We need to talk about feedback


Or I do, anyway. The three of you who are human and read this site are not necessarily the object of this rant, but I’m sure every writer has run into this at some point.


So, you’ve got this writer friend, someone who has been working on their novel for three-plus years, four-to-eight hours a day on it. They’ve finally reached a readable state with the piece and they’ve asked you if you’d like to read it.


Say no.


Seriously. Say no.


If you don’t have the time, or you think you’ll read it only after the next five books on your kindle, or you’ll get to it in a year, say no.

If you think you’ll just glance at it, say no.

If you think you’ll probably hate it, or you just don’t want to hurt their feelings, say no.

If you don’t feel like writing more than a couple of sentences of feedback, say no.

If you aren’t willing to answer more in-depth questions about your reaction, say no.

Look, a writer isn’t giving you their book for you to tell them how great they are. We’re not looking for a pat on the back and words of encouragement (well, maybe deep down we are, but the ones who are serious aren’t) and to be told we are a precious snowflake. We’re showing you this work because it took us thousands of hours to put together and we’re hoping, just maybe, that someone else whose opinion we respect, will care enough to read it and help us see the flaws we’ve been blind to.

When an author asks you to read their work, they’re taking a huge risk. They know that you may very well hate it. They may be asking you to listen to a long, boring tale that right now, is special only to them. It’s like that guy who wants to tell you about that really weird dream he had, only in this case, that dream took three years to refine.

If you don’t think you’ll have the time, say no. Resist the compliment that they want your input. Say no. You don’t have the time, you wish them luck, you’re flattered, but you just can’t commit to writing more than a few sentences. Your feedback won’t be helpful.

Suppose you said yes.

Here’s a list of ways to break that author’s heart:

1. Say you “liked it” or “It was fine.”

2. Be vague. Toss them a couple of sentences saying what you liked, but don’t go any actual detail. Refuse to answer any further questions.

3. Never get around to reading it. Tell them all the other things you’re doing that aren’t you reading their novel. Talk about other books you are reading. Talk about movies you saw. Talk about all the things you did while they’ve been waiting.

4. Say you didn’t like something, but don’t go into detail.

5. Say “It sucks.” Shrug.

6. Tell them all the ways they aren’t like your current favorite author.

7. Say you haven’t finished, but don’t say why. Talk about the next book you’re reading.

8. Awkwardly avoid them. Avoid all texts and emails. Pretend like you never got the manuscript.

9. Suggest changes that would turn it into a completely different book (by your favorite author).

10. Say “I’m really impressed you put so much time into this.”


Feedback is a discussion, folks. It’s a conversation. If you aren’t ready to talk about the book (no matter how bad it is) please don’t string us along. No book is complete until it’s been read, and unless we know what to improve, we’re dead in the water.






A few things I learned after I wrote a novel

A bit of a rant since I am feeling surly this morning.

A little over a year ago I decided to write a novel. It was to be a fantasy story with horror elements mostly to entertain me and my wife. As time crept by and the novel put on weight, I learned a few things.

Word count matters. It is important to write ever day to keep the thread alive in your head.

First drafts are crap. Your first draft will be crap. Accept it and get to editing.

Your second draft will probably be crap too.

Your third draft might be readable. If you are smart, nobody but you has seen anything up until now. Maybe only show this to your spouse or best friend. That’s it.

Your tenth draft is probably when other people can start reading it.

Writing is a lonely process. You want to tell people about your project but you can’t because you have to show them. In order to show them, you have to make a compelling story that makes them give a shit.

Your spouse will probably start to hate you. When I told my wife I wanted to write a novel her first reaction was “Cool! My husband is going to be a writer!” A month later and she was rolling her eyes and telling me I was an asshole since I started writing.And it was true.

This is because writing is frustrating. You are putting your thoughts down and they have to be just right. Your thoughts are a reflection of you, so of course you want them to be non-crappy. But this sometimes takes a lot of introspection and sulking to make happen. Oh, and booze.

Other writers will hate you or laugh at you. I won’t lie. Myself included, most writers are sort of jerks. If they are successful, they get about a dozen emails and comments on their blig from “aspiring writers”. If they are unsuccessful, they will see you as a competitor. Hell, even if they ARE successful they will probably see you as a competitor. There are only so many readers out there and unlike movies and MP3 garage band songs, books take weeks to appreciate the completed work. If someone is reading Harry Potter, they won’t be on to your book for another month, assuming they don’t get sidetracked by some other author. You know. Someone who is published.

Did you finish your novel? Is it awesome?

Nobody cares. Well, not really. Your friends and family will care. or at least they will act like they do. You will get congratulations on finishing it. They will tell you how they never knew you had it in you. They will tell you about how they had always thought of writing a book. etc.

They don’t really care. They may be impressed that you wrote something, but most of them are not really readers or are not your target audience. A lot of them prefer TV and movies. But still, grats on that.

Nobody cares, especially if they barely know you. Sharing with a coworker or acquaintance that you wrote a novel will usually result in a nod and awkward glance. Congratulations. You just came off as a pretentious prick.

A lot of people write books. You’ll find this out the more you spout off on how you wrote a novel. “Oh yeah, I am working on a book.” “Oh, yeah I wrote a book a long time ago just to see if I could.” “Oh yeah, my friend writes crappy fantasy novels.” The best one I got was from a friend on Facebook who said “I don’t have time to read your shit.” I applaud him for his honesty at least.

Everyone will ask if you are published. And you will have to tell them you aren’t. All this means to most people is that you threw 150,000 words of pure garbage between two covers with a beginning and an end. if you aren’t published, save yourself the pain of telling people whom you hardly know.

It is damn near impossible to get published. I have mentioned this before, but most agencies get about 10,000 queries a year. They end up choosing about a dozen books to  represent out of that stack. Of those dozen, maybe one or two will actually be sold to publishers. Save yourself the trouble and tell people you won the lottery, because if that happens you have experienced the only thing harder to do than get a book published.

Why don’t you self-publish? You will get asked this a lot. With the Kindle and everything else out there, it seems obvious that everyone should be self-publishing. Screw the middleman! I had three friends send me the recent article about a girl who MAKES MILLIONS selling her novels on Amazon.

Most self published novels are terrible. And I mean super terrible. Without the feedback and support of editors, publishers and agents, you can quickly be the subject of this article on Why Your Self-Published Book Might Suck A Bag of Dicks. Because most self-published novels are so bad, they have created a stigma for any decent self-published book out there. Anyone who has seen examples of these books will probably give you an uncomfortable giggle and run away as soon as you tell them you are self-published.

So take this advice. Congratulations on finishing your novel. No really. Buy yourself a bottle of wine, watch a movie, get to know your spouse again. You deserve it, as do they. But be careful who you tell about it, because that novel is your best kept secret.

Success in writing is largely subjective, but I feel that it falls into two groups: recognition and money. If you have achieved either of these in a volume ending in three zeros, then by all means, tell the world. Otherwise, shut the hell up and get back to writing.

That twentieth draft isn’t going to write itself.

How to piss off a writer (or how not to give feedback)

Let’s say that hypothetically, you have a friend who likes to write. They come to you one day and proudly proclaim that they have written a book. You say “Wow! That’s awesome! I totally want to read it!”

That was your first mistake.

The writer has undoubtedly spent no less than a year, probably more like 5 years working on this book. That’s 365 days a year of endlessly writing, rewriting, thinking about the book, rewriting the book, memorizing the book until they are sick of it themselves. If they have been working on the book for longer than that, you can bet that they are even prouder and have put even more of themselves into it. This is their baby, their brainchild, their life’s work.

Then you said, “I totally want to read it.”

You said it because being their friend or family member, you want to be supportive.

Now, there are a couple directions you can go from here. The smartest is to follow the statement up with, “I mean.. uh… I don’t have a lot of time right now, but I’d love to see it if it’s ready. Let me get back to you.”

Then run. Run far across the land. Disconnect your phone. Contact witness protection. Because they. Will. Find. You.

Now, if you are lucky, the writer will shrug disappointedly and walk away, not wanting to bother you with a manuscript they aren’t 100% confident about.

Chances are you agreed to read it. You fools!

If this happens, you my friend, are screwed. Your writer friend has probably just slapped that manuscript into your hands, or emailed it to your kindle or snail-mailed it (all 1780 pages of it) to your doorstep. Congratulations.

If you have unwittingly fallen into this trap, be prepared to suffer.  If you are lucky, the book will be fun to read. If the book is not readable, you will undoubtedly be sweating to find something nice to say. This is what we have always been told our entire lives, right? “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.”

I’ll let you in on a little secret. That part is complete bullshit.

The worst thing you can do to a writer is A) tell them they are talented and B) tell them their book is good when you really wanted to light it on fire after the first paragraph. Trust me, in either situation you aren’t doing them any favors.

Why is this? Well, lets start with the talented bit first. Telling a writer they are talented because they wrote a book is like telling a cyclist they are athletic because they didn’t fall down, give up and take the bus instead. Writing a novel, a complete, revised novel, is a test of endurance more than skill or talent. Honestly, anyone can cram 100k words into sheets of paper and call it a novel.  Calling any creative person talented is not only patronizing, but it suggests that they are somehow entitled to be recognized for what they have done by publishers or a larger audience. When the harsh reality of life bitch-slaps them across the face, talent doesn’t really amount to much.

Now, of course there are exceptions. the person may have no intentions of ever publishing the novel, which is fine. But chances are they plan to send the manuscript to publishers and agents. You are doing them a disservice by not being honest with them. And I mean completely honest.

The publishing industry is all about rejection.  Roughly 1% of all novels submitted to agents ever get considered. Most agents get about 10,000 submissions a year. Those are pretty rough odds.

That being said, the “you are so talented” line doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things. The world is filled with talented writers who still remain unpublished and will probably be unpublished forever.

So lets talk about feedback.

You have read through the first chapter and, frankly, you really can’t go on. The prose is dry, the language is cliche and boring, the characters are laughable (and not in a good way.)

This is the part where you do everything you have been told not to do by your mother. You tell the person with brutal honesty that it didn’t work for you.

But you must tell them why.

Now, that isn’t to say you have to be a dickhead about it.

“It sucked,” is fine actually, but you have to be willing to back up your words. Why did it suck? Was it the dialog? the prose? The characters? Too much description? A little of column A, B and C?

Be honest. Be as honest as if the person had just handed you a book by an author you didn’t know, and you are handing it back saying “no thanks.”

It is your responsibility as the reader to tell them why. And do not ever mince words. If the first five pages were “godawful” then tell them. If it was completely unreadable, tell them and tell them why. You read books. You know what you like and don’t like. Any writer that wants to improve their craft should have a thick enough skin to take whatever feedback you give, no matter how critical.

(I would just like to amend this last part by apologizing to all the people who suffered through my early drafts of my novels. Seriously. I know it was painful. I can’t thank you enough.)

Now, the way to really piss off a writer is to do the following:

1. Never read their novel. Put it off for months and never pick it up. If you live with a writer, make sure you leave the untouched manuscript around the house. Use it as a platform to put your coffee. Use it to put other books on, books you would rather read. Read the other books in front of them. Play Sudoku in bed while their manuscript festers on the nightstand.

If you don’t live with the writer, be sure to tell them all about how you almost read it but then left it in your car. Tell them in detail how ratty and yellowed the cover is becoming. Tell them about how you got your car towed with the manuscript in the back seat. They will love to hear your riveting story about how the project they have worked on every day for the last five years is now a pile of shredded cat litter on the floor of your sedan. Please, go on…

2. If the writer is a coworker, be sure to leave the chapter (along with your notes) out next to a company printer or on your desk. Even better, leave it where someone from HR will pick it up and confront the embarrassed writer with the manuscript, forcing them to describe in detail the contents of the writing “Because we have to make sure it’s yours! LOL”

(Now, if you never really wanted to read the novel in the first place, this is a good way to insure that you will never be asked to read that novel (or any other writing) by that author again. Forever.

3. Tell the writer how they should have written parts of the book. Make notes adding little phrases here and there, inserting your own prose, ideas and interpretations into the novel. They wanted your feedback, right? Why not just rewrite that science fiction epic to be more like Dune. “NEEDS MORE SANDWORMS” is a great suggestion.

(Look, the writers job is to write. It is your job to simply hold up a mirror and show them the blemishes. It’s hard to do, I know, but we don’t look in a mirror, expecting it to say “You really should try to look more like George Clooney”. Really. Just tell me if my hair is too long and I will decide on the style.)

It doesn’t have to all be bad. I’m not saying that you can’t tell them parts you liked. Of course we want to hear what you liked, when parts really got to you, what made you laugh etc. But be specific. Don’t be Sarah Palin and say you liked “All of it.”

There are few things more nerve-wracking than giving your novel to people to read. It takes every fiber of my being sometimes to not bother the person daily to see how far they got, if they like it, blah blah blah. I am sure that after this recent round of beta-readers, my pool of potential future beta-readers will have shrunk considerably. Some because of me, some because of them.

So please, if you don’t think you will be able to read a novel, do not offer to read one. You have no idea what you are getting yourself into.