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

If You Give a Friend a Sample

I WISH I COULD SAY MY BEHAVIOR AFTER SENDING OUT MY WRITING TODAY IS MORE MATURE OR ASSURED THAN IT WAS ON Thursday, July 25, 2002 WHEN THIS ENTRY WAS WRITTEN. ALAS, WITH SOME MORTIFICATION, I CONFESS THAT IT IS NOT.


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.
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