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!

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