Don’t Ever Change, Dahling

Ah, well. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that. I spent several hours today doing a detailed and thoughtful critique of the opening of a novel by a fellow in one of my Facebook writers’ groups. I emailed it to him, both marginal notes in the file and a long email with some positive observations and some advice about what he needs to work on — and his head exploded. He proved to be extremely defensive.

I’m always happy to try to help aspiring writers. And I make it clear to them that with respect to fiction technique, I’m a hard-ass. If it doesn’t work, I’m going to tell you it doesn’t work, and I’m going to tell you why. I also try to make it clear that I’m coming from standard genre fiction. I don’t know much about literature or memoir. But I do know a few things about plotted fiction. Not everything! But a few things, yeah.

One of my FB friends (who has more or less taken the side of the inadequate writer in this affair) accused me of being dogmatic. But that’s wrong. If you’re dogmatic, you cling to your ideas and refuse to change. I’m certainly opinionated, but that’s an entirely different beast. If you disagree with my opinions, then fine — let’s talk about it! I may even learn something.

This young man has previously self-published a whole fantasy series, which his new manuscript is related to in some sort of long-story-arc fashion. Unfortunately, the prologue of his new book is a dreadful mess. I didn’t use that term, of course. I did point out a number of issues. Stuff like how it’s confusing to have your lead character die and then immediately spring back to life without explanation. Stuff like how trying to shoehorn chunks of the back-story into a prologue is telling, not showing. I also mentioned that devoting several opening pages to a description of your characters’ apparel and weaponry without having started the action is perhaps not an ideal technique.

He didn’t want to hear any of it. He’s up on the authorial empyrean somewhere, breathing the rarefied atmosphere of genius. Or nitrous oxide, that would be a better guess. His email in reply to my effort was downright snotty.

I suppose I ought to know better by now. Bad writers almost never want to improve, that has been my experience. When I suggest things that aren’t working and could be changed, they seldom want to hear it.

It’s very sad, and it’s baffling. Me, I like getting critiques! I may or may not change a passage as a result of a critique, but even a misguided critique can help me understand what my aims are (or aren’t) in a particular passage — and yes, I do routinely make changes as a result of input from others. As a friend of mine says, “I like having been wrong.” There’s always room for improvement. Always.

Also, I make it a rule never to get defensive. If someone says something misguided, irrelevant, or downright bogus, I just thank them and move on.

Maybe I ought to charge for the work. If someone wants a beta-read, I could tell them, “Happy to help. That’s $60 an hour. Send me $300 for five hours and then I’ll get started.” That would cut down on the annoyance factor, for sure. Beyond that, if somebody is paying for a critique, they’re less likely to get all defensive and blow it off.

If you ask someone to read a 160,000-word manuscript and ask them to let you know if they spot any continuity problems in the ending, you’re assuming they’re going to read straight through to the ending. You’re assuming, in other words, that your work is good enough that readers can stand to read clear through to the ending. Sadly, that’s often not the case.

In his email to me before I started reading, the young man said this: “Between beginning and end, I’d like to know principally where it needs fixing, and where it needs more. By ‘fixing’ I mean continuity, character motivation, and if necessary, good taste and potential trigger topics. For positive feedback, I’d like to know where a particular theme, plot or passage could bear more elaboration and exploring. Besides cleaning up what’s bad, I’d like to know what’s good so I can put more of that in.”

There it is. He wants help cleaning up what’s bad. He wants to know “where it needs fixing.” But he already has a clear idea (or what he thinks is a clear idea) about what may be bad. When I tell him there are major things that need fixing that didn’t fall in the categories of continuity or character motivation, he doesn’t want to hear it.

I suspect his emotional freakout was because I tried (at some length) to explain the manner in which aspiring writers so often fail to see the weaknesses in their own work. I’m sure he felt I was talking down to him. Well, okay — I was talking down to him. But he damn well needs some talking down to, so there’s that.

None of us is as good as we think we are. If I were to send the manuscript of a mystery to Michael Connelly or Sara Paretsky and they got on their high horse and talked down to me, you know what? I’d sit there and take it. It would probably hurt, but I’d take it without whining. The problem I ran into today seems to be that the fellow thinks he’s already a big deal and should never be talked down to.

He’s not a big deal. Hell, I’m not a big deal either, and I damn well know how to write.

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