I’m trying to think of how many times I’ve had a friend or colleague forward me a piece of fiction they’ve written and ask for feedback.
Decades ago, it was one of my professors who asked me to review a manuscript about an avalanche that buried (and, as I recall, gruesomely dismembered) several mountain climbers. Unable to finish it, or to tell him how truly dreadful it was, I ended up dropping his course.
Things are even more complicated now that I’m an almost published author: the requests are more frequent. I have a blog about writing, therefore the erroneous assumption is that I must know something about it, and that my comments, such as they are, might actually mean something.
The problem is that I’m a critical reader. There are only a few books that I’ve read in my entire life that I thought were truly great. Most of what I’ve read, including books by well-established writers, disappoints for one reason or another, and that’s after running the gauntlet of agents, editors and publishers.
But the people who ask for my input really love what they’ve created. They think it’s ready for outside eyes. Whatever they say about wanting feedback, in truth, (and this applies to me equally) they are as committed to their writing as the old gal on the bus is to her bright red lipstick.
Who am I to tell them that their humour falls flat, or that their story doesn’t draw me in? They’ve read and revised and polished their work dozens of times. ‘It’s the best thing I’ve ever written,’ is a common refrain.
My manuscript is not the best thing I’ve ever written. In fact, the more distance I get from it, the less I like it. I think I almost need that objectivity to see it into publication. As long as I love it, I can’t do what’s required to make it better. (I’m starting to understand those actors who say they never watch their own movies once they’re done their best; they move on.)
As you know, I’m in real estate these days. Aspiring writers, I’ve come to realize, and again, I include myself in this category, are a lot like home owners getting ready to sell. They always think their house is worth more than it is. They don’t really want to change the major things that stand in the way of selling. A few tweaks, sure, but structural repairs? Forget it; too expensive and besides, they’re unnecessary. They’ve lived with their home’s flaws for years; why shouldn’t someone else?
I remember pointing to a gaping hole in the drywall of a finished basement. The homeowner told me with all sincerity that she didn’t think it needed to be fixed because she didn’t notice it anymore.
It’s hard to tell someone I know that I think the reason they can’t find an agent is because of serious structural problems with their writing. What they want to hear is that what they’ve produced is brilliant and that it’s the experienced buyers – the agents and publishers – that have it wrong. But the marketplace, I’ve discovered, is always right, and that applies as much to books as it does to houses.
I had approached a few established writers to look at my manuscript when I got started: they all politely declined. At the time, I was a little miffed, but now I understand completely. The best and most important feedback is the hard truth and it’s as difficult to give as it is to receive. Particularly when it involves people we know.