Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Unpublished Novel and You, Part One

There's a good chance that there's a writer in your life. It may be your spouse, your best friend, or the guy three cubicles down you exchange pleasantries with at the microwave in the break room. In any event, if you know a writer, someday you will likely be confronted with an unpublished manuscript. What to do with it? Simply reading the thing seems too easy, and indeed it is. I'm here to make this process as painless as possible for all involved.

Do you really want to read this?

Then he did what to the gerbil?
Maybe there was an awkward pause in conversation when the person you just met at a party said she's writing the next great coming of age novel, as seen through the eyes of a classroom guinea pig. You are not--I repeat, NOT--obligated to break the silence with, "I'd love to read that!" It's perfectly acceptable to nod politely and wish the writer luck with her endeavor.

If a writer approaches you and asks you to read a manuscript, think carefully before answering.

What genre is the work? If it's something you're not into, you aren't going to do anyone any favors by forcing yourself through it. My husband doesn't read romance. I know this, and I don't try to make him read my novels. Also, don't be afraid to ask about the adult content level of a piece. Some people don't want to read explicit sex or violence. There's nothing wrong with inquiring, and declining if there are scenes that may make you uncomfortable. Once a project passes your initial sniff test, continue on to consider...

Do you have time to read this?

You know how when you pick up a book at the library, you are frequently presented with something that spans several hundred pages? An unpublished novel is a lot like that, only it isn't neatly bound. If you agree to read an unpublished novel, prepare to have hundreds of pages of loose paper dumped into your lap. The thoughtful writer might give you a bulky three-ring binder. Alternatively, your new reading material might show up in your inbox, leaving you to either print the thing off yourself, or read it on an electronic device.

However it's presented, the unpublished novel is, in fact, a novel. Can you read it in a timely fashion? If not, don't say you'll read it. Please. An unpublished writer can usually count her readers on one hand--two, if she's lucky. We know who you are, and we know you haven't read it. It's a tiny little punch to the soul to wait for feedback that isn't coming. Don't do that to the writer in your life.

So, do you have both the time and inclination to read that unpublished novel? Great! In our next lesson, we'll cover the nitty gritty of critiquing: story arcs, character development, and how to nicely tell a writer her novel sucks.

In the meantime, have you ever been asked to read an unpublished novel? Tell us about it in the comments!


  1. I haven't been asked to read unpublished fiction longer than a few pages. Reading (and critiquing) a novel is a lengthy endeavor. And a worthwhile one, I imagine. Thanks for the post!

  2. I've only ever been asked to read unpublished short stories. I concur with the make-sure-you-dig-the-genre sentiment... what I read then was African American women's porn a la Zane. Not really my cup of tea... but it was an interesting experience. I have learned that I can't read fiction or nonfiction without editing (published or not) as I read. Occupation hazard, I guess. I'm enjoying your blog tremendously!

  3. Thanks for the comments, Ariyah and Zanna! I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. :)

  4. I was asked to read an unpublished screenplay, but I think I volunteered myself to read the two full and one partial unpublished novels I've read. Not surprisingly, as these things often work in life, I was far more impressed and had what I consider more useful feedback on the novels than on the screenplay! I think you need to be sufficiently self-critical to write something publish-worthy, and writers who meet that criterion are a lot less likely to thrust their work on others. So my advice is, if you have reason to suspect that the work will be good, the experience is very likely to be mutually beneficial! You'll get to read a fantastic work and probably find a little motivation to write in the process, and the author will get some enthusiastic but thoughtful input. Be prepared to get into the nitty-gritty to work out the kinks with the author, especially where they might need the perspective of someone who doesn't have the full picture of the character and backstory in their mind, such as where motivation for a certain character's actions needs to be fleshed out or a plot timeline seems incomplete.

  5. Great points, Sarah! In fact, you've just about written my next post for me, lol.

    Writers really do *need* readers. Everything makes sense in my head, but is that what I'm actually putting on the page? Having that fresh pair of eyes is truly invaluable.