I have a friend who just finished working on a sci-fi novel that he’s been talking about for years–literally, years. So I’m really proud of him. He asked me if I would read it and tell him where it needs to be polished up before he sends it out, because I’m a constant reader, and I sometimes do copy-editing stuff at work. I started reading it and…it’s terrible. Like really, really bad. The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, and characters come in and out randomly, and on top of that, the writing just isn’t great. What should I do? I feel like I’ll crush him if I tell him all this, but I wouldn’t be a very good friend if I just said “it’s awesome, I bet tons of people will buy it,” would I?
You’re right to be worried. As a writer, I promise you, our egos are like delicate night-blooming flowers made out of the thinnest tissue paper, genetically susceptible to blight and constitutionally incapable of surviving a strong wind.
Handle with care.
Beyond the “all the feelings” issue, though, there’s a very real consideration: simply telling your friend “it’s no good” won’t help him make it better. He may dig in his heels, or he may give up, and neither is a good outcome. You’re right to be proud of your friend; even if this book is awful, it’s a huge accomplishment that he actually sat down and DID it.
So start with that. Then tell him that you really like what’s shaping up here, but he might need to organize it better, now that he’s done the hard part of getting all the ideas out on paper. Make sure to call this a draft, maybe even a first draft–it’s a subtle way to reinforce the idea that it still needs work without saying anything particularly hurtful.
Feel free to point him to this handy plot organizing method, which involves first pinpointing the various plotlines, themes, characters, and locations of your novel, then splitting your novel into individual scenes, then shuffling those scenes around and/or color-coding them so you get an idea, visually, of whether things are balancing out (or whether characters just disappear suddenly). Sounds like hard work…but it’s nothing compared to the amount of work it would take to sell this book, even if it were good, so if he’s unwilling to do it, he probably shouldn’t be pinning his hopes on being a novelist, anyway.
Then hide the darkest truth in a white lie. Tell him that you’re so honored he let you read it, but that you just aren’t the right person to help him get it in ship-shape on this go-round. He can hire a professional, join a critique group, or just dive back in himself (hopefully, if he undertakes the plot organization method, he’ll quickly realize a few places that need help), but he can’t rely on you to fix things.
Then (maybe) lie again and tell him you can’t wait to see the next draft.