How Much Honesty Can You Take?

Yesterday agent Mandy Hubbard tweeted:

Sometimes, wish I could tell an author: You have talent. But this feels like the book before the 1 you get published. #NobodyWantstoHearThat

Well, of course you don’t want to hear that, but maybe you should. Now, if I were just dipping my toes in the querying waters for the first time, that kind of statement could be devastating. But after nearly two years of querying and three years of being critiqued, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin. I barely shrug when I get a query rejection, and even a manuscript rejection merits little more than a wince. I’ve gotten to the point where I tell myself it’s a rejection before I even open it so I don’t get my hopes up. Maybe that’s a little sad, but it’s how I cope. And on the plus side, a “yes” is then a pleasant surprise.

On the other hand, when I get actual feedback, I perk up. Those rejections give me hope that I’m getting closer, and I can see that it’s true in my own journey.

With my first serious manuscript, CAVEBOY, I had less than ten requests, and the rejections were pretty much forms, with a couple of agents who asked me to send them other work. I’ve had a lot more success with DUET. I still received some form rejections on requests, but quite a few of the rejections gave me feedback, and one was even an R&R. (For those who have been following me a while, no, I haven’t heard back on that one yet. I’m still waiting on a few submissions, actually.) No matter what DUET’s eventual fate is, I can see that I’ve improved by the number of requests and number of agents who gave me actual feedback. That’s especially encouraging when I’m almost ready to send out a new project.

I can definitely understand agents’ hesitancy to give you the level of honesty Mandy mentioned. Obviously there are crazies out there who harass agents after a rejection, but I think another reason is they have no idea where you are in the process. How do they know whether the writer is seasoned and professional enough to take that feedback and accept it for what it is–their opinion–instead of throwing their laptop across the room and vowing never to write again? Ok, that’s extreme, but some people are more sensitive than others or just haven’t developed that thick skin yet.

I’m always cognizant of that when I critique for someone new. I try not to hold back if I really think something’s an issue because I’d want them to tell me if they saw a problem in my MS. At the same time, until I’ve formed a relationship with them, I don’t know how they’ll take it. If I don’t hear back from a new CP within a day or two, I start thinking, “Was I too harsh? Do they hate me now?” But then I remind myself that they asked for my opinion and that I wouldn’t really be helping them if I held something back. And when it comes down to it, it’s still just my opinion. They might not agree with it or think it’s right for their manuscript, just as I might not agree with something an agent or CP says about my manuscript. I don’t always agree with the critiques I receive, but I still appreciate them. Even if I decide to leave something the way it is, at least I know it could be perceived that way. That’s important knowledge because we all come from different backgrounds and bring different perspectives when we read. No one comes away with the exact same reading experience. That’s the beauty of the written word.

How about you? How much honesty can you take?

Responses to “How Much Honesty Can You Take?”

  1. kiperoo

    I think you know how much honesty I can take, since I’m in exactly the same spot as you! 🙂 But I also agree that when critiquing for someone at the beginning stages of their writing career, it’s important to be honest while being perhaps more gentle than with someone who’s been at it for longer. The one thing is that I think we can always find something positive to say as well, and it’s so important to stress the positive in critique too, especially for newer writers. As for me, keep giving it to me straight! I can take it. 🙂

    • Michelle I. Mason

      “Gentle” is a good word. I’m such a picky reader, so sometimes at the beginning of a CP relationship I have to remind myself to let some things go–not anything big, like I said above, but the little things. Things that might be more a matter of taste (like our discussion of past vs. present tense). And yes, including the positive is essential. I always do that, too!

  2. munchkinwrites

    Everyone loves good responses but constructive criticism is crucial to a writer’s growth. As for me, I haven’t shared my work with many people for the purpose of getting serious feedback. I’ve stepped out of the zone and bounced a few ideas off others lately, and I actually really like it. I’ve quickly learnt to distinguish between the people who have sincere opinions, and those that want to help but don’t know much about writing. If it’s someone I know well, who I can feel giving me honest feedback, I’ll take as much as I can get!

    In all cases though, I would much rather flinch from a harsh but honest, straightforward response than a timid, politically-sensitive one. Writers can be delusionally protective about their work and sometimes a legitimate “Seriously, you took the wrong turn at Mars” is the most helpful thing you’ll ever hear. It’s always hard putting your heart down on paper and mailing it off but there’s a lot to be learned from being less sensitive. So I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said! Thanks for sharing!

    • Michelle I. Mason

      Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I’ve received critiques that made me flinch and think, “You are so off base.” But that’s just a gut reaction. Usually if I let them sit for a day or two, I’m able to get perspective. I still might not agree with everything they said, but I can pull out what I really need to address the issues. I’ve never gotten a critique that I discarded. There’s always something I can use to improve, and that’s what it’s all about. I learn from every critique I give and every critique I receive.

  3. Elizabeth Fais

    I always appreciate constructive criticism, even if I decide it’s not right for my project. Like you said, knowing something can be perceived in a way we hadn’t considered before is good to know.

  4. Akoss

    Constructive criticism is good as long as it’s totally honest. I don’t have a thick skin and I doubt I’m ever going to but I like how I always bounce back after the initial pain. I always tell myself that’s the only way to improve.
    Now I’m not sure how I would react if an agent tells me I have talent but this book just isn’t the one yet.

    • Michelle I. Mason

      As far as the “this isn’t the one” comment, the reason I said I’d want to hear it is because it would be a reason. Then at least I’d know that’s why they’re rejecting–because they don’t think it’s ready. That doesn’t mean another agent wouldn’t think it is or know how to get it there. But, if I heard that, I’d know I needed to take a closer look.

  5. Andrea

    I appreciate honest feedback on my writing. Otherwise, it seems like it’d be hard to improve it. It’s hard to hear those kinds of comments sometimes, and it might take me a little bit to get over my initial reaction, but in the end, I’d rather know if something needs more work.


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