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