Spreading the joy — and a bit more advice about engaging professional readers


Before I launch into today’s topic, I have some wonderful news to report: long-time blog reader Thomas DeWolf has a memoir coming out from Beacon Press in January! Congratulations, Tom!

This is one of those “See, it CAN be done!” stories I love to pass along: Tom, you see, is one of those good writers with a good story who took the time to learn how the business works. As a reader of my blog on the PNWA site (don’t worry; the archives are all here, so you’re not missing anything), he e-mailed me a set of insightful questions, then sought out the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace to refine his pitch.

That was two years ago, and I STILL remember the story: INHERITING THE TRADE is about Tom’s discovery (at the age of 47!) that he was descended from the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history, responsible for importing over 10,000 Africans to the Americas. Horrified yet intrigued, Tom retraced his ancestors’ business dealings from New England to West Africa to Cuba, trying both to learn the truth and come to terms with what his family had done.

Not the kind of story one forgets, eh?

Everybody, please join me in a warm round of applause for Tom. As his publication date approaches, I shall keep you posted on his book’s progress. And please, everyone, remember to drop me a line about your triumphs when the happy day comes, so we can all share in the joy.

Okay, back to business.

For the last couple of posts, I have been talking about yet another present the legendary Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver might want to consider for the aspiring writers on his list: a few hours’ worth (or a few hundred pages’ worth) of professional editing. But, as I argued yesterday, whatever you — or Santa — decide you want from a freelance editor, make sure you know PRECISELY what services you are buying. And before you (or the Furtive NDGG) invest what can be quite a bit of money in the editing process, it’s important to have a clear idea of what you want to get out of the experience as a writer.

Other than to be picked up by an agent and/or sell the book to a publisher after taking the freelancer’s advice, of course. Actually, since freelance editors stand outside the agency and publishing house, none of us can legitimately make promises that any specific advice we give will unquestionably result in landing an agent or eventual publication.

And if you encounter anyone who tells you otherwise, run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit. As on the Internet, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Let the buyer beware.

So what can a legitimate freelance editor offer you? Well, among other things, perhaps answers about why a manuscript sporting a really good premise and good writing has been getting rejected. Remember, most manuscripts are rejected within the first page or two, for reasons that might not be apparent to the lay reader. A professional reader well versed in the writing norms of a particular book category or genre, however, can often give substantial insight into how to tweak a manuscript to avoid pitfalls.

Call me zany, but I suspect that there are many, many aspiring writers out there who would like to be told if there is a fixable problem behind all of those form-letter rejections that don’t specify what went wrong. (Are you listening, Furtive NDGG? You’ve already checked that list twice; leave it alone and pay attention.)

To bolster the egos I felt sagging during the last two paragraphs: not having some magical internal sensor that tells one just what the problem is most emphatically not a reflection upon one’s writing talent. Spotting it is usually a matter of experience, pure and simple.

As I mentioned yesterday, agents and editors don’t read like everyone else, and neither do good freelance editors. Our eyes are trained to jump on problems like… well, fill in any predator-prey analogy you like here. The point is, we’re fast, and our aim is deadly.

Since manuscripts are now expected to be completely publication-ready by the time they reach an agent’s desk — although they are frequently revised afterward — getting professional feedback can be exceptionally helpful. However — and this is a BIG however — writers new to having their work edited are often astounded, and even hurt, by just HOW straightforward professional feedback can be.

Think about that very, very carefully before you give this particular present, Furtive NDGG.

Now that I’ve put Santa on the qui vive, allow me to give the rest of you a heads-up: like an agent or editor at a publishing house, a good freelance editor is not going to pull any punches. The manner of conveying the information may be kind, but if any of them believe that a particular writing issue is going to harm your book’s market prospects, they are going to tell you so point-blank.

That is, after all, what they are being paid to do. That may seem self-evident, but in practice, it often isn’t.

That’s understandable, right? Serious manuscript feedback generally isn’t fun even when it’s free. While the brain may understand that critique is a good idea, the emotions often hold the opposite opinion. Someone who approaches the process primarily seeking ego reassurance from someone in the biz that his work is fine as it stands is almost invariably going to be disappointed.

And let’s face it, most of us write in the hope and expectation that someone will pay US to read our work, not that we will need to pay someone to read it. It can make one a mite testy.

The result: pretty much every editor you will find will have at least one story about the writer who showed up insisting that he wanted no-holds-barred, professional-level feedback — and then freaked out the instant he got it, because he hadn’t expected to be told to change his manuscript.

It sounds funny, but actually, it’s a not-uncommon result of a writer’s going into the editorial process — or into dealing with an agent or publishing house; the essential pattern’s the same — not understanding how the industry views criticism, as an impersonal means of improving the marketability of a manuscript.

I am reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s story about being solicited to write a preface for a charity cookbook — you know, one of those collections of recipes that were so popular as fundraisers in the 1970s. The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came to visit Fisher, a neighbor of theirs, in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause, so she donated her expertise.

Well (the story goes), Fisher took the draft book from them and had a good, professional look through it. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies, all of the things that professional writers and editors automatically flag in a manuscript.

When she looked up, however, the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas in fact she had been paying them the compliment of taking their project {seriously}.

Yes, yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. But as I have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ’em.

The fact is, from a professional perspective, whitewashing an editorial opinion about a manuscript is a waste of everyone’s time. In a freelance editor’s feedback, it would border on unethical.

For those of you who think that this mindset sounds like a pretty fine reason to steer clear of anyone who might be tempted or empowered to pay this particular stripe of compliment, let me hasten to add: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; you need to develop it as part of your tool kit.

Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already have it up your sleeve.

This is precisely why your dream agent probably should not be the first human being to set eyes on your work. If you do not have experience rolling with harsh-but-true feedback, it is well worth your while to join a very critical writing group, or take a writing class from a real dragon, or (why didn’t I think of this before?) show some of your work to a freelance editor, before you send your work to an agent.

Trust me, it is much, much easier to accept suggestions on how to revise your work gracefully when your critiquer is NOT the person who is going to decide whether to take you on as a client or acquire your book. The stakes are lower, so it’s less stressful by far. The experience alone is a pretty good reason to run at least part of your manuscript (say, the first 50 pages) across a freelance editor’s desk.

Which brings me to my final piece of advice on the subject: if you are brand-new to textual feedback, or if the potential cost of having all 542 pages of your baby edited makes your head spin, there’s no earthly reason that you need to jump into professional-level feedback with both feet right off the bat. (I’m sure I could have mixed a few more metaphors there, but you catch my drift, I’m sure.) Consider starting with just the first chapter, or the first few chapters, and working up from there.

This may sound as though I’m advising you to feed yourself to a school of piranha one toe at a time, but hear me out. One of the toughest lessons that every successful writer has to learn is that, regardless of how much we may wish it otherwise, agents don’t pick up books simply because someone wrote them. Nor do publishing houses offer contracts to books primarily because their authors really, really feel strongly about them.

Of course, these are the first steps to becoming a professional author, but they are not the only ones. The pros learn not only to write, but to rewrite — and yes, to take some pretty stark criticism in stride in the process. Not because having one’s words dissected is fun on a personal level, but because that is what the business side of this business expects from the creative side.

Your book is worth learning to live with that, isn’t it? Keep up the good work.

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