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The Buddy System

Choose your first reader wisely if you want to advance your writing career (and still keep your friends).

I think it's important not to hate your friends, which is why I don't usually let them read unedited first drafts of my work. Well, at least not anymore.

Early in my career, I made the mistake of letting Ramsey read a new story before it went to press. I never wanted him to, but he is one of my best friends. Because he asked, I gave him a draft of a piece I was working on for a grad-school magazine about the mental anguish I suffered reading Ethan Frome.

Like everything else I wrote at the time, I thought the piece was clever, hilarious and award-worthy. Fifteen minutes later, it became apparent that Ramsey didn't agree.

"Was that supposed to be funny?" he asked, crushing my fragile psyche. "I thought grad school was supposed to make you better at writing." Then he changed the subject. "Anyway, you feel like slamming some beers?" Four hours, five revisions and several loud epithets later, I decided to stick with the original piece I'd written. From that point on I resolved to be pickier about my first readers.

The importance of having someone to read and edit your stuff before you turn it in to a publisher, editor or agent cannot be over-emphasized. I've heard of writers who write only one draft and for whom editing would only ruin their shot at the National Book Award. But much like Bigfoot, these writers either don't exist or live in a cold, remote part of Canada.

No matter how well I think I can edit my own stuff, fresh eyes always find more errors, give me better feedback and make my work tighter. But you can't let just anybody read your first draft. You need the right person for the task. Now, I don't necessarily know who that person is, but I have a pretty good idea of who it shouldn't be:

1. Someone who doesn't like you, or worse, passionately hates you. In college, I took an English course that involved several peer revisions. The class itself was great. The only problem was that the girl assigned to read my writing wanted me dead. And she took her feelings out on my work. No matter how hard I tried, my paper would come back with so many red marks, it looked like it had the chicken pox. I started skipping class just to avoid dealing with her. If she hadn't transferred schools, I'd probably still be a freshman.

Bad personal relationships almost never produce positive literary results. So if you find that a guy in your writing group keeps keying your car and burning swear words on your lawn, he probably shouldn't be a first choice.

2. Someone you're dating or married to. People seem to love their significant others. They may even share beds with them. And unless you and your partner are literary equals, sadomasochists or both, that person should probably stay on the sidelines when it comes to editing. There are a number of possible reasons for this.

• They love you, so they think all of your work is good.

• They love you, so they don't want to tell you that most of your work is terrible.

• They don't love you, and are using your work as a springboard for making that clear, which really isn't fair considering they hardly ever cook, help with the garden or drop Joshua off at ballet.

3. Someone who charges you money. Up until a few months ago, when I physically showed him a paycheck, my father still called writing my "hobby." So to spend even more money getting advice from someone who's charging a fee seems ridiculous. Of course, there are notable exceptions. Writing organizations (like Grub Street in Boston) often have authors and editors on staff who, for a reasonable fee, will edit your work and offer qualified opinions. But for the most part, you should be able to find someone to read your work for free.

Thankfully, after a particularly awkward test period and several lost friendships, I finally found qualified readers who don't try to guilt me into using them as characters in my stories. The first is my former high school English teacher, Ellen. After I graduated from high school, I kept in touch with her because I had some instinct that I'd need her editing prowess and merciless word-cutting talents again.

My other first reader is my friend Frank. Frank is annoyingly smart, surprisingly well read, disgustingly picky and couldn't care less if he hurts my feelings. When I complain that he's not appreciating my literary talent and subtle wit, he always responds with "Well, then don't send me something that sucks." Frank's my quality gauge. I figure if he likes it, then it has to work.

And anyway, if my book doesn't sell, I can always sue my first readers for girding my voice and holding me down. And that, my friends, is what I like to call a win-win.

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