Thursday, July 22, 2010

Advice for the Insane

So, I haven’t been feeling well these last few days, but I am on the mend, as they say. I thought I would post about a recent experience I had, an experience some of you may have had as well.

There’s a writer’s group that meets every week at the local library. They usually meet during Friday evenings, a night I work, so I normally can’t make the meetings. But honestly, I am not sure I would go every week even if I could.

I made last week’s meeting, and while everyone there were supportive of each other and their work, I still felt like they were missing the bigger picture. Each meeting they would read out loud from their recent work, and the other members would offer their advice and feedback.

Next, each member talked about their respective progress on the querying front. One particular writer, let’s call her Jane, has written four books. She wrote a book, queried it, it was unanimously rejected. Lather, rinse, repeat for four books.

Needlessly to say, she’s a little bitter. What strikes me about Jane is she’s also very confused as to why her books are being rejected. She asked me to look over her books, and offer some feedback. Having done so, I can say she’s a talented writer with good ideas. I can also say I know why she’s been rejected. I am not trying to be mean, she’s a great writer, but her writing just isn’t quite there. Have you ever had that experience? You’ve read some other aspiring author’s manuscript and you can just feel the… “greenness” of it?

I tried to figure out a really nice way of putting it, but I am not sure she’s gotten my point. I told her all of the strengths of her writing, the good plot points, and so on, but I also mentioned that writing is a craft, and maybe she should work on giving her latest manuscript a deeper edit. Jane said she’s clean some things up, but from the way she was talking about it, I got the impression she was just going to change some words around.

Here is my problem: How do you tell someone they need to study writing more? How do you suggest that maybe churning novel after novel out, while helpful, isn’t the only answer to rejection? That maybe Jane should also think about why she’s being rejected in the first place?

It’s not like I don’t need to improve my own writing. It’s not like I am some grandmaster sage of writing with All the Answers. These are just my opinions; I am not even sure telling Jane she needs to work on her writing is any of my business. I told her what worked and what didn’t with her book, so I did what she asked of me as a beta reader.

It’s something I have been giving a lot of thought to, and wondered what all of your experiences were. What do you all do when you beta read?


  1. This is why I'm uncomfortable reading for other people. When giving feedback, you typically run into two people: the author made of glass that can't handle criticism or the author under water who only hears bits and pieces of what you're saying, usually the pieces they want to hear.

    For this reason, I'm brutally honest in my commentary. Shatter those made out of glass because they're not going to last long anyway. And hopefully the force of the commentary will penetrate the water so the other author type actually hears what's being said.

    Some people like this. Many don't. I tend to shy away from reading now because of the emotional precariousness of the relationship between author and critic.

    (And since you've commented on my work as well, if I didn't pay attention to everything you told me, feel free to say it in such a way that it slaps me upside the head.)

  2. @Joe: I wasn't talking about you in this sense, but it's good to know you're not "made of glass". That's a good way of describing some people: either made of glass or hearing underwater. I feel like Jane is the underwater sort. She's listened to my feedback, but I don't think she's really understood it.

    It's just a tough call to make, because at the end of the day it's still my opinion on someone else's work. Opinions, as we know, are highly subjective, and just because I don't think something is working doesn't mean it isn't.

    Thanks for the feedback on this, it's something I have been mulling over.

  3. I knew you weren't talking about me. ...but what if I was one of those people too! (The internet revolves around me, if you didn't know.)

    I made a grown man cry once when I edited one of his works. He saw the red edit marks on the screen and stifled a sob right there in front of me. I tried to toughen him up over time, but he actually grew more and more delicate toward criticism. He finally just fell apart and chose to write as a hobby.

  4. I want to be in a critique group with someone like you. Honestly.

    Great post.

  5. @Joe: But of COURSE the Internet revolves around you! Only the good stuff though. All of the bad stuff refers to someone else.

    Charity: thanks for the comment. I emailed you for further elabortations.