Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How to say Yes when you want to say No

Sharon Wildwind

Recently someone asked me to read fifty pages of her manuscript. You can probably guess what’s coming. It was a difficult read. There was a moment when I wanted to tell her something had come up and I didn’t have time to read what she’d given me.

Ninety percent of people who say they want to write a book never start. Ninety percent of people who start a book never finish, so she’d beaten the odds twice. She deserved an honest critique, but what in the world was I going to say to her?

I fell back on an honored Southern tradition—food—and invited her to talk about the book over lunch. On the way to the restaurant I wondered what I could order that would require a lot of chewing, giving me time to think about what I was going to say before I said it.

She bounced into the restaurant. Her first sentence was predictable. “I’ve never had a real writer read what I’ve written before. How did you like it?”

I’ve been in this situation before and, like a chess match, at least I had an opening gambit. “Before we talk about the book itself, tell me how you came to write it?”

She’d read an article she found interesting and thought it would make a good story.

Not a bad beginning. I was a little surprised that a single article had carried her all the way through finishing a book. There had to be something else going on in her favor.

What did she know about the job the protagonist had? Nothing really, but she’d worked in the same building as a company that did that kind of work.

What did she know about police procedures? She named several cop-television shows she “watched all the time.”

Had she included anything in the book that had happened to her in real life? I fished here to see if she might be a healing writer, someone who was using writing to work herself through bad experiences. No, her life was boring. Nothing interested had ever happened to her. I kind of doubted that because interesting things happen to everyone, all the time. The trick is to learn to recognize them.

By now we were well into our meal, fed and watered, and I couldn’t put off starting the critique any longer. “Congratulations. Finishing a first draft is a huge accomplishment. A lot of writers never make it this far. My best guess is that you’re at least three years from being published.”

She looked shocked. “Why does it take so long?”

I explained that getting published in three years was way ahead of the curve; that the average was for writers to spend ten to twelve years writing between their first finished manuscript and first publication. Then I gave her my bottom-line question, “Do you like writing?”

“You know, I was surprised how much fun it was being at the computer, writing. Is that crazy?”

“No, that’s called being a real writer. Honestly, your manuscript has problems, and you’ve got a big decision to make. You can stop here. You finished an entire manuscript. You can truthfully say you’ve written a book. Or you can start over, write a second draft and when you finish it, you’ll be one step closer to publication. That’s not a decision you have to make today. Think about it for a while. If you decide your want to go for round two, I can give you a lot of leads about people to contact and groups to join.

We parted amicably. I have no idea which choice she’s going to make. I’m hoping she chooses to go another round. We need more people who are just discovering how much fun it is being at the computer, writing.

Quote for the week

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.
~ Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop


Jennifer Harlow said...

The first draft of my first book was terrible. The first draft of my second book was only marginally better. Took several drafts for them to be even halfway decent. Most of mine get at bare minimum 5 drafts. I always tell people that if the bones are there (3D characters, interesting story) then keep at it.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Brilliant, constructive integration of tact and honesty, Sharon. If I ever need to, I'm gonna borrow exactly what you said.

Sandra Parshall said...

Did you suggest she join a critique group, Sharon?

Leslie Budewitz said...

What warm, wise advice, Sharon. Like Liz, I plan to borrow your approach when the need arises.

Barb Goffman said...

Did you tell her what some of the problems were? If all I were told is to rewrite, I'd be at a loss.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments. Feel free to borrow anything that will help.

No, during that meeting I didn't make specific suggestions, like critique group, etc, but I did make sure she had my contact information and told her that after she'd had a couple of days to digest what we'd talked about, I would be glad to have another conversation with her about specifics.