First Readers

A First Reader is a person you go to first—before you send the story off to an editor, before you even know what it is you have on your hands.  This is a person you trust almost as much as yourself.  In a pinch, you might even trust him or her more than yourself.

A First Reader inhabits the inner circle of your creative space; he or she is separate enough from you to have a fresh perspective and honest enough to actually give it.  He or she knows your ticks, tricks, and hang-ups.  You have a history together—a history that is not all cheese puffs and roses—and you are still speaking to each other despite or even because of that history.

I have two First Readers—my wife who is a professor of religious studies at Wofford College and John Jeter who is a novelist, memoirist, and co-owner of a music venue in Greenville, SC.  Both of my First Readers have an uncanny ability to look at a tangled ball of prose and see the threads of meaning, to stare chaos in the eye and she what that chaos aspires to be some day.  Both are damn good editors, great writers, and even better friends.

John and I met a few years ago when I interviewed him about his then newly published novel, The Plunder Room.  Instead of a straight ahead interview, John and I sat at The Handlebar and talked about writing and writers, music and the music business, and indulged in our mutual fondness for moderately inappropriate humor.  I left with four and a half hours of tape for an 800-word column and a new friend.

The other morning, John and I found ourselves at our respective computers at the same time.  John was still buzzing from having just turned in the “final final draft” of his memoir Rockin’ a Hard Place and I was struggling with writing about First Readers.  So, I did what I do in a pinch—what journalists do when they have a topic and a deadline—I asked someone else some questions about the topic.

This is the first time John and I have talked about reading each others work.  It’s usually just something we do—something that starts with “Help!” in the subject line or “Hey, you got a minute to read something?”  But there’s more to it than that.

Why read someone else’s work?

John Jeter:  Because he asked. No, really. Like Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In The World, I don’t often read what someone else asks me to read, but when I do, it’s usually because I either like the person who asks me (and I really like to help those folks I happen to like a lot) or I find that his subject or piece is compelling—preferably both. Generally, I find that the person who asks genuinely wants what I may have to say and seeks a perspective that he perhaps hadn’t considered during or after his writing.

What is your editorial approach when reading a friend’s writing?

John Jeter:  The first thing I do is try my hardest to keep from ripping the entire thing apart without first reading it all the way through, and then I try to keep from rewriting it the way I would have written it because, of course, I would have written it much better, though the story wasn’t mine to begin with and I may, in fact, have limited knowledge about the subject matter, even though the writer who asked me to read his piece suspected that perhaps I did.

In any event, I actually do read the piece all the way through first and try to take mental notes on the places where I stop or the places where I flinch or the places that I would just cut out all together. I also keep a sharp eye for the “babies,” those flashy bits (or stretches) of precious prose that scream out: “Look at what a brilliant writer I am!”

As soon as I’ve made those notes mentally, I then go back and try to give a lot of thought to the writer’s original intention and voice, and then try to guide him back to those things. In other words: The distance between the head (and/or heart) and the fingers is often as far apart as the Sun is from Pluto, which isn’t even a planet anymore. My job, then, is to figure out a way to close the gap. As an outside observer invited in, I can often see what the writer’s brain is doing and what his fingers did, and, again, with a more-objective perspective, I can determine where the artistic spaceship went adrift and try to act as Ground Control to get the damn thing pointed in the direction the pilot originally wanted to fly.

That said, once I read the piece, get a feel for voice and intent, and decide once and for all what the writer’s real message, theme and structure are, I work to show that a little nudge here, a little push there, a little extra boost here and there might make a difference in the power and quality of the project.

Is it easier or harder to read something written by someone you know?

John Jeter:  I prefer to read something by someone I know. I also prefer to read something by someone who knows me and knows me really well. If I wind up being too heavy-handed with a piece and have this sense that the entire thing should be rewritten top to bottom, I prefer to be working with someone I can say that to honestly. And if I do actually want to entirely rejigger the piece, but my friend would rather keep it the way it is—despite how bad I think it might be—I would rather that he has the freedom to tell me he appreciates my edits, etc., but doesn’t happen to agree with any of them. Honest friendship makes for honest editing. At least, that’s how I feel about it.

Would you rather get edits from a friend or an editor you don’t know?

John Jeter:  I tend to think of editors as friends, so I’m not sure that an editor who buys or wants to work on a project of mine isn’t already a friend, if that makes any sense.

Here’s where that comes from: I came up in newspapers. Writing one or two or even three stories a day on deadline required some fast thinking and quick writing, and then just turning all those words over to a city editor, who then turned them all over to a copy editor. These were all colleagues, people I respected, trusted and appreciated. Most of them were terribly smart, often a lot smarter and, usually, more accomplished, talented or experienced than I was. I worked to make them friends, too, as much as they were colleagues. That way, I could assure myself that they treated me and my output with discretion and some amount of generosity, because nobody wants to truly piss off a friend. Most editors, especially the best ones, the ones who also want to be a friend of the writer, prefer to be constructive, not paragraph-shredders.

All in all, what are the pros and cons of having a “first reader”? 

John Jeter:  My wife has almost always been my first reader; that is, outside the newspaper business and in my life as a professional writer. The pros are that she’s generous and honest, never mind that she’s immensely capable, talented and damned good at editing. The cons are that she’s right just about all the time, and that can be either humbling or humiliating, depending on my mood.

I prefer to have a first reader I know rather than one I don’t. I recently had a “first reader” that was given to me by an editor, a first reader I didn’t and still don’t know and have never met. I didn’t have any idea of the reader’s credibility, but since my editor was the one who decided on that person, well, I felt okay about the judgment(s) that went into my work. At the same time, I knew I could also simply disregard that person’s comments. But that kind of speaks to my point: If you’re sleeping with your first reader and she happens to be right all the time, you kind of understand that credibility’s already a given.

Lastly, what do you look for in a “first reader”?

John Jeter:  Great looks, a nice body . . . Actually, in some seriousness, I prefer a first reader who’s like the writer I would someday like to be: a reader/editor with a generosity of spirit whose purpose isn’t so much to serve the writer’s ego as it is to serve the story. Once the story is served, the writer’s ego gets served, too. The process usually doesn’t work so well when both parties – reader and writer – go at it the other way around. So my first reader needs to care about the story as much as she cares about me, but with the generosity of spirit that communicates this one truth: I care about you enough to make you want to produce the very best story you can, and if I (we) can do that, why, you’ll wind up feeling pretty good, too. That’s a good first reader.

Tie-In Novels as Historical Fiction

Dave Gross is the author of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and the upcoming Queen of Thorns. His other recent work appears in the anthologies Tales of the Far West and Shotguns v. Cthulhu. You can read some of his stories for free at or follow him on Twitter @frabjousdave or

After a couple of decades editing and writing for shared-world settings, I still enjoy playing in someone else’s sandbox. The advantages of building your sand castle in a popular setting make up for those occasions when you scoop up a cat turd. You can avoid those unpleasant surprises, or make the most of them, by approaching tie-in fiction as an archaeologist and historian.

Do Your Research

When approaching a tie-in project, you’ll start with either a wealth of source material—as in a big property like Star Wars—or with only a few pages of concepts—as in a brand-new setting like Far West. Each situation offers a different advantage. If your strengths lie in research and interpolation, you’ll love poring over dozens of volumes in search of details to bring your story to life. If the material is well organized, with a wiki for instance, it’ll be a breeze. With smaller settings, you’ll enjoy the freedom to invent within an established atmosphere. I’ve written novels for which my research filled a banker’s box and some for which my research fit on two pages.  Each method has its pleasures.

Obey the Canon

Whether you’re developing from existing elements or creating new ones, it’s crucial not to break with the established “physics” of the world. When pitching a story for a steampunk/wuxia/Wild West setting, I assumed incorrectly that magic was a part of the world. Thankfully that happened at the pitch stage, so the editor gently pointed out my mistake, and I moved on to a different pitch.  When I write for Pathfinder Tales, the editor asks me to footnote any mentions of spells or monsters from the game—or to point out where I’m inventing something new—to help him make sure my story jibes with the source material. As with any writing, the better your communication with the editor, the less pain you’ll endure in revision.

Resolve Existing Conflicts

Just like the real world, large settings like the Forgotten Realms occasionally produce conflicting references to a single location, time period, or character. Sometimes these vagaries are intentional, as with multiple interpretations of a religious prophecy. But discrepancies can slip through, just as archaeologists unearth contrary evidence or historians disagree in their interpretations of that evidence. If your editor can’t resolve the question and it’s left to you to make the call, make the most of it. Pick the interpretation that best serves your story, or the one that best reflects the “truth” of the setting. At the same time, trust your editor to make sure that writers working at the same time each have their own corners of the sandbox, minimizing conflicts.

Beware of Apocrypha

Fans love to add to their favorite tie-in settings, as do third-party-publishers (3PP). Take care to avoid both fan-created and 3PP content. Not only is that extra material unofficial, it’s also legally off-limits. This situation is especially dangerous to writers who have read widely from a setting’s source material.  Recently I discovered some fan-created material in a big folder of official source material, reminding me of this danger.

Extrapolate the Small Stuff

Even the most comprehensive setting won’t provide you with all the details you need for a rich story, and that’s where the real fun begins. You may know everything else about the goddess of death, but when you need the equivalent of the sign of the cross for a frightened character, it’s your moment to add a new detail. Some of my favorite additions to established settings have been the smallest: rituals, courtesies, and curses. The key is not to throw in something just because it’s cool by itself; it should make sense within the existing setting, so find a way to link the small to the big. For example, in a country where the authorities impale criminals on giant forks, “shooting the tines” might be the most offensive gesture. Do it well, and other authors will use your invention as their source material in the next book.


Writing tie-in fiction isn’t for everyone. Some precious souls look down on the work, despite its appreciative audience and many excellent examples of the form. And maybe you just don’t enjoy research; I know at least one brilliant writer who has done excellent tie-in work in the past but who avoids it now because it’s too much like studying for an exam. Still, if you’re a fan of a setting or its genre, if you play well with others, and if you do your research, you can have a lot of fun in the sandbox and uncover far more treasure than turds.

In Praise of Editors

I love editors. I love them in theory and practice. In general and particular. Right now, every single editor I work with is awesome. And every single one of them would’ve eaten that previous sentence for lunch.

In fact, I wouldn’t dare file a story to any of them with “awesome” in it, except as a joke (or if I were really, really tired). Besides, the editors I work with know me well enough to know that “awesome” isn’t a word I’d use. That kind of familiarity is … well, it’s awesome!

Sure, there have been editors I didn’t get along with for various reasons.

Sometimes an editor wants something very specific, but doesn’t articulate exactly what it is that he or she wants. Freelance writer and designer Will Hindmarch calls this the “bring me a rock” scenario. It goes something like this:

Editor: “Bring me a rock.”

Writer: “Here’s a rock. I found it just for you!”

Editor: “I want a different rock.”

Writer: “Here’s another rock. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Editor: “Not that rock. Bring me a rock.”

Writer: “???”

Sometimes editor states very clearly what he or she wants and I don’t really listen.

Editor: “Bring me a rock.”

Writer: “Here’s that fish you wanted! Isn’t it neat?”

The latter example is all my fault. I can own that. And I also own a drawer (actually, a digital file folder) full of fish that have yet to find a place to swim. Want one? I’m giving them away free of charge.

I know the rules, the dos and don’ts of the writer/editor relationship. I’ve written about those rules and taught them in classes. I’ve even followed them (most of the time) since my first newspaper job over twenty years ago.

I’ve also broken just about every one of the rules and tried my darndest to learn from my mistakes.

Some of us, however, are slower learners than others. Being life-long learners, sometimes, has more to do with how slowly we learn than with the infinite scope of our curiosity.

The best thing about the editors I work with (other than their patience) is that every last one of them calls me on my BS and, for the most part, doesn’t hold that very same BS against me.

And that is so, so awesome.

I admit it: sometimes I blow deadlines or turn stories in so close to the print run that the editors involved have no time even to copy edit them. Sometimes I forget to update my editors or I drop completely off the grid. Sometimes I need to be re-angled multiple times. Sometimes my stories are, shall we say, structurally unsound, organizationally baffling, epically confounding. And I get wordy, especially when I’m tired. If I have too little to do, I procrastinate. I pitch stories impulsively. Heck, I even space out on sending in the invoices. And, let’s just face it: my comma usage is definitely not awesome.

I don’t do these things all the time, but for most editors once is enough. I should know better. I should do better. I should be a better writing professional.

That’s what an editor does. Pushes us to be better writers. Demands our best and deserves to get it.

Writers need editors. And I don’t just mean aspiring and new writers. Every writer. Each and every one of us needs editors.

Editors pull us out of our own heads, gives us fresh perspectives on our work while it’s still growing. Editors help us see with fresh eyes. They inspire us, have faith in us. They lend us their skill and the benefit of their experience. They teach us to be better writers … if we listen, if we keep our eyes and ears and egos open to what they have to offer.

How could we not love someone whose job it is to help make what we’ve written better?

Do I have an idealized view of editors? Maybe. Do I have an idealized view of the editors I work with? Not at all. They are human, every last one of them. They are imperfect. They get cranky. Annoyed. That’s all part of the give and take, the human interaction, the creative process.

Editors are awesome. And we writers should treat them as such. We should open up a document file or pull out a pen and some paper this very moment and write them some of the cleanest, smoothest, most on-topic copy we’ve ever written. Flesh it out. Develop it. Dig deep and push past clichés.

When we have something worthy, we should send it in early, receive edits as though they were birthday gifts, revise as though possessed by a higher being, and file glorious final drafts.

I’m not being sarcastic, here. I’m not kidding. These people play a vital role in what we do as writers. We should treat them as accordingly.


Just One Sentence at a Time: Brandvold, Monahan, & Piccirilli on Writing Full-time

Today’s round-up includes three very different writers: Peter Brandvold, Sherry Monahan, and Tom Piccirilli.  Each of them writes full-time, whether fiction or non-fiction.  Each lives life contract to contract, deadline to deadline, sentence to sentence. 

Peter Brandvold writes under his own name and his pen name, Frank Leslie.  His recent books include The Devil’s Winchester (as Peter Brandvold), Bullet for a Halfbreed (as Frank Leslie) and Longarm and the Crossfire Girl (as Tabor Evans).  Under any name or in any series, Brandvold is known for writing violent action particularly well.  His secret seems to be his great care in developing life-like characters.

Sherry Monahan is a freelance writer, editor, and genealogist who specializes in the Victorian Western migration.  She is a contributing editor at True West magazine, as well as the author of the recent Cary, NC and the forthcoming E.M.H.: The Aristocratic Ranch Wife.  In addition to freelance writing and editing, Monahan hires out as a professional researcher who helps people not only trace their ancestry but to also flesh out the details.
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