3.10.2006

Will You Read My Novel?

I had an on-line writer friend ask me to read her manuscript. I am not an editor by any stretch of the imagination, but we both write in the same genre and it was within my comfort zone to oblige her. Okay, so now the problem... I read her proposed book.

Her writing is outstanding when it comes to the detailed descriptions of some things, but her character development is not there at all, I mean not at all. The plot is lacking also. (Lacking is an understatement as the book could have easily been thrown into a wall several times and I'm not all that hard to please!)

Now what do I do? I don't want to sound high-minded but I sure don't want to tell her that her book was a wonderful read. I only offered to read it because of how well written some of her sample work was. (Boy did I learn my lesson!)

I sure don't envy you your job. I thought that reading bad poetry was bad, but I'm thinking that a bad book is a whole lot worse, especially when you have committed to read the whole thing!

She doesn't know that I have finished reading her book, and I hate to deal with this, but I'm left with no choice! Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated and all advice will be followed to the letter!

A fledging Snarkling.



You can send her my usual letter when I read something like this: "Thanks for letting me read your novel. It sucked. Get a job".

or not.

Actually, before I was an agent I worked in the industry in a different capacity. Lots of people knew I "did something with books" even if they weren't quite sure what it was.

One Saturday night I was, well, shall we say, enamored of a certain gentleman. He returned the enamorization and we were canoodling on the beaches of love. The locale of canoodling changes to his thatched roof hut and by the light of tiki torch he says (one hand on my thigh) "here, you like books you should read this".

Well, I thought he was going to give me a book of love poems, or maybe some Anais Nin, or at worst Harold Robbins.

oh woe, no.

It is, I swear to dog, printed pages, printed on both sides no less, in a "illuminated manuscript" font like Bodini, about 8pts, and full of every adjective known to man, and few imported from Rabbitania.

I was speechless, and not just cause his tongue had been down my throat.

So, I feel your pain. And here's what to do.

You say "I was glad to read your novel. I never offer comments but I can answer questions about it." General questions like "did you like it" can be answered truthfully with "not as much as I hoped I would after reading -and this is where you insert the name of the work you did like." You'll know she has no idea about character development if she doesn't ask anything about it.

Criticism is a tough game, and not for the faint of heart. I have a lot of respect for the people who sent their stuff to the Crapometer for 'fondling'.

If your online friend takes exception to your comments, well, she needs to learn how to accept constructive criticism, and you've learned how to be Miss Snark!

36 comments:

Termagant2 said...

You might decide to bracket your comments. Say the positive things ("I liked your power of description - masterful") and then the negative items. When I have to do this, I try to get over the rough ground as rapidly as possible ("this didn't work for me because..."). Then close with another paean about how good s/he is at description.

I know...it borders on dishonesty. But figure: how many of us say everything we are thinking when we crit a book? Dishonesty and holding back some of your (snarky?) opinions are not the same thing.

If you feel uncomfortable with any of the above, by all means do what your gut dictates. You might even say, "I've read your stuff before, and this wasn't up to your normal standard."

Sigh.
T2

Anonymous said...

I wrote ads and commercials for a long time, won lots of awards. It's a team affair--a copywriter working with an art director, trying to come up with an idea. You learn that the only way to get to something good is by saying, "that sucks" when your partner offers a bad idea, AND to accept it when he/she returns the favor. For what it's worth, the only way to help your friend (and you) grow is to tell the truth: what works, and what sucks.

Ig said...

As an art school graduate, I have seen some vicious, agonizing critiques. I once had a professor tell me (without a hint of cruelty in her voice) that my piece made her unhappy because it was so, so bad. She pointed out everything that was wrong with it (in front of twenty other students) and I came to realize that everything she had said was absolutely right (after a pathetic night of sobbing/inebriation/more sobbing).

I have never again made the mistakes that I made in that painting, and I'm a much better artist for it. If you don't critique honestly, someone else (an agent, a writer's group) will. If your friend can take the criticism, she might improve her manuscript. If she can't, she'll never be ready to hear from actual agents.

If you have the time and the inclination, find a local art school and ask if you can sit in on some critiques. It's a great way to learn the right (and wrong) ways to talk to artists about their work.

Anonymous said...

When you read her ms, was it on the understanding that you would give her a critique, or were you just reading it because you're a friend? If you're reading it as a friend, then tell her what you liked and only gently refer to what you didn't.

If you're reading the ms as critic, however, then yes, be nice to her ego, but you're not helping her as a writer if you don't tell her where she's going wrong. People can learn to plot; there is hope for her. Giving her a gently honest critique might lead her to a break-through in her writing, and be the best thing that ever happened to her as a writer. You shouldn't not tell her, if she wanted you to critique the work.

And if she can't handle the criticism, then she doesn't have what it takes to be a writer anyway. She needs to be serious about improving, and that means developing a thick enough skin and an open enough mind to deal with and accept criticism.

Anonymous said...

And that's why I joined an online critique group (Critique Circle) because I needed honest feedback. You do have to leave your ego in the closet. But since I'm willing to accept as well as give honest criticism in this group, and there are many others like me, with different strengths, you might want to suggest your friend find an online group to her liking.

Praise what you liked, suggest you had some issues with characterization and plot, but don't feel secure in commenting more than that, and suggest she get more eyeballs on it and put on her Kevlar body suit just in case some of the criticism is harsh.

Anyway, that's what I'd do. It doesn't mean it's right, but sounds like your online friend needs honest appraisal to move forward.

anon-y-mouse

Liz Wolfe said...

Is she expecting a critique from you? And did you agree to give her one? If so, you should tell her how you felt about the book. That doesn't mean you have to be mean or condescending about it. By all means compliment what she does well. But also tell her where it was lacking and why. It's difficult for a writer to grow and improve without any feedback.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous post. Unlike Miss Snark, you aren't sleeping with this person. She obviously values your opinion, so it would be a disservice to her if you did't give honest feedback. "I like the description but I feel your charcter development needs a lot of work." Provide examples if she asks for them. And if she hates you for being honest then at least you won't have to suffer through another of her novels... and, hopefully, nor will anyone else. You need a thick skin in this business, and having your bubble burst is all part of the learning experience. It's too bad she didn't let you read the first few chapters of her novel before she had invested so much time in completing it.

Feisty said...

I have also read some really bad stuff. I work for a small press and you see lots of half-baked stories.

But, you can tell your friend that you love the descriptions and that she's great at turning a phrase but you feel that the characters could be stronger.

That may lead to a conversation. It may lead to her wanting to shoot you. If she wants to shoot you, I suggest that you don't offer to read for her anymore. If it leads to a conversation, you might get the chance to tell her how you thought the characters could be deeper.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Oronte. Meanwhile I am entirely at your disposal. If you have any business at Court, every one knows how well I stand with the King; I have his private ear; and, upon my word, he treats me in everything with the utmost intimacy. In short, I am yours in every emergency; and, as you are a man of brilliant parts, and to inaugurate our charming amity, I come to read you a sonnet which I made a little while ago, and to find out whether it be good enough for publicity.

Alceste. I am not fit, sir, to decide such a matter. You will therefore excuse me.

Oronte. Why so?

Alceste. I have the failing of being a little more sincere in those things than is necessary.

Oronte. The very thing I ask; and I should have reason to complain, if, in laying myself open to you that you might give me your frank opinion, you should deceive me, and disguise anything from me.

Alceste. If that be the case, sir, I am perfectly willing.

Oronte. Sonnet… It is a sonnet…Hope… It is to a lady who flattered my passion with some hope. Hope… They are not long, pompous verses, but mild, tender and melting little lines. (At every one of these interruptions he looks at Alceste)

The Misanthrope (1622)

Anonymous said...

I often slip stuff like this in between compliments - don't know if it works or not, *really*, but
I'd probably slink in sideways with something like this:

The description was absolutely wonderful - I couldn't be more impressed. You have a brilliant, brilliant talent.

The characters are not coming through, and I think this is
because they are not being focussed on. For the same reason, the story seems vague, as if you're not making the most of the technique of *keeping back info* to heighten suspense. The key is to draw the reader on, even in descriptive passages, because you know how it is - when it's an entire novel, not a single passage, readers need to be lured, or forced, deeper - by being made curious.

So that's all - I'd say, follow your tightly plotted storyline, and develop the characters. Use a character/background-detailed bio for each. Though of course just for yourself, this makes a huge difference, especially when you give them entertaining (psuedo-realistic) dialogue.

To sum up (again?), I'd say you just need to apply your extraordinary skill with description to building suspense, and characters. To me, the luscious descriptive writing now tends to overwhelm the suspense-building aspects of the novel.

Anonymous said...

miss snark, could i canoodle with you on the beaches of love? i promise not to surprise you with no sinkin' manuscript while my hand is caressing your thigh.

Anonymous said...

When I critique work I didn't like, I make a point of framing everything in terms of my own responses: "This character didn't work for me because ...," "I didn't understand why this happened," rather than "You didn't develop this character enough" or "Your plot made no sense here." It sounds a tiny bit less accusatory that way and reminds both me and the author that what doesn't work for me may work just fine for some other reader.

Catja (green_knight) said...

So someone asks you to read her mss. She's a writer, you're a writer, you claim to be her friend.

To me, that sounds like an honest-to-god 'I think we're on the same wavelength, please give me a crit of my book' exchange.

You're only offering to give help to your friends if the writing is outstanding? You're contemplating telling a lie ('it was wonderful,daaahling') over saying 'I liked this bit, and that bit, but I think this needs work'?

Get thee to www.critters.com

They've got some good advice on how to write crits without annoying the people who wrote the stuff. You agreed to read it, you deal with it. Honestly and as befits a friend. Or you say 'I'm sorry I didn't have the time/I'm sorry I can't find the right things to say'

What's wrong with 'your description is outstanding, but your character development wasn't enough for me'? At least it will give her something to ponder.

The next time, it might be _you_. How would you like to be treated in her situation?

Learning to crit is a good skill for a writer, because if you can find flaws in someone else's mss, you can learn to find them in your own.

December Quinn said...

LOL at the canoodling!

I agree with most of the others. It sounds to me like she was looking for a critique partner, and since you (apparently, because you don't specify) agreed to that you do owe her a crit.

Be honest, in as nice a way as you can. If she's really hopeless (I once critiqued something for a friend that was so bad I still cringe when I think of it) just give the general platitudes, because I don't think something really terrible can ever be made good (remember, I'm talking about terrible here-cliche characters, lines of dialogue stolen from movies, plot holes you could drive a truck through, a hero who was basically a stalker with a low IQ). It might sound awful of me, but I frankly did not think the work had a snowball's chance of succeeding, so didn't waste my time doing an involved critique.

But it sounds like your friend is a good writer, she just needs help. I think as a friend you should-she wouldn't have asked if she didn't perhaps suspect the work had problems. I do that with my CP-if something isn't quite working, I send it to her and ask why. She's pretty much always right, and then I can fix the problem. Luckily, we love each others' work, so we can say things like, "This is boring as dirt" without hurt feelings.

If she doesn't work as a CP for you, that's fine. But you do owe her what you said you would give. How much you want to give depends on how much you like her and how big a chance you think she has of actually succeeding.

Anonymous said...

I was in the same boat before, and it was horrible. The author is a very close friend who lives quite a distance away, so there was no chance of just talking to her in person.

I agreed to read it for her because she's my friend, and the other stuff I've read of hers was great, but her book STUNK. Really, really stunk! It had no plot, the characters were both unlikeable AND unbelievable, and, worst of all, she didn't have that special something that all natural storytellers have. I believe there's a certain quality to great writing that can't be taught.

I opted for being honest in a very kind, gentle way. I also complimented wherever I could, and of course I didn't give her my opinion that she doesn't have what it takes. I sent the email and waited in terror for her response.

She took forever to get back to me, but once she did, she thanked me for my critique, and said she agreed with a lot of it. She's since done a ton of rewrites, taking more and more of my suggestions into account each time.

But I haven't offered to read the rewrites - I learned my lesson!

December Quinn said...

Oh, and btw...if you're published and she isn't, she's probably been waiting with bated breath for your crit.

For all you know, she's planning to query agents with "Fantastic Writer read this and loved it." She might even be planning to query your agent with that, or ask for an intro. If you're not honest about the work, it's going to be hard to say no.

(Granted, I think most agents might look at "Fantastic Writer read this..." and think, yeah right. But it's still a reason to be careful, because the last thing you want is your own reputation dmaged by "Huh? Fantastic Writer liked this? Remind me never to read his/her books!"

Dave Kuzminski said...

Simply state that you wanted to know more about the characters and with her skills she might want to add additional depth to them so they're not overwhelmed by the elegant scenery descriptions (or some other good part of her manuscript, excluding the final two words which some people long for if the writing is bad and they have to read the thing for whatever reason). In other words, try to state a negative as a positive.

Min said...

Critters.com
Creating pet memorials in loving memory of our furry friends.

I'm not sure there is anything at this site that will be helpful specifically to writers...

Anonymous said...

I certainly hope Mr. Clooney has no WIP....

Anonymous said...

Cynthia writes

The kindest thing my current CP ever did for me was to gently remove my own head from my butt.

This person may have been like me at that point, and going crazy trying to figure out if she reeks as a writer (no hope at all, and don't waste the time) or whether, with enough investment and time she can improve. You may be the first "writer" to look at her book.

As I said, my CP nailed me on what didn't work ... it was my voice, and at first I thought I was a goner. But THEN I turned my weakness into my strength, switched genres, where my voice worked better, and even I knew I was in the right place.

Plants can't grow without proper pruning, but you don't have to use a chainsaw to do it.

You've got good advice already, but I'll add another piece: ask first the writer's thoughts on the book. What does she feel are her weaknesses? Her strengths? If she says, "No weaknesses, I'm going to publish this baby the minute the editor rips open the envelope" then you know she just wants affirmation, not real help.

I have a few rules for "critting" work now: (1) they have to be seriously pursuing publication. (2) They have to have finished (or be committed to) finishing the book. (3) They have to be willing to at least ENTERTAIN my comments. I will correct a grammatical error or two and suggest a link to a comma-tutorial, but if they pass me something the second time with things unchanged or commas in all the wrong places, I don't waste my time.

I use the sandwich approach: positive, negative, positive. I also do line edits, showing where I laughed, where I liked a line, where I thought the work was strong. As an English professor (okay, former, now), I KNOW people don't grow as writers if you tell them everything's hunkydory.

Good luck.

Kendall said...

Catja: http://www.critters.com is for "Creating pet memorials in loving memory of our furry friends." I believe you mean http://www.critters.org...??? ;-)

Cheryl Mills said...

Maybe you could try writing up a bunch of questions for your writer friend, about the characters, questions about the plot, send it all to her in an email that starts with "You write the best descriptions I've ever read, but I want to ask you a few questions about the manuscript." At least that way you'll get her thinking. And you don't have to say it sucks.

Anonymous said...

When I critique a work, I frame my comments in terms of my own reactions: "I didn't understand what was happening here" and "This character didn't work for me because ..." instead of "This part of the plot didn't make sense" or "You haven't developed this character fully." It makes my criticisms sound a little less accusatory and reminds both me and the author (without having to reiterate "This is just my opinion") that what didn't work for me may work just fine for some other reader.

Anonymous said...

Two things that can help:

(1) Be specific. "Your characters weren't well developed" can be frustrating to read, especially for someone who simple hasn't yet learned a lot about character development. Back up the statement with examples: "There's a lot going on in Chapter 12, but I didn't understand how Miss Kitty felt about any of it. Show us more of her attitude toward these events." This makes it harder for her to dismiss the statement with, "Well, you don't know what you're talking about."

(2) Give suggestions. "Maybe the ending would make more sense if Miss Kitty rescued Joe instead of the other way around" is a lot more helpful than "The ending didn't work for me." Getting a good suggestion can help your friend look at her work in a fresh light; it also makes it obvious that you're operating from a sincere wish to help her, not a need to run down her work.

Anonymous said...

I would want to know the truth, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As much as it might sting in the beginning, once I have a few days
to ponder over it (and get over hurt feelings) my critique buddies have almost always been right. In the end this has helped my writing grow and had they not been willing to go out on the wire with honesty, I'd be worse off in the long run.

Maybe your online buddy is the same way, tell her the good things then tell her the bad, give her a few days to dwell. In the end hopefully she'll see the light.

Good Luck
Anon

Sonarbabe said...

I have a very dear friend that I've quite literally known since I was 3 years old. She likes to write and though I love her ideas and some of her descriptions are perfect, she lacks basic structure skills. (ie. paragraph seperations, capital letters and my worst pet peeve..SPELLING.) She always asks me to be brutally honest and I cringe every time, because I don't want to hurt her. However, (we knew this was coming) I do what the others have suggested. I tell her the points I liked and very gently tell her that she really needs to focus on her structure, because it detracts from the story in a BIG way. She was okay with that and now she sends a note with her story, "I ran spell check before I sent this to you!" lol.

Bernita said...

I slapped my hands, because I am just a pot.

dink said...

good suggestions here--something that meant a lot to me in critique was encouragement about the revision work ahead. Tell your friend, "you can do this." Reinforce your belief in her writing skill (those descriptions) and let her know you're in her corner (you want her to succeed).

Good luck (to you and your friend)

Lady M said...

But Bernita - without a pot, no flowers may grow - or no dinner may be made! :-)

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

I hate criticism. HATE it. It's absolutely necessary to one's improvement. Give it kindly and honestly. You'll both benefit.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you guys are great! What a good read you have been! I didn't ever promise a crit. I'm not even sure if it is expected or desired. I will have to find that part out! I feel much less perplexed and I thank you all.
A bottle of gin all the way around and steak for KY. (He seems to have a great need for red meat for some odd reason! Maybe memories of the beach have him a bit tense!)

Anonymous said...

After a short but steep learning curve, I now avoid this kind of jam by looking for samples of the person's work first - preferably samples that are already in the public eye somewhere - or offering to review a small part of the work in question ie the opening chapter.

It's a tight spot to be in, and you'll only get out of it in one of two ways: wiggling along for pages with generic positives or with negatives couched in such vague terms that they might as well be lifted from random cereal boxes; Or, blowing your way out of the mess by pointing out honestly what the weaknesses are and hoping the debris lands elsewhere.

You should be using most of your energy for writing your stuff, not for agonizing over offending a person you only know in cyberspace. An online friend can only send you nasty emails if they hate what you say about their work. And who knows? You might be pleasantly surprised about their willingness to climb that learning curve.

Or not.

.02
Jeb

Bernita said...

Lady M, someone else can tell the pot they're a kettle.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

I have one more thought on this subject. Sometimes a good frank critique tells us when we need to stop.

Not everyone is a good writer. No amount of effort will make some people into good writers. The talent is just not there. Their strengths are elsewhere.

Writing has been my dream since I was maybe ten years old. Yet, I know I have only the most minimal talent. I've worked hard at developing what little talent I have. A few knowledgeable critiques have taught me much about my abilities and myself.

One does have to face up to reality, even if it is a hard thing to do. Don't they? I owe one publisher a second look. The new material is all printed out and ready to go. It’s my best. It’ll never be better. And it’s my last try with this. I withdrew a submission to an agent who was ignoring me anyway. (I was polite. I had no reason not to be.) And I have a partial setting with another agent but no real hopes there. And that’s it.

Few of those who critiqued my work were mean spirited. Many said nice things. Some loved what I wrote. But I do have to be honest with myself. I’m not anything but an average writer. I’m a great researcher, but a fair to average writer. It is honesty to face up to it. And reviewers helped me get to that point. This is not a bad thing. How sad it would be if I wasted my life trying to be something I’m not capable of becoming.

As I said earlier, just be nice with your criticisms. When you burst someone’s bubble, do it gently. There is a five-step process that works with any analysis: Open with realistic praise; identify the problem and its root-cause; present the solution; show how to apply it; close with encouragement. If you phrase your criticism in a kind manner and within this or a similar framework, it will have the most and best effect.

Amra Pajalic said...

I agree with all the other posters. Be honest. If you're not this person will be crushed later down the line. And if they're not able to accept criticism, you've done a favour to you both. They need to know not to seek feedback if they can't accept a true criticism and you will not be looking at anything again for them (and being careful when you offer in future).

I also agree with Sha'el. The strongest thing a writer can have is a true judgement of their abilities. I'm a story-teller, not a writer of beautiful prose. My sentences are workman-like that achieve the purpose of propelling the action. If you can help her understand her strengths and weaknesses, you're doing her the biggest favour.

If she can't accept her strengths and weaknesses, and instead has a deluded view of her abilities, then you need to know. Maybe fib and say you've only read the first three chapters and give her feedback on this. Feel her out and decide if you want to pursue critiquing the whole novel.

Not many people realise the work that goes into giving a proper critique and if she doesn't appreciate the effort you've gone to, abort, abort, abort.

Eden said...

If she doesn't appreciate a truthful and honest critique, look at the bright side: you'll never have to read another of her manuscripts ;)