Everything I Need to Know: Smart Bitch Advice

Advice Welcome to another edition of Everything I Need to Know, I Learned from Romance Novels, where I attempt to give advice. Or talk out of my ass. Or both!

Today’s letter comes from Frustrated, who is friends with an aspiring novelist.

My longtime friend and I have always talked about writing a romance novel. Recently she finished writing a novel that she’s enormously proud of. I’m proud of her for finishing it! Now here’s the problem: she wants me to help her get it published. A guy I used to work for now works for a publishing house in New York, and she wants me to send it to him. He’s in the accounting department, for one thing, and for another, I haven’t spoken to him in over two years. I’d feel really weird and awkward asking him for a favor.

The other problem is that I don’t think her novel is really very good, but she doesn’t really listen to my opinion because, as she says, I’m not really qualified to critique her book. She asked another mutual friend of ours to read it after I did, and while that friend told her how wonderful the book was, privately she told me that she thought it was awful. This novel is all my friend talks about now whenever we meet for lunch or I see her after work, and I don’t know what to do.

In my Bitchy opinion, there’s a number of problems here, and some of them are based in a possible disconnect with reality on the part of your writing friend.

Perhaps your writing friend would be best served to examine the First Sale column at Dear Author, and witness the number of times writers mention early manuscripts that live in drawers, never to be seen again. They are trial runs before the race; they are a fallen souffle before the recipe was mastered. They are first efforts that strengthened the later efforts, the ones that ultimately resulted in that first sale. Some writers do indeed achieve publication on the first try – which is wonderful and awesome and amazing. Many, however, do not.

The point? Unless a writer has a contract in hand, the completion of a manuscript does not necessarily guarantee publication.

But that does little to address your initial concerns: a friend who wants you to use a connection that might ultimately do nothing for her but something not complimentary to you, and a friend who is getting on your nerves.

First, you can tell her that your former boss does not do acquisitions, and furthermore you can’t send him materials. You don’t owe her an explanation beyond that. “No,” is, in fact, a complete sentence. There are many paths toward publication, and she has no reason to expect that hers must automatically run through you.

Second, if her novel is all she talks about, and you don’t want to talk about it any longer, you may be better off not talking to her until she’s willing to entertain other subjects. No friendship survives on one sided expectations of admiration and demands of favors. And while she may not be listening to you about your opinions of her work, you may not be the correct person to offer criticism of her manuscript. Eventually she will receive some feedback, be it from another writer, an agent, or an editor.

But the second issue is really about your friendship and your evaluation thereof. Ultimately, your friend may experience the thrills of victory or the agony of rejection; her and


behavior now may be the indicator of whether you will be the person to hold her hand through either or both. As it stands now, Frustrated, if you’ve both talked about writing a romance novel in the past, perhaps some of your feelings are rooted in some understandable envy that she’s written a manuscript. Totally normal, but definitely worth considering if her accomplishment has made you feel bad about your progress toward your own aspirations.

Romance novels are not flush with excellent examples of women’s friendship, sadly, because so many of those relationships are portrayed as fertile grounds for envy, misunderstandings, and individuals described as “spunky” but who are both sexually nonthreatening and about as exciting as lukewarm dishwater. Perhaps you need to consider yourself not the spunky dishwater friend, but the secondary character ripe for her own romantic sequel. If this person is important to you, you can always tell her what you told me: there are other topics you’d like to discuss, though you are excited that she has accomplished a long-held goal for herself, and you miss talking about subjects other than her book. Friends celebrate and commiserate with one another, and you haven’t told me enough about your friendship for me to know if this novel-mania is the latest in a series of self-absorbed topics on the part of your friend, or an aberration in your relationship. If it’s the former, then you have to decide whether you want to remain this person’s friend.

If it’s the latter, then I think you may want to examine how your own feelings are contributing to the situation. Maybe you ought to leave her be awhile and see if time improves the situation or your feelings of frustration. Perhaps, if you yourself are serious about writing, you might use this time to work on your own manuscript. Or read really wonderful romances. But the problem here is as much, it seems, with you as it is with her.

At the risk of sounding way too cheezy, you are the heroine of your story. She is the heroine of hers. Her success does not take away from your future, but your reaction to her future success may cost you a friend of value. 


General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    Julie Leto says:

    Wow, you’re good at this.  Dear Smart Bitch.  I love it!

    I’d add that this woman should advise her friend to find and join an RWA chapter.  She’ll get a big dose o’ reality if she runs into one or more published authors.  In twenty years in this business, I’ve never heard of a single sale that was facilitated by someone in accounting.

    Oh, and the friend who said it was wonderful but it was really awful?  100 lashes with a wet (insert Smart Bitch weapon of choice) to that one.  She’s not doing anyone any favors except herself!

  2. 2
    Leeann Burke says:

    I completely agree with you Sarah . A friend shouldn’t use another friend’s connection to get a publication contract. To me that is just wrong.

    I know telling the truth to your friend about her writing might hurt, but it’ll hurt her even more if she hears what you truly think of her book from someone else.

    Great advice Julie about joining RWA and a local chapter. It will help her become a better writer. It did just that for me.

  3. 3

    A friend shouldn’t use another friend’s connection to get a publication contract. To me that is just wrong.

    Wait a second….  I don’t think that’s just wrong.  I would have *no* problem introducing my CPs or writing friends to agents or editors, if I thought it would help them out.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with networking, or having friends that help you network.

    That being said, I would feel . . . weird . . . if someone demanded I introduce them to my editor or my agent, or worse, demand I give a recommendation.  That sort of gesture has to be offered, not asked for.  (I would also feel weird if someone asked me to introduce me to that guy in accounting, but that’s more because it’s asking me to spend social capital for something that has 0% chance of success.)

    There’s nothing “wrong” with using connections to get a read.  If you have connections, work them.  (Take a look at those First Sale columns and see how many of them start with “I didn’t know anybody and then I sold my first book!”  There are some of them—but most stories of publication involve more than one person.)  Ultimately, your book will stand or fall on its merit—but why not use friends to help give it every chance possible?

    Now, if you mean that nobody should use their connections to get a contract, rather than nobody should use their connections to get a read. . . .  Well, yeah, but I suspect if editors didn’t know how to shoot down friends of friends, they wouldn’t last very long.  The only time I can imagine connections getting a contract are when the connections are relevant to the success of the book, and so the person has platform.

  4. 4
    Rebecca says:

    Though I am not a published writer, I second Julie’s recommendation that the woman’s friend join her local RWA chapter. She could also join a local writer’s club. Or join a writing class at a local college. Anywhere, just so that she can expand her readership and understand that she’s still got a lot to learn.

    The writer-friend could also submit her first page to Dear Author for critique by Jane’s readership.

    Also, the woman should tell her friend that if she is that confident of the book, to join a local writers club in addition to the RWA for those folks will also be good for critiquing.

    There are also a host of books on self-editing for creative writers, there are a lot of good Web blogs out there (as everyone on this post knows) written by agents and publishers.

    This woman deserves a resounding “huzzah!” for actually completing a draft. The quality may be of the lowest but this woman has proven that she can complete something.

    Now its time for her to work on the craft and the art of writing.

  5. 5
    Keri Ford says:

    Tell her to enter an RWA chapter contest. She’ll get all sorts of feedback and if she finals, be in front of an editor/agent.

  6. 6

    All sorts of excellent, Sarah.

    My personal feeling on ‘connections’ and ‘friends’… I don’t mind introducing friends, however, I do have to say I’m more likely to do so if it’s my idea and not theirs. 

    I’d get pretty aggravated if I was made to feel obligated to do any such thing.

  7. 7
    Julie Leto says:

    Courtney, I think there is a big difference between someone offering to help and someone demanding help.  I’m sure you’ll agree.

    I have introduced people to my editors and made recommendations to my agent, as well.  Thing is, I have to really believe in the work to do this.  This friend clearly does not.  Let’s say the accountant guy goes out on a limb and brings this manuscript to an editor he met in the break room or lobby—he’s going to look like an idiot if this book is that bad.  The friend is right not to use her contact in this case.

    Yes, networking is great…but demanding—even asking in some cases—that a friend give you a contact is totally uncool.  It’s better to just hang out with people and allow them to offer.  I’ve found that most people will offer if they think your work is worthy.

  8. 8

    Frankly, the thing that bothers me the most is that her friend told her that she’s not qualified to critique the draft.  Um, what?  That sounds incredibly snotty, and I think I’d have (hopefully politely) told that person to piss off if I’d been told that.  Especially if I’d been told that I wasn’t good enough to read her draft, but that she wants to use my connections to get it published.  Pfft.

  9. 9
    Lovecow2000 says:

    Maybe Frustrated’s friend would also benefit from reading the First Page Saturday column at Dear Author. It might help her realize that constructive criticism is critical and supportive. If she has the “balls,” then she could also offer her prose up for public comment. 

    This writer is wrong to pressure her friend to use her ‘influence’ on her behalf.  It’s okay to ask in a very open ended and respectful manner, but not to insist or nag.

    It seems to me that this individual is self-absorbed and probably requires some bluntness from you before it will get through to her your discomfort with foisting her manuscript on your prior acquaintance.  SB Sarah is right in that your NO doesn’t need justification and people who ask for it are either children or asshats.

  10. 10

    The writer friend needs to realize that knowing somebody doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get published.  She has some serious realities she needs to face if she’s going to be a write.  This isn’t a sorority, it’s a business.

  11. 11

    Wow, I clearly should not be spouting off on the subject if I can’t remember to type “writer” instead of “write.”

  12. 12
    Miri says:

    When I was going the pain/agony of finding an agent for my first book I had a friend who insisted I submit her’s along with mine! She surmised that one of us had already figured out all the details why should she have to.
    Go ahead and ask me what happened to our friendship…

  13. 13
    Alisha Rai says:

    I don’t think there is anything more eye-opening to a new author than joining a critique group. Constructive criticisms can point out huge flaws and gaps in your own writing.

    However, this advice, as well as the RWA thing, is only helpful if Frustrated’s friend actually wants to improve her writing. It seems as though she already thinks she’s written the great american novel. The rejects on American Idol don’t think they need singing lessons because they’re already SO GOOD. In the end, I think the only thing that will open her eyes is let her submit the darn work herself and get rejected a couple of times. It’s hardly Frustrated’s responsibility to guide someone else through the publishing world.

  14. 14
    Maya says:

    I’d like to give writer friend the benefit of the doubt and think she’s pushing hard for accountant guy because she doesn’t know what the correct channels are.  Maybe she and Frustrated can look up the publishing house where accountant works on the net and find out if they post submission guidelines? 

    And, in the interests of protecting Frustrated’s friendship with this or any future friends with creative aspirations – there is a difference between ‘it’s awful’ and ‘I personally think it’s awful because it’s a western/paranormal/inspirational and I’m more of a western/paranormal/inspirational reader’.  Gets the message across that you don’t like it, but put in a more neutral way.  For writer friend to have said Frustrated isn’t a competent judge hints at hurt feelings rather than true evaluation of Frustrated’s incompetence. She wouldn’t have given it to Frustrated to read if she didn’t value Frustrated’s opinion, after all.

  15. 15
    Lovecow2000 says:

    you before it will get through to her your discomfort with foisting her manuscript on your prior acquaintance.

    oops… I meant:  before your discomfort with foisting her manuscript on your prior acquaintance will get through to her.

    You’d think I was writing in Latin or something!

  16. 16

    Really, the best thing you can do is point her in the direction of Romance Writers of America (RWA) as others have commented.

    They offer a listing of agents and market updates on what publishing houses are looking for and who to submit to as part of their members only section of their website (which you can tell her would get her way farther ahead than some friend in accounting who isn’t even in the editorial department and couldn’t buy a book if he wanted to).  They also have numerous unpublished author contests that could easily get her in front of editors and agents who are often judges.  She’d also get tons of feedback from published authors on her work. 

    The reality is that nothing you say in terms of it’s good, bad, whatever are going to sink in for her at this point.  She’s going to need to learn it on her own, which is often part of the writer’s process. She’ll either develop a thick skin about rejections and comments on her work, and improve her craft, or she won’t.  Either way her career won’t fly or flounder based on you.

  17. 17
    Annmarie says:

    Good advice.  Better her than me.  I hate that sort of conflict in a friendship. *bleck*

  18. 18
    L.C.McCabe says:

    This friend is a newbie and will not get published until she understands what is expected of authors.

    Beyond writing a dazzling manuscript, she needs to know what the ropes are and how to climb them.

    She can start by reading agent and author blogs. Frustrated can send her a link to my blog to check out various links to literary blogs. I’ve been accumulating ones for awhile and I think they’re damned good.

    The first blog she should check out is J.A. Konrath’s “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” ( http://jakonrath.blogspot.com )and tell her to download his huuuge PDF file that is FREE, FREE, FREE on his blog. It has hundreds of pages of nuts and bolts information on how the publishing industry works and what is expected of authors.

    Also she should check out the Snarkives of Miss Snark’s defunct blog. Give her a bottle of gin and point her to http://misssnark.blogspot.com/ .

    She’s going to need that lovely beverage to choke down the hard cold reality that she has a lot of work before her in order to achieve publication unless she wants to pay for it herself. Should she go the self-publishing route, then she’ll have to do ALL the marketing and she needs to sell to more than her circle of friends and relatives.

    Frustrated should also suggest what she needs is critiquing from those who are qualified, starting with a critique group. Then she might consider hiring a free lance editor to word smith for S,P & G errors. It’s a tough climb for debut authors and you do not want to send out your manuscript before it is letter perfect.

    Utilizing personal contacts is important in getting someone to look at a manuscript, but they need to be in a position of authority and not just anyone working at a publishing house and you may only get one bite at the proverbial apple. Make sure it is polished properly.


    This advice comes from a writer who has been a member of the California Writers Club for over ten years and is in the process of seeking representation for a novel I’ve written and polished to a sheen.

  19. 19

    Maya wrote:

    She wouldn’t have given it to Frustrated to read if she didn’t value Frustrated’s opinion, after all.

    I’m afraid I disagree, Maya. Often people only ask you to read, listen to, taste, etc something they’ve made because they really value your opinion.  Just as often, unfortunately, they are looking for uncritical support because they are insecure about what they’ve just made. Without knowing more details about these women and their friendship, it’s really hard to say whether the friend was looking for response A or response B, but it sounds like she was looking for response B.  (Of course, I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, too, but I’m a cynic.)

    Sometimes all a person wants is for a friend to cheer them on. That’s fine, but it certainly isn’t criticism, constructive or otherwise. To be an artist of any sort, of course, you need that constructive criticism.

  20. 20
    Chicklet says:

    I’m not a writer, but I think the most elegant solution is for Frustrated to 1), explain that her friend at the publishing house is not involved in acquisitions (and therefore an inappropriate channel) and 2), recommend that her friend join the local RWA chapter. At RWA, the friend will be able to get advice about getting an agent, etc., while being exposed to the constructive criticism she needs from professionals, whom she’s more likely to believe than the “unqualified” Frustrated.

    It’s rather akin to the situation from The Real Housewives of Atlanta, where Dallas Austin had to find a way to tactfully tell Kim that her dream of being a professional singer would require a ton of commitment and work on her part. Video is here.

    (Disclaimer: I don’t watch the show, just the clips at Jezebel. I can’t bring myself to watch an entire hour of those people.)

  21. 21
    Marta Acosta says:

    Ah, friendship and writing!  I had a “friend” who told me that it was “impossible” to get published and said that she would not support my efforts to do so.

    That said, it sounds as if the friend doesn’t know how things work.  I would suggest telling the friend, “I shall write to my former boss, who is not involved in acquisitions, and ask him if there are any posted guidelines for submitting work.”  Then write a polite note to the former boss saying hello and asking for a website link or whatever without commenting on the quality of the book, or advocating for the book, or even pressuring for special favors.

    No harm in that.  Referr her to the RWA local chapters so they can give her a reality check AND support her work and give her guidance.

  22. 22
    Marta Acosta says:

    “Referr” was so NOT a typo!  It’s like refer, but even more so.

  23. 23
    StephanieL says:

    First off her friend did her no favors by praising her book to her face and then saying how awful it was behind her back.  If she is going to be a writer than she has to be able to handle criticism, which it seems she can’t since she said you were unqualified to critique her book.  It is highly unlikely that everyone is going to love it, but offering feedback on what parts work or which ones lead to the urge to stick pins in your eyes would help her develop as a writer.

  24. 24
    Leah says:

    It really only takes a few hours of dedicated web-surfing to realize that, in order to publish, you really should get an agent, and not a friend’s friend in accounting.  Maybe the two of you can do some of this searching together—it could be fun, and give you some renewed enthusiasm for your own project.

    Also, as far as critiquing your friend’s novel goes….  I hate to say it, but if it’s bad, I wouldn’t tell her.  That’s what the good people in a critique group, or DA’s 1st page, RT’s 1st 3 pgs, contests, and other groups are for.  For some reason, hearing about your ms’s weakness from relative strangers is much easier to take than hearing it from a friend, relative, or even a spouse.  The last 2 contests I entered gave me all kinds of detailed, honest comments, and I appreciated them.  Yet for some reason, when my Mom mentioned that I changed a name in between chapters,  I felt a stab to the heart.

  25. 25
    Jessa Slade says:

    Marta Acosta’s advice (ask the accountant for proper channels) is great; Frustrated can help her friend AND not get taken advantage of. I’ll file away that technique for future use.

    I’d also sixth or seventh the advice to have the friend join RWA. That’s a good place to burn off writerly enthusiasm with other people who actually care.

    *Believe 59* That’s the percentage you should believe of what your best friend tells you about your writing; find a CP or beta reader instead.

  26. 26
    J.C. Wilder says:

    This situation is a perfect example of why a writer should never ask their friends to critique their work. It will either a) cause problems if the friend is truthful about how they feel about the book or b) the friend will lie about liking the book and the author accomplishes….nothing.

    Oh, and the writer sounds like an absolute snot. Who gives someone something to read then tells them they aren’t qualified to have an opinion? That’s a slap in the face if you ask me.

  27. 27
    Lori Borrill says:

    RWA is a good suggestion.  She might also, as a holiday present, buy her friend the 2009 Writer’s Market Guide.  It gives all the instructions for where and how to sell a manuscript.

    (I would have suggested “Romance For Dummies” but a gift like that—while possibly appropriate—would probably be in bad taste, given the circumstances).

  28. 28
    amy lane says:

    Tough one—very tough.  Most of my friends self-publish because A. They are as deluded as I am, and B. None of us KNOW anybody—it’s hard to climb a cliff wall with no toeholds and no equipment.

    There are extremely painful ins and outs of having friends critique you—I’ve been lucky.  Most of my friends have been painfully honest—and extremely helpful.  But then, I wouldn’t have trusted them with my baby if I hadn’t trusted them to be both supportive and critical in the first place.  (And most of the friends that help me with my books at the moment volunteered for the job after reading my first three books.  In fact, that’s how I met a couple of my editors—I get a surprising number of e-mails from people offering to help me edit.  I love them all, but I can only accept a few:-)

    If you are looking at your friends as mirrors of your work, you need to make sure they’re flat mirros, not the funhouse variety—and if all of your flat mirrors tell you your baby needs to be re-dressed and given elocution lessons, well, you need to go back to the creative boutique.  And if your friend is giving you advice you don’t want to hear, isn’t the time honored way of dealing with that to change the subject to something different and fun for both of you?  It’s been working for me since high school.

  29. 29
    Poison Ivy says:

    Okay, I’ve played this game before and it’s a no-win situation. The best thing the person can do is tell her writer friend that she cannot allow their friendship to be tied to the success or failure of her novel. So she is recusing herself from involvement. And then she can explain that her accountant contact would not be able to help. Full stop.

    Too bad she didn’t refuse to read the novel in the first place. She ought to have seen that one coming.

  30. 30

    I figure if a friend asks me for an opinion on something, they’d better be ready to get what they ask for, whether they like it or not. Nothing irritates me more than asking someone what they think of my frist draft, and them say “It’s fine” or wonderful or whatever other nicities… The first draft is never fine, nor likely is the tenth draft. If her writer friend doesn’t get that she’s got a long a painful road ahead of her.

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