Family, Friends, and Feedback
A Deadly Combination
by Erin Brown
As we enter this festive
season which unites family and friends—whether you will be
celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or simply
EataLottaFoodus—I am reminded of one of the cardinal rules of
writing: get another opinion on your novel besides that of a family
member or friend. Don’t even get me started on handing a red pencil
to thine sworn enemy: “I smiteth thee with scarlet ink!”
I have had countless writers
talk about how they’ve “gotten tons of valuable feedback from family
and friends” or “every family member who’s read it says the
characters stayed with them and they would definitely buy the book!”
The equivalent of asking family and friends their opinion on your
novel is asking your husband, “Do these jeans make me look fat?”
People who love you know the right answer.
Now, I’m not saying that you
might not get some valuable insight—if a friend or family member has
integrity, they will throw you some way-too-obvious crumbs of a
critique so that you believe they’re being totally honest. For
example, “I loved the manuscript, wow, it’s fantastic. Although you
might want to cut that one scene where your main character beats the
baby seals. It doesn’t fit in with your ‘feel-good’ love story.”
Sure, these types of criticism help, but they’re usually pretty
apparent. Most of the time, the changes that your friends and family
suggest aren’t the ones that would truly benefit the book. Why?
Because no one who loves you—no matter what they say, no matter how
much they promise to be honest—wants to hurt your feelings.
Especially if they know how hard you’ve worked, how much you want to
succeed, and how dear you hold their opinion. They also don’t want
to get the stink-eye at Christmas dinner as you secretly contemplate
hurling scorching sweet potatoes at “Mr. Thinks He Knows Everything
Even Though the Only Thing He’s Ever Written Was a Quarterly Report
at the Firm.” It’s simply human nature.
And yes, that even goes for
your niece who majored in English, your aunt who is a librarian, and
your best friend who reads a lot. The exception? If someone close to
you is a professional copyeditor, you can take horrible advantage of
their generosity and let them help you clean up the manuscript for
peanuts. This is because it’s hard to hate someone because he or she
corrected your comma usage. There’s no content editing and feedback
involved, so it’s a safe request. But your mom won’t want to give
more than surface advice because you’re her baby,
your husband or wife won’t want to
provide gut-wrenching revision suggestions because they want to
share a bed with you again at some point, and your friend won’t tell
you that you’ve switched points of view ten times in every scene
because they might not even notice (and they want to keep their
manicure gal pal/duck hunting buddy happy; depending on your gender,
of course). It’s not only an issue of being too nice, either. Give
it to someone who has always hated you since you stole their
boyfriend in junior high and they’ll be honest, but also just mean
for the sake of being mean.
What you need is a fresh set of eyes,
feedback from someone who is not emotionally invested in your world,
and most importantly, someone (or people) who really know the
writing world. Only then can you get honest, unadulterated, valuable
feedback that will truly benefit your writing. Where can you find
such people, you ask? Well, that’s easy. Find a writing group in
your town/city/burg/building or even seek out an online group.
There’s no reason you have to sit with people face-to-face, and if
you’ve seen some writers, you’ll know that’s a good thing. Oh my
gosh, I’m totally kidding (I’m not). Oh, yes I am!
You can also hire an editor (me!
Bwahahaha!), attend a conference and submit a partial to a guest
editor/book doctor, or even contact a student from the English
department at your local university who might be willing to help you
for a pittance/course credit. The idea is to find someone who is
qualified and who isn’t scared to offend you lest you poison their
well water (yes, I live in the country) or secretly resent them for
the foreseeable future.
When should you do this? Before you
begin the submission process, ideally. Agents aren’t very receptive
to rereading manuscripts they’ve already turned down, even if you
have “significantly reworked the novel.” It’s a waste of their time.
You should’ve gotten it right the first go-round. So do it now and
increase your chances of getting an agent to bite. And leave poor
Aunt Bertha and your put-upon spouse alone—or everyone will end up
in a no-win situation. I write this in time for the holidays so that
you can sit beside your kin folk (yep, the country) and enjoy your
Turducken, carols, menorah lighting, or the “airing of grievances”
in peace and harmony.
That is all, my friends. Happy
Christmanukkah to all of you and yours!
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for
over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own
freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her
website at www.erinedits.com