Monday, 10 November 2008

Advice for a Writer


Our blogging sisterhood posted on groups for letters from people with problems. We don’t really care what the problem is—we’re up for any type of discussion. Since everyone knows we’re involved in the publishing industry, I suppose it makes sense our very first letter would be about writing.

Dear Tess,

I saw the offer of writing this letter on a group. I would bring it up on the group, but my problem may offend someone on there and make me look bad. It involves beta reading and critiquing.

I can’t bring myself to tell the truth when critiquing because first I’m afraid of hurting the writer’s feelings, and second because it would make me sound bad. I wouldn’t want to upset the writers because they have become my friends, but at the same time I think the writers need to be told certain things.

I’m a writer also, and while I don’t know everything, I know enough to gain an acceptance, though I am learning a lot through professional edits. I’m able to give advice on grammar etc. and be comfortable in what I’ve said, knowing I haven’t given the wrong advice. My problem is that I’m seeing mistakes that I feel I can’t comment on because they involve more than just me mentioning the basics.

How do I tell someone who has worked hard on their book that it needs too much work for it to be submitted in its present form? I worry that they’d think I’d gone weird since getting professional edits. It’s not just the basics, but bad writing. I read some things that are so bad that I know the writer will be rejected, but how do I tell them that without sounding horrible or that I think I’m better than them? The problem is also that the writers are getting rejections, and then I feel bad because if I’d said something and they could fix their errors, maybe they would have gotten an acceptance. Is keeping my mouth shut causing more hurt than me opening it?

I would never be downright nasty, but have yet to figure a way of making my criticism sound constructive rather than spiteful. However I try and word it, it sounds just wrong to me, so I delete what I’ve written and concentrate on punctuation and small plot holes.

I also feel bad because some people in my critique group just shouldn’t be writing, period. I keep those opinions to myself, but as I’m growing in the craft, I’m getting tired of reading things that have so much wrong with them. I’m in the situation where if I say I don’t want to beta read them anymore, I’ll have no one to beta read me. Then I feel bad for thinking on selfish terms.

I’ve stopped going to my critique group as often because every time I read something I think it’s awful. Am I just being a big head? I feel bad because I don’t want to waste my time and effort trying to explain what’s wrong for me to be ignored anyway, plus me coming off as a know-it-all bitch. I don’t know it all, I don’t pretend to. Sometimes I want to scream at them to try another hobby, because clearly they aren’t taking writing seriously. Even that sounded mean.


Dear Help,

First of all, your problem is something a great many writers discuss. You’re not alone. We all feel that way sometimes. I agree you should not bring this up on group. I don’t suppose there is any perfect forum for this problem. However, it does deserve discussion and hopefully together we can find a solution or as close to one as possible. I’m sure the readers of this blog have many good ideas to help.

Personally, I think bringing it out in the open is a good way to start. You’ve expressed how you’d really like to help with constructive criticism. I applaud that. Where your critique group is concerned, it sounds as though you may have surpassed their level of expertise or understanding of the writing craft. It’s possible it’s time for you move on for the sake of your own career. It does no good by continuing with the group unless YOU get something from it. That may sound hard-nosed as hell, but it’s the truth.

The other thing you could do is to buy everyone in your critique group a wonderful Christmas gift. I highly recommend my bud, Faith Bicknell Brown’s series on How to Avoid Writer’s Hell. Yep, that’s a shameless promo for her, but!!! Big but here, lol, the books are worth it. They are written in such a way that no one will be bored and impart easy to understand lessons on writing—everything from grammar and punctuation to how to write a query. The publishing industry in general is discussed quite thoroughly. Your friends would definitely pick up some knowledge from reading these books. There are four of them available from Wild Child Publishing.
All at these books are very affordable at $3.25 each. Not too bad for the wealth of information Faith has shared. Now that is a practical solution. The books certainly won’t bestow talent on someone who doesn’t have it, but will indeed sharpen writing skills in general.

Another thing you could try is to speak privately with the writer/writers in question. Of course, you’d have to feel very comfortable with that person to do this and you are the only one who can judge that relationship. You seem to truly care about your critique group. I know for a fact that you can become quite close to your critique partners. I’m not sure I could do it, but it’s certainly worth consideration.

I’d also like to address this a bit further. First, are these authors published anywhere? I saw that you mentioned they kept getting rejections. If they are published, well, you have to remember something—not all publishing houses are equal. And I don’t mean that in a demeaning way. Whether you are working in the print world or the e pub world, edits are different. Some of that has to do with the editors themselves and just how savvy they are. A lot has to do with house style. Too often, I don’t think authors consider house style when submitting their work. It’s up to the writer to know the product each publisher sells. Some publishing houses have a more relaxed editing style than others. It’s a matter of determining where your work fits. Maybe your friends need to shop around and not target the same houses.

Second, and this may sound, again, hard-nosed as hell, but if your friends are getting nothing but rejections and are not published, sooner or later they will figure it out and dissolve into the scenery. Sad, but true.

You asked, “How do I tell someone who has worked hard on their book that it needs too much work for it to be submitted in its present form?” The answer to that question is quite simple. YOU DON’T. That is not your job. It’s the job of an acquisitions editor to do that. Your job as a critique partner/beta reader is to offer an overall opinion of the work. To help with minor grammar and punctuation. Maybe even point out a time line problem or a glaring plot hole, but not to decide if the work is worthy of publishing. When you do that, you step into the shoes of an editor.

I hope this discussion has helped put things into perspective for you. And I invite all the readers of this blog to please post your own concerns regarding this issue and any solutions you might have for it.

Keep the letters coming! We want to hear from everyone.

‘Til next time,



M.E Ellis said...

I agree with your comment about outgrowing a critique group. Happened to me. It is hard to be objective when being a beta reader to a friend, but if the friend is aware of why you're saying what you are--that it's to help not pick--there's rarely a problem then.


Tess said...

Well, in Utopia, a friend would understand your comments and take them in the spirit given. However, I think we can all be a bit sensitive when it comes to criticism of our baby.

After all, it comes from our very soul doesn't it? I'd be a bit fearful, just like the writer of this letter, in telling someone that there is just too much work needed in their writing.

I've run into problems where correcting a simple punctuation error has been questioned. Even when the writer has been given concrete proof of the correction.
I guess some skins are thicker than others. And quite frankly, someone who is serious about writing will generally take criticism in the spirit it is given.

But I do agree, talking to the writer is certainly worth considering and it's up to each individual to determine their course of action.

M.E Ellis said...

Yes, what will suit one person in critiquing won't suit another etc.

I used to blush back in the old days if anyone on my crit group pulled my work apart. Not because of what they said or how they said it, more because I was annoyed at myself for getting it wrong.

Now I prefer the harder line from my beta readers. If something's cheesy/crap, say so, then I can try and improve it or dump it. Really doesn't bother me these days. I've long since realised that what one person doesn't like, another will love.

Also, I don't take comments as an attack to me as a person anymore, because I've realised by being an editor that I'm not looking at who wrote it but what needs help/fixing, which is the same as my betas do for me. They know me well enough by now that even if they said, "Emmy, that's shite! What were you thinking?" that I'd laugh and say, "Is it? Thanks. I'll fix that up now, then."


Tess said...

I have a couple of crit partners just like your beta readers. We don't do actual critiques anymore...we've outgrown all of that I think. But I can still send them something to look at.
When I do, I'm looking for that, "This is shit." comment. It's what I need. And trust me, they'll let me know. The first time one of them tore into my work, I was flabbergasted. lol But they were right. And I learned from it.

Not all groups are set up so informally though. Some are very formal with rules, etc. Which is fine. I'm just a bit informal and couldn't do it otherwise.

It's all a matter of how well you know your partners, I guess.

Anthology Authors said...

I have to agree with you two. You can outgrow your crit group, and sometimes they don't help, especially if it's all about the mutual love society and no real critique. It can be challenging for the editor when the author states, "But my crit group didn't have an issue with it. They love my book." Um, yeah. Okay, but they aren't your editor. So, let's try it my way and see what happens.


Faith said...

I think most writers and even many readers can relate to this person problem. I can't count the time I've read stories as just a reader and thought, "How the heck did that get published?"

And thank you for the plug of my books. I've tried really hard to present them in the manner that you describe, so this made my day!

Jambrea said...

I don't know about anyone else, but I WANT my beta's and crit partners to be honest with me.

How are they helping me if they aren't honest. So far I've been VERY lucky. I have found I can't have a whole group. I have my two partners and I'm very happy.

I wish people weren't as sensitive about critiques. I think anything that makes my story better is a great thing. (Unless it is my husand. lol It is more personal when he looks at my stuff)

Elena said...

I totally understand Help's predicament. In my crit group, this woman whose work I critted spent the better time of two months throwing veiled innuendos about how some people are only interested in being mean and don't offer any real help. I was thrown aback because I always, always try to crit in a positive way, i.e. I don't say 'this doesn't work' but 'I like it, but maybe this would work better'. I never say anything I wouldn't want to read as the critee (lol is that even a word?)
Anyway, I think some of us need to realize that they have to toughen up if they want to get ahead in this business. Sure, I'm sensitive about my work too, but I can tell between a harsh, but honest and helpful critique and one that's just mean and spiteful.

erotiwriter said...

Alright, since I hate this damn blogger, it seems to have a problem with me, I'll make this short and sweet.

Coming from a newbie's pov, I appreciate the tough critism. Make my novel sing. And if it isn't something you think I should even try to publish, then tell me that as well.

Yes, it's my baby, yes, I may get offended by it at first, but then I think and I say, I'm going to make this the best novel possible! That's my two cents! I need honesty with my critiques and beta readers!


Tess said...

Hi Marci,

Yes, you can definitely outgrow a critique group. Mine sort of went its own way. We all three arrived at a place where we couldn't help each other anymore. We recognized that fact and moved on. I still care for those two gals. They were great.

I don't think we ever lied to each other in our group, but there may have been times in which we gave our critiques a soft sell. I can see that now. It is sometimes good to go out and find a group that is set up with rules and very strict policy in order to find that honest feed back.

And yes, sometimes authors tell their editors they ran it by their crit group or beta reader and it was just fine with them. Not good. Critique partners and beta readers are a far cry from editors.

Tess said...

Awww...Faith, so glad I made your day. I didn't plan to plug your book, it just happened. It seemed like a logical solution to some of the letter writer's problem.

As a matter of fact, maybe you should promote your book as a helpmate to critique groups. Works for me. lol

Yes, I've seen books that I wondered how they were ever published. Goes to different publishers and their style, I suppose. But to be honest, when I see something like that, it tells me that my work doesn't belong with that publisher.

Tess said...

Good for you, Jambrea. A serious writer is willing to set aside a bruised ego for truth. I'm all for that.

It's a matter of learning and growing as a writer. At the same time, the writing experience can give you growth as a person too.

You're on your way, Jambrea. For sure.

Tess said...

I think you're right, Elena. You can tell when someone is just being a bitch about it and when someone is truly giving you some honest feed back.

On the flip side of all this, when someone is like that. and you recognize it. you learn to pick through their crap and keep what makes sense and what doesn't.

Crit groups and beta readers are a part of the job we have as writers. We have to navigate shark infested waters sometimes.

I feel for the lady who wrote this letter because she is concerned she is going to come off looking like a know it all Diva. Which in a way leads me to believe that maybe something has already been thrown out there in her group to lead her to believe her comments might be perceived as "know it all". She may have even tried to tell someone and been slapped on the wrist for it.

Tess said...


Crit groups need more authors like you. Ask for the hard punches. In the end you'll be glad you did.

You don't have to agree with every single punch either. It's not just a matter of learning the writing craft and honing your skills, it's also a matter of being tough enough to be in this very competitive business.

For a newbie, you've got a good grasp of the situation. '
good for you!