All of us want to do a good job. We want to put our best foot forward. We all say that we want feedback and critique, but deep down, if we are real honest, we want people to love everything we say and do. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality. We can’t please everyone, and it is easy to fall into a people-pleasing trap that will steal our passion, our art, and our very identity.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again with writers. They rework and rework and rework the first chapter of their novel, trying to make it “perfect”—which is actually code for “making everyone happy.” Here is the thing. Not gonna happen. Ever.
One person will say our book is too wordy. Another wants more description. We add more description and then another person is slashing through, slaughtering every adjective and metaphor.
Lessons from Aesop
I find it interesting that some of my favorite childhood stories were about character issues that I’ve struggled with my entire life. My favorite story Old Man Whickett’s Donkey and was loosely based off one of Aesop’s fables, The Man, The Boy and The Donkey. The story in a nutshell is this.
An old man and his grandson head to market with their donkey carrying bags of grain for sale. A passerby says, “What a fool. Why buy a donkey if you aren’t going to ride him?” In response to the critic, Old Man Whickett and the boy load up and ride the donkey into the next town where another passerby says, “You cruel lazy people. That poor donkey carrying all that weight. You should be ashamed.” So Old Man Whickett and the boy dismount and carry the bags of grain and the donkey (which seriously freaked out the donkey).
Anyway—and I am probably butchering this story, but give me a break, I’ve slept since I was five—Old Man Whickett and the boy keep trying to please everyone who passes and what happens?
The bags of grain burst open and spill all over the road from being moved around so much (and in Aesop’s version the donkey falls in the river and drowns). They never make it to market and all of them are exhausted and half-dead from trying to please everyone.
Moral of the tale? Try to please everyone and we please no one.
The Fine Line of Fools
We have to walk what I will call the Fine Line of Fools. There are two different types of fools. There are fools who plunge ahead and don’t ask for any feedback and ignore anyone who tries to warn there might be a problem. But then there is the other type of fool who can never seem to make up her mind. She keeps changing direction every time someone has an opinion (been there, done that).
All of us are in danger of being one kind of fool or another. While the wise writer is open to critique, she also needs to know when to stand her ground. If she doesn’t learn to stand firm, that’s when the donkey hitches a ride.
I would love to tell you guys I’ve never been either of those fools, but I don’t dig getting struck with lightning.
Perfectionism and People-Pleasing Mask Fear
I have learned through a lot of trial, error and stupidity that perfectionism and people-pleasing really are just an extension of fear. If we get everyone’s opinion about our book, web site, blog, color of fingernail polish, if someone else doesn’t like it, then we don’t have to own it.
“Well, that wasn’t my idea. That was Such and Such’s idea.”
We Can’t Please EVERYONE
I just finished reading my friend, Jenny Milchman’s thriller, Cover of Snow. As an editor, I might have made her turn loose of a few metaphors or similes, but the book was still an awesome read (and I dig flowery prose). In fact, Jenny’s style reminds me a lot of King and Koontz, two staples of my early reading as a teen.
I carried Jenny’s book everywhere with me for four days until I could reach the end. The rest? That’s critique. Still worthy of five stars. The story did what was intended…ENTERTAIN. I put down far more books than I ever finish. Jenny kept me captivated until THE END.
Yet, here was this book I loved and yet when I glanced at the one-star reviews? WTH? Okay, you don’t like a book but there is a real person on the other side of that evisceration.
But it showed me how important it is to just write the story you want to write. Some will wail, “Not enough detail!” Others? “Too much detail!”
I was personally happy that Jenny included so much detail. Being a Texas girl, I had NO IDEA what being trapped in a world of snow and ice might be like. In a sense, she was world-building and for me, it added a lot to the story. Someone who doesn’t even own a coat could GET the story.
Learn to Drop the Donkey
In this new paradigm, all of us need to learn to be leaders and leaders own everything, the good and the bad. That is no easy task, and I have to admit there are times my neck starts hurting and I get this lower back pain and then I realize…I’M CARRYING THE FREAKING DONKEY! DROP THE DONKEY, YOU IDIOT!
We have to be aware that there are jerks and there are also people mean well. Humans offer constructive criticism to show love, even if there is nothing wrong. I’ve seen perfect works of fiction get eviscerated by well-meaning “helpful” critique groups.
This is why it is critical to really understand the rules of writing, why it is essential to really know what our book is about, and to learn to be confident in our brand. This way, when well-meaning folk offer us poles and twine to tie up the donkey on a sledge, we can say, “No, thanks. I think my donkey can walk.”
So are you carrying the donkey? Do you find him difficult to drop? Do you fall into the trap of carrying your donkey? I know I am a notorious donkey-toter, but getting better every day. What tools, suggestion or advice would you offer to other who struggle with their respective donkeys? What are warning signs that you are carrying a donkey?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
ANNOUNCEMENT: I have a class coming up in a couple weeks, Creating Conflict and Tension on Every Page if you want to learn how to apply these tactics to your writing. Use WANA15 to get 15% off.
NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.
What a great post, and a great reminder for me. I fall into this trap sometimes; it can be hard to avoid it. But, yeah, you gotta make your donkey YOUR donkey!
Good story about the donkey – pleasing everyone is impossible. Thank you for the reminder – I’ll pay it forward.
I really needed that nudge just now. I took my newly revised first chapter to SARA last weekend, and they said, “Oh, no. What have you done? It was better before. Bring back the old one.” You are SO right that we can ruin something by trying to make it “better.” Once again, I’m putting your link on SARA and SAWG for FB. BTW, Teri Wilson spoke to SAWG last night, and she was absolutely awesome.
What if you have a hard time making YOURSELF happy? As in, I’m my toughest critic. :p
I’ve been trying to write stuff that will please a lot of people for the last 15 years. Guess how much writing I got done in all that time? Zero. So in essence, I missed out on 15 years worth of practice I could have put in if I remembered why I started writing as teenager: For my own fun and benefit, not others.
So that ass I threw off: Writing so that others may find my work acceptable.
Thanks for a great piece of advice once again.
I think we all try to please people it is part of our nature. I love this post. Remember the advice you gave me? Let the bodies hit the floor! I did that and it made my story better (thanks for that) I told my editor what I did and she was like “OMG no! I really liked that character.” so I read it again and ….he is still dead! Can’t please everyone. I am going to re-post this! Thanks again for all the advice.
Reblogged this on Cynthia Stacey and commented:
Awesome article by Kristen Lamb, Author of Rise of the Machines – Human writers in a digital world.
My critique partner and I were just having this conversation. I forwarded your post to her. She’s been entering contests and of course, every judge has an opinion. Some good, some not so good and the bad ones are really getting her down. I’ve told her to write the story she loves and know she can’t please everyone. If she won’t listen to me, maybe she’ll listen to you. Thanks!
Thank you for this helpful post! I’m going to let my donkey walk from now on! 🙂
I am so caught up in trying to please everyone that I have quit writing on my blog, and rarely write for fun offline anymore either, in case someone ever finds it and judges me. I follow your blog and several others that are meant to be motivational and while I am reading articles like these I get pumped up and in the right mindset. Then an hour later, I set pen to paper and all my insecurities come right back.
Oh my God. Carry the donkey? I’ve got the damn thing shod, grained, groomed, and de-wormed for crying out loud. I floated his effin’ teeth before I left home. My back is broken. I’m paralyzed. Nobody loves me. I died in a pile of dung and the donkey crapped on my head. I love this blog post. Hit me right in my please-everybody sphincter.
We can ALL easily fall into this trap. I recently read some of my early work that was SLAUGHTERED by a critique group. Years later and loads of experience later? The writing was fine. In fact, BETTER.
I will admit that I often “carry the donkey”, but of my own accord rather than other peoples’. I tend to avoid critique groups like the plague simply because of the time involved (sorry, I don’t have enough time to deal with my own writing, never mind reading and critiquing someone else), so I don’t have a lot of people reading my work and telling me what’s wrong with it. But I have this “helpful” little inner critic who does all that for me. I rarely write anything that I don’t go back to later and think, “Oh my GOD this is crap”. But then yet later again I’ll re-read and say, “Man, this is brilliant!” My critic will flip-flop so often that I genuinely have no idea what I’m doing anymore. lol
TracyLynn, I know the feeling.
I love this post! I am a born perfectionist and people-pleaser, and when I get one of those, “I like this but…” emails from an agent, it’s really hard on me. I am learning not to jump when someone says, “Change this,” but it’s a process. This post has also given me a lot of insight into my role as a critique partner (I am actually going to send it to one of my CP’s with an apology, just in case.) Thanks!
Yes and no…
I completely agree that trying to be “perfect” is a fool’s errand. Perfect for who? In my cold-blooded view (as someone who makes her living writing NF and journalism) my piece/story/book ultimately needs to be perfect for only ONE person — my editor. When selling my book proposals, make that 3 to 5 people: my agent, an acquiring editor and the marketing/PR/senior editor at that house. Basta!
Now, having said that, I spent about a year on my new NF book proposal, in addition to all my paid work. I had three trusted NF veterans read and offer their insights before it even went to the agent. But she loved it and it goes out soon. So, on this one, being more of a perfectionist has, so far, paid off. The true test is if/when it sells, to whom and at what price.
I know WAY too many people who hang back shuffling their feet and endlessly huffing out excuses, “polishing” and obsessing, while the messy, imperfect producers among us keep selling books and building our reputations. Who would you rather be?
do you think there’s a difference in non-fiction vs. fiction when it comes to books? I assume there are more people to “please” if you’re writing a non-fiction biopic on someone or some historical event.
I think there are many differences, although having a strong voice, point of view, interesting characters and narrative arc are all as necessary.
I don’t worry about “pleasing” readers so much as engaging them, whether they agree with me or heartily disagree. That’s the mark I aim for, and I suspect other NF authors as well.
I almost picked up a donkey recently when one of my books got two reviews where the readers said they wish the book had an epilogue. I started to freak a little – should I add an epilogue? Well, no. I shouldn’t. The ending is fine, and none of the other reviewers felt an epilogue was needed. So I just petted the donkey on the head and went on writing my next book, which also doesn’t have an epilogue. 🙂
I do try to please everyone, and when someone gives criticism, I worry that I’ll never please anyone with my writing! But that feeling passes. When someone tells me to carry the donkey, I say I’ll think it over, and and I usually do, until I realize that it really doesn’t fit my vision for the piece. Long ago, someone important told me to stay true to my vision. So it always comes back to that, even if it means tying ribbons and bells in the donkey’s mane and waking up the whole neighborhood… 😉
Reblogged this on A Writer's Notepad and commented:
If you are a perfectionist, if you are a people-pleaser, if you are self-critical, or if you are a critique partner, this is a must read!
I spent years writing and rewriting a book trying to please everybody, so this really hits home. I finally dropped the donkey and started writing what I like to read and made the bestseller list. Of course I’m getting negative reviews from people who want my work to be more generic, but they’re just telling me they’re not my audience. Rick Nelson said it a long time ago. “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” Great advice here.
Great advice. I think being in a critique group is so helpful in learning how to drop the donkey. Someone loves it the next guy thinks it needs to go. You learn to listen to the advice first then listen to your own writer self in the end.
Oh my goodness, yes! I try so hard not to be a perfectionist and let fear make me try to please everyone but it’s darn hard! I think a desire to please and perfect is good to an extent. It’s when we take it too far. It’s kind of like an addiction though. I’ll just have to keep reminding myself to drop the donkey. 😀
And I’ve found it helpful to know when to share my story. If I share it too early, it’s not fully developed and so can crumble under criticism. However, if I wait until the story is fully constructed than I can use criticism as I continue to revise to make the story even stronger.
I so understand what you are saying. Unfortunately, people pleasing is something I learned very young and was a way for me to survive in an insane household. While I survived and eventually thrived, that darned people pleasing mechanism never did disengage! I wrote a blog post on it “People Pleasing is for the Dogs”. Every time I look at my dogs, I see people pleasing in its finest form. It makes me feel better knowing that at least there is one group of beings that people please more than I do. Now, if I can just keep my tongue in and stop licking people, I will be fine…
trying to please everyone isn’t so much of an issue (I find I am one of those odd writers who really just wants to write the story my hero is showing me) but how to KNOW which advice really should be heeded? And we all can use another pair of eyes to catch the things we miss….
How do we find that happy ‘medium’ where the donkey carries its own weight and we are taking the best care of it?
Reading is a subjective occupation, thus the impossibility of pleasing everyone. I think this is true for any genre. As writers, our job is to keep the reader engaged with our content. If the reader follows our pathway, s/he is less likely to interject her/his own thought pattern. Be confident.
I think this might be the most helpful post of yours I’ve read so far and that’s saying a lot!
GREAT advice for writers but also for anyone who tries to please spouses, bosses, children, parents, random people, etc. and never heeds her own true voice. If but one person in the world thinks you’re Absolutely Fabulous, isn’t that enough? And if it’s only you – all the better!
I think Kristen is AB FAB! Thanks for this blog.
Great lesson. Write for yourself first. Criticism is hard not to take personally. But, dealing with it is so important in so many areas of life.
I do not think that I have a problem with it. I am not strong enough the carry the donkey and not even a sack of livestock feed grain for such a long distance, what more several. But I can walk. I have walked more than two miles so I would have never listened to the first critique. I would have thought that he/she was intentionally trying to cause trouble, since it made more sense to have the donkey carry the sacks of livestock feed grains.
LOL – literally! Make that “dense, irritating, miniature beast of burden” pull his own weight!
As Shakespeare wrote, “This above all: to thine own self be true” – know that donkey and work that donkey!
The donkey and I have a casual relationship. Sometimes I carry him, sometimes he carries me, sometimes we look at each other across the stable and go, ‘Sod this!’
I’m currently doing a second edition of the book I published last year to smooth out the few typos that got past 2 editors and a proofreader, cull the adverbs and adjectives, and make it an overall better experience for readers. I’ve taken on board a lot of the feedback I’ve received from reviewers. Am I making all the changes they suggested? No. It’s impractical and will change the story line. I’ve analysed the reviews and taken on board the constructive advice that WILL make me a better writer.
I couldn’t relate to this post more. I made the mistake of revamping the first novel I self-published at least three times until I finally decided that enough was enough and I learned to take the good with the bad.
This was helpful to read. I’m currently learning to deal with the reviews/critiques of my first book – for some reason, I believe the negative ones and not the positive ones! But in the end, I’m happy with my work, and I need to remember that’s important, too!
Time for me to retire the donkey.
It’s definitely time to put down the donkey. I know it’s impossible to please everyone but I still want to. Your column reminds me that’s not possible and to trust myself, imperfect though I may be.
A quote from one of my novels currently being edited, a conversation between the two main characters:
“You weren’t afraid someone would think … you know, that you’re gay?”
“What people think doesn’t bother me much, Derrick. I spent a lot of years living in fear of what everybody thought of me and finally decided that since I couldn’t please everyone, that meant I had to choose who to please, and I chose to please myself.”
Reblogged this on URSULA WHISTLER and commented:
The image of carrying the donkey is going to stick with me when I want to keep changing one particular story that I can’t seem to get out into the wild again.
Just what I’m thinking about today. A while back I published my novel on Kindle and a bunch of people loved it. I then published it on createspace as a paperback. In the process I found more things I hadn’t noticed (about ten things in a book that’s 600 pages long). Most of these things were silly punctuation errors, but they REALLY bugged me. I’m not any good at formatting for ebooks so I’d paid someone to do it. The mistakes bothered me so much I took the ebook off of amazon. The very next day the paperback was reviewed and made Editor’s Choice in The Historical Novel Society magazine! Now I’m not sure if I should just put what I consider the “rough cut” ebook back up while there is some interest in my book or wait the three weeks for the new and improved ebook to be finished. Any thoughts? I think maybe I should drop the donkey?!
This is something that took me 5 years of writing to realize. At some point we have to stand our ground and believe we will find our audience anyway.
Caitlin’s right – there are key audience (starting with the agent or commissioning editor) for whom the book HAS to be right. I’ve found sometimes that even mis-wording a proposal is enough to deter them. Everything else follows. In terms of finalising, there is a point of diminishing returns – and, indeed, nothing is going to be ‘perfect’. Authors shouldn’t try, and if they do, they won’t produce anything final, or if they do it will be ‘over-written’, which is just as bad as ‘under-written’. The audience’ll find the book; and there will doubtless be a group of nay-sayers within them; to those folks I say, tough. But there will also be a wide and satisfied group of readers.
Totally me. I’m doing research on how to self-publish, and I was talking about it earlier today with my husband. I said something like, “I know I did several revisions and went through several rounds of critique partners, but WHAT IF IT’S NOT READY? I feel like I need FIFTEEN more CP’s… and then it still might not be ready!”
Calm down, self.
This really helped, as I am trying to find and stick to my very own ‘voice’ while I write.
Thanks for the post, Kristen, and for your kind words about Cover of Snow. The hard part for me was letting go of the book once it was published–and it took me 13 years to get published in the first place. There will always be that nagging voice that says, Fix this, change that. But at a certain point the story is what it wants and needs to be. As writers we need to learn to get in touch with that point…and then let it be. One thing that might help in terms of this is to look at the reviews of blockbuster books for the last decade or so. Almost without exception, they follow a similar profile, some haters, a few more blahs, many likes and loves. No one loves everything–but we can a write a book that some people love, and that is pretty darn cool. Let me quote the great man (um, that’s Toby Keith in this instance): I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was. No, that’s not relevant here; I just have the song in my head 😉 Thanks again, Kristen!!
This is something that I must continually remind my hubby about. Not because he’s a writer, but because he can’t understand why I enjoy writing when there is no guarantee that I’ll make any money at it. After trying to push me to write in a genre that “sells,” he keeps asking, “How much money have you made on the one book so far?” I keep reminding, “That’s not the point!” 😉
Love this analogy of the donkey. Really, you can read so much writing advice and carry an anxiety donkey, too. Oh gee, I should drop my agent because everyone says self pub is the way to go…blah, blah, blah. It’s easy to become anxious with all the “advice” out there.
Thank you so much for this post! It is right in time! I am the one who always tries to carry the donkey, the boy, and the grain, and smile in the process. I know that I try to please everyone the moment I have that funny feeling in my stomach. That uncomfortable feeling about my project, text or idea. That feeling that my work is not good enough YET. And I have to edit or rewrite it one more time.
Actually, I have it right now, because I made my new stand-alone blog public today, after months of anxiety. I still feel it’s not ready. I am not ready. I should probably pay someone to develop a better logo, I should probably write 10 more posts for it before making it public, I should probably work on my content until it’s brilliant, blah-blah.
So here am I, hardly breathing, feeling my every gut, scared to death that I did something which won’t please everyone who sees it.
So thank you one more time for your text! I feel better now.
Everyone has ideas on what makes a great book, so it is impossible to be certain that you please everyone. I can deal with that, I just wish there was a way of judging whether the subject of a book was interesting enough to read. I know if I claimed the novel I wrote was a memoir, then it would probably find a receptive audience. It is based on real events and realistic as a memoir, but does that make it a good work of fiction? Is it too realistic, to intense or graphic to hold fiction readers? How does a writer answer questions like that? I read more than average, I know what I like, but by writing something outside the bounds of the popular reads of the moment, is there a way to find an audience?
Sometimes I think I write with a elephant on my back and the donkey laughing at me.
I’ve been wondering what to call that donkey I’ve been carrying around most of my life, and now I find out it does have a name — Perfectionism! Thanks, Kristen, for a strong eye-opening reminder.
It’s always been a struggle for me to just post content rather than stressing over each factor (images, paragraph, line spacing, text styles, etc.) If I had a more forgiving personality, my site would probably be x10 bigger right now! This post is definitely a great reminder to just DO IT! I will definitely try to put this into practice more!
Have a nice day,
I agree with just “letting it go” at one point. Sometimes I feel like a mother desperately holding on to her child. I think it gets even worse when the third book of the Trilogy has been edited… I am a little scared I’ll cry and embarrass myself.
I loved this. I loved the donkey story applied to writing. It’s hard to believe that’s even possible, but you pulled it off and with great results. We all get it now. Stop trying to please everyone and just do the best you can and you’ll be much happier for it.
Reblogged this on The poet's hide and commented:
If you want to know why I’ve chosen to reblog this, please see my post http://poeticalpoet.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/im-back-and-fully-writerly-revived/ Thanks
I loved this article! Brought so many thoughts to mind and made me think really hard about past writing attempts and the reasons I finally got rid of the donkey at that time! I’ve reblogged this under the poet’s hide.
Thank you for writing this
Excellent. I needed to hear this! Thanks, and feel free to repeat again in six months, 🙂
Reblogged this on Jo-Ann Carson and commented:
I met Kristen Lamb at Thrillerfest. She has a passion for writing that few could match.
Great blog to read after getting my first one star review. But what I really loved about this reviewer – she started off by saying she didn’t much like my Chocolate book either but decided to try the Vegas one – which she started to chew to pieces 3/4 of the way through. I’m just waiting for her to do a review on my only other published book, Better Than Chocolate, because for some reason she seems to keep reading them.