You’ll be delighted to hear, I expect, that today will be the next-to-last installment in my series on ways to ease the difficulties of incorporating written feedback. Later in the week, I shall be tackling the specific problems associated with dealing with a critiquer who has the power to enforce a change request — your agent, for instance, by not sending your manuscript out to editors until he’s certain the latest version will fly, for instance, or the editor who acquires it. This can be tricky, especially if one does not happen to agree with the feedback in question.
Hey, I warned you at the beginning of the series that we would be building up our feedback-incorporation muscles. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself, and repeating myself…), it is not merely for the sake of maintaining peace in a writing group or friendships between more casual first readers that it behooves writers to add good listening and critique-accepting skills to their tool belts: these skills come into play at every stage of a writing career.
Seriously, your future agent, editor, publicist, and probably anyone who happens to be frequenting your domicile when your first book’s reviews start rolling in are going to bless the time you put in now developing a measured response to literary criticism. So will you.
Your very pets will be happier for it, because you will be less stressed when you need to incorporate editorial feedback on your tenth book. Not UNstressed, mind you — I’ve been doing this for years, and even my backyard raccoons get a mite testy when I’m on a short revision deadline — but certainly able to manage even the most extensive revision request in your stride.
You can do this, I promise.
For now, though, let’s keep swimming in the relatively less shark-infested waters of dealing with written feedback in general. To review the tips 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.
5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first — or only — reader of your manuscript.
6. Don’t expect your readers to drop everything to read your work. Especially if they happen to work in or with the publishing industry.
7. Don’t try to do it all at once.
8. Make a battle plan, setting out reasonable deadlines for each step.
9. Allow some room in your battle plan –and time in your schedule — to respond to inspiration, as well as to experiment.
10. Make sure that you’re not over-estimating the critiquer is requesting.
11. When in doubt about what a critiquer expects you to do, ASK.
12. Avoid making the same mistake twice — at least for the same feedback-giver.
Phew — that’s a heavy list, isn’t it? Let no one say that being a tolerant and wise recipient of feedback is the proverbial walk in the park. Moving on…
13. Keep excellent records about the changes you have made to the manuscript — and keep both hard and soft copies of EVERY major version of the book.
Having grown up in a family of writers — ones who were fighting the good fight back in the golden days of typewriters, no less — I was STUNNED to learn that most revisers do not keep copies of each draft. Seriously, the first time I met a writer who didn’t, I thought he was joking.
Why is it such a jaw-dropper, from a professional point of view? Quite simply, either the writer or the editor might conceivably change his or her mind.
Remember last week, when I mentioned that writers tend to be the only ones involved in the publishing process to cherish the illusion that a book is DONE until it’s actually been printed and is for sale at Borders? Well, that mindset of continual modification is not, some of you may be alarmed to hear, necessarily a one-way process.
That’s right: critiquers’ opinions have been known to vacillate from time to time. They also — please don’t throw anything heavy at my head; I’m just the messenger here — been known to forget that the aspect of Draft #2 they liked least was in fact something they asked the writer to do after reading Draft #1.
Or — and I’m already ducking under my desk — be displeased with a writer’s specific solution to a vaguely-phrased concern.
Did you feel that lurch your stomach just took? The goal of Strategy #13 is to avoid that feeling’s ever being associated with your manuscript, by providing concrete records through which you can retrace your revising steps.
While the maid is mopping up all of the soggy tomatoes my readers just lobbed in my general direction, let’s concentrate on the first problem on the list: just because a critiquer suggested last month that you kill off your protagonist’s sidekick does not necessarily mean that she will prefer the revised, sidekick-free storyline.
Because I love you people, I’m not going to go into detail about how much farther a writer’s stomach can displace itself when the stakes are higher — when, say one’s agent or editor changes her mind. I suppose I could describe what the moment of hearing one’s agent say, “Sandy, I’ve been thinking about it, and your first running order was better,” means to a Sandy who has been simply saving each new change in the same Word file, but frankly, gut-wrenching, sustained groaning is hard to convey in words.
And even if Sandy’s agent/editor/first reader DIDN’T later backtrack, how is Sandy supposed to figure out three months after a revision whether Scene Q worked better in draft #1 or #2?
Especially if — as is, I’m still stunned to report, very frequently the case — Sandy hasn’t kept a meticulous list of what has changed between those drafts?
A wise reviser ALWAYS maintains the ability to check both versions side by side — and a clever one records the major changes separately, keeping it handy for future reference.
Why, you ask? Well, several reasons, potentially. Many, many books go through many, many drafts, for starters; do you really want to be rending your garments two years from now because you can’t remember whether Draft #3 or Draft #4 included Cousin Max’s funeral? Or at what point you realized that Dennis and Denise’s names scanned too similarly, and readers might get confused if you didn’t rechristen one of them?
Also — and this may come as something of a surprise, after my recent diatribe about how critiquers tend to notice when writers haven’t taken their advice on previous drafts — especially if the same feedback-giver has followed the book through several versions, he might not always remember what precisely he asked the writer to do.
Is that gagging I hear out there? “But Anne,” some of you sputter, “aren’t we talking about dealing with WRITTEN feedback here? Surely, there’s no question about what has been said after, say, an editor requests a textual change in an editorial memo.”
How shall I put this delicately…
Professional readers go through a LOT of manuscripts in any given month; it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the details began to blur a bit would it?
And honey, if your nerves will stand calling up the editor who’s just acquired your book and saying, “Hey, I’m calling foul — your last two memos contradicted each other,” well, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
I can also tell you right now that ol’ Gunga Din’s agent is going to throw what used to be called a conniption fit immediately after that act of bravery — because from the editorial end of that phone line, that statement might very well have sounded like a declaration of war.
Hey, I’m not the only message-bearer who fears the wrath of the angry tomato-thrower.
Instead, think about how much more smoothly the exchange might have gone has our pal Gunga instead been able to whip out both the list of suggested changes (prepared, perhaps, in response to Strategy #8) and the roster of what he had changed between drafts in preparation for such a discussion.
Armed with such tools, perhaps Gunga could have blunted the potential for confrontation even further by prefacing his remarks with, “I think I’m confused. From what you said in the memo, it sounds as though I may have misunderstood what you were asking for last time. Or are you asking for something completely different now?”
In short: keep good records of changes, and make it as easy as possible for yourself to revert to an older version, if necessary and appropriate.
Whew, I think we could all use a nice, long nap after that little exercise in hypothetical horror, couldn’t we? The rest of the strategy list will be much less stomach-wrenching, I promise.
Keep up the good work!