A few words on feedback, part VII: more trouble with Gladioli


Last time, I introduced the saga of Gladys, a well-meaning soul who made the mistake of saying one day to a friend who happened to be an aspiring writer, “Oh, I’d love to read your book.”

Quite unaccountably, the friend heard this as, “Give me your book to read, please, and I will give you good feedback upon it.” Whereas what Gladys really meant was, “I’m not a writer. Please like me anyway.”

What we have here, my friends, is a failure to communicate, one that is likely not only to result in the writer’s not getting the kind of feedback she needs, but also rather likely to end the friendship.

This particular piece of miscommunication is more common than writers like to admit — and is all too often the underlying cause of those knuckle-gnawingly frustrating situations where a first reader holds onto a manuscript for so long that the writer’s already taken the book through three more drafts.

I’ll come clean: it happened to me more than once before I cracked the code. I had a first reader who BEGGED for weeks on end to read a manuscript of mine. I did everything right: I explained that to read a manuscript prior to publication was a large responsibility, gave her a sheet of questions I wanted her to answer after she had read it, and took her out to lunch in order to thank her for the effort she was about expend on my behalf.

Six nail-gnawing months later, I asked for the manuscript back, even if she hadn’t read it. As it turned out, she hadn’t, but she had positively filled the margins of Ch. 1 with glowing praise, concluding with, “You couldn’t PAY me to stop reading now!”

Someone must have coughed up some dosh, as she apparently stopped reading three pages later. “I liked it so much,” she reported, “that I wanted to wait until I had time to enjoy it.”

Moral of the story: I should have told her I would buy her lunch AFTER she finished — and should have made absolutely certain that she understood the difference between a casual read and the scrutiny expected of a first reader.

Which includes an obligation to read the manuscript quickly — or to let the writer know in advance not to expect back anytime soon. Unless both sides of the equation understand what is going on, it can only end in tears. Or, at any rate, in the writer’s tapping her watch to see if it’s still running, waiting for all of that luscious feedback that is never to come.

Naturally, such behavior engenders some resentment in writers against their Gladioli. (I’ve decided that’s the plural of Gladys, for those of you who didn’t tune in last time.) “Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,” we demand, “and make me travel forth without a cloak?”

Okay, so it was Shakespeare who said it. But if you’d thought of it in the moment, I’m sure you would have put it that way, too.

Gladys intends to get back to the manuscript, really she does, but my goodness, when is she going to find the time? It’s not as though a manuscript is bound, like a book, rendering it easy to tote around and read in spare moments.

Over time, she tends to start to resent the task — NO MATTER HOW GOOD THE BOOK MAY ACTUALLY BE. Most often, this resentment manifests in holding on to your manuscript indefinitely.

Maddening, isn’t it? We expect our friends to devour our books, relish them, and call us in the dead of night to say that it’s the best book they’ve ever read. C’mon, admit it: in the depths of our dark little souls, we long for positive reinforcement.

Okay, we long for a LOT of positive reinforcement.

If we approach our work professionally, we also yearn for our first readers to make the two or three constructive suggestions that will lift our books from good to superlative.

And if we’re conscientious members of writing communities, many of us put substantial effort into providing precisely that kind of feedback. (Yet another reason that it’s a good idea to check the feedback expectations and practices of other members of a writers’ group before you join: it’s no fun giving out a whole lot more feedback than you receive.) Like most freelance editors, my earliest editorial work was unpaid. The moment at which I knew I should be doing it professionally was, in fact, when I was doing a favor for a friend.

A good novelist, my friend was living the writer’s nightmare: after having taken her book through a couple of solid drafts, an editor at a major house had dropped a raft of professional-level feedback — which is to say, a ruthless, take-no-prisoners critique — on her, feedback that, if followed to the letter, would entail axing significant proportions of the book, trashing her primary storyline, and changing the race of a significant character.

Naturally, she called me in tears. I was an excellent choice: I had read the latest draft, and the one before it, and was able to produce practical suggestions on the spot. If she began the story at a different juncture, I pointed out, and rearranged certain other elements, her plot could still work.

There was a long minute of silence on the other end of the phone when I’d finished talking. “My God,” she whispered, “that could work.” And it did; the editor bought the book shortly thereafter.

This, if we’re honest about it, is what we want our first readers to provide. Since I had been giving feedback on novels since I was a bucktoothed kid in braids, I was able to come up with answers — but is it really fair to ask someone who has never pieced a plot together to pull off a similar feat?

No wonder poor Gladys feels put on the spot. Her writer friend’s expectations are pretty high. And by the time the writer has become impatient enough to ask where the heck the feedback is, she is not only dealing with her guilt over having procrastinated, but also with the additional trauma of an angry friend.

Yes, I said ANGRY; don’t hold it in.

While most of us are astonishingly patient with agents and editors who do not respond to queries or hold on to manuscripts that they’ve asked to see for months at a time, we’re seldom as patient with our first readers, are we? The writer too timid to call an agent who’s had a requested three chapters for a year will often go ballistic at the friend who’s had the same pages for a third of that time.

Logically, that’s a bit odd, considering that the agent is being paid to read manuscripts and the friend isn’t, but that’s the way we feel.

Once the situation has gone this far, it’s quite hard to fix it without generating resentment (our word du jour, apparently) on both sides. The only way to get out of it gracefully is to call the remiss Gladys — or send her an e-mail, if you’re afraid that you’ll yell at her — BEFORE you have lost your temper completely and ask for the manuscript back.

Politely. Ignore her protests that she is really intending to get to it soon, honest, because she won’t.

There’s no need to be mean about it, though. Cast your request as if it had nothing to do with her: “I’d love to hear what you have to say, but manuscripts are actually pretty expensive to produce, and I’ve just found the perfect person to give me feedback on it. Would you mind if I saved a little money by passing your copy on to him?”

This may sound a bit nasty, an example of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression, but believe me, it’s far less confrontational than almost anything else you could say. (Which, I suppose, means that it’s a really GOOD example of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression.)

Just accept that Gladys had no idea how much time it would take, and move on. And just say no the next time she offers.

As, astonishingly, the Gladioli of the world often do. They must be insulating their attics with their hapless friends’ unread manuscripts.

Tell her that you’ve decided to rely on professional feedback this time around, or have joined a writers’ group that made you take a vow of exclusivity, or that you’ve decided to hide your manuscripts in your attic like Emily Dickinson.

Just keep her well-meaning mitts off your writing until it’s time to send her a postcard, telling her when she will be able to purchase it in a store. Because that is precisely what she thought you were handing her in the first place, bless her heart. Keep her out of the process until she can support you by being the first on her block to buy your book.

Moral #2 for the day, and the axiom I hope you all will take from today’s lesson: at the revision stage, DO NOT TREAT YOUR MANUSCRIPT LIKE A BOOK.

That giant noise you just heard was the celestial choir intoning, “Huh?”

You heard me, heavenly flock of high Cs. When you are looking for feedback on a manuscript, it doesn’t make sense to think of it a book, a finished product that someone might, say, purchase or give to a friend as a gift. While it is still a work in progress, it is a lump of clay, not the bronze sculpture you will eventually cast from your clay model.

Don’t hand it to someone who will only see the clay. Hand it to someone who will help you perfect the form before you set it in bronze.

If you DO find yourself in a standoff with a Gladys, whatever you do, don’t sit around and seethe in silence. Say something, and don’t let it wait too long.

Seriously, just do it. If you do not take action, Gladys will eventually have to come up with a strategy to deal with her obligation — and what she comes up with may not be very pleasant for you. Often, Gladioli will turn their not having realized that reading a book draft is a serious time commitment into a critique of the unread book:

“Well, I would have read it, but it was too long.”

“I was really into it, but then a plot twist I didn’t like came in, and I just couldn’t go on.”

“I liked it, but it didn’t move fast enough. I always skip to the ends of books to see how the plot turns out.”

These all might be legitimate criticisms from someone who has actually read the manuscript — okay, all but that last bit — but from a non-finisher, they cannot be sufficiently disregarded. They are excuses, not serious critique.

Please do not allow such statements to hurt your feelings, because they are not really about the book — they are about the reader’s resentment of the feedback process. Gladys just didn’t know what to do with that ball of clay.

When you hear this type of critique used as an excuse for not reading, thank Gladys profusely, as if she has just given the Platonic piece of feedback — and get the manuscript back from her as soon as humanly possible.

“My secret, if I must reveal it,” quoth the illustrious Alexis de Tocqueville, “is to flatter their vanity while disregarding their advice.” Tell her that you know in your heart she is right, and you don’t her to read another word until you’ve had time to revise.

Then rush out and find another first reader, preferably one with the vision to see both the clay and the sculpture it will one day be.

Is this starting to make you fear ever handing your manuscript to another human being at all? Never fear — next time, I shall talk about how to deal with a Gladys situation that has already extended past the friendship-threatening point, and give you some tips about how to plan in advance to avoid its ever getting there.

In the meantime, do any of you have a Gladys story? If so, why not post a comment about it, so those new to the situation won’t feel so alone? And, of course, keep up the good work!

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