Just when I thought the getting good at incorporating feedback series had wound to a close, Dave brings up another good issue


There I was, my friends, happily contemplating the spring rain cascading over the new blooms on my pear tree and what few tulips the destructive-but-invaluable construction crew left in my back yard, when it popped up on my screen: a comment left by incisive longtime Author! Author! reader Dave:

I’m of the opinion that incorporating feedback at any level is easier if a writer realizes two things. One, that no matter how good one’s writing is, it can be better. Two, whether pending changes are the result of self-review, first reader suggestions, or publishing industry directives, they are all meant to improve the work.

Gnash went my teeth — because, dear readers, not only is Dave right on both of these salient points, but the first is particularly applicable to the series in question. In a flash, I realized that even as I had been patting myself on the back about how thoroughly we’d gone over the plight of the feedback-recipient, I had merrily skipped over a couple of rather important details.

It’s already time to revise the series, in short. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood — and by golly, I’m going to backtrack and try to travel both.

The first point that seems to have slipped under my radar may be lifted more or less verbatim from Dave’s observation:

No matter how good one’s writing is, it can be better.

Or, to stand it on its head and paint its toenails before we shove it onstage to tap-dance:

Receiving revision requests on a manuscript does NOT necessarily mean that it isn’t well-written — or that its author doesn’t have scads of talent.

Hoo boy, is that ever a hard concept for most writers new to the biz to swallow!

Why? Well, professional opinions vary, but here’s my theory: because a manuscript represents SO much of its writer’s time, energy, love/soul/whatever you want to call it, it’s extremely difficult for the writer to think of it as a product-in-development, rather than a finished piece of art.

Do I hear some harrumphing from veterans of earlier posts in this series? “Yeah, yeah,” these battle-hardened toughs say, “we already know: if a writer is querying with or submitting a book to agents and editors, it’s a product that s/he is trying to sell. A manuscript is not merely an extension of its author’s personality, and we writers should not respond to feedback as though we were being criticized on our own characters. I thought you said that you were going to share something NEW.”

Ooh, tough crowd. Okay, here goes: the new part has to do with how we writers think of our talent as we take it to market.

When an aspiring writer prepares a manuscript for submission — but wait, I’m assuming that the writer we’re discussing is industry-savvy enough to differentiate between preparing a work for submission to agents and editors and simply writing the book in the first place.

The latter is about the creative process, expressing oneself, and all of the rest of the time-consuming delights of the first draft; the former is concerned with polishing up those ideas so they’re ready for an agency screener’s notoriously merciless peepers.

Or, to put it a bit more crudely, when writing the first draft of a manuscript, the writer is generally composing to please herself, primarily; in prepping the manuscript for submission (or revising based on solid feedback), the writer is seeking to please a potential reader.

I’m just full of aphorisms today, amn’t I?

Most aspiring writers do not make the distinction between these two states of manuscript preparation, alas, and it shows in what they submit to agents, editors, and literary contests: pages rife with grammatical problems, misspelled words, under-thought plot twists, etc.

Within the first couple of pages, even.

I mention this last point partially as a lead-in for the discussion I had planned to begin today, on common manuscript problems that often lead to rejection. (In preparation for which I have, as the sharper-eyed among you may already have noticed, already added a new category to the list at right, AGENCY SCREENERS’ PET PEEVES OF THE NOTORIOUS VARIETY.)

As I MAY have mentioned, oh, eighty or ninety times before, and at least a dozen times within this particular series, professional readers do not read like other people. Especially within the first few pages of a submission, they tend to read from line to line, or at most from sentence to sentence: if the first one in a paragraph contains a problem, they simply do not move on to the next.

Sentence, that is, not paragraph. Speaking of tough audiences.

Which is to say, they most assuredly do not read like writers, and especially not like writers reading their own work with a kindly eye. They will not, for instance, gloss over a typo in the name of a place with merely a muttered, “Oh, I’ll need to go back and fix that,” think that {and} repeated four times within a single sentence gives a marvelously evocative feeling to the narrative, or assume that an opening similar to THE LOVELY BONES is an invariable sign that the rest of the manuscript will be as good.

They are disappointingly likely, in fact, to leap to the prosaic and unflattering conclusions that the submitting writer just didn’t know how to spell Berkeley in the first place, adores run-on sentences, and that THE LOVELY BONES was her favorite book, respectively.

Echoing my phantom critics at the top of this post, the professional reader sees such opening and cries: show me something NEW, something I haven’t seen before. And show it to me in a clean manuscript.”

A clean manuscript, in case you were wondering, is the term for a submission that is absolutely free of spelling snafus, grammatical errors, and the kind of typo I mentioned above as likely to be noticed as only a minor annoyance by the writer I mentioned above. The ability to proofread adequately technically shouldn’t have anything to do with talent, yet the two run hand-in-hand enough that they might as well be related, in the eyes of the publishing industry.

Why? Well, no one’s really sure who first made that particular correlation, but if I had to guess at the underlying logic, it would run something like this: an aspiring writer who understands the distinction between writing a book and prepping it for submission is both (a) more likely to proofread than one who doesn’t and (b) more likely to have some conception of how the industry works — and is thus (c) more likely to be good at taking feedback well, meeting deadlines, and generally living up to the other rather high standards of good behavior to which they expect successful writers to conform.

If I had to guess.

From the publishing industry’s point of view, a well-written submission by a good writer is like a talented actor auditioning for a play. Many gifted performers may audition, but only one can ultimately play the part. The one cast as Hamlet may not actually be more talented than the others, but he does have particular qualities and skills that the director wants.

Now, if the auditioning actor (let’s call him Bertie, to personalize him a little) walks into the audition believing that raw, natural talent is the only thing the director is assessing during the audition, not getting the part is going to seem like a judgment on whether he should be acting at all, right?

Sound a bit familiar? It should — it’s roughly equivalent to what many, if not most, writers feel the first time they have a manuscript rejected. Or even when they encounter substantive feedback.

And if they have, as is so often the case, not made the distinction between writing a book at all and polishing it up for submission, that conclusion isn’t all that surprising. Constructive feedback is, after all, predicated upon the assumption that the writer INTENDS to take that second step of prepping the manuscript for eyes other than her own.

If that is NOT the writer’s intention — if, in other words, she believes that she is so talented that her work should be published as is and regardless of any technical problems it may have — this assumption is incorrect, badly so. Pretty much by definition, to a writer whose primary goal is to please herself, any outside criticism is going to seem at least a little bit outrageous.

And personal.

Because, you see, to a writer who has set herself up as her own best reader — and thus only legitimate judge — a critique of her manuscript is not only a dig at the quality of her writing, but also a slam at her skills as a {reader}. From there, it’s not such an implausible step to its being an attack on her intellect, her taste…in short, upon her as a person.

Again, if I had to guess.

Of course, few aspiring writers who respond to feedback as if they were being criticized personally would reproduce their logic this way. We’re talking about something pretty instinctive here, as I mentioned earlier in the series, about whether the brain perceives critique as a threat deserving a fight-or-flight response.

My point here — indeed, a large part of my point in inaugurating this series in the first place — is that it’s possible for a writer to prepare herself for hardcore critique well enough that the fight-or-flight response need not be triggered at all.

Let me tell you from experience, the less adrenaline is rushing through a writer’s system while she’s trying to incorporate feedback, particularly take-no-prisoners professional feedback, the easier the experience will be for her. And on her.

Two of the best ways to minimize that initial rush of adrenaline: first, acknowledging the distinction between writing a book and preparing it for market; second, being aware BEFORE receiving the feedback — or even before asking for it — that good feedback is aimed at the latter, and thus not at the writer personally.

While that bitter pill is sliding down the gullet, let’s return to our actor friend, Bertie.

Through repeated auditions, Bertie has now developed a slightly tougher skin, you’ll be delighted to hear: he no longer feels each time he loses a part that he shouldn’t be acting. Yet without hearing specific feedback on why Actor X got cast in this part instead of him, it’s easy for Bertie to start to make up his own (possibly erroneous) explanations: oh, the director wanted a blond all along, Bertie thinks, rubbing his dark locks; he was looking for someone taller than I am; no one is casting serious character actors right now.

Again, does this sound familiar? It should, especially to those of you who have spent much time at writers’ conferences or on online writers’ forums: it’s essentially what many a writer who has been querying or submitting for a while can begin thinking. The rejections must all have been for superficial reasons.

And maybe they were. But maybe, just maybe, the query letter was just a touch unprofessional, or there’s a common agency screeners’ pet peeve on page 1.

The maybes can stretch into infinity, eating up months and years of speculative energy — or the writer could conceivably try to diagnose the problem by getting some good feedback.

To show that in Bertie’s terms, this would be the equivalent of his finding a really good acting teacher, someone who can help him even out that occasional sibilance he didn’t realize he exhibited, to learn how to walk differently for each character, and bring additional depth to his line readings. Think he’s going to have a better chance the next time he’s up for a part against another actor with superficially the same characteristics?

Even better, isn’t a director more likely to take a chance and cast someone OTHER than the person he’d originally pictured in the role if Bertie DOESN’T exhibit the odd whistling s?

Just a few more bees to stick under your bonnet, of course, to see if they can’t come up with some honey for you. Thanks, Dave, and everybody, keep up the good work!

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