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.
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!