First Readers Make Life Better, True Story

First readers are gods. Maybe the other Debs will have tips for finding good first readers or about how to take their feedback, but I’m not going to be instructive at all today. I’m going to tell you a story about a first reader for THE BLACK HOUR.

I don’t like to show pages to anyone too early because a lot of good stuff happens for my projects during the revision process. Why waste an enthusiastic reader on pages that are still far too rough?

This is not Yvonne.

But when I met my MFA program friend Yvonne out for a cafe writing date one day, I suddenly realized an opportunity. I was polishing The Black Hour from chapter one in the hopes of submitting it to agents after a last run-through.

Yvonne agreed to read the first chapter. And then asked for the second.

We were both hooked: her, to the book. Me, to having a READER.

She read the entire book that way as I polished, sending !!!!! emails along the way. It was very addicting. Here’s what they tended to look like:


You should all have a reader who sends you excited nonsense emails and Tweets.

Somewhere near the middle, though, she grew contemplative in her feedback emails. At a scene in which the two protagonists were coming to a critical moment in their friendship, Yvonne emailed me and said, “I don’t know why they’re so mad at each other.”

Well, that was because I was a chicken. I’d absolutely chickened out of taking this critical moment to its full potential, and I’d skipped over a scene that I didn’t want to write. Even though Yvonne didn’t know what was missing, she felt the absence.

And that’s how my first reader saved my book.

I went back and added the scene I’d skipped, and went through the second half of the book again, making sure it reflected what had happened. The book is much better for it. The book is THE BOOK for it, actually. I’m not sure it would have been published otherwise.

I guess I’m going to be instructive, after all, because there’s a lesson I learned during this experience. First, have a good first reader or two. They don’t have to have MFAs in creative writing. They just need to like to read and have read enough to know when something in your project isn’t meeting their readerly expectations.

Second, go there. Don’t hold back the story or the characters from going to dark places, to uncomfortable places. And don’t save it up, either. Use it on this project. You’ll find more for later ones.

I’m hoping I won’t have too hard a time finding a first reader for my next project. I’m hoping specifically that Yvonne will do it. I think she will. After all, I already named a character in it after her. After what she did for The Black Hour, I made sure it was a kick-ass character with series potential.

Did a friend ever save your butt, writing-wise?

Author: Lori Rader-Day

Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

14 Replies to “First Readers Make Life Better, True Story”

  1. I love that you named a character after her. What a great way to thank her. I should start using that for Christmas gifts: instead of cash, a card saying, “I promise to one day name a character after you and make them lovely and interesting and badass and I probably maybe won’t have them die.”

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