How to Pick Up a First Reader

Speed_Dating_Heart_HeadIt’s a lot like dating, really. You meet another writer at a conference or at a book festival or writer’s workshop, and while you make small talk and try to ask subtle questions like “So what are you reading right now?” in the back of your mind you’re really wondering Is this it? Is this THE one?

And eventually, maybe after sitting next to each other 3 days in a row during the keynote luncheon at that conference, or running into one another enough times at similar local book readings, you casually suggest you exchange the first few pages of your WIP.

It’s a small step. Non-commital, a first date.

You get her email, the first chapter of her book. You send her yours. When you open the document you say a little prayer: Please let her writing not suck within the first few sentences. Please let the writing be crisp and engaging, and let the dialogue tags all be said and not shouted, exclaimed, or surmised. Let her be a better writer than me so I can learn from her, but not so much better that I have nothing to offer. Let our strengths and weaknesses complement each other. 

And then, miracle of miracles, you enjoy her work! And what’s even better, you have real, valuable feedback to give about how she can make it better. You mark up the manuscript on the margins and leave comments about plot and character development. Meanwhile, you wonder what kind of feedback she’ll have for you in return.

A part of you wants her email to be nothing but praise. Someone who’ll worship you would be nice. But the smarter part of you knows that healthy relationships are about balance: not blind love, but respect, admiration and honesty. You want to grow, after all. You need someone who’ll push you to be better, together.

When you finally hear back it’s clear she put a lot of thought into your work. But is it clear that she understands your vision? That she respects your intentions? She wants your book to have more action, maybe a vampire or a werewolf thrown in could spice things up. And she loves the feedback you sent. “Are you up for more pages?” she asks. Another round. Another date.

You think about giving her the it’s not you, it’s me line. You think better of it. “I think we want different things,” you say. Yes, you go with that one.

You attend more conferences, more workshops, more open mics. You rinse, you repeat. You turn down several first dates based on instinct and first impressions alone. One writer has a needy energy about him. The other, it’s clear he doesn’t take criticism well based on how highly he speaks of his work.

But you keep looking, and hoping, and writing. Because one day, your first reader will come. And you want to be ready for them with pages you’ll be proud to show. And you’ll know they’re the right person because they won’t be afraid to commit to you, or to commit to their writing. You’ll have similar publication goals and you might not have similar taste in all books, but you’ll have enough in common to respect each other and have some fun along the way.

And you’ll know they’re the one because you’ll be a better writer because of them.

Author: Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at

9 Replies to “How to Pick Up a First Reader”

    1. True! Definitely, getting an agent is. And having an editor fall in love with your book, or a reader, for that matter. Not as romantic, though…

  1. I love it! My alpha reader and my beta readers do not write fiction, so they read my books only as a reader would, which is incredibly helpful! I picked people who all like to read, especially mysteries and/or history. With the first book though, I gave them specific instructions about the mood they needed to be in when they read my book. Blanket, tea or coffee, cat were all required. My husband (alpha reader) just shook his head at me and sat down with my ms like he was grading a paper. So-o-o scary, but it totally worked 🙂

    1. You make a great point about having readers read your book as some point. I like having writers read it in early stages, and save it for “readers” when it’s nearly done.

  2. I guess I won’t ask you to read my action-packed werewolf novel. 🙂

    (Actually, I don’t have an action-packed werewolf novel, but your point about intentions is very important. However, it can work in some cases — I’ve exchanged very helpful beta feedback with a writer who is very much on the “literary” side — and I’m very much on the “genre” side. She really liked my vampire mystery. 🙂 )

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