My writing partner just made the HUGE step of sending out copies of her first draft to a small number of first draft readers. Well done, SusanH.
“So what exactly is a first draft?” you may ask. “And why do I need first draft readers?”
If you follow the Rusty Rhoad school of writing, the first draft is where you get the story down. The characters should be virtually complete, the plot lines tight, and story compelling. Oh, there will still be a lot of work to do. Things inevitably change as you write, and you’ll have to fix all of those. You never want to go back and rework the beginning of a book while you’re working on the first draft–that’s negative progress. So you’ll have all that to be cleaned up. Plus the language still needs to be polished. As you rewrite, you’ll find better ways to say a lot of things. Probably 25% of your words will change, maybe even half. But the story will be mostly done.
So why would anybody want readers at that stage of the process? Shouldn’t you wait until it’s as good as it can get?
Beginning writers in particular need a lot of feedback. Ideally, a little bit of that should be critical. Someone who can (and will, so probably not your mother) tell you if your story is dragging, if it’s not believable, if they hate everybody in the book and just want them to all die. But more than that, beginning writers need support. Their number one problem is typically a lack of confidence; hence, their number one need is someone to tell them that they’re doing good. Someone to help inspire them to keep going when it gets rough. Plus someone the writer feels responsible to. Someone who will ask what’s going on if they haven’t seen a new chapter in a week.
As you mature as a writer, your needs change. I no longer need the confidence injection–at least, most of the time (occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night wondering if I can still write. But usually that’s because I ate too much chili and beer too late the night before). Now I mostly need high level feedback: how much (or how little) they’re enjoying the story and where the weak points are.
But I still have my first draft readers, and I treasure their opinions.
So, if you’re asked to be a first draft reader, what should you do?
- Be supportive.
- Be honest.
- Don’t let your writer get away with slovenly work habits.
Think that just about sums it up.