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!

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