Nobody Listens to Turtle

Criticism is a wonderful gift. If articulate and well timed, it can give us the bridge we need to make our lives better.

I really need to learn to hear criticism.

I listen to it. I do. And I acknowledge its inherent usefulness, even if mean-spirited or misguided. But genuinely constructive criticism is an opportunity I apparently miss. In trying not to wince in pain at the idea of needing improvement, I found out today, I effectively block out the actual useful bits of criticism.

I thought I was rather self-aware. But today I realized I need more often to listen to turtle*.

Back story: I’ve been working on a novel for a while. I wrote it as a screenplay more than a decade ago. Once it was done I put it away and forgot it until Peanut was cooking and I finished teaching. I needed a project, and thought the script would be a good book.

So I transformed it. And edited and polished and sent it to agents.

And some sent feedback. My memory of that feedback is “It’s fine, I like the characters. It’s just not the right project for me. By the way, the language at times is too showy, so watch that. And nothing good happens until page 300, so move the action up if you want to sell it.” My memory has served me for three years.

I got the feedback while pregnant with Butterbean. I spent nine months rearranging the scenes and cutting the showy language. Then the little guy was born and all work ceased.

Fast forward. Peanut is in school. Butter is in a home-based day care three mornings a week.

Work is proceeding apace. But I’m not sure how much of the action to move, nor how to juggle the characters. Five main characters. Hard to time the introduction so many since I don’t want to focus too long on anyone, nor jump around like a narrative ping pong game. I’ve been rearranging scenes on index cards and a corkboard for years. I need a new perspective.

So I map the book. But then realize: most of what happens…really happens…is in flashbacks. Nothing much actually happens. Lots of feelings, minimal plot.

[Bear with me. The graphics below were penned without intention of making them public, but there’s no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks I’m redrawing this exercise just to look good for you lovely people.]

The emotional maps, overlaid, look like this.

Exciting, no?

But the actual character arcs, overlaid, look like this.

Cue sad panda music, ‘cuz that’s one pathetic book right there.

So I ask a dear, brilliant writer friend two questions:
1. does stuff that happens in the past just color how a reader sees a character, or does it actually count as action?
2. how do I introduce all these characters without lingering too long on any of them? Should I force them together more?

While I wait for a reply, I stumble upon the agents’ emails, which I haven’t opened since 2009.

More than half mentioned that
1.not enough happens
2.there are too many characters and we need to see them all together doing something.


The good news: I’m asking the right questions.
The bad news: I had the answer three years ago.
The good news: I now, finally, have time to do this work.
The great news: I still want to.

*Bonus points if you get the reference. Actually, genetic test if you get the reference because I think you and I might be family.

6 thoughts on “Nobody Listens to Turtle

  1. I tried to tell ya, man, but nobody listens to turtle.

    I want a friend like Turtle.

    Criticism: I can take it depending on the source. If it’s someone whose work I admire and respect, KILL ME WITH CRITICISM.

    But, if it’s someone who I think has NO idea what they’re talking about: shuttup.

    Really. Shuttup.

    Email me for examples of “has no idea what they’re talking about.”


    • I want a friend like Turtle, too. Except I’d only want emails from him because the slow talking kills me.

      Agreed that only useful, knowledgeable criticism is useful. But you’d think that professionals emailing me about what my book needs would qualify under “read this 72 times and heed every word.” Nope. Read once, feel meek, forget there’s actual information in the rejection.

  2. THis gives me hives. IT sounds so hard to do all this work. I have half of a book and some good ideas, but I am going to die when someone tells me how to fix it and I don’t know how or i am not smart enough to do it. So brave lady, keep charging forth because you can totally do this. Now I need to go shiver in the corner.

    • No, my brilliant friend. You will make it. Because, like me, you will start with smart, loving friends. They will read the book and mostly love it and give small criticism. And you will fix and move on to less familiar readers. And then you will continue until you’re so comfortable and sure of your work that the big guns can point at it and you will say, “oh. I should have noticed that. Sure I can completely change it. Thanks for your time.”

      Please write. I love your voice. Please give it to safe and trusted friends. They love you. Then work your way up.

      You can totally do it. You finished law school and passed the bar and do an amazing job parenting two small people. The gum wedged in your drawers is nothing compared to writing feedback. ;-)

  3. Conflict between characters is the key. The way they respond to one another will tell us what we need to know about them and move the action along a little more.

    • Have that. Oooooh lady do I have that. That’s why I felt there was “enough.”

      But agents said one-on-one conflict wasn’t enough.

      So I’m back to the corkboard with several TBD cards. ;-)

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