A little help from your friends – Maile Meloy

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By Maile Meloy

Someone asked me recently about showing writing to people. He’d heard an author say she never shows a book to anyone before sending it to her agent. He’d written a draft of a novel, so he guessed he needed an agent.♥

This idea made me a little insane. Let’s assume that the author he heard speaking has a very hands-on agent with a lot of time to give notes. Let’s also assume that the author’s remarks were taken out of context, and weren’t meant as advice for a first-time novelist. It’s still unthinkable to me. My eighth book is coming out in July, and I would never send a manuscript to my agent without asking friends to give me notes first.

Agents and editors are busy people, and if it’s your first book, you get one chance with them. Why would you send them an untested draft? It’s scary to show your writing to friends whose opinion you value, often scarier than showing the book to an important stranger, but it’s reckless not to. You need fresh eyes — someone to tell you if your fictional world makes sense, if the characters feel like real people, if the reader understands what you intend.

Here’s the order in which people read the manuscript of Do Not Become Alarmed and gave me notes that changed the book:

My husband
A novelist friend whose drafts I read
A friend whose child has diabetes, as one of the children in the novel does
My husband’s assistant
Another novelist friend whose drafts I read
My husband (again)
Me, aloud to myself
My US agent and editor
My US editor’s two assistants
Another novelist friend
The publicity and marketing teams at my US publishers
The editor of my middle-grade novels and her assistant
My friend who’s a writer and bookseller
My friend who’s a writer and illustrator
My friend who’s a writer and dance teacher
My friend whose child has diabetes (again)
My US editor (again)
My UK agent and editor
The copyeditor and proofreader
Me (again)

So here’s my advice: Ask your smart and willing friends to read your book. Treat them as the precious resource they are. Offer something in return: a reciprocal read, a series of meals, a nice gift, possibly cold hard cash. And if their notes seem all wrong, say thank you and wait a day or two. In my experience, the notes almost always turn out to be exactly right, and it would have been a worse book without them.

Maile Meloy is the author of the novels Liars and Saints (which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and chosen for the Richard and Judy book club) and A Family Daughter; the short-story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It; and the award-winning Apothecary trilogy for young readers. She has received the PEN/Malamud Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Her latest novel, Do Not Become Alarmed, is out now.


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