I know somebody here has to have been in this situation somewhere in the past... I have an old, dear friend who just finished a fairly advanced draft (four years' work) of her first novel. Naturally, she sent it to me for a read-through and critique, and I will do likewise with Nine Days when I finally get the bloody thing into readable shape.

You know where this is going, right? The seminal concept of her book is simply brilliant -- a fantastic, deceptively simple theme that I wish I'd thought of myself, but after a pretty good start, the story devolves into a socio-political screed focused on mundane tangents only barely related to the original theme. It's not awful, it's just -- not good. Now, as an author, there's nothing I hate more than someone reading my work and then going, "You should have written it like THIS." That is, I believe one should critique what's actually there, not what one wishes were there... but my heart just wrenches over this lost opportunity.She's a really good descriptive writer, and when she's focused on her brilliant thesis, at the beginning, it just leaves you breathless. She could totally knock this thing out of the park if she took it in the "right" direction.

Having written my own novel now, I know how hard it is to keep a story moving along the line you want it to go, so I don't want to just glibly say, "Oh, honey, you SO missed the boat." At the same time, as a writer, I think I'd want to know -- I just don't think I could stand hearing it from somebody I know and love.

So what do I do? Do I spare her feelings (and possibly our friendship) and just stick to critiquing the existing story, leaving the crushing truth to some future critic? Or do I throw diplomacy to the winds and advocate for what I think could be an amazing book?

Help me, Crimespacers. You're my only hope.

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I'm pondering Dan's example.  :)

 

Writers must be grateful for all input.  They must also know what to accept and what to reject.  One of the ways to deal with this is to explain all the things that work extremely well.  Then name the things that don't work (you might stress that they don't work for this particular reader) and give reasons why.  Perhaps it will be best to end again on a positive note about the quality of the overall concept.  Make alternative suggestions if you think they would help.

 

Keep in mind that editors at publishing houses don't think twice about telling an author to cut 30,000 words.

 

The problem you are facing would not have occurred if you had exchanged installments of a work in progress.

I'm not so sure, I.J. -- in any case, I've never liked people reading my stuff until I feel like it's ready, and my friend's the same way. Is that common practice with novels? To send installments out for critical reading while working on them?

My guess is that most writers are like you.  They don't pass out books until after they are finished.

I've never worked that way.  Early input has helped me avoid major disasters and confirmed successful characterizations -- or suggested giving greater importance to an intriguing character. Mind you, I rewrite and polish each chapter before it goes out.  A lot of writers resist that, thinking it best to push forward while the going is good.

 

I have rewritten a number of novels after the fact.  It's a very heavy chore.

Interesting! In a way, you're almost writing collaboratively with your readers.

For me, it's not so much wanting to push forward while the going is good as a sense of wanting everything in the book to be mine and only mine for as long as possible. I guess you could call it greediness, in a way -- like the mother who doesn't want her children growing up too fast.

There's also a sense, for me, of wanting the work to be all truly "original" (for better or worse), which is part of the reason I'm wary of being too critical of this friend's direction with her book. She made the decision, it's her work, it's not for me to say that I think she did it "wrong." Someone else might read it and think it's brilliant, and ultimately, she's the one who has to be satisfied with it, not me.

However, she did ask for my feedback, and I appreciate everybody's comments to keep my critique personal, as in what's working for me and not working for me. I think that going that route will make things easier for me to say.

Well, you must do what is comfortable for you.

 

I have a very different attitude towards writing.  In the first place, nothing is truly original any longer.  The only thing that is mine is the way I arrange the pieces and place the emphasis, and that is totally my own decision.

We have collaboration only in the sense that we exchange reactions to what we read in the hope that something we say may make a book or story better.  I should say, however, that we do sometimes plot for each other. That's a very useful exercise that jump-starts the writer's own plotting when he/she hits a wall. By the time, a writer works with another person's idea, that idea has changed, often out of all recognition, during the writing process.

 

I once had a student who refused to read Shelley because he thought that would make his own poetry less original. That didn't stop Shelley.

You have to tell your friend the truth.  As others suggest, start with what you like about the book.   Then you could tell your friend that it seems to you that her book is two really different books and that the one (the beginning part) you like much better and you would love to see her focus solely on that.

I like what I.J. says. It's up to the writer to take a critique -- what to accept, what to ignor. Tell the truth. But always start with what's good, what you like, what's working for the reader. And it's her story, not yours, so mention what you would have done as a near-final thought.

 

If this is her first novel, be extra gentle. She feels as if you're talking about her child.

Oh man, don't I know it.

Find things to like about it, which doesn't sound too hard, based on your description. Address those first, so she's reminded you're looking at this as a good book with a few things that need to be worked on to become even better. This will put her at ease, and should serve to leaven any feelings of dismay she may have when you get to the parts that need work. 

As for the screeds, find a delicate way of telling her they are diverting the story from its primary focus. Not having read it I can't say if this is true, but you may be able to use the old standby that the screeds sound too "authorial," and divert attention away from the characters and blunt the impact of the story. ("It's okay for a character to feel like that, but for the narrator to keep coming back to these points makes it read more like a polemic than a novel.")

You're a good writer. Use this as an opportunity to make oblique arguments. Your task here is not to tell her how it should be written, but to make her think about how it could be written. If she's not open to the self-examination required to improve her book, she's not going to make it anyway.

Sent my notes off to my friend today -- will let y'all know how it all turns out -- Thanks for everybody's input! -- M.

Or do I throw diplomacy to the winds and advocate for what I think could be an amazing book?

 

You can still be diplomatic by telling your friend what you see as the possibilities. The fact that she is an old, dear friend means that she trusts you, and if you are less than truthful, it won't help her. Doesn't mean you can't critique what IS there.  I agree with all the replies.  Just because you are being truthful doesn't mean you are being brutal. It's all in how you word your "critique."  You don't need to imply that she should have written it another way; make it a suggestion. Praise her writing, tell her everything that IS good about the book, then maybe just ask her, "but have you considered.....doing it a little differently?"  Every writer, every artist, revises his/her work, usually extensively. I read that T.S. Eliot's masterpiece, "The Wasteland," was a mess until Ezra Pound went to work editing it! :)

 

 

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