Thursday, December 11, 2008

Can't Take The Heat?

How do you take your truth? Sugar-coated, sweet through and through, or like a shot of freezing water, not what you want, but getting your attention?

My beautiful daughter came home one day, her once striking blonde hair dyed black. Before I could open my mouth, she asks, "How do you like my hair? Isn't it cool?" Her smile beamed as she flipped her hair over one shoulder. Well, what could I say? Obviously, she loved it. I knew I had only a few seconds to answer, and in that time I debated between honesty or telling her what she wanted to hear.

I went with diplomacy. I said something like, "Looks good," and she said, "You don't like it, do you?" She pushed for more, right? I said, "It's not that I don't like it, it's just that I'm used to seeing you with blonde hair, yada-yada..."

She expected raves. "Everyone at work LOVED it!" she said. So I guess that meant that I didn't know what the hell I was talking about, or, maybe the people at work realized that hey, they had to work with her everyday, so they just kept it unreal. Better to hide true thoughts than upset the work place.

I suppose it's always easier to tell a person what you think they want to hear. But, on the other hand, when asked "What do you think?" I take it as a person looking for an honest opinion.

Or are they just fishing for compliments?

As a writer who thinks her work is Nobel worthy, I, too, like to hear accolades. However, over the years I've developed a thick skin. I had to because not everyone thought I deserved a Nobel. What I've learned over the years is that whenever you seek out opinions, be prepared to accept them all. ALL OF THEM.

The first time I entered a writing contest I received some "in my face" comments. At the time I was flabbergasted. Crushed. How dare that person say such a thing?

Did I want to smack that person up the side of her head? Yep. Did her comments stall my writing? Only for a day, and then I got back on my bike and decided to view it as a challenge. I worked harder. I had something to prove, not to the contest judge, but to myself.

As time went on and after several contest entries, I learned that if you want to play in the big leagues, you have no choice but to take the harsh with the good. Contests were a great lesson in developing a thick skin. They prepared me for the next step: being viewed by agents and/or editors.

I believe that to achieve greatness you have to take the bumpy path. The pain of it all. Small steps first; one toe in testing the waters. Little by little the writing improves until you hear more nice things than bad. And with every step the skin gets thicker in preparation for the day your book ends up in the hands of a reviewer.

Thick skin is a by product of honesty. Criticism can be a harsh mistress, but it's the nasty tasting medicine that makes you better. It's all part of the process. As writers, we know this.

Then why is it when asked for our opinion, we take a step back and worry about hurting feelings? Shouldn't the writer asking for the opinion expect honesty? Maybe not. Perhaps the writer just needs their ego stroked. But does that do him/her any favors? It's only human to want to be great and to think your work is the next Nobel winner. But if the story you've been requested to read barks, what favor are we doing the writer by saying, "Oh this story is fabulous! Pick out a new dress, honey, because I hear Oprah's people calling your name."

No favor at all in my opinion. Just speaking for myself, but if the story I want to submit to agents or editors has some in-your-face issues, I want to know about it. I'm not turning my work over for opinion just so my ego gets a stroke. Hell no. I can handle it.

In fact, I recently was subject to scrutiny in the form of a writing contest. One of the judges first pointed out what she loved, and then she got down to the nitty-gritty, pointing out the flaws. And she was spot-on with her observation. Valuable advice that I'll always adhere to.

That particular judge was akin to Randy Jackson of the American Idol judging panel. You know the types. They'll give you props for the good, but not hold back on telling you what needs work.

Yet, in my experience over the years, I've found many writers can't handle the truth. One writer once told me that she quit writing for ten years as a result of bad comments from a contest judge. Said judge indicated that in her opinion, the story wasn't any good. Maybe that writer would rather have a Paula Abdul on her side. You know Paula. She always slurs some sweetness, never saying anything critical because she's afraid of destroying "The Dream."

Ten years of no writing only tells me that the person wasn't serious about it in the first place. Tell me my story is bad, and I'll first ask for another opinion, and then rip it apart to make it better, not toss my entire dream out the window. Only the weak do that.

And in the writing business, weakness has no business.

Sure, criticism's effect has a lot to do with its delivery. But I'll say this, and I've given it plenty-o-thought, if someone credentialed in the business tells me my story sucks ass, I'll take it.

But I'd be kidding myself if I said harsh words don't bother me. They do, but if coming from a reliable source, I can take it. And like I said, harsh hurts and it used to really hurt, but I started getting over it when I began studying Simon Cowell closely on American Idol. His words, that is. Okay, I sort of like looking at him, and I hear his girlfriend dumped him. Hello, Simon...if you're free I got a manuscript needing some ripping apart, maybe over cocktails...?

Back to my point. American Idol's three judges' opinions differ in every degree. Each has a different way of pointing out flaws, and no one does is with as much zeal as Simon Cowell.

Simon Cowell. The man is a mega-mogul in the music industry. The credits to his resume could fill a ream of paper, maybe two. His comments are, at times, caustic. He makes artists cry. But the ones who never shed a tear, took his comments, sour as they were, and learned from them. Maybe at times he forced some to want to quit all together, and if his words had that sort of power, then maybe the artist was in the wrong business all together.

Because if you can't take the heat from someone who knows what they're talking about, it's time to re-think your profession. That's the nature of the beast - taking the bad with the good and knowing the difference. Cowell is harsh, but he also gives props where due. His sincerity is as strong as his digs.

I like that in a person. But then again, I'm a person who prefer honesty over omitting the truth. If I know my potential, I'll most likely agree. But I'll only take harsh truth from a person who has been in the business, has more knowledge and credits to back up their claims, than I do.

And I'll take any other opinion, thoughts, criticisms, etc., that are given by people whose opinions I value. I want to succeed. And I want do it with eyes wide open, taking the harsh with the good. It's a valuable part of reaching my dream, and I want to get there based on hearing the utter truth from whomever happens to view my work.

It's essential.

Thoughts? How do you take your truth?


Edie said...

My CPs and I tell each other "Have at it" or "rip it up." And we do. If I have a hole or if I need to fix something with my writing, I want to know.

However, writing is subjective, and I can tell when someone just doesn't get my voice and vice versa. In that case, it's best to smile, say thanks, and forget about it.

Amy Nathan said...

I agree with you, and I think the key is for a writer to know what he or she wants. Most of the time I want no-holds-barred honesty. Doesn't mean I want someone to be nasty. I want constructive, this is what I think and why and maybe this is how you can fix it honesty. And sometimes I want to be patted on the back. So I might say to a writer friend "Tell me I'm not crazy to do this." "Read this and just tell me if you get it, don't critique it, it's not ready for that."

As Edie said, writing is subjective. That's both good and bad because when opinions differ it can make your head spin. You also need CPs who get what you want to convey with your work...but also who can look at things from various perspectives.

I just had my query letter critiqued on Backspace dot org. THAT was both brutal and amazing. Painful and fabulous.

Kath Calarco said...

Edie, you're precisely right on the "writing is subjective" point. It's important to realize when someone doesn't "get" your voice, etc. I forgot to mention that one in my blog, lol. That falls in the "Use what you can, can what you can't" category.

I'm sure you trust your CP's to know what they're talking about. I got to get me one of those.

Kath Calarco said...

Amy, thanks for the web-site. I didn't know such a thing existed. Did you find them helpful? I guess we won't know until you query gets you in the door of a great pub, lol. If that's the case, then I guess the pain was worth it after all.

Caryn Caldwell said...

Sometimes the truth really is hard to hear, though I learned long ago not to ask for it unless I was prepared to accept that it might not be pleasant. It's not always easy, though, is it?

Kath Calarco said...

Caryn, you're right about that. The truth is never easy to hear. Like Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!" Well, not always, lol.

marciacolette said...

Whenever I handed a manuscript over to my crit partners, I went in knowing it would be a no-holds barred critique. That's what I wanted or I never would've let them touch it. If people are getting crit partners to show off their "amazing" talent, then they're in for a world of hurt. My crit partners were great writers, but that didn't mean their WIP was flawless. And while I appreciate their input, it doesn't mean I'll always use it because they're basing their crit on 30 pages when I already know what's happening in 330 pages and how their input might impact the rest of the story.

I think one of the keys to being a good crit partner is being open to the the crit.

And now that Amy mentioned it, I need to go make sure of my Backspace membership that I completely forgot that I had. ;-)

Kath Calarco said...

Marcia, great attitude regarding your psyche with crit-partners. To me, whenever a writer hands their work over for others to view, they need to realize that the feedback is opinion, and some of it may not be expected. Otherwise, it falls under the "careful what you wish for" category.

We'd all love to hear rave comments about our work, but that's not realistic, is it?

Robin said...

The truth is the only way we can get better. There's always room for improvement, right? And while, yes it's not fun hearing things you don't want to, in the long run it's those things that will bring you the most success if you listen and make decisions with an open mind. Like Edie said, writing is subjective, so take what you want, discard the rest.

I believe there's always something good to be found too, though. So when I critique, I look for the good to compliment on, as well as what can be improved upon. And I'm mindful of the writer's voice. I think my job is to help her better *her* story, not put my voice into the story.

Kath Calarco said...

I'm with you, Robin, on always complimenting the good, even if there isn't any, lol. Just make something up.

But seriously, since we usually give our work over to another writer to critique, or vice-versa, we know going in how sensitive we are. Thus, pouring on just a little sweetness is good, just not like Paula Abdul. :)

spyscribbler said...

I don't like brutal. Like that Romance Idol at RWA, where they were pretty much making fun of the entries? That doesn't do it for me. That's just not helpful to anyone, in my book, and I don't find it funny. Miss Snark is the only one who could do it right.

It has nothing to do with being "strong enough" or whatever. It's just plain rudeness and it's unnecessary. I marked all of those RWA Idol agents off my prospective list, although I was told it was funny in person. (Hear my skepticism?)

For me, I'm a teacher, so I tend towards asking myself: What does this person need to hear now? What will & can this person hear? If this person only hears one thing I say, what should it be? How many things are too much to mark, and will drown out the most important thing?

I don't know how to work any other way. :-)

Personally, I respond best to critiques with questions in them. I mean, you can just put an X through a comma, but, for example, "Why didn't she just call the police?" works a ton better than, "That's a plot hole so big you can drive a truck through it! What the hell were you thinking! Where did you learn to plot!"

But I've had some piano teachers, let me tell you. So I can work with anything.

I've spent many workshops learning how to word critiques for children. I don't think it's much different for adults, except adults are more sensitive. (Way, way, way more sensitive.)

I think of editing as a sort of teaching. Being brutally honest is just lazy teaching, unless you know the person and know they learn best that way. How you say it is as important as what you say.

spyscribbler said...

Well, geeze. I guess I have more thoughts about this than I thought I did. :-)


Kath Calarco said...

LOL, Spy. You go ahead and "go tell it on the mountain." :)

I agree with the example you gave of the plot hole comment. I'd be okay with just, "Hey, sort of a plot hole here - you may want to look at it again," rather than "what were you thinking?" That's just rude.

I was unaware of RWA's "Idol" thing, but then again, I don't belong to RWA. Sounds like they were taking the opportunity to air their hurt feelings from bad critiques past, and took it out on the contestants. (And there's only one Simon Cowell!)

I was subject to a badly worded comment once from an editor. I could almost see her shaking a bony finger in my face. Not cool and very unproductive.

P.S. But I still like Simon Cowell best. :)

Karin Tabke said...

I'll take the Simon approach over Randy or Paula any day. But that's me, and I know most people prefer the Randy approach. That said, when someone asks my opinion, I give the Randy words, the good followed by what needs work. But for myself personally, just tell me why it sucks so I can fix it.

Kath Calarco said...

Karin, long time no see!

I'm a Simonite, and if the performers don't already know what he's like then they shouldn't have auditioned in the first place.

I don't like it when people hold back for fear they're going to hurt my feelings. I feel once I ask "what do you think" I did so because I really want to know, not to get my ego stroked. (I got me to do that, lol)