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.
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.