#DearLaura

#DearLaura,

I’m a YA author with a great agent and a couple of book deals, and I’m very grateful to the more experienced writers who helped me get here with their advice and critiques. Now that I’m one of those “more experienced” writers, newer writers often ask ME for advice and critiques. I’m happy to help, especially with something as short as a query, because I definitely believe in giving back the way others gave to me. Also, it feels great to finally be the writer other writers ask for help!

Here’s the problem, though. Sometimes the queries or sample pages are really bad. Not just grammar and spelling, but story bad, too. As in, not-even-close-to-being-ready-to-query, bad. The last thing I want to be is a dream-crusher, but I won’t be doing these writers any favors if I don’t point out at least a few things they need to work on. Obviously I don’t look forward to dealing with the fall-out when these friends (or friends-of-friends) get their writing feelings hurt, either. Any advice on how to handle situations like these?

Signed,

I Swear to Tell the Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth…I Think?

Dear Truth,

This is a really tough spot to be in and one that I don’t envy in the least. I do have a few suggestions for you moving forward and specific to this situation.

Institutionally, I would set some boundaries with regard to editing others’ work for free. Here are some of my rules as examples:

  1. I only give in-depth feedback to my critique partners whose quality of work I know already, who trust me and vice versa, and where I get something back in return (namely, awesome, free critiques and emotional support).
  2. I will give limited feedback to other professionals who request it, but only very specific feedback, for example, the query letter or the pitch. I also preface it with, I’ll take a look and let you know if I can offer any helpful feedback. This allows me to gracefully back out if the work is beyond my scope.
  3. I don’t publicly comment on published works unless it is to give a positive review.
  4. I don’t agree to blurb a book until after I’ve read it.

I established these rules in part to preserve the sanctity of my creative time, but also because I don’t want to get in the habit of being a critic. As my uncle, a painter, once told me, my job is to create and I don’t want to steal dinner from the struggling critics out there.

Some writers supplement their income through editing, which is fine and generally has an agreed upon set of rules: in essence, I’m paying you to be honest and help me, and therefore I will be open to your constructive criticism. But the in-between area that you’re presently in, does present some problems, both for you and the person doing the asking, mainly because the expectations are not clear.

In your current situation, I won’t give you a specific suggestion because it is nuanced and there is a lot of information I don’t know, but I will give you some things to consider when formulating your plan:

How well do you know this person?

How open do they seem to honest feedback?

What are their goals for this query letter?

Is your feedback going to “make or break” their project?

How much time and energy are you willing to spend on what sounds like an extensive editorial letter?

Is it appropriate to refer them to a professional content editor?

What would you want someone to do if you were the one doing the asking?

What do you stand to lose in being honest?

Like I said, this is a tough spot to be in, but my instinct is generally to respond with tactful honesty and then make sure you don’t find yourself in that situation again.

Good luck!

Laura

Not to belabor the question, but I asked an editor friend for her perspective, and she had this to say:

As an editor, I first ask people if they want me to just give them a few suggestions or if they want me to give them all of my suggestions for making it stronger (and I warn them how they can feel overwhelmed at first). That said, I never given them all of my suggestions; I always pare it down, but I am still very thorough. Also, if someone is self-publishing, then they don’t have to worry about what an agent/editor wants and they may be willing to work to find a tiny niche audience for themselves.

As for your situation, that’s tricky. They may not want truly honest feedback (if they had, they probably would’ve invested in good critique partners or an editor or some other form of paid critique). So, here’s what you could do in this situation:
1) Tell the writer: here’s what I like about your story, but 2) here are my reservations if you’re looking to find an agent.
This way I don’t have to say, your story stinks (even if it does), I can just say, here’s what a typical editor wants. It’s not about good vs. bad. You make it about what agents/editors are looking for. Then I say, okay, now here’s what you need to change with your story to make it more of a story that an agent/editor wants. Then I tell them to use the changes only if they resonate with them. That way, it’s their decision and they might feel a little more in control and more importantly, they see why the changes should be made.
Hope this was helpful. I think the big thing is to offer suggestions for how to make it stronger, rather than ever saying what’s wrong. (i.e., “your protagonist is superficial” vs. “I wish I knew the other layers of your protagonist”) There’s no small amount of psychology involved here.

Laura LascarsoHeadshotWebFinal is the author of two YA novels, COUNTING BACKWARDS (2012) and RACING HEARTS (2015). If you have a burning YA question you’d like answered, tweet it to @lauralascarso with #DearLaura or include it in the comments below.

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