ASK JASON ANYTHING: The Bad Writer/Good Friend dilemma

It’s a writer’s job to know a little bit about everything, and to thoroughly research anything he doesn’t know. ASK JASON ANYTHING is your opportunity to challenge Jason with a question of any kind, whether it’s scientific or religious, financial or social, political, historical. It can be something you already know, or something you’re genuinely curious to learn. You can ask trivia or knowledge or advice, and every Thursday, Jason will do his best to answer. (Read more at www.jasonrpeters.com.)

TODAY’S QUESTION:

My relative wants to be a writer, and she keeps giving me her work to read. It’s AWFUL. What should I do?

It’s never easy to criticize someone you like. Or at least, someone whose feelings you don’t want to hurt, whether you like them or not. Family connections are the most intricate, but even an acquaintance can trap you with those dreaded five words:

Tell me what you think.

This can become the cerebral version of “Does this make me look fat?”

For the individual who is both kind and honest, there is, unfortunately, no right answer.

But there are a few charitable approaches that tap-dance with the “wrong” answer:

You suck.

My Own Perspective

Some of you are cleverly thinking, “Ah ha! From this article I can derive what to say to Jason about his own work!” I’ll save you the trouble reading between the lines:

If I suck, I want you to tell me I suck. I want you to say, “Jason, this is the most god-awful piece of language ever constructed.” If the work as a whole isn’t horrific, you can just comment on the disparate elements:

  • Your jock hero acts more like a whiny pre-teen girl in love with a pair of shoes
  • Your setting is more boring than my cubicle
  • I had to re-read your opening paragraph three times, mostly due to interruption by vomiting
  • I fell asleep during the climax
  • What did you do, hack together vampires and Lord of the Rings with Lightsabres? With dialog from Gone With the Wind?

You get the idea.

You might be wondering how this won’t hurt my feelings. Let me let you in on a little secret:

It WILL hurt my feelings. I will go home and cry into a pillow and eat Mac & Cheese on the corner of the floor while playing Backgammon against the ghosts. I will curse your name and the day you were born.

And at some point, I’ll get over it and handle it like an adult (or my best imitation of one).

You don’t grow if you aren’t challenged, and there is no greater challenge than outright rejection. So I beg you to reject my work, brazenly, when the response is merited. It will drive me to work harder, learn more about my craft, dust myself off, and try again. Many people assume you can become a “successful” writer without taking any of the hard knocks you get as an actor (figuratively) or a martial artist (literally). The opposite is true.

Beat me up (verbally) so I can discover how tough I really am, and improve. No one wants to be defeated!

What about those sane people that aren’t like you?

Oh. Those people. Right.

They’ll require a bit more delicate handling, but I have faith you’re up to the task. Following are the things you need to know about critiquing a writer, or more importantly, getting him to critique himself.

How serious is s/he?

This is a question you need to ask; sometimes you can ask the writer, sometimes you just have to ask yourself. If the writer’s so fragile that he’ll take offense at an inquiry of this nature, you can internalize this question. Here’s how:

  1. Has the writer completed at least half a dozen complete works? (Short story or novel, it doesn’t matter.)
  2. Has the writer received at least three rejection letters for a single work?
  3. Does the writer own the most recent copy of the Writer’s Market?

If the answer to ANY of the above is “no”, then this is NOT a serious writer. Not even close. A serious writer will have completed half a dozen stories, regardless of publication, and not just for academic work. Brandon Sanderson wrote 7 full novels before Elantris was published. If this individual is asking you to look at the very first attempt at writing, and it is still IN PROGRESS, he or she is not working towards a writing career. At least not yet.

The second and third point deal more with whether the writer is serious about the industry. It’s easy to approach friends and say, “Hey, read this.” It’s hard to get a letter from a publisher that says, “No, we don’t want this.” That moment, particularly the first such letter, is the moment when dreams die. But most amateur writers have never faced the reality that no, you will not be published. Your friends may lie to you about how good your work is. A rejection letter won’t.

People forget that writing is a skill, and like ANY skill, takes years to develop. A writer’s very first chapter is a little like an NFL Linebacker’s first game…which was in middle school or earlier. Until you’ve written as many chapters as that Linebacker has played games, with identifiable wins and losses, you shouldn’t consider yourself a “writer”.

I myself am at the early side of considering myself a serious writer, and I’ve written one whole book and multiple serious short stories. I have rejection letters for all of the above, and every year am identifying and eliminating the faults which will keep me from publication.

Pick Just One Item

If the whole work is atrocious, and you want to spare someone’s feelings, but still offer constructive criticism, pick just one element you hated. And balance this by picking something you liked.

This way, your casual review sounds like this: “I really like your idea,” [this is the easiest thing to compliment because very poor writers often have great story ideas] “but I didn’t find the character believable.”

Better yet, just say you didn’t like the character. Unless it’s a true anti-hero (which only masters of the craft should even attempt), the serious writer will recognize it’s a problem if a reader doesn’t like the protagonist. This relieves you of having to explain how or why you don’t; let the writer wrestle with that.

Outside Criticism Required

Friends have to be nice to you. Family often faces the same obligation (not always).

Total strangers have no compunctions about telling you that your work sucks. If you need proof of this, check out any forum on the internet. Read through the flame wars where people tear each other a new one just for the fun of it.

THAT is the real trial-by-fire for writers:

A total stranger begins to read your work. What does he think?

Does he love it? Hate it? Put it down or keep reading? Argue with your opening sentence without getting any further?

I spent a lot of my young adult years on forums practicing my craft — this was my personal boot camp for the written word, particularly on busy forums. On a forum (such as those for World of Warcraft) where the top post can scroll off the page within the HOUR, how do you craft a title so compelling that people can’t help but click it?

How do you craft an opening sentence that keeps them engaged? A detailed enough analysis that it will be taken seriously, but short enough that it will actually be read?

For positions you believe in, you’ll quickly find that people “missed the point.” But did they miss the point, or did you present it in a way that allowed it to be missed? Some people are just morons, but even a blind pig will find an acorn. How evident are your acorns?

I’ve spent whole days just refreshing forum posts, anxiously awaiting the next flamer, to see if given no other power than the written word, I could outwit him for the spectators, or (even better but MUCH harder) convince him of my position. I’ve had some successes and many, many failures. I believe this is one reason that my non-fiction remains stronger than my fiction.

Official Outlets for Outside Criticism

My personal favorite is Orson Scott Card’s “Hatrack Writers” community. They have just one requirement for posting work for review, and it’s the best rule I’ve ever heard in the genre:

You’re only allowed to post the first 13 lines of your work.

Why? Because most agents/editors read only ONE PAGE before throwing your manuscript in the trash. If your manuscript is properly formatted, that’s just 13 lines of text. Good, bad, right, wrong, or ending in mid-sentence, it doesn’t matter. You have THIRTEEN LINES to convince someone that you have the greatest story ever written.

Card’s website offers the same opportunity, only with the benefit that other writers like yourself will tell you whether they loved or hated your first 13 lines; in other words, if they would have bothered to turn the page. And if they would have, THEN you can offer more.

This speeds up and crystallizes the submission/rejection process. It gives you quick “wins” and “losses” until you become a seasoned writer. And it works because complete strangers have no reason not to be 100% honest about whether they hated — or loved — your work.

The other thing I would recommend is starting or joining a meetup group for like-minded aspiring writers, again, to get your work critiqued by total strangers. Your friends and family are always going to be nicer than the editor who just throws your book in the trash.

How to Give a Writer the “Outside” Perspective

There is one trick for giving a writer the ‘outside’ perspective on her own work, but it requires a great deal of patience. The writer has to leave a work alone for a very long time: preferably over a year. While this is a long time to wait to learn something, the lesson at the end is valuable.

When it’s been so long you can’t remember the words on the page, you begin to read as if you’re reading someone else’s work. And you will immediately recognize whether it is genius or awful.

The Bottom Line

As I said in the beginning, there is no “right” answer to this question. And there are a lot of wrong ones:

“You suck” is a wrong answer if it isn’t helpful. Similarly, “this is awesome” is unhelpful if it’s untrue. So if you really want to help a budding writer, I would steer her in the direction of outside criticism. She will have to go that way eventually anyway if she’s serious, and this is an opportunity to speed up the process.

Have a question you think will stump Jason? Send it to jason.r.peters@gmail.com and check www.jasonrpeters.com every Thursday to see if your question was answered to your satisfaction.

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