Once you have finished a manuscript, most writers have an incredible urge for ‘someone to read it’.
First port of call is a friend.
Friends are bad. Friends generally have no critical skills. They are either going to praise it to high heaven in order to please you, or they will be overly critical. They almost certainly won’t pick up on the real issues within a manuscript (for example pacing, dialogue, wordiness, or huge holes in the plot). Unless your friend is a professional editor or writer themselves, and is prepared to put the friendship on the line, you won’t get any decent feedback from friends at all. There is nothing more frightening to an editor at a publishing house to pick up a covering letter to a manuscript to read “all my friends love it!”. I know many people whose friends have all loved their book – none of them have ever had their books published. Unfortunately there is generally a huge chasm between a commissioning editor’s view and a friend’s view.
Second port of call is often the internet – publish a chapter on the web and have everyone comment on it. We’ve all heard the success stories: unknown author puts first chapter of book on web, a surfing editor falls over it, massive publication deal for millions of dollars ensues the next day. Some of these stories are even true. Sometimes it does happen, but … and this ‘but’ is a killer.
Apart from the obvious (strangers on the web are likely to give you even worse feedback than your friends), there are massive drawbacks. Putting up a book on the internet, or part thereof, is literally publishing the book. It is very likely that no publisher will ever consent to publish in hard print a book which has been circulating on the internet (and once it is on one page, trust me, it is circulating). Many of my publishing contracts now state that no portion of the book has ever, or will ever, be put on the web prior to, or within a year of, hard print publication.
If you have ever put a manuscript, or part thereof, on the web then you must, here and now, consider it lost. It has already been published, it has been circulated, and it is likely no one else will touch it. Hard print publishers do not want used stuff – they want fresh, new and completely unseen by anyone manuscripts.
But still you are consumed by the need to ‘have someone read it’. The third thing people do is try to send it to an author to read. Blind. Without even asking them (and in the hope that they’ll adore it so much they’ll beg their publisher to pick you up). Sometimes this can work, but there are also issues here, as well.
First, when I was an unpublished author, I would never in a million years have done that – I would have considered it incredibly rude (which gives you an idea how I feel about manuscripts landing in my post office box). Sending a manuscript, or part thereof, off blind to anyone is rude, and invariably will be seen that way. Write first, and ask. Read the person’s web page to see if they accept manuscripts. I don’t, as the vast majority of authors don’t, and I clearly state that on my contact page, but you’d be stunned to know how many people still send stuff anyway (and it goes straight in the bin – those are letters I won’t even acknowledge).
Now, before you think authors are incredibly mean, I need to explain why authors generally won’t read someone else’s work when it arrives unannounced in their mail box.
First, they are hugely busy – when five thousand people a year send in manuscripts, without asking, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that those manuscripts are not going to be read. We largely don’t have time enough to work on our own books the way we want, without having to deal with everyone else’s as well.
Secondly, and far more importantly, it is worth more than the hides on our backs to read other people’s work. Authors absorb ideas, and while we may not consciously plagiarise, five years after reading someone’s manuscript we may unwittingly incorporate their ideas into our own work – and then, hey presto, we’re in court. So most authors simply will not read other people’s work, and very particularly manuscripts that are sent in blind, because they shriek of unprofessionalism, and, in this instance, that’s highly dangerous. We don’t want to be sued, so we don’t read unsolicited manuscripts.
So who can you send your work to?
There are professional readers and editors who will critique a book for you (and I do mean critique, you will not receive a short paragraph of praise, but an indepth critique of how the work can be improved). Wherever you are in the world, you do need to be careful of sharks. For your money (and it will cost), you should get that indepth critique, and you need to work out beforehand with the provider what your money buys. Check with local writing societies, they will be able to give you an idea of who is working in your country or state and who is legitimate or not. Never trust anyone who claims they can get you published. If you pay for someone to critique your work you deserve a detailed report on it (although you don’t necessarily deserve a favourable report).
There may be local writing societies who are happy to read, but make sure they can provide professional critique, and not just hobbyist advice.
Is there a local college or university which offers creative writing courses? Taking a course may be very good for you – you can not only get someone professional to read your work, but you might learn something new as well.
You can send it off blind to a publishing house – you just never know your luck, but I advise very seriously against this. Ring or write first, ask someone to read it, and, if they do, consider their advice. You won’t get as much as advice as from a professional editor/reader, but it may help.
Authors also will work with unpublished writers via mentorship programmes. These vary from country to country, but I have on numerous occasions worked one on one with a young writer via mentorship programmes run by the Australian Society of Authors or other state bodies. They are professionally run, it is fun work, and applicants are interviewed and screened before hand.
Me? I never got anyone to read my work. I wrote and wrote and discarded and discarded and when finally I thought I had something worthwhile, I wrote to an agent, and asked if she’d like to read it (I didn’t send it off blind). She consented, and the rest is history.