It was good, and I told her so. I congratulated her on writing it all the way through to the end.
She said she was so sick of it, she wasn’t sure she’d go back and revise it, but still wanted me to read it with the hope that she’d learn something for her next attempt.
I told her being sick of a first draft is pretty normal, and the best thing she could do was get it off her desk for a while. That is, get it off her desk without making the mistake of sending it out to agents or editors. It’s rare that any first draft is ready for that. Most first drafts, in fact, are really messy instructions for writing a story. Often, inviting an outside reader to comment on a draft can help an author see her own work with greater clarity and renewed enthusiasm for revision.
The first-time novelist and I negotiated a contract that spelled out what kind of review she was looking for and what I needed to be paid. We both compromised with a deal we could both live with. She sent me a hard copy of her book in the mail.
I read the typescript, writing most of my notes on the time sheet I use to keep track of my hours on the job. I made a few notes in the margins of the typescript itself – the teacher in me just couldn’t help herself – but I knew that neither of us could afford that level of critique. We’d agreed to an hourly rate with a global cap, so I had to use my time efficiently. Besides, this writer was competent, so I confined my marginal notes to praising excellence and asking questions where I didn’t follow or buy in to the story.
I read the book carefully, and I thought about it a long time before I sat down and typed up four single-spaced pages of notes. I have a formula for these notes, which always start with a single-paragraph synopsis of the story. This tells the author what a careful reader thinks the book was about; any differences from what the author thinks the book is about is important information. This is always a genuinely upbeat paragraph that models the sort of synopsis that becomes part of a pitch when the revised work is ready to send out.
Next comes praise – lots of it and in detail. I enumerate all the things in the book that I liked, that I thought worked well, found funny/poignant/effective, and I do this in the language of the craft, commenting on effective characterization, setting, dialogue, exposition, plot, diction, etc.
Finally, I point out the places where I lost the thread of the story, didn’t understand what was happening or what the motivation was for a particular character’s action or speech. I point out inconsistencies of chronology, repetitions, gaps. By couching all my comments in terms of effectiveness, I’m really teaching narrative craft and not “giving a critique”.
In fact, I don’t think of this process as critiquing at all. Critiquing is loaded with “what’s wrong,” which I don’t feel is either helpful or fair. Who’s to say what’s right or wrong in narrative art? Instead, I think of this entire process as a learning experience – and encouragement to revise.
By showing the author where I stopped believing in a character and explaining why it didn’t work for me, I’m giving her the honest opinion of one single reader. Granted, I’m a skilled reader, but I’m also a middle-aged, middle-class, white woman living in the rural northeast. She may have another demographic in mind for her audience. All I can do is hold a mirror up to the work and let her decide what to do with what she sees.
After finishing my notes, I think some more. I ask myself, “What are the three most important things I can tell this author about this work?” When I have an answer, I write a cover letter that raises three Big Issues to consider. In this instance, I suggested the author think about selectivity (what to include and – equally important – what to leave out), subordination (giving more weight to what’s important and less to what’s less so), and audience (what can she assume the audience knows and what does she have to explain?).
Finally, I tally up my time and write an invoice.
I receive much more than just a fee for this work. I get to see a book under development – something akin to a prenatal sonogram; seeing someone else’s imagination at work is just as awe-inspiring and amazing. I also learn from others’ work, even when it is rough. And I make a connection to another writer – another solitary storyteller out there in the universe attempting to do this important work that glues our civilization together.
Deborah Lee Luskin is the award-winning author of Into the Wilderness.