Apart from a few friends whose opinions I have learned to trust, from time to time I ask people who I don’t know very well, to read an unpublished manuscript.
My ideal victim is an intelligent general reader – as opposed to someone connected to publishing in some way. I’m much more interested in the reaction of an average book lover than I am of someone in the business. Indeed, I harbor the strong suspicion that literary agents, editors and publishing executives rarely read any manuscript properly. First of all they don’t have the time; and secondly they are normally perusing a manuscript with an entirely different agenda in mind to the general reader. If you doubt me, go spend time in a publisher’s office, and you will soon see what I mean. Above all, such tyros of the publishing industry are skimmers par excellence, and are far more interested in: “Will it sell?” than the merits of the book, as such. They also tend to build up prejudices based upon their past experiences and to extrapolate from the specific to the general (as is: “Westerns don’t sell;” or “All heroes have to be American). And they are decidedly subject to groupthink. In short, they behave rather as if they were in the movie business; or on Wall Street.
In contrast, the general reader seems to be motivated by a blend of curiosity and the desire to be entertained; and in my experience, can often come up with insights – both large and small - which are invaluable for the author to learn.
So much for general principles, but currently I am tearing my hair out because I cannot find a manuscript I printed out for a delightful lady called Michele; my barber’s wife, as it happens. Quite how I can lose a clearly labeled ring-binder in a comparatively small apartment is a mystery to me, and I have checked everywhere from my shelves to the fridge. Now would I really do something as nutty as store a manuscript in the freezer? Absolutely.
You see, that’s where the downside of finally mastering the art of being able to focus on my writing cuts in. When I’m in the zone, I forget what I have put on the stove, use the cat to polish my shoes with, and put the baby in the washing-machine.
Beware of the focused author.