Some Thoughts on Advance Reading (Part 1)
As more authors self-publish, and as editors in publishing firms have less time to focus on ‘editing’ given their increased time on all the other aspects of book production, a significant number of authors are turning to professional Advance Readers and freelance editors to help them polish their latest work.
One of the things that I have been very privileged to do is be an Advance Reader for some very talented authors. So I thought I would discuss part of what that entails for me as a professional, and what I and other Advance Readers, hopefully, offer authors.
Advance reading is a fairly nebulous term, and I have done, and still do, two different types of advance reading. For some it means getting Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) or review copies of books ahead of publication and writing reviews for blogs, review sites, magazines and periodicals. This benefits the Advance Reader because they get free review copies of books that they might have purchased otherwise. It can also help booksellers, publishers, and authors if the resulting review is positive and generates good word of mouth sales. The reviewer also gets bragging rights to having read a book before their friends and peers, and gets that warm, smug feeling of knowing more than the rest of the fans of the work (at least until the book is released).
The other type of Advance Reader is a little different and this is the one that I want to talk about today. It means reading the manuscript, making notes on it, and sending those back to the author so that they can consider making changes to the book before they send it to the publishers for formal editing and publication. But advance reading for an author is a strange thing. You are not their agent, their editor, or their proof reader (although depending on the author you might end up doing some editing and proofing), and you are most certainly not their creative partner or co-writer. The last one might seem strange to mention but it is actually very important. Being an Advance Reader can be both a professional job and an amorphous ill-defined relationship with an author. It is a relationship that must be based on trust and respect. The author has to trust you with their work, trust that you won’t leak details, trust that you won’t pirate copies of it, and trust that you will give them honest feedback. In return the Reader has to respect that trust, respect the author, and respect the fact that this is not an opportunity to get the author to write the story that you want them to write.
Letting someone read your work in progress is a lot to ask of an author. So what do they get out of it? Oddly enough every author and every book is different. Some authors use it as validation that their story is eliciting the desired or intended responses. Some use it to get a fresh perspective on the novel to highlight strengths and weaknesses and find the areas that need editing. Some use it simply to get an idea of how a fan of the genre/series/author is responding to the new work. Or any combination of the above, and more. It also depends on the relationship between the author and the Reader. But in essence, what an author gets is honest feedback before publication or review that can allow them to rethink or change things within the novel before they get locked in. But the relationship is fluid and nebulous and changes author by author and Reader to Reader.
Given that there are no real set rules for what an Advance Reader does and that every Reader is different, there are some core principles that I think that every advance Reader generally adheres to.
1.) Honesty – You can’t lie to the author in an effort to seem cool, or get them to like you, or fannishly bolster their egos. That is not what an Advance Reader does. You have to give the author honest feedback. That is your job. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean that you have to be tactless or brutal, diplomacy goes a long way, but you have to tell the author the truth, even if it is something negative. Especially if it is something negative. They are professional writers, so it seems only common courtesy to treat them as professionals and to tell them the truth. They can get snide/flattering comments from reviewers and fans after the book comes out, but this is the one chance to get honest feedback before it goes into the public sphere, and you do them a disservice if you don’t tell them the truth. If there is a problem then this can help them fix it, if the book is great, then this lets them know which sections/techniques/characters are working and getting through to their readers. But most books tend to be a mixture. An author doesn’t have to work with a professional Advance Reader, plenty of authors have partners/spouses/friends read their books ahead of time, but personal relationships can be fraught with well-meaning dishonesty. People may be supportive or overly positive for fear of demoralising the author or putting a strain on a relationship. A professional Advance Reader offers an honest response, the good with the bad, and most professional Advance Readers have expertise within the genre and at least some training.
2.) Objectively Critical – Being critical is essential to being an Advance Reader. But being critical is not the same as being an asshole. You have to be able to let the author know what you think about the good things and the bad, but this is not your time to be a sycophantic fan, or to indulge in negative whingeing and complaining (and let’s face it, we all do a lot of that on fan forums), you have to give a balanced reading and analysis of the work. We all love to complain about things that we hate about stories, or wax lyrical about the things we love, but that is not what you are doing here. You are trying to give the author an idea of what a reader (namely you) is feeling and thinking as they read through the story, that includes good things, bad things, and everything in between. But you also have to be able to take a step back and try to objectively evaluate the work. This isn’t just about personal preferences, but about assessing and measuring the prose, the story, the characters, the structure, the pacing, and all the other aspects of storytelling. Sometimes it isn’t even about the story, it is actually about how the story is being told, and you have to be able to recognise that and comment on it.
3.) Clarity and Explanation – These two go hand in hand and basically mean what and why of commentary. It is rarely enough to simply say that ‘this bit is crap.’ Or, ‘This bit is brilliant’. You have to be specific and able to explain why something is entertaining you or boring you. ‘I hate this character’ doesn’t really tell an author much. Do you hate them because they are badly written, because they are a well written character that has gotten under your skin, because they did something that you don’t like? If you can’t articulate to an author why you dislike something, then how are they meant to know what you mean? Letting the author know what you are feeling as you read is great and gives them feedback, but being able to tell them why you are feeling that is actively useful information. So, ‘This section drags on a little as there seems to be endless description’ is of more use than ‘bored here’, or ‘If you want me to hate this character then you have succeeded. I can’t wait for the heroes to stomp his face because he is so smug and evil that I am anxiously waiting for him to get his comeuppance. He is great.’ is clearly different to ‘I hate this character and want him to die’ … however all of these are more use than not saying anything at all. Which leads us to the next point.
4.) Thoroughness – You need to be thorough on your commentary. The author wants your commentary on the story, not a twelve word summary at the end saying you enjoyed it or hated it. Admittedly there are some sections of a novel that attract more commentary than others, but personally, if I am making notes and a section goes by without comment (usually because I have been engrossed in reading and forgotten I am meant to be writing commentary… hey, it happens) I go back and re-read it. I note that I stopped commenting on the first read and say why (perhaps because I was engrossed, or found myself skimming down to get to a more interesting part, or whatever reason) and I go back through and pay attention to the section and add any relevant comments. I say relevant here because I don’t comment if it is unnecessary, but the point of the exercise is to note what I am thinking as I read, re-read, and re-read. Yes, that’s right. I usually go through the writing at least twice, sometimes a lot more. The first read through gives you your most honest and raw reactions as you potentially get caught up in the story. The second tends to be more objective and analytical as you know what is happening and can pay more attention to process. The third read through helps cement your perception of the section as a whole and how it fits into the other chapters.
5.) Personal Detachment – This is a tough one, and an aspect I know that I occasionally struggle with. No matter what comments I make, no matter how an author changes or doesn’t change a story based on what I say, it is not my story. I am not a co-author. I have no ownership over the material. I love advance reading for authors, and I am really proud of those times that an author has listened to what I have said and made a positive change in their work, it is a fantastic feeling… but that doesn’t give me any ownership of the story. It is still their story, 100%. It can be very hard not to brag about your influence. It can be hard not to get caught up in the process and think of yourself as a collaborator. It can be excruciating to realise that you are not a co-creator and that this story is not, in fact, yours. But at the end of the day, this is the author’s story, not mine, and sometimes that can slip my mind. At best, all I can ever claim is that I helped an author craft a better version of the story they wanted to tell by giving them an insight into how a reader reacts and thinks. But mostly, what I offer is feedback on the story so that the author gets a better sense of how someone is responding to their work, what they do with that information is entirely up to them. I am someone that an author can talk to about their work that both appreciates the material and is trustworthy enough that I won’t blab their secrets. This also goes back to the fact that this is a professional service. While some authors can become friends, many remain clients/employers, and it doesn’t do to try to claim your clients’ work as your own, no matter how much you care about it and have invested in it.
6.) Professional Detachment – Directly linked to the above, this concerns the fact that this is not an opportunity to get the author to write the story you want. Your desires about what you want to read in the story, where you want the story to go, and what aspects get concentrated on will always inform your commentary and be a part of how you respond to the story, but they are personal to you and are not universal to every reader. Every fan has different aspects of a book that they think are brilliant or boring, awesome or awful, and no author can please all fans at all times. Let’s face it, the things I find great might bore the socks of you and vice versa. So you have to trust in the author and respect their work, their story and their vision. Your job, at least how I see it, is to help the author better craft the story they want to tell. This is about your response to their story, not about what you think the story should be, or how you would tell the story. I have made plenty of comments along the lines of ‘I would love to see more of these characters because they are great/humorous/interesting etc. I love reading their dialogue and interactions’ but never once do I think that the author should do this if it does not serve their story. I use comments like that to let the author know I am enjoying those characters and why, not to get them to change the story to cater to my whims and desires. This is a fine line to walk, and ultimately it comes down to being professional, taking a step back and remembering that this is their story, not yours. However, this is also very easy to do if you and the author are upfront and clear with each other from the start.
What do I do on an advance read?
I thought I might give you a short example of my process so you get an understanding of how I do things. Admittedly, not every Reader does things this way, and to be honest, I am really curious about how other people do it. So if anyone else is an Advance Reader I would love to hear about your approach.
So the things I specifically look out for:
Plot Threads and Links
Themes and Patterns
Anything the author has explicitly requested I keep an eye out for.
Spelling, grammar, etc.
So I suppose you can think of it as both a first read through by a fan, and the first pass an academic makes when they analyse literature. It is a pretty broad approach that is very flexible and can be adapted for the vast majority of novels.
Anyway, to give you a short example.
I received the first 50 or so pages of a new book in progress as a Word document. The prologue and introduction, Chapters 1 and 2 essentially. Not a huge amount to go on. I did a read through of each section, making comments in the margin as I read, all the way through until I had finished the first document (Intro and Chapter 1). Then, before reading Chapter 2, I re-read Chapter 1, added a few more comments, and then wrote a summary of my thoughts on the opening. When I say wrote, I mean I wrote some thoughts down, rewrote them, expanded them and then edited it all into a more cohesive and formal piece of writing. So it lacked the immediacy of my reaction comments, but was hopefully a more measured and thoughtful response to what I had just read.
All in all, it was a relatively short commentary of an average of two comments in the margin per page, and about a page and a half of commentary at the bottom of the chapter.
Then I read Chapter 2 and repeated the process. Again, two complete read-throughs, and an average of about 2 margin comments per page. This time there was about 4 ½ pages of commentary at the end of the chapter as I put together comments on the second chapter as it stood, and then discussed its relationship to the first. So, in a grand total of about 50 pages of prose I had just over 100 margin comments about various aspects, and about 6 pages of more detailed discussion and summary.
Once all this was done I saved the documents with a slightly different file name (so that the author won’t get it confused with their copy) and I e-mailed them back with a lengthy e-mail that explained my general reaction to the sections, some general over-view comments, and some discussion of areas that I had highlighted within the text and commented on. That way they get an immediate sense of how I responded, know which areas I thought were important enough to highlight, and could then go through the chapters at their leisure forewarned and forearmed.
The reason I like making margin comments is that they can tag a single word or a passage and so show the author which section, phrase or word I am linking the thought to. Therefore they are great for noting my reactions to things.
The reason I like writing summary commentary at the end is so that I can sum up and organise my thoughts on the chapter and better explain what I am thinking in a more formal and detailed manner. It allows me to be more discursive and frame things as summary and discussion, rather than simply reaction.
Some of the margin comments asked for clarification of names, naming conventions, stylistic choices and that sort of thing, and pointed out the odd typo or possible typo. But the majority of the margin comments were personal reactions to aspects of a scene or section, with an explanation of why I had that reaction. For example ‘Nice. I like the fact that you acknowledge the past. Nice little mentions that don’t dominate the narrative or weigh it down with superfluous detail. Just natural thoughts.’ This was a note about how the author had merged some expository details into a character’s internal musings in a particularly natural way and connected this passage to events that had happened in a previous book. So you can see that the commentary is not particularly full or detailed, but I highlighted something that I liked and gave a reason for why I liked it.
The more detailed summary and discussion notes at the ends of the chapter tend to be written in a much more objective and formal style. I composed these after the reading and they tend to be written and rewritten a little so that they flow as a ‘report’ on the chapter and give an overview of my impressions. They allow for that fuller discussion, greater clarification of potential problem areas or areas that were especially good, and allow me to discuss the chapter as a whole and as part of the greater narrative.
I am never sure how much of any of this an author needs or wants. I can’t really anticipate which comments will be useful, which will be critical, which will be superfluous. I have no idea if an offhand comment will suddenly spark a great idea for them, or if they read though all of what I have said and dismiss it all. At times it feels like I am commenting into a great void, and other times it leads to great conversations and exchanges with the author. At the end of the day, I don’t know what shape the story will have until I read it and all I can do is give them the feedback on what they have shown me thus far and hope it helps them. As long as they find it useful I will keep doing it.