There's only one thing authors want to hear when they send their manuscripts to their agents or editors: "Oh my God, this is brilliant. The best thing I've ever read. Here's a million dollars—no, wait, let's make it 10 million.
But what if you can't in all honesty say that? What if you think part of the book, or—yikes!—all of it, sucks? Well, you can't say that, either. The only reasonable alternative: resort to accepted shorthand for author-reader communications.
Let's say, for instance, that you're an agent, editor, bookseller or friend who's on the receiving end of a miserable manuscript. After several days—all right, weeks—of silence from you, the author finally asks how you like the book. The classic answer, said to be delivered by Sonny Mehta to Peter Mayle on the first draft of A Year in Provence: "There's nothing wrong with it that can't be fixed."
Some other alternatives that may get you off the hook:
The Truth I know I saw the envelope around here somewhere.
Instead I've only just dipped into it.
Truth The first page stopped me dead.
Instead I can't wait to really dive in.
Truth Managed to make it halfway through.
Instead Reading and loving it!
Truth Finished, but can't figure out how to tell you the bad news.
Instead I was about to send you an e-mail.
Of course, if your job is to help the author make it readable, you're obligated to be more specific, more direct and more constructive, so as not to send the author off to hurl herself from the nearest bridge.
The Truth I'm going to have to go at this with a chainsaw.
What to Say Instead This will be terrific with some tightening.
Truth Where's the number for that that ghost writer?
Instead This will be terrific with a good line edit.
Truth The main character is awful.
Instead Love the story!
Truth There's no story.
Instead Love the characters!
Truth I hate the story and the characters.
Instead I know you can make this a better book.
The really tough situation is when the book is in galleys or already published, and there's no possibility of tweaking or even an inspiring heart-to-heart over a bottle of pinot noir. Then, the thoughtful colleague or friend must find something good to say, no matter how awful the truth.
The Truth I'll never be able to get past the first 10 pages.
What to Say Instead I'm saving it for my next vacation.
Truth I'll never be able to finish it.
Instead I'm halfway through!
Instead It was so well-written.
Truth I hated it.
Instead I liked it.
Truth I really hated it.
Instead I really, really liked it.
Truth I actually got through it.
Instead I loved it.
Truth I can't possibly be the only one who thinks this is so bad.
Instead How have the reviews been?
Truth Please don't write another book.
Instead You deserve a long break.
Pamela Redmond Satran's new novel, Younger, will be published by Downtown Press in July. Everyone really, really loves it. Really.