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‘It sucks’

 

They asked you to critique their novel.

You like them, they’re a friend, and you would like to help.

And how hard can it be?

And then you find out just how hard…

So how do you tell someone ‘It sucked. Don’t quit your day job.’?

That is, if you wish to remain friends?

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, trust me, it’s a matter of time. And the sad truth is that 90% of people don’t actually want a critique. They don’t to even want to have the experience that every trad author gets: a copy edit. And trust me on this too, copy edits vary from ‘thank heavens’ to ‘death is too good for this stupid asshole. I want to tattoo STET onto their retinas, before repeatedly dunking them in a Calcutta cess-pit.’

They want: ‘this is the best thing I ever read, you are the wonderfulestest author to even grace the human race with your deathless prose, and I will worship your works forever and ever (or words to that effect).’

It took me a while to get this because I learned what tepid critiquing skills I have in the old world of traditional science, where if something excited and interested people you could tell… because they tried to shred it. It wasn’t that they hated you, or your work – the opposite was true if they bothered.

It’s a good thing my natural métier is how to lose friends and fail to influence people, because I kept working my butt off, doing copy and structural edits at three times the length of the work, to have the author want to love me to death with a lead pipe, and never speak to me again… and not take a blind bit of notice of even simple typo corrections let alone anything like ideas on structure or flow.

Now: I always make sure I say ‘this is what I would do, but it’s your book.’ It is also true that my opinions and tastes are mine, not everyone’s. It’s possible an editor or the reading public may well prefer their version.

Let’s face it: It is really hard taking criticism, especially about your precioussss… book. It takes a special person to throw it into the Mount Doom of real critical shredding. Now, I know it improves my work, I ask my readers not to hold back. Sometimes they even believe me. But… it is no joy getting that sea of red ink. I know that, even though I truly appreciate the time and effort spent.

The first thing I’d like to say: if all you want is praise – don’t ask for a critique. If you really want to try and improve your work… don’t ask for ONE critique.  The key, for me, is that if three people find something wrong… it’s probably wrong and needs re-writing. If two find it confusing or wrong… it’s probably wrong and needs at least serious consideration. If only one reader finds a section confusing/wrong etc… I will think about it. Take it in line with their other commentary.  Try to be dispassionate.

And for heaven’s sake: they’re doing you a favor. Thank them politely even if you disregard every word. They will be your book’s champions. And try – to the best of your ability – to be dispassionate about their comments. Weigh them as carefully as a good judge should.

On the other hand… if you’re asked to do this: try to establish what they want. Trust me: smile and wave a lot. If you want to do it… or you can’t avoid doing it, plump for the first ten pages. You can always ask for more. And try to remember – even copy edits are hard for writers to deal with. Technical/grammatical/ spelling/typos are relatively safe. ‘Voice’ is not. If you’re going to comment on that at all, I suggest sticking to technical and very precise examples (“Your character says ‘Wicked’ a lot. The book is set in 1950. That expression was not prevalent then).

Seriously, this is a minefield. There can be treasure in it, but walk with care.

Featured Image: Pixabay

29 Comments
  1. The key, for me, is that if three people find something wrong… it’s probably wrong and needs re-writing. If two find it confusing or wrong… it’s probably wrong and needs at least serious consideration. If only one reader finds a section confusing/wrong etc… I will think about it. Take it in line with their other commentary. Try to be dispassionate.

    Good measuring sticks, these. Thanks!

    April 15, 2019
    • Mary #

      Very wise, they are.

      April 16, 2019
  2. I have several beta readers for the Luna City series and they have been enormously helpful, not least because they enjoy the series and characters as readers. But the best thing about a good beta reader is that although I might not follow their suggestions — the suggestions give me good new ideas…

    April 15, 2019
  3. Ah! Another man tilts at the windmills of human nature!

    April 15, 2019
  4. rightasusual2003gmailcom #

    On the other hand, even the most clueless writer can improve. I recently sent a link to a short story I wanted to fix, and the first comment pinpointed the problem – he said, it didn’t grab him at first.
    I went back, and sure enough, I’d intro’d the heroine, without providing a reason for caring about her. I’m going to go back and ‘fix’ that.

    April 15, 2019
  5. The last author I critiqued specifically asked me to be however critical I thought was needed, which made things a lot easier on my end. I think it’s important that writers be clear about what they are after when seeking out critiques, both to get the most out of being critiqued and also to make things as easy as possible for those who are reading their work.

    April 15, 2019
  6. Upon receiving a bled-to-death critique: 1. Denial. 2.Anger. 3. Sorrow. 4. Semi-acceptance (“OK, this, that, and this really are problems. But I’m not adding a murder just because ‘Murder mysteries sell.’ And no space aliens. This is a sweet romance.”)

    April 15, 2019
    • Oh, how true! And once I’d gotten over it . . . I realized they were right. I’ve been a whole lot more open to critique after that first experience.

      April 15, 2019
    • Wait a minute. A sweet romance with a murder mystery and space aliens? Sounds intriguing. Although who dies, and who gets to try to solve the mystery? I mean, if the romantic pair are dead, then we are probably into vampire or zombie or something territory, and when you toss space aliens into magical mystery territory… well, that’s a voyager of a different species?

      April 16, 2019
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        I’ve got this horrible mess of a fanfic in planning…

        One of the attempts to condense a design statement included “love, mass murder, and the power of friendship”.

        There’s one, maybe two, romance arcs I really care about, but they don’t involve a main character. And there are magical human space aliens. So, I really, really need to get my act together, simplify, and execute.

        April 16, 2019
    • IIRC, I attended the first of my HS Freshman English classes – then skipped the next two weeks – and sulked in perfect sullen teenager mode for a month after that.

      Thank goodness for the woman I consider to be the best English teacher ever. Eventually she got me going, and my papers ceased to look like they had been used to clean up an abattoir. However, in four years with the woman, an hour plus every class day, I think that I ended up with a grand total of two papers without a single bit of red.

      April 17, 2019
      • I had a grad school prof who used green ink, because The Powers That Be had deemed red “too upsetting and negative” for students. One of the other grad students got his paper back and sighed, “A Vulcan bled to death.” My paper seemed to have been dragged through a sack of grass clippings.

        April 18, 2019
        • “too upsetting and negative”

          I do NOT want to think about the spike there must have been in suicide rates when dissertation defense time came around.

          April 18, 2019
  7. There may have been a moment or five of gritted teeth, and telling myself, “If I don’t get it in crit now, I’ll get it in reviews later. Better now, while I can fix it…”

    I just wish I was better at giving constructive criticism, myself. It’s definitely a skill, and I haven’t learned it well.

    April 15, 2019
  8. naleta #

    I have problems with writing reviews of books that I enjoyed. One time a co-worker showed me a start on a story he was working on. He had some good characters in an interesting situation, but no plot. I really didn’t know how to tell him what to do about that. I did say that he had a start on something. He still talked to me after that, so I doubt that I was any help to him, lol.

    April 15, 2019
  9. Synova #

    “…if something excited and interested people you could tell… because they tried to shred it. It wasn’t that they hated you, or your work – the opposite was true if they bothered.”

    Oh, this is me. If a story catches my interest and gets me really involved in it, I’m far more likely to notice and care about all sorts of things. The better that it is, the more I’ll see that’s wrong. And it’s the complete opposite of trying to tear down something that’s good. It’s not that at all.

    When everything is wrong, what is there to see?

    April 15, 2019
  10. Uncle Lar #

    I edit for several authors, beta reads, copy edits, as well as subject matter research on occasion. Typos and minor grammar corrections are the easy bits. It’s the fundamental disconnects that can easily turn into a mine field.
    I’m in the middle of a scrub of a collection of shorts that is a rerelease of a trad pub book. It’s rife with typos to the point that it was taken down from Amazon due to the number of errors. I have to confess that it’s a slog as I must turn the part of my brain off that actually enjoys the story or I get distracted from the real job.
    Once I’ve finished that one there’s another waiting that I’m sort of dreading. Again, typos galore, but before the copy edit I’m doing a beta read and have found one very glaring disconnect in the plot logic. That one is going to be interesting in the fullest Chinese sense.
    As for author reactions, after writing a post here on MGC on editing I was sent the latest of one author’s books in a long and popular series for review. Loved the book, story telling at it’s finest in my opinion, but full of typos and minor grammar blips. Had not been asked, but because I did love the book I did a full copy edit and sent it back to the author. That was a couple of years ago and to this day I’ve never heard back. I did see that the book did make it to print, and it does look as though my corrections were incorporated.

    April 15, 2019
    • Synova #

      Some response is nice, even if the author didn’t like the feed back because otherwise I end up obsessing over the question if they’re mad at me or not.

      April 15, 2019
  11. Dave said: “Let’s face it: It is really hard taking criticism, especially about your precioussss…”

    Shocking, actually. Its funny, some criticisms (Robin!) I was perfectly fine with, but others brought a physical reaction. Like a punch in the face, really. I was enraged.

    Therefore, I stopped seeking constructive criticism and just got on with the writing. There’s no sense inviting a punch in the face. It isn’t going to improve anything, and it will piss me off.

    Not everybody is going to like the book. I like it, but then I wrote it, and everything in it is exactly what I wanted. But I’m a bit weird, so it may not translate.

    For myself, I want to know two things. First, did the reader stop reading, and if so on what page? Second, were they smiling when they were reading?

    As far as I’m concerned, if there’s smiling at any point my job is done. That’s when I knew I wasn’t wasting my time. Handed the book to a teenager, heard the giggling.

    So if someone does ask me for a critique, I will be telling them which page I stopped at, and if it was fun anywhere. If it wasn’t fun, that might be uncomfortable. ~:(

    April 15, 2019
  12. Well, yea. I think I would be pretty grumpy if I asked someone to read my book and let me know what they thought and got back “It sucks”. To be fair, in some instances that might be the only possible answer. I’ve read the first part (all I could get through) of a friend’s son’s book, and it was so bad that constructive criticism wasn’t possible. The “kid” wrote the character’s life. IE:

    “Fred woke up and sat up in bed. Then he threw his legs over the side and stood up. Then went into the bathroom to drain his bladder, and turned on the water in the shower so it could get hot.”

    On and on an on…. describing every bit of the day. If there was a plot, it was lost in the minutia.

    Hopefully, If (when) I get to the point where I’m ready to have beta readers, my work will be worth more than “it sucks”. I won’t know until then. I know that so far * I * think it mostly doesn’t suck, but every time I re-read something I wrote, I find that I have to start editing. So who knows.

    April 15, 2019
    • mrsizer #

      I’m very much of two minds when it comes to daily details. If they are completely missing (e.g. The Da Vince Code – they never ate or drank), the characters seem fake. If it’s overdone, the story gets lost.

      Mil-SciFi without any workouts or practice is another good example. Space Force is a good counter-example – the first several books are all about the training and very little plot.

      April 17, 2019
  13. Jamie #

    Any editing I’ve done was in journalism, but I am part of a critique group for fiction. I tell the other members up front that I’ll ignore most typos or grammatical errors, except for 1) matters of clarity, or 2) they’ve used the wrong word entirely, e.g. “fay” vs. “fey,” or more recently, thee / thou / thy. Or, 3) They don’t speak English a first language, and they’ve done strange violence to it, e.g., one typo was a smashup of two unrelated words. I thought the result was cool, but still 🙂

    I’ve gotten feedback that my critiques have been useful and insightful. One guy said he had to think about my critique a bit, because he was mad at himself for all the missed opportunities for awesomeness that I’d pointed out. I tend to focus on logic issues, especially second order effects of the premise), characterization, world building, etc. If X exists, in your story, I’ll point out that it might cause consequence Y, which might allow for cool problem Z.

    It does help to frame issues as “missed opportunities for awesomeness.” If I suspect I sound snarky in a critique, I apologize up front. If an element in a story seems confusing, I’ll warn them that it could just be that I only slept four hours (or not at all). I always explain what’s confusing and why, so they can at least follow the logic of my complaint. I’ll give suggestions for smoothing out the rocky parts. This seems to work.

    But yeah, if you don’t really want a critique, and you just want praise … then you probably should not be asking for critiques 🙂

    April 15, 2019
    • Sometimes I think I would love to be part of a group like that. Only, I’m a pretty hard-core introvert, so the hard part would be getting past “getting to know people well enough that everyone is comfortable”. I’m usually pretty good past that point, IF I can get there.

      April 15, 2019
      • Jamie #

        I’m an introvert, too, which is why I’m glad the group is online: You don’t have to see anyone! Marvelous! But that’s why in the critiques I do the hedging of explaining why I might sound snarky, since the person can’t see me. The guy I mentioned above said he had to remind himself that I meant well, once he realized it was himself he was mad at, and not me. He actually called me on the phone to brainstorm afterwards, so I think it worked out well. He’s writing a Monster Hunter / Harry Dresden type of story, and I’m a fan of those works, so I *want* him to succeed. And be awesome.

        April 15, 2019
  14. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    I’ve had some good experiences working with giving authors feedback, that may have helped the results. But that may be skill on their part, not mine.

    And it is really, really, really hard sometimes to cope with the flaws of my own babies.

    April 15, 2019
  15. I never make any guarantees when I agree to critique, because I won’t read something that I don’t enjoy. I have so little time for reading fiction and I refuse to slog through something that doesn’t grab me fairly quickly.

    I have no problems telling people “I stopped reading it here, and this is why.”

    What is annoying is when someone wants to argue with that.

    “Well, what did you think of the rest?”
    “I don’t know, I didn’t read the rest.”
    “But you have to give it a chance.”
    “No, I don’t. I wouldn’t read past that point if I’d bought the book, so that’s my critique–I wouldn’t read it.”
    “But the character/situation/setting/whatever gets better after that.”
    “I’ll take your word for it. I’m telling you where I stopped reading and why. What you do with the information is up to you.”

    April 15, 2019
  16. Draven #

    i could use some of that…

    April 16, 2019
  17. mrsizer #

    Right now, I just want something critique-able. Once that happens, I hope that I appreciate it, but I can see having a bad reaction.

    April 17, 2019
  18. It could be worse. You could be writing a weekly review for a local newspaper. Then, they do not just want a critique – they want a review. The typical glowing review I write every week. (Because if a book sucks, I don’t write a critical review. I do not review it and review something else I can be enthusiastic about. I view my job as a book reviewer as providing my readers 52 books I can recommend they read, not to impress them with what a clever writer I am.)

    The worst cases are books written by people who work for the paper. For some reason most of the staff cannot write an entertaining book to save their souls. And if I tell them I am not reviewing it they know that means I think it sucks. And they feel hurt. (So I just tell them I do not review books written by people that work for the paper because it would be unprofessional of me.)

    The one thing I do find easy is tell writers not to quit the day job. Because most writers, unless they have a pension or a spouse or a fat lot of investments don’t make enough money from writing alone. (Donald Westlake had an interesting essay about that in his collection The Getaway Car. I certainly cannot – at least until I am old enough for full social security – despite having dozens of books published.

    April 18, 2019

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