I’m on a discussion list for people who write novels for young adults. Right now we’re talking about total strangers who ask authors to critique their unpublished novel without any sense that this is a big ask. One writer was asked to critique 25 short stories yet the person sending the stories admitted she’d never even read this writer’s work. Ah, excuse me? Another said they were “the future of young adult literature” and would you crit the novel attached? Again without a hint that they’d even read the author’s work. “You have published book, therefore you must want to read my unpublished book and make it published book, too.”
Ah, in a word, no.
Every year my writer friends (pub’d and unpub’d) send me about five early draft novels to read and critique. Not very many, is it? Just five a year. And yet, I’ve never managed to read all of them. Not once. And these are novels by dear friends whose writing I adore.
Just last week I critiqued a friend’s novel. It was only 55 thousand words long. Very short for a novel. It took me about fourteen hours. And that was a very clean, beautifully written novel. When they’re less clean it takes much, much longer.
Critiquing a novel is not at all the same thing as curling up in a comfy chair to read a book. You have to concentrate, make notes, and re-read many sections several times to figure out what the problems are. It’s hard work. Most of the people I critique for also do the same hard work for me.
Most writers don’t write full time. Their time for writing is precious to them and eked out in between their day job and looking after their families. Critiquing a stranger’s work eats into writing time. Hell, critquing your friends’ work eats into writing time. It’s a big commitment and not one that most of us are prepared to make for a stranger emailing out of the blue who doesn’t know our work and can’t spell our name right.
I’m lucky, writing is my full-time job but even so I struggle to make the time to read and crit my friends’ work. I have my own writing to do, and rewriting, and checking copyedits, proofs and the ARC. There’s all the subsidiary publicity work like doing interviews, keeping your website up to date, not to mention all the admin of contracts1 and the vast ocean of email. If I were to say yes to everyone who asked me to critique their work I would have no life.
I’m not saying you can’t ask your favourite author to critique your work. I’m saying that you have to understand exactly what it is you’re asking for, and why, nine times out of ten they will say no. I have writer friends who almost always tell me no when I ask. Or say yes and never get around to it. That’s cool. I do the exact same thing.
Put it this way: would you ask your friend the mechanic to fix your car for free? Maybe you would—I admire your chutzpa—but would you ask a total stranger mechanic the same thing? I didn’t think so.
- I have German contracts mouldering away because they need to be stamped by the Australian Tax Office and I haven’t figured out how to find the address of the nearest ATO office. Maybe my inability to find this straight forward info is because the whole thing reminds me that I haven’t done my taxes yet . . . [↩]