I belong to a number of writers' groups. Periodically, newbie writers post excerpts of their work or their query letters and request a critique from the general membership.
I try to do at least one critique a week. It's a delicate balance when you critique someone you don't know online. You need to be kind while at the same time pointing out the problems. Most of the time, I do it offline rather than in the group. Recently, however, I did several online critiques--just because we had a bunch of newbie writers whom I thought might be helped by reading the comments.
Usually, I get an email online or offline from the writer thanking me for my time and trouble. Occasionally a writer will say "thank you" and then ask a question. Every once in a while, I encounter the odd duck: a writer who thought my comments were an invitation to send her entire manuscript for critique, another writer who sent a second chapter to be critiqued without bothering to say "thank you" first, and a writer who became enraged because I pointed out problems with his manuscript.
Last night, it happened again. A writer whom I recently critiqued sent a revised query letter and (without bothering to say thank you) asked for more feedback.
The letter was a mess: rambling, filled with grammatical errors, cliches and incomplete sentences. After a couple of tries at fixing it, I decided the writer would be better helped by honesty. In the kindest possible way, I told him I thought he was not yet ready to query. I pointed out the issues and suggested that his manuscript probably had the same problems his query letter had. I suggested he consider joining a critique group or taking a workshop to help address the issues. I said I thought his plot was promising and that he didn't want to burn his chances with agents or editors by sending a poorly edited novel.
In less than an hour, I got back what I can only describe as a very snotty email, telling me he was not going to spend "ten years" doing what I suggested. Included was ANOTHER revision, which he apparently had run through some computer editing program. The results were not substantially better.
Reading his email, I decided there was nothing left for me to say. I sent a final email that basically said: "I don't have a dog in this fight. I was only trying to be helpful. Good luck in your endeavors."
Of course, the incident left a bad taste. No one likes having her outstretched hand bitten. Then, as I was getting ready for bed, I remembered the first time a more experienced writer read MY beginning manuscript.
I've explained before on this blog that one of the errors I made when starting out was to not seek a critique group until after I'd finished that first manuscript. My reasoning was I needed to know I could actually finish a full-length manuscript. However, that mistake ended up costing me time. I could have been learning at the same time I was writing the manuscript. These days, I recommend that writers find critique partners (CPs) early on in their writing process. Good CPs will help you identify your bad writing habits--before they become too deeply ingrained.
I was fortunate. Before I found CPs, three different published writers gave generously of their time to read and critique my earliest novel. They were kind, but blunt. Published writer Catherine Spangler was the first. She read my opening chapter and cut it to shreds (in the kindest possible way).
I can still remember walking away from our Saturday morning meeting. My head was reeling. I'd been so sure she would tell me my chapter was fabulous, ready to be published. Instead I had pages bleeding red ink.
In my social work training, I learned the stages of grief: disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I walked out of our meeting in complete disbelief. The anger started on the drive home ("the nerve of her"). Bargaining ("If I write more words every day, I won't need her lousy critique"). By that night, I was so depressed I couldn't even write. It took nearly a week for me to go back and read her red-lined comments. But I did. And she was right. With the benefit of hindsight, I could see all the backstory. And my opening WAS flat. I'd finally arrived at acceptance.
I wrote Catherine a "thank you" note, and I made the changes she suggested. It was a painful lesson, but an important one. Looking back, she'd given me several gifts:
- She helped me identify serious problems in my novel
- She helped me develop a tougher hide (needed when querying)
- She taught me generosity (she offered her time and wisdom for free)
- She gave me a role model for being an author in the future
I don't know whether my young friend has the maturity to step outside himself and be objective. I hope so. If not, I predict he'll rack up a dozen rejections before deciding to self-publish. He'll buy 50 or 100 copies of his novel, which will end up mouldering in his attic or garage along with his dreams of being a writer.
If he truly has the fire to write, perhaps when he gets over his anger, he'll think about what I said and go through his own version of the stages of grief.
I hope so.