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