I’ve been reading and listening to author interviews for years, hoping to better understand what it’s like to be an author. And one of the things they always mention with dread is when some random stranger asks them to read something they wrote. I think it’s like when actors are eating lunch in Hollywood, and the waiter gives them a screenplay they wrote.
Most of them talk about how they have spent years learning how to say ‘no’ to these requests, but it’s hard, because you don’t want to be an asshole to someone who positively values your feedback, but at the same time, writing is hard work, and very few people know how to do it well, so the odds of reading something cool are low, and those of reading painful dreck are astonishingly high.
This is a problem I never really thought about all that much. I’ve never given any thought to people asking me to read their work because, well, so far I’m nobody as writers go. I figured I had a long way to go until I had the luxury of that ‘problem.’
A friend of mine from back in the day, however, just pushed the issue to the fore by sending me the first 4 chapters of a book he is writing. (First draft, still writing). I want to make this absolutely clear from the get go. I have not yet read a single word of it, though I plan to. Please do not get the idea that I am about to mock, ridicule, or lampoon this man, or his feelings. It takes balls of titanium to put yourself out there like that, asking someone to pick through your passion and tell you if you’re any good at it. There’s no way I’m going to treat it lightly or with anything but respect.
But one thing didn’t sit well with me when we were talking back and forth. This friend, let’s call him ‘Rob,’ told me the he wanted to know if I thought it was good enough for him to keep writing it. I told him that if it was a first draft, there was no way I could tell, because first drafts suck. But he asked me anyway. Don’t give me that kind of responsibility, I’m not asking for that. But it took me a while for my thoughts to crystallize, and the other day i figured out what it was that didn’t feel right. So, I wrote him an email, and before I got around to sending it, he gave me a prompt, asking if I’ve had a chance to read his work yet. So, I sent him what I wrote, and now I’m going to share it with you, because why the hell not?
Hey ‘Rob’ –
I have been meaning to write you for a few days now, actually. No, I haven’t had a chance to read your chapters yet. I want to, but between my own writing, and some stuff going on with my family, it’s been crazy busy. I know how nerve wracking it is when someone else is sitting on your writing, and you’re waiting to hear what they think, so I know it sucks, and I’m sorry. I promise I’ll try to get to it soon, but I don’t know when that will be.
All that said, here’s some thoughts I’ve had. You mentioned in an earlier email that you were trying to figure out whether it was worth continuing writing it. Well, that’s not an answer I can give you. Not to use big words or anything, but if you’re going to write, you can’t do it contigent on external validation. Because without reading a single word of it, I know that it will suck. That’s not because it’s bad or because you wrote it, it’s because it’s an unfinished first draft, and they always suck. From Stephen King to J.K.Rowling to Shakespeare, first drafts always suck, especially when they’re unfinished. So, if you give those 4 chapters to someone to read, and they get back to you saying ‘Yeah, it was great, I loved it,’ either they’re lying through their teeth (either to spare your feelings or for whatever), or they don’t read enough books for their opinion to be worth anything.
If you want to know whether or not to keep writing, ask yourself this: Are you writing it because it’s a fun thing to dabble around with, or a great way to fill time, or because you want to become a famous author, or because there is a story burning a hole in your brain and unless you write it down you’ll go crazy?
The answer to 3 of those questions is keep writing. If you enjoy it, if it’s fun, if you NEED to do it, then do it. Write the whole novel. When it’s done, set it aside for a month and don’t think about it. After the month, go through it once, twice, ten times. Cut out 10%. Either scenes, or paragraphs, or a word here and a word there. Fiddle with it. Take some things your described, and describe it differently using completely different words and metaphors. Do a search for l-y-(space) That will find all of your adverbs. Take out at least half of them. Either by just removing them from the sentence, or by reworking the sentence to say the same thing but with a vivid example instead of an adverb. Read it through for consistency, character growth, clarity, and whether it makes any sense. If any part of it bores you, it’ll bore potential readers, so change those parts.
If it’s any good at the end, then send it out to a bunch of editors and/or agents.
If it’s not any good (and really, how can you tell? the first Harry Potter book got rejected from like 17 different book editors before it sold), then you’ve still written a novel, learned a lot about yourself, improved your skills as a writer, and accomplished something only a very small percent of the population can say that they’ve done.
Besides, very few authors are ever able to sell the first book they write. It’s usually more like the 4th, 5th, or even 7th. You can’t write because someone else thinks it might be good. You have to write because you have to write.
So, yeah, I’ll read what you sent me. I am truly sorry I haven’t yet. But don’t even bother reading my reply. Write if you need to write. If you’re just noodling around (and four chapters in, I can’t imagine that’s all it is), then stop writing, and go read about 75 books a year for a while, then if you’ve still got the writing bug, try it again.
All the best,
And that, dear readers, are my thoughts on the subject of whether or not you should keep writing.
In the meantime, I need to go get back to my own writing. NaNoWriMo is calling, and for the next three weeks, I’m still it’s bitch.
Here I Go,
An excellent e-mail (and post)! Too often we forge ahead prematurely, and do more harm than good. I hope your friend appreciates the advice. 🙂