Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Dragon Slayer Checks Self for Scales
"Don't give a woman advice; one should never give a woman anything she can't wear in the evening." Oscar Wilde
A friend of a friend, KR, is a writer. On hearing that I was going to published, KR asked if she might talk to me about what steps she could take to arrive in the same happy predicament. I spoke to her by phone, talking about the ways she might procede to get her manuscript in front of industry professionals, namely agents and editors.
As we talked, it seemed to me that she also wanted some feedback on her work from another writer. Since once upon a time, I was desperate for that same thing, I did what I told myself I would not. I offered to read her first chapter. Gads.
Critiques are the trickiest bits of business. My intentions are good, but I can be blunt, which leaves me in great fear of becoming like the anti-role model, Tough Cookie. Tough Cookie is a best-selling author who during a writing workshop gleefully warned us that even her NYT bestselling critique partner has to drink alcohol before reading a TC critique of her work. When we pressed on, asking her if she would critique our work, she seemed to morph into Jack Nicholson in that famous scene from A Few Good Men when he's told that the lawyer wants the truth and he snaps, "You can't handle the truth." Proceed at your own risk was the definite message from TC. She claimed with a trace of malevolent pride that her critiques had made some unpublished writers quit writing altogether.
Stop me writing? You and what army, I thought defiantly. I've been trying to quit for years and can't. Underneath my bravado though there was some uncertainty. There are many ways a critique can wound. She couldn't stop me writing, but she might make me question my ability to do it. What if she tore my work to pieces and undermined my confidence? Dangerous proposition to slip her my story I thought, reflecting that the old line that the pen is mightier than the sword was surely written in anticipation of the poison ink from women just such as TC.
To hell with fear, I thought. I gave her my pages. It turned out that there was nothing soul-shattering in her comments. I took what I thought would make the work better and discarded the rest. With Goliath successfully slain, I still walked away with the sobering reminder that in this business, it helps to have a bullet-proof ego.
I read KR's pages and liked them, but I was not without suggestions. Having been to countless lectures on the craft and the business of writing, I told her all the things I wished people had told me early on. And as soon as I e-mailed the document, I regretted it. What if I hurt her feelings? What if she felt that rather than trying to be helpful, I was trying to be condescending? What if I came across like a watered-down but still malignant version of TC? Perish the thought.
I went to sleep at 1 am and woke at 5 am, a sure sign that the stress levels in my subconscious are too high. My first thought upon waking was that I hope my advice helps rather than hurts KR. My other thought was that while it takes courage to ask for an honest critique, it sometimes takes just as much courage to give one.