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Context:

I have been friends with a guy for 10 years who is a writer, and he is really good with sci-fi and fantasy themes. He has written a dozen of each so far, and each of them were really good, even if they didn't sell a lot because he is a self publishing type guy and is not well versed in marketing and self promotion.

He always asks for my advice before continuing his stories, and has already stopped multiple ones, some at a really advanced stages, just because I told him it was not as good as he would like it to be, because he asked for my honest feedback. Every time I feel bad for this, but he kept telling me that perfect is better than done.

Problem:

Recently, he decided that it was time to move out of his comfort zone and has decided to write a thriller, involving murder and mystery. He is really, really invested in his story and is really sensible to any critique.

I read two thirds of his new novel so far, and the story is really good, but I find the ending to be far too predictable. I asked him to tell me the ending without announcing my guess, just to be sure I've got it right, and I got 100% of it.

My question:

I know—or strongly believe—he will abandon his story and throw it all out if I tell him his ending is really predictable and he should change it. He has spent hundreds of hours learning, reading and researching to build his story and he has written more than 600 pages so far. I don't want him to throw it all out! His story is really good, but it lacks a twist at the end. While he can let go and move on terribly easily over a story, I truly wish he would continue writing this one.

How can I make him understand it is not too late for him to change the ending, because I genuinely enjoy his story?

If it helps, I am a female, 22yo and he is a male 36yo both living in France.

EDIT

Basing my feedback on AHamilton advices, I have tried to make him understand that he gives to much hints about the end throughout the story, and that I have guessed the ending.

I kept repeating to him that it was - in my opinion - one of the best book he wrote so far (this much is true).

I also told him that I was uneasy each time he has threw his work out solely on my opinion, and that I would like him to continue writing this one. He has given me apologies (that was unnecessary, but he is a cinnamon roll) and promises me to try his best to continue his stories till the end from now on.

I felt he was not totally satisfied with this conclusion, so I stayed with him during long hours so that we revised his story and remove/modify hints and a lot of chapters. It is far better now, and I am confident the ending is now unguessable :-D

Thanks a lot for all your answers!

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    You may like to visit the Writing site too, they might be able to provide some helpful advice for this situation. – curiousdannii Feb 23 '18 at 1:57
31

One of the most important things about giving subjective feedback is to take everything about the feedback onto yourself.

His story isn't too predictable, it was too predictable 'for you'. It wasn't really good writing, you felt it was really good writing.

Because of this, when he's asking for your feedback, he values your opinion. If he didn't, he wouldn't ask for it. Instead of telling him you figured out the plot, maybe tell him that you really liked the style, as you clearly enjoy his writing, but for this genre, you really like it when there was an unexpected twist at the end that you didn't see coming. That is what brings you back to the genre time and time again, and give examples of some other writers who've done really good twists that you enjoyed.

If you like everything about his story except that bit, he's unlikely to drop it if it's something that can be fixed. If he doesn't see a way out of that, then that's his issue, not yours. Just make sure that you word your feedback as being an opinion, because the very nature of editorial feedback always is. That's the best you can do.

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    You may be right that I know a lot about his writing style, and that it makes it easier for me to guess the misdirections and mysteries he tried to mess the reader with. I think I will try your solution, and try to be as gentle and as persuasive as I can. Thanks a lot! – Sarah Coudert Feb 22 '18 at 16:24
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    I wanted to comment about the predictability being subjective but this answer is amazing and covered all bases in a vastly better way +1 – Jesse Feb 22 '18 at 22:38
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    @SarahCoudert In response to your resolving to be gentle, I would caution you to be very wary of this. I myself am a man with a fragile ego and when i get a sense that someone is trying to be gentle with me, I interpret that as they see me as a kid incapable of receiving bad news. I would rather people be blunt, and positive in their feedback. For example: "You did A and B well, and C poorly". That's not gentle, but it also doesn't crush me because it's got good in it. – Luke Griffiths Feb 23 '18 at 16:34
  • I second not being gentle, it leads to a false sense of security. Further, I would not redirect feedback to yourself. I would funnel the feedback into the story, as objectively as possible. You are not a critic, you are a reader. As a reader, you are in the best position to judge the characteristics of the story. There is a false notion in the writing community that literature is a subjective topic, which is true only when you discuss how you liked it. However, there is a difference between enjoying a story, and understanding it's brilliance. One is subjective, the other is objective. – Mr. Foots Feb 25 '18 at 19:09
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As a fiction writer and an ex-perfectionist, I have a really intimate understanding of your friend's situation. I just dug myself out of it and trust me, its a terrible combination which will lead to mediocrity. In fact, a fear of failure is quite inter-disciplinary, but I find it is especially disastrous in the arts.

Writing is hard. It is an emotional, arduous process filled with hopes and dreams. Typically, a writer will pour their entire self worth into their work, and if it fails to achieve the status or effect that was intended, then the "logical" explanation is that they are failures. Writers are paradoxically the proudest and most self-conscience people. However, this mindset is destructive and counter-creative.

Writers must be able to objectively separate their worth with their reader's perception of their work. Your friend seems to be seriously struggling with this problem. Abandoning an entire project because of a few problems! How many opportunities has he missed because of that fatalistic perspective? Writing is not a discrete event, its a continuous iterative process. It relies on months of re-writing drafts, tweaking characters, revising until your eyes bleed. Nobody ever writes a perfect novel in one draft. Not Rowling, not Tolkien, not Martin. Nor Fitzgerald, nor Orwell, nor Faulkner. The greatest writers sometimes re-write their stories 30+ times. That is how the industry works, like it or not.

If your friend can't understand that reality, then there is nothing more you can do on your end, except continue to offer constructive criticism and reinforcing the positives of his work. As long as you give criticism with the intent of helping him improve his work, then you are being a perfect reader--please don't be gentle, its horrible advice. A real publisher and editor will not be gentle. They will be blunt and heartless. You will get your printed manuscript back with entire pages circled, labelled "Yawn... useless, remove it". I took me a while to finally figure out that I am not perfect, that I make mistakes, but I can also fix them to produce a piece which is even better. A writer must be prepared for difficulty and sharp criticism. Then after digesting it, they have to buckle down and revise. This is the blight of the writer.

Now, what to do. First, if he does not already have a workshop, I would advise him to look for writers workshops near him. These are a necessary tool, and incredibly helpful for helping a writer understand the process of writing and receiving feedback. Then, I would start with the positives. Try to touch upon big literary terms such as: plot pacing, character development, tone, diction and style (does he write flowery, intricate sentences, or terse, matter-of-a-fact sentences? Compliment his style, writers like to hear that), etc. Whenever you give feedback (to anyone in any situation), the positives always offset any potential negativity from your feedback. Let's say the novel had strong pacing, a solid characters, with a rough and tumble tone to it. I would start like this (I am bolding words and phrases which are both common in writing feedback, and good ways to sound objective but still descriptive):

This was an exciting read, you yet again prove you have a strong grasp on narrative and realistic world-building. Larry, the protagonist, was really well developed. His arch was also satisfying, I could identify with him well. The dialogue also felt natural, especially Larry's femme fatale, who you did a good job making into a mysterious erotic character. In fact, reading about all the characters was a pleasure.

Find the good things first, so you can validate his skill. Then, ease into the your hesitations. Luckily there is only one major issue, the ending. One tip when giving feedback on stories is to rarely prescribe things and do not say an entire idea or character is "stupid, useless, unoriginal", leave those nouns to the busy, impersonal publishers. Be specific! Do not say:

The ending scene when Larry and the evil mastermind Harry fought in the train station and Larry accidentally shot his love was lame and such a cop out. Really what you should've done is have...

Two no-no's! No lame descriptions, and no prescriptions! Instead, focus on the real story in the novel, and describe why something was not the best it could be. Always talk in potentials. After touching upon the positives:

Okay, I did have one slight reservation, and with your creative brain, easily fixable. But, this is your story, so take everything I say with a grain of salt: Remember friend, this is your world, and your creativity, I only want to help you achieve the best version of your novel. That being said, I think your ending has room for improvement because I thought it was a tad too predictable. I like how everything culminated to that point, but maybe you should re-consider how everything goes down. For instance, it felt rushed...For instance, it wasn't as exhilarating as the rest of those exciting scenes you wrote...etc.

Those 'For instances' are where you describe what you didn't like, such as the pacing, the resolution, the character interactions, the contrived nature of the scene, etc. Then, transition to the final remarks. Here you want to re-affirm how everything else was great, and how the ending is just a tiny fraction of the greater work.

Everything else was great, just revisit the ending, and I would LOVE to work with you bouncing off ideas and whatnot because frankly, I'm attached to the characters. Also, don't forget that endings are always super hard! So don't worry!

So, now you listen to his response, he may ask many more questions--at least he should. This could go two ways. If he decides to throw his hands up and scrap the whole thing, I would suggest explaining how destructive that mindset is to his writing career. Direct him to research "revision in writing" (Robert Boswell's After the Workshop: Transitional Drafts is a great start, cannot recommend enough). Always be a token of positivity and constructive feedback, but ultimately overcoming the fear of failure is a personal problem he must deal with. If a writer can't deal with failure, then they are simply not cut out for writing. Good luck!

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    @Tinkeringbell Acknowledged, and fixed! – Mr. Foots Feb 25 '18 at 19:01
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You actually wrote everything you should tell him already :)

A simple:

Mate I really, really love your new story. The only thing it lacks, in my opinion, is a twist at the end so that the outcome is not so predictable, as I guessed it 100% right when you told me the ending. Other than that good work, and I'm really looking forward to reading the finished story!

This shows that you enjoyed it, but you still conveyed your critique. I really doubt that he would abandon this if the rest is really well written.

Additum after OP's comment: In your comment you state that he would still abandon his work if you were to say that and that he is too proud of his work to accept honest critisizm. I'm sorry to say that imho this is not a problem you should have to tackle.

As i see it you have two options then:

To tell him your honest critique, sandwiched in compliments, so its as easy for him to swallow as possible.

Or:

You just hold your critique back.

This is a (altough mild) character flaw on his side and so you are in now way responsible for him ditching his work. If you want him to write something as good as possible and want to genuinly help him with it, you definetily should tell him imho. If you really dont want to risk him ditching is work, you should keep all critique to yourself.

  • Well, I am absolutely sure that he will abandon his novel if I tell him this! I think he his too proud of his work (not in a bad way) to accept something that I, not in the writing field, guessed perfectly, knowing that the purpose of his book is to have an unpredictable ending. – Sarah Coudert Feb 22 '18 at 16:21
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    @SarahCoudert If you know going into it that he's looking for an unpredictable ending, you need to change the center of the sandwich. That is, you may want to identify why you were able to guess it. If he accidentally gave away the ending with a statement in chapter 3, then it becomes less "your story is predictable" and more "chapter 3 needs to be re-written to be less obvious". Or if it's "oh, it's the same premise as movie X, which had the same twist", then suggest he re-write to play down the parallels and play up the unique elements. (And you can point out those unique elements.) – R.M. Feb 23 '18 at 16:35
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How can I make him understand it is not too late for him to change the ending, because I genuinely enjoy his story?

Very simple. You wait for the book to be finished and then comment on how the ending doesn't have a twist. At this stage your friend would no longer have the option to abandon the book and they would be more inclined to take a look at your perspective since they're no longer actively writing it. It's also possible that your friend will decide that writing a new book is the best solution in this scenario and start from scratch with your suggestions in mind.

Either way the solution is to let your friend enjoy the writing instead of trying to barge in with your comments in the middle, given what you know about their behavior.

  • This, give the positive feedback on the things you like, hold off on criticizing the predictability of the ending. As it is finished/nearing completion, note that they may have foreshadowed a bit much and given away the ending, Offer some suggestions for modification that either remove some of the pointers, or add some misdirection. – Rozwel Feb 23 '18 at 15:50
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You should give him a fair feedback of your thoughts on his book. You did so in the past and if you now start with fake feedback just to protect him, he would get wrong expectations about his work and could decide to release a book, not up to his standards, harming his reputation as a writer. Sure, it is hard to be the person that maybe is the reason that hundreds of good pages go to the bin, but that’s a risk you should take.

Also you should consider one thing in your feedback, you have been knowing that guy for 10 years. You have read many stories of his making and I bet you know him at least good by this time, especially his way of building up stories. This gives you a huge advantage, when trying to predict the end of the story. You should take this into account when thinking about predictability of the story. You could also try to give the feedback a more positive twist. Instead of saying “the ending was predictable” try something like “I think you should change X, so the reader has a harder time predicting the ending”. So instead of a pure analysis, try to put in some advice of action, give him possible arcs to think about. So your feedback is not so much about the weak point of his story and more focused on what he could do to improve it.

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I don't see the point in not being honest, but also be a little humble about the value of your opinion. You're just one person. You aren't (presumably) a professional editor, and not every reader likes the same stuff you like.

For example, my wife buys and reads about everything Mercedes Lakey writes. That means I read them all too. Some of her works is really good, but IMHO much of it is ametuerish and sloppily written. My wife gets really mad when I say that. But these are all mass published works from a very successful published author. So one non-professional reader having a problem with a book is clearly not the kiss of death.

Plus, even if you have correctly identified a major problem with the book, there are professionals called "Editors" whose job it is to identify such things and work with the author to clean them up for publication. Leave such work to the professionals. Its not your job. As a friend, you should be more concerned about being supportive of your friend so that they can get to the point where an editor can help them.

So I'd say something like, "Its not my cup of tea, but its amazing to see you creating your dream."

  • I totally disagree. My friend does not have an editor, as said in my question, he is a self publishing man. And if he ask for my feedback, I would be a terrible friend to not give him an honest feedback and just tell him to seek professional critique... I think, with all due respect, that your answer is absolutely wrong. – Sarah Coudert Feb 26 '18 at 9:16
  • @SarahCoudert - Self publishing does change things a bit, but still only a bit. The important thing for him is going to be to get it all down first. After that, then its time for editing. – T.E.D. Feb 26 '18 at 9:31

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