Quick answer: You don’t. Or, at least, you don’t tell your friend their book stinks and then chat merrily about the weather or resume whatever else it was you were doing (celebrating their birthday, maybe — please don’t tell them this on their birthday). If someone you know is writing a novel, that means they still have time to improve it. If the novel’s already published, well, then I guess someone thought it was okay enough for other people to read, and you should probably shut up and congratulate your friend. The point is, if you’re friend is in the midst of writing, maybe they’re looking less for soul-crushing judgment and more for feedback on how they can make their story better. Here’s what’s actually helpful for them to hear: “Hey, I don’t like this particular thing, but I think you could make it awesome.” Not all critiquing is constructive. If your friend wrote a story about a dog and you hate dogs, then don’t say their novel sucks because of your personal preference. Plenty of other people like dogs and would read about them. Also, never utter the words “your novel sucks,” because that’s just petty. It will probably also make your friend do this:
Instead, try to figure out what you don’t like and why. Give them more reasoning than “it’s stupid” or “this is boring.” Maybe your friend needs to do more to endear the reader to their main character, or maybe they need to add more action and dialogue and lose some description. Find something concrete for them to work with. If you want, you can suggest ideas for how they might fix the problem, but keep in mind that the writer makes the final call. Readers are usually right when they feel something’s off, but that’s as far as their power extends. “This chapter needs work, but I loved this part.” Don’t just point out the bad things. Regardless of its quality, writing takes a tremendous amount of energy and dedication, and hearing someone rattle off criticism after criticism can be demotivating. Keep your friend’s spirits high by either starting out with a compliment (“This is a great idea for a story” or “I loved this character!”) or by taking a break from the negative and pointing out something you did like. It can be as small as a sentence or a descriptive image. Your friend will appreciate the mention and feel happy that you liked it. Basically, it tells them that if they keep writing more of that — the thing you liked — they’ll be doing a good job. “Don’t give up.” This must-watch TED Talk teaches an amazing lesson: You are not your novel.
It’s easy for writers to believe that if their novel is bad, that’s because they’re bad writers. That’s not how it works. I’m a firm believer than you become a good writer by writing — and writing a lot of crap before you get good. Skill takes time to develop. No matter how much you read or how much writing advice you digest, everyone needs to put pencil to paper (or fingers to keys) and untangle the very scary and magical thing that is writing. Writing a novel takes hundreds and hundreds of hours. Whole years. Decades, even. People spend a tiny fraction of that time reading the damn thing once it’s finished, and they can destroy a writer’s confidence and hope in a mere few words. Be mindful: Writing is hard work. It takes courage to do it and an incredible amount of willpower to see it through. Whether your love your friend’s book or hate it, tell them the same thing at the end of the day: “Don’t give up.” “You can do this.” “You’ve got it.” Because those few words can go a long way.
Many of you are writers as well as readers, but good writers know the two go hand-in-hand. Usually I’m very private with my creative writing until I’m absolutely satisfied with it, but I wanted to follow the example some of you have already set and share my writing with the world.
WEbook is currently hosting a competition that offers practice in writing description. The challenge? “Describe a building in 300 words or less.” The deadline is 10 PM EST on February 29.
Here’s what I like about the contest: 300 words are more than reasonable. Without counting revising time (which can vary, but for that few words isn’t too taxing), achieving the word count shouldn’t take long. Writing in short bursts is a great way to hone your skills—and receiving feedback is even better.
That’s why I’ve entered the Building Descriptions Writing Contest. I encourage everyone to enter and/or leave a comment on my WEbook page with thoughts on my 300-word entry, titled “Ribbons of Red.” You do have to sign up on the website to comment, but don’t let this stop you—it only takes a minute to plug in a little information, like an email address and username. I received my first response within minutes of submitting. I only ask that you are honest in your critique. You won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t like it, as long as you suggest ways that I can make it better.
If you decide to enter the contest, please link me to your own entry. I’d love to read it and offer some of my own advice. (Note: You have to click “Post for Feedback” for a chance at winning, anyhow.)
Upon closing the contest, WEbook will choose six winners and award them free entry to PageToFame, their exclusive writing contest. The #1 winner will receive an autographed copy of Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.