What Tough Love Looks Like to a Writer

So this week, this client whom I shall call Aricelli asked me to review some chapters of her book to get a sense of whether or not it was ready to send out to agents.  The answer was no, absolutely not, for about a dozen different reasons both big and small, which I painstakingly explained. She was furious at me. She called me names and hurled accusations at me and refused to pay me for my time. This is the second time such a thing has happened to me (which is actually a pretty good record, all in all), so I could see it coming like thunderheads rolling into the valley, but I was powerless to stop it.

It was as horrible as it probably sounds. My heart was pounding. My stomach hurt. I had all those, “OMG I AM a total fraud, I AM mean and judgmental, I AM a bad person!” thoughts, and my sweet husband had to talk me down from the ledge. It was not a happy experience, but now that a few days have passed, I can see that it was oddly galvanizing. It made me even more certain that the work I do is good and necessary, and, more importantly, that it is not my job to convince the people who don’t believe it.

I wanted to share with you why I believe this to be true – because I actually think it might be useful to you as you journey down your own book-writing path.

It’s pretty easy to find people who will tell you that your writing is awesome. Ask your mom, for example, or your neighbor who always wished she had the patience to write a book, or your book group who have made a vow to each other to be supportive and nice. I have a few friends to whom I often give very fragile, early-stage work, and this is what I say when I make the request: “Just tell me that it’s okay. That’s the only thing I want to hear.” They always comply, and I love them for it. Every writer needs a chorus of loyal cheerleaders.

There is a certain stage, however, at which nice is utterly useless, and that is when the writer is committed to writing something that strangers might want to read. That stage might not come for some writers until they are finished with their fourth revision. It might come for other writers before they write word one. It depends on the writer, the project, the goal and the way the planets are aligned. But when you reach that point, what you need is the opposite of nice. You need someone you trust who is willing to tell the truth. 

Why? Because while it is gut wrenching to be told that you have to throw out 100 pages or to start all over or that you’re not ready or to dig deeper, it’s worse by a factor of about 100 to come out with a book that no one pays any attention to. I know. It’s happened to me.

And I have watched writer and after writer struggle with their weaknesses as they wrestle their book to the ground and emerge, victorious, an author. The struggle is not a bad thing. In fact, the struggle is the MAIN thing. The struggle is the work. As a book coach, I get down there in that struggle with you. It’s what any good agent or editor or guide should do. I feel it as deeply as you feel it, I agonize over it, I hold my breath until you figure out your way through it. I don’t relish being “mean.” I just know that tough love is often what is needed.

People pay me to tell the truth as I see it based on 25 years working in the field of writing and publishing. I try to do my work with compassion, integrity and honesty — because what good would it be for me to lie? It doesn’t serve the writer, the story, or my business. I haven’t crunched the numbers about referrals, but suffice it to say that I have never advertised. I live and die based solely on people’s recommendations – people who asked me to tell the truth, listened when I told it, struggled with what it meant, committed to addressing it and felt that glorious joy of writing the best book they could write. I want my writers to succeed more than anything in the world, but if I don’t think that your sentence was incoherent, your page was a hot mess, your chapter was bloated, and your book was flat and boring, I need you to believe me, just as I need you to believe me if I tell you that your sentence or your page or your chapter or your book is inspiring and riveting and illuminating.

You can disagree – absolutely. And perhaps by disagreeing you will come to hear what you think about your own work in a way that is strong and clear and can be the North Star for you as you continue to write. That would be awesome. I would love that. And when you tell me, “I told you so, “ I will nod and say, “YEAH you did!!”

The lesson here is to ask for what you want. If you want someone to be nice to you about your writing, ask for that. If you want some tough love, ask for that. But know what you are asking for, and why.

In a lovely little book-end to the week, I worked with another client this morning, whom I shall call Penelope. She asked for the exact same thing as Aricelli. I happen to know that she has been working on this project for a very long time. Years, in fact. And my analysis was that she still had some big work to do. She still wasn’t there yet. Her story was shimmering just below the surface of her words, waiting to come to life.

THIS client was gracious and lovely and open to my critique. She herself uttered the words, “So it looks like a Page 1 Rewrite?” I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me, not because she had written her own prescription, although that was cool, but because she GOT IT. And she WANTED it. I could hear it in her voice.

She may have another six months of work to do. She may have another year. But I’d put money on the fact that she’ll get to where she wants to go with her book, based solely on her response to this jolt of tough love.

Writing is such hard work. What’s hard is not typing words, sitting in a chair 8 hours at a stretch (okay, maybe that IS hard), or going to Staples to buy more paper for the printer. What’s hard is baring your soul. And inviting people to peer at it. And inviting them to poke it with a stick.

So next time you ask someone to tell it like it is about your work, put down the shield. Take a deep breath. And welcome the attack.

It will make you a better writer.

I Think in Books

I just bought The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, mostly because I’m tired of hearing everyone talking about it and having no clue what they are saying, but also because my next novel (which at this point is a plastic bin full of newspaper clippings and Post-It notes) is going to be about a stolen work of art, and I’m eager to see what Tartt does with it in her book. I have a long plane ride coming up and I’d hauling this massive hardback book with me. People with their ipads and Kindles can laugh all they want, but I’ll be able to read during take off and landing, so I think I win.