Very Important Question About Book Writing

Hilary! asked the following:

I have a VERY IMPORTANT QUESTION ABOUT BOOK WRITING!!!!!!!!! My Friend Weslie is writing a book and I’ve been helping her, but she won’t exactly tell me what the plot is, but i feel that since I am helping her with it anyway, she SHOULD tell me. What’s your take on it? PLEASE ANSWER PROMPTLY!!!!!

When you say you’re “helping” her I’m assuming you mean you are critiquing her work. Right? If so then, yes, it’s really difficult to make constructive comments when you have no idea where the book is going.

For instance, say she’s writing a vampire love story (judging from my poll opposite my readers are VERY into vampires) but she only slowly reveals that one of her characters is a vampre. You the critiquer need to know that so you can tell her whether her various clues along the way are too obvious or too subtle. It’s very difficult to critque a story when you don’t know where it’s going.

On the other hand, it might be that she wants to see whether you can figure out what’s happening and will rewrite depending on what you say. I don’t think this works that well unless she’s already written the entire story, in which case you’ll know what the plot is because you’ve got the whole story in front of you.

When I critique friends work-in-progress they always tell me where it’s going (if they know). Scott always tells me what the plot of his novels are before he writes them.1 My comments are much more useful when I have a sense of where the novel is going. Otherwise I’m not sure what to say except at a sentence-by-sentence level.

I’m not sure if I have answered your question. Anyone else got a different take?

  1. Things do change in the writing process, however. []


  1. lunamoth on #

    Well, like you said, it depends on what is meant by “helping her”. If one is *contributing* to the work, that would sorta require knowing where the plot’s meant to go. I don’t recommend people collaborating on their earliest works in any case. The ego of our youth isn’t ready for that, as I found out the hard way.

    I tried to have my husband do a read through of my first completed draft once without really telling him what the book was about, except that it was fantasy, and he marked up the first 50 pages with red ink, which kinda hurt. Maybe it *would* be best if the friend would give more info on the plot, but maybe she’s still shy about saying things like “it’s a vampire love story” out loud. Sometimes it’s easier to write the words than speak them aloud.

  2. Amanda on #

    Different take here. If I don’t know where a ms is headed, the only thing drawing me through the ms is what’s currently on the page. I can tell where I’m bored–and if I’m bored, the writer probably needs to be hinting more about conflicts, problems, or goals.

    I’m guessing that I read a lot like an editor does when shuffling through the slush pile. The difference is that I’ll keep reading, when the editor would have long since chucked the ms into a return envelope with a form rejection. An editor is probably not going to torture herself by reading an entire ms because she knows something interesting is supposedly going to happen halfway through the ms.

    Also, a lot of writers don’t really know where their story is heading. They have to figure it out as they write. Sometimes a critiquer can help this process along by telling what they are seeing so far, and what the ms is leading them to expect and hope for.

  3. hillary! on #

    I am critique-ing her story, and thankfully it’s not a vampire love story, even if I do enjoy those sorts. But I just wanted to know if it would be helpful if I knew the plot and could point out that such and such doesn’t make sense if such and such happens. THANK YOU SO MUCH! Now I can tell Weslie!

  4. Justine on #

    Hilary!: The other thing to consider is that it might be that Weslie is not ready to tell you what the plot is because she’s still feeling her way. I know I don’t talk about my works-in-progress until I’m feeling solid with them. Even when I’m giving people bits to read.

    As Amanda said sometimes we don’t know where our books are going.

  5. Kadie-Wa on #

    In my opinion, you should totally get to know about the plot. Maybe not right away. Maybe she wants to finish the book first, and then let you read it. That’s what I would do. So that then, the plot is EXACTLY how they want it to look.

  6. Bill on #

    Whenever I’m stuck on something, I like to have a “what if” conversation with my wife, giving her just a couple key points and saying “would they do this or this?”

    The fact that she doesn’t have my backstory and character sketches cluttering up her mind — as I do — she’ll often give me a comment completely out of left field, specifically because she’s confused about what I’m trying to do. In fact, the less I explain, the better it works. She’s my I Ching. 🙂

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked away thinking “Wow, that’s a much better idea… I never would have looked at it that way.” In fact, the less I tell her, the more counter-intuitive — and wonderful — her suggestions.

    At work, whenever anybody asks me for help, they’ll say “we’re using this and this and this and we can’t make it do that.” I’ll stop them and say “what problem are you trying to solve?”

    In a writing context, it might go like this:

    STUDENT What’s more romantic: red roses or white roses?
    MASTER What is the problem you are trying to solve, Grasshopper?
    STUDENT I’m trying to get these two characters to fall in love.
    MASTER Oh, that’s easy. First you make them hate each other.

    Maybe that’s why she won’t tell you the plot, Hilary! you’re her I Ching. 🙂

  7. Hillary! on #

    Actually…I was the one who DIDN’T want to know. She was all ready to tell me everything! But I was unsure, so I told her I was going to ask someone who had a little more experience in this than we did.

  8. Patrick on #

    Well, Lori Foster gives advice on this at my blog.

    “Please, please don’t share your stories with people!”


    “The problem with sharing is that you dilute your drive to have the story told – meaning IN PRINT!”

    and if you can’t believe Lori Foster, who can you believe?

  9. Amy on #

    Interesting dilemna. My husband and I have a similar relationship. We’ve agreed that he won’t read my book until it’s done, and I won’t tell him the plot, even though I’m dying to share it with someone and I think it’s awesome!

    The reason is, if I tell someone the plot, my “juice” for writing it kind of gets weaker. I like writing when things are still fresh in my mind. I want to take the energy I have for the idea and put it into the written story, not into sharing it with other people verbally. But everyone is different, maybe talking about it will get her excited for the story?

    Either way, good luck with the writing.

    p.s. Thanks for keeping such an interesting blog, Mrs. Larbalestier!

  10. kim on #

    my friends and i have what we call a writers club at our school. we meet once a month at a coffee shop called beyond latte. we write stories and read them outloud to each other and ask the other what they think. it is very intresting to see how other people write and thier ideas about what you wrote. we sometimes enter contests with sotires or poems that we wrote depending on what the others think of it. their are 3 or 4 english teachers that supervise the meeting and give us tips on what we wrote.

  11. Justine on #

    Hilary!: Phew. I was worried!

    Patrick: For me Lori Foster’s advice is terrible. I’ve talked in detail about all my novels before I wrote them. In fact talking about them with Scott and Holly and Maureen and my other trusted critique partners is part of what made those novel ideas solid enough to write.

    See my previous post. All writing advice is only good or bad depending on how useful it is to the person taking it. You can advise some people to write every day and it will galvanise them; others and it will fill their heart with despair and send them into a shame spiral.

    Lori’s advice would not have worked for me at all. I work things out by talking about them.

  12. Patrick on #

    Hmmm, I’m not sure if you’re advice on taking advice with a grain of salt is right for me.

    You can advise some people to write everyday, you can advise everyone to write someday, but you can’t advise anyone to never write.

  13. Justine on #

    Sure I can, Patrick, just not to their faces.

  14. Mahek on #

    My friends want to critique my novel. They aren’t even going to touch it unless it gets published which is very unlikely!

  15. ariel cooke on #

    I myself ascribe to Brenda Ueland’s advice in “If You Want to Write.” She says that you must have a first reader who is really interested in you and wants to know more, more, more about what your thoughts, imaginings, insights. “And if you do not have such a friend, why, then you must invent one.”

  16. ariel cooke on #

    P.S. so you see there is not much room in there for “well, I will tell part of the plot but not the rest.”

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