A book’s yours until it’s bought

Hello, readers —

As you may have noticed, I’ve been on a kick lately of gabbling here about common writing problems — not the micro-problems, the sentence- or paragraph-level blunders we tend to hear about in writing classes, but mega-problems, the chapter- and book-level gaffes that most writers hear nothing about until their manuscripts have been rejected by an editor at a major publishing house. The Frankenstein phenomenon is a ubiquitous mega-problem, and so is self-plagiarization.

Mega-problems are unlikely to be caught by the author, or indeed by anyone who isn’t reading the manuscript the way agents and editors do: starting at the beginning, straight through, in hard copy. If you are not entrusting your work first to a really tough-minded writing group (and one that keeps reading consistently and critically all the way through your book) or a professional editor, the only way to catch mega-problems on your own is to make a serious, sustained commitment to reading EVERY draft of your manuscript as the agents and editors do.

When in Rome, etc., etc.

I don’t mean that you need to perform a dramatic reading of your entire text every time you change so much as a comma, of course. Once per revision is fine, as long as you do not succumb to the insidious temptation to skip over parts of the text where you know you have not changed much. To keep the work consistent (and to avoid the Frankenstein nightmare), you need to read the whole thing, every time.

Also, once you are at the stage when your agent is shopping your book or proposal around (or you are submitting it to small publishers yourself), bite the bullet and ask for specific rejection criteria, so you can spot mega-problems that may be scuttling your work and revise accordingly before it is sent out again. Surprisingly few authors ask for feedback from rejecters; I think this is a mistake. Here you have an editor at an honest-to-goodness publishing house, taking the time to sit down and read your work — and you DON’T want to know what he thought of it?

Yes, in one sense, an editor’s reaction to a book or proposal is binary: either he buys it or he doesn’t. Your agent will probably report it to you that way. However, if you are in the writing biz for the long haul, the submission process is not just about how the publishing world responds to this particular book; if you are clever, it can also be about teaching you what you need to know in order to sell your next book, and the book after that. Start to think of your writing as a lifetime endeavor, and not asking for feedback begins to seem downright silly.

The easiest way to solicit feedback you can use is to request it in advance; if you wait until after the book is rejected, you will probably not be able to get it. Tell your agent that you will want to hear any specific criticisms editors might have. (Trust me, if your agent believes in your work, the first words out of her mouth will be, “But WHY?”)

If you are going it alone, submitting to small publishers (most of the majors as a matter of policy will no longer read an unagented author’s manuscript, alas), state in your “Gee, thanks for agreeing to read this” cover letter that you would appreciate getting feedback, regardless of the ultimate decision. Deep down, most editors like writers; if you are polite and straightforward, they will generally grant this request.

Inherent in this request is the understanding that you will NOT take this feedback as an invitation to debate the merits of your book after it has been rejected. If you have been dealing with the editor directly, a simple thank-you note is a nice touch, but otherwise, leave the advice-giving editor alone. He passed on your book; he told you why; end of transaction, because he has another 25 books to read this week.

And while naturally it is tempting to horde all of the negative feedback you ever get, so you can throw it in your critiquers’ faces when you eventually make it big, don’t. It’s a waste of energy, and in any case, it’s unlikely that the targets of your wrath will remember you or your work well enough to say three years from now, “Wow — touché. I wish I’d given that author a chance, boy oh boy.”

Sad but true: the book so close to your heart is, after it is rejected, just another stack of paper that needs to be stuffed in a SASE, from the publishing house’s perspective. Most editors at major houses read so many manuscripts in a given year that expecting them to be able to connect your name with it years down the line is like asking most of us who sat in the second desk on the left-hand side of the classroom when we were in the third grade. (Maryann Olguin, in my case. But then, I have an unusually good memory for manuscripts, too.)

So what should you do with the feedback when you get it? Mostly, look for patterns. Chances are, your agent will have picked editors with similar tastes (who thus might all be interested in your book), so it is very likely that they will object to similar patterns in the book. If two or more editors expressed the same quibble, it is probably worth your while to fix it.

Talk the results over with your agent before you do anything radical, though; remember that editors are just people, and thus could be wrong. If one editor says she loved X but hated Y, and another as confidently asserts that she could never get X through an editorial meeting, but would be willing to fight to the death for a work that concentrated on Y, you probably should not revise X or Y at all.

Ditto with feedback from contest judges. I like that the PNWA contest gives entrants two sets of feedback, rather than one, because while there are indeed literary rules that must be followed, sometimes a work is rejected simply because a single reader did not like it. Again, sad but true. Hearing from two helps the author tell the difference between a book that just happened to have a character who reminded a judge of someone she could not stand in high school (or, still worse, an ex) and a character that is incompletely realized.

However, regardless if the feedback is from a contest judge or an editor, if even one of them points out a significant structural problem, take it seriously. Go back and take a look at the manuscript — but don’t do it right away. Even when criticism is dead-on accurate, it tends to sting. Perhaps even more so than when it is off-base.

Give yourself some time to sit with it, to figure out if making the suggested change feels right to you. After all, it’s your book, not the editor’s — if he had bought it, then you would have needed to make the change he recommended immediately; since he did not, it’s up to you.

If I seem as though I’m being wishy-washy about whether you should follow the feedback you receive or not, it’s because I’ve seen too many good writers take editorial advice — yes, and advice from prospective agents, too — as if it were the revealed word of an omniscient god. (I’ve done it, too: in my naïve days, I once turned a perfectly fine novel into a trilogy, just because my agent-at-the-time blithely suggested it. Which left me with three unsold books on my hands when I broke off my relationship with her, instead of one. It’s one book again now, because she was WRONG.)

In a way, the instinct to please is a sign of understanding the market: a writer unwilling to revise her work in accordance with editorial guidance tends to get a bad reputation very fast. We know this, so we tie ourselves up in knots to be accommodating. But if we do not stop to reflect before we scramble to put every last recommendation into effect, we run the risk of mistaking well-meant, off-the-record advice to an up-and-coming writer for a tacit promise to sign the author once the changes were made, creating a false hope likely to end in devastating disappointment.

And that, incidentally, is a major reason why agents and editors do not automatically give substantive feedback unless they are asked for it. They’re aware that their opinions carry more weight with writers than other readers’; the next time you see an agent or an editor avoiding contact with writers at a conference (yes, it does happen), consider the possibility that this person is not drunk with the power she holds over aspiring writers, but instead trying not to utter a syllable that might be construed as a promise.

If you can treat editorial feedback for what it is, noncommittal commentary from someone presumably well-informed about what kind of writing is selling these days, it can be extremely useful, especially for catching mega-problems. Just take a deep breath first, remember whose book it actually is, and treat it as an opinion.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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