Every time I read something, I find something I never found before. Thus, when someone has built up the nerve to ask me to read something he or she has written, I try to read it in several waves, each one moving deeper and deeper into the details of the subject or story.
The view at 30,000 feet: Particularly if it is a complex narrative, such as a novel or screenplay, I try to make my first read an uncritical one. This may sound counterintuitive to the requested task, but until I’ve read something from front to back, I don’t feel as if I have sufficient information to be critical.
A thought or comment made at first read may be rendered moot or significantly larger one, ten, fifty or a hundred pages later. I need context to see what the writer is trying to accomplish before I know what is working or what isn’t.
If possible, I will remove all writing implements from my pockets and move somewhere completely isolated so that I can give the piece my full attention. If I become immersed in the work, absorbed by the story and characters, then I know less work is needed, and I can drill to the deepest, most detailed level of comment quickly.
If, however, I find myself drifting from the story, or worse, struggling to move from page to page or scene to scene, then I know there are larger structural or thematic issues at play. Things that potentially make detailed feedback moot upon rewrite.
If you can’t resist using a pen at this stage, try just adding an asterisk next to the line of interest for a quick reminder later. Attention to details breeds attention to details, and you’re apt to miss the bigger picture.
The view from 5,000 feet: In the second read, I try to focus my attentions on the larger structural and thematic questions that arose in the first read. By being familiar with the story and knowing who is whom, I am less likely to need to flip backward through the pages to remind myself how I got here.
More importantly, I know where the writer is trying to go with the plot and characters, which should make it easier to identify bumps or inconsistencies along the way.
These moments typically take the form of a quick shuffling of pages to see if I’ve missed something or if two pages have stuck together. In my head, if not aloud, I find myself using phrases like “Wait. What…?” and “Hold it. I thought…”
If I did my first read well, I may remember struggling at this point in the story, and if it’s big enough, having to force myself to move on. Alternatively, I didn’t bump the first time through but now that I know the full story, this scene or moment has become a problem. What made perfect sense an hour or two ago has now become confusing. Regardless, it is a moment that has to be recognized, understood and adjusted.
Most writers in my experience have the greatest problem with notes at this stage because it often cuts to the core of their story and changes her can have a significant impact on the direction of the story. In some cases, this is where the writer might find out the story doesn’t work and needs a complete overhaul.
New writers, in particular, may either completely refute the notes to avoid being so fundamentally “off base” or simply give up the piece because they feel incapable of sacrificing all that hard work, ironically enough, and trying to rescue what was working.
At this stage, I’m asking pretty broad questions. Do I understand why this story is happening (why today)? Do I clearly see who is playing what role in the narrative (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, etc) and how they interrelate?
Can I recognize the plot and subplots, and do they make sense? How do they relate and am I seeing a coherent theme? Is there any conflict in the story and does it rise in scale or intensity as the story moves forward?
Part Two: In the next section, we will continue our journey into the depths of how I review stories with complex narratives, rapidly approaching ground level.
(The images are the property of their respective owners and are used here without permission because they’re beneath me.)