year, I had been her first reader on a book she had written, and now it was her turn.

A few days later, she sent me a thoughtful email about some big picture things, under headings such as Unprocessed time thoughts and Beauty and What came before. There was nothing too picky about it, because those kinds of comments can frustrate a writer, especially when they are in the most vulnerable state as the first draft state. There were no intense line edits, because I suspect she knows that’s not her job, there’s a copyeditor coming along in the future; they’ll have me pushing words and commas around the page soon enough.

She wrestled instead with structure and themes and how I played with time. She reacted to the book not just as a reader, but also as a fellow writer. I sensed she had thought about what she had to say, but also what she thought I would be interested in hearing. She tried to help me write my book, in my voice, in my way.

It’s a challenge to be a good first reader of a book. We have to draw on wells of generosity, because we have to be present on many pages of something that is inherently imperfect, and that is a long haul to be paying that kind of attention to something that isn’t quite right yet. And we have to shut off our egos, the arguments in our heads, about how we would do it if it we were writing it ourselves. This is not for us to put our mark on: this is not our book, it is theirs.

It can be tricky. Sometimes we see our friends’ blind spots, glaring and blinking at us. They have asked for our honest opinion, and now we have to figure out how to give it. Can we do it gently? Can we do it with grace?

I like to read ‘em like Claire did, all in one go.  I love to spend a weekend with a friend’s book and inhale it and then give them my instant response in an email. I don’t like to send more than an email. Sometimes I make notes in the word document, because it’s easier for me to keep track of things that way (and that is also how I teach workshops), but at this point, I would never send it to an author unless they asked for it first.

A lot of authors will ask you what kind of notes you want from them, and it can also be helpful if you are clear and tell them yourself. For my last novel, which was set in New Orleans, I had several readers who were born and raised in this town, and all I wanted from them was feedback on how I wrote about the city. I have certain readers who I can count on for their commercial sensibility. I have some readers who are structure nerds, like I am. Each book requires different kinds of reads. Right now, I am finding myself reaching for new readers for this memoir I have written. I try to be smart and strategic and respectful – I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, and I don’t want to ask someone to read a book that they would absolutely hate. This is a huge favor I’m asking.

But it’s one that I am happy to return. I have been asked to read from different kinds of perspectives. From a female perspective. From a Jewish perspective. From a “you’ve lived in Brooklyn for fifteen years, what do you think, did I get it right?” perspective. For Laura Van den berg’s most recent story collection, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, she asked me to read it and simply consider the order of the stories, and that was it. When she read my last book, I said I’d take whatever thoughts she had, and she told me to “lean into my kaleidoscopic nature even further,” which was actually the perfect note, even if it sounds kind of abstract out of context.

I’ve also had first readers I didn’t click with, for whatever reason. (No indictments here. It is nice that people cared to try and offered their time.)  And I’m sure I have given less than helpful reads. I’ve had to grow in so many ways. Nearly everything I write about with confidence comes out of learning from the mistakes I made first. One crucial thing I have learned, which I mentioned above: I have to remember when giving notes, this is not my book, this is theirs. And the other most crucial thing is this: Being a first reader is an actual fucking gift we can give someone – it can change the life of a book –  and so, we must do it with care. This is a way we build our writing community. This is a way we look out for each other.

Laura and I will be in conversation tonight at McNally Jackson discussing this topic further and also talking about our books for the last stop on my virtual paperback tour. You can register for that here.

You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans. Last week I donated to VOTE NOLA.