Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Book of My Friend

One of the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of being a social person and a writer is that I've been able to meet, chat with, and sometimes becomes friends with many of my favorite living authors. (I have yet to figure out how to do that with Jane Austen or Robert Louis Stevenson.) I've experienced all kinds of variations of the theme: Deborah = newbie, friend = established pro; Deborah = established pro, friend = newbie; Deborah and friend both started careers about the same time, swapped critiques, agonized over reviews, etc., and the kicker: Deborah = established pro, established friend writes first book.

I have no problem heaping encouragement on any aspiring writer, friend or otherwise. It's not couched in the same terms if we're longtime close friends versus new acquaintances. I try to be sensitive to the pro/newbie imbalance in experience and hence, the authoritativeness with which opinions are delivered and received. Usually, I feel my way through whether my friend wants career advice, peer-level chats about craft and community, or simple acknowledgment of what they've done. I've misstepped enough times in the past to be aware that just because a friend asks me to look at her story does not automatically mean she wants a no-holds-barred critique.

Most of the time, if I like a person's writing, I'll like that person as a friend (even if I am a bit intimidated at first). Less of the time, if I like a person, I will like their writing. It's wonderful when the two coincide, but they don't always. With a friend-writer who's been around for a while, I feel freer to say, "Not my cup of tea," and we both understand what I mean. Different styles and stories appeal to different readers, and different flaws drive different readers nuts.

Then there's the situation when a friend, someone I know personally, asks me to review a book. Sometimes I might not otherwise have picked up the book and I love it. Or even if I think it's got problems, I can find intelligent things to say about it, so that perhaps someone who will love it will pick it up. Sometimes there's a good reason in terms of my own taste that I have not felt drawn to this book. Sometimes I start reading...and wince.

That's where the discernment comes around again. Is this a manuscript or a published book? If it's a published book, is the author wanting insight into why it isn't selling? (Or if it's selling like hotcakes, is this ain invitation to celebrate together?

I think this situation calls not only for discretion but for tenderness. In order for my response to be meaningful, I have to be free to say, "No, I can't in all honesty do what you ask." But I have to do it with kindness. For me, that means acknowledging the effort and the achievement, and perhaps doing a little gentle education that not even the finest book works for every reader. When I'm firmly in "editor/critiquer" mode, I can and do indulge in emphatic opinions. I can lose track of the limitations of my own point of view. This situation invites me to consider that I am not the One True Judge of everything literary or even of the science fiction and fantasy genres.

"Thank you for asking me, but I'm not the right reader to review your book" sounds to me a whole lot better than, "This is so awful, I can't think of anything good to say about it without lying." Or worse yet, to concoct something meaningless and without integrity, thereby making my own positive reviews of books I truly loved hollow and untrustworthy.


  1. I have to memorize that turn-down line. Perfect!

  2. This post has a lot of resonance with me, because I have recognized for a while now that, if I follow through with my plans to actually write something I want to see published, I am going to face a couple of tough questions. These days, I have many friends who are writers, and I would be silly not to ask them for a professional opinion. Yet I hesitate at the thought of doing so, not because I am afraid of the answer, but because I dislike putting friends into that kind of situation.

    I am inconsistent on this, because I am more than willing to be put in that situation myself. But then again, it's not quite the same, because when a pro asks me to read something, I'm there as a reader -- I'm either reading as part of the target audience or as a subject-matter expert. I can say what did or didn't work for me. But I am not sure I have a handle on what the dynamic is if I am the novice asking a pro's opinion.

    Fortunately (and unfortunately), I don't have anything at the stage where I have to worry about that just yet. At some point in the future I'll have to sort through it.

    Food for thought, and potential an interesting conversation as well.

  3. I've been thinking about this, Chris. Your situation is unusual in that you have been interacting with established pros on a peer/expert basis, but you would be new to the beginner-writer role.

    There's a skill to receiving critiques, just as there is to giving them. I wonder if participating in a beginner-level workshop, in person or online, might ease you in, help you get some basic self-editorial skills (and clear away the obvious problems in the story at hand) so that you're in a much more solid place from which to approach your friend-pros.

  4. Your ways of handling the situation sound just right. Imagining myself on the receiving end, I think I could completely understand.

  5. Asakiyume, I think part of the challenge is keeping the door open and being sensitive to power imbalances. I'd hope always to have a respectful dialog in which each party feels empowered.

  6. I am friends with professional writers, some of them for decades, but to date I haven't asked any of them for writing advice except when I'm in a critique group with them, or if I'm at someplace like the Milford writing conference. (I'm a beta reader for some of them, but they know I like their books, so it's a bonus for me to get to read them early.) I think of asking for writing advice along the lines of asking computer scientist friends for tech support. It's a professional favor, not a personal one, so I should be sparing about asking and only ask when I have no other alternative.

    As for gentle negative comments, what we do at Milford is, if necessary, state up front that "I'm not in your target audience". That's an accurate description and explains where the critique is starting from. Even then, I like to start with what I like about a story, and I prefer to hear something positive first. One of my friends and I used to critique each other's artwork, and what we would do is start with "It's wonderful! It's the best thing I've ever seen!", even though we both knew we were faking. Then we'd go into the real critique.

  7. From Sherwood Smith, reposted with permission:

    I can't figure out that weird interface for comments, but I think in Chris Weuve's case, instead of thinking of it as 'newbie asks pro' which seems to have a power imbalance dynamic built into it, that it might be more worthwhile to think of it as a workshopping experience. After all, he has considerable other skills to bring to the table. So he's not got the fiction skillset yet--this is no different than a writer who has minimal skills in areas that Chris is expert coming to him for advice.

  8. @Karen, yes to leading off with something positive. When we critique, we tend to focus on what =didn't= work for us in the story, rather than acknowledging what =did=. Yet that can be even more useful to the newer writer, who's still trying to figure out the correspondence between what she intended and what ended up on the page.