10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Character Names, by guest blogger Askhari Hodari

Hello, readers –
Well, I’m delighted to report that authorial blandishment has once again borne fruit: Askhari Johnson Hodari, Ph.D., author of the newly-released book to name-seeking writers, The African Book of Names (published by HCI Books), has very kindly agreed to share her terrific insights with us today. Specifically, she will be giving us some tips on how to go about naming a character.

I couldn’t be more thrilled: Askhari is absolutely tops at this, as anyone familiar with her latest book could tell you.

I just can’t put it down, actually. In addition to offering an absolutely fascinating list of more than 5000 names, indexed by character attribute (don’t you wish that every name book had the foresight to do THAT?) and region of origin, The African Book of Names offers in-depth advice on how to go about picking a name. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

The African Book of Names: 5,000+ Common and Uncommon Names from the African Continent offers readers names organized by theme from 37 countries and at least 70 different ethnolinguistic groups. Destined to become a classic keepsake, The African Book of Names shares in depth insight about the spiritual, social, and political importance of names from Angola to Zimbabwe. The most far-reaching book on the subject, this timely, informative resource guide vibrates with the culture of Africa and encourages Blacks across the world to affirm their African origins by selecting African names. In addition to thousands of names from north, south, east, central and west Africa, the book shares:

• A checklist of dos and don’ts to consider when choosing a name

• A guide to conducting your own African-centered naming ceremony

• A 200-year naming calendar

As someone who tried desperately to convince her best friend from college to name her second child Harpo — how great a childhood would that have been, eh? — instead of Joe, the name lists fascinate me. My favorites at the moment are the Azanian name Chireshe (pronounced chee-REH-sheh, the book informs me), which means He mixes speech with little bursts of laughter — how charming is that? — the Nigerian Iyora (ee-YOH-rah), I am not a stranger to this community, and the Camaroonian Gukaa (goo-kah), the mouth talks a lot. If I had to christen this blog right now, I would choose these.

I’m going to stop my mouth from talking a lot and let you move on to a guest blog that I think everyone will find extremely helpful. Before I step aside, however, I should mention that THE AFRICAN BOOK OF NAMES is available in bookstores, at Powell’s (for those of you who prefer to support indie booksellers), as well as on Amazon. On the latter, you may also pre-order Askhari’s next book, Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs, due out in November from Random House’s Broadway. (With a forward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu!)

One more word before I go: I sincerely hope that all of you will give some serious thought over the weekend to how you go about naming your characters, what challenges you have encountered, etc. We’re going to be talking about naming for the next few posts, culminating in one of our valuable Let’s Talk About This segments, so please think about what you would like to share with the Author! Author! community.

Take it away, Askhari, and thank you for sharing some of your strategies with us!


People always call me for names. And not just for baby names, either. I help people come up with memorable, meaningful business and organization names, titles of stories, books, events and programs. And, characters. Characters. I love naming characters. So, I am no expert or anything, but I do know at least…

10 Things to Do When You Are Naming a Character

1. Give your characters names that tell readers something about the character.
For example, a feminist character may keep her maiden name, or hyphenate her name. She may give her daughters androgynous names like Drew, Alex, or Jesse. A formal character would prefer to be called by the formal form of his or her name- William versus Willie, or Constance versus Connie.

Whenever you choose a name, I recommended that you look up the name’s meaning to ensure the name either compliments, or does not conflict with the message you are trying to send.

2. Select names that are both age and time period appropriate.
A character’s name should give the audience clues to the age of the character. Do the names Beatrice, Victoria or Katherine sound like appropriate names for teenagers?

Albert, Alfred, Clara, Doris, Elton, Gladys, Rudolph, Helen, Lillian, Ralph, Sarah and Sadie are examples of old-fashioned names. Yet, some old fashioned names like Anna, Emma, Grace, and Hannah are now trendy. Christopher, Elizabeth, Matthew, and Michael are examples of names that never seem to age.

When selecting a name, I suggest you review old census records, looking for names that were popular in your character’s time. The Social Security site is also a good resource for this type of research.

3. Choose culturally appropriate names to help make the character and story realistic.
Character names should reflect the cultural world of the character. Names like Yang, Ito, Gupta, Lopez, Smirnov, Johansson, and Rossi provide immediate clues as to ethnic identity. However, America’s political reality is such that Blacks frequently carry the surnames of their former slave-owners; and Asians and Jewish persons have historically changed or altered their names so the names were more socially acceptable.

Some characters will have first and last names that reflect different or blended cultures. Christina Yang, and the real world names, Spike Lee and Shaquille O’Neal are examples. Culture can also refer to a non-race specific location- would you expect to have a “Billy Bob” in the middle of Boston? Or, would you expect to find someone named Sergei in Tuskegee, Alabama? No. Not really.

4. Make sure the name is pronounceable.
Say the name aloud several times to make sure it is something you and readers can pronounce readily. For example, I never really knew how Sethe was pronounced until I heard Toni Morrison read from her book. Was it like Seth, or Sethay, or Seththe. And, how would you pronounce Rande—is it Randy, or Randeh, or Rand?

Don’t make your audience walk around for four years pronouncing a character name incorrectly. Why spend time choosing a name readers don’t know how to pronounce? Don’t do it. Just don’t. But, if you do decide to use a name with an ambiguous pronunciation, write something to let the audience know how to pronounce the name. For example, “Rande hated her teacher for pronouncing her name wrong, like Randy, instead of like Randay.”

5. Choose names that are “character” appropriate.
You wouldn’t expect the plumber to be named Joseph, Frederick, or Edward. But Joe the plumber, and Fred the plumber and Ed the plumber sound realistic. Can you imagine a bus driver, or gravedigger with a “rich-sounding” name like Danforth, Witherspoon, Sinclair, Fairchild, or Maximillian? Could be interesting though…

6. Employ syllabic variety.
The length of the first and last name should vary. Tom Sawyer, Erica Kane, Huckleberry Finn, Molly Bloom, or Lennie Small, for example. For some reason, which I cannot explain, variety makes names more pleasing to the ear and easier to remember.

There are many resources for first names, but for last names/surnames, you can visit Nuts and Bolts Filmmaking or download a list here.

7. Choose names that are gender appropriate.
I really, really, really like androgynous names (and repetition). Wasn’t Scout Finch a great name for a girl? However, I would not be a good guide if I didn’t tell you things like short, one-syllable names with hard consonants are usually seen as masculine. Take Jake, Kurt, Max, and Dirk, for example. Likewise, folk seem to feel that names with soft multiple syllables suggest femininity- names like Heather, Gina, Sharon, Jennifer, and Suzy.

Sometimes names imply gender. There is a reason fictional male detectives have names like: Alex Cross, and Sam Spade; and fictional heroines have names such as Scarlett O’Hara, Anna Karenina, or Annabelle Lee. (For a list of male character names, please visit here.)

8. When writing for a novel or television show that is populated with numerous characters, make sure the character names are distinct.
There are a few ways to make sure your audience does not get confused: 1) make sure character names start (and end) with different letters; and 2) avoid names that sound alike (i.e.Paul and Saul; Tim, and Tom).

The Color Purple is a good example of a well-named cast of characters: Celie, Mister/Albert, Shug, Harpo, Sophia, Nettie, Kate, Bub, Squeak and so on. With the possible exception of Celie and Nettie, none of the names sound too similar.

9. Save good names for the major characters.
Don’t waste a great name on a minor character, a walk on character; or an extra. What would have been the point of having an extra, walk-on, or one line character named Tony Soprano, Rhett Butler, Stringer Bell, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Vic Mackey, or Teacake?

10. Keep a handwritten or electronic list of potential character names.
Keep a running list. Whenever you hear a name you like, write it down. Save it. For instance, I had a student once named Harch Decar. Great name- right? You know I am going to change the spelling to something like Harsh DeKar and use that name one day.
So, see? I actually do have a list of some names I plan to use one day. Wanna hear some? Here they go: Ash, Blackbelt, Cade, Cairo, Chata, Cyri, Khaler, Kori, Queenie, Rizi, Ryder, Spell, Tansy, Tantrum, York and Zella. Now, I trust you not to use them before I do- okay?


1. Sula Peace
2. Yuri Zhivago
3. James Bond
4. Hannibal Lecter
5. Bigger Thomas
6. Easy Rawlins
7. Sherlock Holmes
8. Ishmael (Moby Dick)
9. Celie

8 Things To Avoid When Naming A Character

1. The obvious.
You know the names: a gardener named Herb Green; a nun named Virginia, a lawyer named Justice Scales; an accountant named Matthew…

2. Similar sounds.
Please, please, please, don’t end the first name with the same sound as the last name, and try not to name the characters with names that start with the same syllable. Even though spellings may differ, names can still sound the same. Take, for examples, the names Jack and Zachary; Mary and Terry; and Sam and Tammy.

3. Overly exotic names.
Okay, I am talking about names that are usually reserved for strippers, I mean exotic dancers, professional sex workers and soap opera stars: Remington Steele, Shy Love, Johnny Wad, Trixie Rain, Jack Hammer, Bunny Bleu, Cookie Anderson, Angel Long, Summer Haze, etc.

4. Alliteration and rhyme.
Sometimes, it is difficult to take names beginning with the same sounds seriously: Candy Cane, Mandy Matthews, Ted Thomas, Shay Sweet, and Vicky Vet. Again, these types of names bring exotic dancers (strippers) to mind. Or cartoon characters- Lois Lane, Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, and Vicky Vale.

Rhyming names are also sometimes difficult to take seriously- Ned Ted, Sally Rally, and Chet Wet. These types of names are appropriate for children’s fiction (think Dr. Seuss), but adult work — not so much…

5. Names with negative or precarious connotations.
Did you hear about that three-year-old kid named Adolf Hitler? His sister was named Aryan Nation. And, even though Barack Obama’s middle name, Hussein, means handsome, folk will forever tie the name Hussein to Saddam Hussein.
Other examples of names that have negative connotations include Butch, Pansy, Fanny, Gaylord, Dick, etc.

6. Initials that spell something undesirable or negative.
Avoid this especially when the spellings of the initials don’t relate to the character or to the story, and aren’t going to be used. Take Sarah Tanya Dennison, for example.

Other combinations you may wish to avoid: ASS, BAD, BUM, DIE, DUD, DUM, FAG, KKK, PIG, RAT, RIP, STD.

7. Unnecessary A’postroph’e’s.
Don’t even get me started on unnecessary a’pos’trophes. You know the names: Ta`Qwan, Ga’Nay, D’Angela, Che’nille… What does the a’postrophe actually add to a first name? And, why do this to the audience? Apostrophes are just messy. Messy, I say…

8. Names that end in “s.”
This tip seems trivial until you find yourself having an awkward time writing the possessive form of the name that ends in “s.”


1. Bucky Wunderlick
2. Ralph Malph
3. Renée Rienne
4. Bob Loblaw
5. Steve Urkel
6. Tess of the D’Urbervilles
7. Captain Marvell

6 Resources to Help You Choose a Name for a Character

1. Name books
2. Soap operas
3. Phone book
4. Bible
5. Television and movie credits
6. Comic Books

5 Electronic Resources to Help You Choose a Name for a Character

1. Muse Names.
40,000 names classified by country or cultural origin. What turns a long list into a powerful tool for writers is the way it selects a name to match a keyword.

2. Name Maker LE
Millions of possible combinations of first and last names.

3. Baby Name Genie
“Granting wishes for the ‘perfect’ baby names.”

4. Parenthood.com
A random name generator that allows you to search by first letter.

5. Sandra Petit’s site
Another random name generator.

4 Things to Consider When Naming a Character
1. Theme, motif.
Themes can add extra layers to the story and enhance the overarching themes of the book, movie, or novel. Often, character names can help clarify theme.

Take, for example, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Several of the characters had names relating to birds: Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson.

In the movie Rocky, the characters have names that represent strength: Rocky, Apollo Creed. A god versus an indestructible force.

In Song of Solomon, several character names (and the title) are taken from the Bible: Reba, Pilate, Hagar, Magdalene, First Corinthians, and Ester. Morrison also had characters named Sweet, Circe, and Sing Byrd. What was the significance of these names? Figuring out the significance of character names also gives the audience something (fun) to do.

2. The Character’s Family.
If the parents of your character are very traditional, the characters should probably have more olde English or Victorian names like James, Mary, Elizabeth or Michael. Or, if the parents are religious, their children would likely have names from the Torah, the Quar’an, or the Bible. If you find character siblings named Diana, Smokey, and Marvin, isn’t it likely the parents are Motown fans?

3. Nicknames.
If your character is a main character, consider a nickname, or term of endearment to show the relationship of the character to other characters, parents and intimates, in particular.

4. Name Fame.
There are times when certain names have positive connotations because of a celebrity or famous person or character. For example, the name Kent now connotes strength, Elizabeth now sounds queenly; John Paul connotes purity, and Abraham or Lincoln suggest honesty.

3 Things People do too much of

1. Add “y”s to a name, unnecessarily.
Nychole, Mykenzie, Karsyn, Miakyel (for a male), etc.

2. Ruin a perfectly good name by adding “sha”, “ra”, “kwa” or “la”, etc.
For example, Kwatina, LaRenee, LaQuincy, DeShane…

3. Try to be too clever.
For instance, naming a writer Auther Book; naming a vegetarian Lett Us; naming an alcoholic, Hein A. Ken.

2 Things people don’t do enough of when naming characters

1. Use places and or things as people names.
There are an abundance of lakes, cities, mountains, numbers, and other constructs that would make great names. Think Africa, Britain, Chad, China, Cuba, Egypt, Everest, Freedom, Georgia, India, Kenya, London, Mali, Nile, Paris, Seven, and Sahara.

2. Use androgynous names for complex characters.
I just love androgynous names: Adrian, Bailey, Casey, Jordon, Justice, Parker, Phoenix, Riley, Sage, Shay, and Sidney. And, so on…


1. Everything I have shared here can be meaningless in a matter of minutes.
For example, who expects a “brother” to be named Bentley Fonzworth? I love the idea of creating a working class man with a wealthy, elegant sounding name. And, even though I said to avoid alliteration, Sam Spade and Marilyn Monroe are effective examples of times when alliteration works. And, my own name rhymes, but I love it—don’t you?

I could go on and on and on about names, but I am going to stop here, so if you want to know more about names, you could check out my recently released book, The African Book of Names. Naturally, the book is filled with African names, but you there is also information you might find useful like a guide to naming ceremonies and a checklist of what to consider when choosing a name.


black-facts-calendarAskhari Hodari, Ph.D., is a Birmingham-based freelance writer; former Black Studies professor, and the author of The African Book of Names (Health Communications, Inc., 2009); and Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs (Broadway Books, October 2009). She also developed the Black Facts Calendars.

Getting good feedback, part XIII, in which I finally stop yammering on the subject and move on


Those of you who have been following the epic battle between our yard and the World’s Worst Landscaper™, a stirring saga of adventure, betrayal, and our quest to banish bizarre pseudo-artistic installations of landscape elements deeply reminiscent of the darker works of Sigmund Freud from our immediate environment, will no doubt be delighted to hear that after eleven months, we have finally discovered where the WWL’s true talent actually lies. No, it’s not in designing and installing innovative and aesthetically pleasing yards — we no longer harbor any illusions on that score — nor in administering staff that might conceivably do so.

He can, apparently, control the weather.

Or so I surmise. Today, we were supposed to have an — ahem — discussion with the WWL about the stack of irrigation hoses that has been lying on the ground so long that the neighborhood opossum has not only begun nesting in within its coils, but is active raising a family there. Yet in the wee morning hours, it began to snow, rendering congregating outside to consider opossum relocation difficult. (Yes, Seattleites are weather wimps.)

I would brush this off as just another delay amongst countless others, were it not the fact that it has begun snowing on all the last three occasions that we scheduled an outdoor ultimatum-fest with the WWL. Apparently, my putting my wee foot down about irrigation hoses triggers some sort of cloud-salting.

Either that, or the WWL has some connections Up There of which we were previously unaware. However he manages it, the power of his conversational inertia is formidable, something out of a Magical Realist novel. Even someone with as high a tolerance for surrealism as yours truly, a lass whose artistic tastes were shaped in part by a mother who insisted upon taking me to see Fellini’s 8 1/2 when I was 8 1/2, this has all been a tad disconcerting.

Enough about the Doors Mankind Was Not Meant To Open. Let’s move on to what I devoutly hope will be my last post on strategies writers can use to wrest good feedback from their first readers.

Last time — and probably a few times in the dim past, knowing me — I brought up the deer-in-the-headlights look that first readers often exhibit when asked post-read for commentary both more complex and more potentially usable than Oh, yeah, I liked it. One would think that a reasonable soul might have at least suspected that at least a few follow-up questions would be forthcoming, but I have it on good authority, through the excellent medium of listening to writers complain lustily about it for many years straight, that it isn’t always the case. (For a genuinely thought-provoking example, please see intrepid reader Nadine’s comment about this phenomenon.)

For the past few days, I’ve been talking about steps a writer can take to minimize the possibility of finding herself post-read without reader feedback that can be incorporated in the next draft. Today, I want to turn the question around, to discuss why intelligent, articulate first readers so often transform before our very eyes into vague, communication-phobic writer-avoiders.

Even when they loved the book. Strange but true.

In practice, first readers new to feedback-giving almost always experience some difficulty giving specific feedback. Oh, they may not say so point-blank, but you may notice them freaking out a little if they are asked pointed questions, as if the author had abruptly transmogrified into an IRS agent conducting a five-year audit.

If you doubt the pervasiveness of this reaction, you might want to spend a little more time watching interactions between writer and audience at author readings. Audience members frequently freeze up if the author of a published book responds to their praise (or, heaven forefend, to a simple request to autograph the book) with, “Thanks — what was your favorite part?”

Note to self: don’t do this at future readings. It ties even admirers’ tongues into sailors’ knots.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that this reaction is primarily due to a pervasive public perception that authors are godlike beings before whom the average reader should quail. (As much as some of us might like that to be the case.) No, ask for a detailed analysis of pretty much any written material, and most readers will suddenly find it difficult to breathe.

Even people who habitually recommend books to their friends will often balk if put on the spot. I find this fascinating.

As a former professor, I can tell you exactly what that panicked flash in their eyes means: it’s the fight-or-flight response of a student suddenly tested on material he thought would not be on the test.

Poor souls, when an author asks their opinion of his book, they think they’re being asked WHETHER they liked it, not why. If they weren’t that they would be expected to cough up a more detailed response than By Jove, yes!, they tend to feel as defensive as if the author told them their opinion was wrong.

As if the author above had said to them, “You actually LIKED that trash? In heaven’s name, why?” rather than, “Please tell me what I did right in this book, so I may cater to that taste in my next, the one that my agent is breathing down my neck to produce while I’m on this book tour,” or even, “I am a seething mass of insecurities; please reassure me.”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate.

Now do you understand why I’ve been so insistent about giving your first readers a study guide, so they’ll know what’s going to be on the test and can prepare accordingly? It’s the best way I know to bridge the communication gap and nip this common anxiety in the bud.

I’m not just saying this because I was the prof who habitually stopped mid-lecture to announce, “Gee, wouldn’t THAT make a fabulous final exam question? Let me repeat it a couple of times, so you can write it down.” (And yes, my department did hate that little habit; thanks for asking.) I am, as those of you who have been reading this blog for a while are no doubt already aware, no fan of concealing from people information they need in order to succeed.

I’m saying it because from the unprepared reader’s POV, being grilled by an anxious author is like a pop quiz on material read for fun. They tense up because it’s not fair, strictly speaking.

Writers giving feedback to other writers are far less likely to have this response, for obvious reasons: usually, we were the folks who ruined the grade curve in English class. Hand us an essay question about a book we like (or hate), and we’ll go on for hours, won’t we? Ask us what we thought of the latest bestseller, and we might still be delivering nuanced critique next Wednesday. So asking some terrified soul to perform an in-depth textual analysis of the various possibilities for revising a manuscript doesn’t strike us as a stress-inducing exercise; it sounds like fun.

But just for a moment, let’s try to identify with the vast majority of the population that does not instinctively respond with joy to being asked to produce a book report on the spot, shall we?

To help you wriggle into the right mindset, let me ask: do you remember that professor in college or that teacher in high school who used to madden you at exam time with vague questions, ones so broad that they essentially invited you to spill out every minor fact you had managed to memorize? Compare and contrast the Renaissance with the Middle Ages, with examples, for instance, or Was the League of Nations a good idea? or The Emancipation Proclamation: what were the arguments on both sides?

Or how about the teacher who resorted to the ever-popular ploy of giving you a quote, and asking you to relate it to the reading? Perhaps you fell under the sway of something along the lines of this little gem:

“There is no — objective’ or universal tone in literature, for however long we have been told here is. There is only the white, middle-class male tone.” — Carolyn Heilbrun, WRITING A WOMAN’S LIFE

Relate this quote to the works of Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Dave Barry, Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, Jeffrey Eugenides, Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, Anaïs Nin, Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, and Marvel Comics. Make your answer text-based, and use specific examples.

Students look at this sort of question and wish that bolts of lightning would strike them on the spot. Which, intellectually, is precisely what has happened.

“What the heck does relate mean in this context?” they wonder, surreptitiously sharpening their pencils into weapons of mayhem. “What if I accidentally cite a DC Comic instead of Marvel? Will I lose points?”

I like to call this the what color am I thinking? school of test-construction, because it requires the students to guess, with virtually no guidance, what the teacher wants to see in the essay. Short of employing sophisticated telepathy, how on earth is the student supposed to know what criteria will be used to judge her response?

We’ve all had teachers who placed us in this uncomfortable position, right? My high school biology teacher simply walked into class on the day of our big plant life exam, handed each of us a three-foot-long stretch of butcher paper, and told us, “Show me everything you know about plants.”

Half of my classmates instinctively clutched their chests, anticipating a heart attack. Did Mr. Young intend this as an invitation to draw lilies for an hour, an instruction to reproduce the entirety of The Origin of Species, or an entreaty to write haiku? No one knew until after the exams were graded.

The color he was thinking of was green, evidently.

In grad school, I once had the misfortune to enroll in an extremely poorly-designed class on Eastern European politics. For our first paper, the professor asked each of us the daunting question, At what point could an outside force have intervened to prevent the Russian Revolution from occurring? Or could it have been prevented at all? “Give me your opinion,” he told those of us who asked him for some much-needed clarification, or at least narrowing, of the topic. “I want to know what you all think.”

When he returned the graded papers, it was quite apparent that the answer he had been seeking was some version of, “Track down Karl Marx at his elementary school and smother him.” How do I know that the color he was thinking was not red? Because no one who had argued that changing something after Marx was in long pants or anything within the geographical boundaries of the soon-to-be Soviet Union got above a B-.

My dissertation advisor used to favor assigning paper topics by distributing rambling half-page ruminations on the nature of life, without out ever articulating a question she desired students to answer. Because I value your time and my page space, I shall not reproduce one of her opus here, but trust me, those questions were epic.

“Don’t tell me what I think you should know,” she was prone to urge during endless and frustrating meetings to try to nail down a term paper topic. “Tell me what you think I should want to know about what you have learned.”

Are these examples dredging up your long-buried responses to the kinds of exams that drove you nuts in school? Got that I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-happening feeling firmly in mind?

Good. First readers given no guidance by the authors who have handed them manuscripts often feel as annoyed and helpless as you felt when faced with those kind of vague exam questions.

Especially if they’ve never read a manuscript (as opposed to a book) before. As I hope all of you are well aware, the format is substantially different, for one thing (if that’s news to you, I would implore you to visit the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right with all possible speed), and let’s face it, it’s an intimidating thing to be faced with the task of evaluating the creative output of someone’s soul.

Unless, of course, you have an ego the size of New Zealand, are being paid to do it, or both. Even then, it’s intimidating at first, but hey, both narcissism and nice big checks have their benefits.

So does reading manuscripts for a living at a publishing house or agency. If it’s any consolation for those of you who were told that your English degrees had no use in the real world, editors at publishing houses took those essay tests, too, and aced ’em. And now, bless their hearts, they have transformed those bsing compare-and-contrast skills into a life’s work.

If you are using folks without either of those advantages as first readers, providing written parameters for criticism at the same time that you hand over your manuscript is an easy way to minimize the potential for future misunderstandings. There’s no need to turn it into a major research project, or to inundate your readers with ten-page lists of questions. Stick to a simple 1-2 pp. questionnaire about the book, highlighting the areas you feel could use some work.

For the sake of your ego, it’s also a dandy idea to include questions about parts that you know you have pulled off well. Even if you are not prey to nagging doubts about the quality of your writing in the dead of night — if you are, trust me, you are far from alone — I can virtually guarantee that at some point along even the most bump-free road to publication, you will appreciate having a list of some concrete reasons to feel good about your book.

In case any of you had heard otherwise, very little about the publication process is designed to reduce a writer’s insecurities — and if you doubt that, I can only suggest that you have a conversation with any author whose first book will be released by a major publishing house within the next year. Yet another reason that a good fit with one’s agent is a positive boon to an author: who better to reassure you about your inherent talent, worth as a human being, and general fabulousness while your book is making the rounds of editors?

But I digress, don’t I? We were talking about that written set of questions you were going to hand to your next first reader.

In your list of feedback criteria, be as specific as you can — questions along the lines of What did you think of my protagonist? tend to elicit less helpful responses than Was there any point in the book where you felt the tension lapsed? If you would appreciate references to specific page numbers (trust me: you do), either ask your reader to keep a list of ‘em or provide some sort of easily-attached tape flags.

I always like to add some offbeat questions, to make the process more amusing for the reader. Did anything in the book make you laugh out loud?, What in the plot surprised you most?, and if you were going to fix up my protagonist’s love interest with your best friend, how would you describe him before the date? can provoke some revealing responses.

If those of you who haunt critique groups have started to wonder if coming up with such a list for fellow members wouldn’t be such a terrible idea prior to exchanging manuscripts, give yourself a gold star for the day.

It’s a good idea to tell your reader up front HOW you would like to receive feedback, too. It honestly isn’t self-evident. In the margins? On a separate piece of paper? As a bullet list to accompany verbal communication? Remember, the more writing you ask to receive, the more of a time commitment you are requesting, but unless you take shorthand or have a tape recorder always handy (which not all first readers will appreciate; ask in advance for permission to record), it’s hard to keep in mind everything said within a context of a conversation.

Especially — and we writers don’t often admit this, even amongst ourselves — if that conversation contains critique that hits close to home. While the stress of sitting down and listening to a litany of criticisms aimed at the nearest and dearest work of our hearts can be pretty overwhelming regardless of the quality of the feedback, the breathtaking was I just punched in the gut? sensation of realizing that you’ve just heard precisely the insight that your book needed can also mess with your ability to process further input. Both the emotional and creative wheels are spinning too quickly.

Which is one reason that I would urge you to think VERY carefully whether you really do prefer verbal feedback to written. Receiving critique face-to-face can be a pretty intense emotional experience; if you don’t think you can keep saying, “Rework the running order completely? Thank you for suggesting that,” for half an hour straight, asking for written feedback may well be a better choice.

As a fringe benefit, it’s also more likely to be detailed — and, in many cases, more honest. Many a trenchant suggestion has died upon the lips of a feedback-giver who just didn’t have the heart to say it to the writer’s face.

If you’re not comfortable discussing all of this with the sweet soul you have selected to give you feedback on your manuscript, consider the possibility that you’re telling yourself that s/he may not be the right choice. If you stop to think about it, you might realize that you two are too close emotionally to render frank professional discussion of your writing feasible, for instance, or that you harbor qualms about someone you see every day at work reading that one particular love scene in Chapter 8. You may suddenly recall that time when your potential first reader flew off the handle at her brother’s 17th birthday party, unleashing a string of epithets that would have made a longshoreman blush, and fear a similar loss of control if you disagree with her radical opinions on comma use.

Or — and please don’t be too hard on yourself if this turns out to be the case — you might just not be ready to expose yourself and your book to the stress of critique. Only you can make that call.

If you find that you’ve made a mistake, whether in timing or in first reader selection — there’s no shame in calling it off. In fact, it will be far, far better for writer and reader both if the decision comes before the latter starts reading; s/he will not, after all, be able to un-read your text if s/he has already launched into it, and you don’t want to be left torn about whether you should ask about those two chapters s/he got to before you telephoned to tell her to stop.

Fortunately, the vagaries of the creative process provide a writer a stupendously non-confrontational excuse for rescheduling feedback: all one really has to say is, “Oh, I was visited by a flash of inspiration in the dead of night about how to improve my book, and I want to revise it before I show it to another mortal soul. You would prefer to read it in its best form, right?”

Easy as pie. It even works if the first reader has already had the manuscript for a few weeks.

Oh, and do remember to mention up front whether you would like the manuscript back after the reader finishes with it. Unless you ask for marginalia specifically, most readers will assume that it is theirs to keep — or recycle, as they see fit. If you expect its return and your first reader lives far away, it’s courteous to send along a SASE.

This is especially true if your manuscript is longer than the reader may have expected — just as agents and editors grow a trifle pale when a 600-page manuscript shows up in the mail, amateur readers tend to balk a little when handed a tome heavier than a lhasa apso. More pages equal more time commitment, inevitably. If yours tops the infamous 400-page mark — where most pros would start to get nervous about marketability for a first novel, incidentally — do tell your first reader that up front.

And finally, at every step throughout the process, observe my final tip: be HUGELY grateful for your first readers’ help — and express that gratitude early and often.

Yes, even if the feedback turns out not to be very helpful. As I keep mentioning, reading a manuscript with an eye to feedback is a far, far different thing than dipping into a book for sheer pleasure, no matter how polished the writing is. It’s hard; it’s merely polite to treat it as the favor it is.

The same holds true when you are the feedback-giver, to a certain extent: the more polite, specific, and clear you can be, the better the experience for everyone concerned.

Which means, of course, that if you find yourself on the receiving end of a manuscript, or in a critique group that does not already have guidelines for feedback established (fie!), it’s perfectly legitimate to ask for guidance BEFORE you begin reading. I’m quite serious about this: both you and the writer will be happier in the long run if you do.

Why? Well, do you want to guess how someone you just met on an online forum or at a writers’ conference prefers to receive feedback? That’s the kind of challenge that can make even the best of readers freeze up. You don’t want to trigger bad exam flashbacks, do you?

Of course not. Not in yourself, and not in your first readers.

Be specific — and for your own sake, be honest with yourself. If you want your critique to be aqua, don’t just murmur something vague about how it would be nice if your first reader could give you something on the blue side of the color wheel. By taking the precaution of explaining precisely what you want from feedback to the person who is going to give it to you, you minimize the probability of ending up staring tearfully at bright orange critique.

I’m proud of all of us for having the bravery to take a long, hard look at this seldom-discussed issue crucial to the happiness of writers. As a reward for our collective virtue, I have a special treat in store for you tomorrow.

So do be sure to tune in — and as always, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part XII: making it easy to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — and congratulations, Governor Gary!


In the interests of broad inclusiveness, I try not to delve into politics much here at Author! Author! — no easy feat for someone who has spent as much time as I have writing platforms, let me tell you — but today, I can’t resist cheering a bit: hooray for former Washington Governor Gary Locke, just nominated to be Secretary of Commerce!

I’d been hearing the rumors for some time — in caucus states, the politically-involved tend to talk to one another, even outside campaign season — but I wanted to wait until it was official before I added my congratulations. How pleased am I, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: if I weren’t genuinely happy about this appointment, would I have posted a photograph featuring my now-happily-vanished second chin?

Seriously, Governor Gary, as he is known chez Mini, is precisely the kind of person who ought to be in politics: smart, well-meaning, and actually sincere, a policy wonk whose face lights up when discussing soft timber trade issues. (Don’t laugh; it’s perennially at the top of US-Canadian trade talks.) During his tenure in the governor’s mansion, he positively littered Asia with Washington apples, yet was environmentally-conscious enough to establish himself as “Governor Salmon” — wild ones, that is, the kind that need stewardship to keep from going extinct.

I ask you, writers: is that a nickname that would be even vaguely plausible in a novel? Of course not. So imagine Washingtonians’ surprise when Governor Gary started referring to himself that way, as if he were planning to swim upstream to spawn any minute.

But did we all pay attention to the plight of the endangered salmon? You bet.

I wasn’t kidding about his being a superlative policy wonk. Marvelous choice, President Obama — and a brave one, considering the issues that are likely to come up during his confirmation hearing. Best of luck to all concerned.

Okay, let’s return to our series already in progress. Stop picturing a besuited salmon taking the oath of office from a grizzly bear with a timber wolf nodding meaningfully in the background; it’s time to get back to work.

This will be the penultimate installment of my ongoing series on steps you can take to improve the feedback you get from non-professional first readers. For those of you just tuning in, that’s any pre-publication reader for your book who is not paid (by you or anyone else) to give you feedback. In other words, most of the people to whom you might be thinking of handing your manuscript — and, for the vast majority of aspiring writers, whose query letters have not yet borne fruit, the source of most actual requests to read it.

After I signed off yesterday, I had the strange sensation that some of you still had your hands raised with questions about how to set up a productive feedback situation with an inexperienced first reader. “Whoa, there, baby,” some of you must have been wondering, “haven’t you overlooked something here? I won’t get to set reading guidelines for anyone who buys my book after it is published. What’s wrong with just letting my first readers pretend to be those book-buyers, so I can work with their completely spontaneous reactions?”

Pretty smart question, oh hand-raisers, and one that richly deserves an answer — in fact, an answer with many parts.

In the first place, buyers in bookstores will not know you personally, unless you are one of that intrepid breed of author who stops every soul who passes within a ten-foot radius to pitch her newly-released book. (Yes, they do exist, and it’s a wonder to behold. For a crash course in writerly self-promotion, check out the Bette Midler/Nathan Lane film about Jacqueline Susann, Isn’t She Great? It’s not the best-constructed movie ever made, but it is stuffed to the gills — sorry, Governor Salmon — with great ideas for book promotion.) Therefore, your target audience members’ reactions, unless they happen to meet you at a book signing or write reader reviews on Amazon or someplace similar, will forever remain a mystery to you.

Your first readers, on the other hand, do know you, and presumably are counting upon interacting with you in future social situations. Sheer self-interest, basic politeness, and the off chance that they actually LIKE you will probably make them want to be considerate of your feelings.

Which, as we’ve been discussing, automatically renders giving honest critique even of excellent writing much harder for them. The perceived necessity to be tactful is going to kill pretty much all of the spontaneity of their reactions right off the bat.

Second, a non-professional first reader is, as I have been pointing out throughout this series, doing the writer a great big favor, particularly if she is also a non-writer. Other than the pleasure she may derive from reading your doubtless charming prose and the I-got-there-first gloating rights several years hence when your tome hits the bestseller lists, he’s unlikely to get much out of the unquestionably difficult task of figuring out how a manuscript could be improved and conveying those suggestions gently to a possibly extremely sensitive author. (As opposed to professional readers, who tend to be paid to give feedback on manuscripts, or members of writers’ groups, who are receiving critique in return.)

Good first readers are charming, generous people who deserve every piece of assistance a writer can give them. So it is only fair to let them know in advance what kind of critique you are hoping to see, isn’t it?

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the response of readers who buy your book will, by definition, come after it is too late for you to revise it prior to publication.

By contrast, your first readers are giving you feedback early enough in the process to influence the book before it goes to press and, if you’re being strategic, before agents or editors see it at all. The better their feedback is, the easier it is for you to incorporate — and the more specific your questions can be at the outset of the reading process, the more likely you are to receive substantive, useable feedback.

To that end, I advised you yesterday to give your first readers a list of questions, preferably in writing, before you entrust them with your manuscript. That way, the readers will know what to be reading for; you will get your most important questions answered, and less experienced first readers will have the guidance they need to keep from floundering about in the text, desperately searching for something helpful to say.

That’s a whole lot of birds with one relatively small stone, isn’t it?

So far, I have presented following this advice as requiring merely effort, honesty, and advance planning to pull off, but to be completely honest, that’s only the beginning. In practice, successful first-reader wrangling also requires a fair amount of chutzpah. Far more, in fact, than simply shoving a manuscript at a willing friend and murmuring some gentle platitudes about hoping he enjoys reading it.

Why so much more? Because it requires not only taking one’s own writing seriously enough to demand constructive feedback — as opposed to the more frequently-heard vague murmurs of, “Oh, it’s great.” — but putting one’s wee foot down and insisting that other people take it seriously as well.

Personally, I find doing this empowering, but over the years, quite a few of my loyal, intelligent, talented advisees have informed me that they find this last tip far and away the most distasteful of the lot. They consider it pushy, if not downright presumptuous: empathetic souls that they are, they feel that creating and handing over such a list implies doubt about their first readers’ reading ability, if not actual intelligence.

To put it more bluntly than they usually do, they believe that only a moron would not understand without being told the fundamental difference between valuable input that might help a writer revise a manuscript and a dismissive, “I liked it,” or between a close read by a smart person who expects to be questioned about her opinion and a casual skim by someone merely curious about what his cousin has been working on in his spare time, or even between substantive feedback and “Oh, I hated that part.”

In other words, they believe that everyone who might conceivably read their books will think like a writer, not like a reader — and like a writer intent on revision to boot. That’s a mistake, because the demands of revision are far from intuitive. There are plenty of brilliant readers who have absolutely no idea what kind of information a reviser might find helpful.

Unless, of course, the feedback-seeking writer tells them.

If any admonition beyond Just tell me what you think still feels overly dictatorial to you, consider this: there is not a literary contest in the world that does not provide written instructions to its judges on how to evaluate contest entries. Screeners at agencies are almost invariably handed lists of desirable traits to seek as they read through submissions, as well as lists of criteria for instantaneous rejection, as are editorial assistants at publishing houses.

Which begs the question: if experienced professional readers work along pre-set guidelines, how can amateur readers possibly be expected to perform the same task without similar assistance?

Think about that one for a while. I’ll ponder the future of wild salmon while I wait.

For the reader who is not also a writer, the obligation not only to point out problems but to suggest viable solutions can be completely overwhelming. Giving a list of thoughtful, specific questions for a first reader to keep in mind will decrease everyone’s stress levels.

Besides, you do have some questions about the text you would like answered, don’t you, some fears you would like allayed? Chances are that you do. Unless a writer is a dyed-in-the-wool narcissist incapable of considering the possibility that anything he created is less than perfect in every way, he usually has some idea of where his book’s strengths and weaknesses lie. Pointing the reader toward them in advance will make it okay for her to comment upon these parts, rather than politely avoiding any discussion of them.

Yes, it happens. Often.

Even just one or two questions will help get the feedback flowing — but don’t feel compelled to use the same set of questions for every first reader. Specialize. What problems will THIS reader be most likely to catch, and where will it best serve you for THIS reader’s knowledge and/or creativity to be concentrated?

Such requests tend to be especially well received if you are clever enough (and I know you are) to couple very pointed suggestions with compliments on the reader’s personal strengths:

“You’re always so good at foreseeing plot twists in movies — what do you think I could do to make my book’s plot more astonishing?”

“You’re the best cook I know. I would really appreciate it if you would keep an eye out for sensual details that did or did not work. Did I bring in the senses of smell and taste enough?”

“My protagonist is an accountant, just as you are. Would you mind making a note on anything she does that seems unprofessional to you, or if the way her year unfolds, particularly during tax season, seems implausible? If you could keep track of the relevant page numbers, that would be great.”

“The last agent who saw this said it was about fifty pages too long, and I know from going to movies with you what a good sense you have for when a scene has gone on too long. t would be really helpful to me if you could tip me off about where the plot seems to drag a little.”

“Look, I’ve never done time, and you have, so I would love your feedback on what is and isn’t realistic in my portrayal of prison life.”

That third one made the hair on the back of your neck wiggle, didn’t it? Yes, what you thought as soon as you read it is in fact accurate: few first readers will make notes of the pages where they have spotted problems unless the feedback-seeking writer asks them in advance to maintain such a list.

Remember what I said earlier about the practicalities of giving good feedback not being intuitive? I’ve seen first readers mention proofreading problems without citing page numbers.

Oh, you may laugh, but think about it: why would a reader be aware that saying, “There are misused semicolons on pages 8, 22, 68, 104, and 203,” will be a suggestion far less time-consuming for a writer to implement than, “You don’t always use semicolons correctly or consistently,” if she’s never seen a manuscript before? Since manuscript format differs in so many ways from book format (and if that’s news to you, I urge you to proceed with all possible speed to the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 category on the archive list at right), how is she to know whether what looks strange to her is important enough to risk offending the writer by mentioning?

As the feedback-requester, it is the writer’s job to make her role clear to her. Not only will being clear and specific about your expectations result in better critique, but it will render your first reader’s task more pleasant.

Your first reader is entitled to courtesy, after all: here is a wonderful person who has — for reasons of friendship, bribery, or idle curiosity — agreed to devote many, many hours of her time to giving your manuscript a good, hard reading. She has let you blandish her into that most difficult and dangerous of tasks, telling the truth to a friend.

And if that’s not an occasion for sending some flowers, I should like to know what is. Not only to be polite, but to be instrumental: if this first reader turns out to be a great feedback-giver, won’t you want to use her for your next book, too?

I honestly will wrap up this series tomorrow; turns out I had more to say on the subject of stressed-out feedback-givers than I had thought. Best of luck throughout the confirmation process, Governor Gary, and everyone, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part XI: this above all things, to thy own self be true, or, would it kill you to ask for what you want?


As I was working on yesterday’s list of hints on how to prepare first readers to give you the feedback you want within a reasonable period of time, I sensed some puzzled silence from those of you who have never solicited non-professional feedback outside a writing group. “Why is she setting up so many restrictions on who would make a first reader?” I’ve heard some of you muttering over well-bitten fingernails. “Why is she advising building as many fail-safes into the exchange as one might expect in your garden-variety nuclear test facility?”

In a word: experience.

I’ve seen a lot of manuscript exchanges go sour, for a great many reasons. As little as we writers like to admit it, one of the most common reasons for negative feedback situations is the undeniable fact that it’s tough to hear the unvarnished truth about your own work, particularly, as is the case for the vast majority of aspiring writers, if it’s the first time you’re dealing with text-based critique.

Let me resort to an anecdote to help us understand why.

Those of you who have been stopping by Author! Author! for quite some time now may remember how back in autumn, 07, when I was couch-bound with mono — no, I had not been snogging 15-year-olds in my spare time; I didn’t catch the chicken pox until I was an adult, either –my SO decided that it would be a good time to adopt a new cat. Because reclining while slowly petting a nervous animal was about as much exercise as I could muster, I feebly agreed. Because we like pets with a past, he trolled the local animal shelter for a kitty down on his luck, bringing home the largest, filthiest feline I had ever seen: matted fur, crusted eyes, snaggle-toothed.

We thought at the time that he was probably orange, but it was a good month before we were sure. It was hard to fault him for it, though: he’d had too hard a life to pay much attention to the niceties of hygiene. He’d been a semi-feral kitten, living on the streets, when he was nabbed and taken into captivity, then was adopted by some fickle people who apparently dumped him back at the shelter as soon as they heard just how much dental work he was going to need. (We swallowed a few times when the vet broke the news, too, but who needs a retirement fund?) He’d been cringing his way through months in a 4′ x 5′ room with fifteen other cats before my SO brought him home and gave him a much-needed bath.

Small wonder, then, that all he wanted was to curl up on my red flannel pajamas and wonder where it had all gone wrong.

In time, the kitty calmed down and began cleaning himself again, an activity he’d apparently abandoned while incarcerated. Gradually, as he wore away more and more of his layers of grime with his tongue and I with my brush, he became shiny, even fluffy. After we’d had him for a few months, he looked up at me while I was brushing him, and I realized that he had very pretty eyes. It had merely taken months of care and security before he could show them off. Now, more than a year and some hefty dental bills later, he’s quite an attractive cat.

Being me, I can’t ponder his quite remarkable transformation without thinking what a good parallel it is for editing a manuscript — and why writers new to the process are so often defensive about it.

Trust me, freelance editors see some pretty mangy manuscripts: the trick is often to see potential under the matted fur, because much of the time, the problem isn’t a lack of talent or inventiveness, but of structure. Or of a writer’s not having completely found her voice yet — no matter how inspired a writer new to the craft might happen to be, it’s exceedingly rare to discover it in the first draft of one’s first book. Or even simply not knowing how a manuscript should be formatted.

The point is, while the basic elements of a good book by a talented writer may be there, a rushed reader — like, say, Millicent the agency screener — may not notice it.

Which is, as we have so often discussed, a real problem for aspiring writers, who all too often assume that if the constituent parts are there, the agent of their dreams is going to be willing to overlook any cosmetic problems. There’s a reason this expectation lingers: in days gone by, agents and even editors at major publishing houses had the time to take a comb to a manuscript that showed promise, to groom it for the big show. Now, unfortunately, writers are expected to make their work camera-ready unassisted by the pros as a prerequisite for beginning the process of working with an agent or editor, rather than the goal.

While there are undoubtedly some agents and certainly many editors who give good editorial feedback to writers AFTER those contracts are signed, the agent or editor who gives concrete feedback to a rejected manuscript is rapidly growing as extinct as a bespectacled dodo speaking Latin and writing in cuneiform on the walls of a pyramid.

As, no doubt, those of you who have been query and submitting for a while are already aware. The same practice often comes as a shock to those new to being asked to submit all or part of a manuscript, however.

Due to the sheer volume of submissions, it’s not even vaguely uncommon for a writer to receive the manuscript with no more indication of why than a polite Sorry, but I didn’t fall in love with this. Sad, but true, alas — and thus it’s not the most efficient use of your energies to resent an obviously form rejection when it is sent to you.

How do I know that some of you out there have been wasting your precious life force on trying to read deeper meaning into old chestnuts like It doesn’t meet our needs at this time or I don’t feel I can sell this in the current tight market?

Call me psychic. Or just experienced in the many ways that good writers can come up with to beat themselves up.

But how on earth is a writer to know what needs to be changed before a book looks yummy to the folks in the industry? By seeking out feedback, that’s how.

A genuinely insightful feedback-giver can be a real boon to a manuscript, helping it become both better artistically and more marketable. Slowly, gradually, and often much to the writer’s chagrin, it’s possible to comb the snarls out of the text, to reshape the beast into something closer to the carefully-groomed animal an agent or publishing house would expect to see. Every so often, editor and writer alike are stunned when something of startling beauty emerges.

The thing is, there are some types of manuscript tangle that are almost impossible to work out alone, or even to spot. Just as it is hard to see (without special mirrors, at least) the back of one’s own head to check for wayward tangles, a writer can’t always see the snarls remaining in a manuscript she has been polishing for a while. A kind outsider with a good comb can help reveal the beauty underneath the problem, but to do so takes courage: one runs the risk of being scratched by a fearful or over-sensitive writer.

A careless outside observer with a heavy touch and a lousy comb, however, is just going to send the writer scurrying under the nearest couch, yowling. Unfortunately, pretty much every writer who has ever tried to cajole useful feedback from a non-writer — or a tactless writer, for that matter — already knows what that feels like.

You could, of course, always pay a freelance editor to run through your work with a fine-toothed hacksaw before you submit it to an agent, publishing house, or contest, but I’ve noticed that most aspiring writers are reluctant to shell out the dosh for this service. Quite understandable: after all, pretty much everyone who has had the self-discipline to write an entire book did so while living on the hope of other people paying to read it; to most writers, the prospect of paying a reader to struggle through their prose is pretty distasteful.

Come on, ‘fess up.

And even though I make a hefty chunk of my living being paid to do precisely that, I’m going to be honest with you here: most editors at major publishing houses, when asked at conferences if getting professional help is necessary, will get downright huffy at the notion. Good writers, they will tell you, need no such pre-submission editorial help.

Sounds very noble, doesn’t it?

Until the 50th time you hear this exchange, when it dawns upon you that perhaps at least some of these editors hear the question not so much as a call to voice their opinions on the tenacity of talent as a critique of their ilk’s propensity to perform line editing. (A word to wise conference-goers: quite a few editors get cranky at the mention of the fact that they do a whole lot of things other than edit these days. Don’t bring it up.)

But think about it: in order for the contention that good writers do not need editorial assistance to be true, a good writer would have to be someone who never makes grammatical or spelling mistakes, is intimately familiar with the strictures of standard format for manuscripts, has a metronome implanted in her brain so that pacing is always absolutely even, has never written a bad sentence, plots like a horror film director…in short, such a writer would have to have an internal editor running around her psyche powerful enough to run Random House by telepathy.

That’s not a good writer; that’s a muse with her own editorial staff. For those of us who have not yet had Toni Morrison surgically implanted in our brains, blue pencil in microscopic hand, an extra pair of eyes can be very helpful.

However, if you are not getting feedback from someone who is being paid to do it (i.e., an agent, editor, writing teacher, or freelance editor), or members of a writing group with experience working on your type of book, or a writer in your chosen genre — which is to say, if you are like 99% of feedback-seekers in North America — then you are almost certainly going to be seeking feedback from first readers who have no previous experience in manuscript critique.

Which means that it’s not a particularly wise idea to make the first-time critiquer guess what kinds of problems to look for or how to point them out when he does. When the writer does not set out ground rules to guide inexperienced first readers, trouble usually ensues.

All of which is a long-winded way of reintroducing a subject I broached yesterday, the single best thing you can do to head off problems before they start: giving your first readers WRITTEN directions for how to give you feedback.

Ideally, these directions will include a list of specific questions you would like answered about the reading experience. Providing a brief list of written questions may seem a bit pushy at first, but believe me, if your reader finds herself floundering for something to say, she will be immensely grateful that you gave her some advance guidance.

And you, in turn, are far more likely to receive the kind of feedback most helpful to you than if you remain politely mum. Bringing your expectations into sync will substantially raise the probability of the exchange being positive for everyone concerned.

Coming up with specific questions will also force you to figure out what you in fact do want from your first readers. You may discover, for instance, that you actually do not want a critique of the text; maybe you want support instead. Maybe you want recognition from your kith and kin that you have completed a project as major as a book.

Stop sniggering. This isn’t as uncommon a desire as you might think; freelance editors see it all the time. As desires go, it’s a pretty harmless one — unless the writer is not up front about it.

Why? Well, if the writer was seeking praise, and the reader thought he was looking for constructive criticism, both parties will end up unhappy. If the writer is actually looking for some version of Wow, this is the greatest book I have ever read, quite possibly the most magnificent expression of the human spirit ever produced! even extremely positive constructive criticism like I really enjoyed this, but I noticed that the pace slowed down quite a bit in Chapter 10 can be soul-lacerating.

If you feel this way, it is important to recognize it before you hear ANY feedback from your first readers. This will require you, of course, to be honest with yourself about what you really want and set realistic goals.

Hint: I want for Daddy to say for the first time in my life that he’s proud of me might not be the best reason to hand dear old Dad your manuscript. But I want the experience of my work being read closely by someone I know is not going to say anything harsh afterward is every bit as praiseworthy a goal as I want someone to tell me how to make this book marketable.

The trick lies in figuring out precisely what you want, finding a person who can deliver it, and asking directly to receive it.

And if that sounds like Miss Lonelyhearts advice to you, there’s an excellent reason: everyone is looking for something slightly different, so the more straightforwardly you can describe your desired outcome, the more likely you are to get what you really want.

There’s no need to produce a questionnaire the length of the unabridged OED, of course, but do try to come up with at least three or four specific questions you would like answered. Ideally, they should not be yes-or-no questions; try to go for ones that might elicit an essay response that will provide you with clues about where to start the revision. Perhaps something along the lines of:

Did you find my main character sympathetic? Would you please note any point where you found yourself disliking or distrusting her/him/it?

Was there anyplace you found your attention wandering? If so, where?

Was it easy to keep the characters/chronology/list of who killed whose brother straight? Were any two characters too much alike?

Would you mind placing a Post-It note in the text every time you stopped reading for any reason, so I can recheck those sections for excitement level?

Would you mind keeping a list of plot twists that genuinely caught you by surprise? Would you also note any of plot twists that reminded you of another book or movie?

When in doubt, err on the side of customizing your requests as much as humanly possible. Remember, the feedback is for YOU, not for anyone else, so ask about what you genuinely want to know, rather than what you think a generic author might want to hear. And if you are feeling insecure about hearing substantive critique, it is completely okay to say:

Look, this is my baby, and I’m nervous about it. Yes, I would love it if you flagged all of the typos you saw, but what I think would help me most is if you told me what is GOOD about my book.

What will most emphatically not work — and again, I’m predicting this based upon decades of observing writers trying to elicit good feedback — is expecting a first reader to guess that you’re nervous, or that you don’t want to hear about punctuation problems, or that you just want someone to tell you that you have talent. While an experienced first reader might anticipate that you might be harboring some of these common desires, it’s unreasonable to expect someone new to reading manuscripts (as opposed to books) to act as your psychologist.

I cannot emphasize too much that it is PERFECTLY legitimate to decide that you actually do not want dead-honest critique, provided that you inform your first readers of the fact in advance. If upon mature reflection you realize that you want to show your work to your kith and kin in order to gain gentle feedback in a supportive environment (rather than in a cut-throat professional forum, where your feelings will not be spared at all), that’s a laudable goal — as long as neither you nor your first readers EXPECT you to derive specific, informative revision feedback from the experience.

“Don’t worry about proofreading, Sis,” you can say. “I have other readers who can give me technical feedback. Just enjoy. Unless you’d prefer to wait until you can support me by buying a copy in a bookstore?”

If you want to be a professional writer, however, you will eventually need to harden yourself to feedback; as I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, the rather commonly-held notion that really GOOD writing never gets criticized is a great big myth. Not only does professional writing routinely get ripped apart and sewn back together (ask anyone who has ever written a newspaper article), but even amongst excellent editors and publishing higher-ups, there will always be honest differences of opinion about how a book should unfold.

So the sooner you can get accustomed to taking critique in a constructive spirit, the better.

And the happier you will be on that dark day when an editor who has already purchased your manuscript says, “You know, I don’t like your villain. Come up with a different one, and have the revision to me by the end of next week,” or “You know, I think your characters’ ethnicity is a distraction. Instead of Chinese-Americans from San Francisco, could they be Irish-Americans from Boston?” or “Oh, your protagonist’s lesbian sister? Change her to a Republican brother.”

You think these examples are jokes? Would you like me to introduce you to the writers who heard them first-hand? Would you like me to point out the published books where taking this type of advice apparently made the book more commercially successful?

“But Anne,” I hear some of you say, “didn’t you say earlier in this very post that I can set up the terms of a feedback situation so I do not have to hear really draconian editorial advice? How will telling my first readers that I want them to reassure me first and foremost prepare me for dealing with professional-level feedback?”

Good question, anonymous voices: chances are, it won’t. But one doesn’t learn to ski by climbing the highest, most dangerous mountain within a three-state radius, strapping on skis for the first time, and flinging oneself downhill blindly, either.

Here’s a radical idea: use your first readers as a means of learning how you do and do not like to hear feedback, not merely as a device to elicit feedback applicable to the book in question. Learning to be grateful while someone with a comb yanks on those snarls in your book can take some time.

Try using it as an opportunity to get to know yourself better as a writer. Yes, a professional author does need to develop a pretty thick skin, but just as telling a first-time first reader, “You know, I would really prefer it if you left the pacing issues to me, and just concentrated on the plot for now,” will give you feedback in a form that’s easier for you to use, so will telling your future agent and editor, “You know, I’ve learned from experience that I work better with feedback if I hear the general points first, rather than being overwhelmed with specifics. Would you mind giving me your feedback that way?”

Self-knowledge is always a good thing, my friends. And why do we show our work to first readers if NOT to get to know ourselves better as writers?

More thoughts on the subject follow next time, of course. Keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part X: the coffee date you absolutely must keep — and a great resource for tracking down the perfect locale for a solo writing retreat


Before I launch back into our ongoing series on how to track down good feedback on your manuscripts: here’s an announcement for Pacific Northwest-based writers, particularly those who happen to reside in Portland or Seattle: this week, the HX Gay and Lesbian Travel Expo will be happening here, Tuesday the 24th for Portland, Thursday the 26th for Seattle. In general, I’m not much of an expo person, but always encourage my writing friends to check out these fun events for one simple reason — and it doesn’t have to do with the mountains of free pens, notepads, rubber duckies, and other dosh that the travel-mongers hand out on these occasions.

It’s because they’re an absolutely marvelous place to find really, really good deals on writing retreat space. Hear me out on this one.

Writing retreat space tends to be both hard to find and expensive. As we’ve discussed in the past, there are quite a few organized retreats for writers (although not nearly so many as for other kinds of artist, I notice; Poets & Writers maintains an excellent database of deadlines for application), places that will shelter and feed a humble scribbler for anywhere from a week to a year. While many of these retreats are indeed marvelously supportive places to work in peace, one generally has to write one’s way in, often via an extensive and time-consuming application; as spots are competitively awarded, it can be extremely difficult for as-yet-unpublished writers to land spots.

Even if they do, they often end up paying the retreat for the privilege, in addition to the expense of getting oneself and one’s computer to and fro. And that’s not even counting the often quite hefty application fee, or the long wait (often months) to find out if one got in, or the fact that most retreats require a writer to commit to longer stays than someone living on a budget (and who isn’t, these days?) might be able to take off from work, family, and/or other obligations.

The moral: read those application forms carefully before you sign the check for the fee.

For those with less time or resources to invest, but who would give their eyeteeth for a three-day unbroken stretch of writing away from the aforementioned distractions, a solo writing retreat can be a far less costly option. But it takes some research to find good deals, especially to track down hotels where, say, a woman traveling alone — or anyone else who might not find a well-deserved welcome mat out everywhere — might feel safe.

Beginning to catch my drift here?

If the ’09 edition of the HX expo is anything like previous years, it will be stuffed to the gills with representatives of hotels — and resorts, airlines, etc. — who have given a lot of thought to the needs of the traveler who needs to feel safe. I’ve had many productive discussions with hotel managers, assistant managers, and other eager spokespeople about precisely what I want and need in order to be able to lock myself in a room for a week in order to write. In fact, I found the sites of my last two solo retreats at these expos, thanks to information that let me figure out who had the amenities I wanted in a hideaway spot at a reasonable price. On a beach, no less.

How reasonable, you ask? Well, it varied, but both sites gave me a night for free and meal vouchers.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned the discounts? I have walked out of these expos with literally bags full of coupons for everything from 20% off at a restaurant to 10% a round-trip airline ticket to, yes, the third night free if I stayed more than two. On a week-long retreat, those little things can add up.

So even if you Seattleites and Portlanders think you can’t afford to get away anytime soon, you might want to check out the expo, just to have those coupons handy. For locations and to download a free pass to the expo (hey, I have connections), follow this link.

Okay, time to snap out of that fantasy you’re having about locking yourself in a posh hotel room with your laptop and tossing the key off the balcony. Last time, I stirred up some lovely discussion by taking an in-depth gander at one of the most perplexing of social situations in which a writer may find herself, the friend who asks to read a manuscript — then keeps it forever and a day.

For those of you joining this series late, I have dubbed the remiss friend who turns your manuscript into a doorstop Gladys, but feel free to give her any face you like. (I tremble to think how my readers picture Millicent the agency screener by this point: the Wicked Witch of the West probably does not even come close. Go ahead and embellish; it’s a healthy way to work out pent-up hostility.)

Admittedly, I may be harping on this theme a little, but I have my reasons: although one occasionally encounters advice in writing manuals about whom to avoid as a feedback giver (it varies, but the universal no-nos: spouses, significant others, POSSLQs, and anyone else who has ever spent any time in the writer’s bedroom other than to make the bed), I’ve never seen this problem discussed elsewhere, at least in terms of strategy, or heard a brilliant solution posited by a writing guru at a conference.

And this is a shame, I think, because it’s a genuinely difficult situation for the writer, the kind of experience that can make good writers swear off seeking reader feedback forever.

But a writer needs feedback, and not all of us have the luxury of a well-read, genre-appropriate, tact-spewing writers’ group meeting within a couple of miles of our domiciles, or the time to join it if one does exist. So I like to think of this series as a survival manual for trekking through the feedback wilderness.

Advance planning can go a long way toward avoiding a negative Gladys outcome. Observing some of the earlier tips in this series — especially making sure up front that the reader has time available soon to read your work, ascertaining that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do, and that it involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book — may cost you a few potential readers, but being scrupulous on these points will both reduce the probability of your being left without usable feedback.

Being clear about your expectations will also help you hold the moral high ground if your Gladys starts to dither as the weeks pass. And frankly, you’re going to want to cling to the high ground, because some Gladioli have been known, as I mentioned last time, to get a mite defensive when confronted with the fact that they evidently read at the speed of a third grader.

And no, I’m not talking about the precocious third grader who stayed up all night when the latest Harry Potter book came out.

To refine the taunt for those more in the know, the Gladioli of this world read with the speed of a busy editor at a major publishing house, who frequently take months to get around to a manuscript, simply because they have so many of them on their desks. Or propping up their coffee tables, gracing their couches, providing a papery pedestal that Tom Wolfe book they’ve been meaning to read forever…well, you get the point.

In fact, I suppose that an unusually broad-minded writer could construe the Gladioli of this world as prepping writers for the moment when their agents will say, “I know it’s been five months, but they haven’t gotten to it,” but unless Gladys IS an editor at a major publishing house, an agent, or another stripe of professional editor, she probably isn’t overwhelmed with manuscripts clamoring for her attention.

Enough obsessing about the problem: let’s talk solution. How does one set ground rules for first readers without sounding like a taskmaster to someone who is about to do you a great big favor?

First off, remember that giving feedback on a manuscript is indeed a favor, no matter how well-written it is. Unless Gladys happens to work in an agency or publishing house, is a member of your writing group, or you’re paying her to read your work, Gladys is under no obligation to help you and your book. Treating it like a favor from the get-go can go a long way toward minimizing problems down the line.

So why not take Gladys out to coffee or lunch to discuss it?

I would strongly advise you to sit down with your potential first reader to discuss expectations on a DIFFERENT occasion than the one upon which you intend to hand her your manuscript, to give her the opportunity to back out gracefully if she discovers that she’s bitten off, as they say, more than she can chew. Trust me, if the task IS bigger than she can comfortably take on within the next month or so, you will be MUCH happier if you learn this in advance, even if it means having to track down another first reader.

Schedule your coffee date as soon as possible after Gladys has agreed to read your work — but not so soon that you haven’t had a chance to come up with a short, preferably written, description of what you would like your first reader to do to your manuscript. Include in this list some indication of:

(a) How you would like to receive feedback.
Verbally? Writing in the margins? On a separate sheet of paper? A Post-It™ note on every page where the story flags?

(b) What level of read you are seeking.
Should Gladys go over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb (a real bore, for most readers, FYI), or just ignore spelling errors? Do you want her to keep an eye out for inconsistencies (rife in most manuscripts), or just to tell you if the story ever seems improbable? Would you be happiest if she made it clear how much she did (or didn’t) like the protagonist, or would it float your boat if she pointed out any reason that she wouldn’t tend to assign it to college sophomores?

(c) Any specific questions about the text you might like her to answer.
Don’t assume that Gladys is automatically going to zero on the parts of the text that have been troubling you: speak up. If you’ve been staying up nights, worrying about whether that improbable love scene set on a bridge in a howling gale (“I love you.” “WHAT?”) actually works, this would be the place to bring it up. Ditto if you’ve been fretting about whether the story takes too long to get started, if your hook is genuinely a grabber, or can’t decide your extensive analysis of the hog market in 1832 is thrilling or soporific.

This level of specificity may seem a tad schoolmarmish — possibly because it is — but having the list on hand will make the subsequent discussion substantially easier on both you and Gladys, I promise. (As long-term readers of this blog MAY have noticed, I’m not a big fan of leaving expectations unspoken.)

The catch: once a writer has presented a first reader with this list, s/he has an ethical obligation to stand by it; no fair calling Gladys up in the middle of the night after you get the manuscript back, howling, “How could you not have caught that the pages were out of order, you ninny?”

While you are explaining what it is you would like your first reader to do, mention that in order for the feedback to be useful to you, you will need it within a month. Or six weeks. Or, at the outside, eight. But do set a date for the manuscript’s return.

How speedy a turn-around time is up to you, of course, but try not to make it less than three weeks — hey, a professional editor would charge you up to 25% more for a rush job — or much more than a couple of months. That’s long enough for a spare-time reader to get through pretty much any manuscript under 500 pages without pulling any all-nighters, so you need not feel as though you are proposing a pop quiz, but not so long that Gladys will simply set it aside and forget it.

The point here is to negotiate a mutually comfortable date that is NOT on top of one of your own deadlines for getting work out the door.

Yes, I’m aware that I made a similar point yesterday, but I cannot emphasize this one enough: do NOT hand your manuscript to Gladys within a few weeks of a submission deadline, even a self-imposed one. Even if she does everything perfectly, it’s not fair to ask her to share your time pressure — and if she doesn’t respond as you like, it’s just too easy to blame her disproportionately if — heaven forfend! — you miss your deadline.

Before you roll your eyes at that last part, hands up, everyone who has ever had to revise on a tight deadline. I appeal to those of you with your hands aloft: were YOU completely reasonable, or even marginally sane, two days before your deadline?

I rest my case.

If you are working on a tight deadline — say, having to revise an entire novel within the next three weeks, as I had to do a couple of years ago; that’s not an unheard-of turn-around time for an agented writer, by the way — it’s just not fair to expect a non-professional to speed-read your manuscript quickly enough for you to be able to incorporate the feedback. If you can cajole your writing friends into doing it within such a short timeframe, regard it as a great favor, of the let-me-send-you-flowers-and-clean-out-your-gutters variety.

But if you thrust Gladys, a non-writer, into that position, don’t be surprised if you never hear from her again. Or if you are still waiting to hear back months after that pesky deadline.

If you like ol’ Gladys well enough to respect her opinion, don’t put that kind of strain upon your friendship. Agree upon a reasonable deadline, one far enough from any imminent deadlines of your own that you will not freak out if she needs to go a week or two over.

Establishing a time limit will go over much better if you explain precisely why you need your manuscript back in a timely manner. If Gladys gives you feedback after the agreed-upon date (you will explain kindly in the course of this conversation), while you will naturally still value her opinion, you will not have time to incorporate it into the book before your next submission. Being able to turn the book around that quickly (you will tell her) is the difference between being the kind of helpful friend who gets thanked in acknowledgments and the kind of friend who is appreciated in private.

Very private. In fact, you may never mention it again.

After you state the deadline, ASK if it will be a problem for your first reader to meet it. Don’t assume that she will volunteer objections or tell you about that long weekend she has planned with that gaggle of friends who went to the travel expo with her: a Gladys who is too nice to say no to reading a friend’s book is frequently too sweet to mention that the next three weeks are the worst POSSIBLE time to expect her to comment intelligently upon anything at all, since her unreasonable boss is due for his annual inventory tantrum.

If Gladys hesitates at all, remind your first reader that it’s perfectly okay to say no. In fact, you would appreciate it, because you are at a point in your career where you need prompt feedback, and while she was your first choice (even if she wasn’t), you do have others lined up (even if you don’t).

Say this whether it is true or not; it will make it easier for her to decline if she feels overwhelmed. By allowing her the chance to bow out BEFORE you’ve gone to all the trouble of printing up a complete manuscript, you are underscoring that you realize that she is promising something significant, and you appreciate it.

Discuss, too, what your first reader should do if something comes up that will prevent her from turning it around as quickly as you and she would like. At minimum, ask her to call or to e-mail RIGHT AWAY, so you can find another first reader, rather than waiting until a few days before you expect to see it. Promise not to yell at her if she actually does need to make this call; tell her you’re already brainstorming about back-up readers.

As you should be, incidentally. The probability of getting genuinely useful feedback from non-professional readers goes up exponentially if the seeker tracks down more than one Gladys. Multiple first readers may lead to some conflicting recommendations, true, but many eyes are more likely to spot that embarrassing half-finished sentence in the middle of Chapter 8, the one that you never managed to get back to after your mother-in-law called during your writing time even though you’ve TOLD her a million times that creative time is sacred to you. It’s as though she sits there with a stopwatch, waiting until she’s positive that you’re going to be hard at work, then whammo! Ring goes the phone. Before she had any writers in her life, she probably specialized in predicting the moment when her nearest and dearest were just sinking into a nice, hot bubble bath — and calling then.

Oh, was I projecting again? Sorry about that.

While Gladys has your manuscript is a delightful time to re-read your own manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, if at all possible. You’re going to want to do this before you send it out to an agent, editor, or contest, anyway — you do want that, right? Right? Speak to me! — but even if that wasn’t on your to-do-before-submission list, it’s a good idea to refamiliarize yourself with your text before sitting down and discussing it in any depth with a first reader. Not only will you have a clearer notion of what aspects of the manuscript you would particularly like to talk over, but you will be a more receptive hearer of specific feedback on Chapter 2 than if you haven’t taken a gander at it for six months.

Not to mention the minor benefit that it’s the single best way for a self-editing writer to catch typos, logic problems, missing words, and other manuscript booby traps that are hard to spot on a screen.

Yes, I have urged all of you to do this before, but there’s a reason that I’m so adamant about it: despite my perennial admonitions, too few aspiring writers reread their own work — even if they’ve just spent the last two years revising it. That’s a serious mistake, since each pass at revising one chapter is likely to change some details in another. Throughout the course of many revisions, these inconsistencies tend to build up, resulting in what I have dubbed the Frankenstein Manuscript, a text cobbled together from many different revisions. If a writer doesn’t read the whole shebang again, s/he’s unlikely to notice these inconsistencies, but believe me, Millicent will, and she won’t like it.

Don’t make Millie angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

Reviewing the manuscript isn’t the feedback-seeking writer’s only task during the anxious period when Gladys has the manuscript, however. As I suggested yesterday, a week before the agreed-upon deadline, call or e-mail Gladys, to ask how the reading is going. This will give Gladys yet another opportunity to back out, if she is feeling swamped.

No, this isn’t nagging. If she asked to read your manuscript out of simple curiosity — a very common motivation — she will have realized it by now. If this is the case, try not to make a scene; just set up a specific date and time to get the manuscript back.

And don’t forget to thank her for any feedback she has had time to give you.

If Gladys can’t make the deadline but still wants to go forward, set another deadline. It may seem draconian to insist upon specific dates, but inevitably, the writer is the person who loses if the feedback relationship is treated casually. If you are open at every step to Gladys’ backing out, you will significantly reduce the probability that she will let you down after two months.

Or four. Or a year. I’m fairly certain that at least one of the first readers of my first novel has had it since we were both in our mid-20s; perhaps she will get around to it just after we start collecting Social Security.

If you present these requests politely and in a spirit of gratitude, it will be hard for even the most unreasonable Gladys to take umbrage. If you respect her opinion enough to want her to read your book, you should respect her ability to make an informed opinion about whether she can commit to doing so. By taking the time to learn her literary tastes, ascertain that she has time to give you feedback, and not allowing your manuscript to become a source of guilt for months to come, you will be treating her with respect.

Your writing deserves to be taken seriously, my friends — by others and by yourself. The more seriously you take it, by seeking feedback in a professional manner, the better it will become.

In my next post, I shall discuss how to elicit specific information from your first readers, to gain insight upon problems you already know exist in the book. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part IX: more wrangling with Gladioli


I’ve been writing epic posts for the last weeks, multi-page extravaganzas even by my unusually lengthy standards, haven’t I? In order to give both myself a bit of a break and my readers sufficient time to watch at least some of this weekend’s many award shows to celebrate people who already have been applauded to the echo several times before (as the late, great Noël Coward musically observed, “Let’s hope we have no worse to plague us/than two shows a night in Las Vegas”), I’m going to rein it in today and not post tomorrow at all.

Yeah, my SO says he’ll believe it when he sees it, too.

Throughout this series, we’ve been bravely tackling the thorny and surprisingly-seldom-talked-about-amongst-writers twin topics of the necessity of getting good feedback on your manuscripts and, if you don’t happen to have either the luck to be receiving critique from the agent or editor who are handling your book or the dosh to hire a freelance editor qualified in your book’s category, the ins and outs of trying to derive that feedback from non-professional sources. While it would be nice if the readers of the world broke into spontaneous applause the moment an aspiring writer tossed off an unusually good scene or description, it doesn’t happen all that much. In order to find out how potential readers might respond to a book, its author generally has to make the effort to find first readers.

The problem is, the first readers who are likely to volunteer first may not be the best ones to give you feedback on your book. Last time, I introduced the saga of one such hapless would-be feedback-giver, Gladys, a well-meaning soul who made the mistake of saying one day to a friend who happened to be an aspiring writer, “Oh, I’d love to read your book.”

Quite unaccountably, the friend heard this as, “Give me your book to read, please, and I will give you good feedback upon it.” Unfortunately, what Gladys really meant was, “I’m not a writer. Please like me anyway.”

What we have here, my friends, is a failure to communicate, one that is likely not only to result in the writer’s not getting the kind of feedback she needs, but also rather likely to end the friendship.

This particular species of miscommunication is more common than writers like to admit — and is all too often the underlying cause of those knuckle-gnawingly frustrating situations where a first reader holds onto a manuscript for so long that the writer’s already taken the book through three more drafts.

I’ll come clean: it happened to me more than once before I cracked the code. About ten years ago, I had a first reader who BEGGED for weeks on end to read a manuscript of mine. Having quite a bit of experience with both professional and non-professional readers, I did everything right: I took her out to lunch first and explained that to read a manuscript prior to publication was a large responsibility, gave her a sheet of questions I wanted her to answer after she had read it, and took her out to lunch in order to thank her for the effort she was about expend on my behalf.

Six nail-gnawing months later, I asked for the manuscript back, even if she hadn’t read it. As I expected, she hadn’t. Yet when I got the pages back, I discovered that she had positively filled the margins of Ch. 1 with glowing praise, concluding with, “You couldn’t PAY me to stop reading now!”

Someone must have coughed up some dosh, as she apparently stopped reading three pages later. When I asked her for some clarification, she said, “I liked it so much that I wanted to wait until I had time to enjoy it.”

Moral of the story: I should have told her I would buy her lunch AFTER she finished — and should have made absolutely certain that she understood the difference between a casual read and the scrutiny expected of a first reader.

Which includes an obligation to read the manuscript within a reasonable amount of time — or to let the writer know in advance not to expect back anytime soon. Unless both sides of the equation understand what is going on, it can only end in tears. Or, at any rate, in the writer’s tapping her watch to see if it’s still running, waiting for all of that luscious feedback that is never to come.

Naturally, such behavior engenders some resentment in writers against their Gladioli. (I’ve decided that’s the plural of Gladys, for those of you who didn’t tune in last time.) “Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,” we demand, “and make me travel forth without a cloak?”

Okay, so it was Shakespeare who said that last bit. But if you’d thought of it in the moment, I’m sure you would have put it that way, too.

Gladys intends to get back to the manuscript, really she does, but my goodness, when is she going to find the time? It’s not as though a manuscript is bound, like a book, rendering it easy to tote around and read in spare moments.

Over time, she tends to start to resent the task — NO MATTER HOW GOOD THE BOOK MAY ACTUALLY BE. Most often, this resentment manifests in holding on to your manuscript indefinitely.

Maddening, isn’t it? We expect our friends to devour our books, relish them, and call us in the dead of night to say that it’s the best book they’ve ever read. C’mon, admit it: in the depths of our dark little souls, we long for positive reinforcement.

Okay, we long for a LOT of positive reinforcement.

If we approach our work professionally, we also yearn for our first readers to make the two or three constructive suggestions that will lift our books from good to superlative.

And if we’re conscientious members of writing communities, many of us put substantial effort into providing precisely that kind of feedback. (Yet another reason that it’s a good idea to check the feedback expectations and practices of other members of a writers’ group before you join: it’s no fun giving out a whole lot more feedback than you receive.) Like most freelance editors, my earliest editorial work was unpaid. The moment at which I knew I should be doing it professionally was, in fact, when I was doing a favor for a friend.

A good novelist, my friend was living the writer’s nightmare: after having taken her book through a couple of solid drafts, an editor at a major house had dropped a raft of professional-level feedback — which is to say, a ruthless, take-no-prisoners critique — on her, feedback that, if followed to the letter, would entail axing significant proportions of the book, trashing her primary storyline, and changing the race of a significant character.

Naturally, she called me in tears. I was an excellent choice: I had read the latest draft, as well as the one before it, and was able to produce practical suggestions on the spot. If she began the story at a different juncture, I pointed out, and rearranged certain other elements, her plot could still work.

There was a long minute of silence on the other end of the phone when I’d finished talking. “My God,” she whispered, “that could work.” And it did; the editor bought the book shortly thereafter.

This is the kind of fundamental feedback that we really want our first readers to provide, if we’re honest about it, right? Since I had been giving feedback on novels since I was a bucktoothed kid in braids, I was able to come up with answers — but is it really fair to ask someone who has never pieced a plot together to pull off a similar feat?

Like, say, the well-meaning but clueless Gladys?

No wonder poor Gladys feels put on the spot. Her writer friend’s expectations are pretty high. And by the time the writer has become impatient enough to ask where the heck the feedback is, she is not only dealing with her guilt over having procrastinated, but also with the additional trauma of an angry friend.

Yes, I said ANGRY; don’t hold it in. It’s much healthier to vent it from time to time.

While most of us are astonishingly patient with agents and editors who do not respond to queries or hold on to manuscripts that they’ve asked to see for months at a time, we’re seldom as patient with non-professional first readers, are we? The writer too timid to call an agent who’s had a requested three chapters for a year will often go ballistic at the friend who’s had the same pages for a third of that time. Or a twelfth of it.

Logically, that’s a bit odd, considering that the agent is being paid to read manuscripts and the friend isn’t, but that’s the way we feel.

In recent months, I’ve been hearing even more Gladioli stories than usual, as well as many iterations of a twist of the usual writerly chagrin over long-lost manuscripts: the Gladys who volunteered to take a crack as first reader because she’s recently been laid off (or has a job she hates, or is recently retired) and has some time on her hands. Or — and this happens all the time — because she has a writer friend eager for feedback who has sought her out as a first reader, on the grounds that she may be less busy than their other friends. (Which often isn’t true: looking for work can be extremely time-consuming, as can, well, having a life.) Either through making the request herself or being too nice to say no, she just never seems to get around to reading it.

In some versions of this story, Gladys is even doing it for payment: the ranks of first-time freelance editors have been swelling bulbously of late. Yet like Gladioli everywhere, she never seems to return that manuscript or cough up any useable feedback.

In short, regardless of her motivation in agreeing to act as a first reader, Gladys is annoying a whole lot of writers these days by holding onto their manuscripts for unreasonable amounts of time. So what should a writer who discovers too late that she’s entrusted her baby to a Gladys to do?

I’m going to be straight with you here: once the situation has gone this far, it’s quite hard to fix it without generating resentment (our word du jour, apparently) on both sides. The only way to get out of it gracefully is to accept that she’s not going to give you what you want and cut your losses.

How? By calling the remiss Gladys and asking for your manuscript back.

Ignore her protests that she is really intending to get to it soon, honest, because she won’t. Offer to pay the postage, if necessary, but get those pages back from her.

Be polite, but be firm. Ideally, you’re going to want to do this BEFORE you’ve lost your temper completely, and definitely not when you’ve facing a deadline to get that manuscript out the door next week. If Gladys has already kept you in suspense too long for you to keep your voice even, send her an e-mail. Screaming at her may feel pretty good in the moment, but trust me, it will only make the situation worse.

There’s no need to be mean about it at all, actually. Cast your request as if it had nothing to do with her: “I’d love to hear what you have to say, but manuscripts are actually pretty expensive to produce, and I’ve just found the perfect person to give me feedback on it. Would you mind if I saved a little money by passing your copy on to him?”

This may sound a bit nasty, an example of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression, but believe me, it’s far less confrontational than almost anything else you could say. (Which, I suppose, means that it’s a really GOOD example of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression.) Besides, it honestly is rather expensive to keep churning out copies for first readers, especially if you’re mailing them.

If you are dealing with a retired or un- or under-employed Gladys, your argument is even easier to make, especially if you have inadvertently fallen into the oh-so-common trap of just assuming that she had time to read your book: just apologize for the imposition and insist upon rectifying it by taking your manuscript back. No need to grovel; a simple “Oh, my goodness, Gladys, I’ve just realized that I completely forgot to ask if you had the time to give me feedback on my book! No, no, you’re very kind, but I know what an imposition that amount of responsibility is, and I’ve already lined up another first reader. When can I come by and pick it up?”

See my earlier comment on the efficacy of patented Pacific Northwest passive-aggression.

Why is it crucial to get the physical manuscript out of her hands? Because you’ll keep seething about the injustice of it all otherwise, that’s why. Also, it’s good practice for setting boundaries with your next set of first readers — and for coming to terms with the fact that asking someone to give you feedback is asking a favor, as well as conveying a privilege.

Moral #2 for the day, and the axiom I hope you all will take from today’s lesson: at the revision stage, DO NOT TREAT YOUR MANUSCRIPT LIKE A BOOK.

That giant noise you just heard was the celestial choir intoning, “Huh?”

You heard me, heavenly flock of high Cs. When you are looking for feedback on a manuscript, it doesn’t make sense to think of it a book, a finished product that someone might, say, purchase or give to a friend as a gift. While it is still a work in progress, it is a lump of clay, not the bronze sculpture you will eventually cast from your clay model.

Don’t hand it to someone who will only see the clay. Hand it to someone who will help you perfect the form before you set it in bronze.

If you DO find yourself in a standoff with a Gladys, whatever you do, don’t sit around and seethe in silence. Say something, and don’t let it wait too long.

Seriously, just do it. If you do not take action, Gladys will eventually have to come up with a strategy to deal with her obligation — and what she comes up with may not be very pleasant for you. Often, Gladioli will turn their not having realized that reading a book draft is a serious time commitment into a critique of the unread book:

“Well, I would have read it, but it was too long.”

“I was really into it, but then a plot twist I didn’t like came in, and I just couldn’t go on.”

“I liked it, but it didn’t move fast enough. I always skip to the ends of books to see how the plot turns out.”

These all might be legitimate criticisms from someone who has actually read the manuscript — okay, all but that last bit — but from a non-finisher, they cannot be sufficiently disregarded. They are excuses, not serious critique.

Please do not allow such statements to hurt your feelings, because they are not really about the book — they are about the reader’s resentment of the feedback process. Gladys just didn’t know what to do with that ball of clay.

When you hear this type of critique used as an excuse for not reading, thank Gladys profusely, as if she has just given the Platonic piece of feedback — and get the manuscript back from her as soon as humanly possible.

“My secret, if I must reveal it,” quoth the illustrious Alexis de Tocqueville, “is to flatter their vanity while disregarding their advice.” Tell her that you know in your heart she is right, and you don’t her to read another word until you’ve had time to revise.

Then rush out and find another first reader, preferably one with the vision to see both the clay and the sculpture it will one day be.

Even if the prospect of dealing with defensive sniping terrifies you, don’t just write off that copy of your book. As long as she has it, her remissness going to keep sapping your energy, at least a little; resentment can suck up an awful lot of vim. Just accept that Gladys had no idea how much time it would take, and move on.

And just say no the next time she offers.

As, astonishingly, the Gladioli of the world often do. They must be insulating their attics with their hapless friends’ unread manuscripts.

If she presses you the next time around, tell her that you’ve decided to rely solely upon professional feedback for the rest of your natural life, or have joined a writers’ group that made you take a vow of exclusivity, or that you’ve decided to hide your manuscripts in your attic like Emily Dickinson. Just keep her well-meaning mitts off your writing until it’s time to send her a postcard, telling her when she will be able to purchase it in a store.

Because that is precisely what she thought you were handing her in the first place, bless her heart. Keep her out of the process until she can support you by being the first on her block to buy your book.

Is this starting to make you fear ever handing your manuscript to another human being at all? Never fear — next time, I shall talk about how to deal with a Gladys situation that has already extended past the friendship-threatening point, and give you some tips about how to plan in advance to avoid its ever getting there.

In the meantime, do any of you have a Gladys story that you would like to share? If so, why not post a comment about it, so those new to the situation won’t feel so alone? Keep it G-rated, please, and don’t name specific names, for the sake of your grandchildren’s popularity; remember, what’s posted online may be floating around the ether forever.

Well, I tried: this post is a trifle shorter than the norm for the week. Enjoy the Oscars, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIII: more thoughts on timing — and a book that might help you name your characters


Before I launch back into my ongoing series on how to find good feedback for your writing, I have some joyful news to report: Askhari Johnson Hodari’s extraordinarily useful and interesting The African Book of Names, published by HCI Books, has just arrived in bookstores all over North America.

Why am I more excited about this book’s release than, say, the many others that came out this week? Well, in the first place (and in the interests of full disclosure), Askhari happens to be a friend of mine; we met at my favorite writer’s retreat of all time, the now unfortunately departed Norcroft. At Norcroft, the brainchild of mystery writer and generous soul Joan Drury, we resident artists were expected to take our work so seriously that we all operated under a vow of silence until 4 pm each day — which in my case, since I usually write in the evenings, frequently meant not speaking until 10 or 11. Which, throughout the course of a month-long residency, adds up to a whole lot of mime time.

But the fact that this book was written by the person who taught me how to build a fire successfully — while neither of us were speaking, no mean feat — is not the only reason I’m so pleased to announce its release to the Author! Author! community, or even the primary one. While this book is being marketed primarily to parents-to-be seeking names for imminent children, I think it’s going to make an additional mark as a tremendously useful book for writers.

After all, who names more people than a writer?

We’re constantly having to come up with monikers for characters — and, as we’ve discussed on this forum, it’s not always easy to come up with a name that simultaneously rings true for the character, is memorable, and looks good on the page. The right name not only identifies a character: it is integral to both the author’s and the reader’s conception of her.

Should anyone out there seriously doubt that, try this test: walk into any writers’ conference and ask all of the novelists present to raise their hands. Then ask everyone who hasn’t changed a character’s name midway through writing a book and felt differently about that character afterward to lower hers. Sometimes, not a hand in the room budges.

Askhari’s book is a wonderful place to seek out the perfect name for a character of African or African-American (or African-anywhere-else, for that matter), but it’s got a lot more to offer than the lists of names and meanings offered by the baby name books that writer so frequently troll for ideas. Yes, there are lists, but they’re organized regionally, to make it easy to find not just an African name, but a name from a particular part of Africa, from Angola to Zimbabwe. For a writer trying to establish the background of a character, this is an invaluable reference.

And that checklist of naming dos and don’ts might come in very handy.

The book also provides a great deal of insight into the technique and importance of naming — something that we don’t talk about much culturally, but a topic that will surely resonate with every writer who has ever thought, “Oh, the name I’m using just isn’t right.” I’ve been brainstorming character names for most of my life, having grown up around writers constantly searching for the apt one, and I kept finding myself saying as I read, “Oh, that hadn’t occurred to me.”

In short, this is a book that I’m definitely going to keep close to my writing desk for the foreseeable future.

Since we’re already on the subject of naming — always a topic that spurs a lot of interest on this blog, I notice — would you do me a wee favor? Over the next week, will you give some thought to how you go about picking names for your characters, what problems you have encountered, and how you have resolved them?

Why spend a week pondering it? Because I have a treat in store for you: next weekend, Askhari is going to visit Author! Author! to share some tips on how to go about it.

I’m looking forward to a very lively discussion, aren’t you?

See what I just did? Because I sincerely want to hear what all of you have to say on the subject, I didn’t just spring the question upon you or assume that you had leisure at your disposal to elaborate upon your experiences right now. Instead, I gave you fair warning that I would be asking your opinion a week from now, so that you would have time to think about it as your no doubt busy schedule permits.

As I asked you to consider yesterday, do the first readers you ask to give you feedback on your manuscript deserve less consideration?

At the risk of sounding like your mother (again), unless you are being airlifted to a trauma center, it’s seldom the best strategy to assume that other people are going to drop whatever they’re doing to pay attention to you. Not only isn’t it particularly polite — and courtesy is always due to anyone who is doing you a favor, right? — but it’s unrealistic.

To coin a phrase, people are busy.

Particularly, as I may have mentioned seventy or eighty times before, the fine folks who read manuscripts for a living. Aspiring writers who have just received requests to submit their first 50 pages almost invariably forget this, but the requesting agent or editor already has others stacked up waist-high next to her desk, waiting for her to have time to read them; so many, in fact, that they’re probably already routinely taking them home to read in their off-duty hours.

Translation: they’re not going to clear their schedules to read your 50 pages the nanosecond your submission packet arrives. Expecting them to do so, as hopeful submitters so frequently do, only leads to bitten-down fingernails, sleepless nights, and a self-destructive urge to call the agency a week after the packet arrived to demand what’s taking so %^&&^%$%! long.

Which everyone reading this already knows not to do, right? Right?

The same impulses tend to kick in after a writer has passed along a manuscript to a first reader, especially if the writer and the feedback giver did not synchronize their timing expectations in advance. Because the manuscript is so important to the writer, he often assumes — mistakenly — that the reader will more or less clear her schedule in order to read it regardless of whether he has actually asked her to do so. In his mind, he didn’t need to say so; what writer wouldn’t want to know right away whether the person he has entrusted with the dearest work of his soul liked it or not?

Of course, we want to know how our work impresses readers. We’re in this to communicate.

Just because that writer still hasn’t heard back by six weeks (or months, or years) later, his desire to know he has touched his reader probably hasn’t disappeared; it’s probably hardened into anger. Or, as often the case when an agent is slow to respond, into the writer’s feverishly constructing scenarios to explain why he hasn’t heard back. The reader’s reluctance to tell him that Chapter 3 should be cut altogether, for instance, or some sort of natural disaster. Perhaps the reader’s entire neighborhood has been quarantined for measles, preventing outgoing mail, and the commented-upon manuscript is languishing in the mailbox on the corner. Maybe the first reader submitted the book to an agent as her own work, and at this very minute, literati in some posh Manhattan loft are toasting your purloined book as the biggest hit since JAWS.

Some of you are shaking your heads ruefully right now, remembering past sleepless nights, aren’t you? Yesterday, when I was discussing the desirability of setting time limits for your first readers, I’m quite sure I heard some chuckles of recognition out there. We writers have an inborn ability to spin stories, after all.

What doesn’t make a good story, and thus seldom occurs to the waiting writer in those dark hours, is the single most likely possibility: he hasn’t heard back because that first reader hasn’t yet read the manuscript.

Which actually isn’t all that surprising, if the feedback-seeker did not have the foresight to set up a return date in advance. Unfortunately, to non-writers — i.e., the very folks that most aspiring writers neither involved in critique groups nor already committed to an agent or editor tend to select to give feedback on their work — the urgency of the situation may be far from self-evident. They may not even be aware that the writer is waiting for feedback. If the writer hasn’t told them otherwise, they may — and often do — treat the manuscript like any other book they brought home to read: something to look forward to enjoying when they have the time.

These facts are stressful to face, I know. If you find yourself hyperventilating, try breathing into a paper bag.

The important thing to remember is that lax first readers rarely delay in order to torture writers; like everyone else, they’re usually just busy — and easily distracted. Even if curiosity drives them to start reading the manuscript right away, chances are that the demands of the lives they were leading immediately prior to agreeing to read the book — small matters like going to work, eating dinner, maintaining relationships with their partners and children, and other frivolities — are not going to evaporate. Which means, in practice, that at some point, that first reader is going to want or need to put that book aside and turn his attention to something else.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Newton’s First Law of Motion could predict what is likely to happen next.

For those of you encountering Newton for the first time (Newton, meet writer; writer, meet Newton), an object in motion tends to remain in motion unless an outside force acts upon it; an object at rest tends to remain at rest. Or, as applied to manuscripts, while a reader is absorbed in a narrative, she tends to keep reading — until something else in her life intervenes. The phone ringing, for instance, or the necessity of getting the kids to school on time. Once she’s set down the manuscript, however, it takes more energy to pick it up again than to have kept reading in the first place.

And that, in case you had been wondering, is how feedback-seeking writers end up gnawing their nails in the dead of night, wondering what on earth could have been wrong with their manuscripts to cause their first readers to hold onto them for three months without saying anything. Most of the time, the delay has nothing to do with the manuscript itself: just as when agents and editors are slow to respond, the usual reason is that the first reader hasn’t yet gotten around to finishing the book.

An object at rest tends to remain at rest.

The less polished a manuscript is — generally meaning, from a non-writer’s point of view, the less like a published book — the more likely an inexperienced first reader is to set it aside, meaning to get back to it later. Also, the less prepared she is for the task at hand, the more likely she is to put off reading further until she can commit some serious time to it.

I can already feel my long-time readers smiling out there, anticipating what’s coming next, and I assure you, it doesn’t have anything to do with the laws of physics. Yes, you’re quite right: it’s time once again for our annual visit from Gladys, clueless first reader extraordinaire.

(Doesn’t that name help establish a strong mental picture of her? Would you be picturing the same character if I had named her Margaret?)

I’m always glad to reintroduce Gladys, because like so many kind souls who befriend writers, she just had no idea what she was getting herself into when she said, “Oh, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” Faced with a five-pound stack of paper and the abrupt realization that she’s expected to say something intelligent about it, she feels understandably overwhelmed.

Yes, overwhelmed, perhaps to the point of panic. As I have pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, for a non-writer — or for a not-very experienced-writer, even — being handed a manuscript and asked for feedback can be awfully intimidating. Yet in a publishing environment where agents and editors simply do not have the time to give in-depth (or often even single-line) responses to queries, writers hit up friends like Gladys who burble requests to read without knowing whereat they speak.

Friends like Gladys are all too often too polite to say no or, heaven help us, think that giving feedback on a manuscript-in-progress is a jaunty, light-hearted, casual affair, as simple and easy as reading a book on a beach.

To be fair, writers proud of their own work and expecting people to plop down good money in bookstores for it frequently share this assumption. A sharp learning curve awaits both parties. At least the writer is aware that some commentary over and above, “Gee, I liked it,” is expected. A reader who is not also a writer may well be unaware of that salient fact.

Gladys isn’t. Never occurred to her.

Imagine her surprise, then, when she starts reading, spots problems — and realizes that the writer might genuinely have expected her not to be a passive consumer of prose, but an active participant in the creative process. Imagine her surprise when she is asked not just to identify what she dislikes about the book, but also to come up with suggestions about what she’d like better.

Imagine her surprise, in short, when she learns that it’s actual work. (Hey, there’s a reason that people like me get paid for doing it.)

“Oh, come on,” I hear some feedback-seekers out there mutter. “I didn’t ask Gladys to edit my book. All I want to know is what she thinks of it. She can’t even manage to tell me that, after she asked to read it?”

I understand your frustration, oh mutterers, but pause for a second and think about the position of a friend impressed into first reader duty: how clearly did her writer friend explain what he was asking her to do? Chances are, Gladys committed herself to reading the manuscript without quite realizing the gravity of the offer — or perhaps not even that she’d made a promise at all.

Stop laughing. From a non-writer’s perspective, “Oh, I’d love to read your work sometime” is not necessarily an actual invitation to share a manuscript.

Honest — for most people, it’s just a polite thing to say in response to the news that an acquaintance is a writer. Among ordinary mortals, a conversational “I can’t wait to read it!” may most safely be translated as “I’m trying to be supportive of you,” “I’m looking forward to your being famous, so I can say I knew you when,” and/or “I have no idea what I should say to an aspiring writer,” rather than as, “I am willing to donate hours and hours of my time to helping you succeed.”

This is why, in case you were wondering, the Gladyses of the world (Gladioli?) are so often nonplused when a writer to whom they have expressed such overtly welcoming sentiments actually shows up on their doorsteps, manuscript in hand. She doesn’t like to say no — but by the time she has read enough to notice that the protagonist’s sister is named Theresa in Chapters 1, 4, and 6, but Teresa in Chapters 2, 3, and 5 (an UNBELIEVABLY common phenomenon, incidentally) and realize that she should have started taking notes the first time she spotted it, it’s a trifle late to be telling her friend that she just doesn’t have time to help him out, isn’t it?

Poor Gladys was just trying to be nice — and that got her into trouble. For the sake of Gladys and every well-meaning soul like her, please consider adhering to my next tip:

Make sure that your first readers fully understand IN ADVANCE what you expect them to do — and that no matter how gifted a writer you may happen to be, reading to give feedback necessarily involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book.

Do I hear members of good critique groups shouting, “Amen!” out there in the ether?

As those of us who have been in the position of feedback-giver can attest, it’s not enough just to be able to spot the problems in the text — the additional challenge is to be able to phrase the requisite critique gently enough that it will not hurt the writer’s feelings, yet forcefully enough for him to understand why changing the text might be a good idea.

In other words, it’s a hard enough challenge for those who already know our way around a manuscript. Imagine how scary the prospect would be for someone who didn’t. In my experience, 99% of casual offerers have absolutely no idea what to do with a manuscript when it is handed to them.

In fact, Gladys is generally dismayed when someone takes her up on her request. Like most people, dear Gladys did not have a very good time in school, and you have just handed her a major reading comprehension assignment; in a flash, you have become her hated 8th-grade English teacher, the one who used to throw his keys at kids who walked in late.

Don’t worry; the school district forced him into early retirement. He’s not torturing children any longer.

It’s not that Gladys doesn’t WANT to help. But in her sinking heart, she is terrified by the book report she is going to have to give at the end of the process.

So what does Gladys do? Typically, she doesn’t read the book at all. Or she launches eagerly into it, reading perhaps ten or fifteen pages, then gets sidetracked by the phone ringing or piled-up laundry or the need to go to work.

Objects at rest, etc., etc.

And that, my friends, is where the problems begin, from the writer’s perspective. Remember, our Gladys isn’t a writer, so she does not have much experience in wresting precious minutes of concentration time out of a busy day. So she sets it aside, in anticipation of the day when she can devote unbroken time to it.

Unfortunately for writers everywhere, very few people lead lives so calm that a week of nothing to do suddenly opens up for their lowest-priority projects. However good Gladys’ intentions may have been at first, somehow the book does fall to her lowest priority — and, like the writer who keeps telling himself that he can only write if he has an entire day (or week or month) free, our well-meaning Gladys wakes up in six months astonished to find that she hasn’t made significant inroads on her task.

Hands up, everyone who has ever been the writer in this situation.

I hate to leave you with a cliffhanger in the midst of our little tragedy, but like Gladys, time is running short in my day. But being a writer, and thus used to wringing time to write from a jam-packed schedule, I shall renew the tale next time.

Trust me, appearances to the contrary, this story can have a happy ending. Keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VII: clarifying those expectations, or, has my watch stopped again?


Is it me, or are people who take even the slightest, most veiled criticism of their work as either deep personal insults or as proof positive that they should scrap the entire thing and start again rather, well, annoying?

Perhaps they are not to the general populace, but I’m sufficiently annoyed today to let you in on a little trade secret that we professional feedback-givers seldom admit in mixed company: for subtle critiquers, both forms of over-reaction are kind of insulting. Why bother to formulate a nuanced analysis of a work if its creator is simply going to blow up or be plunged into the depths of despair? With someone unskilled in the fine art of accepting feedback, the critiquer is in a no-win situation.

While I’m telling tales out of school, let me add that professional feedback-givers aren’t all that crazy about another species of feedback-taker: the one who doesn’t kick up a fuss upon getting critique, because he has no earthly intention of incorporating it. He either cherry-picks what he wants to hear from the feedback, blithely ignoring what doesn’t fit in with what he had already decided to do (or, even more often, not do), or simply doesn’t listen. In this case, too, the feedback-giver is left feeling that she might as well have saved her breath.

Especially when she’s staring at the next version and notices that none of the problems she pointed out last time have been fixed.

What feedback-giving crisis prompted this extended lament, you ask? Let’s just say that the World’s Worst Landscaper™ has really been getting on my nerves for the past few days. The photo above shows the current state of a wall and steps that are now in the process of being torn down and reconstructed for what I believe is the seventh time since last April. That pile of rocks you see is atop what was through Valentine’s Day a bed filled with burgeoning bulbs and other mildly decorative plant life, now demised. And when I happened to glance up from an editing project yesterday, I noticed someone tearing down yet another wall that no one had ever mentioned touching again. I had to dash outside to keep my favorite rosebush and the cat buried under it from being dug up and summarily discarded.

Talk about deconstruction.

But that’s not what you thought I was talking about at the opening of this post, was it? I would bet a wheelbarrow full of the abundant rock lying all over my yard that some of you, at least, just assumed that I was complaining about writers defensive about their work.

Well, I must say, I can’t blame you for leaping to that conclusion: writers in general (and aspiring writers in particular) are legendarily touchy — at least according to agents, editors, and any first reader who has tried to pass along a couple of suggestions to an ostensible feedback-seeker who secretly only wanted to be told that his work was the best collection of sentences ever produced in the English language; the rest of the scribblers worldwide might as well turn in their printer ribbons now.

I’ve got bad news for writers harboring this yen: from a professional point of view, there is no such thing as a manuscript that’s beyond critique.

Actually, this mythical beast doesn’t really exist for most good readers, either — have YOU ever met a published book that you didn’t think could use an alteration or two? — but professional readers are far more likely than other people to see the same manuscript twice. Given that reality, those of us who are devoted to trying to give useful feedback to writers are often left wondering: where does that astonishingly common aspiring writer’s daydream where the first reader hands back the manuscript the day after receiving it, exclaiming something along the lines of, “I stayed up all night reading this; I just couldn’t put it down. Don’t change a word!” come from?

You’re familiar with that daydream, right? It’s the first cousin of the one about the brilliant book written in secret, without the author’s revealing so much as a syllable of it to any eyes other than the faithful raven perched on the bust of Pallas above the chamber door (and if that last line didn’t make you either smile or groan, I’ve got a bone to pick with your high school English teacher), wowing the first human being to clap eyes on it — usually an agent or editor, in this fantasy — so much that it is snapped up and published without so much as the odd gerund altered. Not only does no one ever dare ask the author for revisions, even minor ones, but all of the normal rules of publishing dissolve into a mist before this august volume. Everything else in the publisher’s print run is shunted aside so that the book can come out within the month. Listing on the New York Times’ bestseller list and genteel protests that the writer never dreamed that her book would ever be so popular (“I wrote it because this was a story I just had to tell, Oprah!”) follow a week after that, and the writer is a household name by Christmas. When platoons of literary-minded interviewers trample down the overnight sensation’s shrubbery to ask neighbors how it feels to live next door to a national treasure, the local gossip is so flabbergasted that he sounds like the person whose block watch captain was just arrested as a serial killer: “Well, I just had no idea. She seemed so normal.”

You do realize that it doesn’t work that way, right?

Don’t be embarrassed if you didn’t — or if you thought, as so many aspiring writers do, that if a book is any good, it will inevitably get snatched up right away; therefore, if yours didn’t, it must not be very good. These are extremely pervasive misperceptions, harmful not only because they encourage writers to harbor unreasonable hopes that will be dashed even if they end up landing an excellent agent and selling their books to the best conceivable publisher, but because they place an amazingly heavy burden on the writer to produce perfect prose on the first draft.

Just doesn’t happen.

If you ever happen to meet an author who actually does produce perfect first drafts, will you be kind enough to introduce me? Because, frankly, I’ve never met one. And even if I did stumble on this to-be-envied freak of nature, I would still expect to hear her grumble about her agent and/or editor’s revision requests — because, I assure you, even Ms. Perfect Composer is going to receive them.

Okay, the volume of disbelieving guffaws has grown so tumultuous over the last couple of paragraphs that I can no longer ignore it. “But Anne,” some of you huffers cry, “that’s ridiculous. If an agent or editor didn’t already like a manuscript, why would she sign its writer? And if she does like it, why would she want it changed?”

Those are clear, direct questions, oh guffawers, and they certainly deserve a clear, direct answer. How I wish that I had one to give you, but at the risk of repeating myself, it just doesn’t work that way.

The fact is, a well-written book is not necessarily a book that an agent can sell to her already-existing contacts in the current market, nor a book that an editor can successfully push through an editorial committee and acquire. It’s not necessarily a tome that booksellers will instantly recognize as appealing to their customers, or one that browsers in bookstores will knock one another over to stand in line to buy. And even if the book in question is simultaneously all of those things — which it has to be, for the publishing world to consider it a success — every single individual who helps the writer bring it to publication will have — and express — his personal reading preferences about it. Unless that writer self-publishes, she’s going to need to take all of that feedback into account.

Since I may already have depressed some of you into a stupor, I shan’t even bring up what the marketing department might want a writer to do to the manuscript prior to publication. Suffice it to say that the book is almost certainly going to read differently in its published form than it did when the writer first approached her agent.

I can feel some of you clinging to that almost in the last sentence, can’t I? “But Anne,” a hopeful few point out, “it’s possible that my book will be the exception, isn’t it?”

Well, yes, it is possible, in theory. It’s also theoretically possible that you will win the lottery, give birth to sextuplets, and get struck by lightning, all on the same day. It is, however, extremely unlikely.

How unlikely, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: if I had a quarter for every writer who believed himself to be the exception to this particular rule, I wouldn’t have to win the lottery; I would be the richest nit-picker on the planet. Queen Elizabeth II would be hitting me up for loans. If I had a dollar for every superb writer whose agent or editor told her, “I love this book — now change it radically,” I would buy a small island in the South Pacific and establish the world’s first combination writers’ retreat/tap-dancing school for dolphins. And if I had five dollars for every writer who has ever heard, “I love your writing — could you give me less of it? How about cutting about a hundred pages from your perfectly delightful book?” I would…well, I don’t know what I would do after I commissioned fine Persian rugs for every drafty kitchen in Canada, but I’m sure that I’d think of something.

Yet hope is a stranger to the strictures of probability, isn’t it? One or two of you are still thinking that your manuscript is that 1 in 100,000,000 that will astonish us all. “Okay, so maybe the odds are a trifle long,” those dreamers concede. “But if clinging to that rather remote hope helps me keep moving forward with writing and submission, what’s the harm in my stubbornly refusing to apply my math skills to this particular situation?”

Apart from causing your future agent to go bald from pulling her hair out in frustration, you mean? Well, let’s me see…one common type of harm involves getting one’s hopes dashed, taking the small handful of rejections (or even just the first) that prove one’s manuscript isn’t the exception one thought it was as proof positive that one should just abandon any further attempts at submission. Another type leaves the writer so unprepared for critique of any kind that the slightest hint for improvement causes him to deconstruct his manuscript down to its very foundations and begin again. A third prompts the feedback-receiver to stomp away from the feedback-giver in a huff, or causes him to stuff his fingers into his ears, merrily whistling until the critiquer gets tired of fighting to be heard and just goes away.

Any of these behaviors sound familiar? They should: they’re precisely the behaviors I pointed out above, the ones that drive good feedback-givers nuts, because they imply that it never occurred to the writer that in producing a book, he would need to please anybody but himself.

Hadn’t thought of it that way before, had you, oh guffawers?

But once you accept the proposition — as every writer who intends to make a living at it must — that it’s part of a writer’s job to accept and incorporate feedback, then you can start to regard good critique as what it actually is in the professional reader’s world: a compliment to a writer’s talent. Because, really, would it be worth a feedback-giver’s time and energy to convey suggestions to a writer who wasn’t gifted and professional enough to use them to improve the book?

In order to work well with first readers — be they agents, editors, contest judges, or that constantly-reading coworker who has expressed interest in seeing your manuscript — that you are indeed worth the effort who ever walked the planet, though, you’re going to need to do more than write a good book. Even if you happen to be both beloved of the Muses and the best natural handler of constructive criticism ever born, you’re going to need to learn how to ask for useful feedback — and mean it.

Up until now in this series, we’ve been concentrating on the problems poorly-selected non-professional first readers — i.e., critiquers of your work who are neither freelance editors, agents, editors at publishing houses, or paid writing teachers — might have in giving feedback. Now, let’s take a gander at some of the more common frustrations feedback-seeking writers encounter, with an eye to figuring out how the writer’s way of making the request for critique might have influenced the outcome.

Of course it doesn’t sound like fun. Eliciting good feedback is hard work.

If you’ve already tried to drum up some useful critique, you’ve probably already encountered the enthusiastic friend who begs to read your manuscript…and then never mentions it again. Practically every serious writer has run into this one at some point. Or the second most common, the person who takes 6 months to read it, then hands it back with no more complex commentary than, “Oh, I liked it.” Or the reader who concentrates so hard on the minutiae (rending his garments and exclaiming, “The way you use commas is INFURIATING!” for instance) that he has nothing to report on the big picture.

“Forest?” he says, gaping at you as though you were insane. “All I saw was a single tree.”

You don’t need the chagrin of any of these outcomes, frankly, but the frustration is not the only reason such interactions hold little value for the writer. Even when such first readers do produce useable feedback, the manner of delivery often renders it either too soft-pedaled, too vague, or too harsh, or simply too late to be of any practical value.

Yet to be fair, most of the time, it isn’t precisely the first-time critiquer’s fault: these outcomes are usually the result of the writer’s not having selected readers carefully and/or not having set firm desiderata for feedback. You owe it to yourself — and the good first readers you will be asking to have faith in you — to invest the time in doing both.

Time is the operative word here, isn’t it? Even gearing up to submit your work to another human being is stressful for most writers, much less waiting to hear back. It’s nigh-impossible to explain to non-writers, but the period preparing to send work out to agents and editors can leave a writer as raw and sensitive as the time while she is waiting for a reply on a submission.

Which is another good reason to select your first readers with care, rather than just handing your baby to the first person that asks. Even when a spate of rejections may well have left you simply dying for someone — anyone, please! — to show an interest in reading your writing, it’s not a good idea to give in to that impulse without first giving the matter some extended thought.

What I am about to suggest may come across as downright prosaic, but I assure you, adding this one step to the feedback-solicitation profess can save a writer weeks or even months of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending whilst awaiting feedback:

Make sure your potential reader has time already available in his schedule to read your manuscript BEFORE you hand it off.

This is not a rude question; actually, it’s rather considerate to ask before you start handing over pages. If the reader cannot estimate a reasonable return date, thank him and move on to another choice.

I know, I know, we all wants to believe that every human being is going to be overjoyed to read our work. But the fact is, a critique-providing first read is not the same experience as reading a book for pleasure — yet far, far too many of us pretend that it is when handing our books to someone who has never given a writer feedback before.

Come on, admit it: even writers read differently for pleasure and for analysis; it’s the nature of the beast.

Reading to spot problems is considerably more time-consuming than other kinds of perusal, not to mention more stressful for the reader — and that will be the case even if the reader does not also have to worry about couching his feedback in ways that will preserve the intimate relationship between you. (For lively reader debate on this last point, I would highly recommend reading the comments on an earlier post on this topic.)

Remember, your first readers are doing you a favor, donating their time to the good cause of furthering your writing career. Even if you are giving them an advance peek at the next DA VINCI CODE so they can say they knew you back when, agreeing to give you feedback is a significant responsibility. Treat their time with respect.

It may seem counterintuitive, but setting some boundaries in advance is one of the better ways to pull that off. As in:

Ask your feedback-giver BEFORE you hand over the manuscript if you can schedule a date for her to return it to you, one that will work within her already-existing rubric of commitments.

Yes, I know: setting even a loose deadline makes it seem like an assignment, rather than a favor, but let’s not kid ourselves here: from the writer’s perspective, it is an assignment, as well as a favor. You honestly do want to hear back within a reasonable period of time, don’t you?

Being wishy-washy about the fact that you honestly do want feedback enough to stay up at night, nibbling your fingernails down to the quick because you’re terrified what your first reader might say, is not the kind of information you’re going to want to spring upon your kind friend as a surprise after the fact.

If you’re unsure why, please go back and re-read the litany of resentments at the top of this post.

Pick an actual date, rather than just saying, “Okay, I’ll expect that back in three weeks.” It’s far more difficult to follow up on a vague understanding than a specific commitment. If your potential first reader hesitates at all, ask him to suggest a date that seems reasonable, then add a week to it.

Obtain timing information even if — and perhaps even especially if — someone has expressed an interest in reading your manuscript simply out of friendship, family feeling, or curiosity. In my experience, such people, while kind and encouraging, frequently do not realize just how much time it takes to read a manuscript carefully – or even that the task is going to be any different from reading any book at the library. Often, these folks end up not finishing it at all or giving inadequate feedback, just because they did not budget sufficient time to read well.

Also, if you ask for this information courteously up front, you will have given yourself permission to take advantage of my next tip:

A week or so before the agreed-upon return date, send a polite reminder e-mail or drop a friendly note to your first reader, asking if he will find it convenient to finish the book in time for your meeting. If he says no, chuckle understandingly and set up a new date.

No, this isn’t nagging; it’s demonstrating your awareness that not everyone may consider reading a book a higher priority than eating, sleeping, and making a living. Crises do come up, and it’s only courteous for a feedback-seeker to give a first reader the option of extending the deadline.

But that’s not the real reason you’re going to want to ask. Creative civilians (or, to put it less colorfully, people who don’t write) almost never understand that writers are serious about deadlines — an opinion that many agents and editors seem to share, incidentally.) How could we be, they think, when we spend years at a time working on a single book?

Forgive them, readers: they know not what they think.

Given the pervasive belief that writers don’t own calendars, a pre-deadline reminder can go a long way toward making sure that the reading actually gets done. Just a quick heads-up, perhaps inviting the reader to coffee or lunch just after the deadline to discuss it, will help keep you from seething three weeks after the stated deadline passed, wondering if you should call now or wait another three days.

Since you will be asking for a time commitment before you hand over the manuscript, it’s a good idea to tell your first reader WHY you want her, of all people, to give you feedback. To put it bluntly, buttering ‘em up will often yield swifter results. Which leads me to my next tip:

NEVER leave a non-professional first reader guessing why you selected her to ask for feedback. If possible, couch your request for feedback in a compliment.

Ideally, you would like your potential first readers to be flattered that you asked, and thus hyper-motivated to sit down and read. There’s no need to make up extravagant praise — just be very clear about why you are asking THIS particular person for feedback, as opposed to anyone else who can read and has some time on his hands. The more specific you can be, the more likely your first reader is to regard the request as an honor, an indication that you respect his opinion enough to want to know what he thinks of your book.

So before you approach a potential reader, ask yourself: why is this person THE person to read THIS book? What special insight or experience do you believe will render this person’s perspective especially useful for this particular story? And, based upon these reasons, what type of feedback would you like from this person?

If you can’t come up with good answers to all of these question (or if the answers run along the lines of, “Um, because she asked to read it, and she’s less of an idiot than everyone else who works at my office. And I know absolutely nothing about either her reading habits or her life prior to two years ago, when she set up shop in the next cubicle.”), are you really sure that this is a good first reader for your book?

When it comes time to make the request, honesty is the best policy, just as your mother spent your youth suggesting. Try phrasing it like this:

“I trust your eye implicitly, so I am relying upon you primarily for proofreading.”

“I’ve always admired your sense of humor — would you mind flagging the jokes that you think don’t work?”

“You always know what’s about to happen in a slasher flick – may I ask you to take a quick run through my manuscript, flagging anytime you feel the suspense starts to droop a little?”

The complimentary approach kills the proverbial two birds with one stone: you will be preemptively thanking your first reader for the effort (good manners), and you will be setting some limits on the kind of feedback you would like (good strategy). Also, by setting these goals in advance, you will be better able to avoid the super-common pitfalls of either your first reader or you mistakenly believing that the manuscript-sharing process is about stoking your ego.

Or bringing you and the reader closer together as friends or lovers. Or even to reveal yourself more fully to another human being you happen to love. No, that’s what your kith and kin’s buying your published books are for: that’s support.

At the risk of sounding like a broken…broken…broken… (Allow me to pause a moment for readjustment.)

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if you’re going to be professional about your writing, the sole purpose of ANY pre-publication manuscript-sharing should be to help prepare the book for submission and eventual publication. As the author, you are the book’s best friend, and thus have an obligation to do what is best for it.

Writers new to the game often forget that. Heck, even writers who have been published for years forget that.

Keep that foremost in your mind, and I promise you, you are far less likely to hand your beloved baby over to the first careless coworker who says, “Gee, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” The writer may be flattered by such attention, but the manuscript deserves not to be sent on blind dates.

Nor do your first readers; it’s not fair to expect them to read your mind in order to figure out how soon you expect them to read your book, or why on earth you picked them for that honor in the first place. Believe me, even if your carefully-picked critiquer turns out not to have much to say about your book (hey, it happens), you’ll both be far happier with the experience if you made the effort to set out your expectations clearly.

More on these crucial issues follows next time, of course, most likely accompanied by — heaven help me! — more updates from the WWL front. Please keep visualizing me cavorting amid walls that go up and stay up, and as always, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIc: gee, maybe we shouldn’t be rushing into this…


Last time, I went on a tear about the desirability of doing a bit of homework about anyone with whom you choose to share your unpublished manuscripts, especially electronically — and why this inspiring precept is a good idea to put into practice even when you’re planning to submit your work to an agent, editor, or literary contest. As much as we would all like to believe that every offer out there is legit, not all are, unfortunately, and it’s awfully hard to tell a scammer’s website from a legit agency’s.

We writers tend not to talk about this much amongst ourselves, but if you think about it for a moment, we spend our lives sending our most intimate productions to total strangers: agents, editors, contest judges, not to mention Millicent the agency screener and post office employees from here to Madison Square Garden. We all know that querying and submitting our work requires great personal courage — take a moment to pat yourself on the back for that, please — but it also requires quite a bit of trust, whether you are sending your work to a soi-disant agent, possibly credible publisher, contest organizer — or that nice person you met last week on a perfectly respectable writers’ forum.

Yes, I do realize what I’ve just implied. Thanks for asking.

To reiterate my main points from yesterday, it is most emphatically not paranoid to take the time to check track records before you pop your manuscript into the mail, hit the SEND key, or — heaven forbid! — write a check for a service for which reputable agencies do not charge — it is merely prudent. After all, any self-styled organization can post call for contest entries; since there is no special license required to become an agent (or an oath to serve the greater good of literature, for that matter), anyone can hang out a shingle.

To be blunt about it, scammers that prey on unsuspecting writers desperate to find agents are the only ones who benefit when writers don’t do their homework.

And while I hate to be the harbinger of doom, scams that prey on attention-hungry writers tend to enjoy greater success during periods when the publishing industry is tightening its belt. So if I seem to be uttering woe like the most Internet-fearing Cassandra of Luddites, it’s only because I worry about my readers falling prey to any of these dastardly schemes, particularly those involving so-called agencies who make their living by demanding payments from potential clients, rather then by selling their already-signed clients’ books.

All too often, agent-seeking writers presume that once an agent requests a manuscript, their role in protecting their manuscripts is over; it’s the agent’s responsibility from there on out, right? Wrong. You need to be in charge of who has your manuscript until an agent or editor takes it off your hands by signing a formal contract.

Why have I stopped my series on finding good non-professional feedback for your work in order to hammer home this point, you ask? Well, as is so often the case, readers have raised the issue when I have discussed manuscript-swapping in the past. Take, for instance, the comment insightful long-term reader Chris posted last year:

Anne, that raises an excellent point that I think a lot of unpublished writers are really worried about — people stealing their work/ideas and publishing them…I know that ideas can’t be copyrighted, only their execution can, but the issue of proving ownership of an unpublished manuscript is interesting. Have you ever seen this happen before? Presumably if the actual writer had many in-progress digital copies of the work, plus a number of marked-up printed versions (for revisions), it would be easy to convince a publisher (or the courts, I guess) that the person with the single photocopied version was a thief.

But what a hassle! And yet at the same time, it seems like some unpublished writers are worried over this issue to the point of extreme paranoia, which seems more than a bit out of perspective.

Yes, I have seen it happen, Chris, but actually, my sense is that it happened rather more often before the advent of the copy machine and home computer. Back in the old days, aspiring writers often produced only a single copy of a manuscript — and unwisely mailed off that sole record of their authorship to the first agent or editor who asked for it. Manuscripts did occasionally disappear, some because they simply got lost within institutions that handled a whole lot of paper (which still happens, by the way, and more often than writers care to think) and some because some unscrupulous soul swapped the title page, whited out the author’s name in the slug line, and submitted it as his own work.

Nowadays, of course, few writers would send out the only copy of their work (which, in case I was too subtle above, is VERY BAD IDEA), for precisely the reason Chris points out: because the original is the soft copy residing on their hard disks. A submission version is thus inherently a copy.

Does that mean that writers no longer need to worry about being able to prove that they were in fact the authors of their own books, unless they happen to enjoy the many and varied sensations that accompany advanced paranoia? No — in fact, the extreme ease of electronic transmission raises some of its own problems.

What kind of problems, you ask with fear and trembling? The first one that pops to mind: literally every time a writer e-mails all or part of her manuscript, she loses control of where it might be forwarded. Which means — are you sitting down? — that even if the person to whom she originally sent it is 100% honest, the writer needs to worry about the honesty about anyone to whom recipient #1 might choose to forward it.

Remember what I said earlier in this post about it’s being the writer’s responsibility to maintain control of who has her manuscript? Think that’s applicable here? You bet your boots — or, more accurately, your great prose.

Let’s look at a few prudent self-protective steps fans of manuscript-forwarding can take. (After the usual caveats, of course: this is intended as general advice to help writers avoid problems, not the last word on the subject. I’m not a lawyer; if you are seriously concerned about your copyright getting violated, or think that it has been I urge you to consult an attorney who specializes in publishing law.)

(1) Make frequent, well-labeled back-ups of every draft of your manuscript and keep them in a safe place.

Proving who wrote what when is substantially easier in the age of the computer than it was in either the bygone era of the typewriter or the long-lingering epoch of the bare hand. While word processing programs do keep track of when particular files are created and modified, so chances are that you already have a historical record of when you began writing your opus, as well as your practice of updating it.

Unless, of course, your computer happened to melt down, get stolen, perish in a monsoon, or fall prey to some other mishap since you started writing. Yet another good reason to make back-ups frequently, eh?

(Oh, come on — did you honestly think I wouldn’t follow up after yesterday’s plea to save your materials early and often?)

Even with computer in perfect health and a closet full of back-up disks, however, you’re still going to want to exercise some care in how you bandy your manuscript around. From a writer’s point of view, it’s a far, far better thing NOT to be placed in the position of having to prove when you wrote a piece.

(2) Always keep BOTH hard and soft copies of every syllable of your own work — and NEVER send your only copy of anything to anyone, ever.

Yes, even if your intended recipient is your twin sibling who rescued you from a burning building at risk to his own life. For obvious reasons, that used to be the FIRST piece of advice the pros gave to new writers back in the days of typewriters.

That, and to keep a pad of paper and a writing implement with you at all hours of the day or night, just in case inspiration strikes. You already do that, don’t you?

Why night as well, you ask? Because as experienced writers know, no matter how certain you are that you will remember that great idea that woke you up at 3:42 AM, if you don’t write it down, chances are very high that it will disappear into the ether like the mythical final stanzas of KUBLA KHAN.

(3) Maintain an up-to-date list of EVERYONE who has a copy of your manuscript at any given time — and don’t keep the only copy of that list on your hard drive.

I’m always surprised at how infrequently aspiring writers do this, even for the agents to whom they submit, but until sign a publication contract, you absolutely must know who has your manuscript. Make sure that you have full contact information for every single soul on that list — not just an e-mail address, a phone number, and/or a first name — so you can track down any of your writing that goes missing.

Get a physical address for the recipient even if you are communicating solely online — any reputable agency or publishing house should post a mailing address on its website. If you choose to post excerpts of it online for critique, keep a record of precisely what you posted, where, and why.

If you’re wondering why I’m suggesting that you should not keep your only copy of this list on your computer, I can only suggest that you re-read yesterday’s post. Hard drives are not immortal, you know.

(4) If you send your work via regular mail, keep records of where and when you sent it — and track delivery.

Literally every piece of your writing that you ever mail to anyone in the publishing industry with whom you do not already share an established relationship of trust should be sent via tracked regular mail, so you may prove that your manuscript actually arrived at its destination, should you ever need to do so. Within North America, manuscript tracking is quite inexpensive these days — the cost of USPS’ electronic Delivery Confirmation varies by how far it is going, but domestically, it’s less than a dollar at the moment — so there is really no excuse for not taking this reasonable precaution.

If you want to make super-sure that you can prove delivery, you can cough up the $2.70 for Certified Mail, so someone will actually have to sign for package. This is an especially good idea if the recipient is someone with whom you’ve never dealt before. That way, should it ever be necessary (pray that it won’t), you will be able to prove that you did indeed send it — and precisely when he received it, the rogue.

Why is being able to prove when he received it as important as if? Because, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, if a question ever arises about who wrote the book, you will be very, very happy that you can produce objective evidence of the first time your would-be plagiarist clapped covetous eyes (and grimy hands) upon your precious pages.

(5) Minimize how often you send any finished manuscript via e-mail to anyone with whom you do not already have a signed representation or publication agreement.

Yes, I am saying that I believe it’s in a writer’s interest to submit in hard copy, rather than electronically. As long-term readers of this blog already know, I frown upon sending original material via e-mail, anyway, for a variety of practical reasons that have nothing to do with the possibility of a manuscript’s going astray. (For a full banquet of my many tirades on the subject, I refer you to the E-MAILED SUBMISSIONS category at right.) For our purposes today, however, I’m just going to treat you to a brief recap of the highlights, by way of review.

First, many, many NYC-based agencies and publishing houses are working on computers with outdated operating systems and not the most up-to-date versions of Word — and virtually all of them are working on PCs. So the chances that they will be able to open your attachment at all, especially if you are a Mac user, are somewhere in the 50-50 range.

If you submit in hard copy, you simply don’t need to worry about this. I just mention.

Second, it’s significantly harder to read on a computer screen than on a printed page — and, unfortunately for acceptance rates, it’s also far quicker to delete a file than to stuff a manuscript into the nearest SASE. (I leave you to speculate the probable effects of these undeniable facts upon speed with which the average e-mailed submission is rejected.)

Third — and if you’ve been paying attention throughout this post, you should be murmuring this in your sleep by now — you can never really be sure where an e-mailed document will end up. It can be forwarded at the recipient’s discretion, and at the discretion of anyone to whom he forwards it, indefinitely.

Quite apart from the threat of outright theft (which, as I mentioned earlier in this series, is exceedingly rare), too-free forwarding could conceivably make it harder to enforce your claim to copyright, should you ever need to establish it: since part of the argument you would need to make if someone else claims to have written your book is that you made a reasonable effort to maintain control over how and where it could be read. Forwarding it as an attachment to anyone who asks does not, alas, convey the impression that you as the author are particularly insistent upon protecting your rights to the work.

For all of these reasons, if I had my way, aspiring writers everywhere would actively avoid sending ANY of their original material by e-mail, at least to people they don’t know awfully well. Now that some agents have started requesting electronic submissions — heck, some even ask writers to copy-and-paste the first few pages of their manuscripts into e-mailed queries — this is not always practicable, of course, but this is still largely a paper-based industry.

Feel free to use that argument when your prospective manuscript exchange partner claims that it would be SO much easier if you would just e-mail your manuscript to her; I don’t mind. If that doesn’t work, tell her that a professional editor told you that it’s infinitely harder to catch manuscript problems on a computer screen than in hard copy — true, incidentally — so you would vastly prefer that she read your work in paper form.

Do I feel some waves of panic wafting in my general direction? “But Anne,” I hear some of you inveterate e-mailers protest, “what if an agent ASKS me to e-mail all or part of my manuscript? I can hardly say no, can I?”

Well, actually, you can, if you want: in my experience, nothing brings an e-mailed submission-loving agent or editor more quickly to a recognition of the joys of the printed page than a writer’s saying, “Gee, I would love to shoot that right off to you, but I think my computer has a virus. I wouldn’t want to pass it along to you. Just this time, I’m going to have to send you a paper copy, if that’s okay.”

Care to guess just how often a reputable agent or editor will say no after hearing THAT sterling little piece of argumentation? You’re the white knight here; you’re trying to protect the world from computer viruses. You’re not uncooperative — you should be up for membership in the Justice League, along with Wonder Woman and Superman.

Ah, I can hear that some of you still aren’t satisfied by promotion to superhero(ine). “But what if the agent insists?” you demand. “Or just has a really, really strong preference?”

Well, since you asked so nicely, and since truth compels me to admit that my own agent has been known to exhibit this preference from time to time, I’ll tell you.

(6) If you choose to send your writing electronically, verify IN ADVANCE that the recipient is who you think he is.

This is a bit of a repeat from yesterday, but If you absolutely MUST send a submission via e-mail, again, double-check that the agency and/or publishing house toward which you are flinging it trustingly has a track record of being on the up-and-up. Verifying that the agent has a track record of selling books like yours or that the publishing house has in fact published them in the past will both let you sleep easier during the submission period and avoid scams. (It will also help you target your queries better, if you do this research well in advance.)

A contest should list past award winners on its website, and most do: if their winners end up getting published, they tend to like to claim credit. If a contest’s site does not provide that information, think twice before sending your entry. (Yes, I know that this stance discriminates against contest-throwing organizations that are just starting out, but my interest here is protecting you, not them.)

Double-checking is harder to pull off with an individual than a business or contest, of course, especially if you happened to meet him online; few sites require that posters prove they are who they say they are. Get to know your potential first reader as much as you can before blithely sending off your work.

And NEVER send your manuscript to anyone for whom you have only an e-mail address. Really.

(7) Whenever you send your writing electronically, e-mail or a copy to yourself — and to someone else you trust.

If an agency, small publishing house, or contest positively insists upon electronic submission, e-mail a copy of everything you’ve sent them to yourself at the same time. This will provide at least an electronic record of what you sent when.

Or print up a copy, seal it in an envelope, sign across the seal (to make it obvious if it gets opened), and mail it to yourself. Once it arrives back on your doorstep, don’t open it; just hide it away in case you need it on some dark future day.

That way, you can prove, if necessary, that as of a particular date, you were the writer in the position to send the material.

If you choose to e-mail, too, it’s also not a bad idea to send blind copies to a couple of friends whom you trust not to forward it along. Ask them to save it until you send them an all-clear signal or until your name appears prominently on the New York Times Bestseller List, whichever comes first.

(8) Maintain communication with those to whom you have submitted your work, particularly if you have done it electronically. If you don’t hear back, follow up — and keep a record of your attempts at further contact.

Admittedly, since so many agents have embraced the rather rude recent practice of not responding to submitters if the answer is no, this one can be a bit difficult to pull off, but unless an agency has actually posted this policy, a submitter can and should follow up if he has not heard back after two or three months. If the manuscript has gotten lost (which, again, does happen more often than writers tend to think it does), a reputable agent will want to know about it.

If the recipient was NOT someone within the publishing industry, you should follow up even sooner, for the most practical of reasons: the longer your work been circulating around, the harder it would be to try to rein it in again.

Think about it: if your piece has been floating around the computers of Outer Mongolia for the last six months, how are you going to prove that you held control over who did and did not read your work? (Although, again, I’m not a lawyer, so if you find yourself in this unenviable position, hie ye hence and find an attorney who specializes in this branch of the law.)

(9) Bite the bullet and register the copyright.

If you are a U.S.-based writer, you might want to just go ahead and register the copyright for your work before you begin sharing it. For the vast majority of submitters, this step isn’t really necessary, but if you are in the habit of circulating your work very widely (or are not very sure where that manuscript you sent out a month ago to a mysterious stranger you met online might have ended up), you may sleep better at night if you take the step to alert the government to the fact that you wrote your book.

Stop groaning. It’s a lot less onerous — and significantly less expensive — than most aspiring writers tend to assume. Go ahead, take a wild guess about how much time it will actually take away from your writing to gain this protection and how spendy it is.

Well, the last time I did it, it took only the time required to print up a copy of my manuscript and fill out a one-page form. And the expense was unbelievable: a $45 registration fee and the expense of having my corner copy shop spiral-bind the thing. If you register it online — through exactly the type of electronic submission I discouraged above, as it happens — it’s only $35.

And yes, nonfiction writers, you CAN register a book proposal. Jointly, even, if you have a collaborator.

What it will NOT help you to do – and what many novice writers give themselves away by doing — is place in the header or footer of every page, © 2009 Author’s Name. Yes, copyright can be established by proving intent to publish, but intent to publish is also established by submitting work to an agent or editor. Contrary to what you may have heard, the copyright bug will not protect you, should push come to shove.

It will, however, give rise to substantial mirth amongst its first readers at most agencies and publishing houses. “Look,” they will say, pointing, “here’s another rookie.”

This unseemly mirth tends to cover an undercurrent of hostility: writers who so pointedly indicate distrust of the people to whom they send their work, the logic goes, are in fact conveying a subtle insult. You are not to be trusted, such marks say, loud and clear, affronting those who would never steal so much as a modifier from an author and not scaring those who would steal entire books outright. Best to leave it out.

The beauty of the registering the copyright to a manuscript, of course, is that it can be done entirely without the knowledge of your recipients. Ditto with the blind e-mail copies. There’s no need to advertise that you are protecting yourself.

But for heaven’s sake, especially if you are dealing with someone that you do not know well enough to trust, take these few quiet steps to let yourself sleep better at night. Chances are, you will never need their help, but remember that old-fashioned sampler: better safe than sorry.

Call me zany, but I would prefer to see you get credit for your writing than the friend of the friend of the friend to whom you happened to forward it.

Whew! That was a long one, wasn’t it? Next time (which may not be for a couple of days, given how much this post took out of me), I shall delve back into the ins and outs of finding good sources of feedback. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIb: not all mysterious strangers are romantic

Or, this raccoon-visitoris not the same thing as this valentino

I meant to get back to our series on how to find useful feedback on your manuscripts — or, more precisely, to my mid-series digression on protecting your work whilst sharing it — over the weekend, or at any rate yesterday. (Happy post-Presidents’ Day, everyone.) However, my Significant Other harbors some absurd prejudice in favor of our spending Valentine’s Day weekend together. Where do kids these days pick up such zany ideas?

I’m mention this not for the sake of romantic one-upsmanship, but as an explanation to those of you new commenters who may have been trying to chime in over this particular weekend. For those of you new to the blog: in order to prevent the truly epic amount of spam I receive from wasting everyone’s time in the comments, my blogging program requires that I personally approve posts by all first-time commenters. As a result, freshman comments sometimes take a few days to post.

It’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.

Over the weekend (which I must admit was probably significantly more romantic than it would have been had I kept sitting down to blog; my SO was quite patient while I held an editing client’s hand through a no-fault-of-her-own literary crisis), I was thinking of you, however. To be specific, I was thinking that it had been quite some time since I asked one of the most basic questions that must be faced by writers in the computer age:

When was the last time you backed up your hard disk — or, more importantly for our purposes, your writing files?

Like, say, the ones containing the novel you’ve been writing for the past two years, or the contest entry you’re planning to pop into the mail next week? If you didn’t make a back-up either today or yesterday, may I cajole you into doing it soon?

How soon, you ask? Well, not to be alarmist, but would now-ish work for you?

I’m quite serious about this; go ahead. (If you’re new to backing up your work, the BACK-UP COPIES category at right may prove helpful.) I’ll still be here when you get back, languishing on my chaise longue.

What’s with the urgency, you ask? I could answer in philosophical terms — he things of this world are, after all, ephemeral, and computer files even more so — but frankly, my reason for nagging you about it periodically couldn’t be more practical. I’ve seen far too many writers lose weeks, months, and even years of good work due to various stripes of computer failure. As a freelance editor, I can’t even begin to tally up the number of times clients have called me in tears, begging me to search my files for a hard copy of an earlier draft of their books, because the only soft copy fell victim to a virus or hard drive meltdown.

Ask anyone who works in a computer repair facility: with even the most reliable system, it’s not a matter of if it will break down; it’s a matter of when. In picking the day of demise, computers are notoriously disrespectful of a writer’s imminent deadlines, requests from agents, or even the joy that accompanies finally polishing off a complete draft. In fact, if the moans I’ve heard over the years are a representative samples of those let down by their computers, the heavy use a computer often sees just prior to the end of a major writing project seems to be conducive to bringing on system misbehavior.

Which leads me to ask again: if your hard drive died right now, would you have a copy of your current writing project? What about of that query letter you spent two months composing, or that synopsis that took you a year to perfect? Would you even have an up-to-date record of whom you queried when?

Ah, that made you turn pale, didn’t it?

Please, even if you save nothing else on your computer, make frequent backups of your writing. It only takes a few minutes, but some day, you may be deeply grateful that you did.

Back to the topic at hand — which, as it happens, will also make me sound like your mother and might make you turn pale with dread. Last time, I broached the always-hot subject of protecting one’s writing from poachers, including — and this is why we’re talking about this in the midst of a series on finding good feedback-givers — unscrupulous folks with whom you might choose to share your unpublished manuscript.

Once again, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so if you were looking for actual legal guidance on a specific copyright-related matter, you’d be well advised to get advice from one who specializes in giving legal advice to such legal advice-seekers.

Everyone got that? Good.

We can, however, go over some general principles here. To see how well I made my points last time, here’s a little quiz:

Rudolf Valentino (hey, it was just Valentine’s day, after all) has written a tender novel with the following plot: boy meets girl; boy loses girl over a silly misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up within five pages had either party deigned to ask the other a basic question or two (along the lines of Is that lady holding your hand your sister or your wife?); boy learns important life lesson that enables him to become a better man; boy and girl are reunited.

Having composed such an original story, our Rudolf, being a sensible boy, seeks out other writers to give him feedback on it, or at any rate to help him figure out why the first 74 agents he queried did not find this plotline unique enough to pique their interest. He joins a writers’ group; he posts excerpts of his first chapter on an online critique site; he sidles other romance-writers in the hallways and charms them into reading his book and giving him their honest responses. (Our Rudolf can be pretty persuasive, you know. If you don’t believe me, see SON OF THE SHEIK.) Soon, several dozen copies of his manuscript are circulating throughout his extensive acquaintance, both in hard copy and electronically. He receives feedback from some; other copies disappear into the ether.

At what point in this process should Rudolf begin worrying about protecting his writing — and at what point running, not walking, toward an attorney conversant with copyright law with an eye to enforcing his trampled-upon rights?

(a) When he notices that a book with a similar plot line has just been published?

(b) When he notices that a hefty proportion of the romantic comedy films made within the last hundred years have a similar plot line?

(c) When a fellow member of his writing group lands an agent for a book with a similar plot line?

(d) When he picks up a book with somebody else’s name on the cover and discovers more than 50 consecutive words have apparently been lifted verbatim from a Valentino designer original?

(e) Before he gave it to anyone at all?

Let’s take the point where he should be consulting a lawyer first. If you said (d), clap yourself heartily upon the back. (I know it’s tough to do while simultaneously reading this and making a back-up of your writing files, but then, you’re a very talented person.) The last time I checked, anything beyond 50 consecutive words — or less, if it’s not properly attributed — is not fair use. After that, we’re into plagiarism territory.

If you said (c), you’re in pretty good company: at that point, most writers would tell Rudolf that he should be keeping a sharp eye upon that other writer. It would be prudent, perhaps, to take a long, hard look at the other writer’s book — which, as they’re in the same critique group, shouldn’t be all that hard to pull off.

But should plot similarity alone send him sprinting toward Lawyers for the Arts? No. Plot lifting is not the same thing as writing theft.

Why? Everyone who read my last post, chant it with me now, if you can spare time from making that backup: because you can’t copyright an idea for a book; you can only copyright the presentation of it.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few small steps that Rudolf might take to protect himself. Unfortunately, most of those steps would need to be taken prior to the point of discovering that some enterprising soul had made off with his writing.

Hint: the answer to the first question in the quiz, the one asking when a prudent Rudolf should begin thinking about protecting his manuscript, is (e). Especially — and this doesn’t happen as much in the age of computers as it did in the age of typewriters, but the warning still bears repeating — if Rudolf was circulating his only copy.

(That couldn’t happen to you, of course. You have a back-up of your writing files tucked away somewhere safe now, right?)

As I mentioned last time, the single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. The problem is, you can’t always tell. The Internet, while considerably easing the process of finding agents and small publishers hungry for new work, also renders it hard to tell who is on the up-and-up. I hope I’m not shocking anyone when I point out that a charlatan’s website can look just like Honest Abe’s — and that’s more of a problem with the publishing industry than in many others.

Why? Well, new agencies and small publishing houses pop up every day, often for the best reasons imaginable — when older publishing houses break up or are bought out, for instance, editors often make the switch to agency, and successful agents and editors both sometimes set up shop for themselves. But since you don’t need a specialized degree to become an agent or start a publishing house, there are also plenty of folks out there who just hang up shingles.

Or, more commonly, websites.

Which is one reason that, as those of you who survived my 2007 Book Marketing 101 series (conveniently collected for those of you who missed it on the category list at right) will recall, I am a BIG advocate of gathering information about ANY prospective agency or publishing house from more than one source. Especially if the source in question is the agency’s website — and if the agency in question is not listed in one of the standard agency guides.

“Wha–?” I hear some of you cry.

Listing in those guides is not, after all, automatic, and like everything else in publishing, the information in those guides is not gathered mere seconds before the book goes to presses. The result: agencies can go in or out of business so swiftly that there isn’t time for the changes to get listed in the standard guides.

That’s problematic for aspiring writers, frequently, because start-ups are often the ones most accepting of previously unpublished writers’ work. But because it is in your interests to know precisely who is going to be on the receiving end of your submission — PARTICULARLY if you are planning to query or submit via e-mail — you honestly do need to do some homework on these people.

Happily, as I mentioned last time, there are now quite a few sources online for double-checking the credibility of professionals to whom you are considering sending your manuscript. Reputable agents don’t like disreputable ones any more than writers do, so a good place to begin verifying an agent or agency’s credibility is their professional organization in the country where the agency is ostensibly located. For the English-speaking world:

In the United States, contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents.

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

I couldn’t find a specific association for Canada (if anyone knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agencies north of the border.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. It’s also worth checking on Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

In case it might influence the decision-making process of those of you quietly rolling your eyes at the prospect of investing even more of your scant writing time in researching folks whose ostensible purpose in life is to help writers, I should add: all but the last site I listed are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query now that the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2009 has receded into memory.

Again, I just mention. And have you done that backup yet?

As with any business transaction on the Internet (or indeed, with anyone you’ve never heard of before), it also pays to take things slowly — and with a massive grain of salt. An agency or publishing house should be able to tell potential authors what specific books it has handled, for instance. (In the U.S., book sales are a matter of public record, so there is no conceivable reason to preserve secrecy.)

Also, even if an agency is brand-new, you should be able to find out where its agents have worked before — in fact, a reputable new agency is generally only too happy to provide that information, to demonstrate its own excellent connections.

Also, reputable agencies make their money by selling their clients’ books, not by charging them fees. If any agent ever asks you for a reading fee, an editing fee, or insists that you need to pay a particular editing company for an evaluation of your work, instantly contact the relevant country’s agents’ association. (For some hair-raising examples of what can happen to writers who don’t double-check, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENTS category at right.)

Actually, anyone asking a writer for cash up front in exchange for considering representation or publication is more than a bit suspect — not only according to me, but according to the AAR. Unless a publisher bills itself up front as a subsidy press (which asks the authors of the books it accepts to bear some of the costs of publication) or you are planning to self-publish, there’s no reason for money to be discussed at all until they’ve asked to buy your work, right?

And even then, the money should be flowing toward the author, not away from her.

With publishing houses, too, be suspicious if you’re told that you MUST use a particular outside editing service or pay for some other kind of professional evaluation. As those of you who have been submitting for a while already know, reputable agents and editors like to make up their own minds about what to represent or publish; they’re highly unlikely to refer that choice out of house. And any reputable freelance editor will be quite up front about the fact that while professional editing can help make a manuscript more publishable, it’s not a guarantee of publication.

Generally speaking — to sound like your mother for yet another long moment — if an agency or publisher sounds like too good a deal to be true, chances are that it is. There are, alas, plenty of unscrupulous folks out there ready to take unsuspecting writers’ money, and while many agencies and publishers do in fact maintain websites, this is still a paper-based industry, for the most part.

In other words, it is not, by and large, devoted to the proposition that an aspiring author should be able to Google literary agent and come up with the ideal fit right off the bat.

Do I hear some more doubtful muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear many voices cry, “I certainly do not want to be bilked by a faux agency or publishing house. However, I notice that you’ve been talking about such disreputable sorts conning me out of ready cash, not potentially walking off with my submission. Weren’t we discussing about protecting our writing, not our pocketbooks?”

Well caught, disembodied voices — and that’s part of my point. The fact is, if an unscrupulous agent or editor were seriously interested in defrauding aspiring writers, stealing manuscripts would not be the most efficient way to go about it. Historically, direct extraction of cash from the writer’s pocket has been the preferred method.

But that doesn’t mean that a savvy writer shouldn’t take reasonable steps to protect both her pocketbook AND her manuscript. Even during a period where the legitimate literary agencies are being so cautiously selective, an aspiring writer should never front money for professional services without knowing precisely what s/he is getting in return. Take the time to do your homework.

Oh, and make backups regularly as well. Imagine Rudolf’s embarrassment if he had to admit to his wide circle of blandished acquaintance that he was the only one of them who didn’t possess a copy of his manuscript.

Next time, I shall delve into manuscript protection itself, I promise — and, shortly after that, return to our larger topic, tracking down sources of good manuscript feedback. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIa, in which we all learn a few life lessons equally applicable to dating and getting feedback on a manuscript, or, dealing with shadowy figures


Yesterday, I talked a little bit about that grand old tradition, the writers’ group, a mutual aid society devoted to helping its members refine and improve their writing. While surprisingly few established writers’ groups deal explicitly with the marketing side of being a successful writer — I have never understood, for instance, why so few groups of writers at the querying stage exchange queries and synopses for critique; it seems like a natural — a good writers’ group can be extremely helpful in providing the feedback that every serious writer needs.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a good, long time may have noticed, I suggest joining a writers’ group every time I revisit the issue of getting useful feedback. Not only does it tend to be more efficient to exchange chapters with many than with just one or two, and not only does one often glean more constructive feedback from writers than from readers who have never tried to cobble a narrative together, but let’s face it, getting involved with even a group that charges for membership (as some run by well-known authors and/or editors do) is probably going to be less expensive than hiring an experienced freelance editor.

On the other hand, a freelance editor will almost certainly be able to give you that feedback considerably faster — and, if s/he’s worth her salt, be able to provide you with greater insight into how agents, editors at publishing houses, and contest judges might respond to your work. While you might eventually accumulate a similar volume of feedback from regular group participation, if you’re meeting only once per month and exchanging only one chapter each time, it could take two or three years to make it through an entire manuscript.

And that’s assuming that the group is small enough that every member receives critique every single time. While we’re engaging in cost/benefit analysis, let’s not forget to count the time and energy a conscientious group member must invest in reading and commenting upon other members’ work.

Because of the substantial and long-term commitment required to run a full manuscript through a writers’ group and potentially rather hefty price tag on professional editing, many aspiring writers turn to a third option: seeking out feedback online, either by seeking out other writers for exchange via a bulletin board, chat room, or website or by taking advantage of one of the many websites that ask writers to post excerpts of their writing online for other readers to critique.

Heck, I have it on pretty good authority that some of my frequent commenters here have ended up swapping manuscripts. After all, they already know that they have something in common, right?

As marvelous as these online exchange opportunities can be for writers, especially ones who are geographically isolated enough to render joining an in-person writers’ group impracticable, I wanted to pause in the middle of this series on feedback to address some concerns about the dangers that can result from all of that electronic manuscript exchange. Writers new to this form of community often do not prepare themselves for the possibility that the nifty writer they’ve never met face-to-face but who sounds like a perfect critique partner might not be, well, completely on the up-and-up.

Oh, and happy Friday the 13th.

To put it another way that makes me sound much more like your mother: just as not every online dater is completely honest about his or her intentions, willingness to commit, height, weight, level of baldness, or marital status, not every writer participating in online communities is representing her- or himself accurately. And it’s equally hard in both venues to weed out the boasters from the hard workers.

How might an inability to tell one from the other harm an honest feedback-seeking writer? Well, in a lot of ways, unfortunately, ranging from investing hours and hours in providing critique for an exchange partner who never bothers to reciprocate to getting one’s writing actually stolen.

So for the next few days, we’re going to veer off my pre-set path of feedback-seeking to talk about what the risks are and how a savvy writer can minimize them.

One vital disclaimer before I begin: I am NOT an attorney, much less one who specializes in intellectual property law. So it would be a GRAVE MISTAKE to take what I say here as the only word on the subject, or indeed to come to me if you believe that your writing has been stolen. (And if you did, I would send you straight to my lawyer, so why not skip a step?)

However, I’ve noticed that most of the time, writers curious about this seem to be asking questions not because they fear that their intellectual property has been lifted or that they’ve violated someone else’s rights, but because they’ve heard vague rumors to the effect that every so often, an unpublished writer’s work has gotten stolen. And those pervasive rumors I can legitimately address.

To set your minds at ease: yes, writing does occasionally get stolen — but it’s exceedingly rare, and it usually doesn’t happen in the way that most hearers of the rumor fear.

Let me introduce Sharon (not her real name, obviously), a writer who approached me a few years ago. I had the impression that she hadn’t been writing very long, but I wasn’t positive, as she was someone I barely knew — the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the brother of a friend of mine, which is as fine a definition of a casual acquaintance as I’ve ever heard. And yet she called me one day, full of questions about how to market her writing.

(A practice that I have historically tended to discourage in aspiring writers with whom I do not already enjoy some sort of professional relationship, incidentally, since effectively, it’s a consultant-client situation, and I do after all donate masses of general information to the writing community here on this blog. I understand the urge to chat with an experienced author and editor about the specifics of one’s book, however. Due to a precipitous rise in requests of this nature in recent months, I shall be unveiling a new venue for one-on-one consultation within a few weeks. So get those manuscript-specific questions ready and watch this space.)

Sharon had written a short piece — an essay, really — that she thought was marketable and had, through sheer persistence and the rare strategy of actually LISTENING to the advice she had been given by published writers of her acquaintance, gotten Ron, the publisher of a small press, to agree to take a preliminary look at it. Would she e-mail it to him with all possible dispatch, please?

In mid-celebration for this quite significant coup, she experienced a qualm: what if this guy stole her ideas, or her entire work? She knew him only through an exchange of e-mails, after all, and until she had started trolling the Internet for small presses, she had never even heard of him or his publications.

So wasn’t she in fact taking a rather large risk in sending an electronic copy of the only thing she’d ever written to a complete stranger?

Once the idea had taken hold in her brain, being a writer, she naturally embellished upon it in the dead of night: if it came down to Ron’s word against hers, who would believe {her}? And how could she ever prove that she had come up with the idea first?

When she shared her fears, however, half of her friends laughed at her, saying that she was being paranoid and unreasonable. The other half told her, in all seriousness, that she should go ahead and register the copyright for what she had written before she e-mailed it to Ron. At the very least, they advised, she should tart up her pages by adding the copyright symbol (©) on each and every one. Whereupon the first set of friends laughed even harder and told her that nothing looks more unprofessional to folks in the publishing industry than the liberal application of that pesky ©.

Understandably confused, Sharon did something very sensible: she tracked down the closest professional author and asked her what to do.

(As Gore Vidal is fond of saying, there is no earthly problem that could not be solved if only everyone would do exactly as I advise. I trust all of you will cling to that inspiring little axiom until your dying breath.)

The problem was, each set of Sharon’s friends was partially right: the vast majority of reputable publishing houses would never dream of stealing her material, and yet, as in any other business, there are always a few cads. At most writers’ conferences, you will hear speakers scoff at the possibility, but anyone who has been in the writing and editing biz for any length of time knows at least one good writer with a horror story.

Better safe than sorry, as our great-grandmothers used to stitch painstakingly onto samplers. (Actually, my great-grandmother was an opera diva who apparently regarded needlework as a serious waste of the time she could be spending being flamboyant, but I’m told that other people’s great-grandmothers embroidered such things.)

In the United States, though, outright theft of a book, or even an essay or short story, is quite rare. To wave the flag for a moment, we have the strongest copyright laws in the world, and what’s more, a writer on our turf AUTOMATICALLY owns the copyright to his own work as soon as he produces it. (Seriously; go ask a lawyer.)

So when writers talk about copyrighting a book, they’re generally not talking about obtaining the right in the first place, but rather registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Which means that the friends who advised Sharon not to mar her footer with © 2008 Sharon were also partially correct: the writer owns the copyright; if Ron planned to steal her essay and she hadn’t actually registered the copyright on it, the symbol alone wasn’t going to provide much protection. In fact, her friends were passing along the prevailing wisdom she would have heard had she asked the same question at your garden-variety writers’ conference: presenters often tell aspiring writers not to use the © bug on their manuscripts when they submit them; it’s redundant.

How so? Well, everyone in the publishing industry is already aware that the author owns the copyright to her own writing — including, presumably, Ron. If the author didn’t own the copyright, a publisher wouldn’t have to sign a contract with her in order to publish it, right?

In theory, then, writers are protected from pretty much the instant that their fingers hit the keyboard. So was Sharon’s other set of advisors merely ill-informed?

Unfortunately, no: in practice, a couple of problems can arise. Rights, as Thomas Hobbes informed us so long ago, are the ability to enforce them.

In the first place, owning the rights to what you write inherently and proving that you are the original author are two different things — sometimes radically different. Occasionally, some enterprising soul will latch on to another writer’s unpublished work and claim that he wrote it first, or co-writers will squabble over who gets custody of already-written work in a partnership break-up. Or, as in the situation I raised at the beginning of this post, an aspiring writer who has trustingly e-mailed his first two chapters to that nice writer he met on a bulletin board walks into a bookstore one day and finds a book that opens just like his.

Or — and this is substantially more common, especially in academic writing — the writer is dutifully reading her former exchange partner’s published work when her hair stands on end because that paragraph on the page in front of her is one that she wrote. With a shock, it suddenly occurs to her that since they exchanged work electronically, all her dishonest ex-friend would have had to do was copy her words and paste them into another manuscript.

In each case, the inevitable result is an unseemly struggle to determine who coughed up any given page of text first — or an aspiring writer who spends the next ten years walking around grumbling to anyone who will listen about how that rat of a published writer stole her work.

Second — and you might want to be sitting down for this one, as it comes as rather a shock to a lot of writers — technically, you can’t copyright an idea; you can merely copyright the PRESENTATION of it. Which means, in practice, that it is not possible to claim ownership of your storyline, but only how you chose to write it.

Aren’t you glad I told you to sit down first?

Learning about this second condition tends to obviate a good 85% of the concerns aspiring writers express about having their work stolen. Most of the time, writers are worried that someone will steal their STORIES, not the actual writing — and I’m not going to lie to you; one doesn’t have to attend many writers’ conference before one has heard a dozen stories about the trusted feedback-giver who later came out with a suspiciously similar book.

There’s not a heck of a lot a writer can do about that, alas, except to spread the story around. So the next time you hear such a tale of woe at a conference, do remember to make sympathetic noises.

But by the same token, unless the lifted plotline becomes a major bestseller, there’s really no reason that you shouldn’t push ahead with your version. Fiction is virtually never sold on the storyline alone, anyway; plotlines and NF arguments are almost never 100% unique.

As no one knows better than a writer, however, presentation — particularly GOOD presentation — generally IS unique. As industry insiders are so fond of telling writers, it all depends upon the writing.

This is why, as some of you inveterate conference-goers may have noticed, when agents, editors, and published writers are presented with a question about book theft, they tend to respond as though the question itself were a sign of an over-large ego in the asker. Just how revolutionary would an aspiring writer’s style have to be, the logic goes, for an agent or editor to WANT to steal it?

Which perhaps leaves the wondering writer reluctant to submit his long thought-out plotline and terrific premise to a publisher, lest it be handed to a better-known writer, but doesn’t really address his concern. Once again, we have a failure to communicate.

Do I see some hands in the air out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protesting, and rightly so, “between the time I submit a manuscript to an agency and the time a book is published and thus equipped with a nice, clear copyright page stating precisely who owns the writing between those covers, it passes through quite a few hands. I may not even know who will end up reading it. Shouldn’t I worry about some of them deciding to make off with my actual pages and passing them off as their own?”

Having some doubts about Millicent’s integrity, are we?

Well, it’s a reasonable enough concern: some of those hands will inevitably belong to people you do not know very well. Agency screeners like Millicent, for instance. Agents. Editorial assistants. Editors. Mail room clerks. The people in the publishing house’s marketing department.

And anyone to whom you give your manuscript as a first reader. Guess which paragraph contains the most likely thief of prose?

If you said the latter, give yourself a big, fat gold star for the day; I’ll be discussing casual exchanges in tomorrow’s post. But let’s think for a moment about why manuscripts sent to agencies and publishing houses very, very rarely turn up with anyone other than the author’s name on the title page.

An exceedingly straightforward reason springs to mind: agencies and publishing houses make their livings by selling work by writers. In-house theft wouldn’t have to happen awfully often before writers would stop sending submissions, right? So sheer self-interest would tend to discourage it.

But I’m not going to lie to you: at a less-than-reputable house or agency, it could happen. And occasionally does, especially to NF book proposals. Any guesses why?

If you immediately answered, “Because you can’t copyright an idea, only the presentation of it,” give yourself another gold star. While the copyright of the proposal materials and any sample chapter(s) undoubtedly belongs to the person who wrote them, it’s not unheard-of another writer to snatch the proposal, rewrite it minimally, and submit it as his own work.

I know: chilling.

The single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. Not only are well-established folks less likely to engage in dubious practices in the first place (this is, after all, a biz that relies heavily upon reputation), but there’s often a better-established chain of accountability if something goes wrong. As I MAY have mentioned before on this blog, it behooves a writer to do his homework.

And at the risk of sounding like your mother again, let me remind you: not every organization with the wherewithal to throw up a website is equally credible.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to check anyone in the industry with whom you’re planning to do business on Preditors and Editors; if you have doubts about an individual agent, agency, or publishing house, check agents out with the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives). These are also good places to report any professional conduct that seems questionable to you; P&E is especially good about following up on writers’ complaints.

I always advise doing a basic credibility check before sending ANY part of your manuscript via e-mail — which clearly includes anyone to whom you might be considering trading manuscripts for critique. As I’ve mentioned several times before here, after you send out an e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where it will end up.

Think about it: part of the charm of electronic communication is ease of forwarding, right? Yet another reason that I’m not crazy about e-mailed submissions. (The other reason, if you must know, is that it’s far, far quicker for Millicent to reject an electronic submission than a physical manuscript. Since rejecting the former requires the push of a single button and rejecting the latter involves stuffing pages into an envelope, which would you guess renders it more tempting not to read much before deciding?)

While it’s highly unlikely that the chapter you e-mail to an agent — or that person you just met on an Internet chat room — will end up on a printing press in Belize or Outer Mongolia, it’s not entirely unprecedented for entire e-mailed manuscripts to wander to some fairly surprising places. Yes, the same thing COULD conceivably happen with a hard copy, too, but as with Millicent’s rejection, it would require more effort on the sender’s part.

Which, believe it or not, is part of the function of the SASE: to maximize the probability that your manuscript will come back to you, rather than being carted off by goodness knows whom to parts unknown.

Stop laughing — it’s true. When you send requested materials off to an agency or publishing house, you and they both are operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission, right? The mere fact that you give them a physical copy of your work doesn’t mean that you intent to authorize them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so, right?

When you include a SASE with your submission packet, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys your expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

The key word to remember here is control. Until you have signed a contract with a reputable agent or publishing house (or are selling copies that you published yourself), you will want to know with absolute certainty where every extant copy of your manuscript is at all times.

If that last sentence gave you even a twinge of compunction about work already written and sent upon its merry way: honey, we need to speak further, and pronto. However, that conversation, along with steps you can take to prove when you wrote a particular piece, is best left until next time.

In the meantime, don’t worry; keeping a watchful eye your work isn’t all that difficult, and it certainly doesn’t require living in a state of perpetual paranoia. Just a bit of advance thought and care.

You didn’t think that your manuscript would have an easier time dating than you would, did you? Happy Friday the 13th, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VI: sometimes, help comes from unlikely sources


Throughout this series, I have been examining various possibilities for finding non-professional (read: unpaid) feedback for your book before you send it out to agents and editors. The timing is not entirely accidental, of course: I don’t know if you’ve been following any of the publishing industry’s trade papers — and right now, I would hardly blame any writer who chooses to avert her eyes from them — but to summarize clumsily, both US and world book sales have been scaring folks for a few months now. Necessarily, this fear has affected how willing editorial committees are to take chances on first-time authors, which in turn constrains how much freedom editors have to do so (in case it’s news to anyone, acquiring a book is seldom a unilateral decision), and thus limits what agents can hope to sell to editors.

In other words, if you REALLY want to depress yourself, do a bit of research on how many debut novels the top agencies have sold within the past 6 months. Agents who have sold more than one are generally considered to be doing pretty well.

I’m bringing this up not to depress those of you with first novels in hand into a stupor — although I could easily see where the news might produce that effect — but to point out a potentially sanity-saving insight for those of you currently in the throes of agent-seeking. While it’s tempting for queriers to blame agents for being overly picky, any given agent you might be considering querying did not create the current economic crisis. (I do know one in particular whom I would love to blame for the recession, global warming, and the heartbreak of athlete’s foot, but logic forbids it, unfortunately.) While it might feel good in the short run to rage at them, it’s not fair, strictly speaking.

And I’m not just saying that because I occasionally hear from agents and editors who read this blog. I’m saying it because investing energy in resenting them for being highly selective is rather like blaming the baseball that suddenly whacked you in the head while you were walking by the Little League field, rather than the pitcher whose arm went awry.

You get hit in the head either way, of course, but at least your perception of where the ball came from can be accurate.

Let’s face it, even in good times for booksellers, aspiring writers do have a nasty habit of holding the agenting world responsible for how difficult it is to sell a first book. Mostly, this is because the agent is the first line of defense to be breached whilst storming the castle of publication, the guard dog to bribe with a nice bit of steak in order to slip inside, where the treasure is. Since agents do tend to be alarmist in how they speak to writers about market trends (with many, the only two adjectives available to describe a manuscript are marketable and unmarketable, sometimes used for precisely the same book), that guard dog’s barking has gotten pretty loud lately. Due to the rise of form-letter rejections –and e-mail responses made up solely of generic industry-speak that are effectively the same thing — the bark of rejection has come to be identical for both good submissions and bad, so it’s extremely difficult for the knight attempting to storm that castle to get a sense of the progress he’s making, or even to be sure that he is making progress.

Small wonder, then, that so many aspiring writers come over time to regard agents not so much as guard dogs as dragons, breathing fire across the moat to discourage all comers. The important thing to remember is that the barking is aimed at all comers, not just at you.

I know, I know — it doesn’t feel that way when you receive a rejection letter, but right now, I don’t think even the most viciously snarling gate-guarder would argue that there aren’t perfectly wonderful books getting rejected at the moment because of the economy. Or that — and you might want to brace yourself, because the next revelation is a lulu — Millicent the agency screener hasn’t been told to crank up her already sky-high standards lately.

I told you to brace yourself. Maybe next time, you’ll listen.

What does all this mean for those of you who are querying and submitting? Well, in the first place, an agent who rejects a book concept today (“It’s unmarketable!”) may well feel quite differently six months or a year from now (“It’s marketable!”). While it runs counter to industry etiquette to resubmit a manuscript that an agent has already rejected — unless the agent actually asked you to revise and resubmit — waiting a year and querying again actually isn’t a terrible idea. Market demands change all the time.

Oh, if the same Millicent is on duty and she happens to have a very retentive memory, she might tell you it’s a bad idea, but frankly, there’s a lot of turnover in her line of work. I wouldn’t advise sending repeat queries every couple of months, of course, but neither would I say that the common wisdom that a writer should query a particular agent only once ever is practicable in the current environment. Wait a year and try again.

In response to those of you who just groaned audibly: in the current agent-seeking market, a year isn’t all that long anymore. Excellent books now routinely take years to find the right fit.

What all of this most emphatically DOESN’T mean is that talented aspiring writers should write off trying entirely, or that agents aren’t still trolling for that next surprise bestseller. (They’re as tired of reading books about teenage girls’ crushes on vampires as anyone, you know.) You shouldn’t, and they are. But for the sake of your own health and happiness in these grim economic times, please, I beg you, try not to take rejection as a referendum on the quality of your writing.

Unless, of course, it is. But if you’ve just spent the last three months revising your little heart out, yet are still receiving rejections, how on earth are you going to tell?

In order to find out if the writing is the problem the age of the form rejection, an aspiring writer is almost certainly going to have to elicit feedback from readers other than the agents to whom he’s submitting. Furthermore, since Millicent has indeed ratcheted up her standards so as not to overwhelm her boss with far more well-written books than they could possibly sell right now, there has never been a better time in writerly history to run your submission past other eyes first.

Consider investing some serious energy in finding a good first reader for your manuscript. Better still, try pulling together a team of first readers capable of catching a lot of different kinds of problems AND identifying your book’s strengths.

As I mentioned last time, I’m not just talking about crackerjack fellow writers here. I’m also referring to readers in your target demographic.

Phew — it was a long road, but I finally managed to drive the buggy back to where I deposited you at the end of yesterday’s ride.

Not to knock writers’ groups, of course: if the mix is right, they can be marvelous sources of trenchant feedback. But every group is different, and often, groups are organized on the basis of friendship or general affinity, rather than shared genre or level of writing experience — or, as many hard-working group veterans know to their cost, familiarity with standard manuscript format and/or the rules governing the use of the English language.

Heck, many’s the group whose members actually have no more in common than living in the same geographical area and a history of their work getting rejected from time to time.

All of these factors are worth considering because — will you heed me this time if I once again ask you to brace yourself? — not every talented writer is the best choice to offer critique on a particular book, any more than any given agent or editor would be the right fit for it.

Does that strike some of you as counter-intuitive? Believe me, it isn’t: what your manuscript needs is not just a good reader or someone who knows how a manuscript should be put together — although both are excellent traits in first reader — nor merely someone who can place the work fairly accurately on the publishable-to-heavens-NO! continuum. Ideally, what you should seek is a specialist who can diagnose your book’s problems and prescribe workable solutions.

Which means, alas, that even a critique group made up of the most brilliant, cutting-edge, eagle-eyed writers won’t necessarily yield the best feedback for your work. After all, just because a writer is intelligent and knows a lot about craft doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s familiar with the specific likes and dislikes of a target demographic other than his own, or that a great nonfiction writer would necessarily be able to pinpoint the problems in a novel.

And trust me on this one: the lone memoirist in even the best group of novelists is going to end up unhappy — and, if she’s a conscientious advice-taker, probably spending far more time revising commented-upon work than moving on to chapters new. As I believe I’ve mentioned 723 times before in this forum, the desirata of what constitutes a good book can vary quite widely from category to category.

You’re also going to get better feedback from any group — don’t just brace yourself this time; sit down and take a few deep breaths before reading on — if you invest at least the first couple of sessions setting firm ground rules for how to exchange feedback.

Admittedly, whenever any two writers are exchanging manuscripts for critique, lack of agreement upon what is and isn’t fair game for examination can lead to trouble, but in a group, advance discussion of goals is absolutely imperative. If the mix of philosophies is not right — if, for instance, various members are writing in genres with wildly disparate conventions, such as literary fiction and mystery — or if members have different ideas about how much feedback is appropriate, being a member can be more frustrating than empowering.

I could give you literally hundreds of specific examples, but I don’t want to tell tales out of school. Suffice it to say that as an editor, I constantly get queries from potential clients whose creative NF is being ripped apart by the novelists in their critique groups, whose mysteries are being dismissed as characterization-light by literary fiction writers, whose romances aimed at the under-20 set are garnering frowns from the over-60s.

Considering how widely book categories and reading tastes can vary — gee, where have I heard that before? — this outcome should perhaps not surprise us much, even when the literary market is not particularly tight. But in times like these, where fear of the future is reflected in practically every eye, basic disagreements are more likely to flare into outright argument.

In the early stages of the writing process, when you are concentrating on story and structure, intra-group differences may have a minimal impact upon you, but if I had a dime for every memoirist who was told by advocates of tight first-person fiction to scrap any effort at objectivity, or women’s fiction writers told by thriller writers to add more sex and violence to the book, I would own my own publishing house.

Where I would publish all of your work, naturally. Perhaps I should start soliciting those dimes.

Writers’ groups can also become a bit stale over time, as members become inured to one another’s literary foibles and quirks. Resentment over past advice not taken can certainly add up as the months go by (for a really good example of this, please see the comments on an earlier post on this topic), and it’s not uncommon for heavy commenters and light commenters to mutter under their breath at one another’s habits.

Not to mention how easy it is to find oneself starting self-edit at the conception stage to cater to the tastes of one’s writer’s group. Many a good writer’s voice has become indelibly imprinted with the personal preferences of her critique group — sometimes a positive thing, of course, but there’s a reason that industry insiders use MFA story and workshopped to death as criticisms; writing by committee tends to produce bland manuscripts.

No wonder some pros advise changing critique groups often, or joining more than one. Or at least not spending months or even years workshopping the same chapter or short story until absolutely no one in the critique group can produce a single objection to it before moving on to Chapter 2 or the next short story.

Am I suggesting any of those things? Well, I might, if I thought you had more time on your hands. But frankly, most of the aspiring writers I know would have considered themselves lucky to be able to grab two consecutive hours for revision during the recent holiday season. Adding yet another time commitment (and if you hold up your end, a writers’ group can be a very serious one) may not be possible for everyone.

So I’m going to streamline my advice a bit. If you are a member of a writers’ group, and you feel that you have not been getting overly useful feedback on your work, you might want to consider whether its members actually are in your target demographic — and if they are not, either switching groups or adding a few outside readers to your feedback team.

As when you are considering any potential first reader, set aside for the moment whether you like the people in your group, or whether you respect them, or whether they have already published books outside your field. Look very carefully at their respective backgrounds and ask yourself: are these the kind of people I expect to buy my book? If they did not know me, would they buy it at all?

If the answer to either is no, go out and find some people who are and will, pronto.

Where should you start looking, you ask? Well, last time, I brought up the notion of approaching readers in your book’s target demographic who might NOT currently be die-hard book-buyers: a third-grade classroom’s worth of potential readers for a children’s book, for instance, or followers of a sport featured prominently in your novel.

This advice may have seemed a tad counter-intuitive: in an earlier post, I had advised getting feedback from inveterate readers of your chosen genre or field, who would already be familiar with the conventions, limitations, and joys possible in books like yours. All of which, of course, can be highly useful background for a critiquer.

Yet it’s also worth considering adding at least one first reader who isn’t a hard-core reader to your team as well. Getting feedback from those who do not read voraciously, yet are familiar with the book’s subject matter, can sometimes give a writer great insight unavailable from any other source.

Why? Well, let me ask you: given the choice between a reader predisposed toward a subject and one who isn’t, which is more likely to get into a book about it deeply enough to give good feedback? Perhaps more to the point, which is more likely to take time out of her busy schedule to do you the favor of giving your book a close read, gratis?

If that didn’t convince you, there’s always the sordid materialist argument: in time, if all goes well, some lucky book peddler is going to be trying to convince people to buy your book — and not every potential buyer is going to be someone who reads 27 books per year. So it’s worth asking yourself: other than my book’s obvious literary value, why might someone who habitually buys only one book a year spring for mine?

And, perhaps even more revealing: what about my book’s premise might lead someone who does haunt bookstores to buy it as a present for someone else?

The more detailed your answers to these questions can be, the more your future agent and editor will like you. Trust me on this one; first-time authors who are really up on their books’ selling points are unfortunately quite rare. Even, surprisingly, first-time nonfiction book proposers — a bit troubling, since a book proposal invariably includes a competitive market analysis, the primary point of which is to show potential agents and editors how the proposer’s book is different and better than what’s already out there. (Is it getting to be time for me to run over the basics of writing a NF proposal again, by the way? If you think so, please leave a comment and let me know.)

In the shorter term, figuring out your book’s selling points can strengthen your querying and pitching attempts considerably. If you can make a case that your book is ideally suited to address the under-served needs of your target demographic — in essence, that it provides those readers with something no recently-released book aimed at them delivers — that’s a marvelous selling point.

Feedback from folks actually in the demographic will, obviously, provide you with tips on how to achieve that admirable goal.

Stop rolling your eyes, fiction writers: these days, nonfiction writers are not the only ones expected to be able to say who is likely to read their books and why. Gone are the days when a writer could get away with a shrug and a dismissive, “Anyone interested in serious literature, I suppose.”

How might this search play out in practice, you ask? Let’s say you’ve written a lifestyle book for former high school athletes who no longer exercise — a rather large slice of the population, or so I would surmise from the fact that at my last high school reunion, a good two-thirds of my former female classmates seemed to be married to men who answered this description. Three of your five chapters are filled with recipes for fiber-filled bran muffins, salads, and trail mix.

Where would you turn for first readers?

Naturally, because you paid attention to an earlier post in this series, you would want to include among your first readers someone familiar with cookbooks, as well as someone who reads a lot of exercise books, right? They would represent the parts of your target market that already buy books like yours.

It would also be well worth your while to seek out jocks from your old high school who have never opened either a cookbook or exercise book before, because they are the underserved part of your target market. In theory, if you can tailor your book’s advice so it makes abundant sense for your old volleyball buddy, you’ll know you have a good shot at writing for people like her.

Hey, you might as well get SOME use from all of those nagging messages Classmates.com keeps sending you about getting back in touch with old playmates, right?

Which leads me to my next tip: seek out an array of different readers to meet your book’s individual needs, rather than trying to track down a single first reader who can address all of them.

Admittedly, assembling such a team is going to require more effort on your part; few writers have the luxury of having an array of first readers easily at our disposal — although, again, if you join a well-constructed writers’ group, you will in fact have gained precisely that. In the absence of such a preassembled group, though, you can still cobble together the equivalent, if you think long and hard about what individual aspects of your book could use examination.

Once you’ve identified these needs, you can ask each of your chosen readers to read very explicitly with an eye to her own area of expertise, so to speak.

In the lifestyle book example above, it was easy to see how readers from different backgrounds could each serve the book: the cookbook reader could evaluate the recipes, the former athlete could comment on the ease of the exercises, and so forth. With fiction, however, the book’s various needs may be harder to define. In a pinch, you can always fall back on finding a reader in the same demographic as your protagonist, or even a particular character.

Don’t laugh — specialized readers can be a positive boon to a writer seeking verisimilitude. If a major character is an accountant, try asking an accountant to read the book for professional accuracy. I know many teenagers who get a HUGE kick out of critiquing adult writers’ impressions of what teenage characters are like. And so forth.

Even if you are writing about vampires or fantasy creatures, chances are that some regular Joes turn up in your stories from time to time. If only as soon-to-be-sucked-dry victims.

Naturally, another writer will probably give you more feedback on craft than the sculptor you asked to give his opinion on the use of clay in the book, but what’s wrong with that? You’re assembling a team of specialists, not looking for an all-wise, all-knowing single critiquer.

Is that all I have to say on the subject? Do cats like to help out with the housework?

Until next time, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part V: what is truth?

I’m a bit blue today: Blossom Dearie, one of my favorite jazz musicians, passed away last weekend. As remarkable for her arrangements and unusual touch on the piano as for her inimitable little-girl voice, US kids of my generation knew her best as sweet voice in the Schoolhouse Rock song about the 8x multiplication tables, Figure Eight. She also sang Unpack Your Adjectives and Mother Necessity.

So thank the lady, children: you may well know your eightsies because of her. Not to mention what to call those words you use to describe things.

Practically everybody in my elementary school did: my frequently-hysterical fourth-grade teacher used to slap Multiplication Rock onto the record player (remember those?) just prior to rushing into a corner to breathe into a bag until her most recent panic attack had passed. She had, Mama said, Problems At Home.

“Once Upon a Summertime,” “Rhode Island is Famous for You,” and “Peel Me a Grape” are perhaps my favorite songs in Blossom Dearie’s repertoire, but in general, her jazz is marvelous background accompaniment for writing, if you happen to like to write to literate and crisply-articulated lyrics. For the same reason, I often write to Joe Jackson, Jill Sobule, and Elvis Costello. Sometimes I want music that matches the mood of the scene I’m writing, but if I’m on a long writing jag, I prefer lyrics that will occasionally catch me off-guard. Sometimes outright opposition is best. Jerzy Kosinski claimed that he wrote the entirety of his underrated novel PINBALL, a story that deals with both rock-and-roll and the difficulties of playing Chopin, while listening to the punk band the Dead Kennedys — but given his ever-varying accounts of his life, how can we ever be sure?

It’s interesting to look back on the Kosinski scandal from the midst of the current crop of literary scandals, mostly memoirs that turn out not to be entirely based upon fact. Accused at one point of plagiarism (most often for allegedly having borrowed the premise of a Polish novel written before the advent of television as the basis for BEING THERE, a comedy about a man who cannot tell the difference between what he sees on television and reality), the most enduring critique of his writing is that he didn’t actually live through the events he depicted in THE PAINTED BIRD. Instead of being an abandoned feral child during the Second World War, he may have in fact merely been cowering somewhere with his family.

That’s right: he stands accused of having written fiction. In a novel, no less, the cad.

But I digress: I started out eulogizing Blossom Dearie — her real name, we’re told. If we can believe anything we see in print anymore, that is — and lo and behold, I seem to have fallen back into the cynicism about artistic veracity that’s so fashionable these days.

There’s a good reason for this subject to keep popping to mind in the midst of this series on finding useful feedback. Believe it or not — the latter, most likely, in the current environment — the ever-roiling tension between objective truth, subjective perception, and just plain making things up is important to consider with respect to our topic at hand.

Why? Well, if you’re going to take the major emotional risk of handing your manuscript to another human being (and one who can’t help you get it published at that) for commentary, don’t you want that feedback to be honest?

Honest feedback is not the only kind out there, you know. As I’ve kept harping upon throughout this series, a writer’s nearest and dearest often cares too much about the author to tell the absolute truth about her reactions as a reader — or even to form genuinely trenchant criticisms in the first place — because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. (I know: the cad!) Or because, having birth to the writer, she is predisposed to find everything he does semi-miraculous.

My point is, it’s not wise to use it as one’s only source of unbiased feedback because, well, it isn’t. No disrespect to your mother intended.

A reluctance to be entirely straightforward is not necessarily the sole province of the people who love one, either. Little white lies are, after all, a rather pervasive social lubricant, a most effective one. Most of the time, they do little harm; no real social good would be served, for instance, by telling the apparently color-blind guy across the street that God did not intend for some colors of shirt and sweater to be worn together, or by informing the jolly celebrant of every holiday, no how minor, that her special Arbor Day commemorative sweatshirt is in fact quite hideous. A non-committal “Mmmm” has saved many a social situation from degenerating into a quarrel.

When a writer is trying to elicit feedback on her manuscript, however, a non-committal “Mmmm” is not only totally useless; it’s maddening. So is the vague, “Oh, I liked it,” that everyday etiquette would dictate is a nicer response than, “I lost interest in the middle of Chapter Two.”

The problem is, if slowness in Chapter Two is actually the manuscript’s main stumbling-block, the writer absolutely needs to know that.

I’m sensing some puzzlement out there, amn’t I? “So what are you suggesting, Anne?” the confused many inquire. “That I should march up to the rudest person I know and beg him to read my manuscript? That pleasing social skills should disqualify someone from being my first reader?”

Not at all. Although I could see where an inborn lack of concern for other people’s feelings might render Millicent the agency screener’s job a bit easier.

What I am suggesting is that it’s in every writer’s best interest to track down first readers who can be counted upon to read carefully — and to tell the truth about their reactions to what they have read.

So how do you figure out whether a potential first reader is likely to do that? By asking some probing questions BEFORE you ask someone to read your manuscript. For starters, how about ascertaining a potential first reader’s reading habits, to see if she is familiar with your genre? Or finding out if s/he even LIKES your type of book?

Which is, I can tell you from long experience, information that many people who ask to see a friend’s manuscript will almost certainly not offer spontaneously if you DON’T ask. And even fewer will cough up the news that they seldom read anything longer than a magazine article, even if asked.

No need to be rude in pressing your inquiries: “So, what do you like to read?” is usually sufficient. If not, “Can you tell me about the last book you absolutely loved, as well as the last you absolutely hated, and why?” often produces a perfect flood of insight into a reader’s personal literary taste.

You may feel as though you are conducting a job interview, but honestly, you will be trusting your first readers to hold a significant part of your ego in their hands. You wouldn’t trust your teeth to a dentist without credentials or previous mouth-related experience, would you? Are the nerve endings in your mouth really more sensitive than your feelings about your writing?

You need not give potential readers the third degree, of course; just take ’em out for coffee and spend half an hour chatting about books.

This is also a pretty good strategy to adopt with members of any writing group you are thinking about joining, incidentally. How a person speaks about her literary likes and dislikes will tell you a lot about whether you’re going to benefit from spending the next few years swapping chapters — it can be far more informative than reading a writing sample. Writers tend to harbor pretty strong literary preferences, after all, and the ability to convey useful critique (as opposed to mere sniping) is not…how shall I say this?…distributed equally across the population.

Besides, do you really want to entrust your manuscript to someone who positively hates your favorite book?

Having this little chat will make it significantly easier for you to implement my next suggestion: seek out feedback from people in your book’s target audience, rather than readers in general. Someone with a deep and abiding love of your kind of book is not only far more likely to be able to identify certain types of problems in your manuscript — defying the conventions of the genre, for instance — than someone who has read only a couple of similar books, but is also significantly more likely to tell you the truth about it.

Why? Because an inveterate reader’s devotion to her favorite kind of book usually overrides her impulse to sugar-coat her response. She wants your book to be as shining an example of the genre as you do.

Be as specific as you can in identifying your target readership. I know an excellent children’s book illustrator who, every time she finishes a rough draft, routinely hangs out with her sketchpad in the picture book sections of bookstores, stopping every kid she sees to ask if the pictures she has just completed match the captions well enough.

The result: she gets TERRIFIC feedback, from precisely the right people, not one of whom has any formal affiliation with the publishing industry — and she gets it for free.

I’m hearing a bit of grumbling out there. “But Anne,” some of you point out indignantly, “isn’t it my agent and publisher’s job to figure out who is going to buy my book? I’m the creative side of the equation, remember?”

Yes, yes, I know: you’re a writer, not a marketer; it’s the publishing house’s job to figure out how to reach your target audience. And technically, it was Jerzy Kosinski’s publisher’s job to do a little fact-checking before they started marketing THE PAINTED BIRD as thinly-veiled memoir. But guess who gets hurt if that research stage is omitted?

If you are writing for ultimate publication, rather than for your own pleasure, it can only help your chances of success to learn to look critically at your own work, see it as a reader would, and implement that view.

In other words, if you’re writing for fish, you should take into account the view from inside the fishbowl.

On a practical level, too, your chances of pitching and querying your work well will rise astronomically if you give some thought to who your ideal reader might be BEFORE you start submitting your work. Especially with nonfiction, it will definitely win Brownie points with anyone in the industry to be able to say, “I’ve solicited extensive feedback from women aged 35 to 50″ (or whatever demographic fits your ideal reader) “and they find my protagonist’s dilemma both unique and true-to-life.”

A word to the wise, though: when speaking to industry insiders, be as specific as humanly possible in describing your demographic. “Women everywhere,” “every American citizen,” and “everybody,” while popular choices, do not come across to agents and editors as reasonable target audiences. Hyperbole will not serve you well here.

Why? Well, they know from personal experience that no single book appeals to everybody.

Do I hear some murmurs of discontent now? “Wait just a demographic-describing minute,” I hear some observant souls calling. “You’re shifting the focus of the question. So far in this series, you’ve been talking about who does and doesn’t make a good first reader. Throughout this post, though, we’ve moved from a question of who might be willing to do it into a question of how to find what the BOOK needs.”

I cannot tell a lie: that shift was not entirely coincidental. The single biggest mistake I see good aspiring writers make in seeking feedback is to forget that the feedback process is not about helping the writer per se, but about helping the manuscript.

To be blunt about it, if you intend to become a professional in this field, your primary goal in soliciting feedback should not be bolstering your ego. That’s what your support system is for, and there is absolutely no shame in saying to those who love you best, or even your best writing friends, “Look, I can get critique from other people, but you are uniquely qualified to give me support. May I give you the job of cheerleader, rather than drill sergeant?”

Your book, however, probably could use a workout with a good drill sergeant. Perhaps the one who lives in that nice fishbowl.

More tips on finding truthful feedback-givers follow next time. For now, I’m going to put my feet up and sing along with my Blossom Dearie records.

Keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part IV: more importantly, what do YOU think happened?

Ellery Queen cover

I must admit, whenever I revisit one of the big issues such as feedback (or querying, or submission, or pitching, or…), I experience a qualm or two. Intellectually, I know that it’s vital to keep coming back to the essential problems writers face, because let’s face it, readers who habitually go archive-diving are the exception, not the rule. For the folks who read only the new posts, it actually doesn’t matter if I wrote the definitive piece on, say, how to write an author bio six months ago: to help readers new and old keep improving their writerly skill sets, I’ve come to accept that I need to keep the major issues in constant rotation.

Still, whenever I unearth a topic from a year ago, I always think for at least a fleeting moment: oh, I don’t need to go over this again. Surely my readers know by now not to do X.

As in, for instance, not simply assuming that any acquaintance who asks to see some of one’s writing is volunteering to provide feedback. Realistically, I know perfectly well that even very experienced writers often fall into this trap, but yesterday, I couldn’t help but feel that my bringing it up again was, if not actually nagging, at least its next-door neighbor.

And then I realized this morning that I had fallen into that very logical fallacy within the last few weeks. Clearly, even I had forgotten my advice for a few minutes.

It all started innocently enough, as over-stepping situations often do. I’m currently polishing off (and up) my next novel, a comic romp set at Harvard in the mid-1980s. Considering how well-known the big H is, surprisingly little has been written about undergraduate life there — and virtually none of what’s out there was written by anyone who actually went there for more than a tour of the Yard, if you catch my drift. Since writers are notoriously shameless at trolling for material, I’ve been ruthlessly bugging a broad array of my former classmates to troll their memories for the book’s benefit.

Telling details help make a manuscript come alive, after all.

I was having a friendly e-mail exchange with someone who had been unusually patient about my desire to sit through her memory reels again and again, one of my dearest friends from college, when she mentioned that she was really looking forward to reading the book. Instantly, I snapped into writer-seeking-feedback mode, considerately (I thought) explaining to her that while I would be overjoyed to hear her critique of the manuscript, agreeing to give a writer feedback is a heavy responsibility. Since she is not a writer, I explained to her about nervous those of us who are get when our manuscripts are in the hands of others; if her feedback was going to be useful in revising the manuscript, I pointed out, I would need it within a certain specified period of time. I then went on to rejoice over precisely how and why her feedback would fill a necessary niche not yet occupied by any of my other first readers, thanking her sincerely for making her excellent counsel available to me and my book.

I terrified her, in short — and in such a typically writerly manner that it took me a while to realize what I had done.

Any guesses? After all, I had followed most of the suggestions I have made so far in this series. Given that I was both polite and clear about my expectations, what went awry in this exchange? Was it:

(a) that I told her what level of feedback I expected and how quickly I would want it, rather than asking her what kind of critique and turn-around time would be comfortable for her?

(b) that I explained my expectations in generalities first, rather than narrowing it down to a very specific area upon which I wanted her to concentrate?

(c) that I didn’t make her repeat her offer after I explained what giving feedback to a professional writer actually meant?

(d) that I didn’t decline with thanks, since she might have only said it in order to be polite (or to get me to stop asking to plumb her recollections of long ago), or

(e) that I told her that I expected feedback at all, rather than just letting her read the manuscript and hoping that she would intuit what I wanted?

I wish I could set a giant stopwatch in motion, as they did on the old Ellery Queen series, to give all of you time to ponder which is the real culprit. The problem of eliciting useful feedback is a serious one; eventually, every professional writer will need to face it, so I would love to play some thinking-time music whilst you muse. But short of just signing off for today and picking this quiz up again tomorrow — which would be pointless and confusing for those happy few who will be reading this in days and years to come in the archives — my hands are tied. As, indeed, the victims in Ellery Queen’s mysteries often were.

Okay, that’s enough distraction. Which did you pick?

If you selected (a), you’re a kind and considerate soul: you’re quite right that a solicitation for feedback should be a request, not a demand. However, I’m not ready to hand out pages to first readers yet, so this one is moot. (Like the excellent Ellery Queen, I sometimes hide information from my reader in order to produce the outcome I wish.)

If you chose (b), you’re a close reader, or at any rate a retentive one: this is the option that conforms to the advice I’ve given so far in this series. Again, though, this was my initial response to an offer to read, not the moments before I gave her the manuscript, so this critique is also a bit premature. (See my earlier comment about adopting the E. Queen strategy for creating false suspense by withholding necessary information.)

If you picked (c), well, you might be a just a trifle passive-aggressive. Or insecure, the type of writer who sends a follow-up query letter to an agent to whom he’s already pitched to see if the agent REALLY was serious about that request to send materials. Generally speaking, it’s not a very good idea to make people who want to do favors for you beg for the privilege of doing them.

If you opted for (d), well, at least you have no illusions for me to dispel.

If you jumped at (e), you might want to go back to the very beginning of this series and start again.

Are those impatient sighs I’m hearing an indicator that I’ve carried this quiz show a bit too far? “Oh, come on, Anne,” I hear some of you muttering. “Even Dashiell Hammett would have relieved the suspense by now.”

Okay, okay; you’ve worked hard enough. My mistake was that like virtually every writer who seeks feedback from non-writers, I leapt to the assumption that a request to read my manuscript was identical to an offer to give feedback.

It probably wasn’t. How do I know that? Because, from the point of view of someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time around working writers, a request to act as literary critic might actually seem rather presumptuous, not to say judgmental.

Hard as it may be for those of us who live to share our thoughts in writing to believe, people who don’t read for a living tend to do it for pleasure or to learn something, not to be of service to writers. Since the average reader may never have seen a manuscript before, s/he is unlikely to understand it as a work-in-progress; s/he generally expects something more or less identical to what s/he might find in any bookstore. So in asking to take a gander at a writer friend’s opus, s/he is expecting to receive, rather than to give.

And that’s a perfectly reasonable expectation, of course. However, it is an attitude substantially more likely to produce a vague, “Oh, I liked it,” than the reams of useful feedback for which a sensible writer longs.

What we have here, in other words, is a failure to communicate. And to ask the right questions going in about who is assuming what.

So far in this series, I have concentrated on finding the right people to read your manuscript, and for good reason: selecting the wrong first readers can bring tremendous chagrin into a writer’s life, in the form of everything from hyper-harping on insignificant punctuation issues to keeping it for a year without reading it to handing it back to you with no feedback at all to causing strain in a marriage. I suggested that most of these standard first reader problems could usually be avoided by simply not asking people who are not qualified to critique your book to read your manuscript.

Perhaps qualified is putting it a trifle strongly, but let’s face it, what we’re talking about here is tracking down the best non-professional feedback available for your work.

If you’re looking for professional feedback — as in from people who read for a living, such as agents, editors, freelance editors, and/or teachers — you usually either have to pay for it (I’ve gone over how to find a good pro under the HOW DO I FIND A FREELANCE EDITOR? category at right) or wait until a pro has signed you. Agents and editors at publishing houses seldom have time to give significant feedback to people to whose books they haven’t already committed, and both classes and freelance editing can cost serious money. So most aspiring writers, at least the ones professional-minded enough to be open to feedback, turn to the far less costly and more easily available readers at hand.

Which is to say: ones who are free.

Which means, inevitably, that the etiquette is a bit delicate. When one is asking a favor — as soliciting concrete critique from a first reader gratis definitely is; don’t kid yourself about that — one may not feel justified in saying, “Um, do you mind if I grill you a bit about your background before I hand this manuscript to you?”

Yet you should. There is, after all, a good deal more to providing useful feedback on a manuscript than simply saying what one did and did not like.

That comes as a surprise to many people — including many writers, many of whom automatically assume that being able to write well means being able to edit well. Far from it. The best feedback is both practical, suggesting how and why to make necessary changes, and market-savvy, taking into account both the reader’s personal opinion and the tastes of the target audience.

Do I hear some of you out there harrumphing? “Yeah, right,” go the almost-audible grumbles, “she’s a professional writer and editor with a Ph.D. and masses of writer friends. She probably doesn’t think ANYONE is qualified to read a book.”

Actually, depending on your genre or field, a highly-educated person can be the WORST first reader imaginable: most attorneys, for instance, are trained specifically to regard anything but brevity as undesirable, and academics to insist that every assertion be backed up with footnotes full of evidence. Neither predisposition would be particularly desirable for, say, a mystery.

Nor would a scientist necessarily be the best first reader for a science fiction piece; she might raise all kinds of practical objections to how things work on your imaginary world. (You know, the one where both time and gravity run backwards occasionally.)

And the last person able to give objective feedback on a memoir is someone who lived through the events described in it. That person might, like my college buddy, have an uncanny ability to point out factual errors and forgotten details, but by definition, every participant in a real-life event will have her own interpretation of it.

Just ask the relatives of any successful memoirist.

Ultimately, the best qualification for knowing whether a book will appeal to an audience is being either a member of that particular audience or very familiar with what that audience likes to read. If you were writing for fifth graders, your ideal first readers would be a classroom full of kids, not a symposium of philosophy professors. Or even, necessarily, a conference room full of child psychologists.

If you’re looking to sell a book to a fish, in short, you might want to learn a bit about what life looks like from inside a fishbowl — and solicit feedback accordingly. As Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, the answers are always inside the problem, not outside.

However, astoundingly few aspiring writers actively seek members of their target audiences as first readers for their manuscripts. Heck, I’m constantly meeting disgruntled members of writing groups to whom even the question, “Well, if you’re not getting useful feedback from your critique group, have you given any thought to whether you would expect those readers to BUY your book, if they didn’t know you?” comes as a surprise.

Which I’m guessing it did for some of you. So allow me to ask the next question I invariably pose to unhappy feedback-seekers: if you’re not looking for first readers amongst your target audience, why not?

In my informal polling on the subject, the most common answer is that it’s just easier to ask people the writer already knows — and it turns out that writers aren’t always any more aware of what their friends do or do not read than anyone else. Not that there’s usually outright deception involved; sometimes, it’s just a matter of a friend’s trying to seem more literate to a literate-minded buddy.

Hey, people don’t always give pollsters straight answers, either: they often say what they think will make them sound better. Back in the early Neolithic period, when the Nielsen ratings statistics were compiled by families’ keeping a written record of which television shows they watched, PBS got suspiciously high ratings compared to, say, Network Battle of the Ts and As. (If you don’t know what T and A stand for, thank your lucky stars that you weren’t watching American television in the 1970s.)

When the honor system was replaced by electronic monitoring, Masterpiece Theatre turned out to be significantly less popular than previously reported.

I assure you, that shift wasn’t because the level of intellectual debate on Network Battle of the Ts and As became any more scintillating. But I digress.

When I ask writers how they pick their first readers, the second most common answer — brace yourselves — is the sheepish (and often astonished, because the responder hadn’t previously realized it himself) admission that the writer has simply been handing the book to anyone who said, “Gee, I’d love to read it.”

In other words, most of the writers I ask seem not to be using any selection criteria at all.

No wonder so many writers have negative experiences with feedback: they’re essentially leaving selection of those vital first readers as much up to chance as if they cut up their local telephone directories, tossed the shards into a hat (a big one, like Abraham Lincoln wore), pulled out a slip of paper randomly, and shouted: “You! You’re my first reader!”

You’ll pardon me if I collapse briefly on the nearest chaise longue: as a professional reader, the very idea makes me feel a bit woozy.

Why? Well, let me put it this way: if you wanted to find the best escargot in town as an anniversary surprise for your spouse, you wouldn’t simply open the Yellow Pages randomly at the restaurants section and allow the fickle finger of fate to decide, hoping that the restaurant blindly chosen won’t turn out to serve Icelandic or Korean food instead of French, would you?

Sacre bleu, non! You would ask someone you are sure knows a thing or two about garlicky snails before investing in a potentially expensive evening at an unknown restaurant. I can’t think of a single reason to treat your manuscript with less respect, can you?

Intriguing question, isn’t it? Your time to consider it starts…NOW!

Next time, I shall go through a few more tips on selecting productive first readers, and begin to discuss how to frame your request for feedback in ways that will encourage useful commentary. In the meantime, I’m going to go and apologize to my friend for overwhelming her with my unwarranted assumptions.

Keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part III: unrealistic expectations, artistic tantrums, and other things to avoid if you want to get good feedback on your manuscript


Do you believe in omens? Or at least the historically very tenacious notion that certain people seem to walk around with clouds of doom hanging over their heads?

Normally, I’m not very superstitious, but like all good editors, I am a pattern-noticer. It’s come to my attention that all winter, whenever the fellow who is supposed to be landscaping our yard has deigned to show his frowning mug on our property, or even calls and hints that he might be considering a state visit, the heavens crack open within a few hours of when he’s supposed to show up and dump snow all over us.

Snow. In Seattle. Where it snowed a grand total of twice in the first decade I lived here.

Long-standing readers of this blog will recall our old friend, the World’s Worst Landscaper, from early last April. when he and his motley and ever-shifting band of rogues first began ripping up our yard. We’ve had five different-shaped back patios since June, ornamental cherry trees and blooming rose bushes backed over by backhoes, and the total disappearance of about 200 flower bulbs, varied of course by the weeks at a time when the crew just disappears. And don’t even get me started on the demise of the deck that used to have the hot tub in it.

RIP, hot tub. And adjacent tree.

There have been compensations, of course. The Montana ledge stone walls holding up my few remaining flower beds are genuinely pretty, if one manages to remember not to walk, kneel, or plant anywhere near them, lest they tumble over and send one flying into the dwarf witch hazel. For a few dimly-remembered months, we boasted a lovely New England-style stone wall in front of our house, at least until the landscaper fired the very talented stonemason who appeared to be descended from a long line of gnomes and decided to fix the one rock that was awry all by himself, with results easily anticipatable by anyone who ever played Pick-Up Stix. (I’m sure the pile of rubble will eventually be reformed into something that remotely resembles a wall.) He installed, rather over our objections, a faux old-growth cedar grove by importing a series of stumps that can only be described as either Freudian or biologically-correct, enthusiastically erecting one particularly exuberant log with a salmonberry bush growing frothily from its tip (which was, naturally, shaped precisely the way you are picturing it, but as I want teenagers to be able to join us on this site, I shall not describe it further) in the precise center of the grove. When we demurred over…how shall I put this for the family hour…the visual similarities between the resulting landscape and certain models we remembered from 9th-grade health class, the WWL informed us huffily that he is an artist, and we had our nerve questioning his vision.

We had him remove it, anyway. Children live in our neighborhood.

If ever a human being gave off a disaster-attracting miasma, it’s the WWL. He merely has to glance at an irrigation hose for it to break, tie itself into a knot that would defy even Alexander the Great’s ingenuity to untangle, or burst because the water inside it has spontaneously decided it wants to form an open-air ice sculpture.

Still, I didn’t really worry until early this morning, when I peeked out into yet another work-delaying snowfall to discover the art installation shown above, a scarlet A the WWL had left on his dust-and-snow-gathering materials.

Even though I find it unlikely that the WWL has been reading Hawthorne in his apparently abundant free time, I have to wonder what artistic vision he was pursuing here. Did he intend the A as an homage to the only A-named person in the household (sweet, in a twisted way), as a reference to Hester Prynne (considerably less flattering), or as a means of grading his own work? Or perhaps none of the above? As with so much modern art, it’s a trifle difficult to tell whether it’s just a carelessly tossed-aside pile of rubble or a Statement.

I’m inclined to the latter, as the WWL apparently employed ruler and protractor to place it in the exact center of our back patio.

Why am I bringing this up, other than to illustrate my ambivalence toward the recent snowfall that probably means that the art installation will be on display in my back yard for at least another three weeks? (When the WWL is discouraged by poor weather, he tends to remain discouraged for quite some time, predictably.) To remind all of you feedback-seekers out that while those of us who consider ourselves artists often do believe ourselves to be beholden to a different set of standards than other mortals, artists trying to make a living at it are not magically exempt from the obligation to present their work to others in a professional manner. Many an extremely talented writer has fallen flat in the publishing world because he refused to meet the demands of the business side of the business.

And agents tend not to have too much sympathy for that because, lest we forget, there are plenty of self-proclaimed artists like the WWL out there, using their alleged callings as an excuse for irresponsibility. Any agent who has been at it a while has already met more than her share of writers who predictably don’t meet deadlines, conform to the expectations of the industry, or take feedback well. So has any editor. If you buy them a drink in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference, I’m sure they’ll be delighted to regale you with horror stories about bad clients.

Unfortunately for writers’ collective reputation, they encounter far more writers who believe talent is the universal solvent of rules than those who do not. So perversely, if you want to stand out as the exception, not complaining at length about how market force artists to compromise is the better strategy.

Why? Well, a couple of reasons. In the first place, anyone who makes a living representing or selling art is already well aware that the market doesn’t always reward good art lavishly; that’s hardly news. Since agents and editors have experience with how books are marketed, they have first-hand knowledge of how the writers with whom they work have had to compromise their visions in various ways.

They don’t need reminders; if you want to be an agent’s dream client, save the cries of “But it’s my ART!” for the battles that really count.

Because, as the agent of your dreams would be the first to tell you, if you gain any success at all as a writer, the day will come when you’re going to be asked to make a change you don’t want to make in your book. If a writer has already established a reputation as a tantrum-thrower (yes, that’s how they think of it), an editor may well balk at acquiring a book he believes needs revision.

Which leads me to the other reason — and the one more pertinent to the subject of this series — is that while all us are familiar with the cultural stereotype of the artist who, like the WWL, rants and raves over the slightest, most veiled criticism of his work, in the real world, many, many people will have the right and even the obligation to give feedback on a book between the time an agent signs the writer and the happy day when the book lands on bookstore shelves. Not merely the agent and the editor handling the book, but the publisher, marketing department, and for nonfiction, sometimes the legal department will all have their say.

Taking feedback well is, in fact, an essential skill for a professional writer. So essential that it’s a pretty good idea for an aspiring writer to get some practice at it before signing with an agent or selling a book to a publisher.

Convenient that we’ve already been discussing how to go about finding non-professional feedback-givers, isn’t it?

For those of you joining this series already in progress, we spent all last week about feedback — when an writer is and isn’t likely to get professional critique during the query and submission stages, where outside the publishing world that same writer is likely to turn in order to find it. While the vast majority of aspiring writers choose to self-edit (at least until they sign with agents, many of whom habitually request revisions in their clients’ work), often not exposing their manuscripts to any human eyes other than their own prior to mailing off that requested submission to an agency or posting those first few pages on an agency website along with a query, omitting what most professional writers consider the necessary step of eliciting reader feedback can leave a manuscript vulnerable to rejection.

Many, many writing problems are extremely difficult for a self-editor to catch: pacing, for instance, or ways in which a protagonist may be trying the objective reader’s patience. To be blunt about it, you may think giving your protagonist the catchphrase, “You’re telling me!” is endearingly hilarious, especially on the fiftieth repetition, but the reader may not. Unless you’ve run the manuscript past a few unbiased sets of eyes, you can’t really be sure, can you?

Most first-time submitters are positively stunned to learn that such information is only very rarely included in rejection letters, but then, those new to querying are often astonished when their SASEs come back without any indication of why an agent chose to pass. As I mentioned earlier in the week, unless an aspiring writer actually pays for professional feedback — from a freelance editor, for example, or by taking manuscript revision class — s/he is highly unlikely to gain substantive critique through the querying or submission processes.

Sorry to be the one to have to break that to some of you, but better that you hear it from me than get your heart broken by the agent of your dreams, right? Try not to take minimal response personally; it happens to virtually everyone who queries or submits.

I hear some impatient sighing from those who followed last week’s discussion closely. “I get it, Anne,” some of you are telling me. “I shouldn’t expect to receive any substantive feedback from agents at the querying and submission stage; that will come later, after one picks up my work. So where should an aspiring writer turn for feedback prior to signing with the pros?”

Good question, impatient sighers. Ideally, you would run your submission materials past your writing group, or a freelance editor familiar with your genre, or a published writer who writes books similar to yours.

Allow me to reiterate the desirability of finding first readers conversant with the current market IN YOUR BOOK CATEGORY, not merely with books in general or what was being sold ten years ago. As I may have mentioned a couple of thousand times before, the conventions and styles prevailing in one genre are not necessarily those that reign supreme in another, nor are the standards of 7 years ago those of today. And no matter how good a poet is, her advice on your nonfiction tome on house-building is unlikely to be very market-savvy, unless she happens to read a lot of house-building books.

However — and this is not an insignificant however — not all of us have the kind of connections or resources to command that kind of readership. Professional editing, after all, isn’t particularly cheap, nor are the writing conferences where you are likely to meet writers in your field.

And even then, it’s considered pretty darned rude for an aspiring writer to walk up to a total stranger, however famous, and hand him a manuscript for critique. As in any relationship, there are social niceties to be observed first. (If you’re in any doubt whatsoever about where the lines are drawn, I would strenuously advise a quick read through the INDUSTRY ETTIQUETE category at right BEFORE you even think of approaching your first industry insider.)

So where does that leave the isolated writer seeking feedback? Usually, soliciting commentary from pretty much anyone who murmurs, “Oh, you write? I’d love to see something of yours sometime.”

That hasn’t been working out too well for most of you who have tried it, I’m guessing. “I give my manuscript to first readers,” I hear some of you brave souls grumbling, “and they NEVER give me feedback. Or they hold onto the manuscript for so long that I’ve already made revisions, so I can’t really use their critique. I’ve gotten SAT scores back faster. Or they so flood me with minute nit-picking that I have no idea whether they even LIKED the manuscript or not. I really feel burned.”

If you’ve had this experience, you are certainly not alone: trust me, every freelance editor has heard these complaints hundreds of times from new clients. In fact, freelance editors ought to be downright grateful for those poor feedback-givers, as they tend to drive writers either to despair or into the office of a pro.

At the risk of thinning the ranks of potential editing clients, I have a few suggestions about how to minimize frustrations in the first reader process when handing your work to non-professional readers — i.e., someone who is not a professional writer, editor, agent, or teacher.

First, never, but NEVER, simply hand a manuscript to a non-professional reader without specifying what KIND of feedback you want. (Actually, this isn’t a bad precept when working with more seasoned readers, either.)

Remember that intimidation factor I mentioned yesterday? Well, the first-time manuscript reader often becomes so cowed at the prospect of providing first-class advice that she simply gives no feedback at all — or just keeps putting off reading the manuscript.

Sound familiar?

Other first readers will begin with enthusiasm, but once they come up with genuine critique, they will fear to mention it, instead preferring to murmur something vague about how much they liked it. Why sugar-coat what might be useful feedback? Because they, like everyone else, are familiar with would-be artists like the WWL. They don’t want to risk your flying off the handle at them.

Still others, conditioned to expect that every syllable in your manuscript will exactly resemble a published book, will run in the other direction, treating every typo as though it were evidence that you should never write another word as long as you live. Both of these outcomes will make you unhappy, and might not produce the type of feedback you need.

Second, in case anyone has missed the subtle hints I’ve been dropping over the last couple of posts, RELATIVES, LOVERS, AND CLOSE FRIENDS ARE POOR CHOICES FOR FEEDBACK.

And furthermore, it’s not particularly fair to them to be expected to provide it, unless they already have experience giving it. It’s a Catch-22 for both parties: if they like the book and say so, the writer may think they’re lying to be nice; if they report they hated it, the writer is left wondering whether that wince-worthy critique was really about the book, or if the loved one is still secretly livid about that disastrous trip to Grandma’s house sixteen years ago.

So think very, very carefully before you place anyone you love in that particularly hard spot. I shan’t break any confidences by revealing just how many of my editing clients’ SOs have privately thanked me for letting them off the critiquing hook, but suffice it to say, I’m no longer particularly surprised when it’s the first thing they say when they eventually meet me.

If you DO have loved ones read it, make a positive statement when you give them the manuscript, limiting what you expect in response.

By telling them up front that you do not expect them to do the work of a professional editor (which at heart, many first-time manuscript readers fear with an intensity usually reserved for cobras and other venomous snakes), you will make the process more pleasant for them and heighten the probability that you will get some useful feedback.

Couching the request in terms of feeling reactions rather than textual analysis is a great way to make both writer and reader comfortable: “I have other readers who will deal with issues of grammar and style,” you can tell your kin, for example. “Don’t worry about sentence structure. I want to know if the story moved you.”

Better still, you can couch the request in a compliment. “You know the world of the pool hall so well, my darling,” you can suggest to your lover, “that I want you to concentrate on whether the characters feel real to you. Don’t give even 38 seconds’ consecutive thought to the writing itself; I’ve got someone else reading for that.”

Notice how I keep bringing up other readers? Again, may I suggest that this strategy is substantially more effective if you already have a few well-qualified first readers waiting in the wings?

If you do (sigh…) decide to use your kith and kin as first readers, it can been VERY helpful to cite the existence of other readers, even if they’re imaginary. Why? Knowing that others are available to give the hard-to-say feedback can lighten the intimidated reader’s sense of responsibility considerably, rendering it much, much more likely that s/he will enjoy reading your book, rather than coming to regard it as a burdensome obligation.

“Burdensome?” I hear some tremulous souls cry. “My delightful literary romp?”

To an ordinary reader, perhaps — but did you seriously believe that handing your baby to your cousin at Thanksgiving, knowing full well that you were scheduled to meet again at Christmas, wasn’t imposing an obligation to read it, and pronto? Or that giving in to your coworker’s repeated requests to read something you’ve written, even though that meant her having to meet your reproachful, why-haven’t-you-read-it-yet eyes every week at the staff meeting, didn’t involve establishing a tacit deadline?

To appreciate the literature-dulling potential of deadline-imposition fully, you need only cast your mind back to high school: which did you enjoy more, the book you were assigned to read, the one that was going to be on the final exam, or the one you read in your own good time?

You don’t have to answer that; I spent enough years teaching to guess.

Still unsympathetic to first readers who hang onto manuscripts forever and a day? Would it help to consider that most people don’t understand that writers want to submit their work to agents, editors, and contests almost immediately upon completion? And that it would never occur to most non-professional readers that you might be waiting to hear their reactions before you submit again.

I feel you reaching for your hair to tear it out. Don’t do it. Take a deep breath instead and consider where you might find readers less hesitant to give you the feedback your book needs — and more likely to understand without your having to bully them the concept of turning around the manuscript in a timely manner.

Your best first reader choice (other than a professional reader, such as an editor, agent, or experienced contest judge) is a fellow writer in your own genre, preferably an already-agented or recently published one. Ideally, you want someone very up on the current market in your type of book — and writing for it. Trading manuscripts for critique can be very fruitful.

Second best would be a good writer in another genre, someone who is already familiar with the basic demands of the market (and how a manuscript differs from a published book, something that tends to flummox less experienced first readers a bit) and the value of specific feedback. Good critique groups are often made up of writers working in different book categories; if you are setting up a group from scratch, just make sure that you all discuss the ways in which your genres vary before anyone starts trading chapters.

Third is an excellent reader who isn’t a writer, one who has read widely and deeply and is familiar with the conventions of your book category.

In a pinch, if you feel that all your manuscript needs is a rigorous proofreading, you could always pick the most voracious reader you know or the person so proud of her English skills that she regularly corrects people in conversation. My litmus test is whether the potential reader knows the difference between farther and further — yes, they mean different things, technically — and uses momentarily in its proper form, which is almost never heard in spoken English anymore.

(Poor momentarily has been so abused that some benighted dictionary editors now define it both as for a moment — its time-honored meaning — AND in a moment, as we so often hear on airplanes: “We will be airborne momentarily…” Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be in a plane that was only momentarily airborne…unless you have a serious death wish.)

Which brings me to another suggestion: stick to readers familiar with your genre. Someone who primarily reads nonfiction is not the best first reader for a novel; an inveterate reader of mysteries is not the best first reader of literary fiction or a how-to book. Readers tend to impose the standards of the books they like best onto anything they read, with results that can sometimes puzzle writers and readers of other genres.

For instance, my fiancé, an SF/fantasy reader since his elementary school days, shocked me on one of our first dates by confessing, in the middle of my rhapsody in praise of John Irving, that he had not been able to make it all the way through THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, one of my favorite novels of all time. “I found it boring,” he admitted. “Not much happened.”

“A character gets castrated in mid-car crash,” I pointed out, stunned. “How much more action do you want?”

From the perspective of my SO’s reading background, though, he was right: it’s rare that more than a page goes by in a good SF novel without overt action; mainstream novels tend to be lamentably devoid of, say, time travel. John Irving would be wise, then, to avoid my sweetie as a first reader.

As would I — oh, here’s a great opportunity for a pop quiz. Why don’t I use my SF-loving SO as a first reader?

If your first impulse was to cry out, “He’s double-disqualified! He’s more or less kith and kin, AND he doesn’t read either adult fiction or memoirs on a regular basis! What’s that he’s reading on the chaise right now, yet another Orson Scott Card paperback?” you get an A.

Above all, remember that it’s the requesting writer’s job to make the expectations clear, not the potential feedback-giver’s. Most of those who offer to be first readers are simply curious, or being polite, or trying to show support; they may honestly have no idea whatsoever what you hope to gain from having them read your book in manuscript form, rather than waiting to buy it when it’s available in bookstores everywhere.

Heck, they may not even be aware that asking to read it conveys any expectation that they will give feedback at all — or when — unless the writer tells them so. And doesn’t THAT make you think slightly differently about those well-meaning folks who begged to see your work but never said anything?

That makes a certain amount of sense, if you’ve been trying to use non-writers as first readers: unlike what would-be artists like the WWL seem to think, a working writer learns to welcome helpful, honest feedback on her work. Good writing is all about communicating the author’s artistic vision to the reader, not making the reader guess what that vision is.

Just a little something to think about. More on the care and feeding of first readers follows in the days to come. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part II: why “Guess what, Grandma — I’ve written a book!” might not be the best strategy for eliciting usable feedback


Last time, I waxed long, if not precisely poetic, on the desirability of getting some trustworthy soul to read your work IN ITS ENTIRETY before you send it out to an agent, editor, or contest. Trustworthy, in this case, means objective as well as truthful, well-read in your book’s genre yet not inflexibly wedded to its conventions. Kind is a plus, but not actually necessary to the task.

In other words, not the kind of reader that you’re likely to find through the simple expedient of asking everyone at work who happens to think your impression of Groucho Marx is funny. It can be tough to find a good first reader, but from a professional perspective, it’s imperative, even for the most gifted self-editor.

Why, you ask? Because even the most coldly rational of us cannot read our own manuscripts the way another human being would, especially after repeated readings. There’s no way that a writer can truly assess beyond a shadow of a doubt whether her protagonist is genuinely likable, for instance, or if that plot twist is actually surprising. It’s just too easy for the writer’s mind to fill in the logical gaps that might confuse an independent reader, as well as to gloss over grammatical or spelling problems because it looks right to me!

And don’t even get me started on how difficult it is for a writer to judge plausibility in her own work. While even a prescient independent reader will seldom greet an unlikely plot twist with, “Oh, I’ll buy that, because if this doesn’t happen now, the denouement the author wants will be impossible,” authors are all too prone to tell themselves, “Why does that happen? Because the plot requires it!”

Memoirs present especially difficult self-editing problems. Having written both my own memoir and somebody else’s (long story), as well as having edited many, I can say with absolute authority that there’s nothing stranger than having someone else edit your life story — even when it’s done with sensitivity and tact, it feels as though the editor is critiquing one’s life — but for a memoir to work on the page, it needs to be dramatically satisfying, as well as true and interesting. Even when a writer pulls off the difficult tightrope act of being simultaneously intimately in touch with her own memories and objective enough to write about them well, standing outside oneself completely enough to perceive one’s own memoir’s protagonist purely as a character is well-nigh impossible.

Ditto with true stories told as fiction, or real-life characters imported into novels. At the writing stage, having a life experience upon which to base an account can be a considerable advantage, permitting richness of observation and detail. Throughout the revision process, however, the very intensity of that recollection tends to lead the self-editing writer to assume that everything he recalls mentally actually ended up on the page.

But the problem of objective distance not the only reason that feedback’s so useful to a writer who genuinely wishes to improve his work. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s essential from an emotional perspective as well.

Is that widespread guffawing I hear out there a response to something I said? “Yeah, right, Anne,” guffawers everywhere chortle. “It took me years to work up the nerve to start querying, much less to submit my manuscript. While I have queries out or materials circulating, I have minor panic attacks every time the phone rings, lest it be an agent offering to represent my work; when I’m gearing up to pitch, I have nightmares about agents and editors bursting into mocking laughter at the second line. So how precisely will handing around my manuscript render me less anxious?”

Well, think about it: what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a total stranger who, after all, has the institutional ability to change your life by bringing your book to publication? It raises the stakes of that first reader’s reaction to stroke-inducing levels. Basically, it’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency.

Maybe not the best FIRST choice, in terms of bolstering your self-esteem.

As I have pointed out several times this fall, amongst professional writers, agents, and editors, feedback tends to be honest to the point of brutality; professionals have no reason to pull their punches. If a publishing professional does take the time to critique your work — a compliment that has become rarer and rarer for submissions, as we discussed earlier this week — the criticism comes absolutely unvarnished.

Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.

I’m trying to save you some headaches here. Far too few aspiring writers get honestly objective feedback on their work before they send it out — which is why, as my long-term readers already know, I like to run a series on feedback-acquisition once a year or so.

Oh, they may be getting some feedback — although I think we have all met the aspiring writer who scribbles away in private, not telling even her nearest and dearest about her project in anticipation of the great day when she can bounce into her living room with a published copy like Jo March and reveal herself to her astonished kith and kin as a published author — but it’s probably not feedback that actually helps them revise the book.

How do I know this? First, from taking the novel approach of asking many, many aspiring writers how they solicit feedback, and second, from long experience listening to writers at every stage of their writing careers, from just having started a novel to the short list for the National Book Award, complain about how little actual information they have gotten from the first folks to whom they handed their manuscripts.

Most of the time, there’s a pretty clear reason for this: as I deplored at length last time, the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers show their pages only to relatives or friends, whether or not these otherwise worthy souls have any experience whatsoever giving the kind of feedback good writers need. Even when these would-be helpful folks do have relevant reading or writing experience, the prospect of having to walk the thin line between being truthful enough to provide useful critique and crushing a loved one’s fragile ego can be awfully darned intimidating.

Save your supporters for support. What you need from a first reader is well-informed, practical advice based upon a thorough understanding of your target market.

Translation: it shouldn’t come from people who already love you.

Or hate you, for that matter. One of the miracles of both love and hate is the emotion’s ability to jaundice the eye of the beholder.

No matter how supportive, kind, literate, critical, eagle-eyed, or brutally honest your parents may be — and I’m sure that they’re sterling souls — their history with you renders them not the best sources of feedback. The same principle applies to your siblings, your children, your best friend since you were three, your best work buddy, the person upon whose shoulder you last wept, and anyone who has ever occupied your bed while you were in it for any length of time for any purpose other than engaging in profound, contact-free slumber since you hit puberty.

ESPECIALLY anyone who has ever occupied your bed . Even on a very casual basis.

And yes, in answer to the question hanging on the tips of so many tongues out there, that includes other writers. Being horizontal with a first reader can have the same effect on truthfulness as tears on mascara: things get murky, and lines previously well-drawn begin to blur.

Which is not to say that pursuing rich, full emotional relationships with fellow writers is a bad idea. It can be immensely fulfilling — as long as everyone concerned has a clear understanding of when support is called for, and when no-holds-barred critique. You might want to reserve at least a small handful here’s no rule that dictates that when two or more writers get together, they must perforce exchange manuscripts.

(Psst: it’s also not a bad idea to talk about who has first dibs on milking shared experiences for material. As I can tell you from personal experience, there are easier things than waking up one morning to find a baby picture of oneself on the cover of a friend’s book: ask first.)

You don’t actually need to hide your writing from your nearest and dearest, of course — just don’t use them as your only first readers, or at any rate the ones you rely upon for determining what, if anything, you need to revise. It’s perfectly acceptable, for instance, to hand the first two chapters of your magnum opus to your boyfriend, kiss him on the cheek (or any other body part you two might happen to favor; it’s none of my business), and say, “Honey, I want you to come up with three things you LOVE about this. Feel free to come up with more, but don’t worry about telling me what’s wrong with it — I have other first readers for that.”

This strategy works with pretty much anyone emotionally attached to you who expresses a desire to read your as-yet-unpublished book, by the way — but it works best when that last part is actually true.

Lining up a couple of reliable first readers does require more effort than simply using whomever’s around, but it truly is worth your while. If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback.

I know, I know: it seems as though I’m harping on this point. However, I can’t even begin to calculate how often I meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.

Trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you at that juncture.

If you belong to a writers’ group, you already have a built-in problem-catching system in place — or you do if you belong to a GOOD writers’ group. If you have been hanging with other writers too polite to tell you about logical holes in your text, grammatical problems, or the fact that your protagonist’s sister was names Myrna for the first hundred pages and Myra thereafter, it really would behoove you to have a few more critical eyes look over your work before you send it out.

But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Jo March types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy individualists would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.

And maybe you are right; not having read your manuscript, I can’t say for sure. It’s certainly not completely out of the question for a writer to be a good judge of her own work — he can, if he has a well-trained eye, is not prone to coddling himself, and sufficient time to gain perspective on it.

That last condition is the rub, isn’t it? In our eagerness to land an agent and get into print, who has time to let a text marinade for a month or six?

Ray Bradbury, I’m told, used to lock each of his manuscripts up in a desk drawer for one full year before taking them out for revision. After that long, and after working on so many projects in between (our Mr. B. has always been rather prolific), he could come back to it with a relatively unbiased eye.

Relatively unbiased is the operative term here, as complete objectivity about one’s own work is not possible — or even, I would argue, a desirable thing were it practically achievable. Someone, after all, needs to be able to make the final determination about whether a paragraph that every first reader said should go should remain in the text.

Ooh, that hit a sore spot for some of you, didn’t it? I’m not too surprised; since writers love words so much more than other people, we probably shouldn’t be astonished — as agents and editors sometimes seem to be — when we exhibit deep infatuation with some particular sentence, paragraph, chapter, etc. that evidently holds few charms for anyone else. Or, frankly, that might not entrance even the person who wrote it five months hence.

Love’s like that: when we fall, we fall hard. Then we wake up one day and think, “Hey, what was I thinking?” One of the great gifts of seeing one’s exes from time to time is to remind ourselves how much our tastes change over time.

No offense to my college boyfriends. I assume the feeling’s mutual.

I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings — hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.

Take that, Dorothy Parker!

However — and this is a lulu of a however, I warn you – until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure whether those darlings deserve to live…or, indeed, how good your own eye is.

That being the case, isn’t it just a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills? Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you wailing, “where would I FIND such estimable souls to ask? And how can I figure out who is too fond of me to be objective?”

Excellent questions, oh heartfelt wailers — fine enough that they deserve a post of their very own. Tune in next time.

As always, keep up the good work!

The dreaded form-letter rejection, Part II: where never was heard a discouraging word…or one that would tell a writer how to improve her manuscript


Throughout my recent series on all of the many, many reasons that agents and their screeners reject submissions based upon the first page alone — no matter how many times you hear that particular descriptor, it’s still disturbing, isn’t it? — I have caught myself thinking over and over again how much better it would be for everyone concerned if those doing the rejecting took the ten seconds required to scrawl a reason on a form rejection before stuffing a manuscript back into a SASE.

This does happen, on occasion: I’ve seen fairly detailed rejection excuses hand-written on the query letter itself, or with the cover letter for the submission. Yet the vast majority of the time, even submissions that only missed being picked up by a hair will be greeted with that pet peeve of writers everywhere, the form letter rejection.

You know what I’m talking about, right? They tend to look a little something like this:

Dear author: 

Thank you for submitting your work to us. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.


The intended-to-be-gentle dissuasive platitudes vary a bit from agency to agency: sometimes, it doesn’t meet our needs gives way to I just didn’t fall sufficiently in love with it or the market it just too tight right now to permit my taking on every worthwhile project. But it’s still the canned version, photocopied by the thousands to be stuffed into SASEs or copy-and-pasted into rejecting e-mails in lieu of a substantive explanation for why the agent chose to pass on any particular submission.

Or any particular query, for that matter.

This was not always the case, you know: until 10-15 years ago (depending upon the agency in question), well-written, polished manuscripts prompted but few form-letter rejections; they used to be reserved for submission far enough below professional standard that…well, let’s just say that they were rejected on page one, and not merely because the Millicent of yesteryear had to get through 70 other requested manuscripts by Tuesday. Form-letter rejection in these cases meant that in the rejecter’s opinion, there simply wasn’t anything a professional reader could say that wouldn’t hurt the writer’s feelings terribly.

Thus the platitudes. Believe it or not, they have historically been meant to be kind.

Yes, seriously; rejection needn’t be mean. Why crush someone’s dream by saying bluntly, Look, you obviously have no idea what a manuscript should look like, could use about two years’ worth of remedial grammar courses, and haven’t even a passing acquaintance with any of the muses affiliated with the art of writing, when one could simply write, This isn’t for me?

The other submissions, the ones that were well-written but genuinely not right for the agency, or that were close but no cigar, tended to be rewarded with a letter explaining why. Admittedly, these helpful hints were usually couched in the usual platitudes, producing odd hybrids along the lines of Sorry, this doesn’t meet our needs at this time, but you have a nice voice and I could have sold this ten years ago, but not in the current market. However, if you cut the length by half, you might have something quite marketable here.

These small bits of encouragement-in-passing from a busy professional were intended to buoy the aspiring writer’s spirit as she continued to refine her craft, to give her a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. Moving from the form rejection stage of one’s career to the personalized response used to be a definite step toward success.

Remember what I was saying the other day about how radically the market has changed? So has the tradition of agents providing heartening you-keep-at-it-kiddo feedback as a matter of course.

In not entirely unrelated news, so has the volume of queries and submissions the average agency receives. Feeling more rushed, taking the time for the courtesy of a useful reply to the near-misses has become an optional bit of politeness, rather than the industry standard. With each passing year, rejections with content seem to get rarer and rarer, even for

Heck, it’s gotten downright common for agents not to respond to submissions at all, particularly for electronic submissions. Many’s the agency website that tells potential submitters, in effect, don’t call us; we’ll call you.

Even when the agency does take the time to send out a personalized missive to the writer, explaining that they have chosen to pass on the manuscript, the letter seldom contains a much better indication of the actual reason that Millicent the agency screener decided to slide it into the rejection pile than the dreaded photocopied form letter.

Sort of stymies the learning curve, doesn’t it?

Effectively, this means that a requested submission may not engender more of a response than the average query letter. It’s not even all that uncommon for a particularly busy agency to use exactly the same form letter for both — and it is positively common for an agent who enthused over a pitch at a conference to send precisely the same form rejection to the writer over whom she gushed as to a writer to whom her invitation to submit was at best lukewarm.

Half of you just stopped breathing, didn’t you? Take a few nice, deep breaths until that light-headed feeling passes.

If you’ve been brave enough to send your work out on a regular basis — and hurrah for you if you have — I’m sure you have received at least one of these prefabricated responses, but you may not have realized at first that they were form letters. Yet over time, you may have started to notice that they all tended to run something like this:

Dear {insert your name here}: 

Thank you for submitting your work to us. Unfortunately, I do not feel confident I can sell it at this time. Best of luck in your future writing career.


Even though you may later have realized that this response was clearly mass-produced, and thus could not possibly have been a heartfelt piece of reader feedback, getting it probably made you feel every bit as lousy as if it had been a personal response, didn’t it? Let me guess: you wavered between disbelief (“How could this happen to me? I slaved over that submission for months!”) to fury (“Did the agent even read it?”) to despair (“It must have been so bad that the agent couldn’t bear to comment upon it.”)

But you kept your fluctuations to yourself, brave little trooper that you are, picked yourself up, and sent out another query immediately.

At least, I hope you did. Or perhaps you reworked the entire manuscript before you sent it out again. Or became too discouraged to send it out again at all, like our hero yesterday.

What you probably didn’t do, unfortunately, is grab the form letter and go running to your writing buddies, to see if they had ever been brushed off in a similarly generic manner. And why not? Because there is a pervasive myth within the writing community that only poor writers get form letter rejections — which renders owning up to receiving one embarrassing.

One guess where THAT belief springs from; as with so much of the so-called insider information bruited about out there, it’s seriously out of date.

The aspiring writers’ grapevine is not entirely to blame for this, you know; although it pains me to say it, those who speak on the subject at conferences, classes, and even publications aimed at them are not always in touch with current realities. That, or they’re just trying to be nice.

Or — you might want to take another deep breath in anticipation of this one — they simply might have been giving the same talk at conferences, etc. since time immemorial. Just as college professors have been known to give the same lecture for decades on end, on the assumption that the audience will be different each time, it’s not at all uncommon for agents, editors, and other conference speakers to give the same talk this month as they did a decade ago.

Which is why, in case those of you who have been to a few conferences have been wondering, you may have heard at least one agent assert the old truism that good writers don’t get form letter rejections; they get personalized rejections, thoughtful, in-depth analyses about what needs to change in the work before it is market-ready. In their account, the personalized rejection (known amongst my writing clique as “the rave rejection”) is still a sort of twisted compliment, a reason to hope, a sign from an often-intimidating industry that a writer is doing something right.

As recently as a couple of months ago, I heard a fairly prominent agent (who has asked that I do not divulge his identity here) spout this dogma: if you send out ten rejection letters, he told his mystified and already-discouraged audience, and get only form responses, there must be something wrong with your submission. Probably, he opined, the problem lies in the writing, not the presentation, but then, he is an agent who likes to receive the first five pages of the book along with the query –so he can put them through exactly the scrutiny we’ve been discussing in the Idol series. If your work were truly good, he said, some agent would have asked to see the book, or at the very least, a few of those rejections would have been personalized.

I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t heard him give precisely the same speech at several other conferences. I believe the first time was twelve years ago.

To be fair to him, I doubt he means to be discouraging. I’m sure that this patter lets him sleep at night; perhaps he honestly does take the time to write personalized, helpful rejections to promising writers. If he does, however, he is out of step with the industry, which now routinely rejects both very good and very bad queries and submissions with a single boilerplate letter.

Yet in the prevailing view, echoed by this agent, the form letter rejection is reserved for those benighted souls who haven’t the vaguest idea what they are doing. It is never, we are assured, sent to a writer with talent and a firm handle on craft. It is, these agents are fond of telling captive audiences at writers’ conferences — who are, after all, there to be told what they are doing wrong — the industry’s way of telling the author to go out and get some serious help, pronto.

At the risk of seeming negative, poppycock.

If you had gone crying to your friends about your first form letter rejection, you would have found that every good writer you know has received scads of them. Including, incidentally, yours truly — and pretty much every other currently agented writer out there.

Rejections are just a fact of the business. As the fine folks at Mary Kay like to say, if you’re not hearing no frequently, you probably aren’t asking very often.

Did that make those of you who have been querying for a while feel just the teeniest bit better? Here’s another tidbit that might help boost your morale: statistically speaking, form letter rejections have been the norm since the advent of the photocopying machine. They are used in order to save the rejecting agent or editor time — period.

Form letters save time precisely because they require so little energy to use — and that’s important, because in recent years, the sheer volume of queries the average agency receives has risen astronomically. In an agency that received fifty or a hundred queries per week (as was common twenty years ago), it would actually be possible for some kind soul to write a personal message back to every aspiring writer.

In an agency that receives a couple of hundred queries per day, as the big agencies do, it would require a full-time employee just to tear open the query letters, sort them into possibles and impossibles, and send out one preprinted form letter to the folks in Stack A and another to the folks in Stack B. And that’s assuming dealing with the incoming queries is all that particular employee has to do that day.

Thus the rise of the Millicent.

I know a lot of you were English majors — there are always some in any crowd of writers; my high school calculus teacher used to call me Liberal Arts Annie — let’s consider the math for a second. Presumably, any query or submission that does not meet agency criteria would automatically go into Stack B, the rejection pile, unread.

Always, there are a whole lot of these: if you’ve been to more than one writers’ conference, I’m sure you have heard at least one agent’s tirade about how writers often don’t read the write-ups in the agent listings closely enough to send EXACTLY what the agency prefers in its submissions; it seems to be a rather wide-spread pet peeve.

Also going straight to Stack B would be any query letter that was obviously poorly written, or pitched a genre that the agency did not represent, or, to reproduce another pet peeve that one hears agents complaining of at conferences, begins “Dear Sir/Madam,” rather than being addressed to a specific name. (And yes, even agents who routinely send out “Dear Author” form rejections object to being addressed impersonally. I’ve never met one yet who seems to find that at all ironic.) All of these, then, would be returned in the accompanying SASE with the standard Stack B rejection letter, which probably resembles the one above.

But your work is better than that: you’ve written a good query letter; you’ve submitted only what they asked to see, and you did your homework about the agency. So how might your submission have ended up in Stack B as a form-letter receiver?

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: there are several possibilities that may well have nothing to do with the quality of your query. You may have addressed an agent who is no longer with the firm, for instance, or sent a submission in a category they no longer represent. Agents move around so much that it is very possible that the particular agent you have targeted will have moved on since the guide you used for research went to press. Or the agency may have listed more types of book than it actually represents — very small agencies are particularly prone to this, as they do not want to miss out on the next bestseller by listing too-narrow foci in the agency books. Annoying, yes, but not unheard-of — and there is no way you could have known about it before you sent off your query.

See why you might not want to get overly upset at the sight of a form rejection? The reason Millicent tucked into your SASE may have had virtually nothing to do with the actual content of your query.

The same holds true for submissions: what an agency was seeking three months ago at a conference may not be what it is seeking now. Think about those poor souls who were marketing memoirs when the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke — over the course of a few days, memoirs went from hot to dangerous, in the industry’s collective mind. And I absolutely guarantee you that none of those submitters received a rejection that read, “Gee, we’re sorry, but we decided not to read your submission at all, because the market has just turned memoir-shy. Try again in a year or two.”

No, that would have been too time-consuming.

So when all of those submitters opened their mailboxes and read, “Dear author: Thank you for submitting your work to us. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time,” naturally, 99% of them thought the problem was with their work, not with the market. Woe and self-flagellation was the inevitable result.

What is my point in bringing all of this up at a time of year when many of you may be breathlessly waiting to hear back about queries and/or submissions? Just this: your writing life will be significantly happier if you avoid the temptation of taking every rejection as if it were a well thought-out professional deliberation upon your future as a writer.

As hard as it may be, try not to read too much into it. Accept what the form letter actually says — that your work, for whatever reason, does not meet their needs at this time — and query another agent RIGHT AWAY.

As in before you expend a day — or a week, or a month — of your precious writing time seething about it. And before the evil little hobgoblins of self-doubt have a chance to whisper in your ear that the only reason you could possibly have received a form rejection is that your work is lousy.

It’s not the only conceivable reason — in fact, it’s not even the most likely reason.

A form-letter rejection is not, in fact, useful criticism of your work at all. How could it possibly be, when Millicent is sending out the same platitudes to everyone? Like everything else that’s prefab, they all come out of the same mold.

But your manuscript didn’t. Don’t let a generic rejection letter convince you otherwise.

That’s not to say that it’s not worth investing some time examining why your queries or submissions have been getting rejected — you should, and we’ve just spent nearly a month going over some of the more common reasons. But even after that recent long, long series on submission red flags, bear in mind that it’s entirely possible that any given rejection might not have been the result of anything you could have foreseen, much less revised out.

Sometimes, an agent honestly isn’t the right fit for a manuscript, and it doesn’t fit his needs at this time.

So how is a receiver of form letters to learn how and where to tweak her manuscript in order to move on to the next stage? One of the best ways is through seeking out feedback independently of the querying and submission processes. Next time, I’m going to start talking about how to go about doing just that.

Keep up the good work!

A few thoughts on getting good feedback, or, why Millicent should not be the first unbiased human being who sees your manuscript


I have quite a bit of material to cover today, but before I launch into what you will be delighted to hear is a brand-new series that has nothing whatsoever to do with red flags on the first pages of manuscripts (well, not much to do with them, anyway), I wanted to take a moment to direct the attention of those of you who don’t habitually read the comments on recent posts (a VERY worthwhile endeavor, often, since readers ask such terrific questions) back to last Tuesday’s post. As those of you with retentive memories will no doubt recall, I raised as a cautionary exemplar of the perils of giving up too easily a character in the soon-to-be-released Canadian indie film ONE WEEK, a gloomy fellow who, according to the rather intrusive voice-over narration, had abandoned his submission process just before he would have reached precisely the right editor at HarperCollins, despite the fact that this fine publishing house, like all of the US majors, does not accept unagented submissions.

I’m delighted to report that a generous soul at HarperCollins caught my ramblings on the subject and wrote in to report that HC has recently established Authonomy, a site that encourages aspiring writers to post excerpts of their work for peer review, essentially. Those that receive the best reviews have a shot passing under the eyes of precisely the kind of editors the hero in ONE WEEK failed to have the tenacity to reach.

What’s the difference, you may well be wondering, between Authonomy and similar sites? You’re going to want to read what the HC denizen has to say on the subject.

No, you’re going to have to go see for yourselves. Shoo.

I have to say, I’m a big fan of writers reviewing one another’s work — and not only, as is often the case on the web, when there’s a competition at stake. Writers often, as John Irving is fond of pointing out, to have strong and sometimes indefensible tastes (hey, he said it; I didn’t), but they tend to read more carefully than other readers. They’re also — and this is vitally important, if one is handing around manuscripts prior to submission — are far, far more likely to catch the kind of errors that might send Millicent the agency screener into a tizzy.

I told you that the series to come had a little something to do with those pesky red flags. If you’re in the throes of querying, now is a terrific time to be seeking out sharp-eyed first readers to help ferret out manuscript problems before you slip those pages under Millicent’s notoriously gaffe-sensitive retinas.

I heard that giant collective guffaw from my long-term readers. “When precisely,” you are no doubt asking yourselves, “does Anne think it ISN’T a good time to scan a manuscript for faults that might annoy Millicent? Or, at the very least, to scan it for common mistakes and deviations from standard format?”

Okay, you’ve got me there. I preach that particular gospel quite a bit here, and with good reason: it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto. Or at least before you send it out, whether to the pitiless scrutiny of an agency, the criticism of a literary contest, the daunting prospect of self-publication, or even a solid peer review.

Why? Because in any of these fora, the author is generally held responsible for mistakes. You’ll want to minimize them.

If you’re submitting your work to an agent, this is absolutely basic to success. Since agency screeners tend to stop reading after just a couple of spelling or grammatical errors, giving a book an honest shot at getting picked up means taking the time to create clean copy. This is not a business where good enough is in fact good enough; technical perfection is expected.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: it’s worth your time to rework your manuscript until it fairly shines.

And I’m not just talking about just running your pages through a standard spell-check, either — although you’d be astonished, I hope, at just how few submitters apparently take even that minimal precaution. Spell check, by all means, but there is no substitute for the good ol’ human eye running down a PRINTED page of text for catching errors.

I’m going to make that admonition even stronger: because technical perfection is so important, I implore you, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker as your only source of proofreading. As any professional editor will tell you, they tend to be rife with technical errors — mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re — and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept caseless when you mean ceaseless.

I can already see my long-time readers getting out their hymnals to sing along, so let’s go ahead and sing it together: NEVER submit a manuscript without first reading it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Why not proof on your computer monitor? Because, as those editors to whom I referred above will happily tell you, the screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain quite a bit of dialogue). It’s just too likely that the eyes and the brain will blur momentarily in the editing process, sliding past an error unseen.

Yes, even if you have a simply immense computer screen — this is an instance where size truly doesn’t matter. (And the masses rejoice!)

I know whereat I speak here. Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it, but I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit, both for my work and for my clients’. As my downstairs neighbor would, I’m sure, be overjoyed to tell you, if a deadline is close, I’m going to be sitting in my library, reading the relevant manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, out loud.

I’m funny that way. You should be, too.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at it. At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, it is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. (Or the press, if you are intending to self-publish.)

Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits. Most notably, as I intimated above, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in our old pal Millicent the screener’s choking on her coffee and reaching for the form rejection letter. Like, for instance, misspelling your own name or address on the title page.

Stop laughing — it happens more than you might think. Writers are often in a tearing hurry to pop those requested materials into the mail.

Other than the simple fact that other eyes are more likely to catch mistakes than you are the 147th time you read a text, there is another reason that you should run your work by another human being before you submit them. I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM.

The result, of course, is that the agent’s feedback is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

Was that vast collective ulp! the sound of those of you familiar with the gist of my last two posts choking on your herbal tea? What you just thought is precisely correct: due to the pervasiveness of the form-letter rejection, feedback on submissions is usually either minimal or non-existent.

Or so generic that it could apply to any manuscript Millicent saw — remember, just because a rejection letter or e-mail is personalized with your name doesn’t necessarily mean that it was written freshly in response to reading your book. Stock phrases like I just didn’t fall in love with it, this is a tough market for fiction, and it doesn’t meet our needs at this time have graced rejection letters for many years; they’re not intended to serve as meaningful feedback, but as a polite negative.

It does not, in short, tend to be feedback that’s likely to help a writer improve her work before the next round of submissions. Your writing deserves feedback with content you can use.

Now, there are a lot of places you can receive such feedback. You can ask a professional freelance editor, as I mentioned back in December (for tips on finding one that’s a good fit for you, please see the aptly-named HOW DO I FIND A FREELANCE EDITOR? category on the list at right); you can join a critique group; you can exchange pages with another writer, preferably one who writes in your book category. No one method is right for everybody, so you may need to experiment a little before figuring out how you most like to receive feedback.

But remember back at Thanksgiving, when I was preparing you for that inevitable moment when some well-meaning co-celebrant leans over to ask, “So, dear, how’s your writing coming? Published anything yet?” No matter how sincerely this person asks to read your work, no matter how flattering her request may be, no matter how much she swears that she would love nothing better than to read it and tell you what she thinks — if this person is a close friend, lover, would-be or ex lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member,


Long-term readers, chant it along with me now: the input of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover(s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs. No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

Far be it from me to suggest that anyone who cares about you might be sweet and generous enough to tell a few white lies to spare your feelings, but frankly, it happens. Be grateful that you have such supportive folks in your life. Cherish them; appreciate them; cling to them with the tenacity of an unusually insecure leech.


Get other first readers for your manuscripts, because a first reader who does not have the objectivity — or, often, the reading experience in your genre — to tell you the truth about your manuscript is simply not useful for a writer.

The closer the emotional tie, the lower the objectivity — and no, smart people who read a lot are not exempt from this rule. Even if your father runs a major publishing house for a living, your sister is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback.

Why? Because they like you.

Don’t fault them for that. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself — or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns.

So when your Aunt Ermintrude says she’d just LOVE your manuscript (and trust me, at some point, she will; everyone likes the idea of getting a free advance peek at the next big bestseller), I give you my full permission to use me as your excuse for saying no.

Do it politely, of course, as if you were acting upon medical orders. “I’m sorry, but I’ve been advised by Dr. Mini that until I find an agent, I need to limit myself to objective readers,” or “I’d love to, Aunt Ermintrude, but I have a writing group for feedback — what I need you for is support!” tends to go over MUCH better than, “What, are you just trying to get out of buying a copy of the book?”

No one likes getting called on that. Trust me on that one; I’m a doctor, after all.

And, let’s face it, when you do have a book coming out, you DO want your Aunt Ermintrude to buy it — and to talk all of her friends into buying it. If you think that professional writers don’t cadge on their relatives this way, think again: most of the pros I know keep mailing lists of everyone who has ever cut their hair, cleaned their teeth, listened to their son’s book reports, etc., to send a postcard the instant a new book of theirs comes out.

Oh, before I forget, here’s a bit of advice for those of you who already have agents and/or publishing contracts: break yourself of the habit NOW of promising free copies of your future books to your kith and kin. Since authors now receive so few copies – and are often expected to use those for promotion — it’s really, really common for the writer to end up having to BUY those promised freebies to distribute.

Yes, you read that correctly. Picture everyone who has ever said to you, “Oh, you’ll have to send me a copy when it comes out,” and do the math.

Promise to sign it for them instead. Get Aunt Ermintrude — and everyone else who loves you — used to the idea that supporting you means being willing to shell out hard cash for your book. Let them know that it’s one of the ways you would prefer to receive affection.


Is any of this sinking in? Okay, here’s a pop quiz: it’s Valentine’s Day, and you find yourself wrapped in the arms of some charming, well-meaning soul who whispers those words that make the average aspiring writer melt like butter, “I’d LOVE to read your book.”

You know what your response will be, right? Right?

Hey, stop fantasizing about meeting a gorgeous stranger who wants to read your book and concentrate. Trust me, it will be better for both your book and your relationships with your loved ones if you thank him/her/them profusely — and say no.

Ditto with loved ones of every description.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while are already aware, I definitely practice what I preach in this respect. My mother is one of the best editors I’ve ever met, an eagle eye with 60 years of manuscript-wrangling experience (yes, really). Naturally, she is eager to read my work, but we’ve both been in this business long enough to know that giving birth to a writer pretty much automatically disqualifies a reader from being particularly objective about that writer’s work.

So yes, in answer to that loudly unspoken question, I do know precisely how hard it is to say, “I love you, but I don’t want feedback from you.”

I can feel that some of you still aren’t convinced. Perhaps you have kith and kin who just adore giving their unvarnished opinions to you, ostensibly for your own good. “Is it really worth worrying,” I hear voices out there saying, “The cousin who told me I looked stupid in my prom dress will be afraid to tell me that Chapter Three doesn’t work? Since Grams has no problem telling me that she hates my husband, why should she hesitate to rip my novel to shreds, if it needs it?”

This is the other primary reason not to ask your loved ones for feedback, even if they are noted for their blithe indifference to any pain their truth-telling might cause to others: if you care about the advice-giver, it’s hard NOT to be emotionally involved in the response.

Ponder that for a moment, and you’ll see that it’s true. If your favorite brother critiques your book, rightly or wrongly, it’s probably going to hurt more than if a member of your writing group gives precisely the same advice. And by the same token, the emotional baggage of the relationship, even if it is neatly packed and generally non-obtrusive, may make it harder to hear the advice qua advice.

Also — and I hesitate to bring this up, because, again, I’m sure your kith and kin are marvelous human beings to a man — but all too often, critique by loved ones often runs in the other direction, particularly if you happen to be loved by the type the psychologists used to call passive-aggressive.

I have had many, many editing clients come to me in tears because their significant others have pounced on the first typo of the manuscript as evidence that the writer should never have put pen to paper at all. Long-repressed sibling rivalries often jump for joy when they see a nice, juicy manuscript to sink their teeth into, and are you quite sure that your best friend ever forgave you for the time that your 4th-grade soccer team beat hers?

What you need is feedback on your BOOK, not on your relationships. Or, at least, that’s what you need in order to improve your book. (The state of your relationships is, of course, up to you.)

Which is why (cover your ears, because I’m about to start shouting again) YOU SHOULD NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

Often, too, when you’re dealing with people unused to giving feedback, being overly-judgmental is not even a reflection of their opinions of your book: in many cases, being vicious is what people think giving feedback means. (And if you doubt this, take a gander at the first efforts of most movie reviewers, who evidently believe that the title critic means that they should never, under any circumstances, say anything positive about a movie that might, say, induce a reader to go and see it.)

I’m not saying not to show your work to your kith and kin — if it makes you happy, do. But even if your Aunt Mary won a Pulitzer in criticism last year, you probably should not rely solely upon her critique of your manuscript.

Yes, I know: finding good first readers is a whole lot of work, especially if you live in a small town in what is generally described as the middle of nowhere. But, at the risk of wearing out the record, if you are going to be called on a mistake, it is FAR better to be a little embarrassed by a good first reader than rejected by a hyper-critical agent, editor, or contest judge.

That way, you can fix the mistakes when the stakes are low – and, frankly, you’re far more likely to get usable feedback. If you are one of the many too shy or too busy to show your work to others, yet are willing to send it out to be evaluated by grumpy literary assistants hyped up on seven lattes before lunch, consider carefully whether you really want your first reader to be someone who does not have either the time or the inclination to give you tangible feedback.

Because, really, will We’re sorry, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time tell you whether that orgy scene in Chapter 8 is the problem, or if it’s your constant use of the phrase, “Wha–?”

Trust me, you need first readers who will tell you PRECISELY that.

Next time, I shall talk about strategies for getting the kind of good, solid feedback you need without treating your first readers like mere service-providers. (Hey, if you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends.)

Until then, keep up the good work!

If you had only one week to live, would you spend it — querying?


I’m just back from the opening weekend of the Victoria Film Festival — yes, even living a mere three hours from the border, I still had to take a ferry boat to see any significant amount of Canadian film, and I’m delighted to report that this particular festival’s offerings were well worth a few hours of traveling over wind-jostled water. Normally, it’s only the hand-held camera work that leaves one a bit seasick at an indie film festival, but in this instance, the voyager to and from the festival could enjoy the educational experience of comparing literal seasickness with the merely visually-induced variety.

A good time was had by all, in short.

I was thinking of you, readers, during the gala first screening of a potential crowd-pleaser entitled ONE WEEK, an often genuinely delightful romp about an unfortunate soul who learns that he has that rarest of diseases, asymptomatic Stage 4 cancer metastasized through all of his major organs. So what does he do? Naturally, he goes on a solo motorcycling spree across most of Canada, in order to learn Important Life Lessons (ILL), of course.

Because, you know, no filmgoer has ever seen a protagonist do that before. At least the Canadian Rockies part.

Some of you are already anticipating the point I’m about to make, aren’t you? “I’m onto you, Anne,” the second-sighted predict. “You’re going to draw a parallel between this basic film plot, which we’ve all seen many times before, and the premise repetition Millicent the agency screener sees constantly. I’m also sensing that you’re going to spout that old publishing biz truism, it all depends on the writing.”

Gotcha, oh anticipators: I was not going to say that at all. (But well caught, anyway.) No, I was going to say that I thought of you fine people all throughout this film because the protagonist is an aspiring writer.

Because, you know, there has never been a movie about one of those. Aspiring writers make marvelous progress-markers in films, apparently, because as soon as they learn whatever ILL the script dictates, all the plot has to do in order to create a happy ending is to show his (almost never her, I notice) book for sale in a store window.

You know, the way that the road to publication always works in real life. Authorial success or failure has nothing to do with the writer’s talent, storytelling ability, and/or whether s/he has anything interesting to say, evidently, but by true movie logic, is composed of equal parts wanting it more than anybody else and resolving one’s personal crises through ILL.

Add luck and stir. Presto: publication!

Seldom in a film does a writer do anything as pedestrian as, say, sit in front of a computer screen, typing away, or staring off into space, thinking, or sending out 150 query letters. Admittedly, the way writers actually spend their work time isn’t all that interesting to observe — “Look, honey, he just finished entering changes from the hard copy, crumpled up a piece of paper, and recycled it!” — which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, that biopics about writers tend either to ignore their writing entirely (in HENRY AND JUNE, for instance, the sole appearance any piece of Mssr. Miller’s writing makes is when his justifiably fed-up wife tosses a manuscript in the air like confetti) or to pretend that their lives were exactly like their books.

Because, naturally, no one ever writes anything that isn’t autobiographical. Unless, of course, it’s a memoir, in which case we should all assume that it’s a collection of monumental lies.

In ONE WEEK, for example, the protagonist has written the expected lightly fictionalized autobiographical novel. Thus, those of us cowering in the dark of the movie theatre know implicitly that he is a devotee of truth.

That’s lucky, because the audience has to take the protagonist’s writer cred on faith: in a moment that if it appeared on the page would cause any Millicent in the business to shout, “Show, don’t tell!” we are simply told that he was an aspiring writer — by a voice-over, no less. As in an inexplicably high percentage of films with characters-who-write, the audience was never actually treated to the sight of him DOING any of it.

Because, presumably, those of us who court the muse are invisible to film, in much the way that a vampire is invisible to a mirror.

And now, you will be delighted to hear, we are approaching the reason that I brought this film up at all: our hero was not only a writer-behind-the-scenes, but a discouraged, rejected one.

How do we know this? Well, the voice-over told us so, accompanied by a shot of the protagonist standing in front of what appeared to be a grand total of fifteen rejection letters thumb-tacked to a bulletin board. This small handful of rejections, the narrator tells us, so depressed our hero that he never tried to write anything again.

Well, that’s realistic enough, isn’t it? I don’t have anything clever or sarcastic to say about that. That’s just reality. I’m sure all of us know faint-hearted writers who, having made a breathless stab at catching the industry’s attention, curled up in a ball at the first rejection (or the 15th) and just gave up.

Sad? Of course. In real life, we all have sympathy for such tender souls who allow their dreams to be smothered by the jarring realization that the literary world was not, in fact, holding its breath, prepared to drop everything when this particular book came along

But would any talented novelist out there care to venture a guess as to why a reader might not find a fictional character suffering from the same slings and arrows of literary fortune all that sympathetic on the printed page? Or, if not all readers, at least professional ones like Millicent?

If you immediately shouted out, “Because Millicent the agency screener knows that it’s a heck of a lot easier to sell a novel or memoir with an active protagonist to an editor than one who simply observes his life going on around him!” give yourself a gold star for the day. If you elaborated to explain why — murmuring, for instance, “Generally speaking, readers prefer following protagonists whose actions and choices move the plot along, rather than being helpless, unresisting victims of a smothering fate — although that particular preference is stronger in U.S. readers, and thus in NYC-based Millicents, than in the other literary capitols of the world” — award yourself two gold stars and a big kiss on the cheek.

In response to the great gasp I just heard from the large majority of novelists and memoirists out there to whom that is news, never fear. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to delve into the ubiquitous problem of the passive protagonist, one of the most common reasons that novels and memoirs alike get rejected mid-manuscript.

For now, I just want to point out the additional reason that an agent, editor, contest judge, or other professional reader tend not to find writer-who-gives-up-at-first-rejection story at all sympathetic: not only is it an exceedingly common phenomenon, but they also know from first-hand experience those who are prepared to give up so easily seldom make it as authors, even if they do manage to get picked up with unusual speed. If the first rejection doesn’t wither these shy souls, the first bad review will.

Not very empathetic with what can be honest-to-goodness heart-rending pain? Definitely. But at a time in literary history when even the best manuscripts generally get rejected dozens and dozens of times before being picked up, such an attitude is at least understandable, isn’t it?

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting in chairs out there. “But Anne,” I hear those of you disturbed by that last paragraph demur, “isn’t knowing that likely to depress at least some of us into not sending out our work at all? So why even bring it up, since you just spent much of January urging us to take control of our submissions, polish them up, and send them on their merry way?”

Well observed, uncomfortable shifters. My goal here is twofold: to remind all of you who are in the throes of querying and submission that it’s only sensible to gird your proverbial loins for potential rejection, since pretty much every eventually successful author encounters quite a bit of it on the way to publication, and to reassure those of you who have been brave and virtuous enough to be sending out queries and submissions that no single rejection can possibly mean that it’s not worth sending out your work again.

And frankly, even the Millicent who rejected it would probably tell its author that. These days, the pros expect a good manuscript to have been rejected quite a bit before it finds a home. All a single rejection NECESSARILY means is that a particular person said no on a particular day.

You may have noticed that this particular reality runs contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, but the fact is, no individual agent represents the entirety of the industry’s opinion. In other words, please don’t give up as quickly as the writer in ONE WEEK — in this market, it just doesn’t make sense.

Trust me on this one: virtually any book that you liked that came out within the last five years was rejected more than 15 times. And yes, now that you mention it, the fact that the protagonist gave up after what was quite a cursory submission history did make this particular audience member wonder if he had it in him to be a successful novelist at all.

So there I was, all set to suspend my disbelief and follow this ex-writer throughout his often-amusing story, when WHAMMO! that ubiquitous narrator spoiled the whole thing for me by informing the audience that if ONLY our hero had made one more submission, he would have discovered that HarperCollins had just hired an editor hungry for precisely the type of book he had written.

Wait a minute — those fifteen rejections were supposed to be from publishing houses, not agencies? Major ones like HarperCollins, the kind that as a matter of policy do not accept ANY submissions from unagented writers? And our hero is despondent because his novel has gotten rejected by them?

I was flabbergasted. All I wanted to do was grab the protagonist by his button-down shirt and shout into his face, “Honey, no one ever read that book. Those rejections that depressed you so much are form letters.”

Strange to say, no one else in the theatre seemed moved to similarly histrionic disbelief.

Yet from a writer’s point of view, this revelation could mean only one of two things: either the audience is supposed to think the protagonist is completely ignorant, too unprofessional to bother to learn how the publishing industry actually works before blithely sending off a manuscript, or that no one affiliated with the film bothered to do said homework — because, really, if all of those rejections had been from agents, rather than publishing houses, they would have been precisely as depressing, wouldn’t they?

I’ll leave it to future filmgoers to decide which is the more probable interpretation. Suffice it to say that at no point in the film does either the protagonist, anyone around him, or that self-satisfied narrator ever suggest that the proper thing to do would be to find an agent, since that is how fiction is sold.

I’m sensing more disgruntlement out there, amn’t I? “I’m confused, Anne. Why are you so positive that no one at a major publishing house ever read our hero’s book?”

Other than the fact that all of the major US publishing houses accept only agented submissions, you mean? If you don’t believe me, check out their websites — and you should, because any editor who works for them will expect a writer of promise to be aware of this fact. While some smaller and independent publishers still do accept submissions directly from writers, the big boys don’t.

Which means, in practical terms, that the inevitable result of our hero’s sending a manuscript to an editor at a great big publishing house would be the manuscript’s immediate return, if he included a SASE, along with a prefab rejection letter devoid of any content specific to that particular book. Or, if it were an electronic submission, either a form-letter e-mailed response or no reply at all.

So, as anyone with any experience with those publishers could have told him: never, ever submit an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher. It’s just a waste of your time and resources. Wait until you are asked to send that manuscript.

Actually, a wise aspiring writer extends this stern little axiom to small publishing houses and agencies, too, since both routinely reject unsolicited manuscripts unread. The rejection letter tucked into the SASE might not specifically say that — the whole point of a form-letter rejection, after all, is that it is not tailored to every contingency — but this is such a ubiquitous policy that it’s safe to assume that the sheer fact of the submitter’s having jumped the gun lead to summary rejection.

So how does one go about getting a manuscript solicited? As we have often discussed here, usually by the writer’s either querying or giving a verbal pitch to an agent or editor from a small press. If they like the query or pitch, they will ask to see pages — thus the term solicited.

Yes, yes, I know: most of you are already aware of this, but since either ONE WEEK’s protagonist or its screenwriter was evidently unaware of this important set of realities, I felt compelled to spell it out. I would hate for any good aspiring writer out there to give up after fifteen rejections that essentially meant nothing more than You don’t know how the publishing industry works, do you?

I’m hearing more huffing. “That seems like a pretty draconian way to treat a person’s dreams,” some of you sniff. “Not to mention self-defeating. How do they know that one of those unsolicited manuscripts ISN’T the next classic or the next major bestseller?”

A perfectly valid question, but the fact is, rejecters of unsolicited manuscripts receive so many properly-submitted manuscripts that they don’t really have to worry about the one that might have gotten away. That’s merely a practical response to the huge volume of manuscripts that are written every year.

Also, you know how I often mention that one of the reason agencies expect potential clients to jump through so many hoops is to weed out the writers who can’t or won’t follow directions? As hard as it may be to face, if the fine folks who run publishing houses have a choice — and I assure you that they do — between a good manuscript by an aspiring writer who has taken the time to learn the rules of submission and an equally good one by someone who has not, they’re not going to hesitate an instant before selecting the first.

And rejecting the second unread. Please don’t make the mistake of sending out unsolicited materials; it will only end in heartache.

Which is why, contrary to the impression I might have given above, I would advise aspiring writers to see ONE WEEK: perhaps unintentionally, it’s a cautionary tale about the perils of not doing your homework before submitting. For a manuscript, it honestly is a life-or-death issue.

And that brings me back to the question in the title, or at least a variation on it: if you found that you had only a limited time to live, much of it would you invest in trying to get the work you had already written published? Or would you instead write something new that you had already intended to write but never had the time? Polish off something already in progress?

Yes, these questions are a trifle morbid, but for those of us who have devoted ourselves to the life of the pen — and thus to a bid for immortality — they’re not insignificant. As we discussed in December, an awful lot of good writers put off until tomorrow what they could be writing today. Even more frequently, aspiring writers often delay the moment of composition until that oft-delayed ideal moment when they will ostensibly have scads of time with nothing else to do.

I’ll spare you the obvious conclusion to this thought. But isn’t it a pretty good argument for getting on the ball right away?

And you thought I was kidding about having thought about all of you throughout the screening of this film! More thoughts on form letter rejections follow tomorrow — keep up the good work!