Turning Whine into Gold
In our ongoing look at what wisdom Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements can offer writers, we come to agreement number three.
[Click here for Agreement 1 and Agreement 2.]
Don’t Make Assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
“Communicate with others as clearly as you can”—as writers, you’d think we have this one in the bag. We are all about communication! Yet as fiction writers we do so indirectly, while balancing character development, plot advancement, setting, word craft, metaphor, and more. And that’s just the fiction, let alone the clarity of the emails you’re trying to answer and the tweets you’re trying to push out and blog posts that need tending and the gigs you’re trying to line up.
Is it any wonder we sometimes fail to contextualize our comments, or express our needs, or ask all the right questions?
Yet a career is built of relationships that require clear communication. Let me count the whines that the simple act of asking questions could resolve:
Rather than whine: My critique partner gives me all the wrong feedback.
Ask: Don’t worry about correcting my grammar, could you just give me notes on how the story is adding up in your mind?
Rather than whine: My career has stalled for eight months. I don’t know what’s going on with my submission.
Ask: Hi [agent], sorry to be out of touch so long. Could you give me an update on my submission status?
Rather than whine: I don’t understand my contract but I don’t want to look dumb.
Ask: I don’t understand this rights clause. You’re the expert—could you explain it to me before I sign?
Rather than whine: My book isn’t ready but I’m afraid to tell my editor because I might never get another contract.
Ask: I am so closed to finished and want to give you the very best possible product. Is there any wiggle room in my deadline?
Rather than whine: This is my first speaking engagement and I’m not sure what they want me to talk about.
Ask: Could you tell me more about your group and its recent talks so I can give them something they’ll really like?
Rather than whine: I need more support at home but my husband simply refuses to read my mind.
Ask: I’m writing on deadline and really feeling the pinch. Could you cover dinners this week?
Pretty sure you see where I’m going with this:
An overstressed writer can, amazingly, sometimes be a poor communicator. It happens.
But here is something else a writer always is, no matter how stressed: an inquisitive being who is not only capable of learning, she feeds on it. Honor that instinct, and ask for what you need. You might be surprised at how well it works.
What assumptions have you made in your writing life that did not necessarily serve you well?
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy, due May 2015.
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.
Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA. Although a member of The Liars Club, she swears that everything in this bio is true.
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Great post, Kathryn. I think lots of times we don't ask, because we're afraid of the answer! Less risk to whine, right? But I'm amazed - when I get the gumption to ask, the answer is never as bad as I feared!
Thanks for the reminder.
Laura, first CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR RITA WIN OMG OMG OMG!!!!
Okay, now that that's out of my system...
Maybe we fear the answers because we're fiction writers—we're too good at making the bad parts up!
Kathryn, I've had that same mantra going through my head since Saturday night. I knew if I called Laura without supervision, I'd just gush all over her. 🙂 Thankfully, Fae supervised us so we weren't such a hot mess.
I agree with what Laura said. I know I often don't speak up because I'm afraid of the answer. But what's the worst that can happen? They'll say no and you come back to try again or move on to something else.
Hi Brianna, another trick is to ask a question that isn't a yes or no—then there's no hint of "rejection" about it. Take an agent that you're contacting because of an exclusive gone long (and let's be clear: if you gave them an exclusive, they owe you an answer), or even during a conference pitch: If they say the project has merit but it isn't for them, ask if they have an idea of where to target your query more effectively. A lot of these agents know one another.
That's so true. You have to dig deeper if you don't like the first answer. Ask what you can do differently or if they can give you one suggestion of something to change in your query (although this really applies to life).
You know me, Laura. I ask. 😀
Thanks, Kathryn ... a wise shrink once said ... we might be on stage ... but life is not the choice between tomatoes and applauds. I have learned that it is better to ask straight up and get an honest straight up answer. Thanks for more of your welcomed wisdom 🙂
Good one, Florence! My favorite "shrink" quote (hello, haven't ALL artists had therapy, lol?) is: "You can't know what you know until you know it, because how could you possibly have known it before then?" I love that quote, because it reflects the twists and turns of my mind. But an easier way to say the same thing is, "Just ask."
I'm with Laura - I sometimes fear what the answer will be, too. However, I've learned well in the last couple of weeks that it indeed isn't what I feared - and even if it were, it is far better to just KNOW rather than let the assumptions lead me astray. Great reminder and examples!
Hi Janet, I prefer knowing, hands down. Because once you've identified a problem, and the way facts limit it, you can find a solution. Until then its a big ole boogie monster whose formlessness prevents wrestling it down.
Kathryn, Good stuff - and once you get in the habit of doing this you can rewire your brain ongoing with this way of communicating (let's hope!). This is a great way to flip things around and put a positive spin on the negative - and not only reap the fruits of your labor but boost up those around you too. And then it all comes back again 🙂 It helps to surround yourself with positive people to make this more effective!
Donna, I'm always asking my husband: "Can you ask that question again, using a whole new set of words? Because I have no idea what you're asking me." Hahaha!! It often works, though.
This is good for ALL relationships. Amazing how bad we are at using our words sometimes!! I definitely had to learn the last one during NaNoWriMo. I learned to ask nicely.
Good for you, Elizabeth! I'm writing on deadline right now—ms due later today—and believe me, giving your husband the stink eye when he asks what's for dinner does NOT work as well as asking him to count on making it ahead of time. 😉 Take my word for it.
Most of us are introverts and we are afraid to say a word. But, I agree, asking is better than assuming anything. I have just given myself a deadline on a novel that I am working on. Lord, pray for me! :). Great post!
We're here for you, girl. FINISH that book! (Of course I have Laura Drake behind me, saying the same chant. 🙂 )
LOL….nothing wrong with that!
I find that the "idea" of asking feels worse than the actual asking. And with email, you can rephrase it a gazillion times until you think you have it just right!
This is true.
Kathryn, this made me laugh - "And with email, you can rephrase it a gazillion times until you think you have it just right!" Rewrite a gazillion times, hit send, then promptly come up with the perfect phrasing.
Then, yes, there's that...
Yeah, Jenny, but my words aren't that polite... 😉
Nope, they surely aren't. But they're effective. 🙂
It's funny. We writers have lots of words for our books but when it comes to sticking our necks out and asking questions or voicing our opinions we are so afraid of looking stupid or being criticized. These days we have great blogs with some good answers. Of course that doesn't help much with the personal writing stuff. For those we do need to learn to ask questions and Kathryn the way you stated those example questions above are good maps for all of us to use. Thanks.
Hi Sharla, I figure it this way: I have two college degrees. I have learned what I could about the publishing industry in advance, and learned my craft. So if I don't understand it, who would? It's an opportunity for someone who knows more than you do to pass on their knowledge. 😉
It all comes down to assertiveness vs. need for approval and acceptance. Having worked in hiring and development for years, I have seen ample evidence that writers and editors tend to be unassertive and overly concerned with not hurting anyone's feelings, much to the detriment of their careers. Sometimes you have to be selfish and forceful to get what you want, because no one else seems to mind stepping on you if you don't. That is, why should you be Mr. Passive and Agreeable when others are not playing that game?
You make a good point, Eric. Part of the problem may lie in the way we look at "assertiveness" as a bad trait, like "pushy." When often, if we had asked for clear results from the start, the other party would have been more than happy to please US. (i.e., "I will grant you an exclusive for three weeks and check back with you before submitting to others." or, "Please use the attached critique guidelines so you know what I'm interested in finding out, because I'd hate for you to waste your time correcting grammar when that is not my current interest," or "Once I receive the contract, can we set up an appointment to talk over any items I might not understand?" Framed that way, you are doing the other party a favor.
Well said. Many of us wait until the frustration builds and then react emotionally, at which point we are labeled as "crybabies." As much as we would like it to be so, agents, publishers, and editors don't have all day to tease out our feelings.
In the words of the late comedian Sam Kinison: "SAY IT!"
This is great advice! Tweeted and shared.
Thanks Ella, for your continued support!
Great post, Kathryn. We all need to learn the skill of being assertive without being aggressive, a phrase I learned from a school psychologist friend. I'm sharing. 🙂
Thank you! I needed this!
Am ready for the fourth agreement, Kathryn! All three so far have been excellent. Tweeted!
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