Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Graceful Critiques

I wrote in a previous post that I didn't know any writers personally. This was before I found out that a family friend who lives close by has been writing a book. He only shared this information with me when I made a passing comment about writing being one of my hobbies. I politely told him I'd love to read some of it sometime and he gave me the first five chapters when I saw him next. I asked him if he wanted me to actually critique it or just read it. He said he wanted all the advice I could give him.

I just finished reading it. It's a fantasy novel and from what I can tell the story-line and characters are pretty well-conceived. There are some integral flaws, however. His POV is all over the place and the pacing is poor. He seems anchored to a single sentence structure and loses a lot of action in the telling of character background and motive. I gave him what I thought was some general, helpful advice, but IMO it would take a major overhaul for this book to be published.

Since this man has found a fellow writer in me he is eager to share his excitement and ambition with me. He keeps talking about how things are going to change "when the book sells." I asked him how much he knows about the query process and he insists that he "knows everything there is to know about getting a book sold," and that he has "no worries," on that front.

I have never sold a book, but from what I've learned from my blogging buddies, getting a book published is neither simple nor guaranteed. So my question is, do I give this man, who seems to hold my opinion in fairly high esteem, polite encouragement and let his process unfold as it may, or do I tell him what I really think?

My instinct is to do the former. But if our roles were reversed, I think I would want some realistic advice. I don't want to stunt his enthusiasm, however, of which he has plenty.

What would you do?

Vocabulary Word of the Day:
FUSILADE - noun - A rapid outburst or barrage.


The Quoibler said...

Hmmm... tough one.

I'd personally just let it ride, but if he asked pointed questions, I'd answer them directly (but not unkindly.)

Right now, it sounds like he doesn't want "real" advice. He just wants a positive sounding board. I think if you were to try and educate him on the way the industry really works, he wouldn't really "hear" you.

When he's ready for the heavy stuff, perhaps he'll give you a buzz and ask for more in-depth feedback.

Just my three cents...



Hoodie said...

I think you're right, but it's still hard for me to watch him. I think there's a difference between confidence and delusion. He's somewhere in between. I've learned that he is unwilling to invest time in another career because he is so confident he will be able to support his family with his writing. He bounces from one part time to another. But hey, who am I to tell him he should be doing differently?

SzélsőFa said...

I would look into the kind of relationship we have. If the person is okay by my standards and if you were to remain friends on the long term, I would be honest.

I would highlight the great points, as there are many.
But I would definitely tell what the weak points are. (btw: what is a pov??)

At the same time I would suggest, and give some advice in a friendly way.

Jaye Wells said...

Oh man, I hate that stuff. I've found it's best to smile and nod. I know you want to help him, but I'm afraid so much of this process has to be learned by doin.

Beth said...

The thing is ... he's already convinced himself of the fantasy. He is dead wrong. Does he realize how many publishing houses receive admissions daily? How many of those get thrown out for not addressing the editor and not being in the proper format? Tons. Does he care? Probably not.

Gosh, you're in a spot. I find when most people ask for the truth what they're really saying is, "Give me the comforting lie convincingly."

strugglingwriter said...

Change your name, move to another country, and never mention it again. Just kidding. I guess I would start off with some compliments about the work, then move to a few things to work on, and then end with more positives. Make sure the positives outweigh the negatives. However, I think he would appreciate the feedback. Then ask for .05% of the take on the book :)

Hoodie said...

Yeah, I think the overall consensus is to let him figure most of the stuff out on his own. I did write some general critiques on the sheets I printed out that I think are helpful and benign. I think I'll just give them to him and let him keep on keepin' on.

It will be interesting to see where this path leads him.

Anonymous said...

That is so hard. I can really sympathize with the tension you feel.

I agree that he is not exhibiting the signals of being ready for reality. However, I really hate to see someone traveling thousands of miles down the wrong road.

Here's my somewhat delicate advice. Perhaps you could say that lots of unpublished writers have difficulty receiving critiques and that you know yourself that it's hard. It's also very hard to offer a critique, because the person can end up being punished for truly trying to help.

If he seems receptive to the intro, I'd start with the blunt statement that you don't think it's ready in the form it's in now. You'd love to talk about writing and give specific feedback if he's interested. If he stops you right there and blows a defensive gasket, then there is no way he's ready, and he only has himself to blame later.

To this day, I still feel a little bad about a guy who was selecting magazines like the New Yorker and Playboy to sell short stories to because they paid the best, and he needed a certain income. The fact that he would be accepted in those magazines was simply assumed. We tried to gently give him a reality check, but he didn't listen. In the end, he got very depressed by all the rejections. Not surprisingly, the writing was way off.

As an aside, I was messing around once and posted a critique system on my blog. The first point of reaction in the system is whether the piece is publishable, whether you would put the book down. As I start getting critiques on my own novel, that's what I want to know right up front. Did you want to put it down? If the answer is yes, the effort of writing is wasted unless it's specifically targeting that problem. Once the line is crossed, the rest is improving and polishing.

Lastly, always start any critique with a littany of positives. If you don't do that, it feels like the whole work is trash, and the writer might throw out what's actually very good.

(Sorry for the mega comment.)

Hoodie said...

Jason, thanks for the advice.
Sitting on the fence I can look on one side and see how easy it would be for me to not get involved, then look over and to the other side and see a man who might resent me in the future for not bringing these items to his attention now.

It's like those horrible singers on American Idol who insist that their family and friends think they're really good. Either the fam and friends are just as deluded as they are, or (and this seems more likely) they took the safe route and just told the singer what they wanted to hear.

I can't seem to get myself off this fence. I really don't want to hurt his feelings for fear it will strain the relationship his family has with mine. We'll see. You're approach, Jason, sounds like a good one.

And Szelfsofa- sorry I didn't answer your question before. POV stands for Point of View. It's crucial to be consistent when choosing whose eyes to tell the story through or it can be very confusing for the reader.

Minx said...

I have just caught up with this post and would say that you have done as much as you can. You have your path and he has his.
As I said in my own post, no matter stage we are with our writing, we should never forget the beginning. Some of us learn the complete craft and others prefer to think that they know it all from the start.

I would say that you have dealt with it in the best way so far. If this guy eventually turns his ears on then all well and good, but don't get sucked in and don't waste energy that could better used for your own writing!

Scott said...

I work with a published author who frequently looks at my writing. For the most part he is positive, and that feels good. But he is also good at telling me when things are going awry. I think you've already been given good advice by other commenters. Start with what you liked, then slowly work in what you think could use some tweaking. Just be careful and approach slowly. Your friend will thank you for it in the end.

Hoodie said...

Minx, Scott - Thanks for adding your opinions. I'm happy for your visits.

I think I'm just going to give this guy back the edited pages, telling him in person what I liked and then mention that I left some notes on the text and if he has any questions I'd be happy to answer them.

briliantdonkey said...

This is a tough one. It CAN be a damned if you do damned if you don't type thing and I think it totally depends on the person and what they are looking for. Feel them out. OUT that is NOT up. THAT may get you arrested. Some people WANT the honest truth. Some want you to tell them what they want to hear. I personally, HATE when someone tells me what they think I want to hear. I have some friends/aquaintences that I will show my work to because I KNOW if something sucks they will tell me so and I respect them for it. Meanwhile, I quit showing anything to my ex-girlfriend. her opinion at the time probably meant more to me than anyone's and yet it became worthless because no matter what I wrote she would say 'this is great'.


Hoodie said...

It is difficult finding a person whose opinion means a lot to you AND you respect.

My family is very supportive. No matter what I do they say, "I like because it's good."

Uh, thanks. The warm fuzzies cool off when that response is repeated over and over.

But ya gotta love 'em for trying.

Church Lady said...

I'd make nice with him, literally.
He's literally in fantasy land, huh?
Okay, I'll be literally serious now.

Give him praise, but not lavish. Offer a few polite compliments and one thing to work on. We all need to grow as writers, and it seems like you want to help him. You will be helping him if you talk about his POV issue and let him work on that if he wants to.

Sometimes all we have is our dream. Let him keep his.

Hope this is helpful.

Hey, and you are literally a Hoodie. ;-)


Thanks for the link! I'm going to link you too!!

Hoodie said...

I gave the guy my written comments yesterday with the verbal encouragement that he's got a great start with some cool characters. There was a lot of positive in my written comments, too. At first he seemed startled that I wasn't raving, but then he seemed to pay attention and told me he'd call if he had questions about what I'd said.

I hope it helps.

wordtryst said...

I have one friend who knew nothing about the business of getting published, but thought he could dash off a memoir and make lots of money - just like that. I told him a few home truths about the business - and about his writing - and because he has known me for a long time and trusts me, he accepted it all with good grace and was actually grateful.

Another friend, my first reader, actually, decided to self-publish, and kept urging me to do the same. I tried telling him what I knew about the business, and about the path he should follow. He got this look on his face: Why the negativity? Why are you trying to rain on my parade? I gave up and left him to do what he wanted, and now he's banging his head against the walls because he's learned the hard way. But for him, that was the only way.

Depends on the guy's personality, and the level of trust between you, I'd say.

Hoodie said...

Thanks for the input, Wordtryst. I gave the guy his first few chapters with a few helpful notes and as much praise as I could give and told him if he wants me to read more I would be happy to. I haven't heard from him, but I don't really know what that means.