• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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How Many Seas Must a White Dove Sail

“Do you want me to tell you what you want to hear, or do you want to know what I really think?” This is probably the most effective agent line I use with writers who have gone off the rails. A couple of years ago, I gave my agent 75 pages I was quite proud of. I thought it has some of my best writing. (Of course, the moment you think that,  you’re fucked.)

He read them and told me, diplomatically, that it  wasn’t working. In fact, he found the main character totally off-putting. And he was able to put his finger on the fact that I was only partially telling the story; what was I side-stepping, or hiding? Decidedly not what I wanted to hear. ANd I shelved it for the time being.

It’s so freakin’ complicated. WHen do you stick to your guns and when do you capitulate? How many rejections are enough? Why is that bitch in  your writing workshop always getting under your skin with her seemingly off-hand remarks? Who fucking cares what anyone else thinks or says. What kind of a reader is she anyway with that boiled wool skirt and tortoise shell barrette?

So, do you want me to tell you what you want to hear, or do you want to know what I think?

45 Responses

  1. i have a feeling anything you write will be spectacular. you write from your heart. that’s what readers want. well, that’s what i want.

  2. I’d like to know how to discern the real “be honest”s from the lies. Or maybe it’s obvious to everyone else, and the boiled wool skirt is cutting off the blood to my brain.

  3. I’d rather have the arrow in the gut right away, thanks. As much as it hurts, at least it’ll be over and we can all get moving. On.

  4. I can’t imagine you side-stepping in your writing. Ever.

    But Jesus, apparently, you’ve been looking over my shoulders for the past few years. I LOVE my off-putting main character! Give us both a break, already.

  5. I want to know what you think.

  6. i want you to tell me what i want to hear when i ask if i look fat in these jeans or if my hair color fits my age or if i’m a good mom.

    i want to know what you think should i ever grow a pair and send you a query.

  7. You are so down-to-earth that I would like to hear what you thought. What I want to hear won’t sell books. If I want to have an agent, I need to give what they say credence, or why work with an agent?


  8. I want to know what you think. How else am I going to understand what the work needs to make sense to the reader. I may not want to hear it, but the truth is a powerful and necessary force in this racket, and no one makes any real progress without it.

  9. “WHen do you stick to your guns and when do you capitulate?”

    The answer to this is always situation-specific.

    “How many rejections are enough?”

    a) The answer to this is always situation-specific, or
    b) I can’t count that high.

    “Why is that bitch in your writing workshop always getting under your skin with her seemingly off-hand remarks?”

    Because she knows she can. Smack her one, set her straight.

    “Who fucking cares what anyone else thinks or says.”

    Possibly almost all persons, including the great majority of sociopaths and psychopaths.

    “What kind of a reader is she anyway with that boiled wool skirt and tortoise shell barrette?”

    Insufficient information and irrelevant facts presented in query.

    “So, do you want me to tell you what you want to hear, or do you want to know what I think?”

    What I want to hear is what you think.

  10. I don’t know. What do you think? I get sick waiting for the truth, but I always get over it. I think I wrote a huge blog about this about a year ago, how it mattered what was in my head, not someone else’s. If I like it, I usually can’t be talked out of it. Actually, if I like it I can’t believe you don’t. You’re probably just kidding with me.

  11. No doubt about it … (as i breath in preparing myself for the honesty I asked for and … deserve) … I want to know what my editor thinks! Funny though, my “big” project of a “lifetime”, I feel is NOT my best and I’m waiting to be drilled (constructively) by my editor … is that my insecurity or?? Overall, “tell-it-like-it-is” honesty is refreshing, with no guessing games.

  12. When I say, “I want you to tell me what you really think,” I want you to tell me what I want to hear.

    I always want to hear what I want to hear. That’s the definition.

    It *is* freakin’ complicated. Some agents are good readers, some are not. Some are good for one writer and not another. Some are good for one project and not another. How do you trust a person who tells you that something isn’t working when you feel it is? *Why* do you trust them? Because they were right on a previous project? Because you’re intimidated? Because you’re scared you’ll never get another agent? Because you’re trying to prove that you’re a good client, a well-behaved writer who deserves success?

    I always capitulate, but only after I’ve internalized the critique, and convince myself it was my idea in the first place.

  13. I want the truth. Always. It’s up to me what I take or leave.

  14. If you think it’s great, I want to know that and I want you to be harsh.

    If you think it’s awful, I want you to gently tell me something that makes me not want to jump out of the window. And then recommend some books to get my mind off of it. I’m a firm believer in book prescriptions.

  15. I was working on a YA novel and just got stopped dead. I wasn’t sure what was going on until someone in my critique group suggested that I was protecting my character too much, and not allowing her to get hurt. I realized that, especially in children’s literature, you have to allow your protagonist to suffer, and to find his/her way out of difficult situations. That being said, I’ve yet to finish that novel… maybe someday I’ll let Stella grow up. Maybe.

  16. It’s easier to tell people what they want to hear. Telling the truth is exhausting and thankless because it’s human nature not to want to hear the truth. It’s our inclination to discredit the teller (she wouldn’t know a good story if it crawled up her ass) or shit all over the teller (I hate your work too) or delete the teller (I need a reader who gets what I’m trying to do)…I may not want the truth but experience has taught me I need it…I usually over-react. You’re so right, I do suck. I go home and tell my husband, my most affirming friends, my mother-in-law (who thinks I’m brilliant as opposed to my mother who thinks I’m retarded) that this writer friend said my antagonist was one-dimensional, so they can assure me that he or she is simply envious of my apparent and abundant talent. But it’s the truth that makes you a better writer…thoughtfully arrived at truth, legit crit, the comments that sting the most and linger the longest – quite often one or two sentences buried in reams of flattery – those are the ones that advance your work or point you in the direction of the story you were meant to tell…

  17. I want to hear what everybody really thinks, but I only listen hard when I think you’re smarter than me. But then if you say something that burns my eyebrows off, I will console myself with the idea that you are not as smart as I thought you were after all. So in the end, I don’t know if I can hear it even though I really do want you to say it. WTF am I saying??!! (The ridiculous contortions I perform to improve but maintain my jigger of dignity.)

  18. Usually I’m convinced, unless you’re that bitch in the boiled wool skirt, you have your doubts lined up like ducks somewhere deep inside.

  19. I’ve got broccoli florets in my teeth; my fly’s down; I’m ogling my ex-boyfriend and flirting like I want to get back together– the pathological liar one, who said he was terminally ill for awhile, though he clearly wasn’t; I’m wearing jeans I should have given to my 17 year-old cousin about three years ago and that wine I just brought over is not fruity, nor does it have flowers on the nose and a punch of vanilla on the finish; it tastes like goddamn sugar water. Are these things I want you to tell you me? Hell no. Am I glad you did? God yes. Eventually.

  20. I always want to know what people think, but I hate being in the fetal position for hours, or days, until I can figure out what their hating it means to my work. The hardest part for me is separating what actually needs fixing from the part that isn’t broken, that someone just doesn’t like.

    The why is more important to me than the fact that they don’t like it.

  21. There is a wonderful pleasure in quitting. If you say the words enough times, it acts as a sort of magic spell, and not only have you quit, but you’ve also quit caring.

    I say, let’s have a round of applause for the quitters. If nobody quit, no one could be the last one standing, wondering if, in the end, it was all worth it.

    Remember, the “winner” of the auction almost certainly overpaid.

  22. This is what I say to people when they ask for my opinion. Don’t ask for my opinion unless you really want it. I lost a good friend once because she asked for my opinion but actually didn’t really want it. She wanted me to confirm that what she was doing was right. I didn’t think it was and I said so. Big mistake.

  23. I want to hear praise, praise, praise!

  24. Go wherever you want. Just don’t lie. That wouldn’t be good for either of us.

  25. I want to know what you really think. But you can sugarcoat it a little.

  26. Keep going because I want to read the spectacular novel/screenplay that you are assuredly going to arrive at one day. I can feel it in my water! 😉

    (And I always want to hear what you have to say…about just anything).

  27. It isn’t enough to tell a writer what you think; you must also tell the writer why you think it. As an (agent, critic, editor) you may need to struggle just as hard to get the writer to see why you’re responding to the writing as you are as the writer had to struggle to write it. This isn’t necessarily easy. We can’t tell writers “be specific,” then respond to their writing with criticism that is honest, but vague.

  28. I want you to tell me that this is the best thing you’ve ever read and you now think I’m a god among women. However you can tell me the truth, I can take it. Eventually.

  29. Usually, I can live with fuck-buddy status. All business, no lies. But today I want you to hold me and tell me you love me.

  30. Truth is like the chocolate icing on the cake that was accidentally sweetened with salt instead of sugar.

  31. Honest opinion is what is expected. Give it to me straight. If it doesn’t work, say so. If it needs tweeks, tell me where. Give me guidance on if it has a heartbeat–strong, weak,needs immediate CPI or is flat-out DOA. No point in kidding ourselves.

  32. If someone is asking for a professional opinion, is it realistic to believe that they are really asking for verbal abuse? The whole brutally honest approach seems to be a power play, an adult version of bullying, an excuse for poor behavior I can’t accept as the only way to help someone improve their work. I’m partial to the “One Minute Manager” method: a dose of constructive criticism with a dose of encouragement.

    I evaluate workmanship almost every day and (barring incidents when the workers are doing something grossly negligent) find I get better end results when my comments include a compliment.

    Also, that boiled wool skirt better have a nice lining! Otherwise, Missy’s prickly attitude is a probably an emotional manifestation from sitting on that scratchy fabric. Or is the barrette pinned too tight against her scalp?

  33. This one makes me vaguely faint and a bit sweaty. I have no idea what any of this this feels like. I just sent something I wrote to an editor who asked to see it. Virginity has been lost and I’ve no idea how I’ll react to her review. If it’s anything like my other first time I’ll roll my eyes and wonder if that’s all there is. Whatever she says I’ll bend over and take it.

  34. I’ve come to see writing in terms of craftsmanship rather than art. This helps me visualize the process as something down-to-earth and collaborative and slightly less overwrought than those purpley moments when I believed you couldn’t like me if you didn’t like my work.

    So yes, I want to know what you think. But if you want to help me, try to instill some confidence in my ability to overcome whatever it is that’s getting in my way. Otherwise it’s just you making me feel small. And I can get that anywhere.

  35. The truth, naturally.

    It’s professional advice and it should be responded to in a professional fashion. By that I mean a writer should not be “crushed” or “devastated” if they aren’t hailed in a manner comensurate with their self-opinion.

    I think writers get nervous, or display some of the anxieties discussed above, because they put something down, clean it up and say “done.” When it probably isn’t. Not if you want to be in the book business, which is what people go to an agent for right? To get in the book business.

    I’m pretty sure most novelists are never completely done. They siimply reach a point where they open their manuscript and say, “I know there are things wrong with this, but I’m ready to move on.”

    Embrace that reality. Your word is not manna, although you may have waited for it to come from on-high as such. It’s a literary proposition that naturally invites comment, criticism, or advice.

  36. Hmmm, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I’d like to hear what you really think but on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays and oh yes, most days I want to you to tell me what I want to hear.

  37. The answer my friend,
    yeh, sing it with me now….
    is whatever blows your boiled wool skirt up.

  38. Tell me what you think, with a sugared rim. Plop gummibears and pears inside that truth. Be the dentist that just pulled out my snaggletoof, and gave me a sugar-free lollipop and a pat on the shoulder. Tell me enough of what’s working to offset what’s not. Give me examples, tell me stories, love me still.

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