One of the Andaman locations in my new novel.

Ross Island, India circa 1936, another setting in the new novel.

Reflections on a life among words

OUT TAKES ...bits and pieces of story, research, and process

If You Give a Friend a Sample

October 10, 2009

Tags: writing partners, writer's block, editorial feedback, showing work


Half a decade ago, when my bedtime reading was skewed to my young son’s, one of our favorite books led off with, "If you give a mouse a cookie... he will ask for a glass of milk," and followed through pages of acts and consequences to the inevitable conclusion, "if he asks for a glass of milk, he's going to want a cookie to go with it." I find myself adapting this classic as I await the reaction of a friend to a sample section of my new novel...
If you give a friend a sample
He's going to want to make changes
And if you accept his changes
It's going to change your book.
And if you change your book to suit him,
Who's to say he's right?
At the very least, you're losing time
Worrying about his opinion
When you could be writing more pages
And finding out for yourself what's right.
What you hope is that he will come back
And tell you you're brilliant!
The prose is ideal and he can't wait
To read what comes next,
And you'll be right back where you started.
Then, after he's told you what you want to hear
He'll probably give you a sample of his book.
And if a friend gives you a sample
Aren't you going to want to make changes?

The friend who’s reading my sample is gentle and fair and smart. I trust his judgment implicitly. Yet I'm at a standstill as I wait for his comments. Worse, the reason I sent it to him is that I was this close to sending it off to my editor, which would not be a good idea at this stage. I'm only twenty pages into this book, and already I need validation! If I had sense I wouldn't show it to a soul until the manuscript was complete. Why, then…?

Here’s why: I send these paltry pages off in the hope that if my reader’s verdict is, “Garbage!,” I’ll then spare myself the effort of finishing a whole manuscript destined for the trashheap. There is also the pathetic hope that my friend will say, “Wow! This is the greatest thing since The English Patient.” And, most of all, there is the hesitant hope that some single bit of insight will light up a path that could lead me at least to a complete draft with genuine possibility.

I give my friend a sample because another pair of eyes, another mind, another voice will make this process of writing less lonely. But the way I wait is humiliating. I write, here, in my journal. I linger over my email. I entertain phone calls and change my clothes. I make lists of other books, other essays. I invite distraction. I do not work on The Book.

However bad this habit, though, I'm no more likely to kick it than I am to stop biting my nails. I crave feedback. I need to know when the words are working, and when they fall flat. And I am too jazzed by the miracle of getting words onto the page to know if they ring to anyone else. That's still true, after twenty years of writing. I'm afraid it will be true forever. This is where the conceit of the soloist breaks down.

The purpose, after all, is to communicate. Whether in the first ten pages or the final three hundred, if it doesn't speak to someone else, it might as well be trashed -- or changed. And if my friend gives me a sample, I'll return the favor with pleasure.

below for more about Aimee's books & work.

Anthologies of fiction and nonfiction that Aimee has edited or contributed to.
a suspenseful novel of rescue and redemption set in Central Asia at the start of the Cold War, featuring two unforgettable heroines whose fates are irrevocably intertwined.
The unforgettable tale of star-crossed love that spans four decades and two continents.
A young photographer wrestles with her repressed past and identity as an Amerasian in New York's Chinatown. Now back in print after more than a decade, FACE is Aimee's first novel.
Work on Eating Disorders
While there are numerous memoirs available chronicling individual women’s struggles with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, this is the first book to bring together many people’s stories to create a complete and candid picture of the recovery process. Aimee Liu has skillfully brought together firsthand accounts of recovery to create a realistic roadmap for the journey. This book also includes informational sidebars, written by professionals in the field, on topics including treatment options, choosing the right therapist, the pros and cons of medication, how parents and spouses can help, and much more.
How do anorexia and bulimia impact life AFTER recovery? GAINING is one of the first books about eating disorders to connect the latest scientific insights to the personal truth of life before, during, and especially after anorexia and bulimia.
America's first memoir of anorexia, and one of the earliest books about eating disorders, originally published in 1979
Craft & Criticism
Resources and suggestions for students and fellow writers
Aimee's latest book reviews