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!

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