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.
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I wrote yesterday about the benefits of blogging, especially for the beginning writer. Another popular tool is the writing group. Many of you probably already belong to one or have belonged to one. Most of the working writers I talk to do not use writers groups, though primarily because they are on tight publishing schedules and they have editors whose job it is, theoretically, to read and improve their work. There are exceptions to this, however, most notably Wally Lamb. A bestselling novelist twice chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, Wally belongs to no less that three writing groups.
Just as writing a blog can build your confidence by forcing you to write for an audience of strangers, joining a writing group can toughen your skin for the inevitable feedback you will one day receive from the publishing world. There is a danger with the writing group, however – namely, not everyone who wants to write is a good critic of other people’s writing.
Giving useful feedback on a work in progress is not a simple thing. To do so, you must divorce your own aesthetic from what the author is trying to achieve. That is, just because you do not like how a story is being told, does not mean it should not be told that way. Therefore, when someone hands you a story or a chapter and asks, “What do you think?” don’t tell them. Don’t tell them what you really think of it unless you really love it. Everyone wants to know if you love what they’ve written because everyone wants to reach another person and it’s good to know when you’ve done so.
But the question you should be asking yourself is, “What is the writer trying to do?” Then, “What can I say to help them do it?” This is not always easy, and I must confess I am not that good at it. I become irritable and impatient with stories I don’t like. But then I sit across from the writer whose work I have read, and I look into his or her face, and I see someone just like myself, someone trying to tell the story they most want to tell. So I reach for a writer’s best friend, compassion, and come up with something. It is not always useful, but if nothing else maybe I let them know that everything they risk is worth doing.
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