The role of the writer’s friend

On Friday night, I attended the launch for Pulp Fiction Press’s latest book, Carolyn Morwood’s Death and the Spanish Lady. It’s a murder mystery set in Melbourne in 1919, in the aftermath of the Great War and during the deadly flu epidemic that killed more people than the actual war managed to do. I’m excited to see it out and it’s next on my to-read pile!

I love a book launch. The publisher gets to finally release their latest project into the wild. An honoured guest gets to launch it with good and kindly words about the author, the subject matter and how everyone there should buy a copy because BOOK X IS AWESOME AND YOU WILL TOTALLY LOVE IT.

And the nervous author, often better at hiding behind a keyboard and typing than standing up in front of a bunch of people, gets to say “I’m really proud of my book. I hope you like it.” (Perhaps with a subtext of “I’m kind of glad it is all over now. Someone pass me a drink!.” and maybe a frisson of ‘Oh god, now I have to write another one!!”

In short, a book launch is all promise and hope. It’s that marvellous/terrifying moment of letting your words finally fly beyond your own brain and fingertips and hopefully find some hearts and minds in which to nest.

But the release of a novel can be a fractious time for a writer as well. To be more accurate, it’s the months after the release that can be fractious, with well-meaning friends deciding that the best time for critical feedback on everything they think you did wrong is after publication.

I’m not talking about reviews, whether in the pages of a newspaper or magazine or in the blog of an enthusiast. All writers know that their book will be reviewed, and they hope some people will like it, though they know some people will hate it. It’s part of the deal. Bad reviews only upset me, for example, when I agree with the point they’re making. But I can live with the bad reviews. Not everyone’s going to like what I do. I don’t like everything that other people do. We all bring our own interpretation and ideas to what we read. I’m not even trying to please all of the people all of the time, so it’s hardly surprising when I don’t.

I’m talking about the friends who say “There’s a spelling error on page 58” or “I thought it had a weak ending” or “I really hated your lead character.”

I don’t mean to sound like a hypersenstive, delicate little flower but… why are you telling me these things? Why are you, my friend, telling me you don’t like my work, to my face, as though that is a helpful thing? I don’t expect that all my friends will like everything I do, but seriously, why do some friends feel the need to tell me they think my work sucks?

I’ve already had a handful of readers (with particular skills and viewpoints and a mandate to look for the flaws) provide critical feedback it before I submitted it to my publisher. My publisher has read it. So has my editor. Numerous times. Both have provided firm, unflinching but constructive feedback on how to polish it, picking up the continuity errors, plot holes and thin character development as we went. A team of other readers, including the proofreaders, have gone over it and hopefully caught all the errors (though, yes, sometimes we miss them).

So, you know, it’s been edited before publication. Once the thing is printed and sitting in its crisp, shiny cover, smelling of ink and new paper and potential, it’s too late to change anything. And if you don’t like the ending or the lead character, that’s really okay, but what is the purpose of telling me so? The reviewers will cheerfully tell me they don’t like my work, and I’m prepared to live with that, but why are my friends telling me? I, my editor, my publisher and a bunch of other people responsible for releasing the thing actually really liked the book and the ending and the characters, or we wouldn’t have released it.  I’m not going to rewrite it now. It’s finished. It’s published. It’s done.

Here’s the deal.

Writers:  Never ask your friends what they thought of your book. They may not care for it, and you don’t want to make either party uncomfortable by putting a friend on the spot and making them either lie or hurt yourfeelings with their brutal honesty. It’s needy and awkward, so do not do that to your friend or to yourself.

(By the same token, if you are sharing your manuscript pre-publication, ask for honest feedback. You don’t have to take it all on board, but this is when the honesty is essential.)

Friends of writers:  Feel free to tell your proud author friend that you enjoyed their book if you did. That’s nice, but it’s not essential. You can always say “I like the cover” if absolutely nothing else appealed. If you think the whole thing’s a wash, try “You must be so proud of your achievement.” But skip the part where you imply that your writer friend would have better spent that two (or more) years of their life learning shorthand and becoming a secretary, which would at least have been useful.

Offer your your support and a little kindness because, believe me, there have been times when this process has been really rough and the writer concerned has seriously considered that secretarial course.

To show your support, it’s ideal if you buy a copy of the book, even if you don’t read it (though it’s nice if you do). It’s great if you like it, but you’re not obliged to. Just like you’re not obliged to tell the author every defect, great and small, you think the book contains.

So please, if you love me, if you understand what hard and emotionally exhausting work this has been, oh please be kind. Suppress that need to tell me how flawed you think my book is*. And I promise not to tell you that you really can’t sing, that you’re a bad cook or that your children are ugly**.

Because that would be rude and tactless.

*Though actually, if you find formatting or typing errors in my e-books Witch Honour, Witch Faith, Fly by Night or Sacrifice, I’d like you to tell me about those, because those ones I can fix.

**These examples are not aimed specifically at any of my friends, just in case you think it’s you I mean. All of my friends are excellent cooks, sing like nightingales and have exquisitely behaved and beautiful children.

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Posted on September 13, 2011, in creativity, writers, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Excellent advice. As usual!

  2. You have a good point. I’ve only had some magazine articles published, and so far there’s been just about no feedback, but maybe someday I’ll be pondering these questions too!
    Congratulations on your post, I loved all of the characters, there were no errors anywhere and I think you’re a genius. There, I hope that helps! :))

    • I wasn’t fishing for compliments, but I’m delighted to have them all the same! I, my editor, publisher, proofreaders, cover designer et al thank you for your kind words. 🙂

      I hope you will soon be in a position to bite your tongue on asking what your friends think of your new book.

  3. I agree, it’s a matter of approproate roles. Of course one should welcome honest feedback and criticism on one’s book – from professional book critics.

    Re my friends, I’d just like them to say “Congrats” and maybe mention a bit they liked. It’s really not useful for them to give criticism, especially after it’s published.

    • Even ‘amateur’ book critics, on blogs and in fanzines, are welcome to have a go. Their role is to advise the reader, in any case. A friend’s criticism directly to me is not about advising readers. I’m not sure what it’s about, really. Best not to ask, I find.

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