Wednesday, September 21, 2011

So, What Did You Think?

By Matt Sinclair

We writers can be a funny bunch. We all want an honest, no-holds-barred critique of our work. "Come on," we say, "I'm an adult. I can handle it." What is it about masochism that's so darned appealing?

But what about the manuscript that makes a reader want to say "This is the most God awful bit of tripe I've ever wasted my time reading! Kill it! Burn it! Do anything to destroy it and the synapses that fired these thoughts through your mind to begin with!"

I'm glad that I've never been on the receiving end of such a diatribe, and I don't know anyone who has been—or at least has admitted it. But we probably have all read works we thought were terrible—and we were right. It's also possible such pieces were written by people we know and respect.

The challenge is offering the asked-for "honest" criticism. Make no mistake, this is a delicate situation. I suspect the vast majority of FTWA readers understand that there's a difference between "honest" and "constructive" critisism, and just because a writer might make the wrong word choice in the type of criticism he asks for, we as early readers should err on the side of being constructive—even when it really is God awful tripe. It's fine to tell writers the writing misses the mark, but it's more helpful to show how far off the mark they are. Did it at least hit the target or did the dart get stuck in the wall a foot and a half away? Was the humor so sophomoric that you wouldn't share it with a high school junior? Show where, where, and where the story derailed.

Being an early reader for a writer is not for the faint of heart. As much fun as it might be to discover an unpolished jewel, it's quite possible what you hold in your hands is a clod of coprolite that needs to be in a pressure cooker for another millennium or so. Indeed, I'd argue it is more important today than it was even a year ago to quell an eager writer's willingness to share the work with everyone. The world of readers is at risk of terrible "books" in the guise of poorly-if-at-all-edited manuscripts with undeveloped characters and unexplored worlds, hackneyed themes, and language that would offend the ears of a Neanderthal. Make no mistake, the emergence of e-publishing is an important turning point in the careers of talented authors whose backlist was lost, forgotten, or unnoticed. But not all authors meet that "talented" level.

(Then again, American Idol reject William Hung released not one but three albums.)

Jokes and snarky remarks aside, being asked to read and critique a colleague's early version is truly an honor, and it's important to respect the person and the work. Writers who have not shared their work with others before are nervous and are looking not only for honesty but validation that their efforts have not been in vain. But if you accept the responsibility and find the work wanting, it is not only appropriate to say so, I'd argue it is imperative. How you do so, however, requires some tact.

So the basics: Is the manuscript riddled with spelling errors? Say so. If you find them pockmarking the manuscript for the first five pages, it's ok to put it aside and tell the person, "I'll read it after you've fixed the spelling mistakes. This isn't close to ready to being sent to an agent."

"Oh, but I'm a terrible speller," says the wannabe writer. That excuse is no more acceptable than a mechanic saying his hands sweat too much to use tools.

Is the grammatical structure more flimsy than a sand castle? Show your friend what needs to be done or where he can find out how to write properly. "But I thought that's what an editor is for," he says. This person has no idea what an editor does and is incapable of learning it yet. Perhaps he will in time. Be careful but firm. Some people will never get it. But these people typically are not readers much less writers.

What about those manuscripts that were readable but required you to sift through random point-of-view shifts and waffling tenses to find a story worth exploring? There's hope for this colleague. He might not be quite ready yet, but if he keeps putting the time in, he might get to the point where the work can be shared with an agent.

In the meantime, share what you know to help this friend understand that there are no guarantees in writing. Finishing a first draft does not mean you have a best-seller on your hands. Gaining representation does not mean your work will find a publisher, and being published does not equal fame much less fortune.

But developing a thick skin and open ears helps dedicated writers make a living doing what they love. If you ask me, that's what it's really all about.


LD Masterson said...

Like many, I find it a lot easier to receive criticism than give it.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks for your comment, LD. That's true for many of us. We often think, "Who am I to say what works." But we're readers, too. Or at least should be.

Sophie Perinot said...

I am blessed with incredibly talented critique partners who want me to be unsparing and who, in turn, tell me hard truths when I need to hear them. The way I always think of it is -- would I rather hear something from my first responders (who are fellow authors and friends) or hear it from my agent or editor? Frankly I want to be called on everything before a manuscript gets to my agent's hands. Yes, I know he will find plot holes and problems as well but the more polished the MS is before he gets it the better.

Matt Sinclair said...

I couldn't agree more, Lit, and thanks so much for your comment.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good post, Matt. I've lucked out in the crit buddy department. I agree - it's so important to give/receive honest critiques - even when it's tough :)

Darke Conteur said...

Good post, Dude! :D

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Jemi, thanks Darke. Very much appreciated!

Christopher Hudson said...

Writing for a living in corporate world helped me develop a thick skin ... having a client wonder aloud, "What's that smell ... oh, it coming from this script," gives you perspective.

Matt Sinclair said...

And it gives you an amusing (though probably a little painful) anecdote. Thanks for sharing, Christopher.

Amie Borst said...

a good reminder. what's the saying? treat others how you'd like to be treated. good advice for critting as well.

Grogan said...

Avoid ‘old friends’ as first time readers – they tend to search for personal recognition rather than obvious error.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Amie! And a good point, Grogan!

Thank you both for your comments.

Elliot MacLeod-Michael said...

The colleague you describe sounds like he could be me. But indeed there is hope for me yet.

Simon Stone - writer said...

Well written mate, it’s a balancing act. When someone slaves over something like a novel that’s an achievement in itself especially while juggling kids (not literally one would hope), jobs, spouse etc.
On the other hand, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Like many abilities, the more you know, the more you realise you have yet to learn. People who think writing is easy or haven’t spent a good decade honing their craft are either fooling themselves or are genetically engineered writers!
Those four stages of understanding come to mind: Unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence. I think some of the “conscious incompetence” can only come through tactful yet firm critique. Speaking of which, if anyone ever needs any from me get in touch and I’ll do my best to oblige.

Carradee said...

I've found that the sandwich method helps. Start and end with something positive, and sandwich the negative smack-dab in the middle.

I agree that giving criticism is difficult; one person's "constructive" is another person's "RUDE!!!"

And then there's the detail that sometimes the writer's friends have their own ideas. I once got a review that made me wince but I thought was forthright rather than mean-spirited; I showed it to some online friends, who got furious. >_> I had to scramble to explain why I didn't have a problem with the review and would they pretty please not flame the reviewer?


Matt Sinclair said...

Elliot, there wasn't anyone in particular in mind, except possibly a much younger version of myself who is but a shadow now. That said, it's probably many writers, too.

Simon, I wish I'd been aware of those distinctions before writing this; I'd have used that in the piece.

Thanks, both of you, for sharing your comments. :-)

Simon Stone said...

Oh I don't know, you did well making your point without having to borrow someone else's pithy summations like I did!

Matt Sinclair said...

Caradee, I missed your comment earlier, sorry. I agree that critiques can be open to interpretation and I recently re-reviewed a friend's critique of a now-trunked manuscript and realized that I'd missed some of his points initially -- or was too much in denial to accept them at the time. But they've really helped me take a hard look at that document and the manuscripts that I have in process.

Well done critiques of flawed manuscripts can offer lessons for the future that we're not yet ready to accept today.

And thanks again, Simon. I appreciate your follow-up comment.