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!