Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

First Readers

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Glasses and Pen

There’s a scene in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in which he and his wife, novelist Tabitha King, are on a road trip. King is driving and his wife is reading the manuscript for his novella Hearts in Atlantis. Not only is she reading it for the first time, but she is, King suggests, one of the first readers of this and everything that King writes. But as they’re driving along, he’s hearing no reaction from her — no comments, no gasps, no laughter — and he keeps taking his eyes off the road to sneak peaks at her, to gauge her reaction. Finally, Tabitha says, “Pay attention to your driving before you crack us up, will you? Stop being so goddamned needy!”

As a writer revealing a piece of your work for the first time, you are needy. Probably, you have taken the work as far as you know how to take it on your own. You have a sense of what it’s doing, but you can’t be sure. Or maybe you are so close to it that you have no idea whether it’s working at all. You need someone else to tell you. But who?

Some situations come with built-in early readers, like agents and editors. But lots of writers don’t have agents and editors waiting on their work, and many of us — ridiculous perfectionists, anxiety-ridden hyper-rewriters like me — need an intermediary step. 

Say what you will about the creative writing workshop, it guarantees a posse of readers for your work. I was very lucky in my workshops at UBC’s Creative Writing program to encounter thoughtful readers and careful critics. And then there was my teacher and thesis adviser, Zsuzsi Gartner. When Zsuzsi turned her attention to your work, you felt as if she’d opened it up with a scalpel and climbed inside for a while, to spend a little time evaluating the organs. 

But then I graduated. I had an agent, five stories, and the rest of a collection to write. Through my work with Zsuzsi, I had learned to hear my own voice, to know — most of the time — when things were working or not working. I wasn’t looking for large amounts of feedback from a panel of readers. I wanted to preserve the connection to my own critic/intention, but still have a focused sounding board.

So I narrowed the field of potential early readers to two: my husband, writer Lawrence Hill, and my friend Krista Foss, who was at work on her first novel. Over the course of the next year, Krista and Larry read and commented on my work, one story at a time. I didn’t always like what they told me, and the two of them often disagreed with each other’s comments, and both of these things strengthened my work immeasurably. They were generous and perfect readers for me; they learned what it was I was trying to do — not just in one particular story, but in my writing overall — and made it their job to help me achieve it. 

I’ve thought a lot about who makes a good first reader for me, so I am always curious about how other people approach being read for the first time. Krista Foss — whose novel Smoke River has now been sold to McClelland & Stewart — thinks that giving your early reader an idea of the type of feedback you need is helpful. “Ask for directional feedback, i.e.: I've been heading north with this piece, should I veer northwest or stay on course?”

Ania Szado, whose second novel, Studio Saint-Ex, will be published by Penguin Canada in April, says, “Not every bit of feedback is going to feel bang on. Even the perfect reader can deliver feedback that leaves you feeling confounded or gutted. But overall, the questions and comments should resonate and seem wise and considered. If you find yourself striking your forehead and saying, "Of course! Why didn't I see that?" you'll know you have entrusted your work to a solid reader. The ideal reader helps you get out of the way of the book's potential for greater success.”

Different writers have different requirements of their early readers. Just ask singer-songwriter Holly Hogan. Holly is married to novelist and poet Michael Crummey (whose books include Commonwealth Regional Prize-winner Galore and the forthcoming poetry collection, Under the Keel) and is a childhood friend of writer Lisa Moore, whose novel February just won Canada Reads. For years Holly has been reading and commenting on both Michael and Lisa’s work. Michael is the sort of writer who keeps his manuscript to himself for a long time. When he is ready to show it, he begins with just two readers: his editor and Holly. Lisa, who came up in the tradition of Newfoundland’s influential writers’ group Burning Rock, shows her work to many readers and often gives Holly fragments of a larger piece even as she is still constructing the story. I tease Holly that someone should write a thesis on her influence on contemporary Newfoundland literature. For her part, she says she mostly just enjoys being close to the creative process of people that she loves. But she’s also seen some unexpected effects of being a first reader on her own creativity. 

“Years ago, I tried writing songs, and they were terribly bad, but I couldn’t tell you why and I didn’t know how to fix them. I figured I just wasn’t a writer. But after reading Lisa and Michael’s work critically, I started to write again. Now I understand more about what’s not working and why in my own work.” And she has two experienced first readers to ask. Both Lisa and Michael have provided feedback on her lyrics. “Until I get Michael’s approval, it’s not really a song to me,” Hogan says.

Reading other people’s work — really good work, but still in progress — has been one of the best things for my own writing, too. It’s taught me better structure, and storytelling, and made me articulate why something should change, and how. But most of all, it has made me more gentle with myself and more hopeful about my own development. It has showed me that even the best work did not start out shiny and glorious, and that all drafts can be improved. And it’s made me realize the joy of getting it right, for just the right people. For Stephen King, all that waiting and wondering on the road trip paid off when, finally, he heard his wife laugh. For me, as I struggled on and on with a story I worried wasn’t finished, it was hearing my husband tell me, “There’s not one thing wrong with that story. It’s beautiful the way it is.” 

But perhaps more valuable still is the gift of a first reader’s enthusiasm and encouragement, even when there’s much more work to be done. Says Krista Foss, “Once my sister handed me back an early version of a manuscript virtually unmarked, and pretty much all she said to me were three little words: ‘make it bigger.’ Later, of course, I went looking for much more detailed feedback, but that was a case of the right feedback, in the right amount, at the right time.” 

What more could a needy writer ask?

Miranda Hill’s stories have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Reader’s Digest, The New Quarterly and The Dalhousie Review, and in 2011 she won The Writers’ Trust / McClelland and Stewart Journey Prize for her short story, “Petitions to Saint Chronic.” This story and eight others were published in her debut collection, Sleeping Funny (Doubleday Canada, 2012).

Hill is also the founder and executive director of the Canadian literary charity Project Bookmark Canada. She lives, writes and works in Hamilton, Ontario.

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