This is a really important question and is a process that can take some experimentation. Here's what I've decided I need in an early reader:
- A person who reads books often and intelligently.
- A person who is willing to tell me the hard truth.
- A person who, nonetheless, tells the truth with respect, i.e., delivers criticism in a way that fortifies me, NOT in a way that tears me down.
Here's what you need to bring to the table:
- You need to expect that when you hear those first comments -- especially the first time you do this -- some of them might hurt your feelings. Some might make you angry. Some might scare you and make you think that you're never going to be able to fix this book. THIS IS NORMAL. It's also temporary. Keep your mouth shut and live with your existential despair for however long it takes (hours, days). Go for long walks. Have a good cry. Dance it out. When you've rediscovered your faith in yourself, go back and review the comments. You may discover that in your absence, they have magically become accurate, helpful, and unhurtful.
- You need to remember that your readers' suggestions are only suggestions. If a reader suggests a change and your entire being revolts and continues to revolt, well, you don't need to make that change! You are allowed to disagree with your readers!
- Nonetheless, you need to take your readers' comments seriously. So, you've decided not to follow a certain suggestion because it doesn't feel right to you? --Okay, fine. But a suggestion, even one that feels crazy and bad, should ring a little warning bell in your mind. Why does your reader feel that something needs to change in this place? Is your reader picking up on something valid that isn't quite working? Something big? Something small? Is there some other change you could make that feels right to you and that addresses your reader's concern?
I start out by giving my manuscripts to my sister, secret codename: Cordelia -- plus, now that I have them, my editor and my agent. I wait until I've done one or two revisions before I give it to my next round of readers. At that point, I give it to several people at once. The number of people depends on how much time I (and they) have and how much work I think the book still needs. Here's a funny thing that always happens: my readers come back to me with opposite opinions. One will love Aspect X of the book and another will hate it. One will despise Character Y and another will want to marry her. When this happens, it's awesome, because it reminds you that there is no "perfect" book. A book isn't universally right or wrong, good or bad; every book is different for every reader. And the more this happens, the more you begin to trust yourself to revise it well. In the end, you're the most important reader; you're the one who needs to decide how the book is asking to be written.
There will also be opinions that your readers have in common: Plot Point Z isn't working, because Character A is behaving in an inconsistent manner. LISTEN EXTRA HARD TO THOSE OPINIONS.
You will learn how to decide what comments to act on and what comments to ignore. You will learn by doing. You'll also learn trust -- in yourself and in your early readers. And you'll come to appreciate how critically important your chosen readers are!!
A tip: Your early readers are doing you an enormous favor. Ask nicely. Print the document out for them and tell them what kind of feedback you're looking for. ("Any kind you want to give me" is a valid request, but if they ask for more guidance than that, work with them until you're both clear.) If you want the manuscript back and they live far away, give them an envelope and return postage. Don't pressure them -- if they don't have time to do it when you need it, find someone else. Don't hover over them while they're reading. And when they're done, THANK THEM, even if you don't agree with a single one of their comments. (Which never happens.)
Goodness, this got long.
Incidentally, Cordelia may be an intelligent, honest, trustworthy first reader, but this doesn't mean that she didn't text me before my trapeze lesson to verify the location of my will.