By Geoffrey Zimmerman
How do you tell someone their work isn’t great? How do you tell them you were looking for something that would allow you to comment with more than just “I liked it”?
Dealing with other writers can be stressful, nerve-wracking and sometimes downright irritating – but it can also be stimulating, educational and rewarding. It’s all in the planning, approach and attitude.
View talking with another writer as a job interview. They have something you need and you know you have something they need.
How do we conduct this interview? We prepare. We read the work submitted. We take into account the genre, the circumstances, and the author.
Let’s say I was critiquing the first draft chapter of a new writer’s romance novel. Picking it up, I know not to expect much, and the work will need polishing.
I look for the basics – The Hook. Does the writer reel me in and take me into their world? Do they answer the five W’s? - Who, What, When, Where, and Why? How do I feel when reading through these first pages? Tired? Anxious? Angry? Frustrated? Is my interest piqued? Critiquing is one thing, but laying it on the line is another.
Surprisingly, I have an easier time telling a writer why I think their work is worthy of pursuing and potentially a good candidate for publication. I have little difficulty finding well-used phrases, devises of expression, or a smooth transition and well-planned points of view.
But, if I feel edgy, angry, put off or frustrated, sometimes I have a hard time seeing what’s missing. At these times, I just go with my gut. I usually step away for a while and muse on my reactions during the reading experience.
Recently, I was asked by an author to look at the first 30 pages of book 3 in a romance trilogy. After a few pages, I sent an email to the author, stating that I thought we should talk about her work.
We all love this – feedback – “someone has actually read my stuff, and has something to say about it.” I think it’s akin to taking the SASE from your mailbox – “There’s a chance – a chance…” It’s the possibility we all thrive on, so communication is gold to serious writers.
When the author called, I briefly told her I thought her descriptions were “ ethereal,” and that I had a hard time following the story and wanted something more concrete. She couldn’t quite follow what I meant by ethereal, so we set up a meeting.
I wish I could say that I had prepared for our meeting – after all, it was to be a gathering of writers designed to act as an introduction and a critique-fest for the author.
I envisioned at least five other writers, all seated around a table, all of us putting forth our interpretations of how to improve the author’s work. I though I’d be just one leaf on a tree.
No one else showed up. It was fine – at first. We made small talk about what might have happened to the rest of the group – and then suddenly I was in the spotlight.
“Let’s see… what were we talking about?” I said, rifling through the three pages I had printed and brought with me.
I had also brought my own novel, a screenplay of the same novel, a contact sheet, and a book entitled, The Power of Point of View. Usually when I’m reading a book I like, I refer to it with regard to what I might be doing at present. In this case, I decided to leaf through the pages of The Power of Point of View, hoping I’d find some leg to stand on when discussing the “ethereal” work.
“Head hopping… they discuss head-hopping in here.” Head hopping is the act of a writer frequently shifting from one point of view to another. It can be disorienting for the reader. “I’m a head-hopper, but I’m never one to keep with convention – that’s why people love my work. I’m non-formulaic,” she said. That was a lot to take in.
“But, it’s confusing,” I told her. “I have a hard time keeping up with who’s who,” I said, and placed a finger on some lines from her work. Reading aloud, I found a few “ethereal” sections where, for paragraphs descriptions of past events, feelings, thoughts, dialogue, etc. were poured forth – “Ethereals.”
“Yeah, but if you had read the first two books, you would know what I’m talking about,” she said. “But, I hadn’t, and I don’t,” I said, frustrated.
“You’re a male. Women love this stuff,” she said. At this point I stopped. Not because I’m a male, but because I had to reassess my approach.
Let’s take another tack, I thought to myself. I hoped that reading some of the pithier passages from my story might show my ideas. So, I opened my novel and leafed through it until I found what I hoped would demonstrate a more concrete approach to narrative. I read a few passages. “I can see it. I’m there,” was her response. It made me feel good. I love reading my stuff to folks, bringing them into my world.
Did I fail? No. Was I unprepared? Yes. I had little to back up my contentions. And the book I had brought spoke to neither this writer’s weaknesses nor her strengths.
I suppose the “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine” dynamic is always a little like joining a tug of war without knowing who’s on your team. Of course, I did get what I wanted out of the deal, an affirmation that my words can paint pictures – but I got no real beneficial criticism.
On the other hand, I failed to give the author what she wanted or needed – good, solid, well founded and well backed up advice. I dropped the ball and got a pat on the back. Even score? Hardly. But, who’s counting?