Can You Handle The Truth?


A little over a week ago I received some news that came just when my house was about to be overtaken by family for Father’s Day.  And the news wasn’t good.  In previous posts, I’ve mentioned a few times, and hopefully not so much that I’ve come across as being whiny, my concerns about this third book I’m writing. 

To back up just a moment, back in early March and on into early April, I began to work on the premise of this book.  I’d already started a third story, but after a lengthy discussion with my agent, John Talbot, I chose to begin fresh.  I did this because I shared with him what I had in mind as the topic for the fourth book.  Well, he got very excited, and his enthusiasm for its potential affected me to the point I thought, “wow, he’s really pumped up about this idea.”  So, I put aside the close to 10,000 words I’d written thus far, and I began fresh, on this new story.

I worked, worried, worked and worried some more.  This went on for weeks.  I questioned everything about the story.  I read quite a bit of it out loud.  The words that came to mind as I heard myself were “hokey, dumb, weak, and hokey,” again.  I kept on though, because in the back of my mind, I thought reading out loud always sounds bad, doesn’t it?  I’d even thought about recording it, so I could hear it like an audio book, just to be sure it was as bad as it sounded in my head.

I should have been listening to my gut instead.  Your gut ALWAYS knows.

After I got the first 100 pages down, I thought, (and at least I followed my gut here) I ought to let Caroline read this.  I need her to give me feedback before I go any further.  On Wednesday, June 12th, I sent her the 100 pages.  She wrote back almost immediately and said she was very excited to have the pages, but she was swamped.  She asked for two weeks.  That was standard for our working together, and I wrote back, “No problem, take the time you need.”

And I tried to forget about it. 

Imagine my surprise when four days later I received an email from her, and suffice it to say it was not good.  It was the harshest criticism she’s given me to date.  In some ways maybe I knew it was going to be bad, but in some ways, I think I was blinded by all the good things she’s said in the past.  She was brutal, and apologetic about being brutal.   I wrote back to her and said, “it’s okay, I’d rather know now, than to put 350-400 pages of crap on your desk.” 

I plastered on a happy face for my family and we celebrated my father (79) and my father in law (also 79), and it was good to have them there…even though I did have to slink off a couple times to have a bit of a pity party for myself.  After the crowd left, and things quieted down, I thought I’d have a meltdown moment, but…, I didn’t.  I just felt a bit numb, and sick to my stomach, and…embarrassed.

On Tuesday, I sat back down at my computer, and yet again, opened up a brand new Word doc.  And, the thing is, since Tuesday, my fingers are flying and my mind is whirring.  I’ve also backed off of any daily goal.  I decided if I have something to write, something to add to this story, then I’ll put it down and leave it at that.  It seemed like no time and I’ve got 6000 words.  The story reads like someone else wrote it – I have no idea if that’s good or bad. 

I also updated my agent about her tough critique, and he said, “Everything’s tough in this business, but Caroline has keen insight and you have rare talent, so hopefully, all this works out nicely!”  Needless to say, his generous compliment lifted my spirits.  And it also helped that exactly a week to the day of having received that harsh criticism, I was among one of the three winners of a little writing contest on another agent’s blog.  The prize?  A book by a client of the agent, called “NINE YEARS UNDER.” 

So.  Here I am, it’s Monday morning, and I am at my computer.  I am ready to write, ready to improve my story, ready to add a few more words, and all the more determined to keep at it.

My question for all of you is this…, can you handle the truth?  And when you get it, does it inspire you or does it make you question, just what in the hell am I doing?

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17 Comments

I have developed coping mechanisms. I try to insulate myself from hearing any opinion except the three or four that matter to me professionally—as you have done, it sounds like. I think at this point I’ve heard enough criticism that I understand the ebb and flow of the creative process. Some projects are just not as good as others. Some are not meant to come to fruition. That really is okay. I had a pretty major false start with my current book, but what came of it was, I hope, a stronger idea that I can shape into something worth my time.

I do wish, though, that publishing peeps would understand we writers have built-in amplifiers for criticism. I’m not sure it’s necessary to hear brutal criticism or even the full and honest truth. If you tell us it’s not a strong project and we’d be better served to start again, we’ll get that without the complete evisceration. I couldn’t work with someone who would really shred me that way, it would put me down for the count. But everyone’s different, and you’re tough. I’m glad to see it didn’t slow you down.

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    Coping mechanisms…I like that. It sounds like something I probably need to figure out for my own peace of mind if I continue to insist on making my way into publication.

    I was thinking about the why of firsts last night. I.e. the first song a musician has success with, the first movie in a series, the debut books of authors. The firsts, a good majority of the time, seem to be the most successful and well received. The follow ups just don’t have the edge for some reason. I wonder why that is? My first book was so well received by Caroline, (even the agents who didn’t take me on – i.e. a “regretful” no b/c of one reason or another) and then John T. I feel strongly that this one has to come up to par to that one…and I’ve got a LOT of work to do to make that happen.

    I hope I’m not a one book wonder. 🙂

    Thank you for your thoughts Averil…as always, very astute!

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The only thing worse than someone criticizing your efforts is someone who compliments every single thing you write. Honesty without agenda is everything.

Problem for me, when someone I respect and admire rips me a new one, I melt.
Last year on a very tragic day for my family, my writing world disintegrated. I was heap. I have tried to examine why I felt so personally eviscerated when all around me families were going through unimaginable pain. On the very day I needed to turn to writing, to make sense of the madness around me, I was told I was an amateur and unprofessional. I was beyond embarrassed and heartbroken. My thick skin shriveled. God it hurt. Even now it brings back the tears.

It took me months but I learned something from that day. Was my writing amateurish, was I unprofessional, perhaps but to trample on the effort of another is to disregard the struggle. There are better ways of carving then by the swing of an axe.

I so admire your tenacity. Sometimes I think criticism is born of inadequacy on the part of the criticizer. Fuck ‘em.

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    I believe I recall that day, Wry. And here you are, and you’ve actually stepped forward instead of backwards, matter of fact you’ve LEAPED forward. I feel your pain, I can see it peek through at times in your comments on other blogs. You’ve survived it though, so, hey, some critiques are helpful, some offer nothing but words which are hurtful and meaningless. Focus on the ones that helped, disregard the rest if you can. Oh, hm. I think that’s what you mean when you said, “fuck’em.” 🙂 xoxo

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    I remember that as well. And you’ve moved on quite well…lots to be proud of!

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      Jennine, you and Donna are two of the nicest on-line people I know. I realize that sounds funny because we really don’t know each other but thanks to both of you.

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      Isn’t that what the world of blogging is for? To find those who share a similar interest/journey and share in the triumphs and let downs. Because I know there’s not many living right around me who would “get it” like my blogging friends do.

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      Hey Wry, Jennine…back at the both of you too. And this is what it’s about, making the connections…and helping out. I know we’re having a bit of a Kumbaya (sp?) moment here, but honestly? You both have been very supportive, and I appreciate it very much.

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The thing is your biggest fan has the right to be your harshest critic because she has your interests at heart. You will come out stronger from this. You know that already

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    That is so true. I had that distinct feeling she’d anticipated much better, and was sorely disappointed. I have the urge to redeem myself…not only to prove to her, I have more stories in me, but, for my own peace of mind as well. This kind of stuff eats away at me – in a good way.

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This is such a brave and honest post. I can relate on SO many levels. I think the hardest part for me has been learning to trust my instincts. I’m more used to having someone tell me what is, how, up and/or down. I’ve yet to learn how to truly filter through all the noise. Having one person you trust is invaluable. And I know Caroline wouldn’t offer tough crit if she didn’t feel you could both handle the feedback AND surpass expectations! It’s a good thing, Ms. Donna! 🙂

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    I know you can… especially now with the extra scrutiny over your shoulder right? (R&R) What I hate is when I kinda know, sorta sense what I should do, and THEN ignore it. Hmph. I only have myself to blame really. At some point, I remember thinking I ought to start over…but I just didn’t want to…and look what happened. I had to anyway!

    Alert: in about 6-8 weeks, there will be a huge shortage of Pepto Bismol. (when I send my revision.)

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So glad you were able to overcome it and move on! I think I can handle the truth. I’ve been doing lots of soul searching and reading to change aspects of myself that aren’t right. And I asked a close friend who I knew I had tension with what she thought I needed to work on. She was very honest with me. I think the key is you have to know the right person to ask – you can’t ask just anyone.

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    I’m glad too. It doesn’t make it any easier, but, I have to, I mean what else is there to do, right?

    I admire your self exploration and your willingness to let someone tell you what they think you need to work on…that’s really putting yourself out there. Based on what you said though, it seems like you felt “safe” in allowing this person to give you that feedback. You do have to know the right people to ask such questions. Some will be gentle and honest…others will only seize on an opportunity to pay back for a wrong they believe you’ve done.

    I tiptoe through relationships…b/c I hate confrontation. I think that’s something I ought to work on…not that I want to BE confrontational, but I ought to learn to stick up for myself better when it’s required.

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      Yes, asking the right person is the key. Had to be someone trustworthy, but also someone who would tell the truth. You have to know they have your best interest at heart. And unfortunately, confrontation is a part of life and sometimes can be good. I’m reviewing a book on setting boundaries in August, which is a way of sticking up for yourself.

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      Sounds like something I ought to read, eh? I’ll wait till you critique it and then if you think it’s worth the read…let me know the title. 🙂

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