On reading a friend’s novel

I’m reading a good friend’s novel-in-progress. She’s sent me the first part, about 100 pages, to read and give feedback on, and I’m finding it such a pleasure to do. Now, admittedly, reading and giving feedback on somebody’s novel is the kind of thing that makes me nervous. I’m not worried about not liking the book, at least in this case — I know this friend’s writing well enough to know that I’ll like it — but I do worry about getting it wrong, somehow, missing something important, or providing feedback that doesn’t make sense or isn’t helpful. Giving this kind of feedback is really kind of a test of one’s reading skills, not to mention friendship-negotiating skills — I need to make sure I’m just as clear about what I like as I am about what I think needs work.

But as I read, I feel more confident about it. I’m finding things to say — confusing spots, or places the transitions aren’t clear — but mostly I’m enjoying it and appreciating what a good novel it is. There’s a reason this author and I are good friends, after all, and it’s partly because we often like the same kinds of books, the same ideas and themes, the same kind of narrative voice. The novel is a consciousness-driven one; not much takes place, at least so far, in terms of plot, but the narrator follows the characters’ thoughts in great detail, and in the 100 pages I’ve read so far, I’ve learned a ton about the relationships amongst the characters, their ways of thinking, their worries and preoccupations.

I only know the first 100 pages, but so far the story is about a family, all the members of which are unhappy with one another for various reasons. It takes place entirely in their house and in the yard outside it. This can feel claustrophobic at times, which is very much the point — the novel seems to be about the give-and-take of family life and how people can come to feel trapped by it.

The novel is partly autobiographical, too, so I have the fun of reading it and enjoying it plus recognizing the characters and comparing them to their real-life counterparts. Mostly, though, in addition to enjoying it as a work of art, I like learning something about my friend — not the autobiographical details but the shape and meaning she’s given to them.

16 Comments

Filed under Life, Reading

16 responses to “On reading a friend’s novel

  1. Brandon

    I think it’s flattering when someone asks for feedback. I have a friend who’s getting into video game design, so he writes video game stories and asks for my opinion on them. And he always bases his characters on friends, so it’s amusing for me to pick out my role–he always makes me a philosophical assassin or sniper–as well as the roles of our buddies. Interestingly enough, I know next to nothing about video games–I don’t even own an Xbox or anything like that–and, according to him, that’s part of why he values my opinion; I can approach his stories and ideas without bias, and since I read so much, he just wants me to help him keep his stories moving forward. He says that when he makes up his ideas, he thinks to himself, “What can I do to get Brandon to want to play this video game?”

    But your friend’s book sounds interesting! And best of luck with the job interview!

  2. Good luck with your interview. I hope all goes really well.

    I like the way you describe reading your friend’s novel. It must feel wonderful to read something that is a work in progress, and which feels like it is working.

  3. Cam

    I wish you much success with the job interview, Dorothy.

    Reading a friend’s novel sounds like fun — and a lot of responsibility. Your friend must trust your judgment very much; I think it would be much harder to give a work in progress to a friend who you know will be truthful, than to have your work critiqued by strangers in a workshop setting. I recently shared a few poems with the women in my book group; I don’t know which would have been worse — getting meaningless “that’s nice” comments or the silence that followed my reading. Excruciating….

  4. Good luck with your interview Dorothy.

    It is difficult to critique the work of a friend, and likely equally difficult to receive constructive criticism. It is a sign of a solid friendship if it can be managed without hurt feelings.

  5. Good luck with your job interview–it sounds sort of brutal, but I am sure you will be great! I think it is pretty cool to see an author’s work up close right from the beginning–especially someone who is a friend and someone whose writing you respect!

  6. A long interview day ahead! I’d hate that too, but you’ll do great.

    Reading your friend’s novel in progress sounds like a wonderful experience. You are such a careful reader, and no doubt tactful in criticism, that writer would value your opinion. And how awesome to know when the book evetually makes it to publication that you assisted in it’s creation.

  7. The interview sounds dreadful, but it must be for an awfully good job so I wish you well, Dorothy.

    Sigh. I belonged to such a good writers group back in the early to mid-90s. We gave great feedback, could be brutal if need be without hurting anyone’s feelings, and truly enjoyed the whole process. Then everyone had to move off, or quit writing. Sniff. I miss those days.

  8. The academic job interview–a sanctioned and hallowed form of torture! I still burn from remembering one where I couldn’t remember who my favorite writers were.

  9. Now having a role in a video game would be quite fun, Brandon! And I can see why you’d be a good person to get feedback from — someone outside the video game world might have a good perspective on the quality of the story.

    Thanks Charlotte, and you’re right about the fun involved — it’s great to see the thing growing and taking shape.

    Thanks Cam — it does feel like a lot of responsibility, but it’s easier knowing that I always have admired this friend’s writing — if I had no clue about somebody’s work, then I’d be nervous!

    Brad — thanks, and you’re right — it IS a real sign that a friendship is strong if you can share work like that!

    Thanks for the encouragement Danielle; yes, it is fun to watch the progress of a novel.

    Stefanie, thanks for the kind words about my reading! And yes, it will be such a thrill to see it in book form.

    Susan, the job is pretty good, so it’s worth it. I just have to survive the interview, that’s all. Now that sounds like a great group — I’m not surprised you miss it.

    Lucette — those easy/difficult questions can really trip a job candidate up! I can see myself stumbling on that question too. I’ll make sure I’m prepared for it …

  10. Good luck with the job interview. I’ve always felt so flattered when friends wanted me to take a look at their novels and completely inadequate when it comes to giving advice. (However, I’m so opinionated that I’ll give it anyway.)

  11. Thanks Emily. I’m always very slow about reading the work of friends, because I want to do it well and do feel inadequate …

  12. Wow, that is so wonderful that you have the opportunity to help your friend with her manuscript. All the best in your upcoming interview!

  13. LK

    Best of luck with your interview, and in helping your friend. Sounds like you are in a good place….

  14. Thanks for the good wishes Iliana and LK!

  15. The very very best of luck with your day-long ordeal! It’ll probably pass really quickly, and it’s better to get it all done in one swoop than to have to keep going back for futher torturous rounds. I’ll have everything crossed for you.

    It sounds like you are doing a fantastic job for your friend. I think anyone who’s written anything only wants to know what it sounds like to other people. When it’s been inside your head for so long, you reach the point where you can’t hear it any more, and then you need someone else to reflect it back to you. Good luck to your friend, too, as writing a whole novel is such a marathon!

  16. Pingback: Thoughts and a meme « Of Books and Bicycles

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