The writer’s greatest trap: friendly fire

Feet walking up steps. Text: To be fully responsible means accepting even the unintended consequences. Alicia Butcher EhrhardtIS A CLOSE FRIEND WHO WRITES – AND WOULD DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY IN YOUR BOOK.

Friends who are writers are a unique resource

Writers want the approbation of readers, critics, family – but especially they want the praise of their close friends who are also writers. And it must sound both earned and sincere.

So when a close friend who is a writer takes your writing apart, nitpicking, essentially calling your baby ugly, a major dissonance is set up in your head about what you have written – and whether you need to listen and change things you thought you were sure of.

It is in many ways a gift: if the emperor has no clothes, the emperor is making an idiot of himself, with the well-remunerated connivance of his tailors helping him along. Yes, they are making a fool of him – but he is also making a fool of himself.

Good friends tell you when you’re making an idiot of yourself, and sometimes this should and does bring you up short, followed by insight and realization, and a new path.

Writers have blind spots, just as everyone else does. Most editors think writers are much too close to their own writing and lack the objectivity necessary to edit themselves, and should never do that (and should pay said editors, genuine or scam artists, big bucks to mess with the writer’s work and ‘improve’ it).

Lack of objectivity is a problem

And any writer who doesn’t think it’s a real possibility is already lacking in objectivity by default.

Which is, as I’m just figuring out, a very strong reason for me not to have a writer as a beta reader (or alpha reader – depending on what stage you usually share your writing at; I call alpha readers ones who see rough drafts, and beta readers those who see something which is as polished as I can make it before outside eyes and brains get a look at it).

And when you expect a reader, and get the writer in full critique mode, it is a very uncomfortable experience.

When you ask someone how did you like my book?

In my defense, I didn’t think my reader/friend considered herself a writer – or I would have been far warier, because I know the tendency to rewrite work that isn’t ‘right’ to your own standards and specifications, if you’re a writer. Which is the reason I won’t read other writer’s unfinished work – I can’t afford to get sidetracked onto someone else’s problems when I’m having so much trouble finding the necessary brain power to solve my own.

So, faced with a huge critique when I expected some feedback from a reader and possibly a few questions to clarify why I had made certain choices, my first reaction was to feel betrayed, gut-punched, defensive, attacked where I least expected it, ambushed. I have had the same reaction to close friends who have been critical, who consider themselves experts because of their reading, or who consider they know me and thus know my intentions and my flaws – and poke at my choices. But not to the same level, because they are not writers.

I shouldn’t have let it happen

I was tired – which she should know means ‘not all here’ – and, in retrospect realize she blew right over because she had so much to say. I have also realized it is a potential huge gift to receive a critique of such proportions from someone who seemed to have engaged enough to have serious questions and opinions (see It is daunting to be taken seriously as a writer) – we talked, or rather I listened, for the better part of three hours (and I can’t do that).

Plus, her ego needed soothing, as perhaps she recognized she was doing a certain amount of stomping on my grave, and she is a valued friend I had just never seen as a fellow writer, so my instinct was to shut up and let her have her say. And keep the flow of information coming.

And I couldn’t get away physically, because at the time this was happening, I wasn’t sure I wanted or needed to get away and shut off the listening I was trying to do, because it was literally the first time this had happened. The only other time I’ve worked with another writer was when I was starting Pride’s Children, back in the early part of the century, and my writing partner was working on her thriller, and we would get together to be a mutual support society, read each others’ latest pages over lunch, and talk a bit about it: we learned very quickly not to go to critique mode, and instead to reflect something about the new pages back to each other. If either of us had asked the other, “How do you do X?” it would have meant admitting we didn’t know how to do something, and had no idea how to learn it, and that we thought the other knew it well enough to teach. Fortunately for our friendship, we didn’t go there. Or I think those lunches would have become very rare. Support and critique are mutually exclusive.

Why write about this experience?

I write these posts about the writing process because I’m still a beginner in many senses, and I’m discovering these things as I write about them, and using the posts and the process to make real-life decisions.

And I’ve spent all morning – time I didn’t have and energy I don’t care to spend – dealing with the consequences and figuring out what to do about it.

My conclusion is that I can’t change a word, and I can’t change a thing about my process or the content of my story or my characters. No changes will be allowed to plot or theme or language. I can’t. For me, this whole story – all three volumes (which were always planned to be a unit) – has been locked into its final form except for the actual words for such a long time that I have to take ownership of it as I’ve made it.

I need to be far clearer about what I need as feedback

My decisions have been taken long ago – and the current writing only supports those decisions. Even the most minute changes my friend was angling for are wrong for me. Her feedback reflects how my story hit her, which is an incredibly valuable piece of information for me, as I value her experience and her friendship, and she is somewhat in my target audience.

But I realize I have long passed – long – the point at which I might change anything, however arrogant and self-centered and pig-headed that sounds. And I’m not even sure those changes I might have accepted in the past were what she was talking about – she wanted the core values of my story modified because she didn’t quite like them the way I decided they would be.

I don’t think she realizes this. In the same situation I would have backed off completely rather than talk about how something didn’t work for me. She said she assumed she could speak freely and be frank because we are long-time friends now. And I respect that. I don’t know if it was hard for her, and that’s part of why it came out in one piece, because she had to get it out. She has spent at most a couple of weeks with my story. I have spent fifteen years.

Aftermath

But I’ve spent the morning examining the battlefield (for battle it was, out loud at the beginning, and then in my head as I tried to let her have her say without interruption, while continuing to get more and more exhausted) and picking through the bombed-out ruins, and coming to my conclusion which is: never again.

I gave her the courtesy of writing down as many of her points as I could remember, and of listening last night and of considering this morning whether I needed to do anything.

And have decided on a blanket prohibition against this ever happening again.

Because of who I am, and how having CFS has forced my hand…

I have made my decisions – plot, character, language, theme – and every one of them has taken thought and huge effort and no little time. They will be allowed to stay unaltered. There will be no changes in what’s planned or written, because it’s all of a piece, and I literally can’t change anything this far into the game. I wouldn’t be able to handle the consequences of the changes, and how they would affect the plot, for example.

But mostly just NO. This is the way Pride’s Children is, and all I can hope is that God gives me enough time in this life to write it all out.

It’ll remind me not to seek feedback from friends, as I’ll have to live with the aftermath. And to just plow on ahead, instead of being so damned needy.

Burned paw on hot stove. Lesson learned.


Have you ever been blindsided by a critique?

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13 thoughts on “The writer’s greatest trap: friendly fire

  1. marianallen

    I think your experience can be tremendously useful, especially to someone in the same position. I do disagree — in my own case, at least — that critique and support are mutually exclusive; I’m lucky enough to belong to a critique group that provides both in great walloping truckloads. HOWEVER, I have a fantasy trilogy that took me about 20 years to finish, including five major rewrites, the last of which threw out a bunch of bad advice and returned to my original vision. After that, two friends read it (one a publisher to whom I submitted it) and found fault with its basics. As you said of your PC books, at that point, I knew that it is what it is and only the piddliest details could be tweaked. As you say, not my friends’ fault, but it taught me a valuable lesson on when I might benefit from extensive feedback and when it’s just too late!

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I’ve never been opposed to critique – when wisely and gently administered. But some personalities may be better able to take it on!

      I’m curious. After 20 years with your fantasy trilogy, did you agree with the person who found fault with its basics, or did you tell that person to go away, and publish. Were YOU happy with it?

      We get better at evaluating our own work ONLY if we work at it, and keep learning, and WANT to.

      I know a writer who has written basically the same level of book 50 times. And had a friend of my grandparents who did the same. Each reached a place where they were who they were and wrote what they wrote, and were not interested in changing. They had their fans, and sold regularly, but the books did have a sameness to them. Little things such as how they tended to describe things, how they’d set up a scene, how their characters reminded you of other characters they’d written before… It was probably a comfortable sameness for some of their readers.

      But readers are fickle. If the plot doesn’t thicken after the 11th book in a series, what was cute becomes an easy out. If the writer notices sales flattening or falling, there are things to look at. But other writers just keep improving, or finding new themes, or something that keeps them fresh.

      I have no answers; only questions without insight.

      Ask me in 20 years – and hope I’ve finished more than one trilogy by then!

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  2. Bun Karyudo

    Although I’ve never written a book, I have written songs before and asked various friends to listen to them for me and give me feedback. The results have generally been uncomfortable. Sometimes I thought this friend or that friend had a point but more often I thought they didn’t. In either case, though, I found it very hard not to react negatively to any criticism. It was just instinctive. I couldn’t help it.

    I don’t think I can really blame my friends for that. I asked their opinions and they gave them. In the end, I just stopped asking. Since they’re my songs, I just have to write them the way I want to and then stand by that. Writing a novel may be very different, of course, but that’s the closest parallel I can think of from my own experience.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      A novel is the same. At some point you have to take control back, and say, “This is the way it’s going to be because I want it to be.”

      I guess it fights with the neediness, the hope for approval. Maybe it’s hard for anyone with their nearest and dearest, but I know my family supports my niece the fashion designer, for example, with no reservations. Everything she does is wonderful. I’m sure they gave her a bit of a hard time when she was getting started, but she’s been alive about as long as I’ve been writing, and I don’t get that unreserved support. Wish I did.

      Prophet in your own land – it’s hard.

      You have to write the the way you want them. Exactly.

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  3. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    …I listened, for the better part of three hours…

    Aack! I’m exhausted and gut-punched just imagining it. Listening for 3 hours to a friend go on about why she didn’t like your book? I think you must be a saint to have managed it.

    And…friend? I’ll accept that she is, but she forgot herself in this one. Friends offer correction (if such is absolutely necessary) as gently and succinctly as possible, with the criticism well-sandwiched by praise. I think she slipped from friend into some other role for that 3 hours.

    …she is somewhat in my target audience.

    Sounds like she had the potential to be in your target audience, but pretty much proved that she isn’t by her reaction. Your true audience loves PC as it is and has no desire for you to have written it differently.

    …she wanted the core values of my story modified because she didn’t quite like them the way I decided they would be.

    Definitely not your audience then. Or, at least, not PC’s audience. (I believe each book has its audience, just as each author does. Some of your readers will like one book the best, others a different book.)

    I have to wonder how much your friend is writing. Generally the actively writing writer is far too busy with her own work to have a lot of energy to devote to re-writing (if only in the mind) other people’s books. Someone who fancies herself a writer, but is not writing, will have all that pent-up creativity to loose, usually destructively. Besides, it is so much easier to critique someone else’s work than it is to create one’s own.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Which is the why of the title: things like this shouldn’t happen, but do.

      I think it means, possibly, that it affected her and she found that uncomfortable. I hope so, anyway, because I am not trying to make anyone feel comfortable with this story.

      Informed, and possibly educated, yes. Comfortable, no. It is too uncompromising for comfort.

      And it is going to stay that way.

      She put Kary at somewhat older than Kary is, having misread the ranges of the very few clues I provide (deliberately) because of the unbelievably stubborn attitudes of the world toward ‘suitable’ age combinations (hence the Shakespeare quote from Twelfth Night). I think the feeling that it is almost irrelevant is critical.

      I intended to create an experience and a world out of the real world plus everything else. I think it is hard to come into that experience, and halfway is the hardest.

      Your comments are always appreciated!

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      1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

        I think it means, possibly, that it affected her and she found that uncomfortable.

        Bingo! Why else would she have needed to go on for 3 hours?! Instead of owning her discomfort, she wanted you to write it so that she did not have to feel that way. Ha!

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I encourage everyone to write the book they want to read. It’s not, as you know, until you embark on the journey that you find out if you really want to spend that much time with your story, your characters, the themes that are important to you.

          We are not in competition for spaces in the marketplace, though we are technically in competition for eyes on our work. Each book can have a tribe – each author can find readers – if the work satisfies. Readers are voracious; at least, I was. Never enough (though my mother did try to make me go outside and play).

          Writers who are not happy with what they are producing can find help and critique. I don’t think that’s what I want any more. At least not until this story is finished. It is going to get intense, and challenging, and push expectations. If you’re not completely on board for PURGATORY, you may find the rest hard.

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  4. juliabarrett

    I live by the following philosophy– Don’t ask, don’t tell. I never ask anyone about my book, nor do I request reviews, critiques, suggestions. Never. And I don’t offer advice either.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You’re a much more experienced writer. I don’t know where I’ll end up – I suspect at the same place you are already – but I have to go through the process for myself.

      Possibly I should get there sooner.

      The analysis is done with the expectation that since I’m practically a shut in, THESE are my experiences, and my character may need them.

      Especially the accidental ones. If you pay attention, you may notice where I use something. I wouldn’t recommend paying attention – some of this stuff is exceedingly petty of me.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I take feedback, write it down so I can process (handy if it comes in the form of an email, for example).

      Then I still am new enough at that part of the process that I have to ask myself what I may need to learn.

      After I have learned what I can, I have to get rid of the semi-digested bolus – get it out of my skull – somehow. I do not have the capacity to ignore. So it appears I have to write it out.

      Safely analyzed, it stop bothering me.

      The final question is always: is there any value in this little rant of mine for anyone else that would justify me turning it into a post of any kind and throwing it up into the eternal existence of the internet? While possibly hurting the cause of it.

      I haven’t completely answered that part, even for myself yet, but some of these are starting to generate some useful discussion, and I’m trying to be VERY careful not to identify or attack a PERSON or SITE, but instead, figure out and write about the topic or concept.

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