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June 21, 2012

What Do We “Owe” New Writers?

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The last couple of posts have been about beta reading, beta readers, and authors helping each other.  I love positive, uplifting conversations like that.  But the comments brought up an important point: Sometimes the relationships we have with other writers in our circle aren’t all unicorns and rainbows.

Sometimes a beta reader might give us too harsh of feedback without explaining why something doesn’t work.  Sometimes our hard work to provide insightful comments is shot down with insults and a lost friendship.  It’s a shame when that happens, but it does happen on occasion.

The comments reminded me of a situation I heard of a while back.  An author asked for a beta read and stated she was going to self-publish it the next week, so she just needed a final, typo-hunting read through.  However, the writer who volunteered to read this story saw more problems than could be cured by a “polish pass.”

The beta reader discovered that the story started in the wrong place and had numerous scenes with flat characters and no point, the author didn’t know a semicolon from a comma, etc., etc.  In other words, according to the beta reader, the story had plotting problems, characterization problems, pacing problems, and craft problems.

The beta reader pointed out the issues she found, provided explanations for why the current story wasn’t working for her as a reader, gave suggestions on how to fix the problems, and generally tried to let the author down easy with the news that “Sorry, this isn’t ready for publication.”

The author made a few changes, but nothing of substance.  She placed her work for sale on Amazon the next week with great excitement.  She waited.

Months after its release, the book is nowhere near a bestseller, ranking in the upper millions, and only a handful of people have left a review.  One of those reviews is scathing in its recap of the story’s quality—and it wasn’t left by the beta reader, who holds no ill will for the author’s choice.

There are two sides to every story.

Did the book fail because the beta reader was right?  None of us can know for sure.  I know when I beta read, my suggestions are just that: suggestions.  I can only guess at the author’s intentions when I read a story.  My comments about what works or doesn’t work for me are merely opinions.  I am not every reader, and I can be wrong.

Did the book fail just because.  It’s a crowded market.  It’s hard to be heard.  Some premises aren’t fresh or interesting anymore.  Who knows.  Great books fail all the time.

But what I find interesting is how we react to a story like this:

  • Do we think the author got what she deserved?  It’s her fault for not learning the craft, for not listening to advice, for not being patient enough to recognize that she didn’t even know what all she didn’t know yet.
  • Do we think the author simply needs a mentor?  It’s not her fault she couldn’t recognize where she was on the learning curve, and it’d be a shame if someone who could become a great writer gives up just because she doesn’t realize all she needs is more skill and practice.

There are no wrong answers there.  *smile*  Honestly, I probably fall somewhere in the middle.

I empathize greatly with new writers.  I still remember what it’s like to think our writing is near-perfect only to discover we didn’t know what all we didn’t know.  Heck, I still experience that on some level every time I send my work to beta readers (*blush*), and I know I’ll never be done learning.  Not knowing everything is not an unforgivable flaw.

But I also live by the mantra of healthy relationships everywhere: “You can’t force someone else to change.”  We can’t lead a new writer to classes or workshops or blog posts about some craft issue and expect that to fix the problem if they’re in denial about having a hole in their knowledge.  We can’t force someone to recognize their failings.

So then the question becomes how far do we go in trying to help them?  How much effort do we put into being a writer’s mentor if all the advice is ignored?  At what point do we throw up our hands and let them succeed or fail on their own?

I don’t have neat little answers for those questions.  I’m not published yet, so I still need mentoring myself. The last thing I want to do is discourage someone from mentoring writers. But I also know I’ve gone much further to help some writers than others.  Some, I know, take the craft, the business, and the profession of writing seriously.  So I take the time to help them in any way I can.

But some started down the writing path thinking it would be easy, and they want to be in denial about the hurdles.  For those, I’ll still point out the issues I see and why, but I don’t push beyond that.

If I see them taking the advice to heart, I’ll help them again.  If I see the same problems over and over again, I extricate myself from any “advising” role—no beta reading, no repeating things I’ve already told them, etc.  I don’t have time to waste by talking to a brick wall.

Am I wrong for that attitude?  Do you think we can fix writers who don’t admit they need fixing?  How much do you think we owe writers who are behind us on the learning curve?  Where do you think our obligation to being a writing mentor ends? What do you hope for in a mentor?

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36 Comments on "What Do We “Owe” New Writers?"

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Carradee

You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, but some people know less than they think they do (writers and beta readers alike). It’s the Overconfidence Effect.

For the example you gave, of the author who ignored the beta, for all we know, the beta’s advice would’ve turned the story into something different than what the author was striving for. Maybe the author’s not finding her ideal audience for what she attempted to write. There are more possibilities there than “The author should’ve listened to the beta.”

And we all have to learn sometime, somehow.

But also can’t make someone learn something.

So you have to step back and let others learn. For all we know, we might one day discover that we’re the ones wrong.

Kat

In my opinion this has goes hand in hand with being humble. I think all writers can alway improve their writing and especially unpublished writers should take advice to heart. That of course doesn’t mean applying all suggested changes but reading them with an open mind to see if that person is right. After all, someone who is kind enough to help you is not trying to set you up for failure but rather help you succeed.

In terms of those people that don’t consider critique I think other people can do little to help them. They need to realize on their own that they are not perfect, and if that means bringing out a self-published book and failing sometimes that is unavoidable. After they realize they need help and seek it out I can imagine that a great mentoring relationship can be formed.

Laura Pauling

No, you’re not wrong. I’d stop in that case too. Or i’d briefly mention the issues.

Though in the case you pointed out, the girl wasn’t really asking for a beta reader but a proof reader. Two very different things. Beta readers don’t come a week before publication. In that case, I would read part way through and if I noticed substantial errors or craft issues, I’d stop. I’d send an email the writer letting her know my thoughts. If she wanted craft/plot advice I’d continue, if not, I’d send it back as is without finishing. Sounds harsh. But why proofread for someone when you believe they’re making a mistake.

I always put my thoughts out there as a beta reader. Usually it has to do with structure, and I’d say a good amount of the time my opinions are brushed off. I’m totally okay with that. 🙂 It’s not my work, it’s theirs. I think some writers really don’t want to put the effort into rewriting. I understand. It’s hard work. I do my job and then let go of it.

Melinda Collins
Nope, you are so not wrong, Jami. And I think I kinda fall in the middle as well, though I’m leaning more towards that first reaction in some ways. No, we can’t truly fix writers who don’t want to be fixed, or don’t think they need to be fixed. In writing – heck, in life! – you have to know you have flaws, that you’re not perfect, and you have to welcome the people who want to help and teach you into your life. If you don’t, then you have no room to complain when something doesn’t go your way because you didn’t educate or try to better yourself, especially when it was due to ignorance. I know it sounds mean when I type it out here like this, but I have a world of patience for those who either truly don’t know any better, or those that are trying to get better (this comes from my daycare teaching background), but my tolerance level is very low for those who know better yet don’t have the patience to put in the work to learn and make their writing the best it can possibly be. As for writers who are behind me on the learning curve, I enjoy helping them out, giving them advice, Beta Reading, editing, etc. I feel as though I owe it to whoever crosses my path to offer this advice because I wouldn’t be where I am now without someone offering that to me. But I do… Read more »
D.B. Smyth
I use the same approach with those I crit/mentor. If the same issues arise over and over after I’ve offered feedback, I simply cut back on how much time and advice I give that particular writer. Maybe they’re not ready for that level of information yet (I STILL get overwhelmed by all the advice available to me). Maybe my crits aren’t helpful for their MS or genre. That’s okay too. But I only have so much time and mental energy available and, personally, I choose to give that time to writers who are interested in developing their craft and who find my feedback helpful. As far as fixing, owing or fulfilling obligations… I don’t believe in any of that. No one can be fixed by me, only the individual can decide what to change and when. Their growth is their own, I only show them some options. And I don’t owe new writers, nor do I feel obligated to help them. No one is entitled to receive advice/edits from other writers. I am humbled and grateful for the mentoring I’ve received, and so I choose to pass on what I’ve gleaned in the process. I believe in helping others (a pay it forward, if you will), but I don’t feel good about doing things because I “have to” or because someone else says I should. *steps off soapbox* Sorry about that. 😉 I guess what I’m trying to say is that each writer has the responsibility to do what is… Read more »
Marcy Kennedy

I’m thankful that I started writing before self-publishing became a viable option. Looking back, I can see how much I didn’t know, but at the time, I thought I had it all figured out. I hate to think what I might have done had the situation been different and had self-publishing been dangling like a carrot in front of my inexperienced eyes. Now I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how much there still is to learn and master. (And then forget and learn again.)

I love to help newer writers, but I do the same thing as you. I give more of my time to those who are clearly trying. I don’t even mind explaining the same concept over and over again as long as I know they’re honestly trying to put it into practice and just haven’t had that lightbulb moment yet. I don’t spend as much time helping people who really only want me to pat them on the back and tell them how wonderful their work is. That’s what we have moms and best friends for. A beta reader or mentor isn’t there to coddle us. They’re there to make us better.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc
Fantastic post. I read all of the comments and realize this particular topic encourages big discussion. Love that about your blog. You inspire deep thought! I happen to be published. It’s a large e-pub, pretty well known in the romance world, but just because I’ve sold a bunch of books, doesn’t make me an expert on teaching a person how to write one. I do my best. I use the many skills I’ve learned over time and though I’m kind in the way that I offer critisism, I’m very honest. And that honesty goes both ways. I don’t tell a writer I like something if I really don’t. I’m not their mom, I’m their beta, and I’m not doing them any favors if I choose to keep quiet about something that bothered me to save their feelings. If someone wants me to beta or judge their work, I’m going to give it to them straight, because that’s how I’d want it. Otherwise, how does one improve? So, very rarely, but every now and then I touch a nerve. Especially with one particular person. She tends to think illogically. Her grammar is impecable, but her plotting and characterization are often lacking. I, along with two other people, read for her regularly. Periodically she accepts what we’ve collectively pointed out. Most of the time, however, she refuses to see any problem and goes right on ahead to self-publish. Grrr. I bring this up to highlight a certain point: If one person reads… Read more »
Todd Moody

I can say from personal experience that you are an excellent mentor! I got a great deal from the two chapters you critiqued for me and I am still putting those tools to use with the rest of my revision. I highly recommend people get a critique partner or three if you have the time to properly reciprocate.

Great post as usual!

Renee Schuls-Jacobson
Renee Schuls-Jacobson

As I am 89K into my fiction MS and a newb to publishing, I am looking for a beta reader who is looking for the big picture. As an English educator, I plan to use a professional copy-editor. I’m not stupid. I’m sure I can’t catch all my mistakes, but I won’t hand over my shizz until I’m pretty sure it’s at least the best I can make it. And because this will be a debut book, I simply have to eventually have faith that my beta readers and critique partner have helped me go as far as I can go.

If I’ve learned nothing else, having been a beta for my friends’ books is to find out what kind of feedback the person is looking for.

While I can take a lot of criticism, I wouldn’t assume everyone can. And I wouldn’t want to break someone’s spirit.

I think people have to be honest with each other. In the end, the author must make the decisions about when to revise and what to leave alone. And best-sellers? I swear, they have little to do with craft. Sometimes Something just strikes a chord. Great post – as usual.

Gene Lempp

I think you hit it on the head with “you can’t change someone that doesn’t want to change” and “help those that take it seriously” (paraphrasing). While being a mentor is great, one can definitely “over-mentor” someone, which will confuse and possibly kill their love of writing and at worst destroy the relationship. I’ve seen this happen, I may even have been involved on the non-mentor side of this, but not going down that road 🙂

Personally, I think you have a good philosophy. Fair, middle ground, very Jami *grins*

Lynn Epnett

Hi Jami! Sorry to be a bit late to the discussion.

I tend toward the pragmatic in when and how to help writers, so even though the author in your example may need a mentor, I think that the beta needed to be okay with the author not wanting that yet.

Once the beta agreed to do a “typo-hunting read through,” I think there were only two appropriate times to mention other concerns:
(1) as soon as possible (“This needs x and y before I am comfortable doing a proofread. Would you like my advice on those?”), or
(2) on completion (“I wish your plans allowed us time to talk about x and y, but as you asked, I limited myself to z.”).

Obviously, a beta can do more than copyedit, but it’s the author’s call on what help is wanted. If the initial request is too narrow for the beta (and limiting a beta to proofreading is certainly narrow), then wiggle room should be discussed before a “yes,” not after.

(I’m speaking as a former editor and occasional beta, so those past responsibilities color my opinion. As I mentioned: pragmatic! I’m used to the straightforward approach.)

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Deb E

Hey, I found my way here yesterday on my cell phone, but find it annoying to comment from.
And, unfortunately for me, all I can see from reading all these inelligent, insightful responses, is that I must be way down the writer’s slope, yet! So much to learn.
I haven’t, yet, had a piece of advice about my work in progress, however, that I haven’t appreciated (well, maybe the one that called a scene “drivel” and didn’t explain why). I think I have to say that as far as those two positions go, I’d be erring towards the first – it is up to us as writers to develop humility, and ask for help with the expectation that we will receive it. It makes you wonder how many unbiased pairs of readers that writer had put the work past previously.
And thanks, Lynn (above), for those perfectly worded notes to writers wanting a proof-read before they are ready.
The only problem I have is that sometimes, you can polish and polish and polish, and things will still never be perfect. When do you know that you’ve reached that point, though, when it is acceptable to publish and ask people to pay money for it? How many opinons should one seek?
And, when and how do you find beta readers?
Sorry, I have little insightful to say. Maybe if I hang around here a bit long I’ll learn . . .

Teresa Robeson

I find it really hard to believe you’re yet to be published because you write one of the most thoughtful writer’s blogs I frequent – you always have great advice and great insights!

I concur with others in thinking that your approach is the happy medium and a generous, nonjudgmental view of the author-beta reader relationship.

I don’t have any novels ready for beta readers, but my critique groups have been so helpful to me with my short stories, I honestly don’t know how I lived without them previously. They are all amazingly good about giving encouraging yet honest critiques and also good about taking everyone else’s feedback with an open mind plus a grain of salt. 🙂

I think one thing that really makes my critique group mates special is that every single one of them is constantly taking classes and reading books on the craft of writing so it’s not like they think they’re gifted writers who don’t have anything to learn.

Ok, sorry, am rambling now, but I guess my point is related to the other side of the coin of the Overconfidence Principle: people who continue to try and learn the craft will always be open to suggestions and critiques.

Thanks for another terrific post, Jami!

Nancy S. Thompson

When I got my book deal, my 75 year old father actually said, “If she can do it, then so can I.” He then started to write his novel, a suspense thriller based on his life. (Yeah, don’t ask.) He even named his MC after himself. He sent me the first 2 chapters to critique, the first of which was a prologue of historical facts explaining the industry in which his MC worked. Mmm yeah, what could I say? “Dad, you can’t start here. It’s all backstory. No action. It’s boring.” He didn’t take it well. Nor did he want to hear about how to format an ms or any of the other myriad of rookie mistakes he made. He just wanted me to say good job. But I couldn’t. And when he had questions for me during my Father’s Day call, I told him I had already covered all that in the original email regarding the critique. He said he never read it. So now I just tell him he needs to do the research himself just like I did. That’s as far as I’m willing to go with him because he’s not truly willing to listen. Which is too bad because I’m a very good CP, and there’s nothing I, personally, value more. I guess he’ll learn the hard way like the rest of us. I just hope he has the time.

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

“Teaching is useless unless you can learn from your students.” – Martin Dansky
“To teach is to learn twice.” Joseph Joubert.

IMHO, the mentor-mentee relationship is a two way street, so if either side isn’t willing to listen and learn, something’s broken.

Deb E

So true!
I studied science at uni, and I always got the most value out of tutoring youger students. It really drove the stuff I had learned home – or reminded me what I should have picked up from the lesson. I love it when I can actually help a writer slightly further back on a particular path of this writing journey (there are so many different twists and turns to take to get there!) because it helps me cement what I have learned so far.
I’m just so grateful that the writing community is full of teachers and students alike.

Nathan
Nathan

I think the biggest hurdles for all of us early writers is not grammar, style, story arch or character development. I think one of the main things we need to be mentored in is attitude. Your article is a good approach to giving us a gentle nudge towards being less stubborn or sensitive. Thanks for mentoring us in a better attitude towards criticism.

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[…] I started thinking about the mental switch most of us have to go through in our writing career after Nathan left a great comment at my post about what we “owe” new authors: […]

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