Let’s assume that, despite your earlier attempts to convince your friend that you’ve read the book and not managing to stay away from the problem in the first place, you not only still have a friend who’s a recent author but this so-called friend has now turned on you like an angry viper and asked you for some feedback on the work.
Dear, oh dear, oh dear. Lucky for you that I have a PHD in apparently genuine and useful feedback. Technically, a Partially Hypertense Deltoid shows how caring I am and, for once, this is a useful qualification.
Why am I back here? You give the worst advice in the world.
Because you have nowhere else to go. Shall we begin?
Help! My author friend has asked me for feedback. What do I do?
1. I think this is a bad idea. Is there any way out of this?
Well, no, probably not but that assumes that you have actually been asked. Sometimes authors talk about their work but this does not actually require you to solve the problems that they mention; they’re just venting in the company of friends.
Sometimes people just want to see if you like something. Fiction is weird and writing is harder than many people think. Many authors will go through a stage where they want a friendly voice to let them know that they wrote something that is recognisable as writing. Could you read it? Was it enjoyable? Did you struggle at any point? What was the best bit for you? All of these can be quickly provided and it is, trust me, very helpful.
But when someone says something like “I’d really like you to read this and see what you think”, then you’re going to have to make a choice. If you agree to do it, then you’re going to have to potentially deliver bad news if it’s no good. But if you say that you don’t want to do it, then that can have all kinds of downsides.
Basically, asking someone else for feedback is a little like working out details for an initial romantic encounter. You both should be comfortable with the discussions and no-one should be overly surprised by the timing or nature of any requests. The pacing and outcome should be be mutually satisfying.
Walking up to strangers and whispering “I like rubber” is frowned on in many cultures and for good reason. (Unless you live in a place with lots of rubber trees, where it’s still a little weird but you might get away with it. Please don’t quote me.)
2. Ok, I’ve read some of it. Can I say that I think it’s just a rip-off of…
Yes. Absolutely. As long as you don’t want to talk to that person again.
What? What do you mean?
I mean AHHHHH! No! No no no no no! You want to tread very carefully whenever you want to say “Hey, it’s like this…” or “Wow, didn’t Niven…” or “This is Star Trek with furries. Again.” Homage, the deliberate allusion to or imitation of another artist or work, is a well-defined part of writing, as are satire, in-jokes, tropes and trope inversions.
Through a Jungian lens, there are apparently only seven plots, although there could actually be three, twenty or thirty-six, depending on who you read. There are always going to be similarities and it’s probably important to work out if these similarities are striking you because they’re such deeply engrained parts of a culture or because your friend has (accidentally or not) rewritten Lord of the Rings with beautiful, long-lived Belves, short and tough Bworfs, and cunning folk with hairy feet called … Bobbits.
Now is a good time to ask your friend what her or his inspiration was. Many people who are consciously writing work that relies on others will happily admit to “filing off the serial numbers” or “wanting to write Lord of the Rings as something other than Epic Winnie the Pooh”. (Moorcock’s actual description of LotR, by the way.)
If your friend has asked for feedback, then they’re probably not after value judgements on the whole. They may even have given you some guiding questions. If one of the guiding questions is “Is it too obviously still too Twilight” then you are on your own. I cannot help you with that one.
3. Amazingly enough, my friend actually had some questions. I’m not sure that my answers are going to make them happy. How honest should I be?
I want to say 100% honest, “Gertrude Stein to Hemingway” honest, because it’s only through utter honesty that any writer is going to get the most from another reader.
But we must always consider the fragility of humans and relationships in these matters. If someone says “I want you to be 100% honest”, then you are going to have to decide, based on who you are and who they are, how much you can do that.
And this is where objectivity and knowledge are really helpful. If one of the other writers I know and respect gave me detailed feedback on characterisation and pointed out where I’d got it wrong, they’d do so in order to make it better and I can most likely trust their judgement. If someone else said “Hey, you just ripped off Lovecraft. How lame.” then it’s not helpful and, despite it being their 100% honest opinion, it’s a crock.
Can you back up your ideas with evidence, suggest alternatives, and help to make it a better book? Try for honesty.
4. This seems less facetious than previous guides. What’s so important about good feedback?
It would be very easy to come up with a lot of cheap gags about feedback but writing large works is a difficult and relatively lonely venture for many people. If someone is asking you for feedback, then they’re asking you to be part of something that’s quite important for them. I love the use of humour for framing and lightening discussion but, despite everything else in the previous guides, if you agree to give feedback, then you have to understand that the other person has made themselves quite vulnerable.
Are you suggesting that we use our ‘best’ honesty?
I am the Prince of Lies. Such chicanery seems apt.
5. I’m uncomfortable with your current position in this discussion. You haven’t directly plugged your book or made me feel that I was heading towards eternal damnation. Now I’m worried that there’s some sort of giant sucker-punch of cheap gags and self-promotion waiting in my future. Can you tie everything together with a rough guide to giving feedback?
Opinions are like…
Without mentioning assholes. Which is like an Oulipo challenge for you.
Um. Ok. Everyone who reads your work will have an opinion but these opinions vary greatly in the positive effect that they’d have on your writing. Five minutes work with another human can create a baby in nine months. Five minutes work won’t even get you a good book title in writing and it certainly won’t grow into a novel over a year. Most people have no idea how much work it takes to write, nor can they readily accept the sheer volume of thinking that went into writing. When someone asks for feedback they have asked you to look at months, years or decades of their life and give your thoughts on both how that time investment went and how its fruits could be made sweeter. Not everyone gives good feedback and not everyone will give good feedback to a certain person. My friend Michael suggests that we all find that best, truest, most honest and brutal critic for all of us: our own Gertrude Stein.
I have a group of people who help me with that, a patchwork critic I refer to as my Franken-Stein.
I hate you.
But it helped so much in writing my recent novel, The Curse of Kereves Dere!
And you’re feeling better. Tune in next time when Nick talks about …
Hey! That’s my line! Next time, I will cover the even more difficult issue “Help! Someone I know has written the worst book in the world!”
Finally, a reason to quote excerpts from your book.