#1178: “A friend paid me to read her book and it’s terrible.”

Hello Captain,

Two years ago, a friend paid me to critique her novel because I studied writing and know the publishing industry. I agreed to read three drafts of the work. We did not sign a formal contract.

Then I got the manuscript, and it’s terrible on all levels, from prose to plot. I’ve tried addressing the issues tactfully. I’ve suggested good examples in her genre to emulate. She is unwilling to analyze WHAT makes stories good and apply those lessons. From unrelated conversations I know she doesn’t respect people who think about why they like what they like (i.e. my partner). “They take the fun out of things.” She also thinks “time invested=value to others” regardless of the quality of her efforts.

To date, I have read 1.5 drafts and given one in-person, intensive critique session. I have (unprofessionally) delayed talking with her about the work because I suspected (correctly) that even saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m not finding improvements or good technique,” would upset her. I’ve been there, and I know how much it hurts. However, she tunes out anything she doesn’t want to hear.

In my professional opinion, the manuscript is unpublishable and her attitude/ego will not lead to success.

When I finally was direct, like I would be with a non-friend client, she became upset because in her words, I don’t “like” the work. I’ve explained that it’s not about “liking,” but whether or not the work communicates effectively (It doesn’t). I’ve asked what her ideal outcome is, and how she wants me to handle feedback I think she won’t like. When I did, accused me of not taking the project “seriously,” again, because I don’t “like” it.

I realize that delaying so long has eroded my credibility/professionalism, but I feel like we’re at an impasse. I’ve told her I care and want her to succeed, but I can’t help her do that if I can’t be honest.

At this point, I think the best I can do is offer her a partial refund for the incomplete work, with the latest marked-up manuscript and an apology for the delay, then walk away. I don’t know that our friendship will survive. I’m not sure if I want it to.

How should I resolve this, Captain?

Never Crossing the Streams Again

Dear Never Crossing The Streams,

I like your plan of refunding the rest of the money and severing the professional relationship. You’re right, the friendship may not survive, but I think getting rid of this …thing… that’s grown between you, this giant knot of vulnerability and expectations and guilt, is the only way to see if anything will.

I’m sure you can already compose a very professional letter along the lines of “Dear Friend, I am returning the remainder of your fee and the most recent round of notes on your manuscript. I’m so sorry it took me so long, I just know I can’t devote the time to this project that you deserve and its time for me to release it so you can move forward” note, but something jumped out at me in your letter that I think can help you either phrase this to your liking or handle awkward follow-up conversations.

You say: “When I finally was direct, like I would be with a non-friend client, she became upset because in her words, I don’t “like” the work. I’ve explained that it’s not about “liking,” but whether or not the work communicates effectively (It doesn’t). I’ve asked what her ideal outcome is, and how she wants me to handle feedback I think she won’t like. When I did, accused me of not taking the project “seriously,” again, because I don’t “like” it.”

As professional makers of things (see also: editors, agents, producers, packagers and distributors of creative things), we’re taught that “I like it/I don’t like it” isn’t valid for critique. We’re taught to dig deeper: What is it trying to be or do? Is it successfully communicating that thing? Can we identify specific things that aren’t working? Can we identify specific steps that the artist might take that would solve the issues or make a piece stronger? (People can read this past post and these slides for more detailed explorations of how to get beyond “I liked it/I didn’t like it” and deliver more specific, helpful, motivating feedback, it’s kind of an obsession of mine).

This is an important thing to learn! It is valuable to interrogate our individual tastes and not expect that every thing that every single person makes is supposed to cater to us, to be for us, to be exactly what we were looking for. Professionally speaking, “how the heck can I market this thing” or “is this a good professional sample that matches what this person says they are trying to do?” is more urgent liking particular piece of work if we are to earn a living. It also matters urgently on a global level that we learn this, especially when we examine and start to pull on the threads that are knit between whose stories have counted more than other people’s, where power tends to congregate, and what is done with that power.

(And, not for nothing, outside of film school or career considerations, I just got happier as a human being when I learned to reframe “That thing sucks!” into “Maybe that thing isn’t for me.”)

Letter Writer, you learned this and you learned this lesson well! You’re trying to do right by your friend to teach her, “Hey, it’s not about whether I like it, it’s about whether these specific facets of it are successfully communicating your story. Work on these specific, identifiable things and it will get much better! This is the professional advice you paid me for and asked me for!”

That’s all true! You are doing a good job at the job you were hired for! You’re trying to keep feelings out of it and be the objective eye for your friend.

And yet, what your friend wants is for you to like it. She wants you to love it. These emotions aren’t professional but it doesn’t mean they aren’t present, and real.

And what we like matters, even professionally. What keeps those brave script readers and keepers of the submission piles everywhere slogging through mountains and mountains of material is the hope that they’ll come across something they like, something they love, something that turns them into a champion. 

So, when you tell her “it’s not about like,” she can tell that it means that you don’t like it. And if you try to reassure you that you do, she can tell you’re lying. And when you respond with objective criteria why her story is bad instead of love, it hurts her. Why would someone who likes her try to prove her work is bad? This (completely unintentionally on your part, or her part, or anyone’s part) risks BADLY fucking up her process from here on out, because as long as the book is tied up with you (her friend, and her feelings about what she wants from her friend) the less it CAN be shaped into something better.

Your professional opinion that she’s not ready for the next steps  – substantial revision, professional submission, editing  – are almost certainly dead on. At this stage she would probably benefit most from a writer’s group and/or a class in the genre she wants to work in, where she’ll get regular feedback on craft and a community of people who are in the same boat.

And yet, you aren’t the boss of her creative career! “Terrible” books succeed all the time. As her friend, maybe the way forward is to remind yourself that even your educated opinion is just your opinion, your opinion is just one opinion, and give her that information as a parting gift. In other words, stop using objective reasons to make the case that the work isn’t good, and own up to some subjectivity. Tell her:

“Friend, I’m so sorry I’ve waited this long to return this to you. It’s the last set of notes I made, and the portion of the fees that were budgeted for future revisions. I think I’ve taken this as far as I can as an editor. This happens sometimes, I come across a book that’s not quite my taste, and I can offer edits and suggestions that I think will work, but I’m not the right person to be the champion that the author needs.

I know some of our conversations have upset you, and I’m so sorry about that. As a friend, I’m really honored that you trusted me with something this important to you. As an editor, I know it’s time for you to find someone who can encourage you and work closely with you to help you turn it into what you want it to be (vs. what I want it to be).”

Hopefully she’ll accept this. If she tries to argue with you about your feedback or the decision (this is very possible, given that she’s argued with you before), think of it as an example of how setting and maintaining firm boundaries allow us to be gentle with people. The only way you’re ever reading this thing again is when you buy a published copy from your local bookseller and ask her to sign it at her fancy book launch party. As long as you know that for sure inside your head,  you can answer her arguments with “Friend, I love you, I am rooting for you, but I don’t want to argue with you about your book anymore, ever. I gave you my opinion when you asked, and that’s what it was: An opinion. It’s just one opinion, I’m not the boss of what you do with your writing! We tried our best, but there’s a reason people say never mix friendship and business. I have formally resigned as your editor, being your friend is way better!”

If y’all drift apart? Then you drift. Whatever happens, her dreams won’t be locked in your drawer or taunting you from your “should” pile anymore and you’ll know that you tried your best.

Before we go, I think there are some very practical things we can learn about asking for and giving creative feedback from your experience, Letter Writer

A) If you’re asking a friend to read your work, openly discuss and plan for what happens if they don’t love it or don’t want to take it on as a project. This is so hard but it’s better than dread or mismatched expectations. If you don’t understand that it’s just one person’s opinion, if you can’t take no for an answer, if you can’t accept the possibility that they won’t like it, it’s a strong sign that your friend is not the right beta-reader for it. Give people a ton of room to opt out. That way if they opt in, you can know they wanted to.

B) Put work things in writing, even with friends (especially with friends). Attach payment of fees to specific deadlines, and also specify what happens if things don’t work out as planned and what steps either person could take if they want to end the agreement.

C) Narrow the scope of work and the time window. I’m not a lawyer so i can’t offer you legal advice, but one very specific suggestion I have is to put a pretty short time window on arrangements like this. TWO YEARS IS WAY TOO LONG FOR THIS TO BE TAKING UP SPACE IN YOUR BRAIN. There is no way she paid you “think about this for two years” money.

If you (or a reader) ever tries something like this in the future, Agree that you’ll get the manuscript and the first payment by [date], you’ll give notes within 30 days, maybe you’ll look at any revision submitted within [x time window] for [y more money], and build in a specific process that any future revisions or discussions will be negotiated separately. This protects everyone – if the work isn’t good, if it’s taking up a ton of time, if one or both of you runs out of interest or steam, if you get work that pays better and is more urgent – you have to be able to take things OFF your plate and it will help if that can be as transparent as possible from the start.

D) Start with a sample chapter or an excerpt, not the whole dang thing before you agree to anything. “I’m so flattered you asked. Before I take this on, could you send me the first chapter and we can do a test run?”  If you finish the sample and you’re not impatient to read more? ABORT NOW. “Thanks for letting me look at it, how exciting for you! I think you should keep working on this, and it’s worth finding a pro who isn’t a friend to take the next step with you!” And remember, you always have “I don’t know what to say” on your side. “I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t know what to suggest for revisions, that’s always a sign that someone else would be a better fit as an editor.”

E) Agree on a format for criticism and discussing criticism. Written notes? A meeting? Both?

When I used to read screenplays for people for a fee, I put language in the agreement like this:

For $(Fee) I will write professional coverage of your screenplay, evaluating it the way staffers who work for production companies or agencies who are considering buying it or signing you on as a writer might do.

How coverage works: Assistants (and freelancers, like me) read scripts as they come in, fill out their company’s template, make notes about the story, enter the info into a database, and then decide whether to pass the script up the chain to decision-makers.

Coverage like this is not addressed to the writer or for the writer, rather it’s a guide for making business decisions about whether to move forward with a project or relationship. What strengths and liabilities does this have as a commercial property? What kind of projects are best suited to this writer? If you have a polished draft and want to see how it reads as a potential commercial product, opt for this.

For $(Fee) I will write extensive handwritten comments on your screenplay as I read, and sum those up in 1-2 pages of informal notes and suggestions, the way I would do if you were my student and I were your professor. For example, I may ask questions about your intent and suggest things that could be fleshed out or trimmed from a future draft. These notes aren’t about marketability, they are all about your story, the emotions it evokes, how to help you say what you want to say. Hopefully these notes will help you make the story stronger and grow as a writer.

Fees are nonrefundable. They are payable in advance when you submit your screenplay, and include delivery of my notes to you in writing no later than [Date].

If you wish to schedule a follow-up meeting or phone call to discuss possible revisions, the rate is $Fee/hour. Rates for reading and giving notes on revisions start at $Fee.

That last fee, for the meeting or phone call? I added it after I’d done a bunch of these, specifically  to make it expensive for people who just wanted to argue with me about my notes. Like, you paid me, you asked me to tell you what I thought, I did, use it or don’t, rewrite it or don’t, but arguing with me about costs extra.

I stopped doing this service pretty soon after I started the blog. I wasn’t working as a script reader much anymore, it was too time-consuming to do it right, and there started to be not enough money to read & keep giving notes on things I didn’t like, that kept not getting any better, and especially where the writers were more invested in arguing with me that their stuff was actually great (in which case, AWESOME, GO SELL IT, PROVE ME WRONG, SPITE IS V. MOTIVATING, I HAVE NO ACTUAL POWER OVER YOU!) than doing any rewrites. I still charge money for arguments, though.