Monday, March 21, 2011

Sadder but Wiser?

Years ago an old friend approached me. He was retired now, and wanted to write a book. Would I look it over and tell him what I thought?

It was very, very long. To say that it was painful to read would be too kind. It was a grammatical mess and a spelling bee where most of the words had to sit down. The thread-thin plot plodded, the characters had no characteristics, the descriptions – well, they didn’t describe.

I tried gently to tell him that it needed work. I advised a writing class, or joining a critique group. He pushed and pushed. If I would just mark the manuscript with the problem areas, he would work on it. Against my better judgment, I spent many hours correcting (only the first instances) of misspelled words, suggesting places to add description, giving some writing prompts. With his passion for his book, I thought he’d be grateful.

He wanted me to rewrite it. I declined. He took it to another mutual friend who was a schoolteacher and wore her out editing it. Along the way, I discovered that it had been 30 years since he had read a book in the genre he was attempting. And that he resented the heck out of me because I wouldn’t ghost write his book for him – after all, writing was easy, he knew that.

The more I gave, the more he demanded. And never once during that time did this man with limitless time and a comfortable income ever offer appreciation – not verbally, not even buying me a cup of coffee.

I hope this doesn’t sound bitter. I look back on that experience and see a reflection of something my mother once told me: Don’t ever give a handcrafted item you’ve made to someone who doesn’t make things—they won’t appreciate it.

I realize I could be treading on dangerous ground, writing a column dissing beginning writers. But I don’t think the people who read NovelMatters – whether pre-published or already-published--think writing is easy. They respect the craft, and respect the journey.

Do you have a horror story of trying to help someone with his or her writing?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I get you on this one.

We need to own our babies, ugly as they can be. ;)

I have friends ask me to help write cookbooks and their life stories, etc. Of course I agree to it all. :D :D :D

~ Wendy

Laura J. Davis said...

I do indeed have a story, although not nearly as bad as yours Latayne.

I have a dear friend whose son loves to write. He had written a fantasy novel. She asked me if it was okay if he contacted me for "advice". The advice turned into "will you read and fix my novel?" Since it was my friend's son and because he was young, I didn't want to discourage him. However, much like the MS you read, this one was full of errors as well. No plot, no description and well...just plain boring. I made comments and corrections and showed him what he needed to do to tighten things up. I advised him to take a writing class. Ten minutes after I sent my suggestions off to him, he returned the MS saying, "Okay, all fixed. Now what do I do?"

Clearly, he had not put any thought at all into the suggested changes. In fact, the MS was worse (if that were possible). I knew he would continue to hound me with changes, until I ended up writing the book for him, so I gently let him down, letting him know that I did not have the time to rewrite his book. Once again, I strongly suggested that he needed to take a writing class. Fortunately, in my case, he took the hint and is now looking into taking some classes.

B.K. Jackson said...

Well I posted a detailed reply but Blogger ate it. So short version is: every writer needs to determine how they'll respond to these types of requests before they happen. I haven't had anything like what you describe, but a few minor things. My approach is tough love--enough advice and encouragement to enable them to do the legwork themselves.

Marian said...

Tough love sounds like a good answer.

Dina Sleiman said...

I've set a policy recently. I put a writing course on my website. Now I plan to tell people if they want me to look at their writing, they need to complete the course and all of the assignments first.

Nicole said...

I offered to read over a ms. once, and it began quite well before it disintegrated. It wasn't grammatically incorrect so much as it was plot-inept, and I suspected it was more of a personal account of the person's life within the pages--and not a character to be liked in the whole story. I didn't know I could be so brutal, but I was. And I'm not even royalty published. This person actually appreciated the criticism, and kept after it. Not sure what became of that story . . .

Latayne C Scott said...

Boy, these are great suggestions from you all. It does boil down to tough love -- otherwise the teacher will feel like I did at the end of the process, and nobody is helped.

For years I kept on my computer a sheet of suggestions for marketing a book. You can see it online here:

We've also discussed here on NovelMatters the fact that it takes a long, long time to see a published book after you begin submitting a finished manuscript or proposal. Here's a link to those sometimes-frustrating and almost-always-eternal seventeen steps to publishing.

And finally, here's a link to another insight on helping new writers.

NovelMatters readers, please feel free to use any or all of these documents.

Lori Benton said...

It's probably hard to get someone to see writing as a job who doesn't already see it that way, but would they approach an acquaintance who is a carpenter and ask him to fix their leaky roof for nothing in return, when it means taking time away from paid word that puts the food on his table? Carpentry is his bread and butter. Or plumbing, or computer repair, or whatever. I would hope a kind but honest explanation, and the offer of clearly defined and limited help and direction, would be sufficient. Having that answer prepared ahead of time sounds like wisdom.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh boy...I've been on both sides of this one.

I understand that tough love can be good. But are we being tough because we're being taken advantage of (which I understand) or because we genuinely care about the other person? Does that make sense?

I, for instance, have been torn to shreds over style and genre differences. However, I've also received recommendations that came from a heart and desire for my friends to make me a better writer.

LaTayne, that guy wasn't behaving correctly. You needed to be tough so that he would understand that he was taking advantage of you.

Ugh. This one can be sticky can't it!

Patti Hill said...

Dina, you could sell your course work to other writers for their web sites. That would settle many problems. I have a page with my best advice for new writers, but making them to homework--brilliant!

Dina Sleiman said...

Ha ha, anyone can feel free to contact me if they would like to buy it.

Actually, I got the idea because a several years ago when I first sent to an agent, I received a very kind reply saying I needed to work more on my craft and recommending a few book coaches. I picked one who I was familiar with and who was reasonably priced. But part of her system was that you had to buy her $50 cd series and edit your book based on it first. It took me six months to edit based on what I learned from the cd lessons.

B.K. Jackson said...

Okay, this is 2 times today Blogger made my post disappear and I'm starting to take it personally. 8-)

Susie---when I say tough love, I'm not thinking of it in terms of being taken advantage of, but I am thinking of it in terms of their good and my own (ie. I have a hard enough time finding hours to work on my own book and associated activities--I simply can't do someone else's work for them).

Also, I am referring to people who are in the generic "I wanna write a book" stage--people who haven't read craft books or searched websites--people who think you just pluck a story out of the sky and the publishers come running. These folks have no idea of the work involved in writing/rewriting and the business end. And sooner or later, they'll have to learn (unless they are rich & can buy the people they need).

I'll give you an example from experience: After I won a major contest and had my manuscript requested by an editor, someone assumed I had an "in" with the publisher and could hook them up (not to take advantage--they simply did not understand the process). Hardly.

Instead, I explained to them the fact that most publishers only accept agented submissions, how you search for agents who deal with your genre, and gave them a spare copy of the Christian Writers Market so they could begin their own legwork. I also offered to take them to a free 1-day writers conference (which they didn't end up going to--illness or something).

As to crits--I have only done crits for people who have begun to do their own writing "homework". I'm not quite sure why someone would start a crit with style/genre unless it was pointers on the "typical" traits of a certain genre.

If I were asked to do a crit for a really raw, throw it on the paper, haven't done my homework yet writer, I probably would be very general in my comments and point them to some craft books (and encourage them with their strengths). Even experienced writers have a hard time developing a thick skin.

Latayne C Scott said...

All this reminds me of a story I once heard, which I will paraphrase, of the famous virtuoso pianist who retorted when a woman said to him, "We would all love to play as you do."

"No you wouldn't," he replied, "For if you would, you would pay the price of multiplied thousands of hours of practice alone, and giving up social engagements and friendships and even family to be able to play this way."

Now, I don't claim to have made the same kinds of sacrifices. But it does sting when someone assumes that because they have the same raw materials (writing implements and the ability to put words together and be understood) they can assume that it is as easy for the person who's perfected the craft as it is for the person who only has the tools.

Latayne C Scott said...

P.S. (I don't claim to have perfected anything, except perhaps, according to my family, my secret recipe pinto beans and my scrambled eggs.)

Christa Allan said...

Reminds me of those eardrum-shattering singers on American Idol who leave with spitting anger when told the truth about how they sound.

Words can be just as off-key on paper. If only their writers could hear them!

Carla Gade said...

Good conversation. Now that I have two contracts, people are coming out of the woodwork asking me for advice. I'm wondering when I became such an expert??? I really think you all have a great idea to have the answer to these types of requests prepared in advance so we don't get put on the spot. Dina, great going with that course. I see that you offer it for free to users and you offer free critiques. Seems like you might want to get paid something, even if it is a nominal fee. Your time is valuable and you have a very valuable product. And often times, people take things more seriously when they must pay for something.

Sandra Stiles said...

I agree that writing is not easy. Before I started my first book I had a friend ask me to read and correct their short stories. Then he asked me to type them because he was a slow typist. Then when he lost it he wanted me to retype it. I had saved a copy just in case. I have him the copy and he actually left it in a motel room and wanted me to recreate it if he just told me the stories. I'm a teacher and his writing was worse than most of my students. I broke ties with this friend because I could not help him. As I've gotten closer to getting my first book published the "wanna be writers who don't want to do the work" are coming out of the woodwork. I give them them names of books I've read, websites I frequent and places to take classes. Only one has thanked me for pointing her in the right direction. The rest decided that maybe writing was not for them.

Unknown said...

yes, I can relate to this experience. For 15 yrs I lived across the street from a retired public defender and his son (who was bi-polar and usually off his meds). The father brought over a 3" carefully typed and bound manuscript and asked me to read it and let me know what I thought - they had been sending out (the entire thing) to various publishers and weren't hearing anything. Seems the publishing world refused to recognize his son's talents. I read the first few chapters and it was all "telling", no characters yearning for anything, no plot development etc etc. Bor-ing to the max. And like your gentleman, the man and his son wanted me to re-write the entire thing. Instead, I gave it back to them and asked the son to immerse himself in the characters, to make them real, and to put some problem in the first few pages that the main character must address or solve. He didn't want to do that. He said he thought it was very good the way it was. We never spoke of it again, and I imagine that manuscript is resting at the top of a closet and they still cannot imagine why publishers aren't knocked down their door. I have since moved several hundred miles away, but I still feel sad for all the work that went into something so very bland. And it was a lesson for me in many ways.

Dina Sleiman said...

Carla, right now I'm giving it away for free mostly for publicity. I would love to teach writing at conferences (I've taught college lit and writing), so I think this is a great way to get my name out there. Once my first book releases this fall, I'll probably start charging. I might even expand the lessons and make it an ebook. But for now, you can all feel free to send your friends my way :)

Latayne C Scott said...

Carla, congratulations on two contracts! Wow! Tell us about them!

I really appreciate all the comments you all have made. The issue for a Christian of course is how to help those who really need help and will "own" responsibility for the great task ahead of them.

Another issue that will arise when you are published is that people expect that you should give them your books. Again, the point is that once you've received any wages for your work, you should be willing to give the books away because it is part of your ministry.

Again-- I don't want to leave this discussion with the taste of bitterness in your mouths. I really want authors to realize that in any profession where you pay a great price in terms of time to acquire a skill, it seems like an intangible to those who don't have the skill.

If it's intangible, some people reason, you should be willing to give it away. Each author should decide how much of that intangible will take away from his or her ministry of writing.

BK said...

And if we take Emma's example and follow it further--let's say she agreed to rewrite it for them, they submitted and the publisher liked it--that guy is STILL going to find he's got to do the legwork himself. What about further rewrites? The business end? And what if they ask "What else have you got?"

So to me, it is doing misguided folks a favor to teach them the tough ins and outs of writing from the beginning.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

This is a great discussion. Latayne, I especially love this - "in any profession where you pay a great price in terms of time to acquire a skill, it seems like an intangible to those who don't have the skill."

Writing looks easy to those who can't do it. After all, we can all speak English, so how hard can it be to set some words down on paper??

I've learned that the more effortless something appears, the more time and skill has usually been invested.

Donna Perugini said...

Similar, but not the same for the situation.

A mother brought her young teen and the teen's illustrated picture book dummy to me. They caught me at church and asked if I'd read it and tell the teen how to get it published. The young teen was so hopeful and the mother so overshadowing. The only thing I felt I could do was read it, return the book and tell her to join a writer's group and give them an address to my publisher. I never heard from them again.

As much as I would like to help people, there's not enough of me to go around. If the teen submitted to a critique group, she would have grown in her writing career.

Now I steer clear of people asking for lots of details, look at my MS, can you do this for me. It's their baby, they need to care for it and 'grow it up'. If I make any remarks about their baby's inadequacies, they'll protect their baby.

It all sounds harsh and cold, and I'm sure I say it much nicer than how it reads here. Still, I've drawn a boundary line and work at keeping it.

Latayne C Scott said...

Dina, what's your new book?

And thank you all so much for the insights. You've made me feel better and given me some new strategies. I am always humbled by and grateful for you readers.

Dina Sleiman said...

Latanye, I've actually had a lot of excitement in my writing career in just the past few weeks. My medieval love story, Dance of the Dandelion, has been accepted for publication with a small press called WhiteFire Publishing. It will be released digitally this summer and in print in the fall.

Although the company is small and new, I'm honored to be counted among their authors, Roseanna White and Christine Lindsay, who are two of my personal favorites. And I love WhiteFire's vision to publish riskier books and books geared toward a younger audience than traditional CBA houses.

That being said, since selling them my debut novel, I have also become an acquisitions editor for Whitefire.

If anyone would like more info on my novel, you can check out my website:

And for more info on WhiteFire the address is

Latayne C Scott said...

Dina, congratulations -- I went to the Web site, and it must be exciting to be in on the ground floor of a new publisher! I wish you and WhiteFire the best!

Dina Sleiman said...

Thanks, Latanye, it has been incredibly exciting. I hope it will break ground for authors who want to write outside of CBA "sweet spots."