Dear Dr. Sue,
What is a polite way to drop an advance reader? I have a friend who has read early versions of my work in the past, and sometimes been helpful. But with my last two books, she either didn't read or respond to a draft or she responded so late, with such detailed criticism that it felt, to me, like she really wanted to write her own book. (The first problem came about even though I'd told her that if she was going to read it, I would need to get her response within a month, a condition to which she agreed.)
Now that I'm working on another project, I'd be happy to just let the matter lie -- but she's asking me now when she'll see a draft. I feel like there's an unacknowledged conflict here -- I'm writing and she's not. But I am too vulnerable around my WIP to let it play out on my work. I want to keep her as a friend, but lose her from the writing process. Any ideas?
First, how much harm would it do to share your completed manuscript with her?
(Note: This is not a rhetorical, scolding question along the lines of, “So, would it kill you to show a friend your book?” You are the absolute owner of your work, with no obligation either to share it or to justify not sharing it. But since she will almost inevitably be hurt by your withdrawal, and since her comments have been helpful in the past, it might be worth considering alternatives to rejecting her “help” outright, if these will not damage your relationship with your work.)
Is it possible, for instance, to remind her of your deadlines, and to let her know that you won’t be able to use her comments after a certain date?
Are you able to skim her too-detailed comments, fishing out those that might be useful and bypassing the rest?
If the answer to either of these questions is “no”—if the psychic cost of dealing with overdue, obsessive comments is too great—then of course you can’t show her your new project. How you explain this to her depends on both the intimacy level of your current friendship and your goals for its future.
I’m guessing that if you had the kind of relationship that would allow you to say, “Listen, your responses to my last two manuscripts have been disrespectful of both my deadlines and my intentions, and I don’t want to expose myself to that again,” you wouldn’t have felt the need to write to me. So I’m going to suggest a less-open alternative that still leaves the door ajar for a deeper discussion.
Tell your friend what you told me—that you are feeling “too vulnerable” right now, and will let her know if you decide you want feedback.
What happens next depends on her. If she asks, in a genuinely concerned way, whether her previous comments were damaging or offensive, you might consider responding, “I’m very sensitive about new work, and I tend to take criticism to heart,” or “When you didn’t get back to me on time, I felt slighted,” or even, “I’d prefer to keep our friendship separate from my work—you’re too important to me to risk a misunderstanding.” If she pursues the topic, again, in a concerned, respectful way, you may wish to respond with increasing specificity, clearing the air and perhaps paving the way for another chance. (I’d refrain, however, from venturing opinions about the possible contribution of her own writing issues to the problem, unless she introduces the topic and asks for your thoughts.)
If, on the other hand, your friend responds in a way that makes you feel hounded or accused, simply decline to pursue the matter further. “I don’t want to discuss it” is a perfectly valid response to an intrusive demand. Either your friend will come to accept this boundary, or she will have shown herself to be something less than a friend.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. Her book, Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity, is now available in bookstores. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.