How do two people write a novel together? by guest blogger Stanley Trollip


Hello, readers –

Anne here, with a real treat for you today: a guest blog by Stanley Trollip, one-half of the writing team readers will soon know as Michael Stanley.

I’m always thrilled when a good author gives in to my blandishments to write a guest post: since the road from concept to publication is often long and arduous for even the best and most market-savvy of aspiring writers, it’s great to see one of us — or, in this case, two of us — make it at last!

And how! Their first novel, A Carrion Death, will be released in the US and UK this coming week, so I’m tickled the proverbial pink that Stan was willing to take time out of his hectic signing schedule to give us here in the Author! Author! community some tips on writing collaboratively, the revision process (appropriate timing, eh?), and the about-to-be-published life in general.

The book sounds like a hoot, incidentally. Here’s the low-down:

Smashed skull, snapped ribs, and a cloying smell of carrion. Leave the body for the hyenas to devour—no body, no case. But when Kalahari game rangers stumble on a human corpse mid-meal, it turns out the murder wasn’t perfect after all. Enough evidence is left to suggest foul play. Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department is assigned to the case. From the sun-baked riverbeds of the Kalahari to the highest offices of an international conglomerate, he follows a blood-soaked trail in search of answers. Beneath a mountain of lies and superstitions, he uncovers a chain of crimes leading to the most powerful figures in the country—influential enemies who will kill anyone in their way.

Sounds exciting, eh? Should any of you be planning to write query letters in the foreseeable future, THAT’s what a terrific, attention-grabbing summary paragraph looks like.

A Carrion Death is already available for pre-order on Amazon for US readers, Amazon for Canadian readers, and Amazon in the UK.

I mention all three, not just to make ordering easier, but also because the first Amazon is carrying editions with the left-hand book cover above, and the other two are offering versions with the cover on the right. Go figure.

Just between us, this book — whatever cover may happen to be on it — has been receiving some pretty stellar advance reviews. Seriously, Publishers Weekly doesn’t give starred reviews to just any book — this is the stuff of which writerly daydreams are made. Take a gander:

“The intricate plotting, a grisly sense of realism and numerous topical motifs …make this a compulsively readable novel.”
(Publishers Weekly, February 25th, 2008)

“[A] fast-moving story… Rich with the atmosphere of modern Botswana, and peopled with interesting and well-drawn characters, this is an exciting debut.” (Booklist, February 1, 2008)

“This well-plotted debut introduces a new mystery series and will enthrall readers.” (Library Journal, March 1, 2008)

“The police procedural story line is superb…” (Genre Go Round Reviews, February 9, 2008)

May we all be blessed with reviews that good!

For all of these reasons, I’m pretty psyched to welcome our guest blogger today. Take it away, Stan!


It’s an exciting month for us. Our first mystery novel, A Carrion Death, introducing Detective Kubu will be launched by HarperCollins on the first of April in Minneapolis. Two days later, Headline releases it in the UK. The us is Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip:


and we use the (rather obvious) pen name of Michael Stanley:


I divide my time between Minneapolis and the coastal town of Knysna in South Africa, while Michael lives in Johannesburg. So this collaboration is long distance. Many people are surprised by a successful jointly written mystery story at all, let alone one where the authors are at least a thousand miles apart most of the time. Yet we’re told — even by people who know us well — that it is hard to attribute a piece of writing to one of us or the other, and that the flow is smooth and has no disturbing changes of style. So how did we do it?

Well, let me say up front that when we started, we knew little about writing fiction and, if we had understood all the predicted problems around writing collaboratively, we might not have embarked on this adventure! But on our travels, we’d been talking about a detective story set in the African bush for many years, and when Michael suddenly wrote a chapter rather out of the blue in the middle of 2003, it seemed like great fun.

And that’s how we approached the whole project: having fun together. We had no great expectation of the novel ever being published, and we wrote and rewrote it many times as we started to learn the ropes of working together and, more importantly, as we developed our writing and plotting skills.

It was a dreadfully inefficient process. We each wrote several chapters that the other didn’t like at all resulting in a lot of material being thrown away. The plot kept changing of our own volition, as well as the result of the invaluable input of professionals like our agent, Marly Rusoff, and our editors at HarperCollins and Headline. We were also very fortunate to get honest (and often painful) feedback from some of our reader friends. More changes! The book seemed to get too long, too fast, too slow.

I guess that most new novelists experience these types of problems. The wonderful thing about collaboration with someone you know and trust is that you have an immediate, interested and very critical reader for everything you write. Education theory is clear on the value of collaborative learning. Why should learning to write fiction be an exception? Both of us have experience with collaborative writing of non-fiction; both of us enjoyed it and were reasonably successful. So, again, why should fiction be an exception?

So let me try to answer the question of how we write together. Of course, collaborative work is going to depend on the partners, their styles, and interests. Still, there are a few ground rules which must be pretty universal:

— You have to leave your ego behind. You have to be willing to take immediate and possibly quite sharp criticism of your ideas, your characters and your writing. However, wouldn’t you prefer a partner provide such feedback, rather than an editor or a critic?

— You need to agree on the basic direction and structure of the plot. Of course, the characters will take over to some extent, but you need to know generally where you’re heading.

— You have to watch carefully that the characters behave consistently, whoever’s writing. The issue we had was that as we developed characters, their early appearances became less convincing. This must be a problem facing most authors writing a first novel.

I’ll describe how we went about writing our second Detective Kubu novel — The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu. It’s due for relese in 2009. By the time we started, we had rubbed off most of the rough edges that arose from our inexperience rather than from anything to do with our collaboration. A Carrion Death will see the light of day almost five years after we started writing it, Second Death will be closer to three. That is the benefit of experience.

Our major lesson was to structure the plot really carefully first. The synopsis we sent to our agent when we started the book is still close enough to describe the final version, although the details have changed quite considerably as the characters and texture developed. We spent sometimes frustrating weeks writing nothing and talking the plot through together.

Here it was important to be together and brainstorm, while always being ready to catch an inconsistency arising from the other person’s enthusiasm for his idea. Michael has a habit of killing off characters when we paint them into a corner; I try to resist this for humanitarian reasons if nothing else!

The writing we divide, each picking up pieces where we have ideas and mind pictures of how the scene will work. Obviously this means working on different chapters of the book at the same time. That’s not a problem as long as it’s agreed how the piece will fit with the overall structure. And the great thing is that as soon as the piece is written, there is someone excited and keen to read it immediately, albeit with a critical eye and —track changes’ generating washes of colored notes.

All of that needs to be discussed and worked through — from the basic approach to the exact wording — and so the piece goes through multiple drafts. Skype is a huge boon here; hours of discussion take place over each chapter — sometimes with Michael in South Africa and me in the USA. Email is a given; it would be unthinkable to do this by fax, let alone snail mail!

So it’s put together, we have a draft of a part and settle down to read it, seeing how it flows, how the characters work, whether the plot moves forward. Often we will each find different things needing improvement. We change and polish, and Skype runs hot.

At the end we look back and think about what fun we’ve had and how lucky we are that other people seem to share that. And we wonder why one would want to write fiction alone?

We are also often asked how we went about getting an agent. Did we have one lined up before we started writing? Did we submit our book without letting people know Michael Stanley was, in fact, two people? Or were we up-front about the dual authorship?

We began writing without any thought of agents. After all we were doing it for fun. And my research led me to believe that no agent would be interested in considering a partial manuscript from an unknown author. So it was only when we had a decent draft of the book that we started looking for an agent. And we did so with a clear plan in mind.

We devised our plan by putting ourselves in the position of an agent. Our mental picture was of an agent’s desk piled high with manuscripts — an overwhelming sight each morning. We hypothesized that the agent would then try to reduce the piles as quickly as possible by discarding any manuscript that had a “problem”. A generic query letter? Into the trash! A query letter that was too long or didn’t provide the specified information? Into the trash! A query line that didn’t grab attention? Into the trash! A typo? Into the trash! A dog-eared page? This manuscript had been sent to someone else before coming here! Into the trash!

And so on. Our philosophy was to give an agent no excuse for trashing our submission without reading it. We realize that our mental picture may be incorrect, but it forced us into paying meticulous attention to detail. Every query letter we sent out met every requirement or guideline of the agent. No exceptions.

We were also upfront about Michael Stanley being the pen name of two authors. We had nothing to hide and, if anything, people would be intrigued by fiction being written collaboratively. So our query letter started “We would like to bring to your attention our recently completed mystery novel, entitled A Carrion Death.”

For the most part we approached agents who accepted queries via email. We sent out about 40 queries in a couple of waves. About a third of the agents never bothered to respond. About a third were immediately not interested. And about a third wanted to read the first few chapters.

We ended up having two agents wanting to represent the book. We were so fortunate. We ended up choosing the wonderful Marly Rusoff as our agent. And she has done us proud with contracts with HarperCollins, JC Lattès in France, and Sonzogno in Italy. ref=””>Headline in London bought the UK rights from HarperCollins.

Now the waiting begins. Will readers enjoy our tale? Will they want more? Or is our only reward going to be that Michael and I had so much fun writing together and are better friends now than when we started?

/ms_bw_small.jpgMichael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, both South Africans by birth. Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business, Sears in South Africa and Trollip in the USA. Their love of watching the wildlife of the African subcontinent has taken them on a number of flying safaris to Botswana and Zimbabwe. A Carrion Death is their first novel.

/stanley-trollip-small.jpgSouth African-born Stanley Trollip lived in the United States from 1971 until his retirement in 2003. Now he divides his time between Minneapolis and Knysna, South Africa. As a professor he was interested in how computers can facilitate teaching and learning. He is also a pilot and has enjoyed many flying safaris through the countries of southern Africa.

/michael-sears-small.jpgMichael Sears was born in Johannesburg, and grew up in Cape Town and Nairobi, Kenya. He is a mathematician by training. At the end of 2007, he retired from the Anglo-American corporation where he managed a remote-sensing group. He has traveled widely in Southern and Central Africa, with Botswana always being a special favorite.

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: is that a dagger I see before me?


Welcome back to Part II of my series of tips on how to accept feedback with a minimum of angst, mutually hurt feelings, and/or swordplay. Since we have a lot to cover today, let’s rush right into reviewing our tools so far for dealing with written manuscript critique:

1. Don’t argue about the feedback with the feedback-giver.

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

3. Don’t decide right away how you’re going to handle the critique — or how you’re going to apply its suggestions to your work.

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side. Even when it doesn’t feel like it.

5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first — or only — reader of your manuscript.

Oh, look — here’s a corollary to #5:

6. Don’t expect your readers to drop everything to read your manuscript. Especially if they happen to work in or with the publishing industry.

To put it another way, just because an agent, editor, or friend expresses an interest in reading your book does NOT imply either that (a) s/he has nothing else to do but sit around until you cough up the manuscript OR (b) s/he is planning to drop everything else s/he currently has on her plate in order to read it from beginning to end the nanosecond it arrives in the mail.

But try explaining that to an aspiring writer who has just received such a request from a pro for the first time.

Because this is such a common set of misconceptions, those of us in the biz see them manifest in quite a variety of ways. Let’s see if we can’t unearth another examplar or two to show how:

Written feedback meltdown #4: Tatiana’s agent, Ulrich, pitched her novel, PAY ATTENTION TO ME NOW! to editor Vivienne in last November — and now, at the end of March, Vivienne still hasn’t yet vouchsafed an opinion on it.

Tatiana is going nuts with anticipation. She wants to be a good client, yet she can’t resist sending Ulrich e-mails every few days, asking if there’s been any word yet.

No? How about now? Or…now?

He answers every third tersely: “What makes you think that I would keep that kind of news from you?”

She knows that he has a point, of course. She tries to restrain her anxiety, but she’s a novelist, after all — she’s an inveterate situation-dissector. Her brain is hard-wired to make up motivations.

So on Monday, she attributes the delay to Vivienne’s difficulties in gathering an editorial committee so close to Easter; on Wednesday, she is depressed into a stupor because she’s convinced that Vivienne has passed on the book, and Ulrich just doesn’t know how to break the news to her; by Saturday, she’s frantically re-editing the manuscript, absolutely certain that Vivienne has spent the last three months unable to make it past the first page.

Long-time readers, would you care to guess where that’s manuscript actually been for most of the intervening period?

That’s right: under three other manuscripts-to-be-read on Vivienne’s coffee table, competing for her time and attention with the editor’s significant other, work, meetings, her sister’s impending wedding (not another puce bridesmaid’s dress!), desire to make it to the gym occasionally, desire to sleep occasionally, the ambient noise of New York, and any TV show she might happen to watch on a regular basis.

None of which have anything whatsoever to do with Tatiana or her book, of course.But in the throes of worried speculation, the author simply cannot see that. Maybe if she tweaks that dodgy section in Chapter 10 one more time, something good will happen.

This is what we literary types like to call magical thinking.

Those of us who know and love Tatiana send our best wishes her way, along with sincere hopes that Vivienne will get around to reading that manuscript before the author starts sleepwalking, muttering that all the perfumes of Arabia won’t sweeten that little hand of hers.

That’s right: Lady Macbeth went nuts because she was an aspiring writer waiting for professional feedback.

(Think about it — it’s not as though the play gives a really convincing alternate explanation for why she cracks at that particular moment. And if you think turn-around times are slow today, what must they have been in the 11th century, when rejection letters would have been traveling on horseback — or, for an editor really in a hurry, via the local witch’s broomstick? )

Not seeing the moral? (Other than DON’T MURDER YOUR DINNER GUESTS, that is.) Let’s try another.

Written feedback meltdown #5: after many months of querying, Xerxes is elated to receive a request from agent Yarrow to submit the first 50 pages of his memoir, AND THEY SAID I WAS WASHED UP IN 480 BC: RECOLLECTIONS OF A COMEBACK KID.

Like so many frustrated aspiring writers, he interprets this request as an implied command to throw work, sleep, relations with loved ones, flogging the slaves, and personal hygiene to the winds until those pages are safely in the hands of the fine folks at FedEx.

Hey, those slaves aren’t gonna flog themselves.

Do I see some of this blog’s long-time readers with their hands raised, jumping up and down to capture my attention? “Wait just a Babylon-invading minute!” I hear these sharp-eyed protesters roar. “Did Yarrow ASK him to overnight his submission? If not, didn’t Xerxes just waste a fair amount of money?”

Well caught, readers: take a hoplite or two out of petty cash.

(Okay, I’ll admit that the jokes in this post are starting to get just a tad esoteric. Trust me, readers of Thucydides would have found that last one a real thigh-slapper.)

You’re quite right, in any case: there is absolutely no reason to shell out the dosh for overnight shipping for a submission. But hey, this was the guy who had his troops beat up the Hellespont when his bridge across it collapsed during a storm.

A bridge made of flax and papyrus; our pal Xerxes isn’t exactly the king of reasonable.

Having sent off his pages with the greatest possible swiftness, Xerxes naturally takes a week off work to rotate nervously between checking his e-mail every ten minutes, pacing outside to examine the contents of his mailbox every half-hour, and picking up his telephone receiver to make sure there’s still a dial tone every time the second hand clicks.

Yet amazingly, Yarrow does not get back to him before he runs out of vacation days. (Being king of Persia carries fewer fringe benefits these days than in ancient times. Back then, he would have had time to take a vacation long enough to discover the New World twice, if he’d wanted.)

By the time she asks to see the rest of the manuscript a month later, Xerxes has become a mere shadow of his former self: listless with chronic lack of sleep, he’s even too tired to rends the papyrus of his next book into 50,000 pieces and feed it to the palace dogs himself; he has the army do it.

But when an agent asks to see pages, pages be sent, right? So he gulps down a few handfuls of vitamin capsules, puts his entire scribe brigade on round-the-clock inking duty, and is able to send out the entire work in record time.

Once again, the wait is long, at least as far as Xerxes is concerned. “Criminy,” he grumbles. “Conquering Babylon took less time. How is she reading it, three words per day and six on Sundays?”

His patience pays off, Baal be thanked: Yarrow asks to represent him!

After the agency contract is signed, Yarrow tells her new client that she has a few pages’ worth of small tweaks that she would like him to make in his manuscript. “Nothing major,” she assures him on the phone. “Shouldn’t take you long at all.”

Exhausted by his extended vigil, yet eager to get his book into print, Xerxes rushes to his e-mail, rapping his fingertips nervously on his desk until Yarrow’s list of revisions arrives. He opens it — and ye gods, it must have a hundred points!

Overwhelmed, he begins to bash his head rhythmically upon his gold-encrusted desk, bringing his retainers running. How can he possibly do it all?

Catching my drift here? No? Okay, let’s try again:

Written feedback meltdown #6: Zelda has written what she modestly believes and hopes is the best novel in human history, MY HEART ON A PLATE. While not at all autobiographical, she assures every agent she queries, it is the story of a woman who went to her alma mater, holds her current day job, and was apparently married to her first husband.

The schmuck.

After much querying, leads to a handful of requests for pages and no offers of representation, she realizes that she is no closer to her goal of publication than she was at the beginning of her queryfest, for the simple reason that no one she has approached has actually told her anything about her book.

Other than, “We’re sorry, but it doesn’t meet our needs at this time.”

Perplexed, she begins reading every how-to book she can find on the writing life, only to find that most of their advice is of the pep talk variety; it’s not telling her why HER book isn’t getting published. But she does the suggested breathing exercises, makes a voodoo doll of herself and places it strategically within a carefully-arranged diarama depicting a packed book reading, and sacrifices a goat or two to the Muses.

As she’s been told many successful authors do.

She begins haunting writers’ conferences and surfing the net, looking for better answers. One day, she stumbles across a blog where a freelance editor was threatening to chain herself to a rock and expose herself to sea serpents unless all of her readers agreed to get some feedback on their manuscripts before shipping them off to agents and editors.

“Eureka!” Zelda cries, digging around in that nifty tote bag she got in return for her $500 literary contest registration fee. Surely, she jotted down contact information for a few of the nicer writers she met there.

She e-mails the one she liked best, Zippy (I don’t have the energy to go through the alphabet again, people; sorry), asking if he would like to exchange manuscripts.

Zippy responds that he would indeed like that very much, but he is about a month away from polishing off the latest draft of his novel, NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY EITHER, REALLY, the tender story of an accountant striving to be a novelist.

“But I’ll have quite a bit more time on my hands after tax season,” he assures her.

Delighted, Zelda immediately e-mails her entire book to her new friend — and is nonplused when Zippy writes back a few days later to suggest that they exchange physical manuscripts, for ease of reading, rather than each expecting the other to print up 700 pages or so.

Shaking her head at his unreasonableness — he sounds just like her ex, Xerxes — Zelda digs up her last rejected copy and hands it over.

A month passes with no more word than a quick note from Zippy saying that his revision is taking a bit longer than he’d anticipated. “Turns out taxes are due in April,” he informs her cheerfully. “Who knew?”

No matter, Zelda thinks: a slow read means more thoughtful feedback, right?

Another month goes by, however, and Zippy is still not ready to exchange: last week’s horoscope told him that he was too stressed out, so he took a much-needed break from revision to take up curling. “But I am reading yours,” he writes apologetically between slides across the ice. “I’m enjoying it very much.”

Zippy has an unexpected crisis at work — his client Tatiana is being audited — pushing back his projected completion date still further. By this time, Zelda has gnawedher fingernails down to the quick: she really needs this feedback.

Still, she knows that he’s doing her a favor, one that he hasn’t yet made it possible for her to return, and tries to be patient. Is it possible, she wonders, that he isn’t aware that she can’t query again until she’s weeded out any problems with her work?

Yes, long-time readers, I saw your hands shooting into the air: Zelda SHOULD have kept querying all throughout this process. She also should have found more than one first reader, made sure that he had time to give her feedback, and made specific requests about how she would like to receive it and when.

But then, she hasn’t had the advantage of having read the posts in my GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK series (conveniently available in the category list at right, Zelda), and you have.

At three and a half months, she writes and asks Zippy to lunch the following Saturday. “Maybe,” she suggests brightly, “we could talk about my novel?”

“Don’t have time,” he writes back. “Sea monsters have just carried off my favorite writing blogger.”

Losing her temper completely, Zelda sends him a lengthy, tear-stained explanation about why she had sought out feedback in the first place. “If you hate it,” she concludes, “or if you never intend to finish reading it, just tell me so. It’s kinder than toying with my feelings. My God, it’s been like Acts II-IV of Macbeth — all I’ve been able to do is wait!”

Contrary to what some of you cynics out there may have concluded, Zippy actually HAS read her novel; he genuinely is extremely busy. (Sea monsters can’t be relied upon to hack off their own heads, obviously.) So he tosses together a few supportive-sounding paragraphs saying how much he liked the book and sends them to her.

Delighted to have critique in hand at last, Zelda opens it — only to find that he has not given her ANY specific suggestions about how to improve her manuscript, only some vague statements about liking this character, not liking that plot point, and so forth. Her howls make all the cats of the neighborhood rush for cover.

Clearer now? Yes, each of today’s exemplars stumbled in several ways (heaven forefend that I should ever provide an illustration of only a single point) in facing genuinely frustrating situations over which they had virtually no control.

But Tatiana, Xerxes, and Zelda greatly exacerbated their own suffering by walking in with unrealistic expectations about when others would read their work. (And, in Zelda’s case, not setting up sensible ground rules for exchange before anyone so much as thought about budging a manuscript.)

As I MAY have mentioned seventy or eighty times before, agents and editors are REALLY busy people. If you imagined most of them buried up to their delicate necks in paper, you wouldn’t be far off about how much they have to read.

Yet most writers expect to hear back more or less instantaneously — and if they don’t, come up with all kinds of explanations except for the single most likely one: the agent or editor hasn’t had time to read it yet.

Why do unrealistic timing expectations make incorporating feedback harder when it actually does come? Because the writer has already expended so much vital energy in fretting over the differential between how quickly she wanted to hear back and when she did, energy that would have been much better spent, say, drafting the first chapter of her next book.

You can’t fool me about why Lady Macbeth went mad, Bill Shakespeare: you didn’t give her anything to do after Act I but wait around for her husband to slaughter half of Scotland. A long wait is an open invitation for an imaginative mind to prey upon itself. No wonder she started strolling the battlements at midnight, moaning.

Of course, she shouldn’t have told her husband to kill the king, either, but hey, no one’s perfect.

Since you’ve all been so very good, we’re going to take a break from this series tomorrow for a post on something completely different — and trust me, it will be a treat. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: looking both ways before you cross the street


Throughout this week, I have been talking about strategies to help a writer accept written feedback — you know, the kind that editors scrawl in margins after they have acquired your manuscript — with aplomb, professionalism, and a minimum of self-destructive blood-letting. Or at the very least to discourage writers from applying the leeches of self-torture to themselves with too liberal a hand.

Yes, I’m perfectly aware that’s a disturbing image. After one has spent years holding writers’ hands through crises of literary faith, one’s standards of disturbing rise considerably. And it’s not as though I posted a photo of a leech, right?

While having one’s baby subjected to ruthless examination in the name of improving it is undoubtedly a rather traumatic experience (many authors never really get used to it), developing good listening, consideration, and response skills can render the process substantially less painful.

Experience, of course, is how most professional writers become acclimated to dealing with the take-no-prisoners clarity of professional critique. However, as I’ve been arguing for the past couple of weeks, a writer’s usually better off not waiting until after selling that first book or even signing an agency contract before beginning the toughening-up process.

Today’s paradoxical truism-of-the-trade: the more sensitive a talented writer is to critique, the earlier in her writing life she should start to seek it out.

Before I launch into elaboration upon that rather cryptic statement, let’s revisit the strategies we’ve discussed so far:

1. Don’t argue about the feedback with the feedback-giver.

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

3. Don’t decide right away how you’re going to handle the critique — or how you’re going to apply its suggestions to your work.

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side. Even when it doesn’t feel like it.

Give a shout if any of those are still puzzling you, please. In the absence of anguished bellowing from my readership, I’m going to move on.

5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first reader of your manuscript. Get other feedback first.

Seems like a strange thing for a freelance editor to say, doesn’t it? Yet the more time I put in as a book doctor, the more I’m convinced that this is a good idea.

The vast majority of aspiring writers do not agree with me, however — or so I surmise from the astonishing high percentage of manuscripts that are apparently blithely sent off to agents and editors without any human eyes save those belonging to the writer having scanned them.

Heck, in submissions with many typos, a professional reader is sometimes tempted to wonder if even the {writer’s eyes} wandered over it between the moments of composition and submission.

It’s appealing on a fantasy level, isn’t it? A writer works in secret for years on end, polishing a manuscript to the nth degree of perfection whilst his obtuse coworkers, ungrateful friends, and/or monstrous family meander through their lives, unaware that they are under the merciless scrutiny of an author extraordinaire.

The writer sends off queries and submission in secret, mentioning his ambition to no one (because, naturally, NO ONE UNDERSTANDS HIM) until the happy day when he can burst into his workplace/favorite bar/dysfunctional home, book contract in hand, and announce, “Hey, bozos, you’ve underestimated me for all these years!”

Whereupon everyone who has ever been mean to him promptly shouts, “Touché, Frederick. Guess I’ve been wrong about you all along. Let me spend the rest of our collective lives making it up to you.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but I’ve sold two books and published many shorter pieces without inducing any ex-friends, ex-lovers, and enemies (to lift a line from the great Joe Jackson) to tumble out of the woodwork and apologize for their general schmuckery.

Try as I might, I have never been able to negotiate that particular stipulation into my publishing contracts.

In practice, not showing one’s work to people one knows prior to submission to judgmental total strangers such as agents and editors generally results in bad news for the writer, even when the response is good, by professional standards: if the manuscript is rejected, the writer doesn’t have a context in which to understand why, and if it is accepted, the writer suddenly finds herself on the receiving end of a whole lot of quite blunt professional feedback.

Hard to wrap your brain around, isn’t it? In this biz, it’s the really good work that’s singled out for critique.

Elementary school certainly did nothing to prepare any of us for that eventuality.

To tell you the truth, I’ve always thought that the no-win situation faced by writers who eschew pre-submission feedback was a pretty disproportionate punishment for being shy — the most popular reason for not hitting up all and sundry for manuscript evaluation. After all, few, if any, agencies post advice on their websites about the desirability of seeking out non-threatening first readers. How on earth is the writer new to the biz supposed to find out?

In a word: experience.

Personally, I suspect a whole lot of human misery could be avoided if those of us farther along in the process sat aspiring writers down and leveled with them — on a blog, for instance. In that spirit, I’m going to share just a scant handful of the bushel of very, very good reasons NOT to make a pro your first reader:

a) It doesn’t give the writer a chance to learn about unspotted writing or formatting problems before an agent or editor sees it.

b) Since form-letter rejections are now the norm, submission only to agencies is unlikely to yield feedback that will enable the writer to improve subsequent drafts of the manuscript.

c) It encourages the writer to begin to regard professional acceptance as the single standard of quality, ignoring the fact that the literary market is notoriously mercurial, seeking out very different kinds of books at different times.

This is not a complete list, of course — I brought this up at greater length and in exhaustive detail a few months back, in my GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK series (see category at right, if you missed it). My goodness, though, those three are enough, aren’t they?

“But Anne,” I hear some of you call out, and not unreasonably, “why tell us this in the context of a discussion about taking written feedback well?”

Prompt jumping on that cue, faceless chimers-in; your check is in the mail. For yet another reason plucked from the aforementioned bushel:

(d) When the writer receives her first professional feedback, she’s too likely to treat every syllable of it as Gospel. Even if that feedback is merely a form-letter response to a query letter.

The most common result: the writer feels crushed.

That’s because she’s set herself up. Deciding in advance that any single sentient being — be it agent, editor, best friend, mother, or Creature from the Black Lagoon — is going to be the sole arbiter of whether her work is any good places far, far too much power in that person’s hands. It can elevate what is in fact a personal opinion (which any rejection is, ultimately) into a final referendum upon whether the submitter should be writing at all.

If the writer-designated deity du jour happens to be the editor handling the manuscript or the editor who acquires it, the results can be even more ego-devastating. Suddenly, the affirmation of talent implied in the agency or publication contract seems to fade in the face of the first critique the manuscript has ever faced.

In that moment, how prepared would you expect that author to be to listen critically to feedback? Or to evaluate its usefulness?

Uh-huh. And yet that author would never DREAM of crossing a busy street without first checking both ways to see if there are any vehicles about to barrel down upon her.

Don’t get caught in that trap, I implore you. Get enough pre-submission feedback to have some sense of your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses before you submit it to the tender mercies of the pros.

Whew, that was a dense one, wasn’t it? Don’t worry; I’ll select tomorrow’s with an eye to making it easier to swallow. And if you’re very good indeed, on Sunday, I’ll give you a special reward for virtue in working through this difficult series.

No, no hints: it’s a surprise, I tell you, a lulu. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

(PS: the original of today’s image appears courtesy of the fine folks at

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: hello? Hel-lo?


Sometimes, the universe just rushes to provide material for this blog. Who am I to stop the flow?

After yesterday’s impassioned (but unillustrated by examples) argument against giving in to the urge to argue with someone who has just given you a slew of written feedback on your manuscript, I received a telemarketing call from PRECISELY the type of knee-jerk disputer I’d been talking about, the sort who acts as though a kindly-put no is tantamount to a yes.

Or, at the very least, that it’s an indicator that the person saying no couldn’t possibly be qualified to express an opinion on the subject.

To add SOME enjoyment to what was actually rather an unpleasant exchange, I’ve spiced up the dialogue a little — because, as long-time readers of this blog know, dialogue lifted directly from real life tends to come across as deadly dull, vague, and prolix on the page. I’ve also changed various names, to protect the guilty. (They already know who they are, after all.)

(Phone rings upstage left. Seated at her desk deleting the day’s crop of 250 spam would-be comments on her blog, ANNE tries to ignore it. As it keeps ringing insistently, she trips over three cats, several stacks of unbound manuscripts waiting to be read, and a small mountain of as-yet-to-be-recycled junk mail to answer it.)

ANNE (breathlessly): Hello?

BOB (in the tone one typically uses for chats amongst intimate friends): Hi. Is George there?

ANNE: No, I’m afraid he’s at work. May I take a message?

BOB: You must be his wife.

ANNE (considering then discounting the possibility that this is an old friend of George’s who has somehow missed all news of him over the past 14 years): I mustn’t, actually.

BOB (talking over her): I’ve got a great deal on heating vents for the two of you. Why don’t I swing by and…

ANNE: Why are you talking in such a familiar tone, when it’s perfectly obvious this is a telemarketing call? Please take us off your…

BOB (feigning surprise marginally well): But you’re on my list.

ANNE: The only list we’re on is the National Do Not Call Registry.

BOB: That’s impossible.

ANNE: I can report your company for calling us.

BOB: We vet our lists against theirs. Your husband must have…

ANNE: Are you seriously suggesting that George snuck behind my back and removed our number from the National Do Not Call Registry?

BOB: He might have called us for information about heating vents.

ANNE: I can assure you that he’s not interested. Nor am I. Go away.

BOB: I’ll call back later; he might get mad if we take him off our list.

ANNE: Break up many relationships with that line?

BOB (evidently taking this as encouragement): If you’ll just let me send him some information…

PHONE: Click. Buzz.


Some of you recognize Bob in his writerly form from conferences, critique groups, and pretty much everywhere else writers gather, right? He’s easy to spot in the wild: his constant cry is, “Oh, they just don’t understand my work.” It’s invariably the same excuse, whether they refers to other group members, agents who have rejected him, or editors who spurn his agent’s advances.

Rather than, say, “Oh, maybe I should check my work for typos or continuity problems before showing it to other people” or “You know, my agent may have a point there.”

As I mentioned yesterday, unfortunately for the collective reputation of writers everywhere, the Bobs of the literary world are also the ones who respond to form rejection letters with phone calls and e-mails to agents, explaining PRECISELY why the agency was wrong to reject their work.

Which, in case you’re pondering adopting it as a means of winning friends, influencing people, and/or selling heating vents, has never, ever worked. Unless, of course, Bob’s true goal is to give the target of the argument yet another anecdote about someone who just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

In which case, I must say he’s succeeding brilliantly.

Yes, an aspiring writer DOES need to be persistent — but in a strategic manner, in ways that don’t result in slamming doors through which a writer might want to slip someday.

Remember, when a writer approaches an agent or editor, she’s not merely offering a book — she’s offering herself as the author of it. Since it’s practically unheard-of for a manuscript to undergo NO revisions between first submission to final publication, both agents and editors are going to expect an author — ANY author, even Bob — to be able to incorporate their feedback quickly, creatively, and with a minimum of drama.

In that spirit, let’s recap yesterday’s first couple of suggestions on how to respond to written feedback gracefully:

1. Don’t argue

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

Got those firmly ensconced in your brain, because you are better, more talented, and smarter in every way than Bob? Good. Let’s move on.

3. Don’t decide right away how you’re going to handle the critique — or how you’re going to apply its suggestions to your work.

In a way, this is the first cousin to #2: as I argued yesterday, the first flush of shocked emotion is not particularly conducive to long-term planning. All too often, normally perfectly reasonable writers will overreact in the heat of the moment, lashing back at the critiquer. (Which, as we have seen throughout this series, can have some pretty unpleasant consequences for everyone concerned.)

Others will rush to embrace the opposite extreme, deciding in a flash that such a barrage of feedback must mean that the book is not salvageable. Into the trash it goes, if not actually out the window.

Neither course is likely to do either your writing career or the manuscript any good. In the cooler light of subsequent reflection, it’s a heck of a lot easier to see that.

I know, I know — when the adrenaline is flowing fast, every fiber of your being wants to spring into action right away. But revision is a painstaking process; you’re going to need a carefully thought-out plan. That’s going to take some time and mature reflection to produce.

Give yourself permission to stew for a while — privately, where no one even vaguely affiliated with the publication of your book can see or hear you. Get all of that resentment out of your system. Journal. Join a kickboxing class. Frighten the pigeons in the nearest park with your guttural roars.

THEN, when your blood pressure is once again low and your hopes high, go back to the project. You may be surprised at just how much more reasonable that page of critique has become in the interim.

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side.

Hoo boy, do a lot of writers seem to find this hard to remember immediately after receiving feedback! To hear ‘em talk about (or heaven help us, to) the folks who wrote up that editorial memo, agent’s critique, freelance editorial report, etc., you’d think that expressing opinions about how to improve a manuscript and/or render it more marketable was an act of outright aggression.

But think about it: these people aren’t the enemy; it just feels that way in the moment. In fact, in the vast majority of instances, they’re trying to HELP the writer.

Okay, to the Bobs of this world, it can feel like a sneak attack by an enemy pretty much all the time, as well as for the hypersensitive. To the fellow who won’t hear no, anything but an instantaneous and unqualified YES represents a barrier to be overcome through persistence; for those who have trouble differentiating between their egos and their manuscripts — a very, very common conflation — every rejection, however minor, feels like a referendum upon their very worth as human beings.

I want to talk to the vast majority of writers who fall into neither camp — or who at least pay only short visits to either extreme.

Listen: professional readers are trained not to mince words — as those of you who have queried or submitted may have noticed, rejection letters are TERSE, typically. So is most professional feedback — so much so, in fact, that agents and editors tend not to give any feedback at all unless they think the submission is pretty good.

So when a pro takes the time and trouble to give substantive feedback on a manuscript, as opposed to a form-letter rejection, it’s almost always in the hope of assisting its writer to improve it. That’s almost always the ostensible goal of critique groups as well, and even of those generous first readers who take the time to read your works-in-progress.

When a writer responds to such efforts as though any desire to change the book must stem from an unadmitted and nefarious source — jealousy of talent is a popular choice in such accusations, as is lack of familiarity with what makes literature readable and just plain shallowness — the kindly-motivated feedback-giver feels burned.

Unfortunately for us all, it typically doesn’t take all that many outraged reactions before a feedback-giver starts to feel that it’s not worth it. Why expend the energy, she thinks, to try to help someone who blames the messenger?

Multiply that burned feeling by tens of thousands, and you can start to understand why most agencies choose not to give individualized feedback in rejection letters.

I can hear the better-behaved among you getting restless. “But Anne,” these models of propriety cry, “I am nothing but restrained in my dealings with professional readers. I treat them with respect: I approach them as they wish to be approached, wait patiently for them to read my work, and don’t lash out at them when they reject me. So why treat ME as though I’m as volatile as folks you’ve described?”

Good point, angelic ones. One simple reason: time.

Yes, it would be dandy if they could respond to each and every query as if no angry writer had ever sent them a flame-mail response to a rejection letter. But — and I think it’s been a while since I’ve pointed this out — the average agency receives upwards of 800 queries a week. Plowing through them all is very time-consuming…and form rejection letters save valuable minutes in fresh composition.

Open SASE, slip in pre-prepared photocopy, and whoosh — the response is on its way back to the writer.

In a way, obviously pre-packaged form rejections are kinder to writers than the same boilerplate pasted into return e-mails — since rejections tend to be so short, it’s tempting for the writer to conclude that those words AREN’T what that particular agency sends to everyone. It almost always is — why, from an agency screener’s point of view, should they expend the time personalizing each? — but every agent in the biz has received flame-mail from outraged Bobs who want to know EXACTLY how that generic critique applies to THEIR queries or submissions.

Which brings me to to the reason OTHER than time-savings that agencies are so fond of form-letter rejections. As annoying as those blandly identical form letters are to their recipients, the very fact that they are generic means — or so the logic goes — that they are less likely to provoke an angry response than a letter geared more to actual problems in the query or submission.

Okay, they’re less likely to provoke an angry response that makes it all the way back to the agency. As most of us know from personal experience, they cause plenty of storms in writers’ living rooms across the world.

Which sets up something of a vicious circle, doesn’t it? A few hotheaded writers excoriate their rejecters, causing the denizens of agencies to fear writerly backlash — so they produce maddening generic rejections that, over time, have led many aspiring writers to conclude that the industry is hostile to new talent. Every so often, some frustrated soul just can’t take it anymore — and shoots off a missive that confirms every fear the agency workers had about writerly response to rejection.

Let’s agree here and now that we here at Author! Author! are going to do our part to try to stop that unproductive and soul-curdling cycle. Let’s commit to being the writers that agents dream about representing, the ones who can and do take feedback professionally, incorporate it well, and use critique to make our manuscripts into the best books they can possibly be.

A bit ambitious, true. But someone’s got to start the counter-movement.

Whew, that was a lot of advice to absorb in one sitting, wasn’t it? Rest assured, it’s not my final word on the subject — we’ve barely scratched the surface of techniques for handling feedback. If today’s array doesn’t work for you, relax: one of the subsequent suggestions probably will.

Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: the written rules


Welcome back to my series on developing that most essential of professional writer skills, taking critique well. As I’ve been explaining in various ways for the past week or so, the oh-so-common aspiring writer’s fantasy that a manuscript — any manuscript — will require no further changes once the author declares it finished is very much at odds with the way the path to publication is actually constructed. Many, many other parties have a right to stick in an oar and start rowing.

Contrary to the horror stories with which we writers like to scare one another around literary conference campfires — okay, around the bar that is never more than a hundred yards from any such conference — the overall result of outside feedback is generally GOOD for the book in question. Not every suggestion will be stellar, of course, but every manuscript in existence could use a second opinion.

Yes, I’m aware that last statement made half of you squirm. Nevertheless, it’s true.

After I completed yesterday’s post on what can happen when writers respond poorly to written feedback, I realized that logically, it would have made a dandy lead-in to the first strategy on this week’s list. I also realized that, due to a slight brain malfunction on my end, I neglected to mention why you might want to be preparing yourself for WRITTEN feedback in particular.

Most of the major decision-makers in the U.S. publishing industry are concentrated in a very few places in the country: New York, Los Angeles, to a lesser extent the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Apart from a few scattered presses elsewhere, that’s about it.

Most of the writers whose books they produce do not live in one of these places.

As a result, the common aspiring writer expectation that signing with an agent or selling a book to an editor means copious in-person contact is seldom accurate. These days, communication between author and agent or editor is usually by e-mail, supplemented by telephone conversations.

In fact, it’s actually not unheard-of for an author never to meet her agent in the flesh at all.

Manuscript critique is still usually performed in the margins of the manuscript, with larger-scale requests conveyed via editorial memo or in the body of an e-mail. Obviously, then, most of the feedback a writer could expect to receive from her agent and editor, not to mention the publishing house’s marketing department, PR people, etc. would be in writing.

Before the shy among you breathe too great a sigh of relief at the prospect of being able to receive necessary change requests at an emotionally safe remove, cast your mind back over yesterday’s examples. Responding to written feedback is not necessarily easier than face-to-face; it merely requires a different set of coping mechanisms.

This is not to say that you should throw last week’s set of guidelines out the window the moment you receive an e-mailed critique; you shouldn’t. In many instances, those strategies will also be helpful for written feedback.

This week, however, I’m going to be tackling some of the more virulent knee-jerk responses to written critique, and giving you some tips on heading them off at the past.

Ready? Here goes:

1. Don’t argue.

Oh, I know: it’s tempting to tell off the agent who’s asked you to kill off your favorite secondary character or the editor that is apparently allergic to words of more than two syllables, but trust me on this one — it’s a waste of energy AND it won’t help preserve your artistic vision.

That last bit made some of you trouble heaven with your bootless cries, didn’t it? “In heaven’s name,” anguished voices moan, “why?”

Well, several reasons. First, as we discussed last week, generally speaking, feedback-givers offer critique with an eye to improving the book in question, not as the initial salvos in an ongoing debate. The critiqued writer may take the advice or leave it, but from the point of view of a reader concentrated on the quality of the end product, what’s said ABOUT the book doesn’t really matter, except insofar as it helps make the book better.

The important thing is what ends up on the PAGE.

The closer one’s manuscript gets to publication, the more likely this is to be the critiquer’s expectation — and, like so much else in this wacky industry, that’s partially a function of time. Agents and editors are busy, busy people, often working on rather short and overlapping deadlines: they don’t really have time to mince words. (That’s the official reason that professional feedback tends to be so terse, anyway.)

Because they feel rushed pretty much all the time, they tend to prefer to hand a list of suggested changes to the author and walk away, secure in the expectation that the writer will weigh each point carefully, make appropriate changes to the text, and return with a much-improved manuscript.

When a writer gives in to that initial urge to argue about the changes — and for those of you who have not yet experienced the receipt of professional-level feedback, the desire to respond can feel as imperative as a sneeze — a debate is inevitable. And debate, my friends, is a great eater of time.

This is not to say that you should not be willing to fight for the integrity of your work — you should. Later in this series, I shall talk at length about what to do if, upon mature consideration, a PARTICULAR piece of feedback seems impossible or inadvisable to incorporate.

In practice, however, writers who accede to the temptation to snipe back are seldom responding to a single questionable suggestion — they’re usually lashing back at the very notion of changing the book at all. Sound familiar?

Honestly, I’ve seen quite a few of these diatribes (usually when a sobbing author is seeking help in appeasing a much-offended agent or editor), and they tend to make it quite apparent that the writer is rejecting the proffered advice in toto. Generally, these missives are phrased in such a way as to render future compromise on the most important change requests significantly more difficult than if the author had just kept mum.

If your first impulse is to come up with 47 reasons that the suggested changes could never work, fine: write it all down. But don’t do it as an e-mail, and don’t send it to your critiquer.

Some of you out there just HATE this advice, don’t you? “But Anne,” I hear the rambunctious mutter, “you seem to expect us just to roll over and play dead.”

As a matter of fact, I don’t. What I DO expect you to do is be strategic in how you make your case, picking your battles, and proceeding in a way that protects the best interests of the book, not authorial ego — and certainly not in a manner that achieves nothing but venting at precisely the wrong people.

How might one go about this? The next tip is a good place to start.

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

Not to cast aspersions on anyone’s reading comprehension skills, but it’s been my experience that writers’ first reads of critique tend to be just a touch inaccurate. Completely understandable, of course: at first blush, it’s very, very easy to be angered by certain trigger words and phrases — and once the kettle of the brain is already boiling, it’s hard to consider further suggestions with anything remotely resembling detachment.

Read it once, then run off and punch a pillow. Repeatedly. Stomp. Scream. Christen the closest stuffed animal within reach with the name of your feedback giver and read it the riot act. Just do not, whatever you do, respond directly to the critiquer. (See rule #1.)

After you’ve had a chance to calm down — and whether that will take an hour, a week, or a month varies wildly from writer to writer — go back and print the critique. Read it again; you will probably be surprised at how many fewer changes it’s requesting than you initially thought.

Set it aside again, returning to it at a point of blessed calm, when you will not be interrupted. Go through the feedback line by line, making a list of what it is actually asking you to do. Then take the initial missive, fold it twice, and stash it away somewhere, safe from human eyes.

Or, if you’re still boiling, hand the list to a good reader whom you trust implicitly and as HIM to make out a list.

When you first approach the manuscript, have the list by your side, not the critique in its original form. (I know it sounds wacky, but seeing the change suggestions in one’s own handwriting often seems less threatening.) Read through the ENTIRE manuscript, noting on the list where the pages and chapters where the requested changes would be applied.

Note, please, that I have not yet said anything about deciding whether to APPLY the feedback or not. At this juncture, you’re merely gathering information. Be as impartial as you can.

Call it a fact-finding tour of the manuscript.

Those of you reading this while facing tight deadlines can probably feel your blood pressure rising at this juncture, can’t you? “But Anne,” I hear these stressed-out souls cry, “this will take FOREVER. I need to make these changes NOW, don’t I?”

Not necessarily — writers almost always underestimate how much time they have to respond to revision requests, assuming imminence simply because they haven’t asked point-blank for a due date. (Don’t worry, stress-mongers: I shall be discussing the ticklish business of deadline-setting later in the week.)

The simple fact is, though, that no matter how tight the actual deadline may be, a writer in the throes of critique shock is in no shape to make critical decisions affecting his manuscript. He needs to calm down first — and calming down takes time.

No, seriously. Ask a doctor: once the body is revved up, those weirded-out stress hormones don’t just vanish in a puff of smoke merely because the brain decides it has work to do.


If, after a week or two, you still aren’t calm enough to be able to approach the suggestions or your manuscript in a constructive frame of mind, consider asking a writer friend (other friends probably will have a hard time understanding the power dynamics between critiquer and reviser) to read over the feedback and summarize it for you.

Ideally, this would be someone who has already read the manuscript, but who isn’t, say, sharing your bed or workplace on a regular basis. Or who didn’t give birth to you. You want someone who cares about you, but who can be impartial when you cannot.

(Spoiler alert: once you’ve established a good working relationship with your agent, s/he is going to be a great person to ask for perspective when you receive upsetting critique from your editor. But part of setting up that rapport and trust involves the writer’s demonstrating a willingness to respond professionally to feedback.)

Why is finding an impartial second opinion important? Because — and I’m sticking this bug in your ear now, because you may not be able to feel it kicking around your brain immediately in the wake of receiving a raft of feedback — there’s probably some good advice lurking in that morass of critique. You wouldn’t want to reject it wholesale, would you?

Well, actually, in the first moment of receiving it, you almost certainly would. May I suggest that wouldn’t be the most appropriate instant to weigh the quality of the critique, let alone make career-shaking decisions?

More coping strategies follow next time, of course. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths — and keep up the good work!

When a writer’s buttons get pushed


No, this lovely, soothing picture of my flower garden (snapped by the equally lovely and talented Marjon Floris) does not mean that my fairy godmother came and waved her wand over my despoiled back yard, alas; the pretty things you see here are from last year, and their descendents still above ground are currently despairing under construction detritus.

In fact, even as I write this, an enthusiastic young man in a backhoe appears to be enjoying himself very much, rolling back and forth across land that was once green. And I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if that crash I just heard involved the demise of one of my windows.

But that’s not my focus at the moment. Since we’ve been talking for a week now about coping with the trauma that is receiving and applying verbal feedback, I thought it might be a good moment to remind us all that THINGS GROW BACK.

So far in this series, we have been concerned primarily with how to deal constructively with the kind of feedback writers often receive face-to-face: in critique groups, classes, pitch meetings, public readings to one’s, well, public, workshops, telephone calls with one’s agent, lunches with one’s editor, and occasionally, as we saw yesterday, situations where one is inadvertently saddled with a feedback-giver who doesn’t quite get the story.

Daunting situations, all. You were brave and attentive while we looked them straight in the face; I’m proud of you.

And in the fine tradition of tough love, I’m going to reward you for that courage by testing it a bit more. Today, we begin taking on WRITTEN feedback.

Already, I can feel some of you squirming behind your computer desks. “But Anne,” I hear a vocal minority protest, “that’s comparatively easy critique to take well, isn’t it? I mean, in person, you have to keep your temper, be polite, refrain from bludgeoning the critic with the nearest blunt object, that sort of thing. But with written feedback, I can indulge in primal screaming in the privacy of my atelier. So why worry about the intensity of my response?”

I can answer that in two keystrokes, Mr. Atelier-Owning Smarty-Pants: the DELETE key and the SEND button.

C’mon, admit it — you know precisely what I’m talking about here. No? Okay, let’s introduce a few new exemplars to illustrate.

Written feedback meltdown #1: when Lionel signed with Murgatroyd Literary Associates two months ago, he didn’t know much about how submissions to publishing houses worked. Like many new to being agented, Lionel simply assumed that his agent would start pitching and sending out his novel, LOVE KICKED ME IN THE DIPLOMATIC POUCH, the nanosecond the hard copies arrived in New York.

Give or take a coffee break or two.

Being a conscientious agent who truly believes in Lionel’s book, however, Murgatroyd expresses an interest in seeing the book revised to maximize its marketability before he begins investing in buying coffee and lunch for editors. He promises the incredulous Lionel some feedback, but then the holidays happened, followed by the annual New Year’s Resolution Query Avalanche…in short, he’s only just gotten around to it now, in March. Sorry.

Naturally, Lionel has been chomping at the bit the whole time: he can’t WAIT to quit his day job as Secretary of State to become a full-time writer. But when he begins to read Murgatroyd’s two-page (single-spaced) explanation of what he wants changed, his brain feels like it’s boiling by halfway through the second paragraph.

What does he mean, the title isn’t suggestive enough, or that the instantaneous translators at the UN couldn’t possibly have their mouths at leisure enough for the peanut butter sandwich bonanza in Chapter 12? And how could the plot possibly work without the brigade of tap-dancing baton-twirlers from Nairobi?

By the time he reaches Murgatroyd’s tentative suggestion that perhaps June would be the best time to start circulating manuscripts, Lionel has sprouted two ulcers, the makings of a whopper of a migraine, and a bunion on the third toe of his right foot. Clearly, Murgatroyd wants a completely different novel than the one he’d had in mind.

Shaking, Lionel inches his mouse toward the DELETE key — not to trash the manuscript, although obviously that’s a lost cause, but to eliminate the most remote possibility that he will ever have to gaze upon this emotionally-abusive document again.

Weeks pass, but Lionel is afraid to open Murgatroyd’s subsequent e-mails, for fear of being lambasted. Eventually, they stop coming.

Doesn’t seem plausible that an aspiring writer would bow out of a relationship with a good agent so quickly? Actually, it happens all the time: agents often speak with regret about the talented writer with the great book concept who went away, feedback in hand — only to disappear forever into the Revision Vortex.

Don’t worry; we’re going to make sure that it doesn’t suck you in, I promise.

Okay, that’s one button down. Here’s an example of the other.

Written feedback meltdown #2: Nancy’s first novel, THINGS I COULD NOT TELL MY MOTHER I DID IF THIS WERE NONFICTION, was snapped up fairly quickly by a major publishing house — which is to say, in under a year’s worth of submissions by her agent, Olivia, a period punctuated by our heroine’s e-mailing twice a week and calling three times a month to find out what was going on with her book.

Relieved at the prospect of no longer being on the receiving end of so much angst, Olivia passes along editor Pauline’s e-mail to Nancy, so they may communicate directly, and retires to Bermuda to raise mountain lions. (They’re easier to herd than authors, she says; big cats don’t need continual reassurance that they’re talented.)

At first, Nancy and Pauline’s e-mail exchanges are very cordial: they discuss deadlines, minor changes, information for the marketing department. Then, one day, Nancy sits down at her computer to find what’s known in the biz as an editorial memo, a document briefly summarizing the changes Pauline would like to see in the manuscript before formally accepting it for publication — and, not entirely coincidentally, before paying the second installment of the three-part advance.

Nancy can’t believe her eyes — these change requests are outrageous! What does plausibility even MEAN, in a fictional context? Plenty of girls in her generation were Yo-Yo Ma groupies, and while cellos certainly aren’t common in marching bands, it’s just closed-minded to declare it impossible. And who cares if the subplot about the bassoonists’ conspiracy to replace the conductor with a cardboard cut-out of Jerry Garcia adds four chapters to the book? It really happened that way.

I mean, it happened that way in the book.

But Nancy is a word-oriented person and, she believes, a reasonable one, so she sits down immediately and writes a 27-page response to Pauline, explaining precisely how and why each and every one of these suggested changes is, if not actually idiotic, at least a really, really bad idea.

The next day, she receives a furious phone call from a wildcat farm in Bermuda. “What on earth did you say to Pauline?” Olivia demands over the ambient mewing. “She’s talking about dropping the book!”

Seem extreme? It’s not unheard-of, barring the mountain lion part. But let’s tone the same phenomenon down a little, to show the more common victim of the itch to push the SEND button.

Written feedback meltdown #3: querulous Quentin has been querying his quaint historical romance, THE QUONDOM QUISLING QUAILS, for quite some time now. It might be quixotic, but it has long been his quotidian habit to question other quill-pushers in his critique group about the qualifications of their representatives.

(Okay, I can’t keep it up anymore.)

Having experienced little success by sending Dear Agent queries to everyone he could find on the Internet who claimed to sell books, he hies himself hence to a writers’ conference, because he’s heard that it’s easier to pick up an agent that way.

The first day of the weekend-long conference is disappointing, though: two agents to whom he has been randomly assigned for pitch meetings turn out not to represent his kind of book.

Not that it stops him from continuing to urge them to make an exception in his case.

On Sunday, he approaches Rex, an agent who does take on historical romance. He seems open to Quentin’s book concept; he asks to see the first 50 pages. Delighted, Quentin rushes home and e-mails the chapters that very night, then settles down to the time-honored writerly ritual of counting the seconds until the agent falls in love with his work.

Out of his mind with anticipation by the following Friday, he shoots off an e-mail to Rex, asking if he liked the pages and offering to send more. In passing, Quentin explains that he wants this book to succeed more than anything else he has ever desired in his life.

When Rex has still not responded by the Tuesday after that, Quentin sends another e-mail, apologizing for being so intrusive, but explaining that he (unlike every other writer from whom the agent might conceivably have requested materials, one assumes) is committed to making this book the best it can possibly be.

Fortunately for Quentin, Rex hasn’t bothered to read these subsequent missives, which have automatically been added to the queue (ah, there’s another one) of e-mails for Rex’s assistant Samantha to plow through when she is finished reading the week’s paper submissions.

Samantha, as it happens, shares a 3-room railroad apartment in Brooklyn with Millicent and four other agency screeners. (Have I mentioned that they’re not paid much?) When she gets to Quentin’s submission, she gives it a fair reading. For a paragraph, at any rate.

Then she rejects it with the standard agency boilerplate: Thank you for submitting your novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t fall in love with this story, and the fiction market it too tight at the moment to take on projects in which we do not have complete faith. Best of luck in placing this elsewhere. Sincerely, Samantha J. Powermonger.

Quentin is stunned by this response. Who the heck is Samantha J. Powermonger? Did she steal his manuscript from Rex? Hadn’t he and Rex made a real connection at the conference?

Clearly, there’s been some terrible misunderstanding. To rectify it, he sends off an extensive e-mail to both that Samantha person and Rex, explaining that there must have been a mix-up at the agency.

While he’s at it, he explains precisely why his protagonist is deeply loveable.

Rex does not respond, but Samantha (not having burned her lip on a latte that day) does. She explains patiently that she is Rex’s assistant, and it’s her job to screen submissions. Yes, that really does mean that his submission had been rejected.

Quentin responds five minutes later with a four-page missive, informing her (since she was evidently unaware of it) that he and Rex had an understanding, so she had no right to keep the manuscript from him. Obviously, she knows less than nothing about GOOD literature, so here is another copy of the requested pages. Perhaps this time she could manage to be a good secretary and place them in the right IN box?

When she doesn’t reply within a few hours, he composes a snail mail letter to Rex, explaining what has happened and marking it PRIVATE!!!! Mysteriously, that doesn’t elicit a request for the rest of the book, either.

Clearly, it’s all Samantha’s fault. He’d better send her another e-mail.


Now, I would sincerely hope that how each of these exemplars handled feedback on their work — explicit critique in Lionel and Nancy’s cases, implicit in Quentin’s — made you laugh because you would never DREAM of handling professional criticism this way. But the fact is, wildcat farms aside, writers do launch these kinds of responses in the general direction of agents and editors every day.

And that, my friends, is bad for all writers, leading many folks in the biz to roll their eyes and dismiss the whole lot of us as hypersensitive, volatile, and ignorant about how the industry actually works. They tend to attribute this to a desire to cling desperately to our original drafts, as if the arrangement of words on the page were somehow mystically significant, or to a simple refusal to understand that publishing is a business, not an arts-promotion charity.

I don’t think that’s usually what’s going on.

I attribute this kind of overreaction to three causes: (a) lack of skill (and experience) in accepting feedback, (b) conflation of effort expended with quality of writing, and (c) a myopic tendency not to try to see a manuscript (or query) from any point of view other than that of author.

Why bring this up now, in mid-series on feedback acceptance?

Next time, I’m going to start going through a set of strategies any writer can use to present his response to written critique more professionally, in a way that will avoid engendering the astonished and annoyed responses we’ve seen here. Despite what many writers would like to believe, well-written books are seldom produced in a vacuum; ideally, working with an agent or editor should be a collaboration, not merely a division of the labor required to bring a book to market.

But in order to move beyond simply not offending people who wield power over your ability to sell your writing and begin to become truly talented at incorporating feedback, let’s start thinking about (b) and (c) as well.

Why? Because ultimately, a book is not for the author alone — at least, not if the author plans to get it published.

It is also for the audience. And no matter how talented a writer may be, if she can’t place herself in the shoes of her target audience — be it agent, editor, or the reader she believes will eventually be buying her book on Amazon — she’s not going to be a very good reviser, whether based upon outside feedback or her own self-editing instincts. She needs to learn to view her work as other readers see it.

Give it some thought — and keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: let’s talk about this, or, if it could happen to Tru, it could happen to you


I was prowling my bookshelves last night, seeking out the source of a dimly-remembered quote, when I came across a marvelous writer-taking feedback scene in Truman Capote’s BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, of all places. I had to laugh, because the narrator goes through so many of the reactions to in-person feedback we’ve been discussing for the last week.

Take a gander:

Very few authors, especially the unpublished, can resist an invitation to read aloud. I made us both a drink and, settling in a chair opposite, began to read to her, my voice a little shaky with a combination of stage fright and enthusiasm: it was a new story, I’d finished it the day before, and that inevitable sense of shortcoming had not had time to develop. It was about two women who share a house, schoolteachers, one of whom, when the other becomes engaged, spreads with anonymous notes a scandal that prevents the marriage. As I read, I each glimpse I stole of Holly made my heart contract. She fidgeted. She picked apart the butts in an ashtray, she mooned over her fingernails, as though longing for a file; worse, when I did seem to have her interest, there was actually a telltale frost over her eyes, as if she were wondering whether to buy a pair of shoes she’d seen in some window.

“Is that the end?” she asked, waking up. She floundered for something more to say. “Of course I like the dykes themselves. They don’t scare me a bit. But stories about dykes bore the bejesus out of me. I just can’t put myself in their shoes. Well, really, darling,” she said, because I was clearly puzzled, “if it’s not about a couple of old bull-dykes, what the hell is it about?”

But I was in no mood to compound the mistake of having read the story with the further embarrassment of explaining it. The same vanity that had lead to such exposure, now forced me to mark her down as an insensitive, mindless show-off.

Holly Golightly wasn’t the only one fidgeting during this recital, was she? Did I feel some of you out there who were only familiar with the story via the Audrey Hepburn movie (or by reputation) exclaim a little over the use of such language in a bestseller from 1958? Holly’s salty talk is not the only thing the screenwriters buffed away, incidentally: the story’s about the relationship between a gay man and a straight woman who makes her living by being a professional tease, essentially.

It’s a beautiful story. Someday, someone really ought to make a movie out of it.

In addition to engendering this “Oh, my God — tone it DOWN!” reaction from moviemakers, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is an interesting work from an editorial point of view. Revision requests dogged it practically from its inception.

Which is fascinating, since Capote’s devotion to sentence-level perfection was already legendary. This was most emphatically not a novella that sprang from its creator’s head fully formed and armored, like Athene. Purportedly, the first draft of the first page — which, in its final form, is for my money one of the best openings in English prose — looked a little something like this:


By all accounts, it was far from a smooth writing process: he had trouble coming up with an ending for the story (which remains the novella’s primary weakness, I think), which lead to some deadline-meeting difficulties. To complicate matters, although he already had a book deal with Random House for a collection of stories, he had also contracted with Harper’s Bazaar (a magazine for whom two of the novella’s characters work, amusingly enough) to print THIS story as a teaser for the book.

The year was 1958, if you will recall. Can anyone out there familiar with the text — or, for that matter, anyone who read the excerpt above — anticipate what happened when the manuscript fell on the magazine’s editorial desks?

Hint: it has a great deal to do with our current series.

You guessed it: a positive avalanche of revision requests, ones that cut to the very heart of the piece. They asked Capote, for instance, to remove all of what were then primly called four-letter words from the novella AND, um, change how Holly paid the rent, if you catch my drift.

Naturally, Capote was furious — surely, all of us can identify with that, no? After all, Holly was, as he said in later interviews, his all-time favorite creation.

So what did he do? He refused point-blank to make the requested changes — and Harper’s Bazaar cancelled the publication contract.

Oh, were you hoping for a happy ending for that anecdote? Actually, there was one, but it took a while to happen: the book came out to huge acclaim; naturally, the well-publicized battle attracted readers in droves. Capote’s literary star rose even higher, and he reportedly made scads of money from the movie rights.

And the movie studio promptly disemboweled his story to turn it into a romantic comedy. A pretty good one, as it happens.

Since our pal Tru did ultimately get the last laugh: in having stuck to his guns to an extent that a less well-established author (or a less well-heeled one) would not have been able to have afforded to do, he did ultimately bring out what is arguably one of the best novellas of the twentieth century, a work that remains surprisingly fresh today.

But there’s no denying that the short-term cost of this literary bravery was very, very high.

I’m telling you this story not merely because, after a week of learning tongue-biting strategies, an author who fought back might seem rather refreshing, but also as fodder for discussion. So let me ask you, readers:

How do you think the narrator of the story could have handled his first reading better, to minimize the pain to himself and improve potential feedback?

If you were in Capote’s situation today, selling your work in the current hyper-competitive market, would you have made the choice that he did? If not, how might you have gone about it differently?

I know, I know — these are the kinds of questions that you might expect to see on your American Literature 203 midterm, but for a career writer, these are practical issues of earth-shattering importance.

So while there are no right or wrong answers here, I would encourage you to think of this not as a literary exercise, but as an opportunity to test-drive your feedback-accepting reactions in a supportive environment. Before, you know, the stakes are as high as they were for Truman.

The usual Let’s Talk About This caveats apply, of course. Let’s try to keep this constructive, and do bear in mind that a comment posted on a website tends to stay there for an awfully long time. Please feel free to post your responses anonymously, if it makes you more comfortable being honest — but try to keep the language acceptable for Harper’s Bazaar, okay?

I’m looking forward to what you have to say. Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback, part V: coping when the bookworm turns


This has been a tough little series, hasn’t it? Rarely have punches been pulled less here at Author! Author!, or truths more frugally varnished. A little over a week into this, I can see why so few writing sites tackle to this particular issue in a systematic way: we’re talking about learning to quiet the good old hard-wired human flight-or-fight response here, after all.

This will be my last post — phew! — on what is potentially the most confrontational of feedback-receiving situations, the face-to-face meeting. Before I wrap up the list, tie it with a bow, and tuck a chocolate bunny into the basket, let’s revisit the goodies already nestling in that absurd plastic grass:

1. Walk into the meeting with a couple of specific questions you would like your critiquers to answer.

2. Bear in mind that today is not necessarily a good day for response.

3. Take good notes.

4. Be an active listener.

5. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for a rain check. Or at least buy yourself some time.

6. Re-read the critiqued pages before responding.

7. Consider the source — and select your sources with care.

8. The rule of one, part I: accentuate the positive.

9. The rule of one, part II: minimize the negative.

10. Don’t ask for feedback from someone whose honest opinion you are not prepared to hear.

After my last post, I could feel in my very bones that not all of you were satisfied with this array of coping mechanisms. “But Anne,” I heard some of you professional feedback veterans plaintively pointing out, “I WAS open to the feedback experience when I walked, and I DID want to hear an honest opinion of my work. But the critique I’ve been getting has been so overwhelming — where do I even begin?”

I’m glad that you brought this up, battle-scarred feedback-receivers. You’ll be delighted to hear that I’ll be dealing with this issue at some length in my next set of posts, which will concentrate on the art of accepting written feedback. But I do have a couple of tips that apply beautifully to this dilemma vis-à-vis verbal feedback.

11. Don’t penalize yourself by expecting perfection.

To put it in a slightly less judgmental manner — because, hey, some of us are sensitive to criticism — if you’re submitting a manuscript for critique, it is by definition a DRAFT, right, not a finished book, and thus a work-in-progress? Heck, from the industry’s point of view, a book is still potentially changeable until it is actually sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Sometimes, it’s not beyond further meddling even then.

Revision is just a fact of the business. A writer who expects not to have to alter his or her manuscript at SOMEONE’s request at SOME point in the publication process might have some bad news coming about the Easter Bunny, if you catch my drift.

Avert your eyes, children. Truth isn’t always pretty.

A misunderstanding of this fact of publishing, I suspect, is often lurking under the skin of the writer who over-reacts to substantive critique. Because he has put so much work into the book, he is stunned to hear that the manuscript he thought was ready to send out to agents and editors — or might win a literary contest — might require MORE of his time and attention.

Completely understandable, of course — but not at all reasonable, from the industry’s point of view. Or from the feedback-giver’s, usually.

Again, this is a matter of expectation. No matter how talented a writer is, pretty much every book that ends up published goes through a multitude of drafts. Believing otherwise almost always ends in tears.

As in the kind that come out of one’s eyes, not what happens when a distraught person takes sheets of manuscript between his hands and rips. Although the latter is not an uncommon first response to feedback from a writer who had expected to hear nothing but praise for his work.

Which leads me to one of the best pieces of feedback-reception advice you will ever hear, even if I do say so myself:

12. Don’t apply what you’ve learned from feedback right away. Give it some time to sink in first.

Oh, how I wish that every agent, editor, and hard-line critique group member would have this tattooed on her forehead! I can’t even begin to describe the amount of human misery it might prevent.

Look: hearing the hard truth about a manuscript, even a brilliant one, is not the most pleasant process for even the best-adjusted writer’s psyche. In the heat of the moment — to be precise, the first moment a writer finds herself alone with her computer after receiving a whole heap o’critique — we’ve all been known to overreact a trifle, haven’t we?

In little ways, like deleting the computer file containing the manuscript. Or deciding that a quip about one scene’s momentary implausibility means that the entire subplot relating it should be cut.

Train yourself NOT to give in to these urges. Bite on the nearest sofa cushion, howl into the night, eat two gallons of chocolate chip ice cream at a sitting — but do NOT, I implore you, go anywhere near your manuscript when you’re still in what people like me tellingly call critique shock.

I’m quite serious about this: you may feel perfectly fine, but a hefty portion of the creative part of your brain is in shock. No matter how much sense cutting half of Chapter Two and placing it at the end of Chapter Seven seems to make at the time, just make a note of the idea AND WALK AWAY.

Trust me on this one. No matter how well you took feedback in the moment, your judgment WILL be impaired at first. You’ll be much, much happier — and end up with a substantially better revision — if you wait a few days before you begin leading those darlings of yours to the sacrificial altar.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you huffing incredulously, “what if I got that feedback at a conference, and one of the agents and editors there asked me to send chapters? I need to put that critique to work right away, don’t I?”

Let me answer that question in three parts: no, no, and NO.

The average requesting agent or editor would not be AS surprised to see a mail carrier flop your manuscript on his desk within the week as to see the Easter Bunny hop in with it, but he certainly doesn’t expect it. Heck, he probably would not lift an eyebrow if he didn’t see the 50 pages he asked for last week before the Fourth of July.

Although you might not want to push it so far as having it delivered with by the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver in December.

As those of you whose long-term memory happens to include last year’s Book Marketing 101 series (in particular, the posts in the HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? section) are already aware, a request for materials does NOT need to be fulfilled within the week.

Or even the month. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: what matters is how GOOD the submission is, not when it gets there. (Within reason, that is.)

Take the time to make sure that your submission is in tip-top shape before you send it out. If that means you want to incorporate substantive feedback first, great — but there’s no earthly reason to tackle that arduous task the nanosecond the conference is over, when you will be positively vibrating with “a real, live agent asked to see MY work!” adrenaline.

Take a few days to calm down first; your logical faculties will be working better then, I assure you. And it’s not as though the request for materials is going to expire by next Tuesday.

Above all, be kind to yourself in the wake of feedback. Exposing your work to hardcore scrutiny takes quite a bit of bravery — allow some time for the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response to stress to stop rushing through your system before you apply your racing brain to the daunting task of tearing your pages down to rebuild them with a stronger foundation.

On to responding to written feedback! Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback, part IV: what do you mean, those pretty fishies might bite?


I hope I haven’t been scaring you, dear readers, with my last few posts on strategies for accepting verbal feedback gracefully; I’ve been reading over the list so far, and I’ve noticed that more of my examples have been of the hair-raising variety than the warm and fuzzy. If this has been making some of you worry about showing your writing to other people, please don’t — most readers out there honestly are pretty kind to writers.

Especially writers who make their feedback expectations clear to their first readers. I cannot emphasize enough how much clearer and more helpful to revision manuscript critique tends to be when the author has equipped the critiquer in advance with specific instructions on how to focus the reading. (For some tips on how do go about doing this without seeming like a martinet given to imposing pop quizzes on his first readers, please see the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right.)

So why have I been concentrating on more negative feedback experiences of late? Simple: those are the ones writers approaching either professional or group critique for the first time tend to anticipate.

Seriously, aspiring writers express this anxiety all the time. Since verbal pitch sessions have become more and more common at literary conferences in recent years — borrowed from how screenplays are marketed, one suspects — I teach classes a few times a year on how to pitch to agents and editors. Without fail, students will bring up the fear that the pitchee will be mean to them, thus prompting a preparation strategy that emphasizes living through the experience rather than learning something from it.

Having been on the receiving end of some pretty bizarre pitch responses myself, believe me, I sympathize. (Remind me to tell you sometime about the agent who assumed that the novel I was pitching was autobiographical, prompting her to yell at me for 15 minutes — five more than our allotted time — about my presumptive moral turpitude. Like so much in the writing life, it makes a great anecdote in retrospect, but wasn’t all that pleasant in the moment.)

It’s not at all an unreasonable fear, and it is wise to prepare for that contingency, especially the first time one exposes one’s work or book concept to professional scrutiny. As I believe I may have mentioned in this forum, oh, eighty or ninety times, professional readers — in other words, agents, editors, contest judges, critics, writing teachers, and other folks paid to scrutinize those pages — simply don’t read like other people.

How is it different, you ask? Instead of scanning an entire chapter or scene before forming an opinion on the quality of the writing therein, many, if not most, judge sentence by sentence. That way, they can stop reading the nanosecond they hit a patch of writing they dislike.

As I invariably add at this juncture, agents, editors, and contest judges don’t do this to be mean; they read in this manner because for every one manuscript they can accept, they need to plow through thousands. It’s a time-saving strategy, and an understandable one, if you ask me. (Not that anyone did.)

Because an experienced first reader is often aware of how common this hair-trigger response is in the industry, her feedback can be very, very nit-picky. So much so, I have often found, that those new to the experience occasionally mistake it for the practical application of a personal vendetta — and confuse the cut-to-the-chase response to a pitch with a generalized hatred of writers.

So perhaps it is not surprising that aspiring writers tend to approach situations where their work and/or book concepts might be critiqued with a certain amount of trepidation, in much the same spirit that they might approach, say, a rhino that is calm right now, but might charge at any moment.

Just keep smiling, they think, tiptoeing into its notoriously charge-happy field of vision, and maybe it won’t gore me.

However — and this is one whopper of a however — maintaining a sprightly mien in the face of criticism, while face-saving in the moment, tends not to be especially conducive to absorbing constructive feedback. It’s too energy-consuming, for one thing, and preparing only for the worst-case scenario (as aspiring writers so often do) can lead to making a feedback situation more confrontational than it needs to be.

If I seem to be harping on ways to make your life more difficult…well, in the first place, is that really a surprise to those of you who’ve been visiting Author! Author! for any length of time? I don’t think I’ve been all that secretive here about my enduring fondness for the harsh-but-rewarding path.

But aside from all of the moral bonuses to be gained by facing one’s demons (think of the advantages to your karma!), there is a very solid practical reason to move beyond merely surviving critique.

If you intend to be a professional writer, receiving no-holds-barred feedback is simply a fact of life in the industry. The better you can get at hearing, responding to, and incorporating it with a minimum of drama and hurt feelings, the more smoothly your professional life will run.

To flip that around, having a reputation for NOT being good at absorbing and incorporating feedback can hurt the publication prospects of even the most promising manuscript. And not all aspiring writers — or even published authors — are sufficiently aware of this, because the horror stories one hears from agents and editors tend to concentrate upon the stripes, not the whole tiger.

Make no mistake — it is the tiger itself that these stories are regretting. The well-known markings of the breed are distinctive enough — responding to gentle, well-meant critique by breathing fire on the critiquer, throwing rejection letters away prior to reading them (or not opening ones that clearly contain a returned manuscript at all), treating even the most veiled reference to marketability as a sign that the feedback-giver is borderline illiterate, to name but three — that most of us who have been hanging around the literary marketplace for a while can identify the snarl of the beast at twenty paces.

To put it a trifle less picturesquely, developing feedback-receiving chops can make a writer much, much more welcome in agencies, publishing houses, and writers’ groups everywhere. Heck, eventually, you might even learn to be flattered that a real pro took the time to help you improve your work.

Or, at any rate, help make it more marketable.

Help, of course, being the operative word here. I know that it’s hard to bear in mind in the midst of being told that you might want to consider spending the next six months rearranging the entire running order of your novel, but in the vast majority of feedback situations, the critiquer IS trying to help the writer improve the book.

So let’s take a quick gander at the strategies we’ve learned so far for making yourself easy to help:

1. Walk into the meeting with a couple of specific questions you would like your critiquers to answer.

2. Bear in mind that today is not necessarily a good day for response.

3. Take good notes.

4. Be an active listener.

5. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for a rain check. Or at least buy yourself some time.

6. Re-read the critiqued pages before responding.

7. Consider the source — and select your sources with care.

8. The rule of one, part I: accentuate the positive

9. The rule of one, part II: minimize the negative

Happy with all that? Okay, maybe not precisely happy, but comfortable with the concepts? Let’s move on:

10. Don’t ask for feedback from someone whose honest opinion you are not prepared to hear

Some of you probably find this one a bit counterintuitive, don’t you? “Oh, come on,” I hear selected segments of my readership muttering, “why would I put myself in a critique situation unless I WANTED to hear the truth? You’re the one who is always saying that writers need feedback to gain perspective.”

Wanna hear a professional secret of the editing trade? Many, many critique-seeking writers don’t actually want feedback on what’s on their pages; they seek out first readers primarily because they long to be told how wonderful the book is.

Which isn’t all that unreasonable a desire, when you come to think about it, especially if the writer in question has been sending out queries and submissions for years. We could all use validation from time to time.

There’s nothing wrong with this attitude, inherently, but in a critique situation, it can often lead to difficulties in hearing feedback. Of the “oh, my God — how dare you attack me like that?” variety.

Or, equally common, of the “What you’re suggesting would take MONTHS! You can’t possibly be serious!”

Interestingly, the intensity of these responses often has little to do with the extent of the revisions being requested. The sad fact is, for writers who were expecting to hear that their books were essentially market-ready, practically any meaty suggestion for needed change is going to sound like a Herculean task.

Don’t set yourself up for this. It’s no fun, I assure you.

Here is what I would suggest instead: think long and hard about what you would like to gain from a feedback situation BEFORE you place your manuscript in one. If you find upon mature reflection that you do NOT want to be told specific ways in which your manuscript, hold off on asking professional readers for feedback. Seek out a more supportive feedback environment instead.

If you’re not clear on why, please go back and re-read my comments above about professional readers’ piranha-like notion of being helpful. Honestly, if they didn’t think your work had potential, they wouldn’t bother to be bluntly honest about how desperately it needs to be deconstructed and rebuilt.

You didn’t think that they would tell just ANY writer to change her protagonist’s lesbian sister into a bench-pressing brother with no political beliefs, did you? Try to think of it as a compliment.

Hey, I didn’t say it would be easy. But you’re a writer, aren’t you? Use your creativity.

Here’s something slightly easier: try to walk into your feedback situations with realistic expectations. And don’t expect your feedback-giver to read your mind about how you would prefer to receive critique. If you would feel more comfortable with a gentler approach, or if you would like to build up to toughness in slow increments — a perfectly reasonable long-term strategy — it’s up to you to make that abundantly clear at the get-go.

Know thyself, my friends. A tall order, I know, but hey, people ambitious enough to start with a blank page in the hope of ending up with a published book aren’t exactly folks noted for avoiding challenges, are they?

A scant handful of further tips follow next time. Keep up the good work!

(PS: the fishy photo came from, in case you’re interested.)

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback, part III: on beyond merely maintaining a pleasant face


For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about that most trying of recurring writerly obligations, dealing gracefully with face-to-face feedback sessions. Whether it’s in a critique group where writers are sharing their suggestions about how to improve one another’s chapters or the more one-sided phone call from one’s agent or editor asking for a change in a manuscript before it makes the rounds of editors or goes to press, many, if not most, writers find it a bit hard to bear with a smile.

A real smile, that is, not the plastered-on grimace of those who are counting to ten before reaching for any weaponry that happens to be handy.

To that end, let’s recap the face-to-face critique-handling strategies we’ve covered so far:

1. Walk into the meeting with a couple of specific questions you would like your critiquers to answer.

2. Bear in mind that today is not necessarily a good day for response.

3. Take good notes.

4. Be an active listener.

5. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for a rain check. Or at least buy yourself some time.

6. Re-read the critiqued pages before responding.

Any questions, comments, cries of “Oh, my God, you can’t be serious?” about those? Good. Let’s move on.

7. Consider the source — and select your sources with care.

As I mentioned yesterday, not all feedback is equally applicable to one’s work — yes, even if it comes from a well-respected agent, editor at a major publishing house, or even yours truly. This is not, contrary to popular opinion, an industry of generalists, but of specialists.

Just as it really doesn’t make sense to pitch or query a novel to an agent who represents exclusively nonfiction, ideally, a writer would approach only those who are intimately familiar with her chosen book category for feedback. If she has written a memoir, for instance, her dream team of first readers might include a bevy of inveterate autobiography fans, a writers’ group made up exclusively of memoirists, and perhaps a conference critique from an agent, editor, or author whose interests lie in that direction.

But that’s not how the cookie tends to crumble in real life, is it? Most of the time, we writers don’t have the luxury of showing our work to specialists.

Time and again, writers approach me for editing, bemoaning the quality of the feedback they’ve been getting. “Well,” I say in the sympathetic tones of my trade, “who has been reading your work?”

The litany is almost always the same: my spouse, my best friend, and my writing teacher; the one romance writer, two mystery writers, and one science fiction writer in my critique group; the agent to whom I was randomly assigned at that conference, the guy who represents nothing but books about horses and Civil War widows; the editor who walked into a group pitch meeting announcing that he wasn’t empowered to take on any unagented work…

“Wow,” I usually say, after the list has petered out. “Has anyone who habitually reads your kind of book for pleasure or business read it yet?”

A quick caveat: please don’t take this observation as an excuse to tell members of your critique group that they wouldn’t know the specialized requirements of your chosen genre if they sat up and barked. It’s the writer’s responsibility to recruit qualified first readers, just as in her best interests to query and pitch to only agents and editors with a demonstrable interest, if not track record, in her chosen book category. (For tips on how to figure out whom to ask to fill this much-valued function, please see the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right.)

However, being cognizant in advance of whether the kind soul offering you feedback on your writing is hip to what is currently being published in your selected line can certainly help you keep his suggestions in perspective. After all, what could be gained by debating the merits of whether your hard-boiled detective narrator (the one who has a fatal attraction to dames with great gams; you know the guy) is too tough to be likeable with someone who has never read a hard-boiled detective novel?

Or — and this criterion often comes as a surprise to frustrated feedback givers — with someone who thinks, bless his heart, that THE MALTESE FALCON still represents the cutting edge of the genre?

Or with an agent who has represented only literary fiction and self-help books for the past 15 years?

Again, I’m not bringing this up to give you an argumentative tool, but to help you pick your battles. Naturally, any good reader can give useful feedback on non-genre-specific issues, such as clarity, pacing, and plausibility.

But to be blunt about it, it’s not going to help improve your mystery if you’re only receiving feedback from people unfamiliar with the genre’s conventions. Selecting your feedback-givers with care will go a long way toward avoiding unproductive quibbling.

8. The rule of one, part I: accentuate the positive

This one can have a practically magical effect on a group critique session on the verge of becoming nasty: when you are listening to feedback (ideally, as I suggested yesterday, with busily-scratching pen applied to ample paper supply), make it your mission to find one — JUST one — piece of advice that makes sense to you out of the whole critique.

Then make it the topic for further discussion, leaving everything else that’s been said for consideration in private.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should ignore the rest of what’s said; write it all down, and if you find multitasking difficult, go ahead and ask another member of your critique group to take notes as well. (Not a bad idea in any case, actually.)

But keeping your tender ears out for the one piece of feedback that you are certain is worth a try serves a couple of purposes. First, it gives you an upbeat topic for further discussion. Second — and more conducive to your general happiness — it helps shift the focus of the exchange from a list of what your manuscript does wrong to how clever the critiquer has been to figure out a way to improve what is already good.

To understand how profound this mental shift can be, picture the exemplar I mentioned yesterday, the all-too-common hyper-defensive critique group member who sits on the edge of his seat while others are discussing his writing, jaw set and pulse racing, just waiting for an excuse to jump in and justify what he’s written. Can you even imagine that guy being able to say at the end of the meeting, “Wow, Natalie, that’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to go back to Chapter 2 and try that”?

There’s a reason he couldn’t do it: every fiber of his being is devoted to ego defense, rather than gleaning something constructive from the critique session. Although he probably doesn’t think of it this way, he’s poised to protect his feelings at the expense of his writing project.

9. The rule of one, part II: minimize the negative

Okay, all of you pessimists out there — Part II of the Rule of One is for you: it’s a strategy for coping with a critique in which, even with the best intentions, the writer is hard-put to find anything useful, or which is so general (“Does your true-crime book really need to be so graphic?”) that at first blush, it doesn’t seem remotely applicable to the manuscript at hand.

Instead of saying something confrontational like, “Hey, Bozo, are you sure that it was MY chapter you read?” find one — JUST one — of the speaker’s points to focus upon, rather than the whole morass. And instead of picking the most outrageously wrong part of the critique, why not select something in the mid-range of egregious?

Then ask follow-up questions on that PARTICULAR point and no other. The more specific (and text-based) you can be, the better.

Do I hear the cynics out there getting ready to riot? “But Anne,” they protest, “why bother? If the critiquer is an idiot who obviously doesn’t know the first thing about my book category, or doesn’t seem to understand what she’s read, why not just dismiss her and be done with it?”

For several good reasons, oh ye of little faith. First, giving oneself permission to dismiss an entire set of feedback at one fell swoop sets a dangerous precedent — once the habit is established, it can become pretty tempting to dismiss the next critiquer who says something similar about a work, and then the one after that. After a while, rejection can become second nature.

And we all know where that can lead, can’t we? That’s right: to Kimberley, our hypersensitive writing group member from a few days back. Look upon her works, ye mighty, and despair.

Second, even a poor critiquer can occasionally make a good point. Sometimes, good readers are not very articulate about what they would like to see changed in a manuscript — particularly if they are new to giving feedback. Asking very specific follow-up questions can be very helpful in eliciting what they actually mean.

Although in defense of such roundabout reasoners, I do wish that more writers’ groups told new members up front that “I liked this” and “I didn’t like that” are not very useful ways to express feedback. Diagnosing manuscript problems is hard; even very careful readers could often use some guidance at first.

Third — and I hesitate to bring this up, but it may save you some grief down the line — seemingly inapplicable critique occasionally comes from unlikely sources. Like, for instance, the hapless agent who, due to a colleague’s cancellation, abruptly finds himself expected to read thirty 10-page novel excerpts in preparation for conference critique meetings that begin two hours hence.

Hey, it happens.

Rather than retail any of the truly spectacular (and, from a writer’s point of view, quite depressing) anecdotes I’ve heard over the years from agents and editors who have found themselves in this position, let me share an awkward moment from my own past.

Years ago, I entered a writing competition where the prize included a month-long residency in an artists’ colony and face-to-face manuscript critique by two quite well-known authors. Excited at the prospect, but aware that I would get more out of the feedback if I were familiar with these authors’ most recent work, I naturally rushed right out and indulged in an orgy of literary preparation.

Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the author whose work I admired liked the chapter I submitted for critique, so we spent a charming hour chatting about my work, hers, and how I could make my writing more marketable. Those whose work was less similar to hers did not fare so well.

But now that we’re all familiar with Tactic #7, that doesn’t particularly stun us, right?

When Important Author #2 appeared on the scene — three days late for her week-in-residence and planning to leave two days early, which automatically made me a bit wary — I was very diplomatic about the fact that I didn’t find her work very engaging. Not to blow my own horn, but this restraint did require some near-heroism on my part, as my extensive reading binge had revealed that her literary output since 1957 had consisted largely of telling and retelling the (apparently autobiographical) plot of her first critically-lauded novel in slightly different forms.

Pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention: how many of you had thought by the end of the previous paragraph that, in accordance with Tactic #7, I should have bowed out of my scheduled critique meeting with her? Take a gold star out of petty cash if you did.

Alas, at the time, I was young, innocent, and entirely too prone to confuse slightly inconveniencing someone with being impolite. I walked into the meeting prepared for her to dislike my chapter, of course, but I made the mistake of assuming that as long as I didn’t let her feedback vex me into blurting out some version of, “Why on earth did anyone ever consider you for the Pulitzer?” I would survive the occasion with my dignity intact.

You can feel this coming, can’t you? Don’t worry; it’s far worse than you’re imagining.

She not only didn’t care for my work — she mixed it up with another competition winner’s. (She didn’t like hers, either, apparently.) Entirely disregarding my polite, gentle hints that perhaps she had mislaid my manuscript, the august lady proceeded to blast my fellow writer’s work for a good ten minutes.

I had absolutely no idea what to do. Surely, when the other writer came for her session (which, because Nemesis has a dandy sense of humor, was scheduled for immediately after mine), the grande dame would realize her mistake — and something in her regal bearing gave the impression that she was not overly fond of admitting her own mistakes.

So I pulled the pin on the truth grenade. And she ARGUED with me about whether I’d read the chapter she’d been lambasting. Pop quiz: what should I have done at this point?

A bronze star with walnut clusters if you shouted, “Run! Murmur some polite thanks and flee for your life, praying that she will forget your name the next time she’s sitting on an award board!”

Actually, I did try to escape, but by then, she was grumpy. Ordering me not to move, she dug through the sheaves of paper in her battered Serious Literary Person’s satchel until she found my chapter — and proceeded to read it in front of me.

Or rather, she read the first two pages, gave the kind of titter that frightens dogs and small children, then announced with finality, “Well, you have some good lines here. But Greeks have been done.”

Because I have been to graduate school — the untrained should not attempt this level of logical gymnastics at home — I was able to translate this to mean that she’d seen MY BIG, FAT GREEK WEDDING (which had come out a year before) and had decided that single point of view represented the experience of every Greek-American currently roving the planet. Clearly, she was not the ideal audience for this particular chapter.

But did I fight with her about the reasonableness of rejecting writing about an entire ethnic group at one fell swoop? Did I take her to task for not having read what it was her obligation to read? Did I dip into my well-justified dislike of her literary output to point out that she had been writing about her Irish-American family since the late 1950s — and that, in fact, had been done before, too?

No — because the literary world is small enough that if I blew up at that moment, I might end up as the butt of an anecdote about how bad writers are at accepting honest critique, the last thing I needed while my agent was shopping a book of mine around to editors.

(Did a light bulb just switch on over your head? Yes, it can be that easy to get a reputation as a feedback-resenter.)

So what did I do? I engaged her in a discussion of the relative merits of the writing of David Sedaris and Jeffrey Eugenides, that’s what. I didn’t even bother to point out that they are both Greek-Americans who write habitually about, you guessed it, Greek-Americans; I trusted that the irony of the situation would occur to her later.

True, I didn’t glean any useful feedback from the exchange, but we did part on cordial terms (overtly, at least), which is more than merely maintaining a stoic, frozen visage would have achieved. To this day, in fact, she says hello to me by name at literary events. She has even introduced me to other authors as “an unbelievably good sport.”

And that, boys and girls, is how flexible a new author sometimes has to be. More tips on increasing your ability to twist yourself into a genial pretzel follow next time. Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: the face-to-face checklist, part II


This week, we’re concentrating upon building one of the most useful skills a career writer can have: the ability to take feedback well. Why is it so handy, you ask? Because from the industry’s point of view, an ability to respond to even gloves-off critique calmly and reasonably isn’t just a nice optional feature on an author — it’s part of the standard equipment.

With an eye to that reality, last time, I began going through a list of strategies for the critique situation where a writer is most likely to over-react, the face-to-face feedback session.

Are the shy among you sitting down? Good, because I have some potentially startling news to share: face-to-face critique moments positively abound in the writing world, in every form from the aforementioned writers’ group to a pitch session with an agent or editor to being approached by a less-than-enthusiastic fan at a book reading.

Unless you are lucky enough to land that one-in-a-million literary berth that enables you to hide out in a well-furnished cave in Outer Mongolia, typing away in solitude while the royalty checks roll in, then, you might want to prepare yourself for the experience.

The wise writer’s goal in these situations is simple: to hear critique of your work without taking it personally and respond appropriately, in a manner that both helps your book’s market and artistic prospects and maintains a positive relationship with the critiquer.

It may not sound like a lofty goal, but as those of you who have been on the receiving end of a honest-to-goodness professional critique already know, in the moment, it can be pretty difficult. Let’s recap yesterday’s suggestions:

1. Walk into the meeting with a couple of specific questions you would like your critiquers to answer.

2. Bear in mind that today is not necessarily a good day for response.

3. Take good notes.

Is everyone up to speed with those? Fabulous. Let’s move on, then.

4. Be an active listener.

If you watch the body language of someone unused to accepting critique gracefully, you’ll notice something interesting: most of the time, their bodies appear to be straining at an invisible leash, in constant preparation for jumping in to contradict the feedback-giver. It’s very confrontational; often, the listener even keeps his mouth slightly open while the critiquer is making her case, to prevent even the slightest delay in shooting out a response.

But contrary to popular opinion, feedback on a manuscript is NOT an invitation to an argument; it’s a series of points that a writer should take back to the manuscript to consider applying. And that is as it should be, because no matter how well a writer can defend a particular literary choice verbally, ultimately, what matters is what’s on the PAGE.

Seriously, ask any agent, editor, or contest judge in the English-speaking world — honestly, they’re not looking for a fight. They just want to help the writer improve the manuscript.

As I pointed out yesterday, it’s very, very hard for anybody to listen well when he’s trying to come up with a reply to each point being made. Believe it or not, though, the opposite response, to sit there stony-faced — or, as often happens in pitch meetings, with a forced smile plastered on the face — is even harder on the feedback-giver.

Why? Well, a mask is difficult to read, after all; can a critiquer really be blamed if she occasionally mistakes a blank face as a sign of boredom? Or concludes from the fact that the writer is responding to both high praise and deep damnation with exactly the same expression that the feedback is not particularly welcome?

Active listening is an ideal compromise between the two extremes. An active listener is engaged in the conversation, even when she is not speaking: she smiles at the jokes, nods at the good points, looks thoughtful when an interesting point is raised — and yes, even frowns when she disagrees with something.

What she does, in short, is pays the speaker the compliment of appearing to be interested in what he’s saying.

Heck, yeah, it takes a lot of energy to listen this way, but embracing this practice brings a very tangible reward: it forces the writer to LISTEN to the details of the feedback. Which, in turn, renders it infinitely more likely that she’s going to glean something useful from it.

Look: not every piece of advice you’re going to get is going to be stellar, or even apt, even if you’re hearing it from the world’s best-qualified first reader for your work or the agent of your dreams. A professional writer needs to learn to sift, to separate the wheat from the chaff, to pan for the gold amid the sand, and…well, any other sorting metaphor you might care to mention.

The point is, it’s the writer’s job to figure out which is which.

That can take some pretty close listening — and it’s almost impossible to listen closely when a writer is constantly on guard to respond to a perceived attack or concentrating on maintaining a jaunty facial expression no matter what is said, as if she were on trial for murder based upon ambiguous evidence and the jury might convict based upon a fleeting frown or two.

Yes, I’ve seen both in feedback situations.

Instead, engage. Trust me, it will make the person giving you feedback respect you more than if you pursue either of the alternatives.

5. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for a rain check. Or at least buy yourself some time.

All throughout #4, I sensed the timid out there wanting to ask a question. “But Anne,” they murmur unobtrusively, “what if I’m really blindsided by what the feedback-giver is saying? For instance, the last time I pitched at a conference, the agent cut me off before I’d said three sentences, telling me that she didn’t represent that kind of work. It took 100% of my energy not to burst into tears on the spot.”

I’m glad you brought this up, Modest Mice. Here’s a little tip that I wish every conference pitcher learned BEFORE that first face-to-face meeting: if the agent or editor says s/he is not interested in the book, the pitcher is under no obligation to stick around, doing violence to his emotions in a dreadful effort to remain polite until the time allotted for the meeting expires.

Yet in 99% of such meetings, the writer DOES just sit there, miserable and confused. There are some other ways to handle this, of course (discussed under the PITCH FOR AN AGENT OR EDITOR MEETING category at right, in case you’re interested).

But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, leave. Take a powder. Vamoose. Believe me, the agent or editor isn’t going to take umbrage if you slip away quietly; usually, she’s not any more comfortable in this situation than the writer is.

Of course, you’re going to want to maintain your dignity as you go; manners, as nice British mothers used to tell their children, cost nothing. Murmur a quiet thanks, if you can manage it.

The same logic applies to any critique situation — if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it is a far, far better thing to ask for, say, a five-minute break during your writing group than to bite your tongue until it bleeds. If you need to run into the nearest bathroom and scream into a scrunched-up pillow because you feel the critiquer has completely missed the point of your chapter, go ahead.

Or how about saying to the fellow writer with whom you have exchanged manuscripts, “Look, I’ve had a hard day. Do you mind if we postpone talking about this until I’m a little more coherent?

While it may seem like a cop-out, it’s infinitely preferable to a meltdown that results in burned feelings. Even walking into a meeting knowing that scuttling away is a viable option can render the situation less stressful.

If you don’t feel that you can call for a time-out, consider borrowing a trick from academia and forcing a lull in the discussion. Professors tend to be past masters at this, and for good reason: they have to answer a lot of questions on the fly, and — I’m exposing a trade secret here, so pay attention — they don’t always have the answers at on the tips of their tongues. Sometimes, they need to slip off to their offices and look something up.

Yet surprisingly few of them (or I suppose I should say us, as I used to be one of their number in the dim days of yore) are willing to say, “Actually, I don’t have an answer to that. Mind if I slither off to the library and consult a reference volume?” Instead, they often turn the discussion so they needn’t answer the question until they’ve had time to do precisely that.

To be fair, looking things up isn’t always an option — especially in the midst of the form of medieval torture known in academia as a job talk. In order to get a job as a professor at most major US universities, the top candidates have to give a lecture on their current research projects, with every professor in the department they hope will hire them sitting in the audience, eager to leap upon any logical holes in the argument.

Even for someone who wants to give lectures for a living, this can be a pretty daunting prospect. Especially when the job talk is scheduled, as it so often is, at the end of a couple of days’ worth of individual meetings with all of those professors, the department’s graduate students, and university administration. That’s a whole lot of sustained good behavior, particularly in the kind of well-regarded department that I used to occupy, where everyone one of those professors had a legitimate right to expect the hapless applicant to be intimately familiar with every article he had ever produced.

Speaking of something you might want to rush off to the library to look up.

Why the endurance test? Well, in the US, there are often a few hundred qualified applicants for every professorial position in a good department, so to be invited to give a job talk, your application has to have impressed a whole lot of people. But by the time they fly you in, the people you impressed will have been debating with for a month with the people who fell in love with Candidate B’s curriculum vitae, arguing with those who just adore Candidate C’s research agenda, and trading barbs with those who think Candidate D will vote with them at faculty meetings.

Question time at the job talk is typically when all of these intradepartmental squabbles come to the fore. The advocates for other applicants will leap to their feet as rapidly as their laurelled-but-aging bones will allow, to try to make Candidate A look worse by asking really, really difficult questions.

Many of which, I regret to report, tend to take the form of, “Why didn’t you approach this problem precisely the way I would have?” If not the even more dreaded, “Could you relate this to my last article?”

I mention this not to discourage any of you out there from pursuing the academic life, but because this last type of critique, the self-centered, is actually not confined to its hallowed halls. In a pitch meeting, an agent who specializes in mysteries might well take issue with the ways in which your thriller does not resemble a mystery; if you are the only memoirist in a critique group full of novelists, you’re probably going to keep hearing that you’re including too much backstory.

And so forth. Since the literary market is so diverse — and conferences can’t possibly import pros who deal with every conceivable book category — we writers often find ourselves receiving advice and feedback from folks who don’t specialize in our type of book.

But since the literary world is all about networking, it’s usually not a very good idea to point that out to a feedback-giver whose category preconceptions are, well, a bit off the mark.

As you may easily imagine, givers of job talks find themselves in this position all the time. So how do they handle it? By buying some time to think — or turning the discussion.

How does he go about it, you ask? First, the neophyte professor will pause after the questioner has finished speaking, as though considering it in all of its complexity. (Actually, this is a good strategy whenever an intellectually-insecure person asks you a question; it implies that it was a really good question that requires serious thought to answer.)

Then the wise job talker will extend an olive branch: “That’s an interesting question. I’ll have to think about that.” This is a very difficult conversational move for the questioner to counter, as it conveys a compliment while it defers further discussion.

Which is precisely why this tactic almost always works in a literary critique situation. Pretty much everyone is flattered by the notion that he has raised a point so incisive that the author wants to meditate upon it at length.

If all else fails, move on to tactic #6 — which is more than the poor job talker could get away with doing:

6. Say, “Thanks for your feedback– but I would like to re-read the critiqued pages before responding to what you’ve said.”

Aspiring writers often seem surprised when I suggest this, but in practice, there’s no better way to defuse a critique exchange that threatens to become personal or hyper-emotional. Expressing an interest in going back and reading the manuscript with an eye to the points the critiquer has raised is a perfectly reasonable request.

It’s also a pretty good idea in any feedback situation.

Think about it: when are you most likely to be able to give a revision suggestion a fighting chance to convince you to try it, immediately after you’ve first heard it and while you are still face-to-face with your critiquer, or a few days later, when you’re alone and face-to-face with nothing but the text?

Basically, this strategy will minimize the probability that you’ll dismiss a great idea in the heat of the moment — and maximize the potential for any follow-up discussion’s being productive for you and your book.

“Um, Anne?” I hear some of you calling. “I’ve been in a writers’ group/class/book collaboration with someone who does this, and the results aren’t, to put it as gently as possible, always positive, I can’t possibly be the only writer who has given feedback to someone who seemed to take it well at the time, only to stun me three days later with a 20-page e-mail explaining in exquisite detail, with textual illustrations, exactly what kind of an idiot I am to have suggested changing so much as a syllable of the chapter in question?”

Good point, anonymous commenters: the strategies of allowing time to pass and taking another gander at the text will not fuse into a magic wand that will automatically turn a behind-the-scenes seether (which, let’s face it, is not an uncommon writerly specialty) into an open-minded feedback-receiver who blesses those who help him.

In fact, as you so rightly point out, it can have the opposite effect.

So let me clarify why I am advising this: the point of going back to the text is NOT to come up with concrete evidence to support a future argument with a critiquer; it’s to try to figure out if the critiquer might have a legitimate point. This is high unlikely to happen within the first few seconds after the critique has departed the feed-back-giver’s mouth.

Speed of revision is sometimes valuable after a writer has begun working with an agent or editor, because publication deadlines wait for no man, but trust me on this one: no one familiar with the trials and tribulations of revising a manuscript actually expects the author to come up with the necessary changes within a minute or two of the suggestion to make them. You have every right to take some time to think about it.

In fact, I would argue that to be the best guardian of your book’s interest, you have an OBLIGATION not to react on the spur of the moment. Because — chant it with me now, everyone — the goal of getting feedback is to improve what’s on the PAGE, not to silence the objections raised by someone kind enough to read the manuscript and give substantive feedback.

This isn’t to say that a writer shouldn’t ask follow-up questions about feedback — if they’re warranted, she definitely should. But even then, the manuscript itself is usually the best place to start pulling together requests for clarification.

Besides, you wouldn’t respond to a change request from the agent of your dreams or the perfect editor for your book without first going to the part of the text they’ve flagged as needing revision, would you?

Um, you wouldn’t, would you? Hello? Anybody out there? Or would some of you just rather avoid thinking about that particular situation until it’s upon you?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, kids, but being on the receiving end of critique from a thoughtful agent or editor is the GOOD outcome here. Try to think of the feedback situations along the way as dry runs for that happy day.

And when that day comes, you’ll be such an old hand at taking feedback that you’ll listen carefully, pause long enough to indicate that they’ve raised interesting points, then open your mouth and chirp, “Wow, that’s an intriguing idea. Let me sit with it and the manuscript for a few days, thinking about it.”

Hey, it’s my job to envision you at your best and most successful. More tips follow next time — and please, critique veterans, feel free to pass along wry anecdotes and helpful hints of your own.

Keep up the good work!

(PS: today’s picture appears courtesy of

A very practical class for Seattle-area writers


Hey, readers in Western Washington:

Once again, the fine folks at Washington Lawyers for the Arts have put together a lunchtime seminar that will give writers the low-down on their legal rights and responsibilities. These seminars tend to be packed with junior attorneys seeking continuing education credit, but the lecture is pitched for the layperson — and artists of every stripe get in for only ten bucks!

All that, and you get to munch your lunch while you listen. How great is that? (Fair warning, though: I’ve reproduced the description as is from the press release, uncorrected.)

COPYRIGHT 101: What Artists Need to Know About Protecting Their Work and Avoiding Disputes

SEATTLE— In our present-day, fast-moving world, what do you, as an artist, know how to protect and defend your work? Attorney Venkat Balasubramani will offer a must-have basic seminar on copyright for those working in almost all arts disciplines, offering the knowledge and confidence you need.

You’ll learn what copyright is, what it protects, how it’s acquired, and how it differs from other intellectual property rights such as trademarks and patents. You’ll learn about the value of registering your work, and how you register different sorts of art with different government entities. You’ll learn about including notice of copyright and copyright registration in or on your work, and how this helps protect your work. You’ll learn about who owns the copyright when more than one of you have been involved in the creation of the work, and who owns a work you create while you are employed. You’ll need to know when it’s all right to use someone else’s work, and how much of it. When people, company logos and places show up in your work, you’ll need to know about how to acquire appropriate releases.

And, worst case, you’ll want to know something about copyright infringement: when you think someone has stolen from you, or you’re accused of infringing on someone else’s copyright.

Bring your questions. You’ll have a chance to ask the ones important to you. An excellent introductory seminar for all artists, and for attorneys whose clients include artists.

Thursday, March 27, 2008
11:45 am — 2:00 pm (program begins at noon, lunches welcome)

Photographic Center Northwest
900 12th Avenue
Seattle, Washington 98122
(Parking in PCNW lot on Marion directly east of the building, or on-street)

FEE: In advance: $35 Attorneys and Paralegals; $10 Artists and Students.
At the door: $40 Attorneys and Paralegals; $15 Artists and Students

To register, visit Brown Paper Tickets or phone 24/7 at (800) 838.3006. To pay at the door, RSVP to Washington Lawyers for the Arts at (206) 328.7053.

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: live, baby, live


What’s that pile of jagged rubble, you ask, and why am I asking you to contemplate it? Is it a close-up of a stepped-upon family of crabs, or perhaps the aftermath of something extremely large having been dropped from a plane? No such luck, my friends: this is my flower and herb garden, immediately after those nice men who came to solve the drainage problem in the basement stopped destroying all life forms unwise enough to be planted in their path.

Or, to be precise, my garden is under what you see; the backhoe is relaxing after its Herculean labors in concealing it from human eyes. Originally, there was a full-grown rosebush compressed between the top two levels of slab, sticking out sideways with its tender new leaves reaching desperately toward the sky. However, once I came running out with my camera, the workers hurriedly whisked most of dead and dying plant life out of shot.

I’m pretty annoyed about the demise of my bulbs — silly me, I had thought that something growing two feet tall with a flower on one end of it would have self-evidently been something to save, but evidently, that’s a matter of debate — but even at the zenith of my pique, I couldn’t help but gasp at how apt a metaphor it was for this week’s topic.

After all, isn’t it one of the great rules of creation that it usually involves some destruction?

Just as (my SO assures me) the construction of a new, improved, and in every way far more admirable backyard patio and garden required ripping up the old concrete patio and dumping the shards of its dislodged corpse on top of every green and growing thing within a hundred yards, often, building a revised draft of an already-written manuscript entails ripping out some of the foundation, to clear space for new reinforcement.

Unlike the perpetrators of many other structures, the writer of a manuscript-under-construction is often present when critics are hacking away at the second floor solarium and that view-blocking cypress tree just outside the library, unfortunately. And that can be trying to even the calmest temperament.

You know the situations I’m talking about, right? Writers’ groups. Face-to-face pitching sessions, especially those at conferences where the pitchees have ostensibly read an excerpt from the work being pitched. Lunch or a phone call with one’s agent or editor — or with some generous soul who has agreed to be a first reader for your manuscript.

Like it or not, while querying and submission usually generate written responses, ideally suited for psyche-clearing tantrum-throwing in the privacy of one’s home, getting concrete feedback on your work often requires your physical — or at least auditory — attendance. Pulling this off well is a matter of will — and of practice.

We’re all familiar with what happens when a writer doesn’t pull it off well, right? As we saw with this weekend’s exemplars, all too often, writers respond with defensiveness (“What do you mean, there’s something wrong with my manuscript, Candace?”), anger (“What kind of a fool are you to think you have the right to criticize my work, Jerome?”), or endless explanation about why the manuscript positively needs to remain precisely the way it currently is (“Clearly, Ted, you’re not understanding what’s going on, so let me proceed on the assumption that what’s on the page is far less important than my intention in placing it there.”)

None of these responses is constructive, and all are as likely to prevent good feedback from sinking into the writerly noggin as to ward off misguided advice. Still worse, they tend to discourage honesty in future feedback.

The funny thing is, most of the time, writers who embrace these tactics DO want feedback on their work — but they make the fundamental mistake of confusing the time and energy they’ve expended with the quality or clarity of the writing. In other words, they respond as though the industry graded manuscripts for effort, not for what actually ends up on the page.

Which, as I believe I have already mentioned in this series, is backward, logically speaking. If it’s not on the page, it doesn’t count, as far as agents, editors, and contest judges are concerned — and, really, most bookstore browsers feel the same way, don’t they? Who walks into Borders thinking, “Gee, where can I find a book upon which the author lavished care and attention?” rather than, “Hey, where can I find a great read?”

So when an agent encounters a new client whose first response to a change request is defensive, or an editor finds that her brilliant new discovery apparently enjoys endless discussion over the smallest prospective change, they tend not to be too sympathetic.

And that’s a shame, really, because very, very often, what the author is actually saying is, “Hey, I put a lot of work into this. Can’t we stop and recognize that before ripping it apart? Or do you really mean that you don’t think I have talent?”

We sometimes see a similar reaction, interestingly enough, in authors on their first few book tours. “What do you mean, you would have ended the book differently?” they demand of some trembling soul who wanted only to say something intelligent while having her copy of the book signed. “Everyone’s a critic?”

In the age of the Internet, just how often do you think an author needs to snap at a well-meaning fan before he gains a reputation for being nasty at book readings?

Because this tendency to knee-jerk defensiveness is extremely common, I’m a big fan of aspiring writers pulling the pin on the criticism grenade BEFORE they are under professional scrutiny. Critique groups can be tremendously helpful in learning to respond well to commentary, as can working with a freelance editor. Entering contests that provide feedback, and even exchanging manuscripts with a helpful friend can be marvelous ways to learn to subvert the instinctive negative reaction.

In short, why not test your capacity for critique first in a venue where a momentary lapse could not conceivably to cost you a representation or book contract — or readers?

Of course, I’m not going to send you into a high-powered writers’ group entirely unarmed; like our exemplar Harriet, writers who walk into their first face-to-face critique not knowing what to expect are often frightened away.

Never fear: being the preparation-oriented self you all know and love, I have come up with a few strategies for handling it with aplomb. These are not the only tools you could use in this situation — and those of you who are critique veterans, please chime in with what has worked for you — but armed with these techniques, no writer need be afraid of making a fool of himself by over-reacting to well-meant feedback.

Note, please, that these techniques do not depend upon how good the feedback is; they will help you keep a high chin, straight face, and positive attitude even if it’s dreadful. (Don’t worry — I shall be talking about how to deal with unhelpful feedback later in the week.)

Ready? Here we go.

1. Walk in with a couple of specific questions you would like your critiquers to answer.

Those of you who survived last December-January’s series of posts on how to seek out useful feedback (gathered under the unambiguous title GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK in the category list at right) might recognize this one. In my experience, the level of critique is almost always improved if the writer gives the reader a bit of advance warning about what he’d like to discuss.

Even if the structure of the feedback situation prevents a pre-reading heads-up, it’s still an excellent idea to come into a face-to-face critique (a conference meeting with an agent who has read your first chapter, for instance) with two or three concrete questions you would like answered about your work.

Why? Well, to be blunt about it, it helps give you some control of a situation that can be overwhelming — and it’s can be a positive boon if you should happen to find your work being critiqued by someone genuinely nasty. Trust me, you’ll be far, far happier if you have prepared yourself to say, “What did you think of the pacing of the opening?” rather than finding yourself stammering, “What do you mean, you didn’t like it?”

But there are far more positive reasons to go this route. First, it’s a courtesy to your critiquer: it demonstrates that you value his opinion. Or, perhaps more importantly for dealing with an agent or editor, it makes it APPARENT that you do. (Whether you actually value this yahoo’s opinion or not is, of course, nobody’s business but you and your personal Jim’ny Cricket.)

It also forces you to take a critical look at your own work, to determine where it might have some weaknesses. That is a HUGE advantage walking into a feedback situation, because it enables a writer to open her mind to other perspectives, rather than feeling that she needs to defend what she’s done.

Remember: the purpose of manuscript critique is to make it better, not to punish past errors. Keep your eye on the prize.

A couple of questions to get you started: if you write comedy, consider asking if there was anyplace in the manuscript that made the critiquer laugh out loud — or a bit that didn’t quite work; if you write memoir, ask if every scene seemed plausible, or if the ratio of scene to narrative seemed right; if you write fiction, also ask if every scene seemed plausible, or if the protagonist seemed likable or interesting enough to follow throughout the entire book.

Yes, you DO want to be that concrete, if the feedback is going to help you revise.

2. Bear in mind that today is not necessarily the best day to respond to what you’re hearing.

In other words, consider not saying anything when you receive feedback. Just listen carefully, nodding occasionally as a courtesy to the speaker, trying to absorb what will be most useful to you and the manuscript.

This strategy often surprises writers, but there is no rule that requires us to have a witty riposte ready the instant after a first reader has just pointed out a fundamental flaw — or even a minor one — in our manuscripts. Feedback is not, after all, an invitation to argument, but a set of specific suggestions about how to improve a book.

Silence is a perfectly acceptable response — and if you’re new to face-to-face critique, it is often downright preferable. To illustrate why, I’m going to jump out of the realm of art for the moment and into the murky waters of group psychology.

In the Northern California of my childhood, a form of group interaction known as an encounter group was fleetingly popular. A bunch of individuals got together, picked (I almost said victim) one member to be the subject, and talked exclusively about that person for a set period of time, to give the subject what was supposed to be an unprecedented view of how he appeared to others. Two rules prevailed: everyone was supposed to be absolutely honest, and the subject was not allowed to speak until the session was over.

I just felt half of you recoil in horror, didn’t I? Well, yes, it could be mighty intense, but since everyone in the group was going to be the subject eventually, the idea was that everyone would be equally vulnerable — and that by preventing the subject from voicing an instantaneous defensive reaction, people could say precisely what they thought without fear of interruption.

The idea of exchanging manuscripts for critique, as opposed to personalities, suddenly seems a bit less threatening, doesn’t it?

That’s not why I brought up encounter groups, however: in the face of feedback, it is usually far easier to hear what others are saying if part of your brain isn’t spinning constantly, trying to come up with a pithy comment in response, if not something so devastating that it will be passed down to future generations as a proverb. (Oh, as if writers aren’t prone to doing that.)

Try just listening. You may be surprised at how much stress it leeches from the critique encounter.

3. Take good notes.

This one is in response to all of you who were picturing yourself just sitting there fidgeting while others told you how to improve your work. You’re going to be keeping yourself occupied, I assure you.

Bring a pad of paper and writing implement. Apply the latter to the former liberally.

Do I hear some shy souls shuffling their feet out there, working up nerve to ask a question? “But Anne,” these timid writers say, “isn’t it a bit rude to be scribbling while someone else is speaking? Won’t they assume that I’m not paying attention, but have started doodling out of boredom?”

Actually, a feedback-giver usually finds it flattering when a writer keeps jotting things down, for the same reason that a lecturer finds it encouraging when her students seem to be taking copious notes: it implies that the scribbler respects what the speaker is saying enough to want to remember it.

The higher her educational level, incidentally, the more likely she is to be pleased. In fact, when academics get together for symposia, it’s almost unheard-of for a lecturer NOT to take notes during the question-and-answer period. While the questioner is asking. Not only is this not considered impolite — it’s regarded as a way that the lecturer conveys to the questioner that she’s asked a good question.

So feel free to write down what your feedback-giver says about your work — yes, even if the critiquer happens to be the editor to whom you’ve just pitched your book project. Write down any follow-up questions you might have. Write down any inspirations you might have for applying the feedback to the manuscript.

Why? Because even the best feedback isn’t going to be very useful if you can’t remember it tomorrow, is it?

My, that’s a lot to digest in one post, isn’t it? More strategic tips follow tomorrow, of course, but just before we end for today, take a moment to pat yourself on the back for being open to accepting feedback on your baby at all. By being brave enough to allow others to take a long, hard look at your writing AND developing the skills to listen to their honest responses, you’re taking an important step toward approaching the job of writing like a professional.

And if the prospect of soliciting feedback still feels like someone’s about to take a backhoe to your beloved backyard garden, well, today of all days, I sympathize. Necessary renovation can have some pretty disorienting short-term side effects. But isn’t having to replant the bulbs worth it if the basement is no longer going to fill up with water when it rains?

Give it some thought — and keep up the good work!

Learning to take feedback well, or, just how far backwards would you like me to bend?


How did you do on this weekend’s little quiz? How many examples did it take you to start to suspect that none of the exemplars were very adept at accepting feedback?

To hear agents and editors tell the tale, difficulty listening to and incorporating constructive criticism is the common cold of the writing breed: eventually, pretty much every writer seems to suffer from it in one form or another. They tend to attribute it to a writerly tendency to be so in love with their own words that the very notion of changing any of ‘em seems downright sacrilegious.

Of course, there are SOME writers who feel this way, but in my experience, that’s not really what is at the core of writers’ kicking and screaming over suggested changes. I suspect that in the vast majority of cases, the phenomenon has less to do with ego (which is what folks in the industry call it when they’re not being polite) than with unrealistic expectations going into the publishing experience.

Or, to put it another way: hands up, everyone who assumed when you first started writing that the draft the author believed was market-ready was identical, plus or minus some proofreading, to what would end up on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Keep those hands raised if you also thought in your dimly-remembered innocence that agents never asked for manuscript changes and that only unmarketable books were subject to requests for major alterations by publishers.

And go ahead and give a great big primal scream if it is now or would ever have been news to you that the industry considers a manuscript a work-in-progress until the covers have actually been affixed to the book. In some cases, even after.

Let’s take a gander at that particular set of shattered assumptions, shall we? Don’t they all really stem from a belief that the writer has complete control over her artistic product — or, to put it a bit more graphically, that a manuscript must either be accepted as is or not at all?

One small problem with these beliefs: neither is true.

Oh, I can certainly understand why an aspiring writer would think that they were — you can hardly throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference these days without hitting someone in the biz explaining at the top of his lungs that the literary market is so tight these days that a submission needs to be polished to the point where it could go to press as is in order to attract the attention of a really good agent or major publishing house.

This does not, however, mean that it will NOT be revised after that point.

In fact, you can bet your next-to-last nickel that it will, no matter how beautifully written that submission actually is. A manuscript’s being revised between acquisition and publication — and usually between the writer’s signing with an agent and the manuscript’s being submitted as well — is the NORM, not the exception. Typically, the editor who acquires the book, the higher-ups at the publishing house, the marketing department, AND the agent have creative input, at least to the extent of asking for changes.

In other words, our pal Alcibiades is not alone — and from his agent and editor’s points of view, it’s pretty astonishing that he would react as though he were. Because, you see, they know that he was not even the only author given a set of change requests that DAY.

Rather than sending you on your merry way for today with your tender sensibilities reeling into shock with the implications of all this for every manuscript currently under construction in the English language, I’m going to ask you to take a couple of deep, cleansing breaths.

No, not those little gasps: I want honest-to-goodness lung-swellers.

That’s better, isn’t it? To get you used to the concept of creative flux, I’m going to ask you to contemplate not the prospect of changing an entire manuscript at an agent or editor’s request, but merely a few short words.

Admittedly, I’m talking about some important words: the title of the book.

Ask 99.999% of aspiring writers — and about 90% of published authors — and they will tell you that a good title is crucial to the success of a book. When a stunner is chosen, then, it is set in stone.

Again, there are many good arguments to be made in favor of this belief. A good title intrigues potential readers: it has good meter, isn’t a cliché (and don’t we all wish the people who title movies understood THAT?), and feels good in the mouth. It is memorable, catchy, and ideally, has something to do with the content and/or tone of the book.

Knowing this, if you are like most authors, you have probably spent months or even years agonizing over whether the title you have selected for your baby is the right one.

So I really, really hate to be the one to break it to you, but the original title the writer bestows upon a manuscript is like the name given to a newborn kitten: the tyke may have been a perfect Cuddles in her infancy, but as an adult, she is probably going to transmogrify at some point into a Chelsea.

In other words, please do not be too disappointed if the title you picked is not be the one that ends up on the published book cover. The author’s choice seldom is.

Nice, deep breaths. That’s right.

This propensity to change is not, I’m told, a reflection upon writers’ ability to tell readers succinctly what their books are about so much as a practical demonstration that marketers control many ostensibly creative decisions. Even great titles hit the dust all the time, because they are too similar to other books currently on the market or don’t contain catchphrases that will resonate with the target market or even just don’t please the people who happen to be sitting in the room when the titling decision is made.

In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject the first title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book.

I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all. In fact, they will probably be hurt if you are not positively thrilled with the new title.

Keep breathing. If you can get past this, the worst is over.

I could give you hundreds of examples, but as I have personal experience with this phenomenon, I’ll share it with you. My memoir was originally titled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, but I certainly did not expect it to stick. As a freelance editor and friend of hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held a lot of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed from above.

In short, I was expecting my title to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, then, to be humble and bow to the inevitable. I was prepared to be spectacularly reasonable.

This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not adequate to deal with the situation. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to change my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.

As it happens, outside forces intervened, sealing my fate. At the time, my former writing teacher Philip K. Dick’s work was, and remains, popular with moviemakers: one of the selling points of my memoir was that two movies based upon his works were scheduled to come out within the next year and a half, A SCANNER DARKLY in the fall of 2005 and THE GOLDEN MAN in the summer of 2006. However, movie schedules being what they are and animation being time-consuming, A SCANNER DARKLY’s release date got pushed back to March, 2006. And THE GOLDEN MAN (retitled NEXT) was pushed back to 2007.

This could not have been better news to the folks sitting in marketing meetings in 2005, talking about my book. IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? was already scheduled to be published in the winter of 2006. In the blink of an eye, my nebulous publication date gelled into almost instantaneous firmness, to coincide with a film release date, and the marketing department decided within the course of a single meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY.

“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I was looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means?”

Thereupon followed much scintillating discussion – and no, I still haven’t found out what it means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently rendered my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed.

Some of you have gone cataleptic with horror, haven’t you? Try wiggling your toes and allowing yourself to be distracted by the question murmured by some of your fellow readers: “Why did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”

An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question skyward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology.

Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.

In other words: get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.

Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers?)

Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer the argumentative handicap of holding postgraduate degrees.

This is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?

Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: you’re an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to your publishers, and you’re a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to your friends. All anyone can agree about is that you are ungrateful beyond human example.

I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, to win the battle AND the war — but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.

I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. For my next book, I gave it my SECOND-best title, reserving my first choice for the inevitable discussion with the folks on the editorial side.

You know what? They kind of liked both of ‘em — and I preserved my reputation for being cooperative and flexible.

Why did I chose to tell you this story at the beginning of my series on taking feedback well, you ask? Simple: to demonstrate just how flexible a first-time author is expected to be — and how high the stakes can be if she can’t quite manage to bend on a small point.

If you’re going to limber up, I think you deserve to know for whom you will be performing that nifty dance routine. Keep up the good work!

The guessing game resumes


Did you enjoy yesterday’s little guessing game? For those of you tuning in while this show is in progress, last time, I invited readers to consider an array of fairly common writerly dilemmas — well, okay, three of five; the rest will come today. Rather than concentrating upon each as its own problem, as is my wont with exemplars, I challenged you all to try to identify the underlying thread that connected all of them.

Why would I take up your valuable time with such an exercise, especially stretched over two days of posts? A couple of reasons, of the fine variety. First, as I mentioned last time, the phenomenon that runs through each of these scenarios is not only typically a stumbling block to revision, but also very, very common in general. I see it constantly posing problems for writers at every level of the biz.

By clearing it out of the way, so to speak, before I launch into my series on manuscript megaproblems and agents’ pet peeves, any necessary changes should be easier for you to implement.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, being a working artist means having to wrestle with issues like this on a daily basis. The better a diagnostician you are, the more easily you will be able to root out writerly conflicts at their cores, rather then writhing for years under their influence while treating only their symptoms.

Also, the examples are kind of amusing, aren’t they?

Let’s move on to #4. Remember, the name of the game here is guess what issue underlies all of these case studies — and bear in mind that in none of these cases is the basic problem the only issue.

Cryptic scenario 4: over the last two months, Harriet’s sent out six queries for her mainstream novel, THE MICHELANGELO QUOTE THAT CARRIES A FAIRLY OBVIOUS HIDDEN MEANING THAT NO ONE HAS PICKED UP UPON FOR THE LAST 500 YEARS, yet no agent seems interested — even though she lucidly points out in her query letter that the book is very much in the tradition of a recent megaseller, and should appeal to the same audience.

Clearly, she concludes, the market isn’t looking for anything good or original these days.

But Harriet’s a hearty soul, so she sends out three more queries. No nibbles — and that astonishes her, because her husband said it was the best book he’d ever read, her mother raved over it, and her best friend at work handed the manuscript back to her after only three short days, saying, “It was great. I couldn’t put it down.”

Demoralized, Harriet stops querying, instead channeling her energies into letting everyone around her know how frustrated she is. (Her therapist says that this is good for her.)

She’s so at it that at holiday time, Idabel, assigned by the fickle finger of fate to be her Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver in the office pool, takes the hint and buys her a subscription to a well-respected magazine for aspiring writers, PENNERS’ PROCESSING, as well as a copy of the most recent WRITERS’ MARKET and one of the standard agency guides. Idabel is an aspiring writer herself, you see; her gift even includes a box of Manila envelopes topped with a Post-It note reading, “Use them!”

Around the Fourth of July, Harriet gets around to reading one of these helpful publications. Ten pages in, one of the agents interviewed mentions that he likes it when queriers include the information that they are members of an established writers’ group. He regards it as a sign that the writer in question has done her homework about how the business works. “Of course,” he adds, “the writing has to speak for itself, and it has to be original. I mean, if I get one more query for one more carbon copy of THE DA VINCI CODE, I’ll…”

The proverbial light bulb suddenly appears over Harriet’s head. “No wonder they haven’t been asking to see my book,” she muses. “I didn’t have an important professional credential.”

Amazingly, though, the Yellow Pages doesn’t seem to have any listings for either writers’ group, critique group, or professional writers’ credentials. After a couple of weeks of searching, she has the bright idea of turning to a more experienced writer for guidance.

“My group’s full,” Idabel hedges after hearing a full account of Harriet’s efforts, “but why don’t you check with our local writers’ association?”

After tracking down several false leads, Harriet is thrilled to be asked to join a group that has just lost a member. Staggering into the first meeting pushing a wheelbarrow stuffed with bound, 1200-page manuscripts, she is surprised to learn that in this group, members exchange only individual chapters in advance, then meet to discuss them; she had always assumed that writers read their work out loud in every critique group on the planet.

Still, she has copies of her first chapter with her, if she doesn’t mind doing some ripping, so she hands them out to everybody. When the others e-mail her their chapters (along with synopses, since she has joined at a point where many of them are mid-book), she reads them diligently. She thinks hard about what she wants to say at the next meeting; since they’ll be praising hers, she doesn’t want to be caught with nothing nice to say.

But at the second meeting, Harriet is astonished at how many specific criticisms people are giving one another. By comparison, her murmurs of, “This character was really likeable, for a sociopath; I wanted him to win,” “I was really rooting for the couple to get together after their cars collided,” and “Did Tanya really have to die after being run over by that bulldozer? It makes it less of a feel-good book, doesn’t it?” don’t seem to be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

When the group gets to her manuscript, the river of critique seems to intensify into a flood. She tries to keep smiling and taking notes, because that’s what the earlier victims had done, but it feels as if these people are ripping the flesh from her very bones. Although most of them preface their comments with a few (forced?) bits of kindness — along the lines of, “Your albino character was so convincingly…pale,” and “It’s interesting to describe a protagonist as Tom Hanks-like” — it’s clear that they positively hated literally every sentence in her chapter.

Or so she surmises, from the fact that they keep harping at her about her margins and her 14-point typeface. If they’d actually understood her chapter, would they have been concentrating on such trivialities? Or — and here poor Harriet’s heart hits her shoes — was her writing really so bad that they can’t talk about her plot at all?

She manages to keep her dignity until after the meeting breaks up, but she slips out without saying goodbye to anyone. Once home, she throws her notes into the trash, along with the manuscripts to read for the next meeting. She never goes back to the group again.

Wow, that was a sad one, wasn’t it? Is the problem becoming clearer now? Here’s the next example:

Cryptic scenario 5: Johannes is an Internet junkie; both in spare moments at work and every evening, he’s always surfing, always learning something new. He’s been working on a daring novel, AYN RAND LIVING IN PLATO’S CAVE IN A MACHIAVELLIAN WORLD, written in the present tense, the second person plural, and with semicolons decorating every other sentence.

So naturally, he’s been hanging out on writers’ forums. Having heard (well, seen) so many aspiring writers talk about their submission experiences, he feels well prepared to start the process himself. He does a Google search under “New York agencies,” and after a few false leads that produce terse replies demanding a head shot, he manages to narrow his list down to 50 or so.

Yet once he starts e-mailing out copies of his manuscript to agents and publishers, they seem to disappear into the ether. Why isn’t he hearing back? Are these people just going to steal his book and market it as their own?

Fortunately, Johannes now has online friends to ask this type of question — or rather, he has places where he can vent to the extent that other aspiring writers might figure out what his problem was. Much to his astonishment, his longtime sparring partner, Flam R. Høthead informs him that he should not have been sending out unrequested materials — he’d gotten a bit confused, since some people on the forums seemed to be mailing entire manuscripts — but instead should have been sending out something called a query letter first.

Johannes is furious. Why the heck hadn’t anyone told him this before?

So he composes the best, brashest, most self-promoting query letter he can imagine. Dear Agent, he e-mails, brace yourself for the greatest literary experience since MOBY DICK! Do yourself a favor and take a look at my novel — you’ll regret it if you don’t. It’s the next bestseller, and you wouldn’t want to be left with egg all over your face at Pulitzer Prize time, would you?

Yet amazingly, it only generates responses that seem oddly impersonal. What the heck do they mean, the book doesn’t serve their needs at this time and the novel market is tight right now? Obviously, his novel is too out there for the agents to appreciate.

He posts accordingly.

Another forum member, Bitr G. Nyess, explains to him the concept of a form letter rejection. Johannes spends the next month railing on three forums about the gross unfairness of the practice, a rant in which many, many frustrated aspiring writers are more than happy to join him.

Soon, his thread on his favorite forum is as howl-filled as a production of King Lear, but this doesn’t really seem to be getting him published. He notices that certain online sources keep being recommended by other forum readers in other contexts, so he traipses off to see what these so-called experts are suggesting.

Criminy, what drivel he finds! Everywhere he turns, he finds himself blamed for how he’s been abused. One sourpuss keeps telling her readers how awful their query letters are; another keeps yammering about something called craft; a guy who works at an agency keeps telling readers that it’s his job to reject as many of them as possible, and there’s even some insane chick who claims that all manuscripts are supposed to LOOK alike. And amazingly, when Johannes posts comments on these websites, pointing out that

(a) they’re contracting one another, so how on earth is a writer supposed to find out what to do?
(b) what they’re suggesting would take WEEKS of work to follow, and
(c) would they be interested in taking a look at his manuscript and passing it along to their friends in the industry?

they don’t seem to regard these points as fatal flaws. Or even points requiring response.

Instead, other commenters on these forums give him even more of the same kind of advice. They seem to expect him to change his book! Haven’t they ever heard of integrity? Of artistic vision?

Back on his writers’ forums, though, he is able to find many people to seem to share his outrage, though, and his threads on various forums lengthen well-nigh into infinity.

After a while, it occurs to him that he’s expending so much energy venting that he’s not writing much at all anymore. He stops posting so much, tosses his manuscript into a drawer, and starts a new book, UNRECOGNIZED GENIUS. Maybe the literary world will have matured enough by the time he’s done to be ready for THIS one.

Okay, campers: I know that there’s a lot going on here, but what’s the shared problem common to all 5? (Hint: each of these writers did quite a few things right AND wrong.)

Still stymied? I’m going to give you one final example, showing the problem in its baldest form — and incidentally the one that agents, editors, and freelance editors like myself see most often.

Cryptic scenario 6: Kimberley has just spent several years completing a novel, YOUR EYES ARE LIKE LIMPID POOLS. Justifiably pleased with herself and knowledgeable about how submission works, she sends off a flotilla of queries. Because she writes well and has done her homework, several of her queries prompt requests to see the first 50 pages.

When all of these attempts result in rejection, Kimberley is hurt and flabbergasted. For weeks, she pores over her rejection letters: what on earth does I just didn’t fall in love with the characters mean? If her book doesn’t meet our needs at this time and this is a book I probably could have sold ten years ago, are they asking her to resubmit or go away? If the former, how soon?

No matter how much she obsesses over the various possibilities, however, she can’t figure out why the book was rejected. She looks into freelance editing, but the sample edit of her first five pages came back so full of nit-picks, esoteric editing-speak like run-on and prettily written, but which one of these is the protagonist?, and cryptic statements about appealing to a target market that she realizes that the editor isn’t at all in tune with what she’s trying to do.

Besides, freelance editing is expensive. Instead, Kimberly seeks out a writers’ group filled with intelligent, creative people apparently genuinely interested in helping one another refine their work for publication. They seem excited about her project and eager to read it. (Unlike that stupid editor, who obviously wouldn’t know great literature if it bit her.)

By now, you can see this coming, can’t you? Follow the bouncing ball and sing along, people.

At the first meeting, one of the members, Linda, points out that Kimberley’s book category as listed on the title page seems a bit over-broad: romance-thriller-horror for the mainstream women’s market is not, Linda intimates, a category generally recognized by the industry. Glibly, Kimberley explains at great length why this designation is absolutely necessary: her novel stretches the parameters of boring commercial fiction.

When Linda objects that each of the named categories has a rather different expectations about vocabulary, storytelling, and voice, Kimberley takes pity on her literary ignorance and goes over, point by point and in exhaustive detail, all the ways that her book resembles THE SHINING, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, RAISE THE TITANTIC, TITANIC (yes, dear, the movie), THE VAMPIRE LESTAT, and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY. Clearly, then, her book has an audience out there — and what’s Linda’s agenda that she would suggest otherwise?

Since Linda and the rest of the group eventually stop registering objections, Kimberley figures that she’s convinced them. She continues sending out manuscripts featuring this hyphenate category on the title page.

At the next meeting, Linda does not appear, but Martha, another member, mentions that Kimberley’s opening is a bit slow — in fact, the narrative doesn’t really warm up until page 10 or so. “Given how quickly agency screeners tend to make up their minds,” Martha says, edging her chair away from Kimberley’s increasingly frightening visage, “is it possible that this might be placing your work at a disadvantage?”

Although Kimberley is furious at the implication, she takes the time to explain patiently to Martha and the absurd group members who seem to agree with her that anyone even remotely familiar with Joseph Campbell’s concept of a heroic journey — you know, the one that they used to put together the plots for STAR WARS? — should know that the first stage is to present normal life. Of course, that normal life isn’t going to be as exciting as the challenge of the plot itself, but how can the reader possibly appreciate the drama of Chapter 2′s escalation without the mundane for contrast?

“Besides,” she adds huffily, “haven’t you people ever heard of symbolism? Each of those five scoops of coffee I describe in detail as the barista — who never appears again in the book, so I don’t know why how you could possibly see this as a distraction, Martha — pours them one by one into the espresso machine represents — I can’t believe that I actually have to explain this to you — a different stage of a woman’s life. Trust me, it’ll all be clear by the end of Chapter 15.”

Kimberley makes her case well — so well, in fact, that within a scant ten minutes, Martha and everyone else in the group have gone completely silent. Satisfied that she has won her point, Kimberley doesn’t revisit Chapter 1.

In fact, in the meetings that follow, she defends her book so well that eventually, the other members evidently come to realize that it doesn’t need additional revision at all. Or so Kimberley concludes from the fact that they stop bringing up any but the most picayune, sentence-level quibbles. She soon puts those to rest.

These days, her manuscript still attracts requests from agents occasionally, but for some reason, it has not yet been picked up. Clearly, the industry is not ready for literature of this caliber.

Is the pattern clear now? Has Kimberley laid it all out for you, or do you need to spend a year in her writing group to catch on to the problem? I’ll bet you a nickel that the group has vacancies.

Like Alcibiades, Dahlia, Griffin, Harriet, and Johannes, Kimberley has never learned to take constructive criticism constructively — or to tell the vital difference between good and bad feedback, or even to differentiate between well-meant manuscript and career advice and personal attack. Not all of the feedback our exemplars received was genuinely useful, or even necessarily correct — but these writers’ responses to it virtually guaranteed that none of it would prove helpful.

And that’s a serious problem for all six, although the symptoms were different in each case. Professional critique pulls no punches; working authors are expected to be able to listen respectfully to constructive feedback, sift through it to determine what would be best for the book, and apply it sensibly to the manuscript in question.

The earlier in a writing career one can learn this valuable set of skills, the better — and the less likely one is to get hurt by the process. For the next week or so, we’re going to be talking about how to avoid the grisly fates of the Exemplar Six.

I don’t promise that it will be fun, but trust me, once you’re working with your dream agent and editor, you will bless the week that I brought this up. Keep up the good work!

Let’s all play a guessing game!


I know, I know: for weeks now, I have been promising to launch into a lengthy series on common manuscript problems and professional readers’ pet peeves, as a follow-up to my late series on polishing contest entries to a high gleam. I do intend to so launch, I assure you, but first, I’d like to prep the ground by tackling a phenomenon that often renders it difficult for aspiring writers to regard their own work with the critical eye necessary for good revision to take root.

My, that opening was cryptic, wasn’t it? Good; today, I would like the speculative part of your brain firing on all cylinders. (And speaking of cryptic: I only just noticed that the gentleman on the far right in the photo above is someone who was long a major deity of the publishing world, Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf. How’s that for a happy coincidence?)

Why do I want your mystery-sniffing noses to be a-twitchin’? Because the phenomenon I have in mind is so pervasive that it tends to permeate not only the pre-submission stages of the publication process, but often rears its ugly head all through an author’s career.

Think I’ve teased you enough? Not by a long shot. Here for your diagnostic pleasure are five scenarios involving very different manifestations of the phenomenon in action. See if you can figure out what it is.

All five of these situations, incidentally, are common.

Cryptic scenario 1: Alcibiades has just sold his first novel, GARDENING FOR BEGINNERS, to Bennett, an editor at a major publishing house. Carlton, Alcibiades’ agent, has negotiated a manuscript delivery date that permits his client the month of last-minute polishing he prefers, as well as time to incorporate a few minor changes Bennett has requested. Although the advance is small, Alcibiades is thrilled.

Once the manuscript lands on Bennett’s desk, Alcibiades assumes, as many writers new to the business do, that his own work is over, so he can go back to his next book and day job. But no: upon consultation with the marketing department, Bennett requests a few more changes — including the addition of a funeral in a plot where no one currently dies, in order to ramp up tension and sympathy for Ermintrude, the protagonist. Because the pre-publication clock is already ticking, these revisions need to happen very quickly.

Despairing, Alcibiades looks over the list of requested changes, some of which are far from superficial. Should he, for instance, introduce a new character merely in order to kill her off, in the manner of a hunter releasing tame pheasants in order to shoot them for sport? And what’s so wrong with that 50-page flashback dealing with the thrill of victory and agony of defeat for Ermintrude’s second-grade hopscotch team, thus laying the foundation for her later passion for one-legged war veteran Lance?

Instead, he shoots off an e-mail to Bennett, trying to explain why none of the changes are actually necessary — and even if they were, they would not be possible to make within the very tight timeline he’s been allowed.

Bennett, to put it mildly, disagrees. Words like slow, pointless, and does her hopscotch partner really need to have polio? begin to trouble the phone lines.

After two weeks of increasingly heated exchange, Carlton intervenes to make peace, and Alcibiades resentfully makes the changes.

Calm reigns for several months, but our hero is still bruised from the encounter. One day, Alcibiades receives an e-mail from Bennett: the marketing department has asked for the title to be changed. Could he please choose amongst the following three options, or suggest a better one of his own: SEX AND DEATH IN MOSCOW, POLLINATED BY WASPS, or WHORTICULTURE.

This time, Alcibiades’ trigger is much easier to trip, and he instantly composes a stinging reply, explaining with a lucidity that would have made the situation clear to an unusually slow four-year-old why he chose the original title.

Bennett responds that the marketing department knows what it’s doing. The situation again escalates into a bitter exchange of views, and once again, Alcibiades is forced to accept a change that he does not believe will be good for his book.

WHORTICULTURE receives good advance reviews and sells moderately well for a first book. Alcibiades does everything the marketing department tells him to do — sets up a website, appears at the signings they schedule for him, lassos his friends into generating glowing reviews on Amazon — and even manages to draft his next novel, GARDENING TECHNIQUES OF MIDDLING DIFFICULTY, while he’s promoting it. Yet when Carlton telephones Bennett to pitch his new book, the latter exhibits some resistance to reading it.

“But why?” Alcibiades demands when Carlton tells him about it. “My book is selling pretty well — and believe you me, it hasn’t been easy to explain that title in interviews.”

Carlton hesitates, obviously attempting to put something diplomatically. “He says that you’ve gained a reputation for being difficult.”

Cryptic scenario 2: Dahlia feels as though all of her dreams have come true — after years of querying, Françoise, one of the top agents in her book category, has just signed her to a year-long contract for her memoir, NORMAL OVERLOOKED TEEN: THE TRIUMPHANT REFORM OF AN UNDERAGE EXISTENTIALIST .

“I want to read the book again,” Françoise tells her, “and then I’ll have a few notes for you. Nothing major; the book’s terrific. I just want it to be in the best possible shape before I start sending it to editors. Oh, and you might want to think about shortening that title. It doesn’t make a good acronym for a memoir: NOT TRUE.”

A tad disappointed that there’s still work to be done — like many writers new to working with an agent, Dahlia had assumed that once her book was in her agent’s hands, her own share of the labor would be over — she generates a few title possibilities, then clears her schedule of everything not absolutely essential in anticipation of Françoise’s feedback.

It’s hard for a junior candy factory executive to take any time off in the pre-Easter season, but since surely everyone must know that April is the big chocolate-covered tulip crunch, she figures that Françoise must be very hot on the book.

Three months later, she’s still waiting for feedback. Timidly, she sends a box of caramel-laced bunnies with licorice whiskers, along with a note taking all of the blame for the delay upon herself. “We had a marshmallow meltdown,” she writes, “but now that the sticky situation has been cleared up, I’m all yours again.”

Françoise e-mails, apologizing profusely for the delay: she’s been just swamped with the sale of Colin Powell’s NO, I’M A REPUBLICAN, REALLY.

A few weeks later, she sends several pages’ worth of very specific change requests, including a suggestion that perhaps her tenth-grade mousy best friend Daphne be replaced with either a crack-smoking teen model who overcomes dyslexia to win an Olympic silver medal in hurdling or a stunningly-sculpted, promiscuous-yet-unpopular boy genius who will go on to become a software giant at the end of the book, in order to heighten the book’s potential for later movie sales.

“Of course,” she adds at the end of the note, “it’s up to you. But I would like to be circulating this within a month.”

Although Dahlia has been expecting this list — and had even requested it — she feels blindsided: there must be more than three dozen change requests here, none of them simple to apply. (Hadn’t that prom scene already been done in CARRIE?) Even if she took an unpaid leave from her job — which would mean leaving the Oompa-Loompas in the lurch in the middle of a major redesign for Kandy Korn — and worked on these changes full-time, this would easily be weeks’ worth of revision.

Realizing that she is too upset to have a productive conversation with Françoise about the situation, she stuffs the list into her bottom desk drawer along with the bones of her long-hated Algebra I teacher, promising herself she will get to them when she’s more reasonable.

Three months later, Françoise e-mails her: “When may I expect the revised manuscript?”

“Soon,” Dahlia writes back, glancing fearfully at the still-unopened bottom desk drawer. “I’m trying to clear enough time to do a good job. But it’s not easy — candy canes don’t grow on trees, you know, and I’m trying to keep the Peeps from walking out over dental benefits.”

Starting to gain some inkling of the shared problem here? Read on.

Cryptic scenario 3: Griffin has enjoyed substantial success in getting his short stories published, both through submission to magazines and entering his work in contests that include publication as a prize. Why, his trenchant examination of boy-on-bird love, WHERE THE HEART DARE NOT FLY, in a single year won the Giant Peach from the Atlanta Writers’ Consortium, came in second for the Golden Banana Slug in the Santa Cruz Fiction Fest, and appeared in a slightly modified form (the boy became a girl, the bird became Keanu Reeves, and all of the sex scenes were expunged) in Tiger Beat. Submitted in its original form along with a personal essay on beaver-farming whose complete avoidance of adjectives and adverbs elicited a personal note from the fiction editor of The New Yorker, his work earned him a $6,000 grant from the Canadian government along with a winter-long residency in an artists’ colony in Banff.

A detail-oriented soul, he delights in working and re-working his manuscripts until they shine, jealously guarding them from the scrutiny of others until he is sure they are perfect. (And if you think it’s easy to keep other writers from reading your work in the middle of a three-week snowstorm in Banff, you’ve got another thing coming.)

His credentials seem to catch agents’ eyes easily; most of his query letters for his novel engender requests for at least partial manuscripts. Yet even with this impressive track record, no agent has yet made an offer. So far, the most encouragement he has received was a hand-scrawled note in the lower-left margin of a form rejection letter, reading, “Help! I’ve been locked in the screeners’ room for the last 27 months. Save me! — Millicent. PS: do birds really act that way?”

Nonplused by their non-response, Griffin decides to pursue a route that has worked for him in the past: entering the first chapter of the book in a contest. If he wins, he reasons, that credential alone should convince an agent that his writing is publishable, and if he doesn’t, well, he has picked a contest that gives written feedback, so he will be able to learn precisely why he didn’t.

As he seals the entry envelope, though, he has no real doubt of the outcome: THE FLAMINGO FLIES BY NIGHT is a major work of literary fiction, obviously. His work has won prizes in the past; surely, the judges will see what the agency screeners evidently did not.

“Bird-haters,” he murmurs under his breath.

Months pass, and he still hasn’t heard back from the contest — and frankly, his canary is getting worried. The conference where the winners will be announced is now just around the corner, and don’t they have any idea how hard it is to get a seat on a plane that comfortably accommodates a cage? Sighing at the organizers’ lack of consideration, he makes his flight and hotel reservations.

Most of his friends and fellow ornithologists, naturally, assume that this means Frank is a finalist. But the skeptic that lurks in any crowd — in this case, a rogue goose-fancier who works down the hall, cataloguing seed supplies — can’t help but ask him, “If you’re not a finalist, are you still planning to attend the conference? I thought that your plan was to let your entry’s success speak for itself, not to pitch.”

Griffin brushes the inquiry aside laughingly in the moment, but later, in the dark of night, after the cloth is draped over his cage, he starts to wonder. Knowing that he will never be able to get to sleep unless he puts this nagging doubt to rest, he starts his computer and checks the contest’s website.

He is not on the list of finalists.

Nor is he there in the morning when he checks again, just in case he had read it incorrectly with sleep-deprived eyes. “Why didn’t they tell me?” he rages at some nearby finches. (They don’t know.)

Quietly, he cancels his flight and hotel reservations; fortunately, he had not yet registered for the conference itself. After all, what could he learn from a bunch of idiots too dumb to see the true value of his writing?

When the SASE containing the conference feedback arrives, he tosses it into the recycling bin, unopened and unread. Why should he bother? He has another contest to enter.

That one made you a little less sure of your diagnosis, didn’t it? I promise you, Griffin suffers from the same underlying problem as Dahlia and Alcibiades. So will Harriet, our fourth exemplar — but it’s her sad fate to wait until next time.

Since these examples have stretched into such a long post — and I have two more that I would like to share with you — I’m going to sign off for the day. Contrary to my usual practice, I’m not going to answer the question du jour right away, but wait until you’ve had an opportunity to peruse all five.

Keep up the good work.

When what you see ISN’T what you get


Hey, guess what I realized during my couple of days off? You know how I’ve been yammering for weeks — nay, years — about the advisability of reading every syllable of a contest entry or submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch various textual problems that would be extremely difficult to spot on a computer screen?

(Don’t tell me that you have a screen the size of Montana, so this axiom does not apply to you: I could bed down a litter of puppies very happily on my monitor, and I STILL read everything in hard copy before a stamp gets anywhere near it. So there.)

Well, after all that hypnotic advice-repetition, I sat down with a prospective client’s manuscript the other day — and saw instantly that I had over the last two and a half years neglected to mention the single most important reason to scan your work in hard copy, rather than trusting that what appears on the screen is going to be what the page will look like.

Stand back, please. This is so important that it deserves a paragraph of its own:

Because that way, you notice when your word processing program has lied to you about something as fundamental as whether your bottom margin is at least an inch, or whether page 62 is one-and-a-half spaced when you thought the entire document was double-spaced.

The shock of this particular electronic betrayal is probably more familiar to those of you who have a long history of Word for the PC than those who either work on a Mac or favor WordPerfect. That’s no reflection upon the computer-savvy of the average PC user, either: until the makers of Word self-consciously tried to make the PC and Mac versions similar, to ease the transition between them for users, the PC version was not designed to be WYSIWYG.

No, I didn’t suddenly start speaking Urdu: it’s a legitimate acronym. Living in Seattle, in the environs and long political shadow of Microsoft, even the common folk speak this mystic word, programmer-speak for What You See Is What You Get.

As in how a document appears on the computer screen being a reliable guide to what will appear on the printed page.

I’ve always rather liked the term WYSIWYG (pronounced whizzy-wig, in case you’re curious), not only because it’s a downright useful trait for a word processing program to have, but because it reminds me of the catchphrase of one of my favorite TV characters from my toddlerhood, the brazenly marvelous Geraldine on the late lamented Flip Wilson’s variety show.

Hands up, everyone who remembers her. Oh, she was a wonder to behold: perfect hair, perfect outfits, moving through life with verve and grace, so sure of herself in the face of (constant) opposition that when she drew a line in the sand, the waves would be afraid to wash it away.

Not ringing a bell? Would it help jog your memory if I mentioned that she was played by a man, by the great Mssr. Wilson himself, in fact?

This last fact renders Geraldine a trifle hard to explain to those who were never lucky enough to experience her directly — and, as with that pink brontosaurus I was convinced lived in my back yard when I was a tot, I have occasionally found myself wondering in the intervening decades if she wasn’t a figment of my preschool imagination. In retrospect, how was it even possible that an African-American drag queen (whose never-seen boyfriend was named Killer, no less) was accepted on network television in the early 70s — on the second most popular show of 1972, believe it or not — and still less likely, was genuinely funny?

Her secret was, I suspect, that Geraldine honestly believed that she was, as they say, all that and a bag of chips. Several bags of chips, in fact. But what elevated her beyond a stereotype is that she didn’t question her self-worth, ever. She also absolutely demanded that everyone she met treat her with respect — unusual enough behavior at the time (or now, for that matter) that hilarity generally ensued.

Her self-confidence was so immense that when she triumphed (as she invariably did), she would engage in a movement that we would all later see echoed in Nelson Mandela’s fall-of-apartheid victory jig and announce to anyone who happened to be listening, “What you see is what you get!”

You had to be there, I guess. (And isn’t THAT a beautiful illustration of why references to long-gone pop icons tend not to work in print?)

But I digress. We were talking about word processing programs, weren’t we?

Macs have from their inception been WYSIWYG, which has historically made it easier for those of us who use them to adhere to standard format. And WordPerfect has tended to make it clearer to its users what was and was not WYSIWYG. The result is that there’s just less guesswork involved in the transition from document to page.

PCs, however, are not really designed to be WYSIWYG, so unless a user is unusually committed to checking the Print Preview option for every single page, there can be surprises at printing time. If the user happens to be a writer frantically trying to get requested materials out the door, or to meet a deadline, or to get a contest entry postmarked on time, these surprises often go overlooked.

Now you might expect, if you happened to be aware that most US-based agencies and publishing houses have used some version of Word for the PC for years, and, like the rest of us, usually don’t have in-house tech support to walk them through its mysteries, that your garden-variety agency screener and editorial assistant might be somewhat sympathetic to the resulting problems on the printed page.

An innocent soul might, for instance, assume that they would look at a fluke such as a line of text’s abruptly having decided to be in 11-point type as the kind of insignificant glitch that might happen to anyone. Don’t give it another thought; it can easily be fixed before the book goes to print.

Yet, amazingly, that is not the most common response. What is, you ask? Some stripe of, “Oh, darn, this writer didn’t bother to proofread.”

Give or take an adjective or two that an awareness that underage writers do frequent this site prevents me from sharing.

Literally the only way to catch problems on the printed page that did not turn up on the computer screen is to read the ENTIRE thing in hard copy. (If only someone would nag writers about doing that, eh?)

And I do mean EVERY page; it’s not all that unusual for a glitch to occur mid-manuscript. Or for a printer (or photocopier) to misprint a page, skip it, or add a blank piece of paper for the heck of it.

Yes, it’s annoying to have to do, but not doing it implies a faith — not always justified — that just because a machine is designed to perform a function that it will always perform it correctly.

Or that it will understand that when you told it to place the entire manuscript in 12-point Times New Roman, you actually meant it AND expected that order to apply to the slug line, too.

But let’s be honest here, long-time computer users: has it really been your experience that they always function perfectly? Or that when you first figure out how to use a function — like, say, inserting pagination and a slug line in the header of a document — the results are always what you expected, given what turned up on the screen.

And who would you rather have discover that an experiment in formatting went awry, Millicent or yourself?

Hint: which of you is more likely to forgive a worthy writer an inadvertent mistake, and which of you sees so many manuscripts in any given workday that even the smallest deviation from standard format leaps off the page as if a bobcat were chasing it?

There’s a moral to be derived from all of this, of course: any writer who plans on submitting her work for professional scrutiny needs to be aware of precisely which functions in her word processing program are and are not WYSIWYG. And guess how most of us end up figuring it out?

Uh-huh. In hard copy. Preferably out loud.

I think you can extrapolate a larger principle here, too: what you see is what you get is not at all a bad motto for any submitting writer to embrace. If it’s NOT on the page — be it necessary punctuation, gorgeous verbiage, or character development thought through but never actually worked into the manuscript — it just doesn’t count, from a professional reader’s point of view.

All too often, submitters to agencies, publishing houses, and contests seem to forget this salient fact, or perhaps have never been aware of it. Their pages — in odd typefaces, with non-indented paragraphs, opened with large blocks of italicized text or epigraphs that most Millicents will simply skip — seem to cry out: read me with a generous eye. Don’t pay attention to the typos here; you can always correct them later. Concentrate instead upon the story I’m telling, the way I use words, the talent that’s lurking under the surface of a pond clouded by handfuls or even bucketfuls of technical problems.

I’m here to tell you: this is not a situation where it pays to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

I know that it seems unfair, but a new writer’s work is judged on its appearance — and virtually never read charitably by the pros. To get the kind of respectful, I’m-ready-to-be-wowed reading that all of us long for our work to receive, a manuscript needs to be impeccably put together, just like Geraldine.

Its hair needs to be perfectly coiffed, its nails done, its wardrobe, if not currently in fashion, at least tailored so that those who appreciate trendiness can see that it is stylish — and all of that talent displayed in a way that showcases it. Not just on the screen, but on the printed page as well.

That, my friends, is a manuscript that demands respect.

If you can scan your manuscript or contest submission from top to toe and say with Geraldine-like confidence, “What you see is what you get — my unique voice and my best writing,” you will not necessarily win over every professional reader, naturally — but your submission will have a fighting chance to be judged on its literary merits, not on its word processor’s technical flukes.

Incidentally, remember that pink brontosaurus I had imagined living in my back yard in the days when I spent a lot of time in the sandbox under its massive noggin? A few years ago, going through some family photos, I found a picture of it. A sculptor friend of my parents’ stored it at our house until the children’s zoo for which he had created it was ready for it to be installed near the slide.

Sometimes, what you see really is what you get. Keep up the good work!

An interesting little piece on my mother — and a few thoughts on keeping the faith


Hey, those of you who have at least a passing interest in my family’s long and semi-illustrious connection with modern science fiction: has posted a nice little piece on my mother, Kleo Mini, better known to short story readers as K. Emmanuel.

The picture above appears courtesy of some really nice passerby outside the old San Francisco beatnik hangout, the Caffe Trieste, a generous soul whose name has apparently already been lost in the mist of time. The jovial fellow next to her is David Gill, known to all of us here at Author! Author! as the Philip K. Dick scholar whom I invited to join me to speak at Harvard recently.

For those of you who weren’t reading this blog during the tumultuous period when my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, was teetering breathlessly on the edge of publication, my mother was married to the aforementioned science fiction writer throughout the 1950s, the period during which he first began writing professionally. Back then, she looked like this:


One of the great advantages of growing up in a family of writers (my father, uncle, brother, and a hefty percentage of the family’s friends all hammered away on the same anvil) is not only seeing with one’s own wee eyes that making a living at it is indeed possible, but also hearing from one’s cradle continual confirmation that yes, baby, even the most talented writers on earth have had to struggle with rejection.

Or, to be precise, one is told that back in the day, it wasn’t easy, either. Heck, writers in the 40s and 50s evidently had to walk uphill both ways to the post office in three feet of snow to submit hand-typed manuscripts to agents and editors.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might conceivably be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), a writer could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz; equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy.

So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses? They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page.

This is the origin of the SASE, in case any of you had been wondering: getting their rejected manuscripts back would save writers weeks of retyping time.

This fact is as ingrained in my family’s lore as the story of how my parents met. Back in the far-away 1950s, while Kleo toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories. Dozens of them. As writers did in the days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy.

(Because Kleo had a big brother in the SF biz, she knew to take both her agoraphobic husband’s writing and her own to be critiqued by other writers and editors at the time, which is actually how Philip got his first story published — and how she acquired many of her own excellent copyediting skills. But that’s another story — and part of the memoir that the Dick estate sued to prevent being published. Amazing how persuasive people with millions of dollars can be, in the lawsuit-shy post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES environment. But I digress.)

When a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But both Philip and Kleo kept typing away, keeping as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore (since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost), but one day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch.

Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

I have it on pretty good authority that one of those stories was “The Minority Report.” Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

So what did the aspiring writers of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did they toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did they rend their garments and give up writing forever? Did they poison their mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once? All of the above?

No, they did what professional writers did back then: the wife ironed the pages so they could be sent out to the next magazine.

As a writer, I’ve always found this story very comforting. All too often, those of us in the writing community fall under the spell of the common mainstream illusion that any writer with real talent will inevitably be discovered, signed by an agent, and lauded to the skies after a single submission or contest entry.

Come on, admit it: didn’t you send out your first query letter fully expecting to receive a phone call from an agent begging for your manuscript by the end of the week? Didn’t you walk into your first literary conference believing that the ideal agent for your work was waiting there, would demand to read your book in its entirety on the spot, and would sign you before the conference was over? Didn’t you first contemplate contest entry primarily in terms of how heaped with laurels you would inevitably be?

Really, on your low days, don’t you still cherish the illusion that your literary gifts are so valuable to the reading world that some morning, you’ll hear a knock on your door, and it will be the agent of your dreams, begging for the privilege of carrying your work reverently to the perfect editor, who will naturally drop everything to read it, fall in love with it, and acquire it by next Tuesday? The book will, naturally, be out within the month, and before spring is truly upon us, you’ll be chatting with Oprah about it, right?

And the fact that this has literally never happened to someone who wasn’t already a celebrity for some other reason doesn’t really affect the sense that it SHOULD happen to the truly talented, does it? And that’s a genuine shame, because that nagging SHOULD has made virtually every gifted writer feel like throwing in the towel from time to time.

In reality, most authors who hit the big time put in years of hard, dispiriting work to get there. Overnight success is usually an illusion reserved for onlookers — and lasting success tends to reward those who have built up their writer’s tool bags with professional skills.

How did they pull that off? By doing precisely what you have been doing, I hope: by learning which agents and publishing houses would be most receptive to your work, refining your query letters until they positively glow with professionalism, and polishing your manuscripts until they shout, “HERE IS A GREAT ORIGINAL VOICE PRESENTED AS THE INDUSTRY LIKES TO SEE MANUSCRIPTS!” By reading in your chosen book category until you have such a strong sense of the current market that you can state without hesitation why your target audience needs your book. By learning the advantages of seeking out good feedback — and training yourself not to take criticism of your work as a reflection upon your personality. By becoming skilled in self-editing and incorporating feedback so that you may turn around revisions in a timely manner.

And by reminding yourself that the only manuscript that has NO shot at publication is the one that the writer never sends out.

Yes, it’s probably going to take sending it out a LOT to reach the agent and editor best suited to working with your unique voice and worldview — but a lengthy search is not necessarily a barometer of the writer’s talent.

History shows us that even the best books often take a good, long time to find a home. I know that I’ve pointed this out before, but 5 of the 20 best-selling books of the twentieth century were initially rejected by more than a dozen publishers:

Dr. Seuss, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (rejected by 23 publishers)

Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)

Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki (20)

Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (18)

Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame (17)

I’m not going to lie to you: this is a tough business, requiring a perversely diverse array of personal attributes: an attention to detail that would make Thomas Edison weep with envy, a sensitive perceptiveness to social dynamics that would make Freud gnash his teeth and run back to the drawing board, a marketing savvy that would make Jacqueline Susann seem dilettantish (if you ever aspire to promoting your own work, see ISN’T SHE GREAT? with all possible dispatch) , and an idealistic tenacity of purpose that even Don Quixote would consider unreasonably strong. Not to mention the favor of the muses that we know as talent.

A tall order? Sure. But somehow, I suspect that you have it in you. Because, as Maya Angelou tells us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

Keep metaphorically ironing those pages, everyone, and keep on patiently adding tools to your writer’s bag of tricks. And, as always, keep up the good work.

Tying up the loose ends of a contest entry: one last foray into the practical, the sublime, and the frivolous


For those of you tuning into this series late, for the last — oh, how long has it been, a few weeks? A few months? A decade or two? — I’ve been going over the ins and outs of literary contest entries. This is, thank goodness, the last post in this series for a good long time, although naturally, I welcome your questions on the subject whenever they should happen to occur to you.

The important thing for our purposes today, however, is that this is the last PLANNED post on entries aimed at this year’s contest season. I’ve been promising a nice, long series on manuscript megaproblems for quite some time now, and I’m eager to leap right into it.

Or, rather, to collapse into a quivering little heap of advice-giving exhaustion for a few days, THEN leap right into it.

To our muttons, then. I have one more question for the pre-entry manuscript scan (and since a couple of people have complained that the darling tiger animation was distracting, I’ll omit it this time):

(17) Reading this over again, is this a book to which I would award a prize? Does it read like finished work, or like a book that might be great with further polishing?

It’s a very, very common writer’s prejudice that everything that springs from a truly talented writer’s keyboard should be pure poetry. Even first drafts. However, there are in fact quantities of practical storytelling skills that most of us poor mortals learn by trial and error.

Although contests tend to concentrate on as-yet unrecognized writing talent, they are simply not set up, in most cases, to reward the writer who is clearly gifted, but has not yet mastered the rudiments of professional presentation.

And this is very sad, I think, because one of the things that becomes most apparent about writing after a judge has read a couple of hundred entries is that the difference between the entries submitted by writers with innate talent and writers without is vast. An experienced eye — of the kind belonging to a veteran contest judge, agent, or editor — can rather easily discern the work of what used to be called “a writer of promise.”

In the past, writers of promise were treated quite a bit more gently than they are today. They were taken under editorial wings and cherished through their early efforts. Even when they were rejected, they were often sent notes encouraging them to submit future works. (Occasionally, a promising writer will still get this type of response to a query, but the sheer volume of mail at agencies has rendered it rare.)

Now, unfortunately, writers of promise, like everybody else, tend to have their work rejected without explanation, so it’s extremely difficult to tell — even after months or years of patient querying — where one’s own work falls on the talent spectrum.

To put it as kindly as possible, until you have weeded out all of the non-stylistic red lights from your contest entries, you truly cannot gain a realistic feel for whether you need to work more on your writing or not.

If you are indeed a writer of promise — and I sincerely hope you are — the best thing you can possibly do for your career is to learn to conform your work to professional standards of presentation. This is one of the best reasons to enter contests that give entrants feedback, just as is one of the best reasons to take writing classes and join a writing group: it gives you outside perspective on whether you are hitting the professional bar or not.

Oh, and it helps to be lucky, too.

Okay, let’s assume for the sake of rounding out this darned series that your answer to Question #17 was a resounding, “By all I hold holy, YES!” Let’s further assume, for my peace of mind, that you have made all of the changes that Questions 1-16 suggested to you and run it past a trusted first reader or two.

If you haven’t yet done all three, please don’t tell me: I’ll never get to sleep tonight otherwise. Help me preserve my illusions.

So what else should you do BEFORE you seal all of that greatness into an envelope and mail it off in the hopes of future glory? Well, first, you should read the ENTIRETY of your entry IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere at all.

Oh, come on: you didn’t see that one coming?

Yes, you should proof it again, especially if you made even the most minor textual alteration in your last read-through. As virtually anyone in the industry can tell you, even very, very experienced authors often inadvertently miss manuscript gaffes — and, as regular readers of this blog are already aware, my professional editor’s hat (oh, it’s fetching, I assure you) gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen.

Since I love you people, I shall spare you a repetition of all the excellent reasons you should NOT do this. Just humor me, okay?

If you decide to break my heart and perform the final read-through on your computer — as long experience tells me that some of you will — at least avoiding using your word processor’s spell- and grammar-checker when you are exhausted. As you might be, to pick a random example, in the dead of night or a few hours before that contest entry needs to be postmarked.

Why, you ask? It’s just too easy to hit the CHANGE button when your eyes get blurry — a faulty spell- and grammar-checker choice can obviate hours and hours of your earlier hard work.

Don’t even get me started again on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg of you: drop me a comment, send me a letter, or just start shouting loudly in my general direction, and I shall make everything clear.)

Like a bad therapist, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded, but even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do.

If you’re in doubt, look it up.

There is an especially good reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important.

If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basis story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you.

Insofar as a hole can leap.

Once you have perfected your entry, print it on nice paper. This may seem silly, but it sometimes does make a difference, believe it or not.

By nice paper, I’m not talking about hot pink sheets or pages that you have hand-calligraphed with gold leaf and Celtic designs. Either of those would get your entry disqualified on sight in most contests.

No, I mean high-quality white paper, the kind of stuff you might print your resume on if you REALLY wanted the job. Back in my contest-winning days, I favored bright white 24-lb. cotton. Yes, it’s a little more expensive than ordinary printer paper; live a little. If this seems extravagant to you, ask yourself: have I ever walked into an interview wanting the job as much as I want to have my book published?

If your finances genuinely prohibit that small splurge, at least make sure that you don’t use less than 20-lb — and would this be a good time to point out that virtually every photocopier on the planet is stocked at this very moment with paper that’s quite a bit flimsier than this?

It tears easily. It wrinkles as it travels through the mail. It’s dingy-looking.

Nice paper is a pleasure to hold, but frankly, there’s more to this strategy than giving your judges visceral pleasure. The vast majority of contest entries are printed on very low-quality paper — and with printer cartridges that had apparently seen better days around the end of the Clinton administration. When multiple copies are required for submission, they generally show up on the flimsy paper so often found in copy shop photocopiers.

Spring for something nicer, and your entry will automatically come across as more professional to the judges.

It may not be fair, but it’s true, so it’s very worth your while to invest a few extra bucks in a decent ream. 20-pound paper or heavier will not wrinkle in transit unless the envelope is actually folded, and bright white paper gives the impression of being crisper.

Avoid anything in the cream range — this is the time for brilliant white.

For what it’s worth, I have observed over time that agents and editors, too, seem to treat manuscripts printed in Times New Roman on bright, heavy white paper with more respect than other manuscripts. The only drawback — and it was a significant one, I don’t deny it — was that when I printed up a draft of my memoir for my editor on lovely cotton 24-pound paper, it came back to me smelling like an ashtray. Turns out cotton paper soaks up ambient smoke like a sponge. My cats shied away from my desk for weeks afterward.

I’ve told this story a couple of time before, so for the sake of those of you who have, ahem, already had the opportunity to laugh at the joke, I went back and sniffed the manuscript box again. (Ah, the things that I do to amuse my readers!) And you know what? More than 2 1/2 years later, the darned thing STILL smells like a smokers’ lounge.

Now THAT’s good paper.

One last thing: before you seal the envelope, GO BACK AND REREAD THE CONTEST RULES. Have you met each and every requirement? Have you included every needed element? Are your margins precisely what the contest specified?

It may seem a bit obsessive to re-check this often, but as I have been telling you all throughout this series, judges are looking for reasons to knock entries out of finalist consideration. It is absolutely imperative, then, that you follow every rule to the letter.

And if that isn’t enough to convince you to check again, perhaps this little statistic will: in the average contest, a good 5% of entries show up with something really basic missing, like the check or a second title page.

Best of luck with your entries, this contest season and forevermore. As always, keep up the good work!

The contest entry checklist concludes: ready, steady, GO!


Happy International Women’s Day, everybody! As Marianne (a.k.a. Liberty) shows us above, what’s a little wardrobe malfunction when there are goals to be achieved?

Speaking of malfunctions, for the past few days, I have talking about a series subtle (and not-so-subtle) contest entry snafus that a savvy entrant might want to avoid. To this end, I have asked the entry-happy among you to print out a hard copy of that soon-to-be-sent-out work, give it a thorough read — and subject it to a fairly thorough cross-examination.

Actually, those of you who are not planning to enter a contest anytime soon might want to subject the first chapters of your submissions to this friendly little grilling as well. As I have been mentioning throughout this series, judges often share reading preferences and pet peeves with agents, editors, and their screeners.

In other words, subjecting your opening pages to this set of questions might make Millicent like them more.

Everybody comfy? Okay, let’s resume.

coolclips_wb024789.gif(10) In the chapter itself, is it apparent where this story is going? Is it apparent that it IS going somewhere?

Were the groans I just heard echoing through the ether from those of you who have chosen the contest route over the submission route because agents are so darned well, market-oriented? If so, I sympathize: an aspiring writer does not have to attend many literary conferences to become well and truly sick of hearing that an entry should begin the action from the first line of page one.

Contest judges tend to be a bit more tolerant than the average agency screener, but then, they are substantially more likely to read pages and pages, rather than paragraphs and — well, no, Millicent often doesn’t make it all the way through even the first paragraph of a submission — before making up her mind about the quality of the writing.

However, even in literary fiction competitions, it’s rare to see a fiction entry that doesn’t establish an interesting character in an interesting situation on page one win or place, any more than a nonfiction entry that doesn’t start its argument until page four tends to walk off with top honors.

coolclips_wb024789.gif(11) Is the best opening line (or paragraph) for my work actually opening the text of my entry — or is it buried around page 4?

This question almost always surprises aspiring writers, but in many fiction and nonfiction contest entries (and submissions, if I’m going to tell the truth here), there is a perfectly wonderful opening line or image hidden somewhere in the middle of the first chapter. One way to catch it is by reading the text aloud.

If you find that this is the case with your entry, you might want to take a critical look at the paragraphs/pages/prologue/chapters that currently come before that stellar opening line, image, or scene. Does the early part absolutely need to be there?

That last question made half of you clutch your chests, anticipating an imminent heart attack didn’t it? In most cases, it’s not as radical a surgery as it sounds.

Often, the earlier bits are not strictly necessary to the narrative except as explanatory prologue. Very, very, VERY frequently, opening exposition can go. Particularly when it takes the form of backstory or characters telling one another what they already know in order to bring the reader up to speed — many, if not most, fiction entries overload the first few pages, rather than simply opening the story at an exciting point and filling in background later.


Also, as I mentioned yesterday, there is absolutely no good reason that the version of your chapter that you enter in a contest has to be identical to what you would submit to an agent or editor. Hey, here’s an interesting notion: why not enter a truncated version that begins at that great opening line in a contest and send a non-truncated version to an agent who has requested it, to see which flies better?

coolclips_wb024789.gif(12) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

Okay, out comes the broken record again: the synopsis, like everything else in your contest entry, is a writing sample, every bit as much. Make sure it demonstrates to the judges that you can WRITE — and that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a professional necessity, not a tiresome whim instituted by the contest organizers to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim of their own.

Yes, Virginia, even in those instances where length restrictions make it quite apparent that there is serious behind-the-scenes sadism at work.

Don’t worry about depicting every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

Oh, and try not to replicate entire phrases, sentences, or — sacre bleu! — entire paragraphs from the entered chapter in the synopsis or vice versa. Entries exhibit this annoying trait all the time, and believe me, judges both notice it and find it kind of insulting that an entrant would think that they WOULDN’T notice it. (Millicent usually shares this response, incidentally.)

Listen: the average contest entry, even in a book-length category, is under 30 pages. You’re a talented enough writer not to repeat yourself in that short an excerpt, aren’t you?

coolclips_wb024789.gif(13) Does the chapter I’m submitting in the packet fulfill the promise of the synopsis? Does the synopsis seem to promise as interesting and well-written a book as the chapter implies?

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times throughout this series, it’s not at all uncommon for the synopsis and chapter tucked into an entry packet to read as though they were written by different people. Ideally, the voice should be similar in both — and not, as is so often the case, a genre-appropriate chapter nestling next to a peevish, why-on-earth-do-I-have-to-write-this-at-all summary.

It’s also not unusual for a synopsis not to make it clear where the submitted chapter(s) will fit into the finished book, especially an entry where the excerpt is not derived from the opening. It’s never, ever a good idea to confuse your reader, especially if that reader happens to have the ability to award your manuscript a prize.

Remember, it’s not the reader’s responsibility to figure out what’s going on in a manuscript, beyond following the plot and appreciating the twists and turns: it’s the writer’s responsibility to make things clear.

coolclips_wb024789.gif(14) Does this entry read like an excerpt from a great example of its book category?

Okay, I’ll admit it: as a professional reader, I’m perpetually astonished at how few aspiring writers seem to look at their work critically and ask this question. All too often, when I bring it up, the response is a muttered (or even shouted) diatribe about how demeaning it is to think of art in marketing terms.

Yet it’s a perfectly reasonable question to put to any writer who hopes one day to sell his work: like it or not, very few agencies or publishing houses are non-profit institutions. If they’re going to take a chance on a new writer, they will need to figure out how to package her work in order to make it appeal to booksellers and their customers.

Like the industry, contest judges tend to think in book categories, not merely in generalities as broad as fiction, nonfiction, good, bad, marketable, appealing to only a niche market, and unmarketable. So it’s a GOOD thing when a judge starts thinking a paragraph or two into your entry, “Wow, this is one of the best (fill in genre or book category here) I’ve ever seen.”

In fact, at least two judges will pretty much have to produce that particular sentiment for your entry to proceed to the finalist round of any literary contest. Sometimes more.

So if YOU can’t look at your entry and your favorite example of a book in your chosen category and say, “Okay, these two have similar species markings,” you might want to reconsider whether you’ve selected the right category for it. Which brings me to:

coolclips_wb024789.gif(15) Does this entry fit the category in which I am entering it?

This is a slightly different question from the last one, because as I mentioned earlier in this series, contests do not always categorize writing — particularly fiction — in the same way that the publishing industry does. Just as they will frequently lump apparently unrelated book categories into megacategories (as, for instance, the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s rather perplexing practice of combining mainstream and literary fiction into a single designation), they will often define types of books differently from the pros.

Such ambiguities are not, alas, always apparent from a casual reading of the contest’s promotional materials. Double-, triple-, and quadruple-check the rules, not forgetting to scan contest’s ENTIRE website and entry form for semi-hidden expectations.

If you have the most miniscule doubt about whether you are entering the correct category, have someone you trust (preferably another writer, or at least a good reader with a sharp eye for detail) read over both the contest categories and your entire entry.

Yes, even if you’re reading this a few days before the deadline. Categorization is a crucial decision.

coolclips_wb024789.gif(16) Reading over this again, does this sound like my writing? Does it read like my BEST writing?

I know, I know: this last set of questions sounds like an appeal to your writerly vanity, but honestly, it isn’t. As I believe I have mentioned 2300 times within the last few weeks, original voices and premises tend to win good literary contests far more often than even excellent exercises in what we’ve all seen before.

Which is, of course, as it should be.

However, it can be genuinely difficult for a writer to see the difference in her own work, particularly if she happens to be writing in the same book category as her favorite author. Unconscious voice imitation is almost inevitable while one is developing a voice of one’s own.

You should save your blushes here, because virtually every author in the world has done this at one time or another, consciously or unconsciously. It’s only natural to think of our favorite books as the world’s best exemplars of great writing, and for what resembles them in our own work therefore to be better than what doesn’t.

But let’s put writerly ego in proper perspective here: you want to win a literary contest because of what is unique about your work, don’t you, rather than for a dutiful resemblance to a successful author’s best work?

Of course you do — just as you want to be signed by an agent who loves your writing for what is like no one else’s, and sell your book to an editor who doesn’t want to cut and paste until your book reads like the latest bestseller. So it honestly is in your best interests to weed out verbiage that doesn’t sound like YOU.

Think about that a little before you send off your entry — it may seem a tad counter-intuitive, especially to those of you who have taken many classes or attended many writers’ conferences, where one is so often TOLD to ape the latest bestseller. The folks who spout that advice are almost invariably talking about writing a SIMILAR book — which, in their minds, means one that could easily be marketed to the same vast audience, not a carbon copy of the original.

This is a business where small semantic distinctions can make a tremendous difference, my friends. Ponder the paradoxes — and keep up the good work!