Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Can You Handle the Truth?

A few years back, I had an opportunity to have a critique by a pretty experienced (and retired) editor. I was unrepresented, unsold and sure she was going to grab my manuscript and do a jig on the table whilst naming off a list of her friends in the industry she would be sending it to.

, she looked at me thoughtfully and said,
"I just don't know why anyone would care."

...there was nothing to compel her to read.

She noted the writing was nice...that the "rules" were being followed for story and character development. But it was still lacking something.

It hurt to hear but it was a pivotal moment in my writing life.

In that moment, I had a choice.

I could feel deflated and whine about what a mean critique it was and crawl under my bed and call all my writerly friends and eventually decide she didn't know what she was talking about


I could listen to that little voice inside of me that said, "she is right". I could lean forward and ask her how to fix it, I could believe that she knew faaaarrr more than I ever would about what makes a book salable.

I chose to listen. I put aside my pride and stayed up all night revising (we were at a conference and I had a follow up meeting w/ her). I tore apart the first chapter. I did exactly what she suggested, while still being true to myself as a writer.

Here is what I'm saying
: her honesty was an amazing gift.

She was not being unkind, she was trying to HELP me. It was a step I needed to take that would later prepare me for receiving edit requests from my agent and editor.

I would have missed an important lesson if I wouldn't have taken what she had to say to heart.

So...on this long and sometimes bumpy road to publication and hopeful more publication here is my question for all of us:

Can we handle the truth?


Mary Aalgaard said...

It's hard, but if we know that it comes from a caring source, we can embrace it. The trick is knowing what is truth and what is sabotage. Both happen.

Tess said...

Mary: yes, the source does make a difference to some extent but I am not sure anyone would take the time to read anothers work just to sabotage. They may be clueless (in which case we have some responsibility...we shouldn't crit or take crits from those who truly are uneducated in the process) but I would ask all of us to stop in that initial response of "you don't know what you are talking about" and, instead, ask "could there be truth here?". We need to be more interested in GETTING it right instead of BEING right. I believe you are in the first camp.

I appreciate the discussion..I am just thinking about these things this morning and feeling rambly...

Amy Saia said...

It is hard. I've had to accept critique that I didn't like, but in the end I thought about what the person said and realized they were right. I know now that every critique is good critique if we have the ability to filter the good and bad. Being objective is a must.

Tere Kirkland said...

I guess it was about five years ago that I put my first chapter of my first novel up for crit. It was super scary, and some people were less than constructive. This was one of those sites where you had to "earn" crits by critting others, and then waiting for your slot to come up. I later found the QueryTracker forum, and Absolute Write, where I think I got more objective feedback.

But I was grateful for those first few harsh (or so it seemed to me) crits, because they helped me toughen my skin. More importantly, they helped me to realize that my work will never get better without feedback.

Thanks for sharing this story, Tess.

Tess said...

Amy: being objective is the key..being open to the possibility of learning something in that moment.

Tere: oh you hit a hot spot for me...it is SO important to know the source of your crit (like Mary said). I once got a really horrible crit from someone who simply didn't know anything about Middle Grade literature. She wasn't trying to be unhelpful but she didn't have the resources to know that it wasn't SUPPOSED to be like Twilight. It was my fault, not hers and I learned to be careful about where I sought out feedback. Well said.

Corey Schwartz said...

I LOVE this post, Tess. I had a similar experience with agent, SB. he told me my picture book was well-written, but the concept wasn't "big" enough. It was probably a little less devastating (after all it was only 500 words :) But it was still a pivotal moment for me!!!

Candice said...

The truth hurts me as much as anyone I think, but in the end I value my writer friends who will give it to me straight. I know they care enough about my work to say something that will improve it. This is a great post!

Suzyhayes said...

I love the truth! I even love criticism when it's mean. I love ANYTHING that makes me look at my work and decide it can be better.... anything. I remember one time there was a great writer who read a few chapters of an earlier novel and said "I don't like one of these characters. Not one of them." I laughed and then cried and then looked at my people. Yep.... unlikeable. You need to hear the truth. And you need to remember that each person can have a different "truth"

It's hard. Bravo Tess! Great post!

Anne Gallagher said...

When I receive crits back from someone I trust and respect, the truth always wins out. If they come from someone trying to be helpful (without me asking for it) I take it with a grain of salt.

Tess said...

Corey: I don't think it is different at all...it is still our baby that we are laying on the chopping block. be it 500 words or 55,000.

Candice: you bring up an important point. People who take the time to help us DO care. It's way, way easier to say, "brilliant!" and walk away.

Suzy: ha! I love this example. I, too, have written unlikeable characters. I'm grateful for those who told me so.

Anne: yes, good point. solicited advice only.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Honesty is such a gift, even if it hurts sometimes. I would never have grown as a writer without it. The first time an agent and an editor (at two different conferences) pointed out what was lacking in my WIPs I was confused and a bit hurt, because we'd all like to be told we've written the perfect novel. But I took to heart what they said (as well as other critiques) and I am so much better a writer now.

Thanks for this honest post.

ali said...

What an excellent story. I've had similar experiences and I'm proud to say that, like you, I've picked myself up and allowed myself to accept the truth I'd been given. It's hard, but so, so worth it.

Stephanie said...

I think there is a right way and a wrong way to give the truth. I've been given writing advice in the wrong way and while I could pick out a few things that were helpful in the critique, most of it was nit picky stuff that was a matter of personal preference. For example, she criticized the last name of my character. But when I've received honest feedback from other people, sometimes it did hurt at first, but when I could sit back and look at the advice later on, it was helpful. I've gotten better at receiving such advice since then too. It stings less.

Paige said...

No. I can't.

Tess said...

Tricia: exactly! it is a gift that we need to learn to accept if we ever want a chance at our dreams...whatever our dreams may be.

Ali: all about the progress...yes!

Stephanie: absolutely true. in this case, I knew the source was an excellent one. i would be a fool not to listen.

Paige: hahahahaha...you crack me up! this'll have to change if you ever decide to write that book :)

Martin Willoughby said...

If it's the truth, yes. If it's someone venting their frustration with life at me under the tag of 'being honest', I ignore them.

Real honesty helps the writer, bad honesty helps no one.

Tracy Edward Wymer said...

Your book comes out the day after my birthday. That, I can remember. In case you're wondering, I'll be 23.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Listening to that little voice is so important, I think. As a writer, I must want the truth and then be able to handle the truth if making my work as good as it can get is the goal. Recognizing the truth, or what is right for a manuscript, can sometimes be a matter of listening to that little voice. Great post!

dellgirl said...

Great post, Tess. Thanks for sharing your experience and your ultimate thought provoking question, "Can you handle the truth?" It is hard but so worth it in the end.

I’m just coming by to say hi to you and to let you know I’m thinking of you.

Have a great weekend.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great post, Tess. You are so right...you have to be willing to listen and learn from those critiques. Sometimes it does hurt when you get those honest critiques and you have to sit back for a few weeks to let the sting go away before you move forward with revisions.

paige said...

I guess that's why I'll never have a book published. I just want people to get along, and say nice things to each other. Maybe that's just the mother in my talking.

Tess said...

Martin: as we have said and you remind so well...a trusted source that we have solicited is a key.

Tracy: really? ha! the 26th is my oldest daughters bday..she'll be 17. And, in case YOU were wondering..I had her when I was 11.

Cynthia: you know this well with your much experience...the next question is how to hone that inner voice...hmmm...that's a tougher one.

dellgirl: how are you my warm weather friend? thanks for coming by!

Sharon: it does hurt, especially at first when we feel so attached to our work. Eventually we need to learn that GETTING it right and BEING right are two diffeent things. In writing and in life...oh, here i am waxing phylosopical..sorry! I know you already get this lesson :)

Paige: ah, but this is where you misunderstand. the editor WAS saying nice things...it is so so hard to get a knowledgable and truly honest critique. it is a rare and precious gift. and, as you also know, a mom loves when she shares the hard lessons. that is how she is a good mom.

Tess said...

Sharon: oops...phylosophical not phylosopical...darned fingers!

lotusgirl said...

What a fantastic question! The truth can be very hard to take, but it's what I'm always looking for. I'm kind of a stickler for it--truth be told--in my real life as well as my writing. If a critique is not the truth, how can it help me? Truth can be told gently, and I like it when it comes that way. However, we don't always get that luxury. Better to get the hard, cold truth than a warm and fuzzy lie. I don't want to bask in ignorant incompetence. I want to be the best I can be, and that requires improvement. Along that rode may lie tears and pulling hair out and much frustration, but it's a more rewarding trip than a delusion.

Solvang Sherrie said...

Excellent post! The truth can be hard to hear, but when you're willing to listen, it can make such a huge difference.

Tess said...

lotusgirl: 'bask in ignorant incompetence'...that really gave me pause. For years I did that..maybe do from time to time now. It's a happy, easy place..but it goes nowhere.

Sherrie: yes!