I have just finished reading the first draft of a friend of mine’s first novel. As first drafts of first novels go, this was pretty together. He’d researched his subject down to its eyeteeth and outlined in great detail, and as a result the story was well structured and realistic and interesting. But it was still a first draft, so there were many of the usual ups and downs, which I began cataloguing for our upcoming night of beer and books.
The only thing I dislike more than having people tell me what they don’t care for about my work is telling someone else what I don’t care for in their work. The line between venting my frustration with certain parts of a novel and offering constructive and encouraging criticism is sometimes blurry in the heat of a discussion. I’m an opinionated guy, but I am far from the last word on what makes for a strong novel. I have read too many published novels—sometimes popular and critically acclaimed novels—that I found riddled with what I considered “problems” to think otherwise.
Yet this sharing of work and opinions is a part of the process, and so share I will. If all goes well, something I say will resonate with him and he’ll come away with a fresh perspective on the book. This happened to me recently. I had handed what I thought was a strong draft to my wife. She, however, had many problems with it, and as soon as she expressed those problems to me, I thought, “She’s right.” No hesitation, which was my clue that I had been unwilling to admit what I knew had to be changed.
This is all we can really hope to do when talking to people about their work – guide them toward what they already know but have been unable to see. Everyone’s going to make up their own mind in the end anyway. If what I have to offer makes no sense to him, so be it; perhaps he’ll publish it to wild acclaim as is. But if what I have to say does resonate, then wonderful also. It will not be that I have helped him improve his book so much as helped him to say what he truly wants to say, and I can’t think of anything I would ever rather do than that.