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Why Do You Assume You’re the Smartest in the Room?

Ever give someone feedback–nicely said, constructively given, solicited, in the appropriate context–and someone still gets mad? Mad because they didn’t think of it themselves? Cold and resentful because they suddenly aren’t the smartest person in the room?

Ever ask for feedback and proceed to get skewered by someone who makes the critique sharp, cold, and personal?

Fortunately, my writers’ group is the absolute opposite of that. And they just gave me a huge and timely piece of advice.

That scene on page 170? Move it to page 70, girl. ‘Cuz there’s your Catalyst. 

Oh my sweet Lord, they are so right.

I am grateful. This is how it gets done. You write, they read, you listen. You ruminate. Then you move in for the kill and rip those pages. Because nothing there is sacred.

I’m not the smartest person in the room. Some of my best ideas have come from my agent and my editors and my writers’ groups.

I get it: the What Ifs that suddenly open up when someone tells you to make a change–those are scary. When someone throws you a new What If, you better be Jedi Ready–not against them, but against the beast that is your bloated, mediocre manuscript (speaking for myself here). But to get mad? When our stock and trade is brainstorming and re-visioning?

I’m not really sure how you’ll survive as an author if you have to always be the first to think of things.

On the days where I’m feeling super-sensitive, and when the writing does not flow, and my goals seem light years away, I may be tempted to argue with the critic who presents a totally different view of my work. And sometimes, yes, that critic could be self-serving, or competitive, or just plain mean–but usually, there’s a grain of truth worth diving for.

“It’s soooooo looooooong,” complained an editor once, to whom I’d agreed to pay a lot of money for feedback. From the moment I eagerly sat down with her, she seemed strangely angry. Mad, even, that she had to read the manuscript. Then she proceeded to say some mean-spirited things. She even questioned the reality I was portraying (a story about teachers, as if I’d never been one and didn’t know who they were or how they acted.) She showed no curiosity as to what I’d experienced that perhaps I needed to describe better. I finally had to ask: is there anything worth salvaging? She sighed, shrugged, and said something nonspecific.

It was a memorable and yet unmemorable critique.

What was unsaid, but clearly there in the cold, reptilian gleam in her eye, was a resentment that I and my manuscript even existed. She was an editor who didn’t take joy from editing–in and of itself, a huge problem–but I also sensed then a competition, since she too was an author, regarding Who Would Make It. Everything in her body language said, I hope it’s never you. 

Get over yourselves, Those Who Need to Win. You wear me out with your tense and stingy lips, your nervous ears. I know your bad behavior is rooted in a deep insecurity, and a desire to be perfect. I get it; I have those same dark thoughts and urges, too.

Never mind me. You can block me out, because I won’t be chilling at the feedback table with you any longer. Pretend I didn’t write, and pretend I didn’t say anything about your writing. Good luck going it alone.

Meanwhile, the truth is still there: my manuscripts tend to be way too long. After licking my wounds post various takedowns in my life, I’ve realized that I needed to be a bit smarter. Write tighter. Plot better. And vet that editor before you agree to pay her.

You have to embrace feedback, and sometimes turn the other cheek while it hurts. First and foremost, seek those who give and take feedback openly, who come with an open, joyful energy to the process. Where the attitude is flex, and the love of the work, paramount. Where there’s not power struggle or oneupmanship. Where ego is on the shelf.

The badge I seek at the end of this life is, She told a damn good story. I hope everyone is there with me at the finish line. I see us there, laughing and feasting, all very smart together, with plenty of room at the banquet table.

Three Ways to Keep At It

Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.pencil-918449_1920

  1. Find Your Passion, or Embrace the Pain. I know, sounds like a massively tall order, but you need fuel for the journey. If it’s not something you think about constantly, then I wouldn’t pursue it. Whether it’s a cool idea that keeps flooding your brain, a meltdown you’re having about politics, or a personal situation that keeps you up at night, it is the perfect source to keep you writing. Motivation. My test is this: if I can talk with friends or family about it, I can probably write about it, too. I am good at turning obsessions, anger, revenge, distress into a scene in a novel.
  2. Keep Paper Everywhere. I could also say, Keep the Phone Nearby and Use Your Notes app, but the moment I tap my phone, notifications from Facebook/Tumblr/Messages flood my view and I am off down a rabbit hole before I realize it. Blank sheets of paper have inspired me since childhood. Seeing blank space gets me jazzed to fill it. So when an idea strikes at an inconvenient time, like when I’m driving or tumbling into bed, I have the blank sheet nearby giving my brain a little jolt to Jot it down, jot it down! before I forget. Because I will. I always do!
  3. Gather Up These Notes and Head to the Computer. If I do one thing, it’s get rid of one of those notes in the pile every day. I tap in something, somewhere. It could be in one of three documents I start: the Character Profiles (a stream-of-consciousness study of each major player in my story–thank you, Elizabeth George, for that tip), the Synopsis (my outline following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat principles and beats of a story), or the Manuscript (first draft). The idea gets dumped somewhere so it’s not lost. So even if I don’t write a full scene or even a paragraph today, I have done Something. And believing you have accomplished Something lets me move forward with some confidence in unmapped territory.

This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.