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.
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.