Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 18, 2019

The Most Difficult Conversation for Writers

by John Peragine

Photo credit: Fauxels at Pexels

As authors, we become, over time and reputation, an ambassador of the written word. It is a place of honor, but not one we always ask for or seek.

To readers and new writers, we appear to have these mystical powers. We are these wise sages that can move words around into a magical combination with seemingly little effort. As masters of our craft, we are sought for our wisdom and help, and here is where the carefully built castle of cards falls down.

How do we give our honest assessment in a way that will help and inspire if what we read is not inspiring? In fact, it could be considered bad.

Different Responses

As a new writer, when I met editors, agents, and the like, I thought they were standoffish, guarded, and unsociable. In a couple of cases, they were downright aggressive and rude. But as they became friends, I realized it was merely my perception. They are pleasant human beings and very sociable once they determined one crucial thing: I was not going to ask them to read anything or to represent me.

Agents receive hundreds and even thousands of queries a month from writers asking them to read their novel. It is overwhelming, and so they make it a point to keep people at arm’s length. It is a pure survival reflex.

Other industry experts decide to monetize what they know. They do workshops, get paid to speak at conferences, and offer coaching packages. For the right price, you too can learn from a master. Again, this is a fair way to handle people’s need for assistance. Most legitimate coaches have spent years and perhaps thousands of dollars to hone and master their craft. They should be paid for that time and experience.

These coaches might answer a simple question or two, but then suggest you sign up for their next seminar. They’re not willing to give all their trade secrets away for free. For newer authors this can be frustrating, especially if they don’t have the funds to pay for the help.

I fall somewhere in the middle.

A client of mine helped me shift my way of thinking about my writing knowledge. As a finance and investment professional, he often conducted free seminars or would talk to you about anything he could help with.

When I asked why he did that, he responded, “I give away my knowledge. That costs me nothing, as it is already all out in the world anyway. I charge for what I do. If I am working, I am being paid for it.”

What an excellent concept. I do get paid to do some classes at conferences. But I tell people all the time that if they have a question or need to bounce off some ideas, they can contact me. I will even read something if it is short.

Here is what I have learned:

I can tell someone how to write all day long, but that does not mean that they don’t need help. They may still hire me as a ghostwriter or a coach. Why? Because I have already demonstrated my depth of knowledge, my generosity and, most importantly, my value.

Photo credit: Helena Lopes at Pexels

The Contract

Wouldn’t life be so much easier if everyone had skills in what they were passionate about? It's such a thin, delicate line between impossible and improbable. I am not the judge of a person’s ability to write or not. I genuinely believe no one has that power or right to make that determination.

I spent 10 years studying music, and the last five I was in a music conservatory. When I was about to graduate, the man I had seen every day, whom I respected, loved and worked my ass off for, broke my heart. He said, “John, you are a good flute player, but you are not a great one. You will never play professionally, so you might want to find a different line of work.”

I was devastated. Then I was angry. And finally, I was motivated. Within two years, before I had even graduated from college, I auditioned and made it into a symphony orchestra.

I got into my car and drove two hours back to my old school. I found my old instructor teaching a master class and interrupted. After I shook his hand, I showed him my contract. I said for his ear only, “Thank you for not believing in me; it forced me to believe in myself.” I walked out and we never spoke again.

The Talk I Dread

We know as authors that words have power and that we must choose them wisely.

If you are a writer for long enough, you will have at least one (but probably many) persons send you their manuscript and ask what you think. You will read the first page and shake your head a little and turn to the next page. Now your heart is racing, and you’re sweating as you turn to the next page, and you stop. You can’t go on and you are having a panic attack because you will have to say something to the author.

Often that early writing is terrible, and you are not sure of a fix because they don’t really have a grasp on any conventions of writing. They don’t seem to have any talent based upon what you are reading, and you are not certain classes on craft will necessarily help.

I get that text: “So, what do you think?”

I think my stomach might strangle my throat in a mercy kill. How can I be honest while at the same time not breaking their spirit? How can I tell them all that is wrong and yet be positive and inspiring?

The answer is, I am honest. I tell them where they need improvements, where they can find resources, and I use the term “good first effort.” I tell them that, like all authors, there is still so much work they need to do.

The response is mixed—excitement, inspiration, and even utter devastation. I have learned not to take it personally, because they asked me for my opinion. I am careful to sandwich—a compliment, a critique, and end with a compliment. Just a spoon full of … well, you get the point.

It is a dreadful conversation, but a necessary one.

They have a choice. Do the work, give up, or hire someone to help them. That is their choice to make. I want them to come to me someday, with their contract for their soon-to-be-published book in hand. I hope they thank me for my kind, yet honest help. 

Be a mentor. Be generous and kind. But always be authentic and truthful. You are writers, pick the right words, and you can help another author, who was just like you, to grow.

Who was your mentor? Who made the difference between newbie and published writer? What advice would you give to "newbie you?"

* * * * * *

About John

John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine EnthusiastGrapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.

John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. His newest book, The No Frills Guide to Book Marketing, will be released in Summer 2020.

17 comments on “The Most Difficult Conversation for Writers”

  1. So refreshing to hear from someone who's sat on both sides of this particular desk! Is the person asking for help with craft, praise, encouragement, a reality check? Sometimes people ask for one thing but want another, or ask for one thing but you (the person responding) want to give something different that you think is more needed. We hear all the time that "it's all so subjective, so don't let a negative response get to you," but we're not necessarily the best judge of our own work either! It's complex, for sure ... My best teachers have doled out tough love in bigger doses than I wanted at the time but came to appreciate later. On the receiving end, we need a tough hide, an open mind, and resilience. On the giving end, we need discernment ,honesty, and kindness. Good qualities as human beings, not just as writers!

    1. It is hard- I just had a client that was concentrating on his acceptance speech when his book made the NYT Bestseller list than digging in and doing the work to edit and rewrite his book. I finally had to be a little tougher and set strong parameters to get the work done. I felt bad, but the work is getting done now and we are on track. It is a fine line!

  2. Super interesting topic!
    And I so get it, especially after recently interning for a popular agent. Part of my job was to go through her inbox and either send submissions on up or write rejections. Never fun, and always a little sad!
    The "sandwich" way is kindest. And hopefully most encouraging!

  3. I get what you're saying, John. Up until a few years ago, I was always on the receiving end of the feedback loop. As I've learned and progressed in the craft, I now seem to be spending more and more time on the giving side. It's a hard line to walk.

    I use the complement sandwich method as well when dealing with new writers, but I've found most of the more experienced people who ask for my feedback want their medicine straight and undiluted. These are usually people I already have some kind of relationship with, so they know I'm coming from a positive place and am trying to help.

    As for taking feedback from others, I've learned to assume positive intent, smile, and say think you, then contemplate what they give me. In the end, it's up to me what I do with their advise. Good or bad, i always learn something from it.

  4. These conversations can be tough, so thanks for making it easier with great advice. And yes, kind honesty is the best thing you can give. I hate to say it, but if someone simply cannot handle constructive critique, they're going to have a hard time making it as a writer. Thanks, John!

  5. Nice article. Always very nervous about agreeing to beta read someone else's work-especially as I know how many passes it takes to responsibly edit my own. Apropos to nothing, I know ONE very funny piccolo player joke, but the language is too indelicate to tell here.

  6. Great advice, John. My first writing teacher encouraged my shitty first, and tenth and eleventy-ninth memoir drafts by saying, "Congrats for getting that down on the page." If she hadn't been so gracious, I may not have continued. Like your "good first effort," it's supportive but leaves room for constructive criticism.

    1. It’s so hard to get newer writers to understand all of our first drafts are terrible- and have them take a deep breath and then get ready to do the hard work.

  7. Constructive criticism is the best, even though it can be hard to take. I have learned to take a breath, remind myself that I should react with grace, and know that not all suggestions will actually work well.

    Early in your blog you mentioned agents. Of the many rejections I've received, several of them came with encouraging words. I had the pleasure of meeting one of these agents at a conference in Phoenix. When she wasn't mobbed, I called out a thank you to her. She looked very surprised and walked closer, asking why she was being thanked. I explained that she had sent me a rejection letter that included positive comments that I truly appreciated. We shared smiles and handshakes. Not everyone hugs. Just to say agents are people too.

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