Chairs and chairmakers

One of the hardest tasks for a writer is to find someone who can read what you have written with a critical-enough eye to help, while not being a complete ass about things. Being a First Reader is a skill set, one that takes time to learn.

It is necessary to be able to read something, and respond to it. (A copy editor and a line editor are technical tasks that take place later in the writing cycle.) When I look for a potential new First Reader, I want someone who can tell me they don’t understand a particular paragraph, without telling me how to fix it. (If a reader tells you a sentence is wrong, they are almost always right. If a writer tells you how to fix that sentence, they are almost always wrong.)

When I do first readings for my wife, I simply say awkward, or I want more here, or frequently, things in your head didn’t make it onto the page. Nothing more. My job is to point out the rough patches, so she can fix it. She does the same for me. The job of a First Reader is thus.

Where it gets messy is in the metaphor we call the Chairmaker. As a First Reader, the job is to comment on the quality of the chair. Is it even? Balanced? Stable? Pretty? The trap that many writers fall into when reading other people’s work is to begin to critique the chairmaker, and not just the chair. I can fix the chair. I can’t really fix the chairmaker. And I’m likely to get personally offended by literary assaults on the chairmaker.

It happens. I used to have a fantastic First Reader, once upon a time. She caught all manner of things, as a result of an English Lit background. As she was mostly a musician, rather than a writer, so she wasn’t planning to compete with me to see who could be a better writer.

And then one day, something bad happened. I never did figure out what. She went from happily marking up a document with two or three comments per page, to two or three comments per paragraph. And I was still writing like I did. And all her complaints were about Voice.

Voice is the style of telling a story, so that you hear in your head in the voice of the character talking. Voice is not just what they see, but how they feel about what they see.

If you have read any of my fiction, you know that I write in what is called Third Person Close (as opposed to First Person, like hard-boiled detective novels; or Third Person Universal, which was a style in the mid-century, where you knew what everyone thought at all times, as a universal narrator.)

She suddenly decided that what she wanted was for me to move everything to third universal, by pulling out all of the Voice, all of the opinions, and simply state things in a dry, journalistic narrative. I showed her marked-up document to other writers, and they whistled. It was red with blood.

She had mentioned to me that her mother was an English teacher, so I suppose she decided that she needed to grade my work like something I had turned in for one of her class assignments.

It was not an assignment I suspect that I would have gotten a passing grade on.

And that was that. I wasn’t interested in the level of personal invective she was throwing at me on paper, regardless of whether her intentions were innocent or malevolent.

She had stopped judging the chair, and started judging the chairmaker.

It was a shame. She had been good. But I never used her as a First Reader again.

And I drew an important lesson from this. Whenever someone asks me to be a First Reader for them (and writers commonly trade that sort of thing), I always make sure I only react to what’s on the page, and never to the person behind it. It is not my story, it is not my world. My job is to help them understand how to make it better, not all the things they are doing wrong. That would be to overstep my bounds.

Ultimately, the reader will judge the final work. If I tell good stories, they will come back for more. That’s a matter of style and voice. The role of the First Reader is to help understand where the story-telling broke down. (The Copy Editor and Line Editor come next, and are something for a later tale.)

And each of us have a job in how we help others get to where they want to be.


And before I forget (again): Tell your friends. I have another goodreads giveaway of Auberon that starts 10/26 and runs for a week, followed by a giveaway of Queen of the Pirates for a week, and finally I will give away several copies of Last of the Immortals that last week when it goes live.  Ping me for more details.

2 thoughts on “Chairs and chairmakers

  1. Barry Melius

    Writing into darkness>trusting the muse has always been very difficult for me. I like to know exactly where I’m going down to the nth detail,Mr. Anal. Those times when I just trust the process and struggle to keep up(editing color in my case)tend to give me either garbage(God bless the Delete button)or my most satisfying stuff. So as far as requests for future scribbles give me more writing into the darkness.

  2. Barry Melius

    re Librarian>your friend was right,trust him. I personally felt it to be your most satisfying work to date. Good burlesque,remember girls are sexier with clothes than without.

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