Help! My author friend has asked me for feedback. What do I do? #amwriting #amlaughing

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.

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.

behind you

 

Help! How do I pretend that I’ve read my friend’s book?

Oh, dear. You didn’t read yesterday’s excellent advice about how to deal with a new author, did you? Or perhaps you did but, in a weak moment, you discussed someone’s new book with them. To their face. In a way that may have, for the best of reasons, given them the impression that you have or you are about to actually read their work

The easiest option is, of course, to read the book but time is short, life is busy, and it hasn’t happened. But you don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings, especially if they have abandoned all pretence of civility and asked you outright if you’ve read it.

Perhaps you said you were going to read it. Several times. And now the dreadful moment has arrived. Luckily for you, I am a dreadfully cynical flim-flam artist and humbug, and I can help you to successfully convey the impression that you have read your friend’s book.

Help! How do I pretend that I’ve read my friend’s book?

  1. Oh God, oh God, how do I start? She/he is waiting for me to speak!

    The first thing to remember is that authors often release lots of details about the book in order to get people to read it in the first place. Synopses, titles, blurbs and the like are rich veins to mine for those who are looking for useful guides to the content.Remember those nouns you remembered from when you foolishly asked what the book was about? Let’s say that you remember the term “Soviet Union”.

    “I hadn’t thought about the Soviet Union in that way.”

    (This is technically true. You hadn’t thought about the Soviet Union in any way but, boy, are you thinking about it now.)

    This will probably generate a large volume of additional detail from the author, which you can then noun-mine for more helpful sentences.

    (Some authors are difficult and will ask ‘In what way?’ because they wish to defy the conventions of decent society and demand actual information from you. Feel free to fake a seizure, collapse to the floor, and then never see them again. If you are in a relationship with them, this may not work as well.)

  2. What if I don’t remember anything?

    This is trickier. You’re going to have to make general statements that are true of any good book.

    “I couldn’t put it down!” is true if you never picked it up.

    “The ending was great!” The author wrote the ending. Chances are that she or he liked it too. If the author follows up with “You didn’t think it was too (insert adjective here) “, simply smile and shake your head firmly. “No, I never thought that.” (Because you never thought about it at all.)

    “After this book, I’m really keen to know what you plan on writing next.” is sneaky and effective as hell. Most authors are thinking of the next book when other people are doing things like talking to other people, breathing, or putting their clothes on. In describing the next book, the author may well refresh the details of the current book you’ve forgotten, which allows you to noun-mine. See Point 1.

  3. Whew! I have some nouns again! What do I do now?
    Most people love their characters. If you can remember anything about the characters, talk about them. Characters mentioned in pairs are usually at least compatriots and possibly lovers, although they could be adversaries. But they have a connection.

    You: “Really interesting interaction between Kerry and Bosco.”
    Author friend: “Bosco was a lot of fun to write.”
    You: “I can believe that!”

    Are there interesting places? A convenient picture on the cover? A hint in the title? Talk about places.

    “What made you think of St Paul’s?”

    “I love London as a location.”

    “Earth is a good planet to write into books.” (This last one is possibly a little too general and may not work for science fiction and fantasy. Tread carefully if there are spaceships or dragons on the cover. Run like hell if there are spaceships and dragons on the cover.)

  4. I don’t think she or he is buying it. What do I do now?

    Right now, you’re probably wishing you read the book. Generalisation hasn’t worked and the spectre of doubt looms. But we are steeped in blood so far that, were we to go no further, returning would be as arduous as going onwards. We have entered the Heart of Darkness and you can’t stop now.

    Are you the devil?

    No, but we have summer houses in the same tax haven. Moving on. You are going to have to quickly come up with a reason to whip out your phone and go to the website for the work, or find any reviews that have been published.

    For example, from this site advertising a recently published and excellent work, we find the text:

    Kerry and Bosco have powerful allies: Williams and Fauve, London’s most unusual booksellers, and Doctor Jenny Cavendish, the deadliest archaeologist in England.

    Now we can quickly form the following questions:

    “What inspired you to make Williams and Fauve booksellers?”
    “Come on, confess, how much Indiana Jones inspiration is there in Doctor Cavendish?”
    “They’re an unusual ensemble for protagonists. What made you think of that?”

  5. I don’t think you’re a nice person at all. This is a shallow attempt to make me feel that I can fake my way through knowing a book and my author friend has seen straight through me. High level generalisations and embellishment of facts are not sufficient at this level of communication! Nobody trust this man! He is a mountebank and charlatan! And I suspect he is an incarnation of evil. But I still need his help in resolving a situation. What can I do now?

    Probably the best thing to do is to actually read the book. If you don’t have one of your friend’s books to hand, may I recommend “The Curse of Kereves Dere“, available from where many good (and any number of terrible) e-Books are sold?

    You are a true fiend.

    You misspelt friend.

    I know what I wrote.

Tune in next time for more useful advice from Nick Falkner, “Help! My author friend has asked me for feedback. What do I do?

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Words. Paper. Book. Yeah!

 

Help, I think I know a new author! #amwriting #amlaughing

There’s nothing worse than discovering that someone you know has become a first-time author. While many other life achievements can be dealt with by nodding and smiling, or saying “congratulations”, a friend’s authorship carries with it an implicit burden that you might have to read the work. Worse, this cannot be done passively, the easy out for a friend’s album. A newly minted band’s efforts can be smoothly dealt with by playing their oeuvre a total of three times. Once in the privacy of your own home to ensure that the contained sound does not frighten the horses and will not present any threats to the structural integrity of your home. Once at any party or gathering where your friend is present. Finally, you can reserve an extra special repeat play for the unlikely outcome that your friend becomes famous and you host a party to show how well you supported him/her before anyone knew who they were. But this is perhaps three hours of your life and all that is required is your presence, rather than your focus.

Books are not that easy.

In this inaugural set of “five by five” guides to enduring the 21st Century, Nick Falkner will help you to deal with the unrest and terror that often accompanies an outbreak of amateur literature.

Help! I think I know an author.

This can be a distressing time for any friend. Someone who you have known and trusted for years has, without consultation or apparent consideration, generated a work of fiction. Your lives and relationships are about to change.

  1. How will I know if one of my friends has become an author?

    Believe me, you’ll know. Between the casually dropped links on social media, the entirely new social media identities, and the invitations to launches, discussions or events, it should be hard to miss.

    Authors respond to polite social inquiry in curious ways. Almost any question can now be answered with “Oh, I wrote a book”. And will be.

    “I see that the Crows managed an upset win in the fourth.”
    “I wrote a book!”

    “Good lord, that was a terrible accident. Is he breathing?”
    “I wrote a book!”

  2. Should I ask what the book’s about?

    The answer to this varies. If the author has set up all of their promotional material or has a publicist then you will receive a smooth and polished answer to this question. If they are self-publishing or haven’t yet written their blurb, prepare for a stream of consciousness that attempts to make the book sound as if it is totally novel while still being comfortably accessible and is written well, but not too well, and it may be enjoyable to a range of people while not being populist. Watch the eyes. If the author’s eyes start to resemble those of a rabbit in headlights, nod sympathetically and offer them wine. The author, not the eyes. Possibly the rabbit.

    Some authors may actually tell you what their book is about. Fear these people as they may then expect you to remember whatever the hell they said. Focus on the nouns. “It’s about six decades of the redevelopment of the Soviet Union under the influence of the avant-garde, with mutants, genetically engineered computers and Alan Turing fighting Grace Hopper.” When next you see this author (if you choose to or the stars are unkind), asking “How’s that book about the Soviet Union going?” is a safe out. Following up with “I never thought of Alan Turing in that way” will probably get you a mention in the afterword, useful if the author ever becomes famous.

    If you do ask, prepare to receive an answer somewhere between four words and three days in response. Just hold on to the nouns.

  3. I think they’ve self-published. What do I say?

    Much as attitudes to cohabitation and reproduction have been a complicated issue in recent centuries, the question of authorial legitimacy mediated through formal publication is the new way to insult people by looking at something they’ve done and finding reasons for it to be diminished as an achievement. Even if the answer is not sensitive, the question can be loaded.

    From a social perspective, how it is published is something that you should wait for the author to offer, much like their preferred gender titling, the expression of their familiar name, or their favourite sexual position. If someone feels comfortable sharing this information, then they will share it with you.

    Trust me. If someone has received a $200K advance from Penguin/Random to write Thomas Dolby/Gary Numan teleporter slash then you’ll know about it. (See Point 1). (Sean, if you run with this idea, I want 10%.)

    Otherwise, simple congratulations on publication are always welcome.

  4. Oh God, do I have to buy it?

    No-one has to buy any book. Authors understsand this. Much as they would love to sell hundreds of thousands of copies and be name-checked with authors in their area, with great humility and reticence of course,  anyone flogging a book knows that the number of sales is going to be smaller than the number of people who show interest.

    But if you say you are going to buy it, then you should probably buy it. If you’re not planning to buy it, then there’s no need to make a big deal of it.

    “What the hell? Why would I buy that dribble when I could be reading something by a real author!” This level of frankness is unnecessary.

    Asking where it is available is probably enough and then you can quietly skim it in a store or download the sample to see if you want to buy it.

    eBooks are great because you don’t have to leave them lying around and it’s not as if most authors are insecure enough to go through your tablets and phones to see what you’ve downloaded. (That’s most authors. If you’re promising a leading Hacktivist that you’ll read her book, then you had better download it before the botnet runs a scan over your iBooks manifest.)

    Finally, if you do buy it, then let the author know. Don’t hire a plane to run a banner in the sky, perhaps, but do drop it in conversation. Beware. They will probably tell you about their next book.

  5. Why, oh cruel world, why? Why is there another book?

    I’m sorry to say that many authors are serial offenders. If the first book experience was not so horrible that the author has had to flee society to live in a yurt in the Tasmanian forest with a self-composting toilet that has a taste for blood, then she or he will probably try to write another one.

    Believe me, you’ll know when this happens, as the channel for “I’ve written a book” will now become filled with “I’m writing a book”.

    Botox is very useful for achieving the fixed, caring, but above all immobile expression required to deal with authors in this stage. Encouragement is welcome but take care as you may be asked to be a reader or, if your expertise is useful, to look over something for accuracy.

    At that point, there’s only one option.

    You’ll have to write your own book, as an act of revenge!

Up next

Tune in shortly for the next of Five to Survive guides for friends of authors: Help! How do I pretend that I’ve read my friend’s book?

Other stories, many languages: Jalada

Outside of writing, I work at a University and have a very deep and ongoing commitment to education. As part of this, I have helped to develop resources for teaching (among other things) Computer Science and programming. One of my aims has been to provide these resources to other people as frames upon which they can build materials that speak to their culture, in their language.

We recently ran a course that reached over 40,000 people, across 180 countries. But many countries in Africa were not heavily involved, because of some limitations of network access but also because of translation issues. English is not the only language of the world.

Thus, I am excited to share this link with you from Jalada, a pan-African writers’ collective. This is a short story by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, originally written in Kikuyu, and translated into many, many other languages used across Africa.

In English, the story is called “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright.” I enjoyed both the story and how it is presented as many languages. I hope that you do, too.

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Jalada’s logo, used here to share their presence.

Can you help? You certainly can! #curseofkerevesdere

Some of my friends have started asking how they can help with the novel and its launch. As I’m self-publishing and lurking in the indie sector, some of these questions are directed at non-traditional publishing.

But my answers apply to how you can help any author, focused on those who have eBook publishing. (Other authors, I would love additional comments if you felt like it.) Ultimately, if you want the author to keep writing, she or he has to feel that it is worthwhile to keep writing, which may or may not include making enough money. How can we keep an author writing?

  1. Buy the author’s books. That’s a fairly obvious way to show support for an author. It’s not compulsory and we all know that money is tight these days but sales translate into direct feedback to the author that the work is appealing to people.
  2. Tell other people about the book, if you like it. Word of mouth is a very powerful tool. There are millions of books being published every year and finding the ones that you might want to read can be hard. Personal recommendations help a lot here.
  3. Write a review on the site you bought it from. Websites such as Amazon and iBooks have a required number of reviews before they’ll display meaningful data. Their display algorithms often favour books with higher ratings. If you think a book is good, take the time to rate it and write a short review. That will keep helping the author for some time to come.

    (As a note, please think carefully before leaving a negative review. If a work is unreadable because of editing mistakes, is blatant plagiarism, or is so bad that it gives you hives, then a negative review may be fair. If you just didn’t like it, maybe it’s just not to your taste. That may not be review-worthy. But, hey, it’s up to you.)

  4. Rate it and write a review on Goodreads (or similar). The review aggregators span all of the distributors and have a lot of influence. A good review and rating here will bring more people to the author. This transcends the more closed communities of distribution channels.
  5. Buy from the back catalogue. One of the advantages of eBooks is that back catalogue (older books) may still be available and, if you like something, you can fill up your bookshelf from work that the author previously released. Take advantage of the persistence of e-materials!
  6. Keep track of the author’s public presence. Many authors will do signings, speaking events, or have extensive on-line presences. Going to those events, participating in message boards, dropping a line that says “I liked this”: all of these are great ways to show support and to achieve your aim, which is to keep the author writing!

I’m very lucky to have had so many people show me support so far, in buying “Five Stories” and in the growing pre-orders for “Kereves Dere”. But there are many authors out there and they need to know that what they are writing is something that you want to read.

Let’s make it “Give an author some love” day!

Have fun! Launch in ten days! Woohoo-argh!

Nick.

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Not ‘Just Kids’: Patti Smith’s important lesson

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Wally Gobetz (Flickr), NYC – Chelsea: Hotel Chelsea
I’ve always loved the music of Patti Smith and it was a pleasure to enjoy her books just as much. Her big hit, “Just Kids”, is a wonderful memoir of her early life. One of my favourite parts of the book is an account of a time that she and Robert Mapplethorpe (her then partner) were sitting around. I’ll let her tell it.

“We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand.
“Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”
“Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.”

And, of course, they were just kids but that simple classification is deceptive, because what the husband meant was “there’s nothing special about them in terms of being artists.”  And that is both true and false, because there’s nothing more special about them for being just kids and there’s certainly nothing less special about them.

I like this story. The punchline, of course, is that two of New York’s better-known artists from that period were dismissed as not being interesting enough to photograph; they didn’t look artistic enough. But Patti Smith is a clever writer and the message goes beyond this.

It’s not just that she and Robert looked like two kids, it’s that you can’t always pick what an artist looks like, any more than you can tell where an artist will go based on what they’re doing when you meet them.

It’s that reminder that there are many more paths to being an artist than many people realise and that waiting for other people to recognise that won’t always happen.

Look in the mirror. That’s your audience. That’s the person who will help you identify your art. Other people may be able to help but they have to be artists too and they have to be honest, not caught up in the machinery of art or be fixated on gatekeeping. But it starts with you and you have to be prepared to observe things with an artist’s perception, revealing what others may not. It’s your perception that will drive your art.

I’ll leave you with another of my favourite quotes from Patti.

“I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve years-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”