O Captain my Captain:
How on earth does one ever take charge of the creative process when it requires the input of others? Please help.
The specifics: I’ve written a novel. (Okay, actually I’ve written three. But I could imagine that someone might want to publish this one someday.) Various friends, colleagues, etc. have offered to read it and provide comments. Of those people (all of who have received it roughly 6 months ago), I’ve gotten responses from … one. Out of ten.
The jerkbrain has a really good answer to this: it’s such shit that nobody can finish it, and they don’t want to be honest, so I should just smash the computer and move on with my life and find something else to do. Preferably something where I can fool people into thinking I’m competent. Fuck my dreams. Fuck the work I put in. I’m bad at this and that’s that.
How do I silence the jerkbrain? Actually, more importantly, how do I actually get some useful feedback so that I can actually work on making it better? (That would go a long way towards silencing the jerkbrain, since it would give me something to actually work on!)
I’ve tried leveling with the people I’m the closest to, and asked them to commit to reading it and getting me comments by some specific date. And: radio silence from one, broken promises from two more. And some good news: regular updates from one about the life events that are keeping her from getting there, which is awesome, and keeps giving me hope!
— the next Bulwer-Lytton [or insert your least favorite author here]
Thanks for your question, I love when someone sends in the opposite of a prior question!
You have learned something, and that something is not that your novel is bad. That something is: People who like you say ‘I can’t wait to read your novel, please give it to me!’ because they are excited for you and want to share in your achievement, but that doesn’t mean that they will actually read your novel “soon” or “at all.” It’s insidious, because the longer they go without doing it, the more the shame and pressure and obligation surrounding it grows, and the harder it is to cut through all of that and just read the thing.
I charge people $300 to read & give feedback for a feature screenplay. That’s not an ad for my services in that regard, since if you’re going to spend money on something like that, you should probably find someone with professional writing credits or Hollywood connections to do it (maybe) instead of me. I actually have no idea what the going market rate for this is, this is just my price. Why $300?
1) I don’t actually want to read people’s scripts and give them notes, I do enough of that as a teacher. In my free time I want to work on my own writing. Adding a cost keeps the requests few and far between. It makes it worth it to me to block the time to spend on the project.
2) It attracts people who have a near-final draft ready to go and who are serious about wanting the feedback. People value what they pay for.
3) You don’t have to take any of the feedback, and I don’t have to care whether or not you did, and nobody has to have feelings about it – that’s what the money is for.
I’m not saying that you, the Letter Writer should pay for feedback on your novel (I have another, better suggestion coming up below), but I wanted to share that because reading a long piece of writing and giving notes on it is actually work. “Read my novel” is a big ask, and it’s possible that the friends and family who volunteered to do it in that first fit of excitement either a) did not necessarily factor in that you meant, like, now or b) didn’t really understand how much work it takes until it was too late and your manuscript was sitting in their Obligation Pile of Shame and Regretted Favors.
Next time you’ll know this: If someone volunteers to read your novel, send them the first chapter or so. If they write back to you wanting more, you have good feedback from that act alone: You wrote a good first chapter, you hooked them, they do actually want to read it, and they will likely give you notes. If they don’t ask for more, it might just a thing they can’t prioritize with limited bandwidth and time, they might not be great feedback-givers or simply, they may not be your audience. If no one gets back to you after reading a chapter, you also have useful feedback that maybe your opening chapter needs a stronger hook.
What you really need, in my opinion, is a writer’s group. Some like-minded people, in the same creative trenches you’re in, with the expectation that everyone will read each other’s work and everyone will give feedback, but without the initial emotional connection and history that you have with people close to you, with regular meetings and enough structure to keep you working. It may take you a few tries to find the right group, and you won’t like everyone’s comments (or their work) and vice versa. If you can’t find a writer’s group near you or one you like and you need some feedback and some structure in your life, you might also look into taking a class. That link goes to a Chicago-based resource, but Google things like “Writer’s workshops” or “writing classes” near your location and see what you turn up. Community colleges can have great offerings.
Also, holy shit, you wrote three novels! Let us bask for a moment in the glory of your accomplishments!
Seriously, that’s amazing!
If you want to rescue things from Awkwardland with your friends, you might want to let them know that while you’re bummed they didn’t get a chance to read your novel, you’re going to look to a writer’s group for the feedback you need, so there is no pressure on them to get back to you. Find trusted first readers, let your friends go back to being your friends, and all will be well.