helenhemphill (helenhemphill) wrote in thru_the_booth,

The Reader of Perfect Sympathy

Nathaniel Hawthorn first wrote about the Reader of Perfect Sympathy--the reader who understands the writer’s work and intent as fully as if he or she were part of the creative process itself. The reader who is “a kind and apprehensive” friend, who reads a manuscript to tell us how much they love it, yet also giving us the clear eyes of perspective and analytical thinking. Ah, that we all had that Reader of Perfect Sympathy (within our writers' group or not)!

Recently, I asked National Book Award wInning author Kimberly Willis Holt to address this notion when she mentioned her daughter had been her “first reader” for many years.

Here’s Kimberly’s thoughtful and candid response:

My daughter is the only person that I allow to hear my first drafts. The reason I say, “hear” is that she listens to me read. My handwriting isn’t legible to anyone but me and, at that point, I’m only looking for approval. I need that nod that says, yes, I think you’re on to something good. Shannon understands the rough state of a first draft and doesn’t try to correct something that she knows I’ll catch in later rounds.

She has been my first reader since she was six years old. Now she writes and I’ve become her first reader. Years ago I noticed her sitting on the backyard swing, reading my first book, My Louisiana Sky. Later I asked her, “Aren’t you sick of that story?” She’d heard so many drafts before it was published. She answered, “Momma, I’ve never read it like a real book before.” Poor child! Forced to read her mother’s manuscripts!

With the exception of Shannon, I try not to show anyone else less than my seventh draft. Up to that point, I can usually find things on my own. And if I do happen to show my story at an earlier stage, my readers tend to suggest changes I would have found. I’m not saying that I haven’t been guilty of releasing it too soon. But I try to stick to that rule.

Although I participated in various critique groups before publication, my readers now tend to be a small group of people made up of my retreat pals, my mom, and a close friend. Once a year, some friends and I attend a writing retreat at Kathi Appelt’s family ranch house in the Texas Hill Country. Aside from the two of us, we are joined by Jeanette Ingold, Lola Schafer, and Rebecca Kai Dotlich. The group is a wonderful mix of talent and strengths. My writing has grown because of their input.

We usually arrive with a project that is a priority. Sometime during the week we meet and give each other input on that piece. Other projects are set “on the table” in hopes that some of us will have a chance to read it. Sometimes after reading a manuscript, we’ll seek each other out and meet one-on-one to give our input. Occasionally we don’t agree with each other, but I believe every bit of advice is considered. (If not at the ranch, maybe weeks or months later.)

Before sending a manuscript to my editor, I usually contact this same group to see if any of them are available to read the story, this time, in its entirety. We rarely read a complete novel at the retreat . We are honest with each other. Sometimes it’s just not the right time for us to devote to reading someone else’s work. But usually two are available. Chapters are emailed and so is the valued feedback.

Another person who offers me support by reading is my mom. She is like many moms in that she rarely critiques my work, but applauds the parts she likes the most. I will usually send her a few chapters at a time. Sometimes just knowing that she’s waiting to see what happens next helps me to get back to my desk each day. That is worth a lot.

Occasionally I ask a close friend of mine to read my manuscript. She is not published, but is a fine writer. Since she loves historical fiction, her opinion matters deeply to me. Sometimes I fear she is too kind in her feedback, but a writer needs that sort of early approval, too.

When I’m rewriting, the critique voice I hear the most is my editor’s. I’ve worked with Christy Ottaviano for twelve years now. I have learned so much from her. She is a master at her craft. She challenges me and keeps me going back to the page. Early on, she told me, “Kimberly, rewriting can be truly beautiful.” Not surprisingly, that has become my favorite part of the process.

I’m a better writer because of the people who’ve offered me advice along the way. Their encouragement and critique may be invisible to my readers, but I know their influence. And I’m forever grateful.

A Reader of Perfect Sympathy can bring a writer encouragement and feedback. The next time your writers' group convenes, talk about this perfect reader within your group. Is there someone who can play that role for you?

Tomorrow, a roundup from several writers' blogs: What makes a great writers' group?

Anon. Helen Hemphill

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