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Agony Editor: Find an early reader for your manuscript that isn’t afraid to give you the hard truths

(Evan Munday)

Dear Agony Editor,

I’ve told all my friends, family, and co-workers that I’m working on a novel because I wanted them to hold me to it. But now they’re all asking if they can read it. Even when I say it’s not ready, they’ll say, “So let’s see what you have.” I know I should show it to someone, but how do I know who I should show it to? How do you pick your first readers?

Under Pressure

Dear Under Pressure,

Finding first readers can be stressful. With one shrug of their shoulders and a “meh,” a trusted friend or family member can send a writer spiralling into despair. But here’s a question to consider: do you really want to know what people think? Aspiring writers tend to fall into one of two camps. The first lot holds tight to unrealistic dreams of what it means to be a writer. They want the glory, the ego stroke, and the lilies-only green-room clause, but they’re not willing to put up with the hard work, criticism, and editing that goes into writing. Not good writing, anyway. If you fall into the first group, I recommend you look for first readers who consider Us Weekly literature. The second category contains those who care what people think. They’re writing to be read, not writing for appearances. If that’s you, picking first readers could be more of a challenge.

Fellow writers can be helpful, but they might tell you how they’d write your book. Ask avid readers who don’t have an emotional connection to you. Steer clear of friends and family, especially grandparents, unless your grandma is Alice Munro. Look for acquaintances who aren’t afraid of hurting your feelings or being honest. Not that first readers should be mean, but you’re asking them to do an important job: to give you thoughtful and constructive feedback. Regardless of how tough it may be to hear it, it’s always better to be on the receiving end of criticism before your book is published, rather than after.

Brian Francis is the author of Natural Order and Fruit. He teaches creative writing­ as part of the International Festival of Authors.

Have a question for Brian? Email info@quillandquire.com.