" I'm writing a book and I don't know if it's any good or not...would you read it and tell me what you think?"
If only I was given a pound every time I was asked this question! What the aspiring author is actually requesting is a professional critique. My refusal is always polite but firm. From a purely business point of view, why would I spend several hours reading and critiquing someone else's work, for free, when I could spend that time writing my own work for my current publishers and get paid for it? It just wouldn't be a productive or lucrative use of my time. The only exceptions would be if I knew the aspiring writer as a personal friend - then I would be very interested and excited to read their work because I would want to see how their personality carries across the page.
There are plenty of agents, publishers and editors who offer a professional critique service for budding writers. While there is usually a fee to cover their time and expertise, following through on their feedback can be the difference between rejection and publication of your MS. They know their job and what is likely to place in the market. Such services can be found in literary press and The Writer's and Artists Yearbook.
It can be difficult for new writers to get any really useful feedback in the beginning. Writer's circles and such like frequently advise their members to let as many people as possible read early drafts - this is so that you can craft as you go. The problem is that so many people are unlikely to agree on how the work can be polished. It could well be a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Family and friends are likely to be either too gushing in praise of what a wonderful writer you are, or they might be utterly dismissive of your work and ambitions. Either way, it's not that useful to you, the writer.
My personal feeling is that you should be wary of who you share your work with, particularly in its early stages. I know from personal experience that not everyone with whom I shared my work and ideas had my best interests at heart, though I felt at the time that they were being very supportive and they encouraged that belief. The wrong attitude from a 'reader' can seriously damage your creative confidence and could be enough to shoot the project down in flames completely. Sharing your work with the wrong person could prove to be disastrous.
I once was foolish enough to let someone read the first few pages of a novel I'd started, only to have him spend the next 4 hours slating it. Four hours!! I know - why the hell didn't I just get up and leave, taking my MS with me? Why did I allow myself to sit through this kind of verbal abuse? In hindsight I should have known better than to show him the draft in the first place. This is a man who's greatest and only talent is finding fault with everything and everyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. In fact, he prides himself on his nit-picking abilities and his 'suggestions' which he expects to be carried out as military commands. But because I mistakenly believed him to be a friend, I let him read my work when he asked to see it. It was a big mistake. I didn't pick up that manuscript again for years and have only recently returned to it, having ended all association with the nit-picker several years ago. I can see now what his problem was - the draft isn't half bad! In fact, it's quite good and the potential is clearly there. It must have made for very difficult reading for such a negative, ambition-less individual.
Beware those readers too, who secretly share your ambitions. Their intentions may not be a pure as you presume. I've blogged before about my piggy-backing 'friend' and it is important to reiterate that someone you trust could well be trying to stealthily set themselves up as your direct competition, in an underhand manner. This is not too detrimental if your career is already established as mine was when it happened, but if you are just starting out, be careful of who you discuss your ideas and prospective markets with, as they might start making some surreptitious submissions of their own! There are limits to friendship - career sabotage is one of them and definitely a deal breaker.
The bottom line is that any creative writing venture requires nurturing. A project needs time, space and love if it is to grow. You wouldn't leave your child or your pet with just anyone, so don't do it with your writing.
I firmly believe that an attitude of self-support and privacy is the best way to go. If you keep your work to yourself, no-one can slate it in spitefulness or steal it in jealousy. You need to nurture the project and yourself the writer. Go back to a state of childlike innocence and play 'let's pretend to be an author for the next hour'. Take the pressure off by putting the fun into your work. Make your writing your personal, private escape. It is just yours. It isn't for sharing just yet, and when you are ready to share it, choose only those people who are affiliated in some way with the publishing industry. They may not sugar-coat it, but they have no reason to sabotage you either.
BB Marie x