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I Want A Lover With An Easy Touch — Part Four of a Five Part Series: Things Writers Say That Make Me Nervous

How many times have I heard  a writer say, upon delivering his book, “Be brutally honest.” Really? Wouldn’t honest suffice? I don’t think anyone really wants brutal honesty, especially once they get it. Some editors can take out your molars and you don’t feel any pain, their “brutal” notes couched in kind and supportive suggestions. Other editors can take a single hair from your head and make you feel as if you’ve been scalped, so sharp their hatchets. Do we say be brutally honest because we suspect our reader will otherwise be too gentle or generous with us?

A publisher once said, before rejecting one of my client’s projects, “I want to be gentle with you.” Gentle? Because I can’t handle the truth (a la Jack Nicholson)? Or gentle because you’re an all loving God who would never hurt a small to mid-size animal in your kingdom.  Another editor, in a rejection letter, said, “I feel I must be brutally honest,” before telling me my client couldn’t write. Really, thanks for the heads up. I guess I’ll withdraw the submission, fire the client, hand in my agenting badge and go back to bagging at Astor Wines and Spirits where I won neatest check out station three months in a row.

Be brutally honest. Give it to us straight! We can take it! No pussyfooting, thank you. Pull the band-aid off fast. Kick out the jambs. Press down on the wound until the pain feels so fucking weird. Be brutally honest. Do we say it because we really believe we want to hear the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Do we say it as an expression of our strength? Our invincibility? Our superiority? Fragility?  Our stupidity? Or do we mean, by asking for the brutal truth, that we hope  you will fall so deeply in love with our work that the skies will open, love and money will tumble over themselves to find us, and no one anywhere will ever suffer again?

How do you like your honesty? Straight up or with a twist?

51 Responses

  1. There are so many things I want to say here, but I am 100% certain that August is going to say them better.

  2. I love the soft let down at first, and recoil in dismay from harsh honesty. Then, after much thought and some time, I find myself appreciating the honest upfront approach, and value that person’s opinion more than that of the pussyfooter.

  3. I’m thinking Mellencamp — I want a lover who won’t drive me crazy, someone to thrill me and just go away.

    Yep, that sums it right up.

  4. With a twist of trust please. Don’t feed my self delusion. Do me the favor of telling me the truth even if it’s difficult to hear. Anything else is a waste of my time. When I ask should I shelve this sucker I need to know you’re not blowing smoke if you NO.

  5. Douse my cuts with rubbing alcohol – the sting is temporary but stops an infection. Be honest – it stings but without it things tend to fester.

  6. I enjoy praise but need the criticism…especially from experienced editors, readers, agents. Anyone who can help me has my attention and my gratitude.

  7. Gin tonic, twist of lime.

  8. Great look at narcissism.

    Memphis Trace

  9. Why would anybody ever want brutal anything? I’ve had to offer my share of brutal honesty over the years as in ‘your daughter has killed herself’ or ‘I’m sorry but your son has an inoperable brain tumour’ so now in the twilight of my retirement I find that honesty is necessary but brutality is optional. Of course there’s never cause to mislead folks but what’s wrong with a little softness around the edges? Of course contrary to the general feeling in this room, writing is not actually life and death but to me the rules of decency still apply.

    I shall now sit back and wait for the sword of August to be inserted and twisted into my bleeding heart.

  10. I think that when criticism is real and valid you know it’s coming.

    But learning to deflect brutality is a very useful lesson.

  11. As someone who’s in the midst of brutality, I say, yeah, it’s overrated.

  12. At this point in my writing life I just want a yes or a no. I get enough brutality from my internal editor.

  13. To be brutally honest, this was one of my favorite posts ever.

  14. In one account of working conditions in Victorian London, a master sweep – considered among the most humane of masters – wrote that he would scrub the joints of his chimney boys with brine, then hold the joint against a fire to cause the skin to burn, scab and subsequently thicken, providing a layer of protection to the boys’ knees and elbows.

    Yeah. Like that.

  15. Honestly? If there’s something that can be fixed, I want to know it. If the piece about cobras and quasars is being rejected by someone who prefers unicorns and rainbows, I want to know that–it makes a significant difference to know when the issue isn’t with the piece, but is with the reader. If the piece where the unicorn marries the cobra and the quasar spouts rainbows is being rejected because the publishing house has laid off all its editors, leaving only overwhelmed interns who’ve been instructed to randomly select one manuscript out of every seventy-seven-hundred, well, maybe it could help to know that, too, or maybe it means it’s still too early in the morning where I’m at and I need another cup of tea.

  16. I prefer a direct but delicate honesty. “This sentence is a little trite” rather than “you can’t write, you stupid cow.”

  17. My agent is straightforward. My favorite editor adds a twist. Both ways are fine with me because I respect and like these women.

  18. I never, ever want brutal honesty about my writing. I prefer lies every time as long as they’re the ones I want to hear.

  19. I wouldn’t say that to an agent (if I had one). However, when I have someone critique my work, I ask them to tell me one positive thing about my novel and one negative thing, plus any editing they would recommend. Works for me. (Webb)

  20. With a twist, I guess. Clear. Factual. Useful. Instructive. Something that moves me forward in my writing. The twist —- word choice, tone of voice. Like this:

    My husband’s cell phone rings. He has walked across the driveway to the office where we run our business. I answer it.

    I offer the caller our office number. He takes it. He asks for my husband’s e-mail address, which I give him. And then he asks for my husband’s cell phone number.

    I pause. “You have the correct number for his cell phone.”

    The caller paused, and then he laughed. My tone of voice, the friendliness in it, the difference between instruction and insult.

    So yes, with a twist.

  21. I think anyone asking for brutal honesty is trying to say, My work is so good, you won’t be able to hurt me with criticism. So take your best shot and after you do, my self-regard will be confirmed.

    Honesty is fine, but I prefer to be manipulated. If a scene doesn’t work, steer me into a better idea. If my book won’t sell, get me excited about the next one. I’m all for making the project better; sending me into a death spiral of self-loathing is not the best way to get there.

  22. Why does honesty have to embody mean-spiritedtness? Somehow, the quest for truth gets corrupted when honesty is allowed to run a-muck into rude behavior. “This is a good first effort, but I don’t think you have found your niche, yet” is far more humane than intoning “don’t quit your day job”.

    I critique student design competitions every year and feel a responsibility to honor their respect for my experience by offering encouragement rather than soul-shriveling remarks. When I ask for “honesty” I want to know where there is room for improvement or if there is a glaring error – maybe even insight into an alternate solution. But I’m not hoping to get a blast of undiluted distain or become some object of derision. I can get that from all the rude drivers who zoom past me, confident that the speed limit is 50 mph on any side street.

  23. Straight up. I’m still working on finding an agent, so I don’t know how the process of selling a book works, beyond what I’ve read or heard, and if I want to be let down easy or hard. No, actually I do know — a respectful honesty, no bullshit. I know some rejections are better than others.

  24. Asking to be brutally honest would never pass my lips. I want my criticism honest but delivered like a sloe gin fizz–a bit of a bite at first but then smooth on the way down. Or maybe the iron hand in a velvet glove approach. But, yeah, the truly, madly, deeply falling in love thing, that’s always hoped for. That above all else. Yep.

  25. Brutal honesty is the only realistic expectation a writer ought to have about his or her work. Agents and editors shouldn’t go easy. Because I do not know a reader (the retail kind, the one who doesn’t owe any author a damn thing) who is willing to go easy on a book she has invested either money or time in. A little blunt truth never hurt anyone, and saves the world from writers who don’t have the stamina, faith, or vision to keep at it long enough to get good enough for a real, paying, reader.

    • Agree. With a twist. Don’t tell me I’m not tall enough–I can’t change that. Tell me I look terrible in blue and I’ll give my closet the once over.

  26. I think asking for brutal honesty requires context. For instance, our friends might tend to spare our feelings and not offer the whole truth. So, in asking for brutal honesty, what we really want is honesty. Personally, I want constructive criticism, so that’s what I ask for. I don’t want to feel like I’ve been eviscerated.

    Good post.

  27. About my writing? Don’t want criticism. If you like it fine. If you don’t, it’s just not for you. I like it. Just like these weird shoes I am wearing.

    About myself? “You look good for your age” is something I never want to hear again. I would prefer, “Jesus H. Christ. How fucking long has it been since I saw you? What are you now? Seventy? Eighty?”

    And a dear friend of my husband’s wants me to critique his work in progress. I told him I didn’t think I should.

  28. A member of my critique group is very perceptive in finding weaknesses, but she has a way of conveying her criticism as a negative assessment of the entire piece. Because I respect her opinions, I go home depressed thinking I have a critical scene that can’t be rescued. Then, when I rewrite, I usually discover that a tiny tweak can fix the problem she has pointed out. At that point I’m mad. Why couldn’t she have been just plain honest, forget the brutal, and I’d have had a better night’s sleep?

    • @Skipper Hammond. She had another agenda.

    • I abandoned the shark-infested waters of one critique group when I got “red lined” for the working title of my WIP, the font in which it was submitted (apparently the wrong serif style) and similar petty issues. Later, I heard someone else describe this group as a “crab pot”: all the long-time participants eagerly pulling down anyone working their way out. An interesting perspective that encouraged me to find a different group.

  29. I have heard so, so many writers say this in workshops and then leave in tears when the honest feedback they receive is not even brutal but more on the mid-level range.

    I legitimately want the honest recommendations on how to improve the piece, but god help me if it’s delivered brutally. I’ve been known to question my entire writing career based on a very-kind-while-gently-exposing-flaws critique because I assumed the reader was just working his ass off to be nice in the face of my unforgivable terribleness.

    I now assume someone who says “be brutally honest” is either completely naive, a new writer, doesn’t trust the reader(s) to be honest in the first place, or is so terrified of the impending critique that he says the first thing that pops into his head. Most of us have been there.

  30. I agree with everything above but sometimes, I do yearn for someone older and wiser and more detached from the project, someone clever and omniscient to descend godlike from the clouds and tell me exactly what the fuck I am doing wrong because clearly, I am missing something.

  31. Yes, please, give me honest. But leave the brutal at the curb.

  32. I know my readers will be honest with me, it’s why I trust them. But brutal? No, not really. Brutal does not equal constructive.

  33. I’ve always been very fond of very up-front, straight to the point type people. But I think brutal honesty need only be employed when you have to tell your best friend that her boyfriend is a no-good loser. Been there. Brutal.

  34. August? Hello?

  35. And as for these “critique groups” that sometimes lead a person to tears, what are their credentials? Maybe in the bigger picture you don’t really care what they think and you’re not really writing for them. I wonder what James Joyce would have to say after reading anything by ‘John Sandford’?

    I think he would say, “That was fun.”

  36. I think you could offer most writers constructive criticism with a dozen tequila shooters and they’d still flinch in pain. The term “brutal honesty” is generally redundant.

  37. I cannot believe so many writers you work with speak in such glutinous cliches. Seems unlikely to me.

  38. In my terribly limited experience, my friends who use the term “brutally honest” seem to enjoy being brutal more than honest.

    We humans kid ourselves, with our combustion-engine cars and clothing with zippers. At our core, we’ve not evolved past the caveman DNA. Our little brains go into fight-or-flight at the sign of any tribal rejection, as in the old days it could have meant being left behind when the clan moves camp. Therefore, a symbolic offering of group resources (such as chocolate) is the only thing to help calm the nervous system.

    • I find tribal references so comforting. It troubles me that so many people operate in a way they feel is successful, every single day, and ignore that component in themselves. I cut those tendons in that mastodon’s heel.

  39. The most brutal review is silence

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