Friday, August 28, 2009

my friend just let me read her terrible novel! what do I do?

This Salon article had me in giggles--until I thought hard about it. Yelp! What if all my friends think this about every book I work on and then make them read?!? Eep! I'll never know!!

Overall advice--"refusing to comment has value." And also may not totally decapitate your friendship. But eep! Seriously. Does being a good friend maybe also include being honest? We all have so much difficulty judging our own work objectively... if our friends can't tell us the truth, who can?


SM Blooding said...

My best friend and roommate just says it like it is. If it's crap, it's crap. She still loves me, still's my best friend, but she doesn't pull any punches.

Granted, while we're having the, "Hon, I love you, but this sucks," conversation, I'm not too happy with her. However! I respect her a lot more because of it.

~Aimee States said...

Going that route, it eventually boils down to "I wrote Book A and they gushed about it (because you can't help but gush over a good book). When I wrote book B, they refused to comment. Hmmmm....Book B probably sucks salty toes, and I'm a dink who can't take criticism."

Cherry said...

I paint. My hubby took it upon himself to be my personal art critic.

Yes, it was annoying (in the begining) creating a master piece and having him pull it apart. What is REALLY annoying, is most of the time he is right :P.

Most people say things like "wonderful" - which is great for the ego, not so great for the art. So I learnt to appreciate his advice cause it helps me improve.

Jacqui said...

Hilarity. Fly me.

But seriously, what if someone is more open to criticism than the friend described there? What if it's someone who takes herself seriously and is hoping you will to and who really wants help? And it still stinks.

Sara J. Henry said...

I lost one friend simply by saying (possibly too emphatically) Dear god, no, don't query on this yet! (I was right; she never got an agent.)

That said, if I agree to look at the manuscript of someone genuinely working hard at writing, I give an honest critique. Better to hear it at this stage and possibly self-correct than spend years of watching rejection letters come back.

And with that said, I've also come to realize that some people don't want to improve their work; they want to be told how wonderful it is. I don't play that game. Which means I have to try to gauge the writer's level of commitment before agreeing to look at a manuscript.

And I'm currently reading a YA manuscript by a phenomenally talented young Australian writer, and wishing I were an agent so I could snap her up.

MattDel said...

Whenever someone gives me their writing to read, I ask two questions
1) "Do you really want *me* to look at it?"
2) "How detailed a critique do you want?"

I ask the first question because, like Sara, it doesn't matter if you're my friend or not ... if your writing needs vast amounts of improvement, I intend to tell you.

Of course none of it is to be nasty and make myself feel better (god no). I only want to make the writing better -- that has always been and will always be my primary concern.

One friend likes to quip that she can tell when I've had time to read her stuff: there's lots of red marks on the page. This same friend also rejoices when I don't find anything (tough critic me).

stephanie said...

Cary Tennis' advice is very Freudian. That had me in giggles, though I admit he has some valid points.

I like constructive criticism, need it. I want to be better. I also recognize not everyone does and don't comment on that work.

MattDel's #2 is something I often ask as well.

Natasha Fondren said...

I really don't see it as a difficult problem. If it's really that bad, then just pick out one or two things to mention that will most improve her writing. And then don't mention the rest, and surround it with lots of encouragement.

Women generally ignore compliments, anyway, and if it's that bad, then spending a manuscript getting down one or two new skills is a big improvement. If she asks you to re-read when that's done, then move on to a couple new things, if the other ones have been mastered.

But that's the teacher in me. I feel if I point out everything that needs fixing, then the most important things will get lost in the shuffle. At that level, professional publication/quality isn't going to be an issue, LOL.

Reesha said...

First, I have a wonderful cousin who says things like "This writing is horrible! I know you can write better than this. Go do it again!" which helps so much.

Second, Sara is so right that some people are just looking for a fan instead of a critiquer.

Third, I admire Sara for saying she "doesn't play that game", however, I do. Maybe I shoudln't, but in the interest of making sure my fledgling writing friends don't give up, I say whatever will keep them writing. I know I would've been crushed if someone had picked apart the first piece I ever wrote (which is horrible and horrendous in every way). But I had people who said what they could about its good parts, (few that they were,) and it was enough to inspire me to continue writing.

I never lie, of course. But I only give the kick in the pants to those who are ready for it.

The Pineapple Tart said...

Recently a friend asked me to read an obituary she'd written for her granny. It was a list of life, in my opinion, but my friend insisted it had literary merit. We don't talk about books anymore.

I_am_Tulsa said...

I would hate it if my friends couldn't tell me that they didn't like what I write... Honest opinions are often hard to come by... very valuable!

Keith Popely said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurel said...

I employ Matt's approach and my own intuition of the expectation. I know which of my friends can take honest critique and which ones can't. For the ones who aren't ready to hear it yet, it might take longer but they can learn the hard way querying work that isn't there. No matter what I would never tell someone their work sucks. There is always one good thing somewhere and most people are savvy enough to recognize damnation of the faint praise variety when they see it.

When I ask for critique I also explicitly state that they are doing me a favor, I asked because I care what they think, and if they think it is terrible I need to know that. The worst thing about the "I can't believe you don't appreciate my genius" syndrome is how hard it makes it for someone open to criticism to get frank feedback.

I've also noticed a directly proportional relationship between someone's willingness to hear a negative and how well they write already.

No matter what I have to say, positive or negative, it's always couched in lots of "This is only my opinion and counts for absolutely nothing more than that."

So far we all still get along...

Keith Popely said...

We've all been on both sides of this table. It's a lot tougher being a reviewer than it is being a writer. As a reviewer, we know how hard the other person has been working on this thing and we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

But here's the thing: as writers, we crave feedback. It's all we live for. We already know it's not all perfect. We know every line of dialogue and every scene don't work perfectly. We're expecting criticism. We WANT criticism! Help a brother out. After all, when I have spinach in my teeth, who's a better friend? The guy who's afraid to insult me and lets me walk around all day with a green gob in the middle of my smile? Or the one who says, "Hey, douche bag. You got something in your teeth"? Please: tell me what's wrong with it before I send it out to editors.

Anonymous said...

i read my best friend's novel. It was absolute rubbish. But i gave him some helpful criticism and he's back to re-working it. It's turning out much better now. He'll never be great at dialgue, but there's nothing i can do about that

Anonymous said...

I'm a member of a writers' group of mixed abilities, and it's sometimes hard to know how to be encouraging and helpful at the same time when I can see that the writer has a long way to go. What do you say to a friend who thinks s/he is ready to query when you can see that's not true?

Keith Popely said...

Moonie, just a final thought on my own post above: I'm really against the theory that not commenting is helpful. If something in the book is not working, just say so. The most generous thing a person can do for a writer is take the time to sit down and read a manuscript and then give honest, thoughtful, helpful criticism.

Marie said...

Did you read Alex Chee's response on his blog?

mapelba said...

I don't ask friends for critiques. Simple enough. I let my friends read my books, but I ask them to keep their opinions to themselves--positive and negative. If someone insists on saying something nice, I don't believe them anyway.

And if someone gives me their work to read and I think it is terrible, I don't assume I'm right. I can't get my own book published so why is what I have to say worth an argument?

I paid someone for a critique once, and that got rid of the nonsense fast.

Karen said...

I HATE when people want me to read something (or watch something or see a painting/sculpture/etc) and give them an opinion. I hate it because they usually aren't searching for honesty. They just want to be told it's good. When that happens, I usually just try to find something good to say without raving about how wonderful the project is.

I don't think they do that to me, but I guess I won't know until my novel is universally rejected!

moonrat said...

Marie--I hadn't!! Thanks for alerting me. I also realized that Koreanish had somehow stopped feeding to my Google reader. I HATE when that happens!! So yes, thanks.

Charles Gramlich said...

I generally find it a no win situation.

Rachel said...

I agree with a lot of these comments. The only friend I disclose any of my work to (other than my husband, who will critique occasionally but mostly just say good things) is a very long-time friend whom I want to give me helpful feedback. It's important to choose friends wisely to read your work, and listen to their advice.

As the "friend" reading, it's equally important to a) say "no, thanks" before you read something if you don't think they can handle it and b) give constructive feedback, rather than just telling them it sucks. I think most solid friendships can survive this.

moonrat said...

Keith and others--do check out Alex Chee's take here:

He's an author and creative writing professor, and he strongly disagrees with the author of this article. I like his points.

Rachel said...

Seriously! I just noticed like 25 grammatical errors in my previous comment. On this blog. How embarrassing.

L.H. Parker said...

I try the sandwich technique: compliment, critique, compliment. If it sucks, I say, "It's getting there! Just needs more work." As for me: I don't let my close friends read my writing because I like my friendship the way it is. Instead, I rely on acquaintances to give me the honest truth--they don't care about hurting my feelings as much.

moonrat said...

LH--that's how I edit professionally!! As a rule!

Keith Popely said...

Thanks for the link, Moonster. Alex is right on.

Rebecca Knight said...

I have to say I totally agree with Alex. I've been on both sides before (wanting someone to tell me I'm brilliant and being sorely disappointed, and having to give that criticism to another), and can honestly say tactful honesty is always best.

Someone who will be honest with you is a GEM, and even the most arrogant friend will realize that sooner or later and thank them for their help.

It IS like having something stuck in your teeth that no one will tell you about. At first you're embarrassed that they pointed it out, but you'd much rather they did than let you embarrass yourself in that job interview later(or by querying before you're ready in this case.)

The sandwich method Alex mentions is a perfect way to do it gracefully :).

Ulysses said...

I don't ask my friends for feedback on my work. I ask them for support, to listen while I gripe, but I don't ask them for feedback. They're the type of people who place kindness above honesty and to ask them to betray either of those ideals is asking something I shouldn't ask of a friend.

I have a critique group. They're familiar with my genre, it's tropes and warts and although they are my friends, we've all agreed to the unspoken rule that honesty has to come before kindness.

When they tell me my work isn't good enough, it's not a blow to my ego. I've come to them for critique, and I'm getting what I asked for.

Of course, they are friends as well, but when the manuscripts are on the table we're about making the work better, not making each other feel good.

Natasha Solomons said...

After I wrote my first novel, I showed it to my boyfriend, a professional writer. He was kind, but told me I must never show it to anyone. If I wanted to be a writer, I needed to get better, much better.

I cried so much that I bruised my eyelids. But it was true.

I revised, re-wrote, put it away in a drawer and realised after several months, that it was still rubbish. My boyfriend, who had then become my husband, told me to write something else.

I did, and to my surprise discovered that I had learned so much from writing that truly awful novel, that the next one didn't suck.

After several drafts, my husband read it again, and told me that it was ready to send out into the world.

I found an agent and then a publisher...

But, if my boyfriend hadn't said 'darling, I love you, but this sucks', I would still be writing crap. (Though, of course, I still do, from time to time...old habits, hard to break).

JenniferWriter said...

I agree with Sara J. Henry in that if you ask for my opinion I will give it to you. However, I may not give it ALL to you. I like the sandwich technique as well. If the writer only pays attention to the compliments and not the criticisms, well, that's her loss.

Sarah Laurenson said...

One of the first things I ask is: what kind of feedback are you looking for? That helps me with what to say. A lot of my friends are writers and we critique each other all the time.

But then there are the newbies and I have a hard time figuring out what to say because there's so much that needs work. I get really general in my comments then.

Kyddryn said...

I prefer honesty - if I wanted smoke blown up my anatomy, I'd talk to a politician.

Shade and Sweetwater,

Anonymous said...

I'm dying to comment as I normally do, but sheesh. If I don't come in all anonymous then anyone whose MS I've read who HASN'T yet heard from me is going to wonder.

I also worry that because I've not commented on your post at all, you might draw the wrong conclusion. "Gee, did s/he really think the post sucked THAT badly?" :)

Matilda McCloud said...

If you've offered to read a ms, I think it's insulting to say "no comment." Who wants to hear that? I no longer read the mss of close friends or family members. Most casual writers don't want to hear real criticism and you'll just damage your relationship with them. My husband, who works in publishing, gets a ton of these requests. He is still willing to read friends' mss, but he warns them first: I am brutally honest. Only give this to me if you're willing to hear the truth and realize it might hurt--a lot!

Kirstin Cronn-Mills said...

I JUST had this experience--the novel was not terrible, by any means, but i needed to be honest about some things that weren't working. So I was--and we're still friends. Best of all worlds.

Anna C. Morrison said...

Glad I'm not alone...I still haven't responded to one of my friends who let me read her novel. Dreading that conversation.

Emily Cross said...

Personally i like to keep my friends from my writing. first none of them are really into writing and i don;t think i'd be able to handle their criticism - its easier to have someone completely objective look at your work

Lydia Sharp said...

My husband and I are both writers. Sometimes this is a good thing (like when you need a detailed edit, STAT!), and sometimes this is a bad thing (like when you need a detailed edit, STAT!).

Yeah. Precisely.

Over time, we've both realized that brutal honesty is the only way to go. But we've also both learned that, just because we're married, doesn't mean we have to agree on everything, or even pretend that we like each other's work.

So far, it hasn't disrupted other areas of our life. Example:

"I don't think you should kill that character."

"What's your point?"

"He needs to live. It would have more impact on the others if they knew he was suffering and couldn't do anything about it."

"What's your point?"

"Do you even care that you're ruining your story?"

"Opinion noted, moving misspelled a word here."


"It's affect, in that context, not effect. That one always gets you."

"K. What's for dinner?"


Tara said...

No one likes criticism, even if it's constructive. I myself reach for a Dr Pepper. No matter how thin my skin might be though, I'd rather have my friends tell me the truth than to embarass myself in front of industry professionals.

That being said, make sure you ask the right people for a critique. If they aren't avid readers or have never read your genre, they probably aren't a good choice.

Natasha Solomons said...


I understand exactly. My husband and I also write together. It starts off friendly for the first week and then we're scrapping over the key board.

Until it's time make snacks. Usually we heal with gin.


Joy D. Wilson said...

When I am asking someone to read my writing I make out a list of questions for them to answer as well. This way, if they have any problems or whatnot they can write them in there, and they don't have to say them to my face if they want. I've never gotten anything mean or nothing, but I have gotten, "this didn't make sense, or wasn't clear enough." helpful things. Just throwing it out there. :)

A. Grey said...

Wow. I've had relatively little critiquing simply because those I trust to read my work aren't good at articulating what they did and didn't like and why. Obviously this isn't good. I've recently gotten two new readers who are both honest and good at articulating their qualms. At first, those close to me were concerned that I would be devastated if my writing was poorly received. But I can't get better if no one tells me that I need to improve. And if I can't handle the criticism of a friend who explains the reasoning behind their criticism, I doubt I could handle an agent/publisher glancing at my work and then leaving the room amidst belly laughs. RIght? Not that agents/publishers would behave in such a way, but I'm sure they're tempted at times.

Lydia Sharp said...


I'm not alone! Someone understands...I might just shed a tear...

Yeah, I (conveniently) forgot to mention the constant fight over which one of us gets to lock ourselves up in "writing mode" with the 'puter, and who gets to watch the kid.

That would be a downside. Not that I don't like spending time with my son, but...yeah, I'm not very good at parenting when my mind is on another planet fighting off aliens with kick-ass weapons.

My son is just as much of a sci-fi geek as me and his father are, though. Instead of baseball in the backyard, this is how we play:

"Mama, you be the clone trooper, and I'll be General Grievous."

"I don't wanna be the clone trooper. They always die."

*he arcs his light sabers* "Thwung, szwung, jzjjzhzhzh."

*I fall to the floor, dramatically*

"Dagnabbit, kid."

"Shh. Dead troopers can't talk."

*husband calls from other room*
"Could you kill each other a little quieter, please...wait, aren't you supposed to be making dinner?"

Hehe. Oops.

Michael Reynolds said...

This is why I tell people not to do writers groups.

There are two classes of people you should show your manuscript to:

1) People who can write you a check.
2) People who can get it to people who can write you a check.

Richard Lewis said...

A side note: is the website for the workshop method Cary Tennis recommends. (I got curious and googled it).

Cardinal said...

Michael Reynolds said it best, which is why I won't join critique groups.

I have four very good friends who act as my 'b.s. detectors' as I write. They'll honestly tell me if I'm churning out garbage.

One, however, doesn't read my chosen genre. She did enjoy the female character so much she wanted me to completely rewrite the novel to do it from her perspective. (I politely declined. Knowing how the character struck a chord with her was invaluable, however.)

I'm thankful to have friends who'll tell it like it is, because that's often the greatest gift they can give me.

Cat Moleski said...

I like a good, honest critique. Sometimes it stings, but usually I know where the weak spots are, I just need a poke to make me go and fix them.

Ruth said...

Yeah... before I read anything any of my friends have written, I ALWAYS say I won't comment on it - before I read it. They get really disappointed, but I think it's better in the long run. (They know I've written a couple of unpublished novels so want my opinion - none of them are serious writers so mostly, it's NOT GOOD at all.)

I'm trying to form a critique group so I can get honest feedback from other writers, but at our first meeting I still felt too mean to say anything critical about another writer's work! Oh well.

My boyfriend is fantastic at criticising my writing. He can be very critical and often I do get annoyed with him, but he's nearly always right, damn it! And he's always so nice about it... the "I love you, but this sucks", I guess!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

We have interesting relationships as betas, don't we? Maybe more honest in some ways than spouses or best friends.

Literary Cowgirl said...

I've never blown smoke up anyone's ass, though I've always tried to be very nice about my crit (and I don't believe in any sort of negativity without some of the constructive sort). Unfortunately, I've lost some internet friends over it- those that are sure tey are the next pioneer of a new form. All the best to them. Maybe I'm a little more numb in the head than the average reader who will make or break your book.

I seek out harsh crit. My fave internet bff hates most of my work. He doesn't say so. He's polite, but I can tell by what he says that it makes him cringe. That's great. I know I'll always et an honest reaction out of him, and so many of my pieces have beniftted from his crit. If I'm unsure about something, I just send it his way. I have enough people to send stuff to if I want to some cheerleading.

Writing is subjective. There is no way that everyone is going to like you. In fact, you're beating the odds to have a small percentage love you. Either you can hack it, or you can't. And, there is always a lesson to be learned from those that don't (not that you have to listen).

Literary Cowgirl said...

I have to agree. You said it so much nice than I did. I don't lie, but yes, I try very hard to point out the good. The friends I lost were when I couldn't find anythingand tried to avoid a crit. After being called out, what could I do?

I'll mess this up, but Hemingway said, something like "The world breaks many people, and in those places the grown strong. It breaks the very meek and the very bold, indeiscrimately. Have no fear if you are none of these things, fo r the world will break you, too. Only, it will have no specific hurry about it." (If anyone knows the exact quotation, feel free to correct me.

Do we really do anyone a favour by lying. In a crit group we can encourage and push a writer on, while pointing out weaknesses, or we can leave them to face form rejection after form rejection.

Ok, happy writing all.

rodgriff said...

A fabulous set of comments, I am seriously thinking of reading them all out at our local writing group - it might improve our future discussions. One other thing, I discover that there are actually people who drink Dr Pepper for comfort, what an astonishing world we live in.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Great topic Moonrat.

Four years ago I joined a writing group so I could get constructive feedback, because family and friends are really no help. They mean well, but they often don't know what to look for.

I found the group critique sessions confronting to begin with, but they really helped. I would not have found my groove, written a decent novel and got a publishing deal without my critique buddies.

We are honest with each other - sometimes it's painful at the time but it's for the book's own good.

I have a blanket rule that I don't read/comment on manuscripts from anyone outside my critique group. That way lies madness (and broken friendships)

moonrat said...

I'm a big, big fan of the critique group, myself. You KNOW you're going in there to get flayed, so, for some reason, it doesn't hurt as much. Or even at all--there's just a lot more of "oh, I see your point." Plus, even a mismatched crit group is helpful; people who write/favor a totally different genre from yours might not offer the MOST useful opinion on what you should do to make yours better, but they offer A useful opinion, and one you might not have anticipated.

If only they weren't so darn tricky to set up...

Sara J. Henry said...

I had a core group of readers - mostly fellow writers - for the manuscript for my first novel (recently sold), only a few of whom saw it before its "final" stage. Once I convinced my friends I wanted all their comments, it was immensely helpful. If I didn't agree, I ignored it. If it resonated with me (or more than one reader had an issue), I fixed it.

When first starting out, though, I found a critique group overwhelming - conflicting advice and I didn't know who to believe, and hadn't really found my voice. You have to slog through some drafts alone, until you're ready for input.

widstson said...

This is why I try not to let anyone IRL know I'm a writer. I just got part of a MS from a relative and I tell you, no advice could suffice except "Go back to English class" or "Read more books and pay attention this time." It's heartbreaking how badly this person wants to be a writer compared to how badly s/he writes.

Judith Mercado said...

Here's what I learned to do when asking friends to read my work. I tell them, "Tell me what you don't like." It's amazing what they can come up with when they're free not to have to love my work. A lot of it is useful, too.

virginia.amos said...

There is writing that can be improved with good comments, hard work and killer commitment to constructive criticism. And then there is just plain bad - bad story, bad writing, bad construction, bad should never see the light of day bad

Cranky Woman