I am wrestling with an interesting batch of feedback right now: an editor who says, “Cut out one aspect of the story and 100 pages” (which would work, but wouldn’t be the book I wrote); an agent who says, “Don’t cut all of that, but cut 100 pages”; a trusted reader who says, “Don’t cut 100 pages but add to clarify these elements”; followed by said agent agreeing, “Yes, absolutely add all that, but still make it 100 pages shorter.” So far, I’ve revised up to page 280 (out of 500) and managed to cut 25 pages (adding nothing to address my trusted reader’s concerns). This does not bode well, but I am undaunted.
Sorting through feedback is never easy, but always crucial, and for that reason, I am always grateful to the people who agree to read rough drafts of novels and give me their honest opinions. (Yes, I’m talking to you guys, John, Will, Kristin, and Nichole, not to mention my critique partners—though to them I return the favor; it’s all good stuff.) In the end, I believe that one way or another, sale or no sale, my books are better crafted and tighter because of the generosity of my critics.
On the other hand, other people (besides my critique partners) ask me for feedback, and I thought maybe I’d cover appropriate and inappropriate requests and reactions. I feel truly blessed to have had publishers agree to buy several of my novels. It is my nature to want to share what those opportunities have given me. I have been fortunate to have very good resources for objective critique, and wish to share that, too. Also, I’m a teacher, and it is my natural impulse to teach. Occasionally, this causes problems.
Friends and family members are proud of me, and I’m grateful for that, but that pride sometimes leads to them saying to other friends and acquaintances, “I know a published author. Let me see if I can get her to read your novel or the idea or whatever.” This is tough. If I’ve actually met the person, I can get a read on whether it would be a good idea for me to offer this. If it’s clear the person is very ego-invested, I don’t. When it’s the friend of a friend, I always feel I have to say yes, and then, because I am a published author and a teacher, I tell the truth—not unkindly, but the truth. If the writing is too expository for a wide commercial market, I say so. If it’s too disjointed, I say that. I never discourage anyone from writing, but writing has many purposes, and selling is not always one of them. I myself have written several novels that have not and will never sell.
This honesty generally leads to defensiveness. Ultimately, the writer wants to be told, “This is really good. Let me send it right off to my agent, who will undoubtedly represent you and sell the book so that it can be a bestseller.” In the first place, I’ve never gotten a manuscript this way that made me go “Wow! Get this to an agent right away.” Also, I don’t send other people’s novels to my agent. It doesn’t work that way. I tell people to feel free to tell Kristin in the query letter that they know me, but really, I don’t have that much influence with her. It just makes people feel better.
Another thing that happens is that friends tell their friends to call me about the book they have written that is a totally and completely different genre from what I write. Children’s picture books and non-fiction books go through an entirely different process. My agent does not represent those kinds of projects, and no, I will not call her on someone else’s behalf to see if she’ll make an exception for them. For one thing, it would screw up my relationship with my agent if I bothered her with those things, and for another, those are not her connections. A real estate agent who specializes in commercial property will not effectively represent you in selling your suburban house.
More disturbing was a recent request that came from the friend of a stranger. A woman who had experienced a double-suicide homicide in her family wrote to me and asked about Rachel, and I answered because I know what it’s like for one traumatized person to feel the need for reassurance from another survivor. But then her friend emailed and asked me to read his alternate history short story written from Dylan’s perspective. Wow. Am I the only one who thinks this is wildly inappropriate? We don’t know each other from Adam. I don’t even really know his friend. I wrote and told him that I still struggle with PTSD, so no, I would not be able to help him. He wrote back and basically said, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to open old wounds, but I’m writing this thing, and I really want to get it right, so would you open them for me anyway?” My mother raised me to be polite, and so I was, but what I really wanted to write was FUCK NO. Is that clear enough? FUCK NO. I should have written that, because the last email admonished me that as a historical author myself, I should understand that history is sometimes violent. No shit. Also, do your homework. My protagonists are never people who actually existed, in large part because I do not want to misrepresent real people, and any protagonist one writes says far more about the writer than the writer’s subject. Furthermore, read my blog, and you’d know better than to send me anything school-shooting-related anyway.
I can think of a couple of times that people have really appreciated and used my advice, and I never feel like that’s wasted time. Even if I think their book will never be publishable (and no, I won’t go over it again after it’s revised—I have my own stuff to write and I work full time and have a family), I still think there is value to offering what help I can. A reader’s response is good for any writer.
It boils down to this:
- Don’t ask a writer to “tell you what they think” if you only want to be told your writing is perfect. Ask your mom. (My mom and my best friend give only praise.)
- Don’t ask an author friend on behalf of another friend unless you’ve read their work and really loved it yourself. It’s not fair to set up one friend on behalf of another. In the end, it’s often a set-up for both. Ouch.
- Do understand that writing has specialties, like many other industries, and that knowledge or connections in one area do not confer them in another.
- Do not ask strangers to bare their souls for your artistic endeavors. If you’re hoping for insight, get to know your interview subject a bit; test the waters, and respect the boundaries they set. In short, don’t be an insensitive clod.
- If you want serious critique, join a critique group. One of the best ways to do this is to attend local writers’ conferences (where I got into mine) or writers’ groups. Do a Google search like “Denver Fiction Writers” which will yield groups like Denver Fiction Writers and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. I seek critique outside this group only when the critiquer possesses a point-of-view my group cannot offer.
- If you want to write, write. It will have value whether or not it is ever critiqued or published. Fun, escape, personal insight—all these reasons are just fine.