It was late September when my wife, Saori, first read a complete draft of my book. In my mind, I was almost finished. I had been working on it for years and was going to send it to a copyeditor in two weeks. She was on page 63 when she looked up and said “I don’t like it.”
What would you say? What would you do?
My first reaction
Usually, my wife’s tactic is to ask questions. When I failed to clearly explain what the book was about in the early stages of writing, she asked “Is it just blogging?” When it seemed like I wasn’t making progress, she asked “How’s the book coming along?”
This time it wasn’t a question. It was a clear statement.
My first reaction was to be a defensive jerk. It’s too late for this! I thought. I’m an expert on this subject. You don’t even read these kinds of books! Though all she said was “I don’t like it,” part of me was hearing “I don’t like you” and “You’re a failure.”
I tried to calmly ask, “What don’t you like?”
What followed was the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had about my work. I tried to remember that all feedback is good, to focus on my breathing, to have a sense of detachment so it didn’t become personal or emotional. I largely failed to do all three of those things.
After a heated discussion, we came to a constructive set of possible adjustments I could make. Finally, I said “Please write it all down so I can compare it to the other feedback I’ve received. And please keep reading.”
Two days later
“The book is great!” she said. She had finished reading it and thought the second half of the book was interesting, well-written, and helpful. “I can see how it could sell a million copies,” she said. Now this was a much easier conversation.
What was obvious to her had escaped me. By the time I started writing the second half, I was clear about the book’s purpose and it’s tone. I had more command of the material because of the coaching I had done. While the first half was laden with layers of rewriting and rethinking, the second half flowed. “It’s like you learned how to write,” she said, and I accepted that as a sincere compliment.
She wanted the book to be great too, and so we had more debates and arguments about specific chapters and sections. She spent hours reading drafts and making notes with a red pen. She’d ask me question after frustrating question, trying to understand a point I was attempting to make. When I was finally able to give a clear answer, she would say “Great. Write that.”
Each time it got easier. In my head, a simple switch flipped. We had the same goal, and it became less about me and more about the work.
Three months later
After completely restructuring and rewriting the first half multiple times, I was down to the final chapter. I had written it a while ago and shared it with friends who liked it.
Now, re-reading it in a cafe, it made no sense. It was a disconnected jumble of stories and quotes. What point am I trying to make?, I asked myself. After working on it for over an hour, I couldn’t fix it. Then I thought, I’ll talk through it with Saori. At home, a short conversation helped tease out what I was trying to convey. I quickly rewrote the chapter and showed it to her. “I like it,” she said, smiling.
I had finally learned how to collaborate with my wife. The process was uncomfortable, but it taught me to be humbler and more open. It taught me how to listen. Although more than 50 people provided detailed comments on drafts of the book, I saw it would take someone who loves you to be brave enough to say “I don’t like it. Let me help you make it better.”
I’m sending the book to the copyeditor on Monday.