Dean now has in his hot little hands (i.e. ipad) the latest draft of Midnight in Austenland. This will be his first reading of the book. Dean and I have been married for 10 years, friends/dating for 11 years before that. There's been lots of time for me to, oh-so-gently, train him in the art of reading my stuff. Make no mistake--it is an art, and it requires training. I know some writers who expect their spouses to just know how to respond. They don't! They're clueless! Call the Spouse Whisperer and train them before someone gets bit. You as the writer must communicate to your friend/spouse what you're expecting, what kind of things you want to hear, when you expect a response. And acknowledge that you're asking a favor, not granting a privilege.
Friends of writers, here are my tips for you on how to respond to a loved one's story.
1. Read it right away. A manuscript sitting untouched on your side table for a month tells your loved one you don't care. If you can't read it right away, communicate that. Let her know when you'll be able to start and when you expect to finish. (The Husband made this grave error too often early on and his reading privileges were revoked for a few years.)
2. Being observed by the writer while reading can be an uncomfortable experience. Still, if it's a novel, you can expect the writer to check in with you occasionally. "So, have you started? What do you think so far?" ALWAYS say something positive. Save any critical feedback for later, after you've read it all and sorted your thoughts. Otherwise, it'll seem you're just so anxious to point out faults you can't wait. This is not only discouraging to the writer, but unhelpful.
3. After you've finished, sit down with your loved one and immediately and profusely PRAISE THE STORY. I know you want to get to what needs to change, but if you can't see something worthwhile in it, the writer won't be as responsive to the feedback. Hearing what worked is as important to the writer as what didn't. Be specific, and sincere, in your praise. Think of ten separate things you liked and thought worked well.
"The opening was gripping."
"I was really interested in Character X."
"All the dialog between X and Y was so realistic."
"This is, without a doubt, the most amazing book I've read since The Goose Girl, or really anything by Shannon Hale, because she's such a genius. And so are you."
"I really liked it, except for the middle part and the ending." Never qualify your praise!
"It wasn't very hard to read." Lame.
"You're pretty good at punctuation." Double lame. A writer doesn't care about punctuation proficiency at this point. A writer wants to grip you with the story and and characters!
"You're even better than that hack Shannon Hale." (unless it's true...)
4. After specifically and sincerely praising at least ten things, offer some constructive feedback. Limit yourself to THREE things. Three specific things. Try to be as clear and concise as possible. No need to hammer it in. If you are not a professional editor, it's best not to take the Voice of Authority here. Offer the suggestions in terms of what questions and confusions you had as a reader.
"I didn't understand why X had to steal the magic dagger when she already had the magic sword."
"I loved Y! I wouldn't mind seeing more of him, especially in the second half."
"X seemed to lie a lot, and that made me suspicious of her and made it hard for me to like her."
"The part where they all turned into goatlings was confusing to me. I kept expecting them to get milked, because of the whole cheese theme, but when they didn't I realized I must have missed something."
"It didn't make sense. You should redo it all."
"This part was really boring. Cut all of it."
Notice the good examples employ the word "I." You're couching all your feedback in terms of how it affect YOU, not trying to make huge blanket statements about the book's universal crappiness.
5. Now some of you will question the THREE THINGS rule. I think it's a very good one, but can be broken if the writer desires it. Dean and I are way past this rule at this point. But unless you've earned an all-access pass to criticism, don't offer any more information or feedback unless asked (pressed!) to do so. She might not be able to absorb any more than those three things, and the more "feedback" you offer, the more criticism she'll hear. Unrequested advice will always sound like criticism.
Remember, you not only want to be helpful to the writer but preserve your relationship. Spouses may find themselves couch-sleeping after being TOO helpful with the feedback. Let workshop companions and editors be the bad guy. You're the loved one. You should be very cautious, my friend. Writers are sensitive little creatures, full of yearning and hope and (at the moment) pasta and bean salad.
So, honey, I gave you that manuscript on Thursday. And it's Saturday. So...how's it going?