Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sharing WIPs, or The Milk of Human Kindness

First of all, I'd like to welcome Victoria Mixon! Victoria is a professional editor that I've known for awhile now, and I'm always fascinated with what she has to share on her blog about writing and editing. Recently, Victoria has been doing a series of posts about independent publishing. Davin and I did a guest post over there about our experiences with Lulu, and several other authors have been sharing their experiences with other self-publishing ventures. Go. Read. Great material!

So, onward to Victoria's guest post for me today!


Michelle has asked me to write today about showing your manuscript to friends.


I used to do that. Yes. Many years ago, when I was young and naive and full of hope for modern civilization, I theorized that the average reader was the ideal audience, so my reader friends were the proper people to tell me whether or not my novels worked. Of course my friends were intelligent, well-read folks with highly-developed tastes in particular fiction and the ability to express themselves clearly. Their opinions were heck of smart.

So one of the my most intellectual friends took my WIP with him on a roadtrip down the West Coast with his parents, who happened to be in the process of removing him from his current situation and committing him to rehab. Sweet, brilliant, strung-out to the eyeballs, he had the grace—when I said, “Well?“—to reply simply and kindly, “I’ll have to read it again.”

Another friend read that WIP during chemo treatments in the last year of her life. She called me up after the first chapter and cried, “I love this!” Then she never mentioned it again. (I certainly never asked.) She didn’t finish it.

Yet another friend—a writer friend—carried off her copy of the WIP, though, and after calling me to say, “I tell everyone I’m reading this amazing novel by a friend!” also stopped commenting. I eventually commissioned a mutual friend to retrieve the manuscript and destroy it.

Some years later I re-read that novel. The first chapters were a joy—vivid, poetic, exciting, word-perfect. The rest of it deteriorated with terrifying speed into a sloppy, inexplicable mess.

What did I learn from all this? Exactly. Sometimes the kindest criticism is silence.

However, sometimes friends can’t bear to hold their tongues. Sometimes they just have to say it.

Once I traded manuscripts with a published friend, the author of lovely, heart-wrenching literary works. We gave each other detailed, specific, incredibly concrete advise. She loved my criticism. I loved hers. Clear up until I got to the last paragraph of her letter, where she suddenly told me my ending was “melodramatic and unbelievable.” I sat there reeling dizzily in my chair.

Melodramatic? My baby? Unbelievable? But it was black humor!

I made two quick decisions, then and there: I would take her advice and toss the objectionable ending, starting over again from scratch. (She had, after all, given me tons of marvelous criticism on the rest of the novel, criticism I couldn’t fault in any way, and she had a history of telling me the things I needed to know, but could see in anybody’s work except my own.)

And I would stop asking writer friends to critique my novels.

The problem was the same problem I always had reading tarot cards for people I loved.

I knew too much.

Have you discussed your WIP with your writer friends? Shared the anguish of decisions, worked though plot ideas, held each other’s hands when characters died on the page (and not on purpose)? Have they been with you through multiple drafts, helping you shape where your novel is going, you helping them shape theirs?

Or are they coming to this manuscript cold? Do they know nothing about your work, only that they love you, they admire your dedication to the craft, and they’re determined to reward that dedication with the best possible criticism they can muster?

Do they care about you? I mean, really. Are they your friends?

Because if they are, then they’re laboring under one of the worst possible burdens a critiquer can have.

The burden of conflicting agendas.

Whenever I read tarot cards for friends in the old days (back when I had time for such frivolity), my biggest obstacle was keeping what I already knew out of the reading. Conversely, when I read the cards for total strangers, I blew them back in their chairs. “How did you know that?” they said, their eyes bugging out.

Single agenda.

Along the same lines, when I edit for strangers now, I bring none of my own baggage. I don’t know the authors. I’ve never read their manuscripts before. I know only that they care deeply, passionately, painfully about their babies and that my job is to help them turn those babies into grown-ups who can go out in the world and fend for themselves. It’s work. I do it for a living. I’m not going to confide in these people about my family life. All we’re going to ever talk about is what I know about the craft of fiction, specifically as it pertains to their struggles with it.

(Of course, this isn’t entirely true throughout the whole course of our relationship, if it stretches into years. Eventually I’m hearing about their daily travails—particularly as they pertain to wrestling a manuscript into a headlock—and sharing casual snippets of my own life in return. Very carefully considered snippets.)

I do not bring them my serious concerns, my worries, my fears, the dark heart of my soul. I don’t cry on their shoulders or ask them for advice. I certainly don’t bring them my own fiction. That wouldn’t be fair. Our relationship is all about theirs.

When you hand your manuscript to a friend, you automatically hand them a ticking time bomb.

“When will I say something casually that cuts to the quick?”

“How can I tell them this stinks without losing their trust in me?”

You’re playing with dynamite when you do this. Your WIP is not the one overriding priority of this relationship. Where does the milk of human kindness begin and end? If your friend is handing a manuscript back, you both have conflicting agendas.

But when you hand your manuscript to a hired professional, you enter into an unspoken agreement.

“If I don’t like you, I’ll take my baby elsewhere, and you’ll never hear from me again. You’re probably a scammer, anyway.”

“Half of my job is knowing what to say about individual manuscripts. The other half is knowing how to say it.”

Just as with therapy—real, useful, constructive criticism needs a solid professional relationship as its base. Yes, your friends will hold you when you cry and let you unload your endless, on-going irritation with the mundane trivialities of life. Mine do that for me, too. But it takes a therapist to go into your shadows and surgically remove the tumors growing there.

Writing friends are indispensable support in this devastating, elevating, death-defying craft of fiction that we all love. The power balance between writers can be nurturing and fulfilling in the extreme.

Just don’t ask them to perform surgery. You don’t want that beloved support system to up and die on you right there on the table.


Thank you for reading this guest post! I certainly have opinions about what Victoria discusses here. I will be doing a post either next Thursday or sooner on my writing blog, The Innocent Flower. Let me know what you think about all of this! Do you let your friends critique your work? And I mean writing friends, not your friends from grade school.


  1. I do. But then, my two closest writing friends are in my crit group, so it's hard to get away from that. I don't ask for crits from people that won't be honest with me.

  2. I loved this post. I too had to go through many silences after which I also realized, "Just don’t ask them to perform surgery. You don’t want that beloved support system to up and die on you right there on the table." Thankfully, most of my early readers are still friends, even if they are not fans of my early or current work.

  3. This is post is dead on! I handed my first novel to three of my close friends and they were all excited at first and after awhile they went silence. Silence says a lot.

    I think the internet is a great source for meeting and befriending writers who can give an objective lookout/feedback on your work without having to feel obligated to. Yeah to the world wide web!

  4. I don't see the difficulty in this question:

    “How can I tell them this stinks without losing their trust in me?”

    --If you think "it stinks," then that's what you think. And that's your single opinion, which is what I think should be said.

    And so your friend berated your ending--so what? That's her single opinion.

    Billions of people on this planet; each will have her single opinion. One person's garbage may be another person's treasure, and vice versa.

    I think a problem only comes in when person after person after person doesn't respond to a written work. They could still all be incorrect in thinking the work sucks, doesn't move anyone, and so on. However, that this becomes a practical issue is what's really important: if over a period of many years and based on free reads, plenty of people don't like that work, who would be left to pay to read it if published?

    W.r.t. conflicting agendas--any kind of reader can have a conflicting agenda. Writers trying for traditional publication have a HUGE conflicting agenda: they're all competing for a limited number of slots. And the green-eyed monster often gets in the way of critiques. Peers (especially at the exact same level of evolution) are probably the worst people to take manuscript critiques from.

    Nonwriting friends and family members tend to be too soft in critiques, but writing "friends" and family members tend to be too hard. Killing someone's book is not one writer's responsibility to another writer. The rest of the world will do that killing soon enough.

  5. ...Though, really, new people are born all the time, a new crop of potential readers and buyers are born all the time. And some writers have been born in the wrong time. A book that doesn't resonate with millions of people today could resonate with millions of new people twenty years from now.

    When I said "And that's your single opinion, which is what I think should be said" I should have been clearer. I meant both things, that what your single specific opinion is should be stated, and THAT it's your single opinion should also be explicitly stated.

  6. I believe in soliciting a diverse range of feedback so I can look for common threads.

    One aspect of my manuscript, which my agent didn't quite like (she was an editor for 15-20 years before becoming an agent) is something that the majority of my non-professional beta readers thought was very funny. I went with the majority and decided not to cut it. My agent was OK with that.

    I think I am very lucky to have an agent with such a background and who truly enjoys the editorial aspect of her job. I know many agents only want a polished and publishable submission.

    Still, I try not to use her as a beta reader. I hold off until I have fixed major problems before engaging her for fine tuning. I would think this makes sense when considering a paid editor, too...going through a first round of critiques can help you identify obvious problems that somehow seem to slip past us in early drafts, so the paid time is not used addressing the obvious but is instead focused on the levels of editing that are not available through a common critter.

  7. Fantastic comments and thoughts, everyone! I'm so busy this morning that I don't have time to comment on each one for now, but I will be back later to do just that. Interesting discussion, eh?

  8. I don't have beta readers. I have one person (a non-writer) whose good opinion I really desire, and sometimes I impress her and sometimes I don't. I do listen to her comments, because she is widely and well read and bluntly honest. I show things to other writers, but mostly that's to share what I've been doing, not for critiques. The most useful feedback I've had has been from my agent, who tells me when something isn't working. He offers no solutions, which is fine, because I want to find them on my own. I would probably not hire a professional editor, no offense to Victoria.

  9. One more thing: while reading your post, when I got to the part where your friend said your ending was melodramatic and you sounded horrified at this, I thought, "What?"

    See, I happen to like melodrama--a lot. I think it's underrated. I think many of the greatest stories ever told are very melodramatic. Melodrama is more memorable to me. And a melodramatic ending on black humor? To me, that sounds interesting, different.

    But you automatically cut that because of your writing friend's critique....

  10. I have not only my friends critique but my enemies too. j/k. I have a few critique groups, just to get a good idea of what works and what doesn't. I'm not afraid to hear a painful suggestion (even though I gain a few pounds from comfort eating afterwards).

  11. I should say (and I think this is very important for would-be debut novelists, so listen up) that the publishing industry is changing. Editors at even the biggest houses are now being forced to spend more time doing acquisitions and have less time to devote to actual editing, especially of debut books. This means that, by and large, a MS has to be in excellent shape by the time it goes out on submission. Some agents are taking on the role of editor to get manuscripts in shape to submit to publishers. But a lot of agents lack time or skills to do that kind of work, and subsequently are passing on books that they'd have been able to sell five or ten years ago. So unless your writing is very solid, you'd be foolish not to have someone else look at your MS before submitting it. Some agents hire freelance editors (like Victoria, though I don't know if she works in this capacity for agents) to get manuscripts in shape, but most don't. Be warned, kids. If you think your work needs an editor, find/hire one, because most of the industry professionals are going to be looking for books that don't need a lot of production work.

  12. This is an important subject for me. Lots of wisdom from Victoria and in the comments too. I've lost friendships and caused terrible family rifts by letting the wrong people read my WIP. Harsh critiques often have nothing to do with the work, and everything to do with the critiquer's own repressed anger or artistic ambitions. "Why doesn't your heroine get a real job? How could she run off with a guy she hardly knows? Doesn't she worry about her family?"

    Now I don't let family or close friends read my books until they're published, and I choose my beta readers carefully--I'm blessed with a great critque group--and I always consider the source before I change a word of my ms.

  13. Falen: Honesty is essential, yes.

    Judith: Well that's good that nothing was destroyed! I've been through just a few rocky periods with friends who were brutally honest with me. It's all patched up now, but I've learned some valuable things from that.

    Crimey: Silence is the worst. Ever. It's what I dread the most, actually.

    FP: Good thoughts here about everyone being different and not placing too much at stake on one person's opinion. That is never a good thing. And yes, interesting about having your peers look at your work if they may be in competition with you. I agree with that, to a point, Like, Davin and I help each other sometimes with our work, but although neither of us is published yet, I don't feel in competition with him in the slightest. Our work is so different from each other, and I'd gladly see him published before myself. I don't like to think of it as a competition. That takes out most of the enjoyment of writing for me altogether.

    Also, on your third comment,
    I agree with you about melodrama. I like melodrama. Monarch has some strong melodramatic tendencies, and I think that is part of what makes it work.

    Rick:Ah, yes, diverse is good. I think, though, that with different people I ask different things. With reading friends I'm just looking for reactions to the work, with writing friends I'm looking for general feedback/direction, but to really get to the meat of problems with the work, I'd either hire a professional editor, or since I can't afford that, I go with friends that I trust, respect, and know have some editing experience.

    I like what you say about making sure your work is as polished as it can be before you hand it to your agent.

    Scott: Whatever you're doing, it works. As far as your second comment goes, thank you for writing that. I think it's important for any writer to get a good grasp of where their work stands and what it needs to improve. I think that's where writing friends can come in handy - to get a feel for that. Querying and getting rejected over and over is also a good indication...

    We shouldn't treat agents like editors unless they truly want to offer that service. I think they all differ, of course.

  14. ...Don't think of it like a competition if that bothers you. Certainly with your friends that shouldn't be happening. I didn't mean to instill anything personal there, just an awareness of the overall issue.

    I'm just talking in general: for writers, as far as trying for limited slots, unfortunately, it is a competition because the money in publishing is limited (especially right now) and so are the numbers of publishers. The ratio of writers to potential publishers is large. Not so for the ratio of writers to potential readers--lots of those around! Billions, potentially. Trying for readers should not be a competition; readers could theoretically read a huge number of books, and if they're cheap enough, they could also buy a huge number. It's never as much an I versus you choice between two writers then, because a single reader could read and buy both their books and probably is more likely to do so than a single publisher.

    This is a big reason why when talking to other writers I use the word readers a lot, not publishers. I think the focus should be kept on readers. Enough of those exist for every writer to reach some.

  15. I totally agree. I still let family/friends read it, but my beta readers are people I’ve met in writing groups who will be honest, painfully honest if it needs it!

  16. FP: I can definitely see and agree with your reasoning! Looking at the number of people writing compared to slots available in the traditional publishing world - that's very daunting indeed. Sigh.

    Jennifer: Painfully honest - that is so hard! I've cried over critiques more than once, that's for sure.

    Anjali: Thanks for coming by!

    Tess: Yes, who else if not your writing friends? I would think only an agent or an editor. Do you feel like you have someone else to turn to now that you have an agent and an editor or are you speaking of mainly beta readers?

  17. THANK YOU! This is an excellent post and excellent advice about editing. Honest feedback is worth its weight in gold. =]

  18. Thank you to all of you who read and all who commented. The publishing industry is changing so fast these days, it's hard to keep up with. But the craft of writing fiction itself---that's a joy that will never change.

    And thank you to Lady Glamis, Davin, and Scott for welcoming me.

  19. Honesty is always the best policy. Especially in writing. And as for showing my work to friends. I don't like to do it. Though some beta readers have become dear friends to me. So I guess in that respect, I do show my work to friends. But we all know that this business is tough. And we have to be thick-skinned.

    Nice post. Thanks Victoria and Michelle.

    Michelle, thank you for your prayers for Christopher and I. I so appreciate them. You'll never know how much. =)

  20. You're welcome, Robyn. I always try to remember my internet friends in my prayers. I think we are all more connected than we think. *HUGS*


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