The blessings of Ataraxia, or, How to be a dream client

I sat down to write about agencies again today, but to be absolutely honest with you, I had to stop halfway through, because I’ve been having a genuinely upsetting day. Since we writers have to be so tough to make it in this business, it’s easy to forget that we are actually finely-balanced musical instruments. It’s hard to create when we’re thrown for a loop. Today’s loop-generator was a fairly common one for givers of feedback, professional and friendly both, so I think it would be useful for me to write about it. (And if not, hey, I blog pretty much every day, so if it turns out that I’m just being self-indulgent today, I can always be purely useful again tomorrow, right?)

Because I am EXTREMELY selective about whose work I read (I have been exchanging chapters with my first readers for years, and professionally, I will only work with clients I feel are bursting with talent, but even then, if the subject matter or genre is not a good fit with my tastes, or if I don’t think I can help a writer get published within a reasonable amount of time, I will refer him on), the vast majority of the time, my interactions with other writers are a joy. Really. I enjoy giving feedback quite a bit, even when I am charged with the task of helping a client incorporate not-very-sound advice from an agent, editor, or dissertation advisor in such a way that it will not destroy the book.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t SOUND like a whole lot of fun. But usually, it is: I love good writing, and like any competent editor, the sight of anything that detracts from good writing’s presentation makes me foam at the mouth and reach for a pen.

Every so often, though, I’ll run into someone who thinks I’m just making up the rules of standard format, or norms of academic argumentation, or even the usual human expectation that within a story, each subsequent event will follow logically upon the one before it. (Blame Aristotle’s POETICS for that last set of rules, not me.) This morning, I was lambasted at length for having had the gall to point out that someone’s Chapter Two might not be utterly clear to a reader that did not have the author reading over his shoulder, explaining verbally the choices made on the page.

Long-time readers of this blog, sing along with me here: when you submit a manuscript, all that matters is what is on the page. If ANYTHING in your first 50 pages is not perfectly comprehensible without a “Yes, but I explain that in Chapter Four”-type verbal clarification, rework it.

Please. Thank you.

Now, since it’s my job – or ethical obligation, in cases of volunteer feedback-giving – to point out precisely this sort of problem wherever it appears in a manuscript, I am always a trifle nonplused when I encounter a writer who thinks I’m only flagging it out of some deep-seated compulsion to be hurtful. Again, I am very selective about whose pages I read, and I burn to be helpful: it’s not uncommon for my commentary on a book to be longer as most of the chapters. I try to be thoughtful, giving my reasons for any major suggested change with a specificity and completeness that makes the Declaration of Independence look like a murmur of vague discontent about tea prices.

Obviously, this level of feedback is not for everybody; one of my best friends in the work refers to me affectionately as a manuscript piranha, but still, she lets me read her work. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than handing your work-in-progress to someone who just says, “Oh, it was fine,” or “Oh, it just wasn’t my kind of book,” without explaining WHY? I think completeness of feedback implies a certain level of devotion on my part to making the manuscript in question the best book it can possibly be.

Yet I was told this morning that, to put it mildly, I was incorrect about this. Apparently, I only suggest changes as a most effective means of ripping the author’s heart from his chest, stomping upon it, pasting it back together, sautéing it in a nice balsamic vinegar reduction, then feeding the resulting stew to, if not the author, than at least the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

Imagine my surprise.

This was for a manuscript I LIKED, incidentally. I had made a grand total of ONE suggested change, in the midst of oceans of praise.

So what did I do? What editors and agents moan privately to one another about having to do for their clients all the time, be preternaturally patient until the “But it’s MY work! It MUST be perfect!” tantrum petered out. Until then, further discussion was simply pointless.

Because, in the first moments after receiving critique, creative people are often utterly, completely, fabulously unreasonable about it. They not only want to shoot the messenger – they want to broil her slowly on a spit over red-hot coals like a kabob, and THEN yell at her. Fear of this stripe of reaction, in case you were wondering, is the most common reason most people will give only that very limited “Oh, it was fine” feedback after reading a friend’s manuscript. They’re just trying to keep their heads attached to their bodies, rather than skewered upon some irate writer’s pike.

It’s also the usual excuse — which you may believe or not, as you see fit, considering the source — that most agents give for why they send out form letter rejections, rather than specific, thoughtful replies to requested submissions. Their stated reason for form letter responses to queries, of course, is sheer volume: they don’t have time to reply to each individually. But obviously, if they have the time to read 50 pages, they have time to scrawl a couple of lines about how it could be improved. The fact is, they don’t want to: they don’t want to engender an angry response that might turn into an endless debate about the merits of a book they’ve already decided, for whatever reason, that they do not want.

Since most writers are peaches and lambs and every other kind of pacific, cooperative kind of entity you can think of most of the time, this fear is perhaps overblown. Most of us are perfectly capable of taking a little constructive criticism in the spirit it is intended. But every so often, some author loses it – and for that author’s display of temper, alas, we all pay.

That’s the official logic, anyway.

So now you know: if you want to establish yourself as a dream client in the eyes of the average agent or editor, who tends to hide under a chair after giving even the mildest feedback to her clients, greet the first emergence of any feedback with apparent tolerance; give yourself time to calm down before you argue. To buy yourself time, say something like, “Wow, what an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks.” Then take the rest of the day off, and don’t so much as peek at your manuscript again until you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Say this, even if in that moment, the suggestion proffered seems to you like the worst idea since Hannibal decided to march all of those elephants over the Alps to get at Rome. Because at that precise second, you are not just an individual writer, concerned with the integrity of your own manuscript: you are representing all of us. Show that, contrary to our stereotype in the industry as touchy hotheads unwilling to consider changing a single precious word, most of us really are capable of taking a little criticism.

Admittedly, my readers all acting this beautifully in the fact of critique probably sounds better to me right now than it might had I not just been scathed for trying to help out. Whenever I am confronted with a defensive critique-rejecter, I must confess, I seldom think of cooperative, thoughtful revisers with any abhorrence.

Feedback, though, and the revision process in general, ought to be treated with more respect by everyone concerned. There really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision, someone to whom we can pray for patience and tolerance in getting feedback on our work.

A muse of revision might conceivably make better sense to court than a muse of inspiration. Few of us writers like to admit it, but if we write works longer than a postcard, we all inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone bitch about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t always stick around, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry ourselves sick, we writers, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. According to the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself: the ultimate goal of revision, no?)

Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help.

Best to stay on her good side: for starters, let’s all pledge not to scream at the kind souls who give us necessary feedback. Yes, I suspect Ataraxia would really enjoy that sort of sacrifice.

I’ll confess, I have not always treated Ataraxia with respect myself. How tedious revision is, I have thought from time to time, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on a project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it: hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn.

Over time, though, I have started to listen to what I was actually telling myself when I complained about revision. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad; I’m a writer, so that’s what I do. It wasn’t that I felt compelled to rework my novel for the fiftieth time, or, in cases where I’ve been incorporating feedback, that I thought the changes would be bad for the book.

No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears. Am I alone in this?

But Ataraxia watches over even the most ungrateful of writers, so she whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways.

So now I know: whenever I start procrastinating about necessary revisions, it is a pretty sure sign that I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my first readers’ suggestions about my memoir in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

Just a suggestion: instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

Try to move beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

But the next time you find yourself in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time. No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Feed the cat. Plot a better way to get legions of elephants over the Alps. Anything to get your eyes off the printed word for awhile.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

As Ataraxia wants it to be, I suspect.

Okay, I feel less self-indulgent now: I think I have wrested some good, practical advice out of my very, very bad day. And naturally, unlike your garden-variety agent or editor, I’m not going to give up on this writer because of a single loss of temper. Nor, unlike the average writer’s friend with a manuscript, am I going to let the one writer who implied that my feedback on his work was the worst idea since Stalin last said, “I know! Let’s have a purge!” discourage me from giving feedback to others.

But please, the next time you are confronted with feedback that makes your blood boil, take a deep breath before you respond. Think about me, and about Ataraxia, and force yourself to say, “Gee, what an interesting notion. May I think about it, and we can talk about it later?” Then go home and punch a pillow 700 times, if you must, but please, don’t disembowel the messenger.

She may be bringing you a news flash from Ataraxia. Keep up the good work!

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