Getting the feedback you need, Part VII: setting the ground rules

Yesterday, I horrified the masses by taking an in-depth gander at that most perplexing of social situations in which a writer may find herself, the friend who asks to read a manuscript – then keeps it forever and a day. I may be harping on it a little, but I have my reasons: although one occasionally encounters advice in writing manuals about whom to avoid as a feedback giver (it varies, but the universal no-no: spouses, significant others, POSSLQs, and anyone else who has ever spent any time in the writer’s bedroom other than to make the bed), I’ve never seen this problem discussed elsewhere, or heard it solved by a writing guru at a conference.

And this is a shame, I think, because it’s a genuinely difficult situation for the writer, the kind of experience that can make good writers swear off seeking reader feedback forever. But a writer needs feedback, and not all of us have the luxury of a well-read, genre-appropriate writers’ group meeting within a couple of miles of our domiciles, or the time to join it if one does exist. So think of this as a survival manual for trekking through the feedback wilderness.

Advance planning can go a long way toward avoiding a Gladys outcome. (For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, Gladys is the aforementioned remiss friend who turns your manuscript into a doorstop). Observing Tip #8 — making sure up front that the reader has time soon to read your work — and Tip #10 — ascertaining that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do, and that it involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book – may cost you a few potential readers, but being scrupulous on these points will both reduce the probability of your being left without usable feedback and help you hold the moral high ground if your Gladys starts to dither as the weeks pass.

How does one set these ground rules in conversation, you ask, without sounding like a taskmaster? First off, take her out to coffee or lunch to discuss it (remember, she’s under no obligation to help you out here), and second, don’t save the discussion until you are about to hand the manuscript to her. Schedule it as soon as possible after Gladys has agreed to read your work – but not so soon that you haven’t had a chance to come up with a short, preferably written, description of what you would like your first reader to do to your manuscript.

Include in this list HOW you would like to receive feedback. Verbally? Writing in the margins? A separate sheet of paper? A Post-It™ note on every page where the story flags? Also, what level of read are you seeking? Should Gladys go over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb (a real bore, for most readers), or just ignore spelling errors?

This level of specificity may seem a tad schoolmarmish, but having the list on hand will make the discussion easier on both you and Gladys, I promise. The catch: once you have made this list, you have an ethical obligation to stand by it; no fair calling Gladys up in the middle of the night after you get the manuscript back, howling, “How could you not have caught that the pages were out of order?”

While you are explaining what it is you would like your first reader to do, mention that in order for the feedback to be useful to you, you will need it within a month. Or six weeks – you choose, but try not to make it much less or much more. That’s long enough for a spare-time reader to get through pretty much any manuscript without sleepless nights, so you need not feel as though you are proposing a pop quiz, but not so long that Gladys will simply set it aside and forget it. The point here is to select a mutually-comfortable date that is NOT on top of one of your own deadlines for getting work out the door.

I cannot emphasize this last point enough. If you are working on a tight deadline – say, to pick one out of a hat, having to revise an entire novel within the next three weeks – it’s just not fair to expect a non-professional to speed-read your manuscript quickly enough for you to be able to use the feedback. (Actually, most freelance editors would charge extra for a turn-around time this short.) If you can cajole your writing friends into doing it, regard it as a great favor.

But if you thrust Gladys into that position, don’t be surprised if you never hear from her again. It’s stressful. Pick a reasonable deadline, one far enough from any imminent deadlines of your own that you will not freak out if she needs to go a week or two over.

If she gives you feedback after the agreed-upon date (you will explain kindly), while you will naturally still value Gladys’ opinion, you will not have time to incorporate it into the book before your next submission. Being able to turn the book around that quickly (you will tell her) is the difference between being the kind of helpful friend who gets thanked in acknowledgments and the kind of friend who is appreciated in private.

After you state the deadline, ASK if it will be a problem. If Gladys hesitates at all, remind her that it’s perfectly okay to say no. In fact, you would appreciate it, because you are at a point in your career where you need prompt feedback, and while she was your first choice (even if she wasn’t), you do have others lined up (even if you don’t).

Say this whether it is true or not; it will make it easier for her to decline if she feels overwhelmed. By allowing her the chance to bow out BEFORE you’ve gone to all the trouble of printing up a complete manuscript, you are underscoring that you realize that she is promising something significant, and you appreciate it.

A week before the deadline, call or e-mail, to ask how the reading is going. This will give Gladys yet another opportunity to back out, if she is feeling swamped. (If she asked to read your manuscript out of simple curiosity – a very common motivation – she will have realized it by now.) Set up a specific date and time to get the manuscript back. Promise to take her out to lunch or to bring her chocolates – after all, she’s been doing you a big favor.

If Gladys can’t make the deadline but still wants to go forward, set another deadline. It may seem draconian to insist upon specific dates, but inevitably, the writer is the person who loses if the feedback relationship is treated casually. If you are open at every step to Gladys’ backing out, you will significantly reduce the probability that she will let you down after two months.

Or four. Or a year.

If you present these requests politely and in a spirit of gratitude, it will be hard for even the most unreasonable Gladys to take umbrage. By taking the time to learn her literary tastes, ascertain that she has time to give you feedback, and not allowing your manuscript to become a source of guilt for months to come, you will be treating her with respect. If you respect Gladys’ opinion enough to want her to read your book, you should respect her ability to make an informed opinion about whether she can commit to doing so. It is your job to inform her.

Your writing deserves to be taken seriously, my friends – by others and by yourself. The more seriously you take it, by seeking feedback in a professional manner, the better it will become. In my next post, I shall discuss how to elicit specific information from your first readers, to get answers to problems you already know exist in the book. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part VI: the trouble with Gladioli

Yesterday, when I was discussing the desirability of setting time limits for your first readers, I heard some chuckles of recognition out there, from those of you who have been down this road before. But are those of you who have never solicited non-professional feedback outside a writing group starting to wonder why I am advising building as many fail-safes into the exchange as one might expect in a nuclear test facility?

In a word: experience.

For a non-writer (or for a not-very experienced-writer, even), being handed a manuscript and asked for feedback can be awfully intimidating. Yet in a publishing environment where agents and editors simply do not have the time to give in-depth (or often even single-line) responses to queries, writers hit up their friends. Friends who all too often are too polite to say no or, heaven help us, think that giving feedback on a manuscript-in-progress is a jaunty, light-hearted, casual affair, as simple and easy as reading a book on a beach.

A sharp learning curve awaits them. Imagine their surprise when they start reading, and learn that you expect them not to be passive consumers of prose, but active participants in the creative process. Imagine their surprise when they are asked not just to identify what they dislike about the book, but also to come up with suggestions about what they’d like better. Imagine their surprise, in short, when they learn that it’s actual work.

Hey, there’s a reason I get paid for doing it.

Writers tend to complain about the feedback they get from kind souls decent enough to donate their time to feedback, but let’s pause for a moment and think about the position of a friend impressed into first reader duty. Chances are, this friend (I’ll call her Gladys because it looks good in print) committed herself to reading the manuscript without quite realizing the gravity of the offer — or perhaps not even that she’d made a promise at all.

A heads-up to all of you: from a non-writer’s POV, “Oh, I’d love to read your work sometime” is generally NOT an actual invitation to share a manuscript; for most people, it’s just a polite thing to say. Among ordinary mortals, a conversational “I can’t wait to read it!” may most safely be translated as “I’m trying to be supportive of you,” “I’m looking forward to your being famous, so I can say I knew you when,” and/or “I have no idea what I should say to an aspiring writer,” rather than as, “I am willing to donate hours and hours of my time to helping you succeed.”

This is why, in case you were wondering, the Gladyses of the world (Gladioli?) are so often nonplused when a writer to whom they have expressed such overtly welcoming sentiments actually shows up on their doorsteps, manuscript in hand. Poor Gladys was just trying to be nice.

For the sake of Gladys and every kind soul like her, adhere to Tip #10: Make sure IN ADVANCE that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do — and that it involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book.

Why? Well, 99% of casual offerers have absolutely no idea what to do with a manuscript when it is handed to them. Gladys is generally dismayed when someone takes her up on her request. Like most people, dear Gladys did not have a very good time in school, and you have just handed her a major reading comprehension assignment; in a flash, you have become her hated 8th-grade English teacher, the one who used to throw his keys at kids who walked in late.

It’s not that she doesn’t WANT to help. But in her sinking heart, she is afraid of the book report she is going to have to give at the end of the process.

So what does Gladys do? Typically, she doesn’t read the book at all. Or she launches eagerly into it, reading perhaps ten or fifteen pages, then gets sidetracked by the phone ringing or piled-up laundry or the need to go to work. Remember, our Gladys isn’t a writer, so she does not have much experience in wresting precious minutes of concentration time out of a busy day. So she sets it aside, in anticipation of the day when she can devote unbroken time to it.

Unfortunately for writers everywhere, very few people lead lives so calm that a week of nothing to do suddenly opens up for their lowest-priority projects.

However good her intentions may have been at first, somehow the book does fall to her lowest priority — and, like the writer who keeps telling himself that he can only work if he has an entire day (or week or month) free, our well-meaning Gladys wakes up in six months astonished to find that she hasn’t made significant inroads on her task.

Hands up, everyone who has ever been the writer in this situation.

I once had a first reader who BEGGED for weeks on end to read a manuscript of mine. Six nail-gnawing months later, I asked for it back, even if she hadn’t read it. As it turned out, she hadn’t, but she had positively filled the margins of Ch. 1 with glowing praise, concluding with, “You couldn’t PAY me to stop reading now!”

She apparently stopped reading three pages later. “I liked it so much,” she reported, “that I wanted to wait until I had time to enjoy it.”

Gladys intends to get back to it, she really does, but my goodness, when is she going to find the time? It’s not as though a manuscript is bound, like a book, rendering it easy to tote around and read in spare moments. Over time, she tends to start to resent the task — NO MATTER HOW GOOD THE BOOK MAY ACTUALLY BE. Most often, this resentment manifests in holding on to your manuscript indefinitely.

Maddening, isn’t it? We expect our friends to devour our books, relish them, and call us in the dead of night to say that it’s the best book they’ve ever read. C’mon, admit it: in the depths of our dark little souls, we long for positive reinforcement. If we approach our work professionally, we also yearn for our first readers to make the two or three constructive suggestions that will lift our books from good to superlative.

And if we’re conscientious members of writing communities, many of us put substantial effort into providing precisely that kind of feedback. Like most freelance editors, my earliest editorial work was unpaid. The moment at which I knew I should be doing it professionally was, in fact, when I was doing a favor for a friend. A good novelist, my friend was living the writer’s nightmare: after having taken her book through a couple of solid drafts, an editor at a major house had dropped a raft of professional-level feedback — which is to say, a ruthless, take-no-prisoners critique — on her, feedback that, if followed to the letter, would necessitate axing significant proportions of the book and trashing her primary storyline.

Naturally, she called me in tears. I was an excellent choice: I had read the latest draft, and the one before it, and was able to produce practical suggestions on the spot. If she began the story at a different juncture, I pointed out, and rearranged certain other elements, her plot could still work.

There was a long minute of silence on the other end of the phone when I’d finished talking. “My God,” she whispered, “that could work.” And it did; the editor bought the book shortly thereafter.

This, if we’re honest about it, is what we want our first readers to provide. Since I had been giving feedback on novels since I was a bucktoothed kid in braids, I was able to come up with answers — but is it really fair to ask someone who has never pieced a plot together to pull off a similar feat?

No wonder poor Gladys feels put on the spot. Her writer friend’s expectations of her are pretty high. And by the time the writer has become impatient enough to ask where the heck the feedback is, she is not only dealing with her guilt over having procrastinated, but also with the additional trauma of an angry friend.

Yes, I said ANGRY. While most of us are astonishingly patient with agents and editors who do not respond to queries or hold on to manuscripts that they’ve asked to see for months at a time, we’re seldom as patient with our first readers, are we? The writer too timid to call an agent who’s had a requested three chapters for a year will often go ballistic at the friend who’s had the same pages for a third of that time. Odd, considering that the agent is being paid to read manuscripts, and the friend isn’t, but that’s the way we feel.

Once the situation has gone this far, it’s quite hard to fix it without generating resentment on both sides. The only way to get out of it gracefully is to call the remiss Gladys (or send her an e-mail, if you’re afraid that you’ll yell at her) BEFORE you have lost your temper completely and ask for the manuscript back. Politely.

Ignore her protests that she is really intending to get to it soon, honest, because she won’t. Cast your request as having nothing to do with her: “I’d love to hear what you have to say, but manuscripts are actually pretty expensive to produce, and I’ve just found the perfect person to give me feedback on it. Would you mind if I saved a little money by passing your copy on to him?”

This may sound a bit nasty, an example of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression, but believe me, it’s less confrontational than almost anything else you could say. Just accept that Gladys had no idea how much time it would take, and move on.

And just say no the next time she offers. (As. astonishingly, the Gladioli of our lives often do. They must be insulating their attics with their hapless friends’ unread manuscripts.) Tell her that you’ve decided to rely on professional feedback this time around.

Whatever you do, don’t sit around and seethe in silence. Say something, and don’t let it wait too long. If you do not take action, Gladys will eventually have to come up with a strategy to deal with her obligation — and what she comes up with may not be very pleasant for you.

Often, Gladioli will turn their not having realized that reading a book draft is a serious time commitment into a critique of the unread book:

“Well, I would have read it, but it was too long.”

“I was really into it, but then a plot twist I didn’t like came in, and I just couldn’t go on.”

“I liked it, but it didn’t move fast enough.”

These all might be legitimate criticisms from someone who has actually read the manuscript, but from a non-finisher, they should be disregarded. They are excuses, not serious critique. Please do not allow such statements to hurt your feelings, because they are not really about the book — they are about the reader’s resentment of the feedback process.

When you hear this type of critique used as an excuse for not reading, thank Gladys profusely, as if she has just given the Platonic piece of feedback – and get the manuscript back from her as soon as humanly possible. Tell her that you know in your heart she is right, and you don’t her to read another word until you’ve had time to revise. Then rush out and find another first reader.

“My secret, if I must reveal it,” quoth the illustrious Alexis de Tocqueville, “is to flatter their vanity while disregarding their advice.”

Is this starting to make you fear ever handing your manuscript to another human being at all? Never fear — tomorrow, I shall talk about how to deal with a Gladys situation that has already extended past the friendship-threatening point, and give you some tips about how to plan in advance to avoid its ever getting there.

In the meantime, do any of you have a Gladys story? If so, why not post a comment, so those new to the situation won’t feel so alone? And, of course, keep up the good work!

P.S.: Hey, those of you looking for a crash course in publishing: journalist, novelist, and old college buddy of mine Sophfronia Scott has just come out with THE BOOK SISTAH’S 21-STEP GUIDE TO WRITING, PUBLISHING & MARKETING YOUR BOOK, available on her website, The Book Sistah. If you’d like a foretaste of her advice style, check out her blog on the writing life.

Getting the feedback you need, Part V: it was a dark and stormy…day

My, it is dark and rainy in Seattle these days. I know, this sounds redundant to those of you who don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, but think about it: we’re farther north than Maine, so our winter days are awfully short to begin with, and now we’re in the midst of the rainiest winter in, well, ever.

Seriously, the Weather Service says so. That’s a whole lot of soggy, misty, shaded days in a row. We’re well past the ark-building stage at this point; I think I just saw the ghost of Jacques Cousteau swim by my second-story office window.

Down with the wet, and back to business. For the last few posts, I’ve been writing about how to improve the feedback you’re getting from non-professional readers — i.e., first readers of your work who are neither freelance editors, agents, editors at publishing houses, or paid writing teachers — as well as how to skirt that most common of first reading pitfalls, the enthusiastic friend who begs to read your manuscript — and then never mentions it again.

Or the second most common, the person who takes 6 months to read it, then just says, “Oh, I liked it.” Or the third, the reader who concentrates so hard on the minutiae (rending his garments and exclaiming, “The way you use commas is INFURIATING!” for instance) that he has nothing to report on the big picture. (“Forest?” he says, looking at you as though you were insane. “All I saw was a single tree.”)

You don’t need the chagrin of any of these outcomes, frankly — even when such first readers do produce useable feedback, the manner of delivery often renders it either too soft-pedaled, too vague, or too harsh, or simply too late to be of any practical value to the writer. But really, this isn’t precisely the first-time critiquer’s fault: much of the time, these outcomes are the result of the writer’s not having selected readers carefully and/or not having set firm desiderata for feedback.

You owe it to yourself to invest the time in doing both, because anytime you hand an unpublished manuscript to another being, you’re taking an emotional risk. Heck, even gearing up to submit your work to another human being is stressful for most writers. It’s nigh-impossible to explain to non-writers, but the period gearing up to send your work out to agents and editors (or revise and resend it) can leave a writer as raw and sensitive as the time while she is waiting for a reply on a submission.

Which is another good reason to select your first readers with care, rather than just handing your baby to the first person that asks. Even when a spate of rejections may well have left you simply dying for someone, anyone, to show an interest in reading your work, it’s usually not a good idea to give in to that impulse without first giving the matter some extended thought. My next tip is even more practical than background consideration, yet even less commonly done:

Tip #8: Make sure your potential reader has time already available in his schedule to read your manuscript. If the reader cannot estimate a reasonable return date, move on to another choice.

This is not a rude question; actually, it’s rather considerate to ask. I know, I know, every writer on earth wants to believe that every human being is going to be overjoyed to read her work, but the fact is, a critique-providing first read is not the same experience as reading a book for pleasure. It’s considerably more time-consuming, not to mention more stressful for the reader — and that will be the case even if the reader does not also have to worry about couching his feedback in ways that will preserve the intimate relationship between you.

Remember, your first readers are doing you a favor, donating their time to the good cause of furthering your writing career. Treat their time with respect.

Obtain timing information even if — and perhaps even especially if — someone has expressed an interest in reading your manuscript simply out of friendship or family feeling. In my experience, such people, while kind and encouraging, frequently do not realize just how much time it takes to read a manuscript carefully — or even that the task is going to be any different from reading any book at the library. Often, these folks end up not finishing it at all or giving inadequate feedback, just because they did not budget sufficient time to read well.

Also, if you ask for this information courteously up front, you will have given yourself permission for a polite e-mail or comment a week or so before the stated return date. Why before? Because creative civilians (or, to put it less colorfully, people who don’t write) almost never understand that writers are serious about deadlines. How could we be, they think, when we spend years at a time on a single book?

Forgive them, readers, they know not what they think.

Given the pervasive belief that writers don’t own calendars, a pre-deadline reminder is often a good idea, to make sure the reading gets done. Just a quick heads-up, perhaps inviting the reader to coffee or lunch just after the deadline to discuss it, will help keep you from seething three weeks after the stated deadline passed, wondering if you should call to hurry the reader up.

Since you will be asking for a time commitment before you hand over the manuscript, it’s a good idea to tell your first reader WHY you want her, of all people, to give you feedback. Butter ’em up:

Tip #9: couch your request in a compliment. Ideally, you would like these potential first readers to be flattered that you asked, and thus hyper-motivated to sit down and read.

There’s no need to make up extravagant praise — just be very clear about why you are asking that particular person for feedback. Honesty really is the best policy here: why is this person THE person to read your book? And, based upon these reasons, what type of feedback would you like from this person? Try phrasing it like this:

“I trust your eye implicitly, so I am relying upon you primarily for proofreading.”

“Your comic timing is so good — would you mind flagging the jokes that you think don’t work?”

“You always know what’s about to happen in a slasher flick — may I ask you to take a quick run through my manuscript, flagging anytime you feel the suspense starts to droop?”

This strategy kills the proverbial two birds with one stone: you will be preemptively thanking your first reader for the effort, and you will be setting some limits on the kind of feedback you would like. By setting these goals in advance, you will be better able to avoid the super-common pitfalls of either your first reader or you mistakenly believing that the manuscript-sharing process is about making you feel good. Or bringing you and the reader closer together as friends or lovers. Or even to reveal yourself more fully to another human being you happen to love.

No, that’s what your kith and kin’s buying your published books are for: that’s support.

If you’re going to be professional about your writing, the sole purpose of ANY pre-publication manuscript-sharing should be to help prepare the book for submission and eventual publication. As the author, you are the book’s best friend, and thus have an obligation to do what is best for it, but writers new to the game often forget that. (Heck, even writers who have been published for years forget that.)

Keep that foremost in your mind, and I promise you, you are far less likely to hand your beloved baby over to the first careless coworker who says, “Gee, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” The writer may be flattered by such attention, but the manuscript deserves not to be sent on blind dates.

More on these crucial issues tomorrow. In the meantime, try to stay dry and undepressed, Pacific Northwesterners, and keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part IV: sometimes, you just need an accountant

‘Twas the week after Christmas, and all through the publishing houses, not a creature was stirring, not even that junior editor who swore to you at a conference last summer that she’d get to your submission within a month. So let’s let the literary world enjoy its long winter nap and move on to matters that we writers can control, eh?

For those of you joining this series late — because you have, say, lives or family and friends who might conceivably like to see you during the holidays — since neither now or immediately after the New Year are particularly good times to query or submit (half the writers in North America’s New Year’s resolutions include some flavor of, “Send queries immediately!” This leads to very, very grumpy screeners between Jan. 2 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.), this is an excellent time to get feedback, so you can revise between now and February’s submissions and contest entries. (Don’t worry, those of you who are eyeing the PNWA’s contest deadline nervously: my next series will be on contest entries.)

On Christmas Eve (hey, professional writers seldom get holidays; I wrote for hours yesterday, because I’m currently on a tight deadline), I brought up the notion of approaching readers in your book’s target demographic who might not currently be die-hard book-buyers. Tip #5 is essentially different than Tip #3, which advised getting feedback from inveterate readers of your chosen genre or field, who would already be familiar with the conventions, limitations, and joys possible in books like yours. Potential readers in your target audience may not yet have read a book like yours, however, may — for reasons that you are VERY eager to explain to your dream agent — need desperately to get their paws on your work.

Getting feedback from those who do not read voraciously, then, can sometimes give a writer great insight unavailable from any other source. If you can make a case that your book is ideally suited to address the under-served needs of your target demographic, that’s a great selling point (and a more or less necessary point in any NF book proposal). Feedback from these types of people will, obviously, provide you with tips on how to achieve that admirable goal.

Let’s say you’ve written a lifestyle book for former high school athletes who no longer exercise — a rather large slice of the population, I would imagine. Three of your five chapters are filled with recipes for fiber-filled bran muffins, salads, and trail mix. Naturally, because you paid attention to Tip #3, you would want to include among your first readers someone familiar with cookbooks, as well as someone who reads a lot of exercise books.

However, it would also be well worth your while to seek out jocks from your old high school who have never opened either a cookbook or exercise book before, because they are the underserved part of your target market. If you can tailor your book’s advice so it makes abundant sense for your old volleyball buddy, you’ll know you have a good shot at writing for people like her.

Hey, you might as well get SOME use from all of those nagging messages Classmates.com keeps sending you about getting back in touch with old playmates, right?

Word to the wise: if you are a member of a writers’ group, and you have not been getting overly useful feedback on your work, you might want to consider whether its members actually are in your target demographic. Just because a writer is intelligent and knows a lot about craft doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s the best last reader for your work before you submit it to an agent.

As an editor, I constantly get queries from potential clients whose creative NF is being ripped apart by the novelists in their critique groups, whose mysteries are being dismissed by literary fiction writers, whose romances aimed at the under-20 set are garnering frowns from the over-60s. In the early stages of the writing process, when you are concentrating on story and structure, intra-group differences may be minimal, but if I had a dime for every memoirist who was told by advocates of tight first-person fiction to scrap any effort at objectivity and add more sex and violence to the book, I would own my own publishing house.

Where I would publish all of you, naturally. Perhaps I should start soliciting those dimes.

As when you are considering any potential first reader, set aside for the moment whether you like the people in your group, or whether you respect them, or whether they have already published books outside your field. Look very carefully at their respective backgrounds and ask yourself: are these the kind of people I expect to buy my book? If they did not know me, would they buy it at all?

If the answer to either is no, go out and find some people who are and will, pronto.

Which leads me to Tip #6: solicit MULTIPLE first readers, not just one – and let your first readers know that each is one of several.

Unless you are dealing with a seasoned professional (such as yours truly), asking a single person, however well-qualified, to give you feedback loads too much weight onto every critical grunt and positive eye gleam. It’s intimidating to the reader, and thus usually harmful to the quality of the feedback. Overwhelmed by the responsibility, many otherwise conscientious folks placed in this position panic: one will drop the book like a live coal the instant they spot a grammatical problem, another will spend a week straight filling your margins with soul-searing arguments against the way you’ve chosen to tell the story.

Besides, your work is complex, right? It may be very difficult to find the single ideal best reader for it. So why not mix and match your friends to create an ideal composite reader? Which brings me to:

Tip #7: Find different readers to meet your book’s different needs.

Most of us would like to think that anything we write will invariably touch any given reader, but in actuality, that’s seldom the case. I, for instance, am no fan of golf (I dislike plaid in virtually all of its manifestations), and thus would be a terrible first reader for a book about any of its multifarious aspects — but my buddy Mary, who has written a terrific musical called FAIRWAYS currently gracing your better country clubs across the nation, would probably eat it up. Yet we’re both inveterate readers and writers with long histories of giving excellent feedback. (This should NOT be construed as my urging you to send her your golfing manuscripts, incidentally.)

Nor is it often the case that we happen to have an array of first readers easily at our disposal — although, again, if you join a good writers’ group, you will in fact have gained precisely that. In the absence of such a preassembled group, though, you can still cobble together the equivalent, if you think long and hard about what individual aspects of your book could use examination. Once you’ve identified these needs, you can ask each of your chosen readers to read very explicitly with an eye to her own area of expertise, so to speak.

In the lifestyle book example above, it was easy to see how readers from different backgrounds could each serve the book. With fiction, however, the book’s various needs may be harder to define. In a pinch, you can always fall back on finding a reader in the same demographic as your protagonist, or even a particular character — I know a lot of teenagers who get a HUGE kick out of critiquing adult writers’ impressions of what teenage characters are like. If a major character is an accountant, try asking an accountant to read the book for professional accuracy. Even if you are writing about vampires or fantasy creatures, chances are that some regular Joes turn up in your stories from time to time. If only as soon-to-be-sucked-dry victims.

And so forth. Specialized readers can be a positive boon to a writer seeking verisimilitude.

More tips follow tomorrow, of course. A heads-up to folks with questions on these and other matters: I may be a bit slower than usual getting back to you over the next couple of weeks. As some of you already know (especially those of you who were within complaining distance of me at any of last week’s many seasonal festivities), an editor at a major publishing house has asked me to revise a novel of mine fairly extensively between now and a mid-January editorial meeting. (For those of you who have been keeping track, this is the second such requested revision within the last three months.) Obviously, this task is sucking up most of my time and attention at the moment. But don’t despair: I shall get to your questions and comments as soon as I can.

Happy Boxing Day, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part III: getting your snails from the right chef

As part of my ongoing holiday gift to you this year, dear readers, I devoted yesterday’s post to a few helpful hints on how to get good feedback from non-professional readers. Ideally, of course, you would solicit critique from professional readers, such as agents, editors — freelance and otherwise — and teachers. But agents and editors seldom have time to give significant feedback to people to whose books they haven’t already committed, and both classes and freelance editing can cost serious money.

Yesterday’s hints, as you may have noticed, concentrated on asking the right people to read your manuscript, and for good reason: the wrong first readers can bring tremendous chagrin into a writer’s life, in the form of everything from hyper-harping on insignificant punctuation issues to keeping it for a year without reading it to handing it back to you with no feedback at all. All of these standard first reader problems can be avoided by simply not asking people who are not qualified to critique your book to read your manuscript.

There is, after all, a good deal more to providing useful feedback on a manuscript than simply saying what one did and did not like. That comes as a surprise to many people — including many writers, many of whom automatically assume that being able to write well means being able to edit well. Far from it. The best feedback is both practical, suggesting how and why to make necessary changes, and market-savvy, taking into account both the reader’s personal opinion and the tastes of the target audience.

Do I hear some of you out there harumphing? “Yeah, right,” go the almost-audible grumbles, “she’s a professional writer and editor with a Ph.D. and masses of writer friends. She probably doesn’t think ANYONE is qualified to read a book.”

Actually, depending on your genre or field, a highly-educated person can be the WORST first reader imaginable: attorneys, for instance, are trained specifically to regard anything but brevity as undesirable, and academics to insist that every assertion be backed up with footnotes full of evidence, neither of which would be particularly desirable for, say, a mystery. Nor would a scientist necessarily be the best first reader for a science fiction piece; she might raise all kinds of practical objections to how things work on your imaginary world. You know, the one where both time and gravity run backwards.

And, after all, the best qualification for knowing whether a book will appeal to an audience is being either a member of that particular audience or very familiar with what that audience likes to read. If you were writing for fifth graders, your ideal first readers would be a classroom full of kids, not a symposium full of philosophy professors. Or even, necessarily, a conference room full of child psychologists.

However, astoundingly few aspiring writers actively seek members of their target audiences as first readers for their manuscripts. I throw this question open to you, my friends: if you’re not, why not?

In my informal polling on the subject, the most common answer has been that it’s just easier to ask people the writer already knows — and it turns out that writers aren’t necessarily very aware of what their friends do or do not read. The second most frequent answer — brace yourselves, as it’s a lulu — has been the sheepish (and often astonished, because the responder hadn’t realized it before himself) admission that the writer has simply been handing the book to anyone who said, “Gee, I’d love to read it.”

In other words, most of the writers I ask seem not to be using any selection criteria at all. You’ll pardon me if I collapse briefly on the nearest chaise longue: the very idea makes me a bit faint.

No wonder so many writers have negative experiences with feedback: they’re essentially leaving selection of those vital first readers as much up to chance as if they cut up their local telephone directories, tossed the shards into a hat (a big one, like Abraham Lincoln wore), pulled out a slip of paper randomly, and shouted: “You! You’re my first reader!”

But if most of these same people wanted to find the best escargot in town as an anniversary surprise for their spouses, they wouldn’t simply open the Yellow Pages randomly at the Restaurants section and allow the fickle finger of fate to decide, hoping that the restaurant blindly chosen won’t turn out to serve Icelandic or Korean food instead of French. Sacre bleu, non! They would ask someone they are sure knows a thing or two about garlicky snails before investing in a potentially expensive evening at a restaurant.

There’s no reason to treat your manuscript with less respect. So how do you find a qualified reader? Continuing from yesterday:

Tip #4: ascertain a potential first reader’s reading habits BEFORE you ask her to read your manuscript.

You may feel as though you are conducting a job interview, but honestly, you will be trusting your first readers to hold a significant part of your ego in their hands. You wouldn’t trust your teeth to a dentist without credentials or previous mouth-related experience, would you? Are the nerve endings in your mouth really more sensitive than your feelings about your work?

You need not give potential readers the third degree; take ’em out for coffee and spend half an hour chatting about books. This is also a pretty good strategy to adopt with members of any writing group you are thinking about joining. How a person speaks about her literary likes and dislikes will tell you a lot about whether she is a good reader for your work.

Having this little chat will make it significantly easier for you to implement Tip #5: Get feedback from people in your book’s target audience.

For example, I know an excellent children’s book illustrator who, every time she finishes a rough draft, routinely hangs out with her sketchpad in the picture book sections of bookstores, stopping every kid she sees to ask if the pictures she has just completed match the captions well enough. She gets TERRIFIC feedback, from precisely the right people, not one of whom has any formal affiliation with the publishing industry — and she gets it for free.

Yes, yes, I know: you’re a writer, not a marketer; it’s the publishing house’s job to figure out how to reach your target audience. However, if you are writing for ultimate publication, rather than for your own pleasure, it can only help your chances of success to learn to look critically at your own work, see it as a reader would, and implement that view. Learning who your target reader is — and what your target reader would say about your story — is a necessary but often overlooked part of that process.

On a practical level, too, your chances of pitching and querying your work well will rise astronomically if you give some thought to who your ideal reader might be BEFORE you start submitting your work. And it will definitely win Brownie points with anyone in the industry to be able to say, “I’ve solicited extensive feedback from women aged 35 to 50 (or whatever demographic fits your ideal reader), and they find my protagonist’s dilemma both unique and true-to-life.”

A word to the wise, though: be as specific as possible in describing your demographic; “women everywhere,” “every American citizen,” and “everybody” do not come across to agents and editors as reasonable target audiences. No book appeals to everybody, as they well know, so hyperbole will not serve you well here.

Next time, I shall go through a few more tips on selecting productive first readers, and begin to discuss how to frame your request for feedback in ways that will encourage useful commentary. In the meantime, ponder this: note how I have turned the issue of who makes a good first reader from a question of who your friends are to a question of what does the BOOK need. The single biggest mistake I see good aspiring writers make in seeking feedback is to forget that the feedback process is not about helping the writer, but about helping the manuscript.

To be blunt about it, if you intend to become a professional in this field, your primary goal in soliciting feedback should not be bolstering your ego. That’s what your support system is for, and there is absolutely no shame in saying to those who love you best, or even your best writing friends, “Look, I can get critique from other people, but you are uniquely qualified to give me support. May I give you the job of cheerleader, rather than gym coach?”

Have a lovely holiday weekend, everybody. And keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part II: not over the eggnog

I wrote last time (as, indeed, I have written frequently over the last year plus that I have been posting a blog) about the advisability of getting some trustworthy soul to read your work IN ITS ENTIRETY before you send it out to an agent or editor at a small press.

Trustworthy, in this case, means objective, and far too few aspiring writers get honestly objective feedback on their work before they send it out. Instead, they give it to relatives or friends, almost none of whom have any experience giving the kind of feedback good writers need. Nothing against them — I’m sure they’re all lovely people to a man — but what you need is well-informed, practical advice based upon a thorough understanding of your target market.

Translation: it shouldn’t come from people who already love you. Or hate you, for that matter. No matter how supportive, kind, literate, critical, eagle-eyed, or brutally honest your parents may be — and I’m sure that they’re sterling souls — their history with you renders them not the best sources of feedback. One of the miracles of love is that it can blind the eye of the beholder. So the same principle applies to your siblings, your children, your best friend since you were three, and anyone who has ever shared your bed.

ESPECIALLY anyone who has ever shared your bed. Even on a very casual basis. Being horizontal can have the same effect on truthfulness as tears on mascara: things get murky.

Far be it from me to suggest that anyone who cares about you might be sweet and generous enough to lie to spare your feelings, but frankly, it happens. Be grateful that you have such supportive folks in your life. Cherish them; appreciate them; cling to them with the tenacity of an unusually insecure leech. But get other first readers for your manuscripts, because a first reader who will not tell you the truth reliably is simply not useful for a writer.

I’m bringing this up now, since many of us have been known to spend holidays with relatives or friends who say things like, “I’d love to read your novel sometime.” Trust me, it will be better for both your book and your relationships with your loved ones if you thank them profusely — and say no.

I can feel that some of you still aren’t convinced. Perhaps you have kith and kin who just adore giving their unvarnished opinions to you, ostensibly for your own good. “Is it really worth worrying,” I hear voices out there saying, “that the cousin who told me I looked stupid in my prom dress will be afraid to tell me that Chapter Three doesn’t work? Since Grams has no problem telling me that she hates my husband, why should she hesitate to rip my novel to shredsm, if it needs it?”

This is the other primary reason not to ask your loved ones for feedback, even if they are noted for their blithe indifference to any pain their truth-telling might cause to others: if you care about the advice-giver, it’s hard not to be emotionally involved in the response. If your favorite brother critiques your book, rightly or wrongly, it’s probably going to hurt more than if a member of your writing group gives precisely the same advice. And by the same token, the emotional baggage of the relationship, even if it is neatly packed and generally non-obtrusive, may make it harder to hear the advice qua advice.

Also — and I hesitate to bring this up, because, again, I’m sure your kith and kin are marvelous human beings — but critique by loved ones often runs in the other direction, particularly if you happen to be loved by the type the psychologists used to call passive-aggressive. I have had many, many editing clients come to me in tears because their significant others have pounced on the first typo of the manuscript as evidence that the writer should never have put pen to paper at all. Long-repressed sibling rivalries often jump for joy when they see a nice, juicy manuscript to sink their teeth into, and are you quite sure that your best friend ever forgave you for the time that your 4th-grade soccer team beat hers? What you need is feedback on your BOOK, not on your relationships.

Or, at least, that’s what you need in order to improve your book. (The state of your relationships is, of course, up to you.)

Often, too, when you’re dealing with people unused to giving feedback, being overly-judgmental is not even a reflection of their opinions of your book: in many cases, being vicious is what people think giving feedback means. (And if you doubt this, take a gander at the first efforts of most movie reviewers — or, heck, if you happen to live in the Seattle metro region, at the majority of film reviews in the local free paper THE STRANGER, where most of the contributing writers evidently believe that the title “critic” means that they should never, under any circumstances, say anything positive about a movie that might, say, induce a reader to go and see it. Given their editorial philosophy, I’m surprised to see any starred reviews at all in that paper.)

I’m not saying not to show your work to your kith and kin — if it makes you happy, do. But even if your Aunt Mary won a Pulitzer in criticism last year, you probably should not rely solely upon her critique of your manuscript. I speak not just from professional experience, but from familial as well: my mother is one of the best line editors I’ve ever seen. She’s been doing it since the late 1940s, for some pretty top-notch writers. I do show my work to her — as my mother. But for the brutal truth, I rely on my trusty band of tried-and-true first readers.

Yes, I know: finding good first readers is a whole lot of work, especially if you live in a small town. But, at the risk of wearing out the record, if you are going to be called on a mistake, it is FAR better to be a little embarrassed by a good first reader than rejected by a hyper-critical agent, editor, or contest judge. That way, you can fix the mistakes when the stakes are low — and, frankly, you’re far more likely to get usable feedback. If you are one of the many too shy or too busy to show your work to others, yet are willing to send it out to be evaluated by grumpy literary assistants hyped up on seven lattes before lunch, consider carefully whether you really want your first reader to be someone who does not have either the time or the inclination to give you tangible feedback.

Because, really, will “We’re sorry, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time?” tell you whether that orgy scene in Chapter 8 is the problem, or if it’s your constant use of the phrase, “Wha–?” You need readers who will tell you just that.

If you belong to a writers’ group, you already have a built-in problem-catching system in place — or you do if you belong to a GOOD writers’ group. If you have been hanging with other writers too kind to tell you about logical holes in your text, grammatical problems, or the fact that your protagonist’s sister was names Myrna for the first hundred pages and Myra thereafter, it really would behoove you to have a few more critical eyes look over your work before you send it out.

Do I hear some of you out there gnashing your teeth? “I HAVE been giving my work to first readers,” I hear you grumbling, “and they never give me feedback. Or they hold onto the manuscript for so long that I’ve already made revisions, so I can’t really use their critique. I’ve gotten SAT scores back faster. Or they so flood me with minute nit-picking that I have no idea whether they even LIKED the manuscript or not. I really feel burned.”

If you do, you are not alone: trust me, every freelance editor has heard these complaints hundreds of times from new clients. In fact, freelance editors ought to be downright grateful for those poor feedback-givers, as they tend to drive writers either to despair or into the office of a professional. At the risk of thinning the ranks of potential editing clients, I have a few suggestions about how to minimize frustrations in the first reader process.

First, never, but NEVER, simply hand a manuscript to a non-professional reader (i.e., someone who is not a professional writer, editor, agent, or teacher) without specifying what KIND of feedback you want.

Why not? Well, all too often, the amateur reader gets so intimidated at the prospect of providing first-class advice that she simply gives no feedback at all — or just keeps putting off reading the manuscript. (Sound familiar?) Alternatively, other readers will run in the other direction, treating every typo as though it were evidence that you should never write another word as long as you live. All of these outcomes will make you unhappy, and might not produce the type of feedback you need.

Second, as I have indicated above, avoid asking relatives and close friends for feedback. If you do have them read it, make a positive statement when you give them the manuscript, limiting what you expect in response:  “I have other readers who will deal with issues of grammar and style,” you can tell your kin, for example. “I want to know if the story moved you.” By telling them up front that you do not expect them to do the work of a professional editor (which at heart, many first-time manuscript readers fear), you will make the process more pleasant for them and heighten the probability that you will get some useful feedback.

Ideally, your best first reader choice (other than a professional reader, such as an editor, agent, or teacher) is a fellow writer in your own genre, preferably a published one. Second best is a good writer in another genre. Third is an excellent reader, one who has read widely and deeply and is familiar with the conventions of your genre.

Which brings me to my third suggestion: stick to readers familiar with your genre. Someone who primarily reads nonfiction is not the best first reader for a novel; an inveterate reader of mysteries is not the best first reader of literary fiction or a how-to book. Readers tend to impose the standards of the books they like best onto anything they read, with results that can sometimes puzzle writers and readers of other genres.

For instance, my fiancé, an SF/fantasy reader since his elementary school days, shocked me on one of our first dates by confessing, in the middle of my rhapsody in praise of John Irving, that he had not been able to make it all the way through THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. “I found it boring,” he admitted. “Not much happened.”

“A character gets castrated in mid-car crash,” I pointed out, stunned. “How much more action do you want?”

From his reading background, though, he was right: it’s rare that more than a page goes by in a good SF novel without overt action, and mainstream novels tend to be devoid of, say, time travel. John Irving would be wise, then, to avoid him as a first reader.

As would I — and here’s where I see if you’ve been paying attention: why SHOULDN’T I use my SF-loving boyfriend as a first reader?

If your first impulse was to cry out, “He’s double-disqualified! He’s more or less kith and kin, AND he doesn’t read memoirs on a regular basis!” you get an A.

Tomorrow, holiday and revision conditions permitting, I shall share a few more hints on how to minimize first reader disappointments. In the meantime, enjoy the holidays, and keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need — and deserve

Given that from now until after the last New Year’s hangover has receded into memory is a publishing world dead zone, a time of internal reassessment when query letters are seldom read, to be followed by the annual avalanche of New Year’s resolution query letters in January, now is a lovely time to take a break from querying. It’s a great time to be revising your own work with an eye to sending it out afresh to agents, editors, and conferences, to clear it of those little gaffes that make you smack yourself in the head when you catch them AFTER the submission’s in the mail.

It’s revision time, boys and girls.

This, I know, will make some of my long-term readers giggle. When, you may well be wondering, does Anne think it ISN’T a good time to revise a manuscript? Or, at the very least, to scan it for common mistakes and deviations from standard format?

Yes, yes, I am the high priestess of manuscript perfection, but as I find it a trifle difficult to believe that anyone who has been reading this blog for a while isn’t aware by now WHY I preach that particular gospel, I shan’t explain again. But I shall reiterate: it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto.

In this effort, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker. As any professional editor will tell you, they tend to be rife with technical errors — mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re — and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept “caseless” when you mean “ceaseless.”

Spell check, by all means, but I implore you, do not let that be your only means of proofreading. There is no substitute for the good ol’ human eye running down a printed page of text for catching errors.

Why not proof on your computer monitor? Because, as any editor will happily tell you, the screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain quite a bit of dialogue). It’s just too easy for the eyes and the brain to blur momentarily in the editing process, making you skip an error.

Yes, even if you have a simply massive computer screen — this is an instance where size truly doesn’t matter. Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it. But I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit, both for my work and for my clients’. As my downstairs neighbor would, I’m sure, be overjoyed to tell you, if a deadline is close, I’m going to be sitting in my library, reading the relevant manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, out loud.

I’m funny that way.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at the text. It is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits — most notably, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in automatic turndowns from professionals. Like misspelling your own name or address on the title page — which happens more than you might think.

Hey, people are in a hurry.

Other than the simple fact that other eyes are more likely to catch mistakes than you are the 147th time you read a text, there is another reason that you should run your work by another human being before you submit them. I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM. The result: for many writers, the agent’s feedback is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

And, as those of you who followed me through the November list of rejection reasons know, that feedback is usually either minimal or non-existent. Not, in any case, feedback that’s likely to help a writer improve his work before the next round of submissions.

Select wisely your first reader wisely, preferably another writer, rather than a friend, lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member. Long-term readers, chant it along with me now: the input of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover (s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs.

No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

Since holiday time is notorious for prompting one’s relatives to ask, “So, dear, how’s your writing coming? Published anything yet?” I thought this might be a good moment to remind you of this unfortunate fact. The closer the tie, the lower the objectivity — and no, smart people are not exempt from this rule. Even if your mother runs a major publishing house for a living, your brother is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback.

Nor should they have to, really. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself — or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns.

So when your Aunt Gladys says she’d just LOVE your manuscript (and trust me, at some point, she will; everyone likes the idea of getting a free advance peek at the next big bestseller), I give you my full permission to use me as your excuse for saying no. Do it politely, of course: “I’m sorry, but I’ve been advised by a professional editor that until I find an agent, I need to limit myself to objective readers,” or “I’d love to, Aunt Gladys, but I have a writing group for feedback — what I need you for is support!” tends to go over MUCH better than, “What, are you just trying to get out of buying a copy of the book?”

And for those of you who already have agents: break yourself of the habit NOW of promising free copies of your future books to your kith and kin. Since authors now receive so few copies — and are often expected to use those for promotion — it’s really, really common for the writer to end up having to BUY those promised freebies to distribute.

Get Aunt Gladys used to the idea that supporting you means being willing to shell out hard cash for your book. Promise to sign it for her instead.

But I digress. If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback. I know it seems as though I’m harping on this point, but I regularly meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.

Trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you at that juncture.

And emotionally, what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a stranger who, after all, has the institutional ability to change your life by bringing your book to publication? It’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency. Professionals have no reason to pull their punches; if a publishing professional does take the time to critique your work, the criticism comes absolutely unvarnished. Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.

I’m trying to save you some headaches here.

But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Emily Dickinson types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy souls would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.

And maybe you are right.

I am not saying that a writer can’t be a good judge of her own work — she can, if she has a good eye, and sufficient time to gain perspective on it. I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings; hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.

However, until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure how good your own eye is — and isn’t it just a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills? Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.

Ideally, you would run your submission materials past your writing group, or a freelance editor familiar with your genre, or a published writer IN YOUR GENRE. (No matter how good a poet is, her advice on your nonfiction tome on house-building is unlikely to be very market-savvy, unless she happens to read a lot of house-building books.) However, not all of us have those kinds of connections or resources. Professional editing, after all, isn’t particularly cheap, nor are the writing conferences where you are likely to meet writers in your field. (And even then, it’s considered pretty darned rude for an aspiring writer to walk up to a total stranger, however famous, and hand him a manuscript for critique. As in any relationship, there are social niceties to be observed first.)

In a pinch, you can always pick the most voracious reader you know or the person so proud of her English skills that she regularly corrects people in conversation. My litmus test is whether the potential reader knows the difference between “farther” and “further” — yes, they actually mean different things, technically — and uses “momentarily” in its proper form, which is almost never heard in spoken English anymore. (Poor momentarily has been so abused that some benighted dictionary editors now define it both as “for a moment” — its time-honored meaning — AND “in a moment,” as we so often hear on airplanes: “We will be airborne momentarily…” Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be in a plane that was only momentarily airborne… unless you have a serious death wish.)

In tomorrow’s post, I shall talk about strategies for getting the kind of good, solid feedback you need without treating your first readers like mere service-providers. (If you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends.) Until then, keep up the good work!

Eye on the prize: living with feedback

I missed posting yesterday, because I was so busy getting my computer up and running again. Lots of programs to be reinstalled, iTunes to download (again! They change the program fundamentally every 20 minutes or so, apparently), and of course, backed-up documents to re-install. Because I am positively religious about making back-ups, I lost only about 4 days’ worth of work; phew!

And because I haven’t nagged you about it in a week or so: when’s the last time YOU backed up your writing projects?

I have also been letting some editorial feedback sink in: an editor at a publishing house has asked for a second round of revisions, some of which, at least at first glance, appear to contradict the last set of revision requests. Naturally, I’ll make the revisions, but I’ve learned from long experience to let them float around in my consciousness for a while before I head back to the manuscript. Much better to get the inevitable period of post-feedback grumpiness out of one’s system before rolling up the sleeves, I find.

Why is this a good idea? Well, a writer’s first response to critique tends to be emotional, rather than practical. Understandable, certainly, the need to trouble the air with bootless cries of, “Why does no one understand me?” for a day or two, but while in that neighbor-disturbing state, it’s hard to see the manuscript in question as a product to be marketed, rather than one’s baby who has just been attacked on the playground by a great, big, blue-pencil-wielding bully. And one does definitely need to think clearly and strategically in order to turn a manuscript around quickly.

Say, by Epiphany.

Naturally, that’s a bit of an exaggeration: I could probably get away with taking 3 weeks to rearrange the book completely, rather than 2.

Shocked? Don’t be: I really haven’t been kidding all this time about the wait-wait-wait-wait-read-I NEED IT NOW-wait-wait-REVISE THIS AND OVERNIGHT IT! rhythm of the publishing industry. Writers often panic at the wrong points — thinking, for instance, that they have to get requested materials out the door within a week of receiving the request, because that agent or editor is holding his breath, waiting for it.

Just so you know, there is no case on record of an agent being carted off to a hospital due to having turned blue in such a case.

The British comedy team of French & Saunders does a wonderful sketch, a scene between an author and her editor. They’re negotiating when the author needs to produce particular parts of the manuscript (“I could give you the first letter by the end of the year.” “Only a letter?” “Well, it would be a capital letter…”), and the editor is becoming increasingly agitated. At the end of the scene, she confesses that the book in question is their only book on contract, and the staff at her publishing house have absolutely nothing to do until the author turns in the manuscript.

You may laugh, but actually, this isn’t all that far from how many submitting authors think about agencies — or how many agented writers think of publishing houses, for that matter. It’s hard for even very experienced writers not to expect a more or less instantaneous response to their submissions, as if the agent or editor did not have any other projects. But realistically, they do.

This is not to say that it isn’t important that you meet your deadlines, of course, and naturally, you will want to get your requested materials in before you fade completely from living memory. But over the course of my writing and freelance editing careers, I have spoken with thousands of writers in I-must-get-this-out-the-door-now frenzies, and in the vast majority of cases, it’s the writer who has set the stress-inducing deadline — not the agent, not the editor. You may think that you have to revise your entire book in two weeks, because you received a letter asking to see the rest of your manuscript, but the fact is, if you send it in three or six, that’s within the same ballpark, as far as the industry is concerned.

And that’s why, in case you’re wondering, folks in the industry consider a 3+ month response time on a submitted manuscript acceptable. Particularly on novels. Their rationale is that, no matter how talented a writer is, or how marketable a story may be, the average reader is not on tenterhooks, refusing to buy any other novels until that writer’s comes out.

Go ahead, be appalled by this attitude. But you must admit, it does explain a lot about how agents and editors treat aspiring writers.

Although we writers seldom admit it in public, deep down, most of us do like to believe that there are people out there, bless them, who will rush out to buy our books simply because WE have written them, not because they contain information that the reader wants or a style the reader finds appealing. “My God!” our ideal readers cry. “I hadn’t known it, but I have been searching for this authorial voice all of my life!”

One of the cruelest awakenings most good writers have when they first start sending their work out to agents is the cold realization that in fact, the agency is not being overrun by editors clamoring specifically for their books’ particular prose stylings or wryly unusual worldviews. Nor are there necessarily already-established market niches for every well-written book.

How a writer deals with this first significant disappointment — whether she takes it as a challenge to refine her work, her pitch, and her bag of writer’s tools instantly, curls up in a ball and never sends anything out again, or chooses a path somewhere in between — is, although hidden from the world, one of the best indicators of future writing success. Because the ones who are willing to acknowledge that writing isn’t just self-expression, but also a business, stand a better chance of ultimately being able to tailor their work to an agent or editor’s liking.

I don’t mean to say that you will be best served by pretending that rejection does not hurt — it does. But hurt can lead to reevaluation, and reevaluation can lead to the breaking of bad habits. Not to mention toughening you up for the sterling moment when your agent tells you that five of the first ten editors who read your book ALMOST bought it, and the rest hated it.

The farther along you get in your writing career, the bigger the slap-in-your-face realizations become. (Imagine being the first runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize!) The earlier in your journey that you learn to accept rejection as a learning experience, the better off you will be later on.

Or, to put it in terms of me, me, me, if I hadn’t spent years developing revision, editing, and speed-writing skills, I would just have to throw up my hands right now in despair at meeting me very un-imaginary deadline. I hadn’t trained my kith and kin to respect the value of my work to me enough to expect that I would disappear into a revision frenzy at times like this, even with Christmas so few days away, everyone concerned would be far unhappier at the moment. And if I hadn’t schooled myself in recovering from the shock of critique rapidly, so I could get to work rationally and well, my book would be toast right now.

I did not acquire these skills overnight. In fact, if I’m honest, I have to report that I am still abjectly furious about the first high-handed editorial change anyone ever made to my work.

I was ten years old, and as crossing guard of the year, I had been selected to write and give a thank-you speech at the annual luncheon honoring parent volunteers at my elementary school. (Actually, they’ve never asked the crossing guard of the year to give the speech before or since, so my appointment to this coveted post may well have had more to do with my already fairly well-established writing abilities than with my whistle-blowing acumen.) I wrote the speech, a rather florid little number jam-packed with superlatives, and submitted it to my teacher and the principal for approval.

On the day before I was to give it, the manuscript was returned to me, unwisely marked with red pen at the end. If I close my eyes, I can still picture it: my teacher and principal had conspired to change, “We send you much love and many kisses” to “We send you mucho love and kisses.”

Instantly, I set up the time-honored writer’s howl of protest. “It’s stupid!” I cried. “And it isn’t grammatically correct in either English or Spanish!”
For the record, the average fifth-grade teacher does not like to be told that her students have a better grasp of grammar than she does. Even when it’s true. Perhaps even especially when it’s true. “It’s cuter that way, dear,” she assured me. “Everyone will love it.”

This was my first experience with editorial obtuseness toward authorial feelings, so I actually said what all of us think when we’re edited badly: “I don’t care if they love it. I’m afraid that they’re going to think that I wrote it wrong!”

I was loudly and harshly overruled, and the bad edit stayed. My teacher watched me like a lynx in the hours leading up to the speech, muttering threats under her breath as she led me up to the microphone, lest I revert to the pre-edited, grammatically-correct version.

Much to my astonishment, the adults in the room did burst into loud guffaws when I said the dreaded line in her version. It brought down the house. My teacher, mirabile dictu, had been right about what my target market wanted: a little girl in braids, spouting grammatical incorrectness. Who knew?

If you’re reading this, Mrs. Strong, I still think you were wrong. I was more than cute enough to have pulled off correct grammar.

I did, however, learn two valuable lessons that have served me well throughout my subsequent writing career. First, when people who are bigger and more powerful than you are decide to be wrong, they can generally get away with it. From schoolhouse to publishing house, I have found this to be consistently true.

Second, most of the time, when you make a small mistake, readers do not generally howl down the house or toss the publication straight into the fireplace. As my long-ago ballet teacher was fond of saying, the audience doesn’t know the steps; it’s your style that they notice, not your technical perfection.

The latter may seem like an odd observation to those of you who have spent months reading my repeated exhortations to make your submissions to editors and agents letter-perfect, but it is nonetheless true. The readers who are out there waiting to buy your books are not going to hold a few stray editor-induced lapses against you; everybody knows that the writer doesn’t do the final proofreading on a piece.

While it’s always annoying and hurtful to have your words changed before your eyes, chances are, the changes you are being asked to make will not brand the whole work as illiterate, or destroy your hard-won style. Relax a little, and realize that your agent and/or editor are, in schoolyard terms, far bigger than you are.

How I responded to that first editorial jab — with an initial fight, a begrudging acceptance of the inevitable, a workmanlike willingness to make the best of bad advice, and apparently, decades of residual resentment — has been, I must confess, absolutely indicative of how I respond today. I have been able to professionalize my behavior, but in my heart, I am still that irritated ten-year-old whenever I see the swipe of an editorial pen.

Ask me in thirty years what I was asked to change in my novel today; I’ll probably be able to tell you. But I will make the changes.

Mucho love and kisses, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The passive protagonist, part II

Yesterday, I went on a rampage about one of the most common of manuscript megaproblems (after show, don’t tell, the top pick on almost any professional reader’s hit parade), the passive protagonist, the main character who is primarily an observer of the plot, rather than an active participant in it. Things happen to the passive protagonist, rather than his internal drives moving the plot along.

The passive protagonist is easily recognizable by the characteristic stripes of the species. He’s a courteous fellow, typically, always eager to step aside and let somebody else take the lead. Almost all of his turmoil is in his head; he tends to be rather polite verbally, reserving his most pointed barbs for internal monologue. Why, his boss/friend/wife/arch enemy can taunt him for half the book before he makes a peep — and then, it’s often indirect: he’ll vent at somebody else.

The passive protagonist is a fellow who has taken to heart Ben Franklin’s much-beloved maxim, “He in quarrels interpose/must often wipe a bloody nose.” He just doesn’t want to get INVOLVED, you know?

Oh, he SAYS he does, and certainly THINKS he does, but deep down, he’s a voyeur. All he really wants is for the bad things happening to him to be happening to somebody else four feet away.

As a result, he watches conflict between other characters without intervening, as if they were on TV. Frequently, he takes his gentlemanly reticence even farther, solving mysteries by showing up, being recognized (often as “that troublemaker,” amusingly enough), and having people he has never met before blurt out their entire life stories, or at any rate the key to the plot.

But that’s not all the passive protagonist doesn’t do — often, he’s a charming, well-rounded lump of inactivity. He sits around and worries about a situation for pages at a time before doing anything about it (if, indeed, he does do anything about it at all). He talks it all over with his best friend for a chapter before taking action (see parenthetical disclaimer at the end of the previous sentence). Even in the wake of discovering ostensibly life-changing (or -threatening) revelations, he takes the time to pay attention to the niceties of life; he is not the type to leave the family dinnertable just because he’s doomed to die in 24 hours.

Romantically, he’s a very slow mover, too; he’s the grown-up version of that boy in your fifth-grade class who had a crush upon you that he had no language to express, so he yanked on your pigtails. (It’s amazing, isn’t it, how many adults never seem to outgrow that phase?) He’s been known to yearn at the love of his life for two-thirds of a book without saying word one to her. Perhaps, his subconscious figures, she will spontaneously decide she likes me with no effort on my part — and astonishingly, half the time, his subconscious ends up being right about this!

Or, even better, perhaps a personal or life-threatening disaster epidemic will sweep through Metropolis, and that woman I am afraid of because

(a) she is smart
(b) she is beautiful
(c) she is rich
(d) she is from the other side of the tracks
(e) she is afflicted with that movie script iciness that always seems to accompany post-graduate degrees on film, and/or
(f) the plot requires it

will suddenly either come to me for help (“Got a match, Mr. Hardboiled Detective?”) or we will have to save the world together. In the midst of conflict that is bigger than the both of us, we will inevitably fall in love — because, really, we won’t have the time to fall in love with anybody else, what with saving the world and all.

You’ve seen that movie a million times, right? So have agents, editors, and contest judges. And they, like most of us, probably have their moments of adolescent yearning when they long to have the entire universe rearrange itself around them, in order to get them what they want.

But the fact is, as appealing as that fantasy is, it is very hard to turn into an exciting plot. So hard, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for agency screeners to be told to use the protagonist’s passivity for more than a page as a reason to reject a submission.

Yes, you read that correctly: more than a PAGE.

Given the dislike the industry exhibits toward this manuscript megaproblem, you’d think agents and editors would tell writers about it more — but once again, this is a phenomenon about which folks in the industry complain early and often, but seldom to writers.

As is the case with so many basic facts of publishing, they DO talk about it at conferences — but usually in terms that you’d have to read 50 manuscripts a week to understand. “I didn’t identify with the character” is a fairly common euphemism for Passive Protagonist Syndrome, as well as, “I didn’t like the main character enough to follow him through an entire book.” That, and, “There isn’t enough conflict here.”

“Wait just a minute!” I hear some of you out there protesting. “There’s an entire universe of reasons that a reader could feel alienated from a protagonist, and most of them have nothing to do with passivity. Why would these phrases necessarily signal that the underlying problem was that the protagonist was not involved enough in the action?”

Good question, imaginary readers, and one with a pretty straightforward answer: you’re right; sometimes these excuses do refer to other problems in a submission. However, since protagonist passivity is SUCH a common manuscript megaproblem, these phrases have come to be identified with it.

Because there are other possibilities, though, it’s a good idea to ask yourself an array of questions about a scene where you suspect your protagonist is not taking an active enough role in, well, his own life. If you can honestly answer yes to all of them, chances are good that you don’t have a passivity problem on your hands.

Fair warning: they’re not the questions most novelists would most like to hear asked of their books, but trust me, it’s better to ask them yourself (or have a reader you trust ask them) than to have an agent, editor, or contest judge snarl them at your submission when you’re not in the room. No, as I can tell you from long experience, they’re the kind of questions good writers get huffy about when a freelance editor or writing group member asks them — and then go home and ponder for a month. I’m just trying to speed up your pondering process.

(1) Is it clear why these events happening to my protagonist, rather than to someone else?  (Hint:  “Because the book’s ABOUT my protagonist!” is not an insufficient answer, professionally speaking.)

(2) Does the scene reveal significant aspects of my protagonist’s character that have not yet been seen in the book? Does it change the protagonist’s situation with respect to the plot? If not, is this scene absolutely necessary?

(3) Is there conflict on every page of this scene? Is my protagonist causing some of the conflict?

(4) Does the conflict arise organically? In other words, does it seem to be a natural outcropping of a person with my protagonist’s passions, skills, and background walking into this particular situation?

(5) Is my protagonist doing or saying something to try to affect the outcome or change the relationships here?

To put it another way, assuming that either the plot or the interrelationships between the characters is somehow different after the scene than before it (and if it isn’t, you might want to look into tightening up the plot), was the protagonist integrally involved in that change, or merely an observer of it?

(6) If my protagonist is not saying much (or anything), does he care about what’s going on? If he doesn’t feel that the situation warrants intervention yet, are the stakes high enough for the reader to worry about the outcome of this conflict? If not, is this scene necessary to keep?

This last may seem like a harsh assessment, but make no mistake about it, to someone who reads hundreds of submissions, a protagonist who observes conflict, rather than getting actively involved in it, seems as though he doesn’t care very much about what’s going on. Or, to translate this into the language agents and editors use: if the protagonist isn’t passionate about what’s going on here, why should the reader be?

To be fair, this assumption may not have as much to do with your manuscript as with the last fifty manuscripts the screener read, half of which opened with slice-of-life vignettes that demonstrated conclusively that the protagonist was a really nice person who did everything she could to avoid conflict. After a couple of dozen of these, rude and pushy starts to seem rather refreshing.

Agents and editors like to see themselves as people of action, dashing swashbucklers who wade through oceans of the ordinary to snatch up the golden treasure of the next bestseller, preferably mere seconds before the other pirates spot it. Protagonists who go for what they want tend to appeal to them.

More, at any rate, then they seem to appeal to most writers. After many years of reading manuscripts, I have come to suspect that writers identify with passive protagonists much, much more than other people do. There’s good reason for it, of course: we writers spend a lot of time and energy watching the world around us, capturing trenchant observations and seeing relationships in ways nobody ever has before.

So we tend to think of people who do this as likeable. Not, as folks in the industry tend to think of hyper-observational characters, as boring.

And, come on, admit it: one of the great fringe benefits of the craft is the delightful ability to make one’s after-the-fact observations on a situation appear to be the protagonist’s first reactions. That, and recasting people who are mean to us as villains in our books. (Not that any of the people who’ve been threatening my publisher over my memoir are turning up in my next novel or anything.)

And while both are probably pretty healthy responses, emotionally speaking, it’s also the kind of passive-aggressive way of dealing with the world that doesn’t work so well when a protagonist does it. We all tend to have some residual affection for our own foibles, don’t we?

The cumulative effect of writerly affection for characters who are acted upon has been, alas, a veritable ever-flowing Niagra Falls of submissions containing passive protagonists. And that is why, boys and girls, agents, editors, and contest judges have gotten pretty tired of them.

If only they could motivate themselves to DO something about it. Oh, well, if they wait around and resent it for long enough, the phenomenon’s sure to change by itself, right?

Keep up the good work!

Get your characters into the game!

My, how conducive having one’s computer out of the house is to intensive reading:  even during the last few days’ power outages, I have been spending much of my time huddled by a window or endangering my eyebrows by bending over a sputtering candle, in an effort to throw enough light upon my book.  I’ve been feeling like Abraham Lincoln, studying in his log cabin.

Windstorms, the source of the recent, lengthy power outages in my neck of the woods, were very common in the small vineyard town where I grew up.  (A child’s living a mile and a half from the nearest potential non-sibling playmate is also very conducive to intensive reading, as it turns out.)  Wind-toppled live oaks took out fences, garages, etc, all the time.  Consequently, I always know where my candles are, and how to find the matches in the dark.

When I was a senior in high school, one especially salutary windstorm brought a tree branch down upon the object I hated most in the world:  the 20-foot-high sign that I, as the luckless Commisioner of Publicity and Assemblies (the things we’ll do for college application candy, eh?) was doomed to mount with a ladder every week to post notices of upcoming football games, musicals, spelling bees, and other events not likely to be of interest to the tourists driving along Highway 29, searching for wineries with offering free tastings.  The morning after the storm, the sign was such a mangled mess that I could not even wrest most of the hand-high metal letters off it.

Gravity is sometimes a very lovely thing.  It took weeks for the school to erect a replacement sign.

That was not the only miracle that occured during that particular windstorm.  Another occured at the religious retreat center just outside of town. (Or, to be accurate, at ONE of the religious retreat centers, the establishment owned by the same church that until fairly recently owned a monk-administered winery in town, not the Moonie encampment or the former commune inhabited by a guru who, a few short years later, would abscond to Tahiti with most of the ashram’s money and one of his youngest devotees.) A charming clearing in the midst of a thicket of oak and eucalyptus trees housed a marble statue of — well, let’s just say Somebody’s Mother.  The morning after the sign-destroying windstorm, the tidying groundsman walked into the clearing to discover that four trees had fallen into it.

Somebody up there must be awfully fond of statuary, or at least like it a whole lot better than garages, for all four missed Good Ol’ Mom by a matter of inches.

I’ve thinking of that pale little statue over the last couple of days, just standing there, pensively witnessing the carnage around her, helpless to do anything to save herself from falling timber — and not just because of the windstorms.  No, she popped to mind as an exemplar of a common companion issue submissions with my last post’s Manuscript Megaproblem (show, don’t tell) often have as well:  the protagonist who remains passive in the midst of plot-moving action and/or character-revealing conflict, merely observing it.

Or, to put it in the language of the Idol rejection reasons (see October 31rst’s post, if that reference means nothing to you), that little statue was afraid to speak; she opened his mouth, but nothing came out; she didn’t trust herself enough to reply; she sat there, waiting for the information to sink in. All of these phrases are common enough signposts of a passive protagonist that, as we saw on the Idol rejection, they are now regarded as cliches in their own right.

This is not to say that passivity does not frequently occur in real life — it undoubtedly does.  TV, sports, and movies have certainly encouraged us all to be mere observers of life around us. But that doesn’t mean that it will work on the printed page.

In fact, it usually doesn’t.  A protagonist who is more of an observer than a doer can slow a novel’s pace down to a crawl — and in the early pages of a submission, a plot’s not maintaining at least a walking pace can be fatal.

And the sad thing is, writers seldom make their protagonists passive on purpose, any more than they tend to wake up in the morning, stretch, and say, “You know, I think that I should be telling rather than showing in my writing today!”

Here’s how it usually happens in otherwise solid, well-writen submissions.  The writer has established the protagonist as an interesting character in an interesting situation — well done.  The protagonist encounters a thorny problem that requires thought or discussion to solve.  (Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.) So the protagonist dons her proverbial thinking cap…

…and two pages later, she’s still running through the possibilities, which are often very interesting.  Interesting enough, in fact, that they would have made perfectly dandy scenes, had the author chosen to present them as live-action scenes that actually occurred.  Instead, they are summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown.

Uh-oh.

Or the protagonist encounters another character, one with whom there is genuine, organic conflict — again, well done.  But instead of speaking up, the protagonist just THINKS about how annoying/wrong/murderous the other character is, effectively deferring the conflict to another scene.  So instead of the protagonist’s anger/rightness/suspicions fueling the scene in a way that moves the plot along, the protagonist watches as the plot moves past him.

Um, shouldn’t the protagonist have caught that bus?

In both cases, action happens TO these characters, rather than the characters’ passions influencing the action, driving the plot along.

Agents, editors, contest judges, and even members of book groups complain frequently and vociferously about passive protagonists —  and as an editor, it’s a pet peeve of mine, too, I must admit.  I suspect this feeling is shared is shared by many bloggers:  for every thousand readers of a post, perhaps 4 or 5 post comments — and of those, at least two are commercial links to other websites. As a result (and if you visit many writers’ sites on the web, you’ve probably already noticed this), bloggers tend over time to gear their content to the responders more than to the more passive members of their readerships.

If a blogger posts in the middle of the woods, and nobody responds, did the post make any noise?

But I digress. Protagonists who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to being mere observers: life happens to them, and they react to it.  Oh, how lucidly they resent the forces that act upon them, while they wait around for those forces to strike back at them again!  How redolent of feeling do the juices in which they are stewing become!

This is fine for a scene or two, but remember, agents, editors, and contest screeners are not noted for being fond of reading for pages and pages to find out where the plot is taking them.  Try to avoid toying with their impatience for too long.  Remember, professional readers measure their waiting time in lines of text, not pages.

To say that they bore easily is like saying that you might get a touch chilly if you visited the North Pole without a coat:  true, yes, but something of an understatement, and one that might get you hurt if you relied upon it too literally.

When in doubt about how long is too long, ask yourself this:  is there something my protagonist could DO here, however small or misguided, that would affect the status quo?  If I had him do it, would the part where he thinks/talks/worries about the situation for X lines/pages/paragraphs be necessary, or could I cut it?

I hear some grumbling out there (we bloggers have to develop superhuman hearing in order to hear those of you who don’t post comments, you know):  yes, there are plenty of good books where the protagonists sit around and think about things for chapters at a time.

But before you start quoting 19th-century novelists who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this:  how many novels of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years?  Written by first-time novelists?  Okay, how about ones NOT first published in the British Isles?

Come up with many?  If you did, could you pass their agents’ names along to the rest of us with all possible speed?

Because, honestly, in the current very tight fiction market, there aren’t many North American agents who express this preference — and still fewer who act upon it in establishing their client lists.  They see beautiful writing where not much happens more than you might think.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an agent out there who would be fascinated by a well-written, first-person narrative from the point of view of that little marble statue in the middle of that wooded retreat.  Her thoughts as she stood there, motionless, as hundred-year-old oaks crashed down around her might well be priceless.  However, at some point, even the most patient agent — or editor, or contest judge, or screener — is going to want her to get the heck off her static pedestal and DO something.

Tomorrow (or whenever the local windstorms allow me the necessary electricity to post again), I shall talk about how to tell if your protagonist needs to get a more on.  In the meantime, watch out for falling trees, everybody, and keep up the good work!