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.