Last night my husband and I went over to have supper with a friend and her fiance. Usually with these sorts of affairs, we have people over to our house and I cook. I like this both because I enjoy entertaining and cooking and, well, if I cook, I know I’m going to like it (and it’s more likely to fit within my calorie budget). But hey, I’m usually pretty game, and Fiance really wanted to try his hand at some homemade bread and pasta, and could we bring a bottle of white wine.
Sure. We could do that.
We arrived with our wine (a lovely sauvignon blanc by Faldo, inexpensive and lovely) and the Tomato Basil Tart that I made up as an appetizer (which was made of awesome and is one of my better experiments, by the way), and dinner prep actually began. I’m sitting there trying to casually eye the ingredients and wondering what on earth he was planning to do with those cucumbers and olives and the blue cheese in a bowl over there. He wound up mixing the blue cheese with cream cheese, spreading it on rye crackers, topping with cucumbers and olives. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I hate cucumbers and olives, and I’m really not a fan of blue cheese. Well I did mention the cucumbers, making a joke that I only use them to reduce swelling under my eyes and could I have some with just olives. So I gamely tried one, managed not to grimace while anybody was looking, and stealthily passed the olives off to my husband (who incidentally loves olives, cucumbers, and blue cheese).
In the meantime, we tuck into the homemade bread, which was very crusty but had a fabulous flavor. Would have been great dipped in olive oil with some cracked black pepper and spices. So then I’m thinking, okay, you can’t ruin pasta unless you overcook it. Pasta is always good. I’m checking out his ingredients. Shrimp. Snow peas. Asparagus. Lemon. Feta. Okay, yeah this can totally work. Then he throws in a bunch of mint. Wait, what? Mint? He’s so clearly having such a great time with this. So he brings it to the table, and we start plating up that and some salad. And I take a bite. It doesn’t totally suck. It’s not inedible. But, I’m sorry, mint and lemon do not go together, in my opinion. But I eat it, keep a straight face the whole time, and rave about his creativity because he’s already knocking himself for the fact that the bread didn’t come out perfect. I wanted to encourage him because I know I made some gross stuff in the kitchen when I first started cooking, and he can definitely improve. I gave him some suggestions on where to search the foodie community for more recipes. Then we moved on to dessert: cheesecake cupcakes. These were OMFG amazing and absolutely perfect, so there was a lot of NOM NOMING and legitimate, honest praise on all sides. Dude can make some SERIOUS dessert. I totally know what I’m asking him to bring next time they come to our house.
Now I’m sure you’re wondering what all of this has to do with writing. Consider it a metaphor. Cooking is writing and the neophyte experimental chef is a budding writer. That new writer has come to you with either an idea or a partial manuscript and has asked for your feedback or input on their project.
This is the part where red flags are raised and alarm bells start clanging in my head.
Why? Well, see, I am that person that everyone comes to for a truly honest, no holds barred opinion about something. I have no qualms about being honest about anything I’m asked. My mother calls this total lack of tact. It’s not that I have no tact, it’s that I often don’t see the point because as a trained therapist, I see people lying to themselves all the time, and I see a very definite need for someone to inject some reality in the situation. In last night’s dinner, that wasn’t necessary. It was a meal. Not my favorite, but it was thoughtfully prepared, and after it was eaten, it was over. It’s not a life changing thing on any side.
I view writing as another matter. While I believe that everyone can absolutely improve themselves as writers, no matter where they start out, I don’t believe that everyone can be a good writer. Yeah, you can learn craft and grammar and all the technical aspects, but I think there’s a certain base level of talent that’s necessary to be truly good. A lot of people disagree with me on this, which is fine. They are entitled to their own opinion. But this is why such requests for my opinion are incredibly problematic for me. Because I don’t like lying to people (not to mention that I suck at it). Now I’m not such a heartless witch that I will take a look at something and say “this sucks beyond suck and you should go take up knitting or skydiving because you’ll never be a writer.” If it’s someone I don’t know well, whom I’m fairly sure can’t handle my brand of honesty, I generally try to avoid the situation altogether (“It’s not really my genre, you might try x person.” “I’m afraid it would be a while before I could get to it.”). If I can’t avoid the situation, then I’ll listen and hear them out or read whatever it is and try my best to come up with something I can legitimately praise. Sometimes this is harder than others. I’ll try directing them to some resources on craft (because inevitably the neophyte is still a rabid pantser and cannot possibly conceive of trying to plan out the speshul awesomeness that is their book, and they are in no way ready to kill their darlings for the good of the whole). Inevitably, they don’t want to hear that their unconventional story architecture or genre mashing is going to make their book difficult or impossible to sell (if that is, in fact, their ultimate goal–for some it isn’t). “I will be different! You’ll see!”
Well, maybe you will. But it’s not likely.
But maybe the neophyte really does want my honest thoughts on the idea or the chapter or whatever. I actually do love trying to help if they really want my help as opposed to a cheerleading ego stroke. Say I give my opinion and they enthusiastically take the constructive criticism and suggestions. That often opens up another can of worms. They want to be crit partners. This is something I came across often at Crit Partner Match after I first created it. We’d be testing each other out by exchanging a chapter or two. They’d be happy with my constructive criticism. And there wouldn’t be a lot there for me. I’m not perfect, but I’ve been writing a long time, and I’ve learned a great deal about craft and what makes a good story. I need someone who is more or less on the same level as I am (which I absolutely have with my beloved Pot–thank you God). Those sort of unequal partnerships are very draining, so I had to come up with a polite way to decline the offer of being formal CPs.
The other potential can of worms that opens up is when this neophyte wants to collaborate. Translation: I love my story but I don’t have the drive to ever really write it, so I want you to do it for me.
No. No. Absolutely not. It’s not my story. I barely have time to write my own work. No way am I taking on someone else’s.
So the polite way to decline here is to explain that a) I don’t do collaboration, b) No one can ever love your story as much as you do, so no one else is ever likely to do it justice, c) I am unlikely to have the same vision for the story that you do.
Obviously I have to be careful what I say in all these situations because usually these people are friends of some kind, and I don’t want to hurt their feelings or piss them off. Plus there’s also the possibility of me telling them the truth as nicely as I can and them getting angry and being all “What do you know? You’re not published.”
I don’t want to be responsible for crushing their infant dreams of storytelling. God, that would make me a heinous bitch indeed. I could certainly be diplomatic and keep my criticism (constructive or otherwise) to myself. If they send an unedited, unpolished manuscript out to an agent or publisher, they’re going to get knocked on their bum by rejection fast enough. But if they came to me, then on some level they want to know how they can improve their odds of that not happening, so I feel like it’s my responsibility to find a way to help them without becoming the Destroyer of Dreams. So it’s hard to find that balance between giving encouragement for them to keep plugging away and honesty that they still have a lot to learn. The ones who are most likely to go on to actually be writers (whether they ever get published or not) will take the suggestions, make an effort to learn the craft, and grow enough of a thick skin and objectivity to take constructive criticism.
For another take, Lynn Viehl wrote an excellent post over at Genreality about how she handles this issue.