Dani Shapiro
May 1, 2009

On First Readers

I’m in the final pages of my new book–I can feel it. As I’m finishing this draft, I’m struck by a familiar feeling–one I had forgotten. I keep thinking that I’m fooling myself. That I’m faking myself out. That I can’t possibly really be finishing. And now I’m remembering that this is how I always feel after a couple of years of suspending my disbelief that the pile of pages sitting to the left of my laptop will ever amount to anything. That one flimsy, delicate page at a time will actually add up to a coherent narrative. I’m pretty sure that at some point next week, or possibly the week after, I will write the last sentences, the final words–or at least the final words for the moment. I will write the dedication page, which is something I never do until I finish. And the epigraph. (I’ll probably save the acknowledgments for later.) And then I’ll send it off to my first readers.

People often ask me how to choose their first readers. It’s a tricky thing to do–to decide in whose hands to place your brand new baby. How do you decide who to trust? Who will understand the responsibility? Who will take it seriously as the sacred job it really is? I have found, over the years, that different books require different readers. For this one, I intend to ask a couple of writer friends who I can trust to be clear, gentle and straight with me–and who have no agendas other than helping me to make this the best book it can be. In this particular case, I will also ask a few friends who are experts in certain areas I’m covering–so that I can make sure I’m getting facts right. And I will give it to my editor of course.

Maybe a better way to think of it is: who DON’T you want to be a first reader. I have a simpler answer: anyone who won’t tell you the truth, for any reason. I assume, when a writer friend or a student gives me a manuscript–implicit in this is the knowledge that I will spend many hours reading it–it’s because they want my help. Not just a pat on the back. Not just a pronouncement of their brilliance. Once I lost a friendship over this. I read a friend’s 700 page novel and went to dinner ready to talk it through (it had problems). The writer, who is brilliant and someone I respect a lot, made it clear before we even looked at the menu that he had really just been looking for praise. Praise! I could have done that without reading 700 pages. So when I give my manuscript to my first readers, it is with an understanding that we’re colleagues and take each other–and each other’s work–seriously. Gentleness, yes. Compassion, clarity. But also–most importantly–the truth about our response to what’s on the page. Otherwise, really, what’s the point?