Andreas Kluth has an entry on The Hannibal Blog about The Importance of the First Reader. It’s a great start for a study of the force that stands behind some of the greatest writers since the whole writing racket began – and it’s one that I am woefully unprepared to try and approach. But I can offer a few observations about Literary Spouses.
They can be lifesavers. Or manuscript savers, anyway. Take the case of Tabitha King. After her husband began to dispair of the manuscript he was writing, he walked through the cramped mobile home he was living in and pitched it in the garbage. Later, Mrs. King slipped over and pulled Carrie out of the wastebasket – and after some time, a bestseller was born. One of Kluth’s commenters mentions the legend of how Mrs. Nabokov pulled the manuscript of Lolita out of a bonfire. I’ve never heard that one – it’s a great story, if true.
They can mean more to a writer than a writer realizes. Take Dick Francis, who had an extraordinary handshake deal with his publisher, who promised to keep all of Francis’ novels in print as long as he wrote one a year. Francis only missed the yearly deadline after his wife died, prompting many to theorize that Mrs. F was the one actually writing the books. No, I don’t think so. She must have been his first reader, and no doubt was important to his work. Not that his son has joined in with the writing, he seems to be producing again.
Having set some background, let me tell you a little bit about my Literary Spouse. First of all, I am not her favorite author. She will deny this, but for crying out loud – she sleeps with me. You’re going to believe her?
No, I’m smart enough to know that she adores Lois McMaster Bujold and Jean Auel and Anne McCaffery and Andrea Norton and some select others. But that’s okay. I could use the competition, and that’s pretty hefty competition indeed. Besides, I think I get a better quality of opinion because of that. I mean, if you’re an author, which would you rather hear? This:
“This is your best book since A Death of Honor”
(one year later) “This is your best book since The Company Man”
(another year later) “This is your best book since Desperate Measures“
“I don’t really care for this book because it’s dark and I don’t care for the characters, but I can see how your writing has progressed since your first one and this really is your best-written novel.”
Next, my spouse has killer editorial instincts. She says she would hate the job of being an editor, but being incredibly well-read (worlds ahead of me), she has a great eye for what works and what doesn’t. After reading the chapter of A Death of Honor that introduced Trinina, she told me that she thought her character was neat and wanted to see what I did with her. That stunned me, because that chapter was going to be the only appearance Trinina made in the book. And, well, I didn’t want to disappoint my wife, so I started thinking about it and… what do you know? Giving Trinina more to do really made the plot of the book take off.
Which brings me to the next item on the list, I know not to take her comments personally and she knows not to take my rejection of her comments personally. My reaction to her remarks fall into three categories: I implement any changes immediately (these are usually typos or grammatical or clarity issues); other changes that I need to think about applying; and changes I reject because she can’t see my vision for the book. She’s kind of hobbled that way since she reads each chapter as I finish writing it, so sometimes she picks up on something that is deliberately obscure until I can deal with it in a later chapter. It has become a great partnership.
There are some other invaluable things that my LitSpouse does for me. She is social so I don’t have to be, and she gets me through situations where I must be. I told her that when I met her I discovered that there was an introvert in me who was dying to stay in (presumably so I could write books). She also knows what the process of trying to write a book is like, but lest I run afoul of her, I will save that story for another day. Finally, she is the mother of my children, one of whom is developing into a fine author in her own, um, right. With that, I now have a second reader, as my daughter is currently making her way through the latest draft of Drawing Down the Moon.
And naturally, this means that I get to help screen my daughter’s future first readers… if you know what I mean.