NOT Surrounding Yourself with “Yes-Men”

I played high school football. At 165 pounds, I am certain I was the lightest right guard in Buffalo Public Schools football history, but I fared pretty well. My coach was a notorious tough guy – I don’t think I ever saw him smile. He used to give us half-a-cup of watered down Gatorade at halftime and that was it. He whisked you out of the game if you helped a player on the other team onto his feet. And if you didn’t perform to his expectations… I remember getting yanked around by the facemask for ending up in the wrong place on the field at the end of a play. But as intimidating as my high school football coach was, I would say that I put him into the Top 5, maybe Top 3, of people in my life from whom I learned the most. Discipline, drive, perseverance… They weren’t easy lessons, but they were game changers for me.

Nobody likes criticism. It’s just a fact of life. Nobody puts their stuff out there – no matter what that “stuff” may be – hoping that someone’s going to rip it to shreds. As an author, if it’s your desire to put your stuff out there, you’re going to get your share of criticism and you have to be ready for it. Doesn’t mean you have to like it – but it is important that you use it.

One of the common faux pas that I’ve seen literary agents recommend not to have in your book proposal to them is the self-serving, “My readers have all enjoyed my book.” I’ve never been tempted to put that in a letter, since I’ve generally given my books to people who like me and want to be nice. There’s a relationship dynamic that happens when you ask someone to read your work, and it’s not always easy to navigate. As a result, I expect that most of the people that I’ve asked to read my book and give me feedback will do so with an air of congeniality (in truth, to me the most telling feedback is (1) did they finish it? and (2) how long did it take?). Which is generally nice to hear, but it can also lure you into a false sense of security. While you need some “yes-men” to keep you pumped, it’s important to mix in some tough critics for that important dose of reality.

That being said, I think that literary agents could get great insights from the declaration, “My wife says it’s a good book.” Friends and family, or “test” readers, no. But if your wife okays your work, that should give it some extra points.

This week, I submitted my entry for the annual Buffalo News Short Story Contest. The paper provided a thought-provoking prompt and it was the author’s job to finish the story. I’ve been a winner in the News contest twice before, so I feel like I know the ropes, but once I was happy with my story I gave it to my wife to read. The next morning, she sat with me at the breakfast table and gave me her critique. I don’t want to use the phrase, “She didn’t pull any punches,” because every couple minutes she actually said, “You don’t like what I’m saying, do you?” The truth was, though, that I did. She was hammering home on emotions in the story that I’d either forced or overlooked. It was invaluable feedback and while I wanted to get a SWAT shield to deflect the assault, I was very happy with the story I ultimately ended up submitting.

Alright, it wasn’t SWAT shield bad… But like I said, nobody likes criticism. What was really funny was that my 8-year-old son decided he wanted to take a crack at the story as well, and he kept informing me that he concurred with my wife’s analysis. I will give him a lot of credit, though – he picked out a typo that we both missed – a “he” that should’ve been a “she.” I have a crack team.

When I think about how painful criticism can be, I think about high school football practice. A “yes-man” would’ve done me no good there. There aren’t too many pursuits in life where you’re going to do everything right on your first try – and fewer where you can slide by without someone critiquing your performance. It’s a benefit to have the opportunity to get that critique before putting your work on stage.

The good thing is I don’t have to ice down my joints after someone critiques my writing!

How do you respond to criticism in your field? Do you embrace it and learn from it, or try to flee?