Getting good at incorporating feedback, one last time: my eyes! My eyes!

This may be a short post today, I’m afraid: my blogging program just upgraded to new software, and every single page of the administrative side of this site is now blindingly, glaringly, is-that-my-composition-page-or-have-I-died-and-am-approaching-heaven white, with rather pale blue type. A pale yellow background in parts varies the page where one reviews comments, but overall, the effect is like trying to write at high noon in the middle of Death Valley without a hat.

Oh, the new software has benefits, too. But seriously, I may have to don sunglasses to use it.

So let’s proceed quickly to today’s lesson, before I give in to the urge to run straight toward that bright light to embrace my long-gone loved ones and run smack into my monitor.

Back when I was teaching at a big university (I would give you the hint that it was a big football school whose mascot was a vicious carnivore, but that would hardly narrow it down, would it?), I had a policy that my students could always rewrite their term papers with an eye to improving their grades, even if the class was not a writing class per se.

Why did I allow and even encourage this? Three reasons: first, few students who were not taking writing classes had much opportunity to revise their work — and thus kept making the same kinds of argumentative mistakes without learning how to correct them. Since I required that they submit the revision within a couple of weeks, in theory they would be better equipped to argue by the time the next term paper was due.

Second, as anyone whose pages have passed under my editorial pen can tell you (sometimes shaking with shock), I’m an inveterate asker of follow-up questions. By revising the paper, the student could address these questions and end up with a better understanding of the essay topic.

(Or a related one. Because I had occasionally been known to throw an argumentative curveball — thank goodness I grew out of THAT — I would routinely ask my students to turn in the original, commented-upon paper along with the revision, so I wouldn’t scrawl in the margins of the new, “Why on earth have you gone of on THIS tangent?”)

Third — are you sitting down? — many of my students were turning up at college apparently without having ever been taught some of the basic rules of grammar.

If my marginalia on his papers was the first time a college sophomore had had the rule governing there, their, and they’re explained to him — a real-life example, by the way — well, I felt the least I could do was give the guy the opportunity to put that new-found knowledge into practical application toute suite.

Did I hear some of my readers who graduated from high school before 1969 choke a little during those last couple of paragraphs? “What do you mean?” some of you demand, clutching your chests. “Why didn’t he learn the rules in high school?”

Oh, you’ve stumbled into a contentious subject: when I was teaching in the 1990s, my colleagues at the university asked that particular question all the time. As did I. But when I asked high school teachers about it, they said that in our state, at least, high school composition lesson plans were predicated on the assumption that the students would learn the specific rules in college. And when I asked junior high teachers, they said the students would be taught that material in high school.

Thus the sophomore in my class who had spent years just guessing which one was right.

Is this still the case? I honestly don’t know; I hope not. But at the time, I certainly was not the only teacher who routinely passed out lists of grammatical rules when the lecture was on, say, Confucius.

One term, I had a student who was struggling with the material — let’s call him Lance Corporal, because he was in ROTC. Lance was a bright enough kid, if not particularly motivated. Not all that unusual in that particular class, admittedly, as it was a common distribution requirement, but still, most of the students seemed to manage to do enough of the reading to get by, or at any rate to fake it during discussion sections.

Not so Lance: he invariably sat silent throughout every class. Again, not a terrific surprise: ROTC students, in addition to promising to serve in the military after graduation, typically carry a pretty heavy course load over and above their army-navy-air force classes, so I didn’t begrudge ‘em the odd snooze in class, as long as they kept up with the work.

On the day before the final, Lance appeared in my office, bearing revisions of both of the papers assigned so far in the class — and this time, he did surprise me. Tears in his eyes, he confessed that if he did not raise his grades, he was going to be thrown out of ROTC.

Since I had barely heard his voice in the past nine weeks and the first versions of his term papers revealed that he hadn’t done much of the reading, I suppose I should have been a bit sterner with him — technically, the deadline for submitting either revision was long past. But heck, I didn’t want the kid to lose his scholarship just because he couldn’t read a calendar very well.

Even then, I thought of deadlines more like a writer than a professor, obviously.

So I pocketed his revisions for later grading, giving them back to him at the next day’s final. “Are you sure you want me to grade these, Lance?” I asked him after he’d turned in his bluebook. “It looks as though all you did was make the grammatical and spelling corrections I hand-wrote on your original paper.”

He stared at me blankly. “Yeah? Wasn’t that what I was supposed to do?”

“Well, not only that. I had expected you to answer at least some of the questions I wrote in the margins.” In the face of his incredulity, I figured trying to get him to understand that he should have answered ALL of them was a lost cause.

Confusion was the most socially-acceptable expression of the many on his face. “I thought you just wanted me to think about those questions before the final.” And then he started explaining to me all over again — unnecessarily, I felt — that he was dangerously close to being thrown out of ROTC because of his grades.

Evidently, Lance felt that I had filled the margins and in some cases the back of his pages with commentary because I was just feeling chatty.

Why am I telling you this story at the end of a series on how writers can learn to take feedback well, you ask? Well, Lance made a couple of errors of judgment common amongst writers dealing with agents and editors for the first time.

First — and I’m sure that you’ve figured this one out already — he was too literal in incorporating feedback. Surprisingly, writers will often make the editorial changes scrawled on the manuscript without a murmur, yet neglect to address the larger issues the agent or editor may have suggested in, say, the cover letter that accompanied the marked-up pages.

Remember couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned that hell hath no fury like a critiquer who feels she has expended her feedback-giving time in vain? Well, the overly-literal reviser tends to elicit a similar reaction.

Why? Professional feedback is usually more concerned with identifying manuscript problems than with micro-managing how the writer should solve them.

Or, to quote my excellent agent: “You’re the writer; you figure out how to fix the manuscript.”

Actually, I have always found this rather empowering — it certainly raises the reviser’s ability to negotiate compromises over contested revision points if the critiquer is not married to the details of a suggested change. But when a revising writer is thinking super-literally, he’s implicitly expecting, like Lance, to be told precisely how to change the manuscript in every particular.

I can certainly understand why someone new to the biz would want guidance — but frankly, the mere idea of a writer’s abdicating control of a manuscript to the extent that he would even consider making ALL requested changes blindly simply because he was told to do so…well, I can’t imagine doing that myself.

I was going to say that it made me feel slightly faint, but I believe the ambient glare is responsible for that. Perhaps it is just a heat-induced illusion, but my cat just staggered across my desk, meowing, “Water…water!” like a refugee from a remake of BEAU GESTE.

But I digress. Let me lead the cat to the nearest oasis, then I’ll get back to the topic at hand.

Being reasonable about incorporating feedback does not mean rolling over and playing dead. It means being a good listener, a thoughtful considerer, and a grateful acceptor of critique, no matter who gives it. But ultimately, you are responsible for what you submit.

Lance’s second tactical error was also one aspiring writers frequently stumble upon: he gave his feedback-giver reason to regret having tried to help him in the first place. Not only did he wait until the last possible second to ask me to regrade his papers, but he was astonished that merely incorporating what was after all my revision work into his text wasn’t sufficient to raise his grade. By not thinking through his request for help thoroughly before he made it, he made the issue whether I liked him enough to bend the rules for him.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant the rule along with me now: if you want people in the industry to help you, it’s your job to make yourself as easy to help as humanly possible. And if someone does take the time to give you a hand, you should never leave him or her in any doubt of your abiding gratitude.

So did I allow Lance to rework his papers again during finals week? Well, let me put it this way: I’ve been worrying about him since the war began. But the last time I saw him, his officer’s uniform looked very nice on him.

But if I’d been an agent or editor who had asked writer Lance for changes in a manuscript, would I have been that kind? Maybe, maybe not. But is it really in a writer’s interest to take that gamble?

Basta. Next time, we shall move on to the wonderful world of manuscript problems — beginning with increasing conflict on the page, since you asked so nicely, Gordon — or that’s not Rudolph Valentino riding toward me across the shifting sands.

Keep up the good work!

Getting good at incorporating feedback: oh, dear


Today, thank goodness, is the last installment of my series on how to deal with revision requests — and buckle your seatbelts, everybody; it’s going to be a bumpy night.

I have been dealing with this topic at length, because for all of the complaints one hears amongst writers about unreasonable editorial demands, writers actually do not tend to talk much amongst themselves about practical means of accommodating or rejecting requested changes.

Yet another area, I suspect, where fear of appearing less accomplished than other writers (“Of course, I can make those changes! In my sleep! Hanging upside-down from my toes like a bat!”) keeps us from sharing common experiences.

Also, most published writers are too nice (or too reputation-savvy) to discuss the problems their books have encountered on the way to publication, even in the relative safety of a writing class or literary contest. So their published comments on the subject tend to sound as though they’ve just joined a major sports franchise: “Everyone here has been wonderfully supportive. I’m just trying to do my best for the team.”

Understandable, of course, but not as helpful to constructing aspiring writers’ expectations of the publishing process as it might be.

Especially for a first book. If you are new to the writing game, you are, unfortunately, far more susceptible to micro-editing than a better-established author; from the editor’s prospective, you have fewer bargaining chips, and from yours, you do not yet have the market experience to be able to put your foot down with credibility.

To put it bluntly, you do not yet have a comeback to that all-too-common editorial comment, “Look, I know what sells, and you don’t.”

While it definitely behooves a new author to recognize that this statement is usually true, today, we’re going to tackle the worst-case scenario for when it isn’t: what do you do if your agent or, still worse, your editor has asked you to make a major textual change that you genuinely feel would be harmful to the book AND every polite, professional means of demurring has failed?

Before I move on to the final steps of the process, I want to repeat my earlier disclaimer: please do NOT take the steps advised below before taking the ones described in my last post — or, indeed, the ones from throughout this entire series. Starting the delicate negotiation process in the middle will not speed your efforts; it will, however, greatly increase the probability of insulting your editor and/or agent, upon whose good opinion your work is largely dependent.

Take it slowly, and remember to be polite at all times.

If you have taken the steps in order, by the time you are ready to proceed to the more serious argumentative steps below, you will have learned enough about your critiquer to be able to avoid his pet peeves in argument. You also will already have taken the minor points off the table, in order to concentrate on the primary issues; Steps 1 — 10 (explained in my last posts) will achieve that.

Even if you cannot resolve all of your contested points, you will at least have learned a great deal about WHY the editor wants the changes — and how flexible he is. If he’s a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy, or if he is terrified of symbolism, or if he’s a point-of-view Nazi, you’re MUCH better off knowing that early in the editing process.

This may not, in short, be someone accustomed to compromise.

From here on out, I am going to assume that you have been a model of restraint and courtesy throughout your dealings with the poor advice-giver. Let’s move on to what you do when your editor or agent has refused to fall in with your first genteel indications of displeasure.

(11) Make the changes you have already agreed to make — then reassess.

It’s a good idea to wait a few days, deadlines permitting, before implementing ANY changes you conceded in your earlier discussions. It’s been my experience that my clients tend to feel rather let down if they make the changes right away, as though they had lost the fight entirely. Taking some time to let the intense feelings subside permits you to reassess the text calmly.

Then take a look at the remaining contested points: is there any way at all that you could make those changes, now that you have won some of the concessions that you wanted? In other words, are you sure that you want to push this fight to the next level?

(12) Make your case — but do not, under any circumstances, resort to ultimatum.

I know, I know: so far, this has been a list of dos, rather than don’ts. I mention this because it’s almost always the first thing a writer wants to do at this juncture.

Heck, for many writers, it’s the first thing they want to do when any conflict arises with their agents or editors; I’ve known writers who have threatened to dump agents who went three days without answering an e-mail.

I can’t imagine how writers gained a reputation for being a hypersensitive bunch.

I’m not bringing up our collective reputation flippantly — it does affect how folks in the industry respond to our e-mails when we’re angry. It’s not all that uncommon for an agent to hold off on answering a writer’s anguished outcry for a few days or even a week, waiting for this author to calm down.

Unfortunately, many writers interpret silence as rejection. (Can’t imagine why they would leap to that conclusion, can you, when some agencies now no longer bother to inform submitters that their manuscripts have been rejected?) After a few such missives, upping the ante to an ultimatum may well appear to be the only means to get an agent or editor’s attention.

Don’t do it.

Even if you are 100% right, engaging in a pitched battle with your editor after the book is often like a Mini Cooper’s contesting the right of way with a Mac truck: legally, the truck may have to yield to the Mini, but if it does not, the Mini is going to be far more damaged than the truck, right?

As I MAY have mentioned before, the steps to come are to be reserved for ONLY those situations where you have tried several rounds of tactful, non-confrontational approaches to ironing out your differences with your editor or agent FIRST. If you escalate the conflict too early in the discussion process — as, alas, too many writers do — before you have tried the preliminary steps, you run the risk of being dismissed as unable to take criticism.

At worst, your passion in defense of your book may come across to your editor as an ultimatum: take my book as is or not at all. Or, in the case of a revision request impasse with an agent, as an implied threat: stop asking me to change my manuscript and start sending it out to editors, or I’ll take it to another agency.

Bad, bad, BAD idea. This is not an industry that takes well to ultimata. They’re far too likely to say, in the words of the immortal Noël Coward, “Pack up your talent; there’s always plenty more.”

Yes, even with the author of a book they love. Most standard publishing and agency contracts are specifically written to make it far from difficult for an editor to dump an uncooperative writer.

So do try your utmost not to allow the situation to degenerate into ultimatum-flinging. You may be hopping mad, and thus have to do violence to your emotions in order to take the early non-confrontational steps I advised earlier, but trust me, it’s honestly in your best interest to be as sweet as pie socially while you are raising hell textually.

(13) Separate the fact-based issues from the opinion-based issues, and demonstrate that you are correct about the facts.

This may seem as though you should have done it at the beginning of the process, but providing someone who regards himself as an authority on a book with evidence that he is flat-out wrong is actually a fairly confrontational move. Few of us like admitting that we are wrong, and occasionally, one does meet an editor or agent who is on, as we say on this coast, his own little power trip. Even if you absolutely have to prove your contentions, it’s best not to humiliate your opponent.

Be very clear about whether it is the fact in your book your critiquer is contesting or your interpretation of them — an issue very likely to be muddied in a memoir or other nonfiction book. If you have done your homework and can back up your claims, the should be non-negotiable; if it is the facts, quietly provide photocopies of reputable print sources for your contentions. (Print sources are better than electronic ones in this instance, as the printed word has greater power in the publishing industry than does electronica.)

On questions of grammar, for instance, simply photocopy the page in one of the standard editing guides — you own a copy of Strunk & White, right? — and mail it to your critiquer. Write a nice cover letter, of course, saying, “Hey, after our discussion about this, I thought I should double-check my facts, and…”

Don’t gloat, and don’t negotiate: you are sending this corroboration as a courtesy, not as persuasion. This evidence is merely your way of explaining why you will NOT be making the requested factual or grammatical changes. Do it politely, and finish your cover letter with an assurance that you’re already busily working on the OTHER changes he’s requested.

At the end of this step, you should have a list of all of the remaining contested issues that are purely matters of opinion. Again, reassess: are the remaining points worth a fight?

(14) Bring in outside help, if appropriate.

If you have an agent, this is a great time to turn the matter over to her — the situation has gone beyond your ability to negotiate. Your agent may well know more about this editor than you do, or about editorial imperatives within the publishing house. There may be more going on here than you realize — such as, for instance, the hiring of a new senior editor who has just declared strong opposition to the kind of argument you are making in your book.

If you do turn the issue over to your agent, you must recognize that you are no longer one of the negotiators. As such, you must accept the outcome.

Think of it like the electoral college: technically, you are not voting for a presidential candidate, but for an elector who has PLEDGED to vote for that candidate. Like delegates taking the primary and/or caucus results from their states to the national elections (who are bound to vote for particular candidates only on the first ballot, FYI; the media seem a little fuzzy about how that fact might conceivably affect the Democratic nomination this year), electors can in fact change their votes in a pinch.

In other words, your agent may come back with a compromise that does not please you.

If the agent is the one making the suggestions, however, or if you do not have an agent and are in dispute with an editor at a small press, you may need to explore other options for outside help.

Running the remaining suggestions past your first readers, for instance. Your bargaining position will be marginally stronger if you can legitimately go back to your critiquer and say,

Hey, I know that you are pretty firmly committed to my removing the Ellen character, but none of my 15 first readers drew the same conclusion you did about her. Your concern was about male readers, and half of mine were men. Would you be open to reading a revised manuscript that did retain Ellen, to see if any of the compensatory changes I made alters your dislike of her?

If you are writing nonfiction, consider calling in an expert in the field to back you up. Having spent many years teaching in a university, I can tell you that most academics will very happily devote half an hour to talking to any writer who is interested in their life’s work.

You may have trouble tracking down a famous professor to corroborate your points, but it is often surprisingly easy to get to one of the top people in the field. Offer to add a footnote or a line in your acknowledgments in exchange.

If the expert supports your view, resist the urge to gloat. Call your agent or editor and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about point X, and you raised an excellent point.” (Even if he didn’t.) “I thought I should double-check, so I contacted…” (Refer to your expert by every title she has ever held.) “And SHE says…”

Few editors or agents would continue to argue with you at this point. You will have given them a piece of proof that they can use if higher-ups at the publishing house raise the concern.

(15) For the opinion-based suggestions, recognize that you are dealing with someone else’s OPINION, not fact, and you may not be able to change his mind.

If the editor/agent categorically refused to negotiate certain points (or all of them), you may have found yourself reduced to steps #13 and #14 rather quickly. Once you have winnowed out all of the fact-based objections and tried to prove that you are not alone in believing as you do, you just have to face that your critiquer may not actually have any rational reasons for certain of his objections. Something in your book may have rubbed him the wrong way, and he wants it out.

“In all matters of opinion,” Mark Twain wrote, “our adversaries are insane.”

It is seldom worth the energy to debate the merits of a personal dislike, but if you try, keep your tone respectful. Frequent use of such phrases as, “I respect your opinion, but…” and “I can see what you mean, but I think…” will go a long way toward keeping the conversation civil.

In an extremity, you can always go the Gaslight route — implying gently that the fault is not in the text, but in the beholder — but I warn you, it can provoke anger. Tread carefully as you say: “I’ve been over all of Ellen’s dialogue several times now, and I’m afraid I still don’t see where it is overtly political. If you can identify it, I’d be happy to take out any particular phrase that strikes you as untoward.”

You can fight the good fight for only so long, though, so do not allow this kind discussion to go for many rounds. Try to keep the squabbles brief, so that they do not come to dominate your relationship with your editor or agent.

(16) Know when to stop arguing. Either walk away or give in — but either way, keep a copy of your original version.

Ultimately, you cannot move forward in the publication process unless your agent and editor approve of your work. Period. If you have done everything possible to make sure that you understand how and why your agent or editor thinks they are necessary, and you still genuinely feel that incorporating the last of the requested revisions will ruin the book, take your book and go home.

Or — and once most authors ponder it a little, they tend to prefer this route — go ahead and make the changes. If your agent is indeed right about the book’s being more marketable that way, it may well be worth trying. (You can always discuss the possibility of changing it back with the acquiring editor after she picks it up, after all.)

What you should NOT do is allow the conflict to drag on for months or even weeks after both sides have made their positions clear. It’s not in your interest, and it’s almost impossible not to sound whiny at that juncture.

Nor should you try the surprisingly common reviser’s trick of just skipping certain parts of the requested revisions. Once you have discussed it and lost your appeal, you do need to keep up your end of the deal. Trust me, although you can sometime get away with not making minor changes that were not the bones of contention, I can assure you that your critiquer WILL notice if you do not make the major ones.

If, after you make your case as persuasively as you can while still remaining polite, and you have exhausted your other options for proving your point, prove that the book, and not the passage, is most important to you. Make the changes.

Yes, I know it’s awful, but your only other viable option remaining would be to produce precisely the ultimatum I advised you above to avoid at all costs: take my book as is or forget it. Strategically, it’s always a poor idea to offer a this-or-that choice unless you are comfortable with BOTH of the options you are presenting.

With an agent, this may well be a choice you are willing to offer — although it is not one that you should consider lightly, in light of how hard it is to land an agent these days. If you have another book in the drawer that your agent might interested in representing, this might be a good time to pull it out.

With an editor who has already bought your book, however, you have considerably less leeway. Given how VERY likely it is that an affronted editor will drop the book, and how very much harder it will be for your agent to re-sell it, now that it has a history of conflict, do make very sure that you’re willing for the answer to be, “Fine — go ahead and take the book away.”

Many unpublished writers have romantic conceptions about the purity of their visions, but honestly, I have seen very few books where the entire point of the book was lost due to a stupid editorial decision. Consider this: you need to get your book published before you can make a name for yourself as an author.

If the disagreement between you becomes a pitched battle, you are inevitably the loser in the end. Do not allow the argument to go on long enough or become vicious enough that the editor considers dropping the book — or your agent considers dropping you.

Just get on with it — and move as swiftly as possible from revision to working on your next book.

(17) Be proud that you handled it professionally, regardless of the outcome — and move on with your life.

After you decide to play ball, get the manuscript off your desk as soon as humanly possible; don’t give yourself time to continue to agonize. No need to send a cover letter admitting that you’ve thrown in the towel — a polite note accompanying the manuscript, saying that you have revised it, along with a numbered list of major changes, will suffice.

I know this all sounds like a nightmare for your reputation, but often, poor editorial choices harm the author less than you’d think within the industry. Forced editorial changes that are bad ideas are a well-recognized phenomenon, after all: most reasonable folks in the publishing industry will merely shrug sympathetically and believe you when you mention in later years that your did not want to make the changes in question.

If you make sure to keep a copy of the original version of the book, the one before any of the hateful changes, you can always reinstate your vision in future editions — or, and this actually isn’t terribly far-fetched, if the editor is replaced anytime in the near future. Editors move around a great deal these days, you know.

In the shorter term, notice what has happened here: although it may not feel like it at the time, you are actually better off than you were at the beginning of the revision process. By being polite and professional, you will have established yourself as being reliably pleasant under pressure, a trait publishing house like to know that their authors have before sending them on publicity tours. By going through the steps methodically, you probably will have gained at least a few concessions, so you will be better off than you would have been if you had just kept quiet and made them all.

You will definitely be better off than the many, many writers who, upon being faced with nasty editorial demands, just throw up their hands and hide for months on end, procrastinating about dealing with the book at all. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have heard agents and editors complain bitterly about writers who do that.

Instead, you kept your dignity and worked through the problem like a professional. Bravo! (Or brava, as the case may be.)

I hope that you will never be in a position to need this advice, of course — but now you are prepared if you ever should. Starting next week, I shall be moving on from this ultra-depressing topic to lighter, more congenial matters, such as increasing conflict in a storyline and how to kill off your characters with aplomb. A relief for everyone, I expect, including your humble correspondent.

And since you have all been such brave little troopers throughout this disturbing series, I have a treat in store for you tomorrow. So make sure to tune in — and keep up the good work!

Getting good at incorporating feedback: tiptoeing through the tulips…and land mines


For those of you joining us mid-series, I have been writing for the last couple of days about the unfortunately not unheard-of dilemma of a writer’s being asked by an agent or editor to make changes that the writer not only does not want to make, but believes might do serious harm to the book. Again, I sincerely hope that none of you find yourselves in this situation, but it happens to enough writers — especially first-time ones — that anyone currently on an agent hunt or with a book in editorial circulation should be aware of the possibility.

Why? Well, are you familiar with the old truism about a camel’s being a horse put together by a committee?

As I pointed out earlier in this series, a LOT of people are going to have an opportunity to comment upon a book between the time a publishing house acquires it and when it actually comes out. The editor who acquires it, for instance. Her assistants, who will probably read it before the editor does. Other editors on the committee that approves the acquisition. Their bosses. The marketing department. Advance reviewers.

And, increasingly, agents. Now that agents are expected to have books and book proposals all but print-ready by the time editors see them, they are starting to get the reputation for being rather nit-picky readers, too.

With all of these individuals with widely divergent personal tastes making suggestions on how to make a book more marketable, no wonder authors often become confused — and begin to feel downright embattled.

If this happens to you, take a great deep breath. This is not a situation with which you should be dealing in the heat of anger, which will only render misunderstandings more likely.

And there’s a LOT of room for misunderstanding in any feedback situation — as clever and insightful reader Faustus, MD pointed out yesterday, when first confronted with a list of requested changes, the writer may not necessarily know just how or why the agent or editor is asking for any given revision point.

One reason to go through ALL of the steps we’ve been discussing over the last couple of days is to maximize the probability of any honest-to-goodness misunderstandings coming to light — which I can virtually guarantee you that they will not if the writer storms into a meeting with an agent or editor in a rage.

Hey, let’s take another look at those steps, shall we?

(1) Go through the requested changes one more time, and make sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.

(1a) Print up the editorial memo or letter from your agent and go through the requested changes one by one, highlighting those that seem reasonable enough to make without further discussion.

(1b) Go back through the revision request document again and highlight the requests about which your considered reaction is merely tepid, rather than raising your blood pressure to dangerous levels.

(2) Go through the manuscript and make every change you highlighted. Right away.

(3) Go through the suggestions you have not yet highlighted and ranked them in order of distastefulness.

(3a) Write down a few specific arguments for and against doing each of the suggestions on the I Don’t Wanna list — text-based arguments, rather than merely the fact that you hate the suggestion in question. Be as specific as you can.

(3b) Go through the I Don’t Wanna list, concentrating particularly on the suggestions that you ranked low in noxiousness and the ones that you have determined would not require major manuscript overhauls. Could you see your way clear to making those changes now?

(3c) Make as many of the changes on the list as you can bear, reserving a couple of particular bugbears for further discussion, if you must.

(4) CALMLY and PROFESSIONALLY, ask your editor or agent for clarification of the contested points, mentioning first that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes.

(5) After politely soliciting this further feedback, reassess.

(6) If suggestions remain that you feel you cannot in good faith implement, THEN prepare to negotiate by selecting the 1-3 points you feel are most important.

A necessary disclaimer before I launch into point 7: Before taking ANY of the further steps I am about to discuss, I would STRONGLY suggest going back and read my last two postings in their entirety, because today’s advice is to be reserved for ONLY those situations where you have tried tactful, non-confrontational approaches to ironing out your differences with your editor or agent FIRST.

If you leap to these later steps — as, alas, too many writers do — before you have tried the preliminary ones, you run the risk of being dismissed as unable to take criticism. Trust me, you don’t want that.

If your objections to the advice you’ve been given are justified (and you will have to judge for yourself whether they are), the book will be best served by your clearing the discussion of all extraneous elements; Steps 1 — 5 (explained in my last two posts) will achieve that for you. From here on out, I am going to assume that you have already done that, and have been a model of restraint and courtesy throughout your dealings with the poor advice-giver.

Okay, so now you have been so reasonable that you feel as though your head is going to burst if you have to be polite for a single additional second. What do you do if all of this has not been enough to get your powerful critiquer to drop his most ill-conceived demands?

(7) Present your case for a couple of points — calmly, politely, and in a tone that implies that you are consulting a trusted authority figure for much-appreciated advice.

Please note that I have NOT advised your arguing the point until this step. Up until now, you have been as cooperative as humanly possible, right? All you did before was ask for clarification, thus leaving your critiquer a face-saving way to back down from the advice you consider silly. Since that did not work to your satisfaction, you are well within your rights to make a sane, well-organized argument in favor of your position.

PROVIDED that you pick only a couple of points to argue. I’m quite serious about this — more, and you’re going to sound as though you’re rejecting the whole shebang out of hand.

Be polite in your discussion, and reiterate up front (and without whining) that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes. Identify each change that you have already made in the text (aren’t you glad now that you took my advice and generated a revision list?), then explain precisely what it is you think you have been asked to alter, and give your reason for believing each will not help the book.

Even if you think the effort is going to kill you, it’s IMPERATIVE that you state our case without making your critiquer seem stupid for having suggesting such a ludicrous thing. Try, for instance, to avoid using words like disembowel, destroy, or decimate; they inflame tempers on both sides of the discussion.

Instead, state your fears about what such a change will do to the integrity of the book.

Let’s say you’ve been asked to remove a strong secondary character, Ellen, because twice in the course of the plot, she makes feminist statements (yes, it happens). When you asked your editor to explain why in Step 4, he said that the character was too political, and that male readers would not like her. He advised, instead, that your 40-year-old protagonist, Natasha, should have an extremely non-threatening teenage sister who resembles Natalie Portman in many significant physical respects, in order to make your novel more filmic.

Your original instinct, I’m guessing, might have been to frame your answer rather like this:

You sexist idiot, you have missed the entire point of my novel! What are you going to suggest next, that the courtroom scene take place in the middle of a Girls Gone Wild video taping?

While undeniably emotionally satisfying in the moment, such a response is unlikely to elicit the kind of let’s-work-together vibe conducive to long-term problem-solving.

It would serve both you and the book better if your answer went something like this:

I’ve finished almost all of the revision that you asked me to do, but I am still having difficulty conceiving how I can remove Ellen from the plot entirely. She is the voice of ethics in the plot, and as a neurosurgeon, she is able to speak with authority about their mother’s dementia. If Ellen were a high school senior, I fear that her statements about brain chemistry might lack credibility. I would welcome any bright ideas you may have for getting around this problem.

BE BRIEF, refrain from invective, and ALWAYS end with a request for advice.

Why that last bit? Asking shows respect, and even if you don’t understand how your editor could possibly have graduated from a decent elementary school, given his language skills, you need to maintain professional respect.

Unless you already have a well-established working relationship with the agent or editor requesting the changes, it is almost always easier to make these points in writing, rather than on the phone or in person. Most of the writers I know prefer expressing themselves in writing, anyway, and it permits you to state your case in its entirety before your agent or editor has a chance to interrupt you.

(8) Suggest alternatives.

For each requested change, offer to make a DIFFERENT change that you think will better achieve the goal. If you are presenting your arguments in writing, it would make tremendous sense to incorporate this step with the previous one.

Be practical, and offer your editor a smorgasbord of appetizing choices, so he can feel good about changing his mind. Could a scene that was not cut go instead of the cut one, for instance? Could your book’s argument be made stronger if you simply added another example, instead of deleting a point?

Do be up front about any plot or argumentative problems these changes will cause — and never, ever, EVER suggest any change that you are not willing to make. (Yes, Virginia, writers occasionally do.)

In the case of the novel about Ellen’s sister, you could simply add a paragraph to the previous one:

I have been considering giving Ellen a husband and a couple of children, to make her more sympathetic to the male readers you mentioned. This would require substantial revision of the timeline of the flashback sequence, where Natasha and Ellen are children together, which I am not sure I can complete by our two-week deadline. (Were you anticipating the flashback being cut entirely if I incorporated a teenage sister? If Ellen is 25 years younger than Natasha, they could not have been children together.)

Alternatively, if the deadline is indeed firm, I could give Ellen a wacky hobby, such as beekeeping in her attic, to make her bon mots come across more as a general sense of humor, rather than political commentary. Do you think this is a good idea? I am not convinced that the head of neurosurgery at Manhattan General would have the time (or the attic space) for such a hobby, but that could be part of the humor.

If you cannot come up with alternatives that please you, offer trade-offs from the lower rungs of your I Don’t Wanna list. If you make a less detestable change, can you retain a plot element that your heart is set on keeping? If length is the issue, is there something else you could cut that would allow you to keep your favorite scene?

What you’re trying to do here, of course, is to see the book from the editor’s perspective: is the change he is suggesting at all likely to make it impossible to keep a part he particularly liked? Is there a compromise you can suggest that would allow both of you to be partially pleased with the outcome?

Here’s a strategic solution to the Ellen problem that would make everybody happy:

Since Ellen’s medical expertise saves much exposition in the book, I am reluctant to remove her entirely. If I don’t have a fairly significant character working at the hospital, I don’t know how I can justify keeping that scene in the nurses’ locker room; as we both agreed, it is a highlight of the book, but for the joke to work, a female doctor has to walk into the room. However, I have had a bright idea that would allow keeping that scene and give the book a teenage girl character without eliminating Ellen: what if I gave Ellen a Portman-esque teenage daughter who is a candy striper?

(9) Be receptive to — and grateful for — suggestions for resolving the contested issues.

Listen carefully to your editor or agent’s response. If you are contesting a major point in the critique, you probably will not gain a total victory, but you will probably pick up some minor concessions along the way. Don’t turn your nose up at these; they add up.

Make absolutely sure to express gratitude for any concessions you do win. This may not seem necessary in the moment, but trust me, your agent or editor will remember it the next time s/he’s warming up to giving you feedback again.

(10) Document your agreement.

If the previous steps involved verbal discussion, it’s a good idea to send an e-mail the next day, recapping what you believe the mutual decisions to have been. It’s not a bad idea to do this even if the back-and-forth was in writing.

That way, you minimize the possibility of — chant it with me now, everybody — misunderstandings about what you have been asked to do.

Keep it brief — you really do not need to present more than a numbered list, accompanied by a preamble about wanting to double-check that you have understood correctly — and again, be as polite as humanly possible. Thank your agent or editor profusely for taking the time to discuss these points.

In the vast majority of cases, following these will get an author to a point where she can live with the suggested revisions, without engaging in bloody battles for dominance. In my next post, I shall discuss the hair-raising possibility of dealing with an editor or agent who — sacre bleu! — refuses to negotiate.

So may sleep tonight: rest assured, those cases are exceedingly rare; everyone concerned is ostensibly on the same side here, right?

Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: hello? Hel-lo?


Sometimes, the universe just rushes to provide material for this blog. Who am I to stop the flow?

After yesterday’s impassioned (but unillustrated by examples) argument against giving in to the urge to argue with someone who has just given you a slew of written feedback on your manuscript, I received a telemarketing call from PRECISELY the type of knee-jerk disputer I’d been talking about, the sort who acts as though a kindly-put no is tantamount to a yes.

Or, at the very least, that it’s an indicator that the person saying no couldn’t possibly be qualified to express an opinion on the subject.

To add SOME enjoyment to what was actually rather an unpleasant exchange, I’ve spiced up the dialogue a little — because, as long-time readers of this blog know, dialogue lifted directly from real life tends to come across as deadly dull, vague, and prolix on the page. I’ve also changed various names, to protect the guilty. (They already know who they are, after all.)

(Phone rings upstage left. Seated at her desk deleting the day’s crop of 250 spam would-be comments on her blog, ANNE tries to ignore it. As it keeps ringing insistently, she trips over three cats, several stacks of unbound manuscripts waiting to be read, and a small mountain of as-yet-to-be-recycled junk mail to answer it.)

ANNE (breathlessly): Hello?

BOB (in the tone one typically uses for chats amongst intimate friends): Hi. Is George there?

ANNE: No, I’m afraid he’s at work. May I take a message?

BOB: You must be his wife.

ANNE (considering then discounting the possibility that this is an old friend of George’s who has somehow missed all news of him over the past 14 years): I mustn’t, actually.

BOB (talking over her): I’ve got a great deal on heating vents for the two of you. Why don’t I swing by and…

ANNE: Why are you talking in such a familiar tone, when it’s perfectly obvious this is a telemarketing call? Please take us off your…

BOB (feigning surprise marginally well): But you’re on my list.

ANNE: The only list we’re on is the National Do Not Call Registry.

BOB: That’s impossible.

ANNE: I can report your company for calling us.

BOB: We vet our lists against theirs. Your husband must have…

ANNE: Are you seriously suggesting that George snuck behind my back and removed our number from the National Do Not Call Registry?

BOB: He might have called us for information about heating vents.

ANNE: I can assure you that he’s not interested. Nor am I. Go away.

BOB: I’ll call back later; he might get mad if we take him off our list.

ANNE: Break up many relationships with that line?

BOB (evidently taking this as encouragement): If you’ll just let me send him some information…

PHONE: Click. Buzz.


Some of you recognize Bob in his writerly form from conferences, critique groups, and pretty much everywhere else writers gather, right? He’s easy to spot in the wild: his constant cry is, “Oh, they just don’t understand my work.” It’s invariably the same excuse, whether they refers to other group members, agents who have rejected him, or editors who spurn his agent’s advances.

Rather than, say, “Oh, maybe I should check my work for typos or continuity problems before showing it to other people” or “You know, my agent may have a point there.”

As I mentioned yesterday, unfortunately for the collective reputation of writers everywhere, the Bobs of the literary world are also the ones who respond to form rejection letters with phone calls and e-mails to agents, explaining PRECISELY why the agency was wrong to reject their work.

Which, in case you’re pondering adopting it as a means of winning friends, influencing people, and/or selling heating vents, has never, ever worked. Unless, of course, Bob’s true goal is to give the target of the argument yet another anecdote about someone who just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

In which case, I must say he’s succeeding brilliantly.

Yes, an aspiring writer DOES need to be persistent — but in a strategic manner, in ways that don’t result in slamming doors through which a writer might want to slip someday.

Remember, when a writer approaches an agent or editor, she’s not merely offering a book — she’s offering herself as the author of it. Since it’s practically unheard-of for a manuscript to undergo NO revisions between first submission to final publication, both agents and editors are going to expect an author — ANY author, even Bob — to be able to incorporate their feedback quickly, creatively, and with a minimum of drama.

In that spirit, let’s recap yesterday’s first couple of suggestions on how to respond to written feedback gracefully:

1. Don’t argue

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

Got those firmly ensconced in your brain, because you are better, more talented, and smarter in every way than Bob? Good. Let’s move on.

3. Don’t decide right away how you’re going to handle the critique — or how you’re going to apply its suggestions to your work.

In a way, this is the first cousin to #2: as I argued yesterday, the first flush of shocked emotion is not particularly conducive to long-term planning. All too often, normally perfectly reasonable writers will overreact in the heat of the moment, lashing back at the critiquer. (Which, as we have seen throughout this series, can have some pretty unpleasant consequences for everyone concerned.)

Others will rush to embrace the opposite extreme, deciding in a flash that such a barrage of feedback must mean that the book is not salvageable. Into the trash it goes, if not actually out the window.

Neither course is likely to do either your writing career or the manuscript any good. In the cooler light of subsequent reflection, it’s a heck of a lot easier to see that.

I know, I know — when the adrenaline is flowing fast, every fiber of your being wants to spring into action right away. But revision is a painstaking process; you’re going to need a carefully thought-out plan. That’s going to take some time and mature reflection to produce.

Give yourself permission to stew for a while — privately, where no one even vaguely affiliated with the publication of your book can see or hear you. Get all of that resentment out of your system. Journal. Join a kickboxing class. Frighten the pigeons in the nearest park with your guttural roars.

THEN, when your blood pressure is once again low and your hopes high, go back to the project. You may be surprised at just how much more reasonable that page of critique has become in the interim.

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side.

Hoo boy, do a lot of writers seem to find this hard to remember immediately after receiving feedback! To hear ‘em talk about (or heaven help us, to) the folks who wrote up that editorial memo, agent’s critique, freelance editorial report, etc., you’d think that expressing opinions about how to improve a manuscript and/or render it more marketable was an act of outright aggression.

But think about it: these people aren’t the enemy; it just feels that way in the moment. In fact, in the vast majority of instances, they’re trying to HELP the writer.

Okay, to the Bobs of this world, it can feel like a sneak attack by an enemy pretty much all the time, as well as for the hypersensitive. To the fellow who won’t hear no, anything but an instantaneous and unqualified YES represents a barrier to be overcome through persistence; for those who have trouble differentiating between their egos and their manuscripts — a very, very common conflation — every rejection, however minor, feels like a referendum upon their very worth as human beings.

I want to talk to the vast majority of writers who fall into neither camp — or who at least pay only short visits to either extreme.

Listen: professional readers are trained not to mince words — as those of you who have queried or submitted may have noticed, rejection letters are TERSE, typically. So is most professional feedback — so much so, in fact, that agents and editors tend not to give any feedback at all unless they think the submission is pretty good.

So when a pro takes the time and trouble to give substantive feedback on a manuscript, as opposed to a form-letter rejection, it’s almost always in the hope of assisting its writer to improve it. That’s almost always the ostensible goal of critique groups as well, and even of those generous first readers who take the time to read your works-in-progress.

When a writer responds to such efforts as though any desire to change the book must stem from an unadmitted and nefarious source — jealousy of talent is a popular choice in such accusations, as is lack of familiarity with what makes literature readable and just plain shallowness — the kindly-motivated feedback-giver feels burned.

Unfortunately for us all, it typically doesn’t take all that many outraged reactions before a feedback-giver starts to feel that it’s not worth it. Why expend the energy, she thinks, to try to help someone who blames the messenger?

Multiply that burned feeling by tens of thousands, and you can start to understand why most agencies choose not to give individualized feedback in rejection letters.

I can hear the better-behaved among you getting restless. “But Anne,” these models of propriety cry, “I am nothing but restrained in my dealings with professional readers. I treat them with respect: I approach them as they wish to be approached, wait patiently for them to read my work, and don’t lash out at them when they reject me. So why treat ME as though I’m as volatile as folks you’ve described?”

Good point, angelic ones. One simple reason: time.

Yes, it would be dandy if they could respond to each and every query as if no angry writer had ever sent them a flame-mail response to a rejection letter. But — and I think it’s been a while since I’ve pointed this out — the average agency receives upwards of 800 queries a week. Plowing through them all is very time-consuming…and form rejection letters save valuable minutes in fresh composition.

Open SASE, slip in pre-prepared photocopy, and whoosh — the response is on its way back to the writer.

In a way, obviously pre-packaged form rejections are kinder to writers than the same boilerplate pasted into return e-mails — since rejections tend to be so short, it’s tempting for the writer to conclude that those words AREN’T what that particular agency sends to everyone. It almost always is — why, from an agency screener’s point of view, should they expend the time personalizing each? — but every agent in the biz has received flame-mail from outraged Bobs who want to know EXACTLY how that generic critique applies to THEIR queries or submissions.

Which brings me to to the reason OTHER than time-savings that agencies are so fond of form-letter rejections. As annoying as those blandly identical form letters are to their recipients, the very fact that they are generic means — or so the logic goes — that they are less likely to provoke an angry response than a letter geared more to actual problems in the query or submission.

Okay, they’re less likely to provoke an angry response that makes it all the way back to the agency. As most of us know from personal experience, they cause plenty of storms in writers’ living rooms across the world.

Which sets up something of a vicious circle, doesn’t it? A few hotheaded writers excoriate their rejecters, causing the denizens of agencies to fear writerly backlash — so they produce maddening generic rejections that, over time, have led many aspiring writers to conclude that the industry is hostile to new talent. Every so often, some frustrated soul just can’t take it anymore — and shoots off a missive that confirms every fear the agency workers had about writerly response to rejection.

Let’s agree here and now that we here at Author! Author! are going to do our part to try to stop that unproductive and soul-curdling cycle. Let’s commit to being the writers that agents dream about representing, the ones who can and do take feedback professionally, incorporate it well, and use critique to make our manuscripts into the best books they can possibly be.

A bit ambitious, true. But someone’s got to start the counter-movement.

Whew, that was a lot of advice to absorb in one sitting, wasn’t it? Rest assured, it’s not my final word on the subject — we’ve barely scratched the surface of techniques for handling feedback. If today’s array doesn’t work for you, relax: one of the subsequent suggestions probably will.

Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: the written rules


Welcome back to my series on developing that most essential of professional writer skills, taking critique well. As I’ve been explaining in various ways for the past week or so, the oh-so-common aspiring writer’s fantasy that a manuscript — any manuscript — will require no further changes once the author declares it finished is very much at odds with the way the path to publication is actually constructed. Many, many other parties have a right to stick in an oar and start rowing.

Contrary to the horror stories with which we writers like to scare one another around literary conference campfires — okay, around the bar that is never more than a hundred yards from any such conference — the overall result of outside feedback is generally GOOD for the book in question. Not every suggestion will be stellar, of course, but every manuscript in existence could use a second opinion.

Yes, I’m aware that last statement made half of you squirm. Nevertheless, it’s true.

After I completed yesterday’s post on what can happen when writers respond poorly to written feedback, I realized that logically, it would have made a dandy lead-in to the first strategy on this week’s list. I also realized that, due to a slight brain malfunction on my end, I neglected to mention why you might want to be preparing yourself for WRITTEN feedback in particular.

Most of the major decision-makers in the U.S. publishing industry are concentrated in a very few places in the country: New York, Los Angeles, to a lesser extent the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Apart from a few scattered presses elsewhere, that’s about it.

Most of the writers whose books they produce do not live in one of these places.

As a result, the common aspiring writer expectation that signing with an agent or selling a book to an editor means copious in-person contact is seldom accurate. These days, communication between author and agent or editor is usually by e-mail, supplemented by telephone conversations.

In fact, it’s actually not unheard-of for an author never to meet her agent in the flesh at all.

Manuscript critique is still usually performed in the margins of the manuscript, with larger-scale requests conveyed via editorial memo or in the body of an e-mail. Obviously, then, most of the feedback a writer could expect to receive from her agent and editor, not to mention the publishing house’s marketing department, PR people, etc. would be in writing.

Before the shy among you breathe too great a sigh of relief at the prospect of being able to receive necessary change requests at an emotionally safe remove, cast your mind back over yesterday’s examples. Responding to written feedback is not necessarily easier than face-to-face; it merely requires a different set of coping mechanisms.

This is not to say that you should throw last week’s set of guidelines out the window the moment you receive an e-mailed critique; you shouldn’t. In many instances, those strategies will also be helpful for written feedback.

This week, however, I’m going to be tackling some of the more virulent knee-jerk responses to written critique, and giving you some tips on heading them off at the past.

Ready? Here goes:

1. Don’t argue.

Oh, I know: it’s tempting to tell off the agent who’s asked you to kill off your favorite secondary character or the editor that is apparently allergic to words of more than two syllables, but trust me on this one — it’s a waste of energy AND it won’t help preserve your artistic vision.

That last bit made some of you trouble heaven with your bootless cries, didn’t it? “In heaven’s name,” anguished voices moan, “why?”

Well, several reasons. First, as we discussed last week, generally speaking, feedback-givers offer critique with an eye to improving the book in question, not as the initial salvos in an ongoing debate. The critiqued writer may take the advice or leave it, but from the point of view of a reader concentrated on the quality of the end product, what’s said ABOUT the book doesn’t really matter, except insofar as it helps make the book better.

The important thing is what ends up on the PAGE.

The closer one’s manuscript gets to publication, the more likely this is to be the critiquer’s expectation — and, like so much else in this wacky industry, that’s partially a function of time. Agents and editors are busy, busy people, often working on rather short and overlapping deadlines: they don’t really have time to mince words. (That’s the official reason that professional feedback tends to be so terse, anyway.)

Because they feel rushed pretty much all the time, they tend to prefer to hand a list of suggested changes to the author and walk away, secure in the expectation that the writer will weigh each point carefully, make appropriate changes to the text, and return with a much-improved manuscript.

When a writer gives in to that initial urge to argue about the changes — and for those of you who have not yet experienced the receipt of professional-level feedback, the desire to respond can feel as imperative as a sneeze — a debate is inevitable. And debate, my friends, is a great eater of time.

This is not to say that you should not be willing to fight for the integrity of your work — you should. Later in this series, I shall talk at length about what to do if, upon mature consideration, a PARTICULAR piece of feedback seems impossible or inadvisable to incorporate.

In practice, however, writers who accede to the temptation to snipe back are seldom responding to a single questionable suggestion — they’re usually lashing back at the very notion of changing the book at all. Sound familiar?

Honestly, I’ve seen quite a few of these diatribes (usually when a sobbing author is seeking help in appeasing a much-offended agent or editor), and they tend to make it quite apparent that the writer is rejecting the proffered advice in toto. Generally, these missives are phrased in such a way as to render future compromise on the most important change requests significantly more difficult than if the author had just kept mum.

If your first impulse is to come up with 47 reasons that the suggested changes could never work, fine: write it all down. But don’t do it as an e-mail, and don’t send it to your critiquer.

Some of you out there just HATE this advice, don’t you? “But Anne,” I hear the rambunctious mutter, “you seem to expect us just to roll over and play dead.”

As a matter of fact, I don’t. What I DO expect you to do is be strategic in how you make your case, picking your battles, and proceeding in a way that protects the best interests of the book, not authorial ego — and certainly not in a manner that achieves nothing but venting at precisely the wrong people.

How might one go about this? The next tip is a good place to start.

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

Not to cast aspersions on anyone’s reading comprehension skills, but it’s been my experience that writers’ first reads of critique tend to be just a touch inaccurate. Completely understandable, of course: at first blush, it’s very, very easy to be angered by certain trigger words and phrases — and once the kettle of the brain is already boiling, it’s hard to consider further suggestions with anything remotely resembling detachment.

Read it once, then run off and punch a pillow. Repeatedly. Stomp. Scream. Christen the closest stuffed animal within reach with the name of your feedback giver and read it the riot act. Just do not, whatever you do, respond directly to the critiquer. (See rule #1.)

After you’ve had a chance to calm down — and whether that will take an hour, a week, or a month varies wildly from writer to writer — go back and print the critique. Read it again; you will probably be surprised at how many fewer changes it’s requesting than you initially thought.

Set it aside again, returning to it at a point of blessed calm, when you will not be interrupted. Go through the feedback line by line, making a list of what it is actually asking you to do. Then take the initial missive, fold it twice, and stash it away somewhere, safe from human eyes.

Or, if you’re still boiling, hand the list to a good reader whom you trust implicitly and as HIM to make out a list.

When you first approach the manuscript, have the list by your side, not the critique in its original form. (I know it sounds wacky, but seeing the change suggestions in one’s own handwriting often seems less threatening.) Read through the ENTIRE manuscript, noting on the list where the pages and chapters where the requested changes would be applied.

Note, please, that I have not yet said anything about deciding whether to APPLY the feedback or not. At this juncture, you’re merely gathering information. Be as impartial as you can.

Call it a fact-finding tour of the manuscript.

Those of you reading this while facing tight deadlines can probably feel your blood pressure rising at this juncture, can’t you? “But Anne,” I hear these stressed-out souls cry, “this will take FOREVER. I need to make these changes NOW, don’t I?”

Not necessarily — writers almost always underestimate how much time they have to respond to revision requests, assuming imminence simply because they haven’t asked point-blank for a due date. (Don’t worry, stress-mongers: I shall be discussing the ticklish business of deadline-setting later in the week.)

The simple fact is, though, that no matter how tight the actual deadline may be, a writer in the throes of critique shock is in no shape to make critical decisions affecting his manuscript. He needs to calm down first — and calming down takes time.

No, seriously. Ask a doctor: once the body is revved up, those weirded-out stress hormones don’t just vanish in a puff of smoke merely because the brain decides it has work to do.


If, after a week or two, you still aren’t calm enough to be able to approach the suggestions or your manuscript in a constructive frame of mind, consider asking a writer friend (other friends probably will have a hard time understanding the power dynamics between critiquer and reviser) to read over the feedback and summarize it for you.

Ideally, this would be someone who has already read the manuscript, but who isn’t, say, sharing your bed or workplace on a regular basis. Or who didn’t give birth to you. You want someone who cares about you, but who can be impartial when you cannot.

(Spoiler alert: once you’ve established a good working relationship with your agent, s/he is going to be a great person to ask for perspective when you receive upsetting critique from your editor. But part of setting up that rapport and trust involves the writer’s demonstrating a willingness to respond professionally to feedback.)

Why is finding an impartial second opinion important? Because — and I’m sticking this bug in your ear now, because you may not be able to feel it kicking around your brain immediately in the wake of receiving a raft of feedback — there’s probably some good advice lurking in that morass of critique. You wouldn’t want to reject it wholesale, would you?

Well, actually, in the first moment of receiving it, you almost certainly would. May I suggest that wouldn’t be the most appropriate instant to weigh the quality of the critique, let alone make career-shaking decisions?

More coping strategies follow next time, of course. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths — and keep up the good work!

When a writer’s buttons get pushed


No, this lovely, soothing picture of my flower garden (snapped by the equally lovely and talented Marjon Floris) does not mean that my fairy godmother came and waved her wand over my despoiled back yard, alas; the pretty things you see here are from last year, and their descendents still above ground are currently despairing under construction detritus.

In fact, even as I write this, an enthusiastic young man in a backhoe appears to be enjoying himself very much, rolling back and forth across land that was once green. And I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if that crash I just heard involved the demise of one of my windows.

But that’s not my focus at the moment. Since we’ve been talking for a week now about coping with the trauma that is receiving and applying verbal feedback, I thought it might be a good moment to remind us all that THINGS GROW BACK.

So far in this series, we have been concerned primarily with how to deal constructively with the kind of feedback writers often receive face-to-face: in critique groups, classes, pitch meetings, public readings to one’s, well, public, workshops, telephone calls with one’s agent, lunches with one’s editor, and occasionally, as we saw yesterday, situations where one is inadvertently saddled with a feedback-giver who doesn’t quite get the story.

Daunting situations, all. You were brave and attentive while we looked them straight in the face; I’m proud of you.

And in the fine tradition of tough love, I’m going to reward you for that courage by testing it a bit more. Today, we begin taking on WRITTEN feedback.

Already, I can feel some of you squirming behind your computer desks. “But Anne,” I hear a vocal minority protest, “that’s comparatively easy critique to take well, isn’t it? I mean, in person, you have to keep your temper, be polite, refrain from bludgeoning the critic with the nearest blunt object, that sort of thing. But with written feedback, I can indulge in primal screaming in the privacy of my atelier. So why worry about the intensity of my response?”

I can answer that in two keystrokes, Mr. Atelier-Owning Smarty-Pants: the DELETE key and the SEND button.

C’mon, admit it — you know precisely what I’m talking about here. No? Okay, let’s introduce a few new exemplars to illustrate.

Written feedback meltdown #1: when Lionel signed with Murgatroyd Literary Associates two months ago, he didn’t know much about how submissions to publishing houses worked. Like many new to being agented, Lionel simply assumed that his agent would start pitching and sending out his novel, LOVE KICKED ME IN THE DIPLOMATIC POUCH, the nanosecond the hard copies arrived in New York.

Give or take a coffee break or two.

Being a conscientious agent who truly believes in Lionel’s book, however, Murgatroyd expresses an interest in seeing the book revised to maximize its marketability before he begins investing in buying coffee and lunch for editors. He promises the incredulous Lionel some feedback, but then the holidays happened, followed by the annual New Year’s Resolution Query Avalanche…in short, he’s only just gotten around to it now, in March. Sorry.

Naturally, Lionel has been chomping at the bit the whole time: he can’t WAIT to quit his day job as Secretary of State to become a full-time writer. But when he begins to read Murgatroyd’s two-page (single-spaced) explanation of what he wants changed, his brain feels like it’s boiling by halfway through the second paragraph.

What does he mean, the title isn’t suggestive enough, or that the instantaneous translators at the UN couldn’t possibly have their mouths at leisure enough for the peanut butter sandwich bonanza in Chapter 12? And how could the plot possibly work without the brigade of tap-dancing baton-twirlers from Nairobi?

By the time he reaches Murgatroyd’s tentative suggestion that perhaps June would be the best time to start circulating manuscripts, Lionel has sprouted two ulcers, the makings of a whopper of a migraine, and a bunion on the third toe of his right foot. Clearly, Murgatroyd wants a completely different novel than the one he’d had in mind.

Shaking, Lionel inches his mouse toward the DELETE key — not to trash the manuscript, although obviously that’s a lost cause, but to eliminate the most remote possibility that he will ever have to gaze upon this emotionally-abusive document again.

Weeks pass, but Lionel is afraid to open Murgatroyd’s subsequent e-mails, for fear of being lambasted. Eventually, they stop coming.

Doesn’t seem plausible that an aspiring writer would bow out of a relationship with a good agent so quickly? Actually, it happens all the time: agents often speak with regret about the talented writer with the great book concept who went away, feedback in hand — only to disappear forever into the Revision Vortex.

Don’t worry; we’re going to make sure that it doesn’t suck you in, I promise.

Okay, that’s one button down. Here’s an example of the other.

Written feedback meltdown #2: Nancy’s first novel, THINGS I COULD NOT TELL MY MOTHER I DID IF THIS WERE NONFICTION, was snapped up fairly quickly by a major publishing house — which is to say, in under a year’s worth of submissions by her agent, Olivia, a period punctuated by our heroine’s e-mailing twice a week and calling three times a month to find out what was going on with her book.

Relieved at the prospect of no longer being on the receiving end of so much angst, Olivia passes along editor Pauline’s e-mail to Nancy, so they may communicate directly, and retires to Bermuda to raise mountain lions. (They’re easier to herd than authors, she says; big cats don’t need continual reassurance that they’re talented.)

At first, Nancy and Pauline’s e-mail exchanges are very cordial: they discuss deadlines, minor changes, information for the marketing department. Then, one day, Nancy sits down at her computer to find what’s known in the biz as an editorial memo, a document briefly summarizing the changes Pauline would like to see in the manuscript before formally accepting it for publication — and, not entirely coincidentally, before paying the second installment of the three-part advance.

Nancy can’t believe her eyes — these change requests are outrageous! What does plausibility even MEAN, in a fictional context? Plenty of girls in her generation were Yo-Yo Ma groupies, and while cellos certainly aren’t common in marching bands, it’s just closed-minded to declare it impossible. And who cares if the subplot about the bassoonists’ conspiracy to replace the conductor with a cardboard cut-out of Jerry Garcia adds four chapters to the book? It really happened that way.

I mean, it happened that way in the book.

But Nancy is a word-oriented person and, she believes, a reasonable one, so she sits down immediately and writes a 27-page response to Pauline, explaining precisely how and why each and every one of these suggested changes is, if not actually idiotic, at least a really, really bad idea.

The next day, she receives a furious phone call from a wildcat farm in Bermuda. “What on earth did you say to Pauline?” Olivia demands over the ambient mewing. “She’s talking about dropping the book!”

Seem extreme? It’s not unheard-of, barring the mountain lion part. But let’s tone the same phenomenon down a little, to show the more common victim of the itch to push the SEND button.

Written feedback meltdown #3: querulous Quentin has been querying his quaint historical romance, THE QUONDOM QUISLING QUAILS, for quite some time now. It might be quixotic, but it has long been his quotidian habit to question other quill-pushers in his critique group about the qualifications of their representatives.

(Okay, I can’t keep it up anymore.)

Having experienced little success by sending Dear Agent queries to everyone he could find on the Internet who claimed to sell books, he hies himself hence to a writers’ conference, because he’s heard that it’s easier to pick up an agent that way.

The first day of the weekend-long conference is disappointing, though: two agents to whom he has been randomly assigned for pitch meetings turn out not to represent his kind of book.

Not that it stops him from continuing to urge them to make an exception in his case.

On Sunday, he approaches Rex, an agent who does take on historical romance. He seems open to Quentin’s book concept; he asks to see the first 50 pages. Delighted, Quentin rushes home and e-mails the chapters that very night, then settles down to the time-honored writerly ritual of counting the seconds until the agent falls in love with his work.

Out of his mind with anticipation by the following Friday, he shoots off an e-mail to Rex, asking if he liked the pages and offering to send more. In passing, Quentin explains that he wants this book to succeed more than anything else he has ever desired in his life.

When Rex has still not responded by the Tuesday after that, Quentin sends another e-mail, apologizing for being so intrusive, but explaining that he (unlike every other writer from whom the agent might conceivably have requested materials, one assumes) is committed to making this book the best it can possibly be.

Fortunately for Quentin, Rex hasn’t bothered to read these subsequent missives, which have automatically been added to the queue (ah, there’s another one) of e-mails for Rex’s assistant Samantha to plow through when she is finished reading the week’s paper submissions.

Samantha, as it happens, shares a 3-room railroad apartment in Brooklyn with Millicent and four other agency screeners. (Have I mentioned that they’re not paid much?) When she gets to Quentin’s submission, she gives it a fair reading. For a paragraph, at any rate.

Then she rejects it with the standard agency boilerplate: Thank you for submitting your novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t fall in love with this story, and the fiction market it too tight at the moment to take on projects in which we do not have complete faith. Best of luck in placing this elsewhere. Sincerely, Samantha J. Powermonger.

Quentin is stunned by this response. Who the heck is Samantha J. Powermonger? Did she steal his manuscript from Rex? Hadn’t he and Rex made a real connection at the conference?

Clearly, there’s been some terrible misunderstanding. To rectify it, he sends off an extensive e-mail to both that Samantha person and Rex, explaining that there must have been a mix-up at the agency.

While he’s at it, he explains precisely why his protagonist is deeply loveable.

Rex does not respond, but Samantha (not having burned her lip on a latte that day) does. She explains patiently that she is Rex’s assistant, and it’s her job to screen submissions. Yes, that really does mean that his submission had been rejected.

Quentin responds five minutes later with a four-page missive, informing her (since she was evidently unaware of it) that he and Rex had an understanding, so she had no right to keep the manuscript from him. Obviously, she knows less than nothing about GOOD literature, so here is another copy of the requested pages. Perhaps this time she could manage to be a good secretary and place them in the right IN box?

When she doesn’t reply within a few hours, he composes a snail mail letter to Rex, explaining what has happened and marking it PRIVATE!!!! Mysteriously, that doesn’t elicit a request for the rest of the book, either.

Clearly, it’s all Samantha’s fault. He’d better send her another e-mail.


Now, I would sincerely hope that how each of these exemplars handled feedback on their work — explicit critique in Lionel and Nancy’s cases, implicit in Quentin’s — made you laugh because you would never DREAM of handling professional criticism this way. But the fact is, wildcat farms aside, writers do launch these kinds of responses in the general direction of agents and editors every day.

And that, my friends, is bad for all writers, leading many folks in the biz to roll their eyes and dismiss the whole lot of us as hypersensitive, volatile, and ignorant about how the industry actually works. They tend to attribute this to a desire to cling desperately to our original drafts, as if the arrangement of words on the page were somehow mystically significant, or to a simple refusal to understand that publishing is a business, not an arts-promotion charity.

I don’t think that’s usually what’s going on.

I attribute this kind of overreaction to three causes: (a) lack of skill (and experience) in accepting feedback, (b) conflation of effort expended with quality of writing, and (c) a myopic tendency not to try to see a manuscript (or query) from any point of view other than that of author.

Why bring this up now, in mid-series on feedback acceptance?

Next time, I’m going to start going through a set of strategies any writer can use to present his response to written critique more professionally, in a way that will avoid engendering the astonished and annoyed responses we’ve seen here. Despite what many writers would like to believe, well-written books are seldom produced in a vacuum; ideally, working with an agent or editor should be a collaboration, not merely a division of the labor required to bring a book to market.

But in order to move beyond simply not offending people who wield power over your ability to sell your writing and begin to become truly talented at incorporating feedback, let’s start thinking about (b) and (c) as well.

Why? Because ultimately, a book is not for the author alone — at least, not if the author plans to get it published.

It is also for the audience. And no matter how talented a writer may be, if she can’t place herself in the shoes of her target audience — be it agent, editor, or the reader she believes will eventually be buying her book on Amazon — she’s not going to be a very good reviser, whether based upon outside feedback or her own self-editing instincts. She needs to learn to view her work as other readers see it.

Give it some thought — and keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback, part III: on beyond merely maintaining a pleasant face


For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about that most trying of recurring writerly obligations, dealing gracefully with face-to-face feedback sessions. Whether it’s in a critique group where writers are sharing their suggestions about how to improve one another’s chapters or the more one-sided phone call from one’s agent or editor asking for a change in a manuscript before it makes the rounds of editors or goes to press, many, if not most, writers find it a bit hard to bear with a smile.

A real smile, that is, not the plastered-on grimace of those who are counting to ten before reaching for any weaponry that happens to be handy.

To that end, let’s recap the face-to-face critique-handling strategies we’ve covered so far:

1. Walk into the meeting with a couple of specific questions you would like your critiquers to answer.

2. Bear in mind that today is not necessarily a good day for response.

3. Take good notes.

4. Be an active listener.

5. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for a rain check. Or at least buy yourself some time.

6. Re-read the critiqued pages before responding.

Any questions, comments, cries of “Oh, my God, you can’t be serious?” about those? Good. Let’s move on.

7. Consider the source — and select your sources with care.

As I mentioned yesterday, not all feedback is equally applicable to one’s work — yes, even if it comes from a well-respected agent, editor at a major publishing house, or even yours truly. This is not, contrary to popular opinion, an industry of generalists, but of specialists.

Just as it really doesn’t make sense to pitch or query a novel to an agent who represents exclusively nonfiction, ideally, a writer would approach only those who are intimately familiar with her chosen book category for feedback. If she has written a memoir, for instance, her dream team of first readers might include a bevy of inveterate autobiography fans, a writers’ group made up exclusively of memoirists, and perhaps a conference critique from an agent, editor, or author whose interests lie in that direction.

But that’s not how the cookie tends to crumble in real life, is it? Most of the time, we writers don’t have the luxury of showing our work to specialists.

Time and again, writers approach me for editing, bemoaning the quality of the feedback they’ve been getting. “Well,” I say in the sympathetic tones of my trade, “who has been reading your work?”

The litany is almost always the same: my spouse, my best friend, and my writing teacher; the one romance writer, two mystery writers, and one science fiction writer in my critique group; the agent to whom I was randomly assigned at that conference, the guy who represents nothing but books about horses and Civil War widows; the editor who walked into a group pitch meeting announcing that he wasn’t empowered to take on any unagented work…

“Wow,” I usually say, after the list has petered out. “Has anyone who habitually reads your kind of book for pleasure or business read it yet?”

A quick caveat: please don’t take this observation as an excuse to tell members of your critique group that they wouldn’t know the specialized requirements of your chosen genre if they sat up and barked. It’s the writer’s responsibility to recruit qualified first readers, just as in her best interests to query and pitch to only agents and editors with a demonstrable interest, if not track record, in her chosen book category. (For tips on how to figure out whom to ask to fill this much-valued function, please see the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right.)

However, being cognizant in advance of whether the kind soul offering you feedback on your writing is hip to what is currently being published in your selected line can certainly help you keep his suggestions in perspective. After all, what could be gained by debating the merits of whether your hard-boiled detective narrator (the one who has a fatal attraction to dames with great gams; you know the guy) is too tough to be likeable with someone who has never read a hard-boiled detective novel?

Or — and this criterion often comes as a surprise to frustrated feedback givers — with someone who thinks, bless his heart, that THE MALTESE FALCON still represents the cutting edge of the genre?

Or with an agent who has represented only literary fiction and self-help books for the past 15 years?

Again, I’m not bringing this up to give you an argumentative tool, but to help you pick your battles. Naturally, any good reader can give useful feedback on non-genre-specific issues, such as clarity, pacing, and plausibility.

But to be blunt about it, it’s not going to help improve your mystery if you’re only receiving feedback from people unfamiliar with the genre’s conventions. Selecting your feedback-givers with care will go a long way toward avoiding unproductive quibbling.

8. The rule of one, part I: accentuate the positive

This one can have a practically magical effect on a group critique session on the verge of becoming nasty: when you are listening to feedback (ideally, as I suggested yesterday, with busily-scratching pen applied to ample paper supply), make it your mission to find one — JUST one — piece of advice that makes sense to you out of the whole critique.

Then make it the topic for further discussion, leaving everything else that’s been said for consideration in private.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should ignore the rest of what’s said; write it all down, and if you find multitasking difficult, go ahead and ask another member of your critique group to take notes as well. (Not a bad idea in any case, actually.)

But keeping your tender ears out for the one piece of feedback that you are certain is worth a try serves a couple of purposes. First, it gives you an upbeat topic for further discussion. Second — and more conducive to your general happiness — it helps shift the focus of the exchange from a list of what your manuscript does wrong to how clever the critiquer has been to figure out a way to improve what is already good.

To understand how profound this mental shift can be, picture the exemplar I mentioned yesterday, the all-too-common hyper-defensive critique group member who sits on the edge of his seat while others are discussing his writing, jaw set and pulse racing, just waiting for an excuse to jump in and justify what he’s written. Can you even imagine that guy being able to say at the end of the meeting, “Wow, Natalie, that’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to go back to Chapter 2 and try that”?

There’s a reason he couldn’t do it: every fiber of his being is devoted to ego defense, rather than gleaning something constructive from the critique session. Although he probably doesn’t think of it this way, he’s poised to protect his feelings at the expense of his writing project.

9. The rule of one, part II: minimize the negative

Okay, all of you pessimists out there — Part II of the Rule of One is for you: it’s a strategy for coping with a critique in which, even with the best intentions, the writer is hard-put to find anything useful, or which is so general (“Does your true-crime book really need to be so graphic?”) that at first blush, it doesn’t seem remotely applicable to the manuscript at hand.

Instead of saying something confrontational like, “Hey, Bozo, are you sure that it was MY chapter you read?” find one — JUST one — of the speaker’s points to focus upon, rather than the whole morass. And instead of picking the most outrageously wrong part of the critique, why not select something in the mid-range of egregious?

Then ask follow-up questions on that PARTICULAR point and no other. The more specific (and text-based) you can be, the better.

Do I hear the cynics out there getting ready to riot? “But Anne,” they protest, “why bother? If the critiquer is an idiot who obviously doesn’t know the first thing about my book category, or doesn’t seem to understand what she’s read, why not just dismiss her and be done with it?”

For several good reasons, oh ye of little faith. First, giving oneself permission to dismiss an entire set of feedback at one fell swoop sets a dangerous precedent — once the habit is established, it can become pretty tempting to dismiss the next critiquer who says something similar about a work, and then the one after that. After a while, rejection can become second nature.

And we all know where that can lead, can’t we? That’s right: to Kimberley, our hypersensitive writing group member from a few days back. Look upon her works, ye mighty, and despair.

Second, even a poor critiquer can occasionally make a good point. Sometimes, good readers are not very articulate about what they would like to see changed in a manuscript — particularly if they are new to giving feedback. Asking very specific follow-up questions can be very helpful in eliciting what they actually mean.

Although in defense of such roundabout reasoners, I do wish that more writers’ groups told new members up front that “I liked this” and “I didn’t like that” are not very useful ways to express feedback. Diagnosing manuscript problems is hard; even very careful readers could often use some guidance at first.

Third — and I hesitate to bring this up, but it may save you some grief down the line — seemingly inapplicable critique occasionally comes from unlikely sources. Like, for instance, the hapless agent who, due to a colleague’s cancellation, abruptly finds himself expected to read thirty 10-page novel excerpts in preparation for conference critique meetings that begin two hours hence.

Hey, it happens.

Rather than retail any of the truly spectacular (and, from a writer’s point of view, quite depressing) anecdotes I’ve heard over the years from agents and editors who have found themselves in this position, let me share an awkward moment from my own past.

Years ago, I entered a writing competition where the prize included a month-long residency in an artists’ colony and face-to-face manuscript critique by two quite well-known authors. Excited at the prospect, but aware that I would get more out of the feedback if I were familiar with these authors’ most recent work, I naturally rushed right out and indulged in an orgy of literary preparation.

Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the author whose work I admired liked the chapter I submitted for critique, so we spent a charming hour chatting about my work, hers, and how I could make my writing more marketable. Those whose work was less similar to hers did not fare so well.

But now that we’re all familiar with Tactic #7, that doesn’t particularly stun us, right?

When Important Author #2 appeared on the scene — three days late for her week-in-residence and planning to leave two days early, which automatically made me a bit wary — I was very diplomatic about the fact that I didn’t find her work very engaging. Not to blow my own horn, but this restraint did require some near-heroism on my part, as my extensive reading binge had revealed that her literary output since 1957 had consisted largely of telling and retelling the (apparently autobiographical) plot of her first critically-lauded novel in slightly different forms.

Pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention: how many of you had thought by the end of the previous paragraph that, in accordance with Tactic #7, I should have bowed out of my scheduled critique meeting with her? Take a gold star out of petty cash if you did.

Alas, at the time, I was young, innocent, and entirely too prone to confuse slightly inconveniencing someone with being impolite. I walked into the meeting prepared for her to dislike my chapter, of course, but I made the mistake of assuming that as long as I didn’t let her feedback vex me into blurting out some version of, “Why on earth did anyone ever consider you for the Pulitzer?” I would survive the occasion with my dignity intact.

You can feel this coming, can’t you? Don’t worry; it’s far worse than you’re imagining.

She not only didn’t care for my work — she mixed it up with another competition winner’s. (She didn’t like hers, either, apparently.) Entirely disregarding my polite, gentle hints that perhaps she had mislaid my manuscript, the august lady proceeded to blast my fellow writer’s work for a good ten minutes.

I had absolutely no idea what to do. Surely, when the other writer came for her session (which, because Nemesis has a dandy sense of humor, was scheduled for immediately after mine), the grande dame would realize her mistake — and something in her regal bearing gave the impression that she was not overly fond of admitting her own mistakes.

So I pulled the pin on the truth grenade. And she ARGUED with me about whether I’d read the chapter she’d been lambasting. Pop quiz: what should I have done at this point?

A bronze star with walnut clusters if you shouted, “Run! Murmur some polite thanks and flee for your life, praying that she will forget your name the next time she’s sitting on an award board!”

Actually, I did try to escape, but by then, she was grumpy. Ordering me not to move, she dug through the sheaves of paper in her battered Serious Literary Person’s satchel until she found my chapter — and proceeded to read it in front of me.

Or rather, she read the first two pages, gave the kind of titter that frightens dogs and small children, then announced with finality, “Well, you have some good lines here. But Greeks have been done.”

Because I have been to graduate school — the untrained should not attempt this level of logical gymnastics at home — I was able to translate this to mean that she’d seen MY BIG, FAT GREEK WEDDING (which had come out a year before) and had decided that single point of view represented the experience of every Greek-American currently roving the planet. Clearly, she was not the ideal audience for this particular chapter.

But did I fight with her about the reasonableness of rejecting writing about an entire ethnic group at one fell swoop? Did I take her to task for not having read what it was her obligation to read? Did I dip into my well-justified dislike of her literary output to point out that she had been writing about her Irish-American family since the late 1950s — and that, in fact, had been done before, too?

No — because the literary world is small enough that if I blew up at that moment, I might end up as the butt of an anecdote about how bad writers are at accepting honest critique, the last thing I needed while my agent was shopping a book of mine around to editors.

(Did a light bulb just switch on over your head? Yes, it can be that easy to get a reputation as a feedback-resenter.)

So what did I do? I engaged her in a discussion of the relative merits of the writing of David Sedaris and Jeffrey Eugenides, that’s what. I didn’t even bother to point out that they are both Greek-Americans who write habitually about, you guessed it, Greek-Americans; I trusted that the irony of the situation would occur to her later.

True, I didn’t glean any useful feedback from the exchange, but we did part on cordial terms (overtly, at least), which is more than merely maintaining a stoic, frozen visage would have achieved. To this day, in fact, she says hello to me by name at literary events. She has even introduced me to other authors as “an unbelievably good sport.”

And that, boys and girls, is how flexible a new author sometimes has to be. More tips on increasing your ability to twist yourself into a genial pretzel follow next time. Keep up the good work!

Learning to take feedback well, or, just how far backwards would you like me to bend?


How did you do on this weekend’s little quiz? How many examples did it take you to start to suspect that none of the exemplars were very adept at accepting feedback?

To hear agents and editors tell the tale, difficulty listening to and incorporating constructive criticism is the common cold of the writing breed: eventually, pretty much every writer seems to suffer from it in one form or another. They tend to attribute it to a writerly tendency to be so in love with their own words that the very notion of changing any of ‘em seems downright sacrilegious.

Of course, there are SOME writers who feel this way, but in my experience, that’s not really what is at the core of writers’ kicking and screaming over suggested changes. I suspect that in the vast majority of cases, the phenomenon has less to do with ego (which is what folks in the industry call it when they’re not being polite) than with unrealistic expectations going into the publishing experience.

Or, to put it another way: hands up, everyone who assumed when you first started writing that the draft the author believed was market-ready was identical, plus or minus some proofreading, to what would end up on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Keep those hands raised if you also thought in your dimly-remembered innocence that agents never asked for manuscript changes and that only unmarketable books were subject to requests for major alterations by publishers.

And go ahead and give a great big primal scream if it is now or would ever have been news to you that the industry considers a manuscript a work-in-progress until the covers have actually been affixed to the book. In some cases, even after.

Let’s take a gander at that particular set of shattered assumptions, shall we? Don’t they all really stem from a belief that the writer has complete control over her artistic product — or, to put it a bit more graphically, that a manuscript must either be accepted as is or not at all?

One small problem with these beliefs: neither is true.

Oh, I can certainly understand why an aspiring writer would think that they were — you can hardly throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference these days without hitting someone in the biz explaining at the top of his lungs that the literary market is so tight these days that a submission needs to be polished to the point where it could go to press as is in order to attract the attention of a really good agent or major publishing house.

This does not, however, mean that it will NOT be revised after that point.

In fact, you can bet your next-to-last nickel that it will, no matter how beautifully written that submission actually is. A manuscript’s being revised between acquisition and publication — and usually between the writer’s signing with an agent and the manuscript’s being submitted as well — is the NORM, not the exception. Typically, the editor who acquires the book, the higher-ups at the publishing house, the marketing department, AND the agent have creative input, at least to the extent of asking for changes.

In other words, our pal Alcibiades is not alone — and from his agent and editor’s points of view, it’s pretty astonishing that he would react as though he were. Because, you see, they know that he was not even the only author given a set of change requests that DAY.

Rather than sending you on your merry way for today with your tender sensibilities reeling into shock with the implications of all this for every manuscript currently under construction in the English language, I’m going to ask you to take a couple of deep, cleansing breaths.

No, not those little gasps: I want honest-to-goodness lung-swellers.

That’s better, isn’t it? To get you used to the concept of creative flux, I’m going to ask you to contemplate not the prospect of changing an entire manuscript at an agent or editor’s request, but merely a few short words.

Admittedly, I’m talking about some important words: the title of the book.

Ask 99.999% of aspiring writers — and about 90% of published authors — and they will tell you that a good title is crucial to the success of a book. When a stunner is chosen, then, it is set in stone.

Again, there are many good arguments to be made in favor of this belief. A good title intrigues potential readers: it has good meter, isn’t a cliché (and don’t we all wish the people who title movies understood THAT?), and feels good in the mouth. It is memorable, catchy, and ideally, has something to do with the content and/or tone of the book.

Knowing this, if you are like most authors, you have probably spent months or even years agonizing over whether the title you have selected for your baby is the right one.

So I really, really hate to be the one to break it to you, but the original title the writer bestows upon a manuscript is like the name given to a newborn kitten: the tyke may have been a perfect Cuddles in her infancy, but as an adult, she is probably going to transmogrify at some point into a Chelsea.

In other words, please do not be too disappointed if the title you picked is not be the one that ends up on the published book cover. The author’s choice seldom is.

Nice, deep breaths. That’s right.

This propensity to change is not, I’m told, a reflection upon writers’ ability to tell readers succinctly what their books are about so much as a practical demonstration that marketers control many ostensibly creative decisions. Even great titles hit the dust all the time, because they are too similar to other books currently on the market or don’t contain catchphrases that will resonate with the target market or even just don’t please the people who happen to be sitting in the room when the titling decision is made.

In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject the first title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book.

I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all. In fact, they will probably be hurt if you are not positively thrilled with the new title.

Keep breathing. If you can get past this, the worst is over.

I could give you hundreds of examples, but as I have personal experience with this phenomenon, I’ll share it with you. My memoir was originally titled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, but I certainly did not expect it to stick. As a freelance editor and friend of hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held a lot of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed from above.

In short, I was expecting my title to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, then, to be humble and bow to the inevitable. I was prepared to be spectacularly reasonable.

This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not adequate to deal with the situation. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to change my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.

As it happens, outside forces intervened, sealing my fate. At the time, my former writing teacher Philip K. Dick’s work was, and remains, popular with moviemakers: one of the selling points of my memoir was that two movies based upon his works were scheduled to come out within the next year and a half, A SCANNER DARKLY in the fall of 2005 and THE GOLDEN MAN in the summer of 2006. However, movie schedules being what they are and animation being time-consuming, A SCANNER DARKLY’s release date got pushed back to March, 2006. And THE GOLDEN MAN (retitled NEXT) was pushed back to 2007.

This could not have been better news to the folks sitting in marketing meetings in 2005, talking about my book. IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? was already scheduled to be published in the winter of 2006. In the blink of an eye, my nebulous publication date gelled into almost instantaneous firmness, to coincide with a film release date, and the marketing department decided within the course of a single meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY.

“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I was looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means?”

Thereupon followed much scintillating discussion – and no, I still haven’t found out what it means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently rendered my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed.

Some of you have gone cataleptic with horror, haven’t you? Try wiggling your toes and allowing yourself to be distracted by the question murmured by some of your fellow readers: “Why did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”

An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question skyward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology.

Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.

In other words: get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.

Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers?)

Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer the argumentative handicap of holding postgraduate degrees.

This is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?

Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: you’re an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to your publishers, and you’re a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to your friends. All anyone can agree about is that you are ungrateful beyond human example.

I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, to win the battle AND the war — but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.

I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. For my next book, I gave it my SECOND-best title, reserving my first choice for the inevitable discussion with the folks on the editorial side.

You know what? They kind of liked both of ‘em — and I preserved my reputation for being cooperative and flexible.

Why did I chose to tell you this story at the beginning of my series on taking feedback well, you ask? Simple: to demonstrate just how flexible a first-time author is expected to be — and how high the stakes can be if she can’t quite manage to bend on a small point.

If you’re going to limber up, I think you deserve to know for whom you will be performing that nifty dance routine. Keep up the good work!

Contest entry bugbears: “When caught between two evils, I generally pick the one I’ve never tried before.”


Today’s quote and picture have the same source, of course: Mae West, playwright of note, your hostess for today — and, harkening back to yesterday, an actress who certainly did her best work when she was writing her own material.

Why Mae, you ask? Well, while the sentiment above may not be the best guide to ethical living (and it would be darned hard to walk in that dress, so I wouldn’t emulate it, either), it’s not a bad motto for any artist aspiring to originality.

And true originality, contrary to what you might have heard on the writers’ conference grapevine, is one of the best selling points a manuscript — or a contest entry — can have.

Admittedly, this may seem like rather strange advice to those of you who have spent conference season after conference season being told endlessly by agents and editors that they are looking for books like this or that bestseller, but honestly, copycat books usually don’t sell all that well.

Witness how quickly all of those chick lit take-offs on BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY fell off agents’ hot lists, for instance. And just how many reworkings of THE DA VINCI CODE do you think the average agent saw immediately after it hit the bestseller list?

As Mae West liked to say, there are a lot of copies out there, but if you’re an original, no one can mistake you for someone else. No one remembers the copies.

Don’t believe me? Okay, name three books patterned after COLD MOUNTAIN. Or SEX IN THE CITY. Or, if you want to go farther back in time, CATCH-22.

I thought not. And there’s a pretty good reason for that: agents, editors, and yes, contest judges tend to get most excited by fresh concepts, not tired ones.

You’re all familiar with what the publishing world means by the term fresh, right? To borrow a page from my writer’s glossary:

FRESH, adj.: Industry term for an unusual look at a well-worn topic; marketable. The industry truism is that they’re always looking for an author who is fresh, but not weird. (Weird can mean anything from a topic never written about before to an unpopular political spin to a book proposal in a non-standard folder.)

Fresh is not a synonym for original, precisely, but a marriage of originality and proven marketability, a new spin on something they already know that they can sell. This is why, in case you were wondering, agents and editors so often say things at conferences like, “I wish aspiring writers would pay attention to what’s on the bestseller list.”

They don’t mean that they’re looking for replicas of what’s to be found there — or rather, they don’t mean that if they’re savvy. What they want is a book for which they know there is an already-existing audience (thus the reference to the bestseller list) that is DIFFERENT from anything else that’s out there.

Sound tautological? Not necessarily. But given how small a window of opportunity a book has to grab an agent or editor’s attention during a query letter or pitch, broad freshness (“It’s JAWS set in a kindergarten class!”) tends to have an easier time catching the industry’s eye than more complex storylines.

In a contest entry, however, you do have a bit more leeway: if the writing is good, a judge is more likely to give an entry the benefit of the doubt. You also have more wiggle room with both judges and Millicents alike if your book happens to be funny — and not just because actually humorous writing is genuinely rare.

With comedy, a writer can get away being downright original, because of the nature of the exercise: spontaneous laughs are, after all, often produced by surprising the reader.

Which is precisely why, as I have mentioned before, a successful comic entry should do everything it can to avoid being predictable. Trust me, there is absolutely nothing more predictable in a contest entry — or a contemporary novel, or a memoir — than humorous references to the current zeitgeist.

And isn’t that a coincidence? Last time, I suggested that one of the best ways to endear your contest entry to a judge may be to go through it carefully, excising as much of the humor based upon current pop culture references as humanly possible. Don’t worry that it will make your work seem less hip: since it takes so long for the average manuscript to hit the shelves, even if a reference is brand-new, chances are that it will no longer be current by the time the book comes out.

There’s a term for this in the industry: dated. And another: not fresh.

I hear some dissention out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you pointing out, “there are plenty of books published every year that are up-to-the-minute topical and/or hip. I can understand where they might not age very well, but isn’t the point of a contest entry or submission to wow the judge or Millicent NOW? After all, I could always change the pop culture references just before the book went to press, couldn’t I?”

That’s kind of a clever way to look at it, faceless theorizers, but that’s not really the way a contest judge tends to think. They want to reward books that are going to be on the shelves for a while.

And frankly, they’re perfectly aware that books-of-the-moment don’t tend to be perennial sellers. Which, in case you were not aware of it, is the way that most authors who make a living at it earn their bread and butter: not by selling millions of copies of one book in a given year, but by selling thousands of copies of several different books.

Bestsellers are the exception — thus the comparison inherent in the name — and have always been. And, if you’ll forgive my saying so, there are factors other than quality of writing that can lead to a book’s being a runaway hit.

Scandal, for instance. The writer’s already being a celebrity. Being endorsed by a celebrity. Being written by a very well-known author. A great publicity campaign. A publishing house that really believes in the book and is willing to put a great deal of time and money into promoting it.

Yes, it would be nice to think that any well-written book would receive the benefit of the latter, but realistically, the vast majority released in any given year by U.S. publishing houses are allocated less than $2,000 in promotion. (Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve been to small launch parties where the wine cost more than that.)

So while your garden-variety contest judge would most likely be thrilled if an entry she sent on to the finals ended up on the bestseller list, she’s not really expecting it. No, she wants to recognize a good book that stands a decent chance of getting published, even of winning further awards.

My, you’re antsy today, readers; could it be that you’re trying to get a contest entry out the door? “But Anne,” some of you cry, “while this is undoubtedly interesting, I’m up against a deadline. Today is not the day I’m worried about originality; I’m concentrated on making my work funny. You had mentioned something a couple of posts ago about a few tests I can apply to my writing?”

Ah, but there’s been a method to my madness: most of the tests I’m going to pass along touch on BOTH the originality and the humor level of the manuscript. These tests will highlight mistakes that should set off warning bells while you are revising — because, believe me, they will be setting off hazard flares in the minds of agents, editors, and contest judges.

But going through all of the tests (not to mention what to do if any part of your entry runs afoul of them) is going to take up quite a bit of blog space, so I shall be delving into that tomorrow. In the meantime, give some thought to whether anything in your entry could have been written by any sentient being in the universe other than you.

I’m quite serious about that, you know. Most aspiring writers take a number of years — or even a couple of books — to discover their own individual literary voices. The voices of the authors we admire tend to creep into our work without our realizing it.

And that’s just not good, either for comedy in general or comic contest entries in particular. Contrary to the oft-repeated truism, only conscious imitation could possibly be construed as anything remotely approaching flattery — and even then, I’m inclined to think the debt should be attributed openly.

I’m not going to give you an exercise for this — it’s up to every writer’s conscience to draw the line between being inspired by another artist’s work and lifting from it. The line is almost always pretty fuzzy.

But if you find instances in your entries or manuscripts where it isn’t, you might want to take those parts back to the revision board. Any given contest judge may have read and admired the same author you have, after all. Chances are, if it’s a living writer of any repute, a fairly hefty proportion of your target audience will have, too.

You want to win fame and fortune for YOUR literary voice and YOUR trenchant observations upon the human condition, don’t you?

The moral of the day: people still remember Mae West, my friends, not her hundreds of imitators. Here’s to all of us being originals on the page — and keeping up the good work!

PS: did anyone but me catch that big ol’ typo on the titles of the main network pre-Oscars red carpet show? It was a prime example of the kind of editing mistake one is likely to make when editing on a computer screen — and a problem that no spell-checker in the world would ever catch: it referred to the Oscar’s, not the Oscars.

But don’t I already have a date to the prom? part II


Nifty logo, eh? It’s my ever-so-subtle way of reminding those of you in the greater Boston area about my upcoming talk at Harvard next Saturday, January 26th. I shall be speaking on the Multiple Myths of Philip K. Dick, along with David Gill of — and since this will be my first public speech on the subject of my legally embattled memoir, I think it may be a tad on the exciting side.

Come to meet me, stay to hear Orson Scott Card or play Scrabble with a HarvardianVericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF convention, is typically a hoot, so it’s well worth the (quite inexpensive, and even less so for students) price of admission. I have been a bit quieter on the subject than I should have, I realize, considering that preregistration is less expensive than paying at the door.

I shall be plugging this event shamelessly over the next week, of course. I always like meeting my readers, and it really is about time that I started talking about the memoir, threats or no. (In case any of you were wondering, despite what Amazon says, my memoir never actually came out, due to the aforementioned lawsuit threats; my publisher apparently never changed the release information. So thank you to those of you who have asked, but I’m afraid that I can’t score a stray copy for anyone, because they were never actually printed. Sorry about that.)


Like that little red picket fence separating the plug for my talk from today’s business? As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been spending the week going through my ever-expanding gee, I need to blog on that someday list, the place where I keep track of all of the murky issues writers have asked me to clarify at some point.

Our murk du jour — actually, I began talking about it yesterday, as those of you who tuned in yesterday already know, so I suppose it is now the murk des deux jours — concerns submission to an agent who has asked for an exclusive look at the manuscript or an agency that will, as a matter of policy, will only accept exclusive submissions.

At the end of yesterday’s post on the different kinds of exclusives, I was positive that I heard some polite hemming out there in the ether, “Um, Anne?” some of you would-be submitters piped, “I’m a trifle confused. If, as you say, agencies that have an exclusives-only policy are so upfront about it, why do you keep getting questions from writers about how to deal with them AFTER the query has already gone out? Surely, the asking writers knew about the policy before they queried, right?”

Point well taken, but I’m not here to judge; I come bearing advice. The fact is, some aspiring writers do find themselves caught with a submission or two already out when the request for an exclusive submission comes in, and today, I’m going to talk about how they should handle it.

Hey, it can happen. Perhaps the writer (let’s call her Mehitabel) suddenly won a contest entered months before, and thus is suddenly a hot commodity, prompting an agent (let’s call him Quentin) to want to snap her up before others can woo her. Or maybe Mehitabel is sought-after because she abruptly snagged an Oscar, rescued a child fallen down a well, or declared a run for the presidency.

Why wouldn’t Quentin just rush up to her and offer a representation contract on the spot, if Mehitabel is such a hot ticket? Because the industry just doesn’t work that way; he’s going to want to see if he likes her writing first, not just her premise or her personally. More importantly, he needs to determine whether he thinks he can sell her writing easily to his already-existing contacts.

Either of which would be tough to pull off without reading the book in question.

Actually, these questions are not only at the top of the consideration list with a hot ticket — contrary to the expectations of many a pitcher at many a literary conference, agents literally never offer representation on an idea or prestige alone.

Did those first couple of examples seem a trifle far-fetched? Well, try a more common scenario on for size: perhaps other agents had been sitting on Mehitabel’s manuscript so long that she honestly wasn’t sure if her work was still under consideration when she queried Quentin, who works at an exclusives-only agency.

Or, still more common, perhaps she betting that she would hear back from Quentin before she received responses to any of the other two dozen queries she sent out three weeks ago along with the one to him.

Or perhaps — and I say this not to criticize our Mehitabel, who goodness knows has been working hard for years, but to prompt second thoughts amongst those who might be placing themselves in this position — she went ahead and included Quentin on her query list because she didn’t read his agency’s website closely enough.

However Mehitabel has ended up in the frankly rather enviable position of having several agents, one of whom is exclusive-happy, wanting to take a gander at her work, the fact remains that she now has a genuine dilemma on her hands. Since she already has submissions with agents, what is she to do about Quentin’s request for an exclusive?

Actually, before I answer that, why don’t you take a stab at it? Should Mehitabel:

(a) Wait in impatient silence until she hears back from the agents who already have it before sending it out — and then, if they do not offer representation, send out to Quentin along with a cover letter agreeing to an exclusive?

(b) Pretend that she doesn’t have submissions at other agencies, and just go ahead and send the requested materials to Quentin, trusting to Providence that not all of the agents will ask to represent her work?

(c) Call or e-mail Quentin, explain the situation, and ask if she should submit anyway?

(d) Contact the agents who already have the work, explain the situation, and ask them to hurry their decision to accept or reject her, so that she may get back to Quentin in a timely manner?

(e) Curse the day that she listened to that darned fool on the Internet who told her that it was more efficient to query many agents at once, rather than one at a time?

Scratching your head over this one? Before you commit to your final answer, let’s run through the pros and cons of each path:

If Mehitabel goes with option (a), she will be taking the moral high road (particularly if she sends Quentin an e-mail explaining why she can’t send off the requested materials right away). However, she will not have any control over how long it will take for the others to get back to her, so she will risk Quentin’s interest in her book cooling off.

How so? Well, in case you haven’t been submitting long enough to have first-hand experience of the phenomenon, it is far from uncommon for agents not to respond either positively or negatively to a submission for several months, for the exceedingly simple reason that they haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Basically, by being too shy to check in with any of the agents involved, Mehitabel is dooming herself — and Quentin — to a possibly protracted wait.

If Mehitabel sets karmic considerations to one side and chooses option (b), however, she can get all of her requested materials mailed off toute suite. If only one of the agents offers representation, no one ever need know that she’s been a shade duplicitous.

If, on the other hand, more than one agent offers to sign her, or if (and this is the more common outcome) one agent offers before the others have responded, Mehitabel is going to be placed in the unpleasant position of having to ‘fess up to having simultaneously submitted. This would tend to burn her bridges with Quentin — and possibly with the others, if she hadn’t told any of them that there were other agents looking at her manuscript.

Quentins tend to hate that — as, actually, do most agents. And that can lead to a whole lot of unnecessary stress later on — because, really, there is no graceful way to explain to an agent who thinks he is the only one looking at it that if you don’t hear back from him within two weeks, you’re going to sign with someone else.

Not all that happy with option (b)? Does option (c) look like the most polite route — or at any rate, the one least likely to get Mehitabel in trouble with Quentin?

Actually, it isn’t, but it will take some of our favorite pastime, translating between points of view, to see why. Let’s take a gander at the probable e-mail exchange between Mehitabel and Quentin:

Dear Mehitabel:
Thank you for querying me with your novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS. Please send the first fifty pages.
As you may already know, our agency will accept only exclusive submissions. Please enclose a SASE.

Dear Quentin:
Thank you for your interest in my novel. I would be happy to give you an exclusive, but the fact is, two other agents already have partial manuscripts, and I don’t know when I shall be hearing back from them. I’m really impressed with your agency, though, and I certainly don’t want to knock it out of consideration.
Since it would obviously be impossible for me to give you an exclusive on material that’s already elsewhere, is it okay if I just go ahead and send you what I’ve sent the others?

Dear Mehitabel:
As I mentioned, my agency only accepts submissions on an exclusive basis.

Notice what happened here? Mehitabel tried to shift responsibility for solving her dilemma onto Quentin’s shoulders. From her POV, this made perfect sense: his request had caused a problem, so she asked him to modify his request.

From Quentin’s POV, however, she was asking him to change agency policy for the sake of a single writer who, for all he knows, simply did not bother to check what those policies were before querying. What possible incentive could he have for saying yes?

Mehitabel has thus inadvertently fallen into a very, very common trap for those new to submission: she is acting as though she has a personal relationship with Quentin, one that might make it permissible for her to ask a fairly big favor.

Essentially, she forgot that this is a business transaction — and in this, she is certainly not alone. Contrary to what many aspiring writers (especially those new to in-person pitching) believe, agents don’t ask to see pages because they are nice or because they instantly took a liking to a writer; they want to see work that they believe they can sell.

Remember, Quentin is not just looking for a talented writer — he’s looking for his dream client. ln that relationship, liking each other is icing on the cake, not a necessary precondition. Being a dream client is largely about professionalism. So in any pre-signing exchange, Quentin would be trying to assess how reliable she is likely to be as a client, whether she is likely to be able to meet deadlines or whether she will be profuse with excuses, how good she is at following directions…

Based upon those criteria, do you think Mehitabel went up or down in his estimation by sending that e-mail? Uh-huh.

Which brings us to option (d), contacting the agents who already have the work (i.e., not Quentin), explaining the situation, and asking them to hurry their decision to accept or reject her, so that she may get back to Quentin in a timely manner. While this might appear at first blush to be brazen or even rude, it is actually the best course for Mehitabel.

(I assume, of course, that you rejected option [e] on sight, as it would have cast some slight doubt upon your faith in yours truly. Which, naturally, you’re perfectly at liberty to do. I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: it’s up to you whether to take my advice or not, but I do expend great effort to give you my logic at length so you may make an informed choice. However, in this case, writers have contacted me to ask for my opinion on this particular subject, so I am giving it.)

Why is (d) the best course? Because it doesn’t involve either lying to Quentin (a poor idea) or dithering at him (also not good) — in fact, it places the question of timing squarely where it belongs, upon the agents who are already considering the book in question, not making demands upon someone who is not yet doing so.

Obviously, Mehitabel should not be brusque in making the request — and in her shaky shoes, I would probably wait until the other agents had the manuscript for at least a couple of weeks before sending something like the following:

Dear Jessica:
I am sorry to have to disturb you while you are considering my novel, TERMINAL INDECISIVENESS, but I thought you would like to be aware that another agent has requested the manuscript. As he has asked for an exclusive, however, I would need to hear back from you before I could legitimately submit it to him.
I hate to rush you, as I know that you are very busy indeed, but if you decide you are not interested, I would like to get it into his hands as soon as possible. Could you possibly arrange to make a decision within the next three weeks?
Thank you so much — and again, I am sorry to have to rush you.

Now, Jessica could always say no, of course, as could the other agent who is reading Mehitabel’s work. But 95% of the time, they won’t — especially if, as is often the case in situations like Mehitabel’s, they’ve already had the manuscript for a month or two. (Or five.)

Note, please, that Mehitabel has been too smart to take Jessica to task for how long it has been; she is merely filling an interested agent in on what’s going on with the book. Far more likely to get a positive response than a whine about how an illiterate three-year-old could have managed to decipher the manuscript by now, I assure you.

If they say yes, or if they do not respond at all — more common than you might think — Mehitabel has at least made a good-faith effort to play fair in a difficult situation. Since she has already told Jessica that she will be granting an exclusive in three weeks’ time, she may go ahead and submit to Quentin then with a clear conscience. If he does make an offer, great; if he doesn’t, she may always go back to the first two.

Is that muttering I hear out there indicative of some confusion? “But Anne,” the mutterers murmur, “What happens if Jessica comes back AFTER that three-week period and offers representation?”

Great question, background mutterers — but it’s one for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Spreading the joy — and a bit more advice about engaging professional readers


Before I launch into today’s topic, I have some wonderful news to report: long-time blog reader Thomas DeWolf has a memoir coming out from Beacon Press in January! Congratulations, Tom!

This is one of those “See, it CAN be done!” stories I love to pass along: Tom, you see, is one of those good writers with a good story who took the time to learn how the business works. As a reader of my blog on the PNWA site (don’t worry; the archives are all here, so you’re not missing anything), he e-mailed me a set of insightful questions, then sought out the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace to refine his pitch.

That was two years ago, and I STILL remember the story: INHERITING THE TRADE is about Tom’s discovery (at the age of 47!) that he was descended from the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history, responsible for importing over 10,000 Africans to the Americas. Horrified yet intrigued, Tom retraced his ancestors’ business dealings from New England to West Africa to Cuba, trying both to learn the truth and come to terms with what his family had done.

Not the kind of story one forgets, eh?

Everybody, please join me in a warm round of applause for Tom. As his publication date approaches, I shall keep you posted on his book’s progress. And please, everyone, remember to drop me a line about your triumphs when the happy day comes, so we can all share in the joy.

Okay, back to business.

For the last couple of posts, I have been talking about yet another present the legendary Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver might want to consider for the aspiring writers on his list: a few hours’ worth (or a few hundred pages’ worth) of professional editing. But, as I argued yesterday, whatever you — or Santa — decide you want from a freelance editor, make sure you know PRECISELY what services you are buying. And before you (or the Furtive NDGG) invest what can be quite a bit of money in the editing process, it’s important to have a clear idea of what you want to get out of the experience as a writer.

Other than to be picked up by an agent and/or sell the book to a publisher after taking the freelancer’s advice, of course. Actually, since freelance editors stand outside the agency and publishing house, none of us can legitimately make promises that any specific advice we give will unquestionably result in landing an agent or eventual publication.

And if you encounter anyone who tells you otherwise, run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit. As on the Internet, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Let the buyer beware.

So what can a legitimate freelance editor offer you? Well, among other things, perhaps answers about why a manuscript sporting a really good premise and good writing has been getting rejected. Remember, most manuscripts are rejected within the first page or two, for reasons that might not be apparent to the lay reader. A professional reader well versed in the writing norms of a particular book category or genre, however, can often give substantial insight into how to tweak a manuscript to avoid pitfalls.

Call me zany, but I suspect that there are many, many aspiring writers out there who would like to be told if there is a fixable problem behind all of those form-letter rejections that don’t specify what went wrong. (Are you listening, Furtive NDGG? You’ve already checked that list twice; leave it alone and pay attention.)

To bolster the egos I felt sagging during the last two paragraphs: not having some magical internal sensor that tells one just what the problem is most emphatically not a reflection upon one’s writing talent. Spotting it is usually a matter of experience, pure and simple.

As I mentioned yesterday, agents and editors don’t read like everyone else, and neither do good freelance editors. Our eyes are trained to jump on problems like… well, fill in any predator-prey analogy you like here. The point is, we’re fast, and our aim is deadly.

Since manuscripts are now expected to be completely publication-ready by the time they reach an agent’s desk — although they are frequently revised afterward — getting professional feedback can be exceptionally helpful. However — and this is a BIG however — writers new to having their work edited are often astounded, and even hurt, by just HOW straightforward professional feedback can be.

Think about that very, very carefully before you give this particular present, Furtive NDGG.

Now that I’ve put Santa on the qui vive, allow me to give the rest of you a heads-up: like an agent or editor at a publishing house, a good freelance editor is not going to pull any punches. The manner of conveying the information may be kind, but if any of them believe that a particular writing issue is going to harm your book’s market prospects, they are going to tell you so point-blank.

That is, after all, what they are being paid to do. That may seem self-evident, but in practice, it often isn’t.

That’s understandable, right? Serious manuscript feedback generally isn’t fun even when it’s free. While the brain may understand that critique is a good idea, the emotions often hold the opposite opinion. Someone who approaches the process primarily seeking ego reassurance from someone in the biz that his work is fine as it stands is almost invariably going to be disappointed.

And let’s face it, most of us write in the hope and expectation that someone will pay US to read our work, not that we will need to pay someone to read it. It can make one a mite testy.

The result: pretty much every editor you will find will have at least one story about the writer who showed up insisting that he wanted no-holds-barred, professional-level feedback — and then freaked out the instant he got it, because he hadn’t expected to be told to change his manuscript.

It sounds funny, but actually, it’s a not-uncommon result of a writer’s going into the editorial process — or into dealing with an agent or publishing house; the essential pattern’s the same — not understanding how the industry views criticism, as an impersonal means of improving the marketability of a manuscript.

I am reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s story about being solicited to write a preface for a charity cookbook — you know, one of those collections of recipes that were so popular as fundraisers in the 1970s. The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came to visit Fisher, a neighbor of theirs, in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause, so she donated her expertise.

Well (the story goes), Fisher took the draft book from them and had a good, professional look through it. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies, all of the things that professional writers and editors automatically flag in a manuscript.

When she looked up, however, the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas in fact she had been paying them the compliment of taking their project {seriously}.

Yes, yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. But as I have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ’em.

The fact is, from a professional perspective, whitewashing an editorial opinion about a manuscript is a waste of everyone’s time. In a freelance editor’s feedback, it would border on unethical.

For those of you who think that this mindset sounds like a pretty fine reason to steer clear of anyone who might be tempted or empowered to pay this particular stripe of compliment, let me hasten to add: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; you need to develop it as part of your tool kit.

Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already have it up your sleeve.

This is precisely why your dream agent probably should not be the first human being to set eyes on your work. If you do not have experience rolling with harsh-but-true feedback, it is well worth your while to join a very critical writing group, or take a writing class from a real dragon, or (why didn’t I think of this before?) show some of your work to a freelance editor, before you send your work to an agent.

Trust me, it is much, much easier to accept suggestions on how to revise your work gracefully when your critiquer is NOT the person who is going to decide whether to take you on as a client or acquire your book. The stakes are lower, so it’s less stressful by far. The experience alone is a pretty good reason to run at least part of your manuscript (say, the first 50 pages) across a freelance editor’s desk.

Which brings me to my final piece of advice on the subject: if you are brand-new to textual feedback, or if the potential cost of having all 542 pages of your baby edited makes your head spin, there’s no earthly reason that you need to jump into professional-level feedback with both feet right off the bat. (I’m sure I could have mixed a few more metaphors there, but you catch my drift, I’m sure.) Consider starting with just the first chapter, or the first few chapters, and working up from there.

This may sound as though I’m advising you to feed yourself to a school of piranha one toe at a time, but hear me out. One of the toughest lessons that every successful writer has to learn is that, regardless of how much we may wish it otherwise, agents don’t pick up books simply because someone wrote them. Nor do publishing houses offer contracts to books primarily because their authors really, really feel strongly about them.

Of course, these are the first steps to becoming a professional author, but they are not the only ones. The pros learn not only to write, but to rewrite — and yes, to take some pretty stark criticism in stride in the process. Not because having one’s words dissected is fun on a personal level, but because that is what the business side of this business expects from the creative side.

Your book is worth learning to live with that, isn’t it? Keep up the good work.

Steering between the Scylla of over-confidence and the Charybdis of under-confidence, or, a Thanksgiving meditation on the blessings of interactive gratitude

Yes, yes, I know: this is a national holiday, and by all that is right, patriotic, and holy, I ought to be lying prone on some big, well-upholstered piece of furniture, moaning about how much turkey I managed to stuff down my gullet over the course of the day, rather than posting here. But I’m still convalescing, thank you very much, a state not very conducive to reveling with pie.

This is also the first Thanksgiving within the span of my memory when I haven’t at least helped with the cooking, so I burn to be useful. Don’t get up off the couch; I’ll just lecture you from afar.

My charming SO has spent the last hour telling me that I can — and, presumably, should — take at least a few days off a year from burning to be useful, lest I find myself reduced to a Joan of Arc-style pile of cinders (which, frankly, didn’t look awfully good on her, and probably wouldn’t look any better on me). But one of the first things any editor learns upon getting into the advice-giving business is that writerly angst doesn’t take holidays.

Lest you doubt this: when I sat down to write tonight, I found no fewer than three e-mails from writer friends in my inbox, asking for advice. (I knew that they must be from friends, because mere acquaintances would have waited to send them until tomorrow.)

So: back to business. For those of you just joining us after a long winter’s nap, I’ve been yammering for the last couple of days about the desirability of SIOA — Send It Out, Already! — when one is faced with a request for pages, rather than revising and revising the manuscript for so long that the window of opportunity closes on the agent’s request.

Yesterday, I gave a pep talk to those good writers who find themselves currently in the painful throes of SIOA-avoidance, as well as laying the conceptual groundwork so writers who have not yet encountered “But is it REALLY ready?” turmoil will be prepared for it when it comes. Because, frankly, at one time or another, fear of submission has struck every successful writer I have ever known.

Okay, not EVERY: some are blessed with a superabundance of self-confidence, but in the publishing industry as in so many others, the hugely confident tend to be the folks who leave the air in their wake positively blackened with the smoke of their burning bridges.

Give me a worried nail-biter any day, I say. (Well, perhaps not on Christmas… or my birthday… but I can walk away from my e-mail any time, I tell you.)

The most confident writer I have encountered was a cookbook author who blandished me a couple of years ago (around Christmas, as a matter of fact) into introducing her to my agent and helping her with her book proposal practically to the point of co-authorship, only to pretend that she didn’t know me as soon as the ink dried on her book contract. She never seemed to doubt for an instant that the world needed her book — and apparently, a publisher agreed with her, because it’s out now.

For some reason, the agented encounter this stripe of bizarre super-confidence amongst favor-askers all the time: evidently, the shy, self-effacing, and polite are substantially less likely to approach us. (Which is one reason, in case you’re curious, that I respond so enthusiastically to those of you who post questions as comments here — here, I can answer a question once for the benefit of many, rather than one at a time privately.)

The persistence of the over-persistent ought to annoy the polite a little, because the boundary-pushers make it harder for everyone in the long run. For instance, one of the reasons that published authors tend to be reluctant to give feedback to hopeful strangers is that such a favor so often engenders not the gratitude it should, alas, but a detailed (and not always courteous) explanation from the overly-confident about how the kind author’s advice could not possibly be anywhere near the ballpark of correct.

Why, just the other day, the excellent and hilarious Bob Tarte, FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) and animal life memoirist extraordinaire, sent me this illuminating anecdote on the subject:

A writer who had read Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather emailed and asked me questions about how to write her query, attaching a copy of the query. I answered the questions and made suggestions about re-writing the query. The response from the writer: a detailed argument about my suggestions. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no authority on queries, but it seems to me that if you ask an author for input, then you should probably accept or dismiss the suggestions — and ask additional questions if you need to — but don’t argue with a person who is trying to help you out.

I’m with you, Bob: I can’t even count the number of times that writers have asked for my advice on a particular point — not infrequently by buttonholing me at a social event to ask me to summarize, essentially, an entire category’s worth of blog posts — and then came back to tell me with evident glee that they decided that it wasn’t worth taking, for the following fourteen reasons…

If I’m the only habitual advice-giver who doesn’t find it especially satisfying to be thanked this way… well, I won’t complete that thought, because I know for a fact that I’m not.

And how do I know that? Because spend an hour at any gathering of established authors, agents, editors, writing teachers, and the like (at, say, the bar at a writers’ conference), and you will almost certainly hear at least three complaints (often in the form of hilariously-embellished anecdotes, complete with mimicked voices) about this kind of behavior.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: while it’s perfectly fine to ask an author you admire for advice — because, after all, s/he always has the option of saying no — if the author is generous enough to respond, recognize that granting you a one-time favor does not imply an invitation to a lifetime of debate.

Simple thanks would do. Flowers would be nice, of course, but not strictly speaking necessary.

Sometimes, though, the super-confident camouflage argument under the cover of thanks. I once had a writer friend hit me up for detailed advice on a contest entry. After I gave it, he was so good as not only to explain to me in vivid Technicolor why my advice was misguided, but go on to hit up my mother (also a writer and editor) for feedback on his entire manuscript.

Wait — there’s more. Over my gasps of disapproval, my dear old white-headed mother was generous enough to ignore the fact that the book was half again as long as novels in that genre generally were and gave it some gentle analysis.

Need I even tell you that the writer responded promptly by sending her an EXTENSIVE letter, ostensibly thanking her for her trouble, but also meticulously addressing each point she had raised to demonstrate that she didn’t know what she was talking about? Or that many of the issues he raised there were ones for which I had already established well-defined categories here on the blog?

I’m bringing this up not to complain (okay, not ONLY to complain), but because over-confident writers often extend this type of behavior to agents and editors at publishing houses as well. Calling an agent to pitch on the phone, for instance. Or e-mailing a flame-mail response to a thoughtful rejection letter. Walking up to a rejecting agent or editor at a conference and demanding, “Why did you reject that manuscript I sent you six months ago?”

Or, the engenderer of many an embellished cocktail party anecdote, shooting back a letter to a rejecting agent jumping on one of the standard industry euphemisms: “What do you mean, you just didn’t fall in love with it? HOW doesn’t my book fit our needs at this time?”

This just isn’t good long-term career strategy.

Why am I harping upon the outrages upon etiquette committed by the tiny fraction of aspiring writers who happen to be blessed (or cursed, depending upon how you look at it) with complete confidence that they are so extraordinarily talented that everyone in the publishing industry not only should be delighted to help them — and that within seconds of having formed the acquaintance, or even before — but should confine their critique to Gee, your query letter/pitch/manuscript is magnificent. Don’t change a thing?

Because it doesn’t take very many such approaches to render the approached wary of ALL aspiring writers, including the 80% who would never dream of being so rude. Bombarded with many such approaches, as agents are, often from aspiring writers who have not learned enough about the industry to be aware that there IS any other way to try to market a book, wariness can turn fairly quickly to standoffishness toward the hopeful.

An attitude that, alas, is very discouraging for the shy. Having witnessed it in action– as a coldly-worded form rejection letter, perhaps, a slow response to a submission, or a “Well, that kind of book just isn’t selling right now” response to a pitch — the sensitive writer can fall prey to frightening fantasies about, say, how nasty the next rejection may be.

Or how mad that agent is going to be that three months have passed, and I haven’t sent those requested materials yet. Oh, it’s going to be terrible; maybe I’d better not send them out at all.

Starting to sound familiar? The over-confident’s dream transforms into the under-confident’s nightmare: the pushiness of the former feeds the environment that in turn feeds the fear of the latter.

Perhaps I’m overly-optimistic, but I believe that if more writers took the time to express gratitude for the help we DO get — and no, I’m not fishing — there would, in time, be more help available. I’ve met plenty of folks involved in publishing who honestly do like to lend a hand — and would do so happily, if not for the fear that the extended hand was going to be used as a ladder.

But this is a change that’s going to happen incrementally, through a lot of small acts of kindness in return for kindness.

Case in point: Bob Tarte sent me a really helpful anecdote to use here on the blog, and I’m grateful. So not only am I going to mention that I REALLY admire his writing — he is genuinely funny, not praise I bestow lightly — but I’m going to go ahead and post his book jackets here, for ease of recognition in a bookstore:

/snapshot-2007-11-23-00-24-39.tiff /snapshot-2007-11-23-00-26-24.tiff

Heck, I’m even going to add a plug for his new project, a weekly 30-minute podcast on exotic pets (anything other than cats, dogs, and livestock) on the aptly-named The show is called, much to my amusement, What Were You Thinking? and he co-hosts it with his lovely wife, Linda.

Okay, so it’s a small thing, but it gets the ball rolling.

And illustrates perhaps the best argument I can possibly give to the super-confident about why their tactics may not serve them in the long term: you don’t see me plugging the work of that forgetful cookbook author here, do you?

As my beloved first writing teacher, Philip K. Dick, liked to say: “Never screw over a living writer. You’ll only end up as material.”

Keep up the good work!


Now that I have finally wrapped up the Book Marketing 101 series (phew!), I am looking forward to a nice, leisurely couple of months’ discussion of common red flags that tend to traject submissions into the reject pile faster than a writer new to the process can say, “But I didn’t know that there WAS a standard format for manuscripts, or that a manuscript page wasn’t supposed to look just like the same page in a published book!” (If that last sentence didn’t make you smirk knowingly, you might want to check out the FORMATING MANUSCRIPTS category at right before you proceed much farther in your writing career.)

Before I launch into that worthy endeavor, I would like to take the opportunity to urge those of you who have owed requested materials to an agent for a full season — from, say, having pitched successfully at a summer conference or received a positive response to a query prior to the annual August holidays — to send it out, already.

As in, if possible, this week.

Did that request make panic-generated fireworks go off in some writerly heads out there? I shouldn’t wonder; the last time I checked, over 70% of requested manuscripts were never actually sent to the agents and editors that requested them. That’s a whole lot of potentially publishable writing sitting in a whole lot of desk drawers.

Let’s give some thought to why that might be.

Consider, if you will, Zack, a good-but-as-yet-unagented novelist. Zack has been looking for an agent for quite some time now for a well-written, complex book — the kind of book that folks in the industry like to describe, if they’re feeling charitable, as “needing precisely the right agent/editor/push campaign.” (If they’re not feeling charitable, they describe it as “difficult.”)

In short, Zack’s novel is original, and the perfect agent has yet to fall in love with it.

We’ve all been there, right? If I haven’t said it again recently, allow me to remind you that the time elapsed between when a writer begins to seek an agent for a particular project and when she finally signs with one is NOT necessarily an especially reliable predictor of the writer’s talent.

In fact, it usually isn’t a predictor at all: if the writing quality were the only factor involved, we wouldn’t ever see a bad book on the tables at the front of a chain bookstore, would we?

But try convincing a well-meaning friend or relative — the kind that might lecture one over turkey at a certain annual family gathering about the desirability of dropping a time-consuming hobby that has not yet yielded fortune or fame — that even the best books often take time to find the right home, eh? Non-writers tend to assume that talent is the ONLY factor, but then, the non-writing world lives under the happy delusion that the only reason a book would not get published right away is that it isn’t any good!

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: plenty of good writers have queried for years before getting picked up, and frankly, it’s harder to land an agent today than it was even five years ago.

Okay, pep talk administered. Back to my tale.

Like a sensible writer, Zack knows that his book’s only chance of getting published lies in his promoting it to agents and editors, so he routinely spends the spring and summer going around to literary conferences. Since he both has an interesting story to tell and is a talented pitcher, he always picks up a few requests to see all or part of the book.

Yet invariably, when I see him at holiday parties, he responds uncomfortably to my eager inquires about how agents have responded to his submissions. “I’m still revising the end of the book,” he says, eyes averted.

We have this exchange down to a ritual now, so I ask, “Does that mean that you haven’t sent out the first 50 to the agents who asked you for it, either?”

Zack looks sheepish, self-righteous, and fearful all at once, a facial feat I would have sworn was not possible. “I want to be completely ready when they ask to see the rest.”

Readers, care to know how often you are on my mind? Exactly three seconds before I start to read him the riot act on the virtues of SIOA (Send It Out, Already!), I routinely think, “Gee, how long has it been since I’ve blogged about this? I really should do a reminder post.”

So here I am, telling you: if you got a request prior to the first week of September (and I mean this LAST September, not the one before) to send all or part of a manuscript to an agent or editor, please, please SIOA!

Yes, even if it isn’t perfect. Requests for materials are like vitamins, boxes of cereal, and hunks of meat: they come with expiration dates.

Not firm ones, of course, but when a request is made, it is considered professional to follow up on it in a timely manner. It shows what a good client you would be: after all, your agent would like to be able to tell editors, “Oh, she’s great about meeting deadlines.”

More to the point, I’ve never met an agent or editor yet whose raving praise about an author included the words, “And when I ask for something, she doesn’t get back to me for eight months!”

Sounds flippant, I know, but from a business perspective, it’s a legitimate question. After all, an author working under a book contract would not have the luxury of setting aside a manuscript for a few months until she had a few unbroken weeks’ time to make requested revisions, right?

Most of the time, of course, a requesting agent is not going to be drumming her nails on her desk for months on end, wondering where a particular submission is, unless the submitter is already a client. If a project that particularly excited her in query or pitch form doesn’t appear, she’s likely to assume that the writer went with another agent — or dropped the project entirely.

She’s going to move on without following up.

Please, please don’t wait for her to nag you about sending those requested materials; it’s not going to happen. Just SIOA.

Many aspiring writers misinterpret silence from the requester’s end as a lapse of interest, but that isn’t necessarily the case; a good agent simply has too many books on the brain — and too many eager writers clamoring for her attention — to badger writers slow to submit.

And even if she were so inclined, remember, this person doesn’t know you. From the requester’s end of the relationship, there isn’t necessarily any visible difference between not receiving requested materials because the writer’s obsessing over whether every comma is right, because the writer just hasn’t had time to give it a once-over, because the writer has had a sudden bout of massive insecurity, and because the writer had been pitching or querying a book not yet written.

And frankly, most pros would expect that if those first chapters did need to be written from scratch post-request, it could be done successfully between midsummer and Christmas, anyway. From a writer’s POV, that may not be a particularly realistic expectation, given how most aspiring writers are already struggling to sandwich their writing between work and family and friends and a million other demands upon their time, but remember, at the submission stage, intentions don’t count for much.

Agents and editors want to judge a writer by what’s on the page, and they can’t do that without having pages to read. The general expectation –for fiction, at least — is that if the book is at the querying/pitching point, it ought to be ready to send out.

Which isn’t always the case in practice, admittedly. An aspiring writer might jump the gun on querying for a number of reasons: because conferences fall at particular times of year, for instance, or because that terrific new character didn’t pop into the mind until a week after the query letter went out. Or because some darned fool of an Internet expert told you that the industry moves with glacial speed during certain parts of the year, and you wanted to beat the post New Year’s rush.

Heck, I once won a major literary award for a memoir for which I had written only the first chapter and synopsis. But I knew enough about the industry to respond to agents’ requests for a book proposal with a chipper, “Great! I can have a proposal to you in six weeks.” Then I sat down and wrote it during the August publishing lull.

But the point is, I did send it out, and that’s how my agency was able to figure out that it wanted to sign me.

“But Anne,” I hear those who had planned on spending another few months polishing their submissions piping up, “you said that the industry shuts down between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that it’s not a good idea to query just after the New Year. Why does it make any difference if I send it now or in February?”

A couple of very good reasons, actually: first, enthusiasm is not a permanent condition, but a fleeting one.

The fact is, the chances of the requester’s remembering you (and, more importantly, your book) are significantly higher now than three months from now. A long lapse is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s not unheard-of for an agent to respond to a submission that arrives six months after a pitch with a statement that she doesn’t remember having requested it.

The second reason is that many, many agents and editors spend the next month and a half catching up on their READING. The industry slows down not because everyone who works in a publishing house takes six weeks off, but because there are so many Judeo-Christian holidays during that period that it’s hard to get enough bodies together for an editorial meeting.

Why is that significant? Well, unlike agencies, where an individual agent can decide to take a chance on a new author, a publishing house’s acquiring a book requires the collective agreement of a great many people. If the requisite bodies are heading over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, it’s kinda hard to obtain their consent to anything.

But as anyone who has had much contact with the industry knows, it’s full of folks who tend to deal with the most immediate crisis of any given moment. Naturally, this workplace orientation results in much work being put off until some nebulous future date when the agent or editor has time to deal with it.

Wild guesses as to when they get around to it? Right: between now and the end of the year. And because agents know that editors will be occupied with what is already on their overburdened desks, they tend to curl up with a few good manuscripts and take a well-deserved breather, too.

In other words, it behooves a submitting writer to adhere to their calendar, rather than expecting them to follow yours.

“Why,” I hear one plaintive-but-reasonable voice out there demanding querulously, “in an industry where it is considered perfectly acceptable for an agent to take several months to get back to a writer who has submitted a manuscript, and six months or more for an editor to read a submission via an agent,” (yes, it happens) “should there be ANY restrictions on how long I have to send out requested materials? Why is the writer the only one expected to adhere to a tacit deadline?”

Want the honest answer? (Look away NOW if you don’t.) Because the writer is the one with the least power in this situation, and the competition for scarce representation and publishing slots is fierce.

Any well-established agent or editor sees hundreds upon hundreds of perfectly-formatted, well-written submissions per year: they don’t worry too much about the one who got away. And that gives them the power to set unreasonable (and, yes, as regular readers of this blog already know, often unwritten and unspoken) rules for writerly conduct.

Unfortunately, it’s as simple as that.

Amongst agents and editors, the writer who pitches well but never sends in the requested follow-up materials is as notorious as the guy who doesn’t call again after the first date. As is the NF writer who comes up with a stellar book idea but never actually submits a book proposal. Ask any agent: they find this phenomenon genuinely frustrating.

But it is common enough that after an agent has been in the biz for a while, she usually isn’t holding her breath waiting for ANY pitched or queried book to show up on her desk just because she asked for it. No, she’s not the kind of girl to sit by the phone.

Now, logically, one might expect that this ambient cynicism would mean that the writer had MORE time leeway, rather than less. Even an agent who flatly fell in love with a pitch wouldn’t be at all upset if the requested pages didn’t show up for a couple of months; if he’s at all experienced, he would already be aware that almost every writer on the planet likes to give the book one last read-through before submitting it, to catch any rookie, grammatical, or continuity mistakes. And, of course, he’s not the kind of boy to sit by the phone.

However, as I mentioned above, publishing is very much a seasonal business; the pros even talk about the year that way. Is your book a summer novel, a fall culture book, or a late winter special interest release? In practice, this means that submissions that might be tossed into a pile of fifty to molder during one month might be being placed in much, much shorter piles in another, where they might be read within a week or two.

But that’s not the only reason you should SIOA now. As any of my editing clients (they’re the ones cringing in that corner over there) can tell you, I am the last person on earth who would advise submitting a manuscript that has fundamental problems. And realistically, if you absolutely had to, you might be able to get away with sending requested materials as much as 5 months after the request, if you were polite enough to send a letter explaining the need for delay quite early in the process.

However, it has been my experience that if a writer puts off sending requested materials for more than a couple of months, they may not get sent at all. Let me repeat that statistic from above: somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of requested materials are NEVER sent to their requestors.

That’s a whole lot of lost opportunity, isn’t it? And that’s just sad. SIOA, my friends: it may be scary, but it’s a necessary – and indispensable — step in becoming a professional writer.

But don’t beat yourself up if you recognized yourself in this post; many, many good writers sometimes have a hard time SIOA-ing. Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about the major reasons that SOIA-avoidance happens, and what a writer can do to snap out of the pattern.

Keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: is it too much to ask to find someone nice?

I was thinking about you yesterday, readers, as I was taking scones to the poll workers. (For those of you reading this outside the U.S., yesterday was Election Day.) I usually take bagels — I volunteered as a poll worker once; it’s a 15-hour day — but a new bakery’s just opened up in the neighborhood, and what better way to introduce ‘em to the locals?

Why did this remind me of you, you ask? Because no matter how many election days see yours truly and partner coming through our local high school’s absurdly heavy double doors with goodies, the poll workers are always surprised to be treated with kindness. In the midst of dealing with the super-rushed, the resigned, and the confused, they always seem shocked that anyone would recognize that their job is a hard one.

I constantly see this same “What do you mean, you’re going to treat me like a human being?” weariness in the eyes of aspiring writers who have been querying for a good long time.

It’s completely understandable, of course. After a couple of dozen form-letter rejections — basically, being told by a faceless entity that one’s work is not good enough, but not being told how or why — it’s very, very easy to start to believe that agencies and publishing houses are staffed by writer-hating ogres, leering loreleis who cajole writers into sending in their hopes and dreams, purely for the pleasure of smashing them into the ground.

But the fact is, this just isn’t the case. There are a few mean people, of course, as in any profession, and I suppose it’s not out of the question that some perversely masochistic hater of the written word might choose to torture herself by becoming an agency screener.

For the most part, though, if you have the opportunity to talk to an agent, editor, or one of their overworked screeners, you will discover someone who genuinely adores good writing and is sincerely eager to promote the interests of those who produce it.

Stop laughing; it’s true.

Not everyone agrees on what constitutes good writing, of course — one doesn’t have to hang around the industry very long to realize that there are folks out there who apparently don’t make too strong a distinction between what is marketable and what is well-written — but contrary to cynical rumors perennially circulating on the writers’ conference circuit, it’s rare to find an agent or editor who genuinely regards writers as merely the necessary evil behind a successful book.

So why do so many of their form-letter rejections, conference speeches, websites, and even statements in agency guides convey, to put it politely, the opposite impression?

An array of reasons — absolutely none of which have anything to do with you or your writing. Please, please do no fall into the trap of taking it personally.

In the first place, form-letter rejections are now the norm in the industry. Period. Even for submissions — yes, even when an agent or editor has asked to see the entire book. It’s annoying as heck for the writer who receives them, of course, but the fact is, boilerplate rejections are the industry’s reaction to the incredible rise in queries since the advent of the home computer.

Like so many other puzzling aspect of the submission process, it can be explained by the agents’ desire to save time. Which, as long-time readers of this blog know, can be darned hard in an agency that receives 1000 queries per week.

See why I don’t think you should take it personally?

And while reason tells us that it would take only a few seconds per query for the agent or screener to scrawl a couple of words of explanation in the margin of a pre-printed rejection (which does happen occasionally, if a screener has mixed feelings about the rejection), the sheer volume of envelopes on Millicent’s desk tends to discourage it.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” a few lone voices cry, “this isn’t what I’ve heard. I’ve always been told — sometimes by agents speaking at writers’ conferences — that if I have been querying for a while and receiving only form rejections, I must be doing something terribly wrong.”

I’ve heard that one, too — and interestingly, I’ve sometimes heard agents who use form-letter rejections heavily say it. So my first response is: poppycock.

This is, in fact, an outdated notion. Gone are the days when only those illiterate queries and submissions without a prayer of being salvaged were brushed off in this manner — although, to tell you the truth, since the invention of the photocopier, there have always been more agencies and publishing houses using boilerplate rejections than was generally recognized.

It’s just too good a way to plow through the day’s mail.

To understand why, place yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: she’s been screening submissions all day, and she wants to go home on time in order to crank out those grad school applications sitting on her desk at home. (Oh, she dreams big, our Millicent!) Standing between her and the door are the 150 query letters that arrived in the morning mail — probably more, if it’s a Monday — and she knows that another 150 or so will be dumped on her desk tomorrow.

Isn’t it in her interest to get through each of those queries as quickly as humanly possible?

This is precisely what she does, of course. For a bone-chilling insight on just how draconian that process can be written by an actual Millicent, I highly recommend the excellent Rejecter blog, but those of you who have followed this Book Marketing 101 series already have a basic idea of the carnage that follows, right? “Dear Agent” letters and queries for book categories her agency doesn’t represent are rejected unread, of course, as are letters that fail to conform to the norms of submission. (For a crash course on just what those norms are, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category at right.) For each, she stuffs the agency’s boilerplate rejection into the accompanying SASE.

Those are quick; the more professional ones take a little longer. But almost all of them are going to go.

And that, too, is partially a function of time. Think about it: since an acceptance requires a personalized letter or e-mail, it takes longer to accept a query than to reject it, right? And if Millicent has already decided to reject a query, which is she more likely to do when she’s trying to get out of the office, give a detailed explanation why, or just reach for that pile of rejection letters?

Would it affect your answer to know that take the easy route might save her a full two minutes? Not a lot of time in the life of the writer who has poured years into writing the book being queried, I’ll allow, but the sheer volume she faces precludes lingering. (150 queries x 2 minutes/query = 300 minutes, or 5 hours)

If she works at an agency that accepts e-mailed queries — still not the norm, but becoming more common all the time — her rejection rate is probably even faster, and she is probably using pretty much the same boilerplate.

This seems to come as a surprise to many habitual e-queriers: after all, how long could it possibly take to give a sentence or two of actual feedback?

We writers tend to forget this, but to most of the earth’s population, the transposition of thought into written sentences is a time-consuming and sometimes even painful process. A good reader is not always a good, or even adequate, writer.

Which is a nice way of saying that Millicent is unlikely to reinvent the wheel each time she taps out an e-rejection. It’s much more time-efficient to paste the same surface-kind language her agency has been cramming into SASEs for years.

To experienced eyes, the same stock phrases — and often even the same sentences — are evident in pretty much every boilerplate rejection, be it electronic or paper-based. I’m sure you recognize them: Your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. We are only accepting clients selectively. I just didn’t fall in love with it.

And that’s just from the agencies that bother to respond to e-queries; increasingly, I’ve been noticing, agencies that accept electronic queries have started to state outright on their websites that the querier will only hear from them if they are interested, a level of brusqueness practically unheard-of for mailed queries. Presumably, then, they prefer e-queries primarily for the ease with which they can be deleted.

Personally, I find this practice kind of appalling: with a form-letter rejection, at least, the writer can be sure that the query reached the agency; without a response, how can she ever be absolutely sure that her missive didn’t just go astray?

Not to mention the fact that the human eye tends to skim on the screen, zipping across even the most beautiful prose with a rapidity it never would on paper. (See why I habitually discourage e-querying?) And since e-querying and e-submission is substantially less expensive than paper querying for writers based outside the US (to query an agency here, the stamps on the SASE need to be in US currency, which can be quite spendy to track down abroad; to buy them online at face value, try the USPS website), I worry that foreign writers might be encouraged by the relative cheapness of e-querying to place their queries at a competitive disadvantage.

Okay, I’ll admit it: all of this may not be the best way to make my point that most agents and editors are really rather fond of writers and their work. My point is that precisely because such practices — form-letter rejections, non-response rejections, writing in blurbs — are impersonal by definition, it doesn’t make sense, logically, to read them as a reflection upon your work.

Seriously, there is nothing to read into a statement like I’m sorry, but this does not meet our needs at this time, other than a simple, unnuanced No.

Which, admittedly, is lousy enough to hear — but it certainly is not the same as hearing, “You know, I really liked your premise, but I felt your execution was weak,” feedback that might actually help a writer improve the next query or submission. And it’s definitely better than hearing what so many writers read into such statements, hostility that amounts to ”Take it away — this is loathsome!”

At minimum, it should NEVER be read as, “Since I’m saying no, no one else will ever say yes.” Just note the response — and send out the next query immediately.

I sense some lightening of writerly hearts out there, but still, some strategic-minded spirits are troubled. “But Anne,” I hear a few quiet voices saying, “this is all very well as encouragement, but why are you telling us this in the midst of a series of posts on how to build a querying list?”

Because, sharp-minded questioners, in working with my clients and preparing these blog posts, I reading through quite a few listings, websites, conference blurbs: in short, I have been sifting through what a writer trying to glean some sense of a particular agent’s preferences might find. And over the years, I haven’t been able to help but notice that just as many aspiring writers read a certain hostility into form rejections, they sometimes read a coldness into the listings and blurbs themselves.

I don’t think this is in the writer’s best interest, as far as pulling together a querying list goes. Here’s why.

While some agencies seem to go out of their way to be encouraging, others come across as off-puttingly intimidating. Most of the time, it’s just businesslike advice: Query first by mail. Include SASE. Query before submitting. No e-mail queries. A bit terse, perhaps, but nothing to cause undue dismay.

Sometimes, though, these statements — which are, the shy writer thinks, how the agency is choosing to promote itself to potential clients — can come across as positive discouragement to query at all.

Chief among these, naturally, are the ones that actually ARE intended to discourage queriers: We do not accept submissions from previously unpublished writers. New clients considered by recommendation only. Does not consider science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. Or my personal favorite from the first page of the guide currently at my elbow, Although we remain absolutely dedicated to finding new talent, we must announce that until further notice we can no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. We also cannot accept queries or submissions via e-mail.

While a thoughtful peruser might be left wondering, in this last case, how precisely the agency in question acts upon the absolute dedication it mentions, having so emphatically cut off the most logical manners of exercising it, it is usually best to take such statements at face value. If an agency isn’t considering books like yours, or if it relies upon its existing client list to recruit new writers for them (not all that unusual), querying them isn’t going to be a very efficient use of your time, anyway.

Similarly, when a listing or blurb includes a simple statement of preference, along the lines of No phone calls or Include first five pages with query, this information can be very helpful to the writer. It’s worth seeking out. After all, practical information like We never download attachments to e-mail queries for security reasons, so please copy and paste material into your e-mail is always worth following.

Hey, I’m all for anything that keeps Millicent’s itchy finger away from that delete button.

Frankly, I consider specificity a very good sign in a listing; as anyone who has flipped through one of the standard guides can tell you, it’s fairly rare. Whenever I see a website whose organizers have taken the time to give the logic behind their preferences, I think, “Wow, this agency has given the process some thought. Vive la difference!”

But listings, websites, blurbs, and even conference speeches that bark advice at the writer — and, once notice, it tends to be the same advice, over and over again — can be harder to decipher. Does the assertion that I do not take on books described as bestsellers or potential bestsellers, for instance, mean that the agent is specifically looking for less commercial work, that he doesn’t like to see target market demographics in an e-mail, or just that he’s tired of receiving boasts? Does This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales mean that they don’t have many big names on their client list, that they tend to sell to smaller presses, that they are too new an agency to have many clients’ books on the shelves yet — or just that the guy whose job it was to fill out the questionnaire was in a hurry?

Here, too, the impulse to read character into the responses can easily run amok — but what a temptation some of agencies do provide! For example, does the order Be professional! mean that the agency stating it is interested in working with a writer new to the business, or doesn’t it? And why, the nervous would-be querier wonders, does this agency immediately leap to the conclusion that I intend to be unprofessional in my approach?

Keep reminding yourself: this is generic advice, not intended for your eyes alone. Nor is it a personality evaluation for the agent who wrote it — again, probably not a professional writer.

There are a couple of reasons for the barked advice — the first of which is, perhaps not surprisingly, the same as the primary justification for form-letter rejections: an attempt to save themselves some time. An agent doesn’t have to receive very many phone calls from aspiring writers before she notices that each takes up quite a bit more time than reading a query letter, after all, or be buried under an avalanche of unrequested manuscripts before establishing a policy that she will read only what she has asked to see.

In practice, though, you are probably not the target audience for these bits of advice. The terser listings and blurbs tend to focus upon what NOT to do or send, after all. This implies a focus upon the avalanche of queries they receive, not on the plight of the sender of this week’s 657th letter.

In my experience, the habitual readers of the standard agency guides — at least the ones who are predisposed to follow directions — are not the ones who need to be told always to include a SASE, or never to send an unsolicited manuscript; these are the wholly admirable souls who have done their homework, bless ‘em.

But the overwhelming majority of generic queries — and pretty much all of the much-deplored “Dear Agent” variety — come from aspiring writers who have not taken the time to learn the rules of the game. (Unlike, say, you.)

So when a listing strikes you as off-putting, ask yourself, “Is this snappish list of don’ts aimed at me — or at the nameless person who sent a query without knowing to include a SASE? If it’s the latter, I’m just going to glean this listing or website for what applies to me.”

“I can understand why an agent might want to give generic querying advice at a conference or on a website,” you argue, and cogently, “but the standard agency guides have entire articles about how to query, for goodness’ sake! Do we really need 74 agents also reminding us to query before sending a manuscript?”

Good point, oh skeptical one. But it brings me back to my earlier point: most agents are not writers. Thus, few of them have ever queried a book of their own.

This sounds like a truism, but actually, I don’t think that aspiring writers tend to think about its implications much. It means, among other things, that the average agent may not be aware of just how hard it is for even the best manuscript to attract representation these days. (Tell the truth now: if someone had told you how hard it was before you tried it yourself, would YOU have believed it?) They may not realize that it is now quite common for a very good writer with a truly fabulous book to NEED to query 50 or 100 agents before finding the right fit.

Which makes it entirely safe to conclude that they are not given to thumbing through the nearest agency guide in their odd leisure moments. I seriously doubt most of them are aware just how much repetition there is.

Again, useful for the writer who is predisposed to reading character into trifles (and what novelist isn’t?) If you approach those pithy little bursts of advice recognizing that their producers could conceivably believe that this listing might well be the first time anyone has ever heard of a SASE, they make considerably more sense.

Whew, this is a long post, isn’t it? And yet, amazingly, I still have a bit more to say on the subject of how to read agency listings; saving up my thoughts for intermittent posts has evidently produced a backlog in my brain. More follows after I have rested up a bit.

Keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XV: wrapping it all up and tying it with a nifty bow

Some exciting news today, campers: remember how I spent the month of October locked in my studio, making revisions on my novel, as requested by an editor at a major publishing house? No? Well, remember that long period when I was extremely grumpy? It has evidently borne some fruit: I have been asked to make a second set of revisions. Which, believe it or not, is good news; it means the editor liked my first set of revisions. Hooray!

Was that gasp I just heard the sound of a quarter of my readers clutching their hearts, crying, “Wait – a publisher can make an author revise a book TWICE before making an offer?”

Well, to tell you the truth, the second go-round is a touch unusual, but it’s not at all uncommon anymore for an editor to ask for some fairly hefty one-time revisions before there is even any talk of filthy lucre changing hands. And yes, in the past, it was traditional for a publishing house to buy the book first, before the fine-tuning began. So the next time anyone tries to tell you that the publishing industry is anything like it was even ten years ago, you know what to reply: the fiction market, and indeed the book market in general, is a lot tighter than it used to be.

All of which seems like a perfect lead-in to my last post on the Idol rejection reasons (if you do not know what these are, please see my post for October 31), because, really, it’s important to recognize that agents (most of them, anyway) don’t hold submissions to such high standards in order to be mean — they want to take on books that they know they can sell within today’s extremely tight market. It’s not enough for an agent to love your work; the agent needs to be able to place it at a publishing house for you.

And while, in the past, agents tended to be open to working with their clients in order to work out the technical kinks prior to submission to publishing houses, now most of them expect writers to submit manuscripts so clean and camera-ready that the agency screener could confidently walk them directly from the agency’s mail room to the desk of even the pickiest editor. Thus these last few weeks of weeding out the most common submission problems.

Today, however, we get the reward: the description of the kind of book that makes agents weak in the knees.

Surprisingly, agents tend not to talk too much about what they love about books at conferences — they tend to stick to describing what is marketable, because that is, after all, their bread and butter. But as those of you who have been querying strong, marketable projects for a while already know, agents often reject submissions for perfectly marketable books, a fact that is very confusing to those who have been taught (sometimes by agents at conferences) to believe that every agent is looking for the same thing, or to those who believe that a single rejection from a single agent means that everyone in the industry will hate a book.

Especially for first fiction, it’s not enough for an agent to recognize that a writer has talent and a book has market potential: they like to fall in love. If you’re a good pitcher, you already know the reaction I’m talking about: the eyes becoming moist with desire, the mouth appearing to go dry with lust. When an agent wants a project, the symptoms strongly resemble infatuation, and as the Idol series has taught us, it’s often a case of love at first sight.

As with any other type of love, every agent has his own particular type that is likely to make his heart beat harder, his own individual quirks and kinks. Just as an agent will train his screeners to rule out submissions containing his pet peeves, he will usually set some standards for the kind of project he would like to see forwarded to his desk. So, in a way, our old pal the underpaid, latte-quaffing, late-for-her-lunch-date screener is her boss’ dating service.

Here’s the list of what the Idol panelists said would light their fires sufficiently to ask for a second date — in other words, what would lead them to want to read beyond page 1 of a submission:

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
3. The author made the point, then moved on.
4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.
6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
7. “Good opening line.”
8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

“Hey,” I hear some of you out there saying, “isn’t there something missing from this list? Shouldn’t ‘This is a marvelous writer,’ or ‘That’s the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for a love affair gone wrong,’ or “Wow, great hook” have made the list? Shouldn’t, in fact, more of these have been about the craft of writing, rather than about the premise?”

Excellent questions, both. Would you like the cynical answer, or the one designed to be encouraging to submitters?

Let me get the cynicism out of the way first: they are looking for a book that can sell quickly, not a writer whose talent they want to develop over a lifetime, and that means paying closer attention to an exciting plot than to writerly skill. In essence, they are looking to fall in love with a premise, rather than a book.

The less cynical, and probably more often true, reason is that this is not the JV team you are auditioning to join: this is the big league, where it is simply assumed that a writer is going to be talented AND technically proficient. Unless an agent specifically represents literary fiction — not just good writing, mind you, which can be produced in any book category, but that specific 3-4% of the fiction market which is devoted to novels where the beauty of the writing is the primary point of the book — the first question she is going to ask her screener is probably not going to be, “Is it well-written?” Presumably, if a submission weren’t fairly well-written and free of technical errors, it would not make it past the screener. As we have seen before, the question is much more likely to be, “What is this book about?”

Before you sniff at this, think about it for a minute: the last time you recommended a book to someone, did you just say, “Oh, this is a beautifully-written book,” or did you give some description of either the protagonist or the plot in your recommendation? Even the most literary of literary fiction is, after all, about SOMETHING.

Ideally, any good novel will be about an interesting character in an interesting situation. Why does the protagonist need to be interesting? So the reader will want to follow her throughout the story to come, feeling emotionally engaged in the outcome. Why does the situation need to be interesting? So the reader will not figure out the entire book’s plotline on page 1.

If you have both of these elements in your premise, and you present them in a way that avoids the 74 rejection reasons I’ve been discussing throughout this series, most of the rest of the criteria on this love-it list will follow naturally. If the reader cares about the protagonist, the stakes are high enough, and the pacing is tight, the scene is much more likely to be emotionally engaging than if any of these things are not true. If you eschew heavy-handed description and move straight to (and through) the action, conflict is more likely to seem as though it is happening in real time, no one can complain that you are belaboring a point, and the suspense will develop naturally.

So really, all of this critique has been leading directly to the characteristics of an infatuation-worthy book.

Of course, all of this IS about the quality of the writing, inherently: in order to pull this off successfully, the writer has to use a well-rehearsed bag of tricks awfully well. Selecting the right narrative voice for a story, too, is indicative of writerly acumen, as is a stunning opening line. All of these elements are only enhanced by a beautiful writing style, of course.

However, most agents will tell you that lovely writing is not enough in the current market: the other elements need to be there as well. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi that the pros call an individual voice.

All of which is to say: submission is not the time to be bringing anything but your A game; there really is no such thing as just good enough in the current market. (Unless you’re already established, of course, or a celebrity, or you happen to have written the story that the agent always wanted to write himself, or…) Playing in the big leagues requires more than merely telling a story well — that’s the absolute minimum for getting a serious read within the industry.

Which brings me to #8, ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.” Submission mail bags positively burgeon with clear accounts of straightforward stories, as well as with manuscripts where every nuance of the plot is instantly accessible to the reader as soon as it is mentioned. Books that work on a number of different levels simultaneously, that give the reader occasion to think about the world to which the book is introducing her, are rare.

That the Idol agents would be looking actively for such a book might at first blush be surprising. How much subtlety could a screener possibly pick up in a 30-second read of the first page of a manuscript?

Well, let me ask you: the last time you fell in love, how much did you feel you learned in the first thirty seconds of realizing it?

Pat yourselves on the back for making it all the way through this extremely sobering series, everybody: this was good, hard, professional work, the kind that adds serious skills to your writer’s tool bag. Be pleased about that – and keep up the good work!

P.S.: Hey, those of you interested in alternate realities: long-time reader and FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Brian Mercer will be talking about his book, MASTERING ASTRAL PROJECTION on the radio show, The Darkness on the Edge of Town. The radio show will air on Sunday at 10 PM Central Standard Time at 1470 AM (for those of you in the greater Minneapolis area) or streaming live via the show’s website.

What is this agency contract, anyway, and why should I read it?

I’ve been talking for the last few days about the need to look the gift horse of representation offer very carefully in the mouth before you sign anything — and even more carefully before you pay for anything. I’ve been trying to impress upon you, in with my patented brick-through-a-window subtlety, that anytime anyone asks you to pay them to help you advance your writing career, you should be wary. In fairness to the fee-charging agencies I’ve been discussing, they aren’t the only entities a writer should approach with caution.

You should approach signing with ANY agency with caution, armed with as much accurate information you can possibly glean about them. Because, contrary to popular belief and conference-circuit rumor, not all agents — or agencies — are alike. Even at equal levels of prestige, a writer’s experience being represented by one agency may be outrageously different than being represented by another. Expectations and office practices differ. So the more you can know about the agency before you hand your book to it, the better.

Yes, contracts are poorly-written, generally speaking, and it may be intimidating to ask the agent of your dreams probing questions, but it is VITAL that you understand how your new agency works before you sign the representation contract. Don’t assume that your agent will have explained everything important to you before ink hits paper; as I may have mentioned once or twice before, agents are extraordinarily busy people. Very nearly as busy as they think they are, which is saying something. As a group, they tend not to be overly given to explaining themselves or the industry.

Ringing some bells from my last few posts? It should be. This aversion to taking the time to explain the rules to those new to the game is one of the major causes of the assumption I mentioned a couple of days ago, the one about how all talented writers are born with an extra gene that serves as a universal translator for all of the quirks of the industry.

This is not to say that most agents will not answer direct questions — if you leaf through the standard agency guides, you will see that one of the most common dream client traits is the ability to ask good questions. In fact, the problems usually arise when the writer has NOT asked a question where clarification is necessary.

I know, I know: we’re all afraid of being nagging clients. Trust me, when agents talk about nightmare clients, they are talking about writers who call every other day to see if their books have sold yet. Or writers who miss their deadlines. Or even writers who pretend they understand publishing norms that they do not, and end up embroiled in I LOVE LUCY-level complications.

They are not, I assure you, talking about the writer who sends a polite e-mail or calls to say, “Um, when my editor said she wanted my manuscript to be 80,000 — 90,000 words, was that estimated word count, or actual?” (Far from a silly question, incidentally — the difference can be substantial.)

Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs, covering either the selling process for a single book or a year’s or two’s time — a choice made by the agency, not the author. Some contracts, however, have a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date that she wants to seek representation elsewhere, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year.

If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, make sure you know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case. And keep marking it every year.

Yes, I know: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent YOU. But trust your Auntie Anne on this one: honeymoons do occasionally end. Agents move from one agency to another all the time (if this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent; either is possible), and it’s not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it.

This is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. Then pick up that piece of paper, get yourself to a telephone, and start asking.

And try not to think of it as beginning the relationship on a confrontational note: it’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally. Because, you see, it is not an individual’s word you are questioning, but a contract drawn up by other people. Naturally, it is in your agent’s best interest for you to understand it well enough to abide by its provisions.

Allow me to repeat that, because it comes as news to a lot of aspiring writers: unless your prospective agent owns the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and she shall sell — who sets the terms of your relationship.

What does that mean, in practical terms? If you are successful, THE AGENCY, AND NOT MERELY THE AGENT, IS GOING TO BE HANDLING EVERY DIME YOU MAKE AS A WRITER.

The agency will be producing those nasty, messily-carboned forms that you will be passing along to the I.R.S.; your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to them, not to you. If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours — and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically.

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who, in many cases, you will never meet face-to-face. Seriously, since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)

So while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially INCREASE the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road. Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous.

You don’t hear about this much at conferences, but actually, that’s one of the best things about signing with an agent worthy of your trust: you can concentrate on your writing, confident that she’s looking after your interests in the big city.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what agency contracts do and don’t include, but in the meantime, this seems like a fine opportunity to remind you that soon, I shall be putting together a glossary of industry terms for your easy reference. So please, if there is a term that you would like defined (literary fiction vs. mainstream fiction, anyone?), leave a comment, so I may add it to the list.

Keep up the good work!

The blessings of Ataraxia, or, How to be a dream client

I sat down to write about agencies again today, but to be absolutely honest with you, I had to stop halfway through, because I’ve been having a genuinely upsetting day. Since we writers have to be so tough to make it in this business, it’s easy to forget that we are actually finely-balanced musical instruments. It’s hard to create when we’re thrown for a loop. Today’s loop-generator was a fairly common one for givers of feedback, professional and friendly both, so I think it would be useful for me to write about it. (And if not, hey, I blog pretty much every day, so if it turns out that I’m just being self-indulgent today, I can always be purely useful again tomorrow, right?)

Because I am EXTREMELY selective about whose work I read (I have been exchanging chapters with my first readers for years, and professionally, I will only work with clients I feel are bursting with talent, but even then, if the subject matter or genre is not a good fit with my tastes, or if I don’t think I can help a writer get published within a reasonable amount of time, I will refer him on), the vast majority of the time, my interactions with other writers are a joy. Really. I enjoy giving feedback quite a bit, even when I am charged with the task of helping a client incorporate not-very-sound advice from an agent, editor, or dissertation advisor in such a way that it will not destroy the book.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t SOUND like a whole lot of fun. But usually, it is: I love good writing, and like any competent editor, the sight of anything that detracts from good writing’s presentation makes me foam at the mouth and reach for a pen.

Every so often, though, I’ll run into someone who thinks I’m just making up the rules of standard format, or norms of academic argumentation, or even the usual human expectation that within a story, each subsequent event will follow logically upon the one before it. (Blame Aristotle’s POETICS for that last set of rules, not me.) This morning, I was lambasted at length for having had the gall to point out that someone’s Chapter Two might not be utterly clear to a reader that did not have the author reading over his shoulder, explaining verbally the choices made on the page.

Long-time readers of this blog, sing along with me here: when you submit a manuscript, all that matters is what is on the page. If ANYTHING in your first 50 pages is not perfectly comprehensible without a “Yes, but I explain that in Chapter Four”-type verbal clarification, rework it.

Please. Thank you.

Now, since it’s my job – or ethical obligation, in cases of volunteer feedback-giving – to point out precisely this sort of problem wherever it appears in a manuscript, I am always a trifle nonplused when I encounter a writer who thinks I’m only flagging it out of some deep-seated compulsion to be hurtful. Again, I am very selective about whose pages I read, and I burn to be helpful: it’s not uncommon for my commentary on a book to be longer as most of the chapters. I try to be thoughtful, giving my reasons for any major suggested change with a specificity and completeness that makes the Declaration of Independence look like a murmur of vague discontent about tea prices.

Obviously, this level of feedback is not for everybody; one of my best friends in the work refers to me affectionately as a manuscript piranha, but still, she lets me read her work. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than handing your work-in-progress to someone who just says, “Oh, it was fine,” or “Oh, it just wasn’t my kind of book,” without explaining WHY? I think completeness of feedback implies a certain level of devotion on my part to making the manuscript in question the best book it can possibly be.

Yet I was told this morning that, to put it mildly, I was incorrect about this. Apparently, I only suggest changes as a most effective means of ripping the author’s heart from his chest, stomping upon it, pasting it back together, sautéing it in a nice balsamic vinegar reduction, then feeding the resulting stew to, if not the author, than at least the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

Imagine my surprise.

This was for a manuscript I LIKED, incidentally. I had made a grand total of ONE suggested change, in the midst of oceans of praise.

So what did I do? What editors and agents moan privately to one another about having to do for their clients all the time, be preternaturally patient until the “But it’s MY work! It MUST be perfect!” tantrum petered out. Until then, further discussion was simply pointless.

Because, in the first moments after receiving critique, creative people are often utterly, completely, fabulously unreasonable about it. They not only want to shoot the messenger – they want to broil her slowly on a spit over red-hot coals like a kabob, and THEN yell at her. Fear of this stripe of reaction, in case you were wondering, is the most common reason most people will give only that very limited “Oh, it was fine” feedback after reading a friend’s manuscript. They’re just trying to keep their heads attached to their bodies, rather than skewered upon some irate writer’s pike.

It’s also the usual excuse — which you may believe or not, as you see fit, considering the source — that most agents give for why they send out form letter rejections, rather than specific, thoughtful replies to requested submissions. Their stated reason for form letter responses to queries, of course, is sheer volume: they don’t have time to reply to each individually. But obviously, if they have the time to read 50 pages, they have time to scrawl a couple of lines about how it could be improved. The fact is, they don’t want to: they don’t want to engender an angry response that might turn into an endless debate about the merits of a book they’ve already decided, for whatever reason, that they do not want.

Since most writers are peaches and lambs and every other kind of pacific, cooperative kind of entity you can think of most of the time, this fear is perhaps overblown. Most of us are perfectly capable of taking a little constructive criticism in the spirit it is intended. But every so often, some author loses it – and for that author’s display of temper, alas, we all pay.

That’s the official logic, anyway.

So now you know: if you want to establish yourself as a dream client in the eyes of the average agent or editor, who tends to hide under a chair after giving even the mildest feedback to her clients, greet the first emergence of any feedback with apparent tolerance; give yourself time to calm down before you argue. To buy yourself time, say something like, “Wow, what an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks.” Then take the rest of the day off, and don’t so much as peek at your manuscript again until you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Say this, even if in that moment, the suggestion proffered seems to you like the worst idea since Hannibal decided to march all of those elephants over the Alps to get at Rome. Because at that precise second, you are not just an individual writer, concerned with the integrity of your own manuscript: you are representing all of us. Show that, contrary to our stereotype in the industry as touchy hotheads unwilling to consider changing a single precious word, most of us really are capable of taking a little criticism.

Admittedly, my readers all acting this beautifully in the fact of critique probably sounds better to me right now than it might had I not just been scathed for trying to help out. Whenever I am confronted with a defensive critique-rejecter, I must confess, I seldom think of cooperative, thoughtful revisers with any abhorrence.

Feedback, though, and the revision process in general, ought to be treated with more respect by everyone concerned. There really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision, someone to whom we can pray for patience and tolerance in getting feedback on our work.

A muse of revision might conceivably make better sense to court than a muse of inspiration. Few of us writers like to admit it, but if we write works longer than a postcard, we all inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone bitch about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t always stick around, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry ourselves sick, we writers, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. According to the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself: the ultimate goal of revision, no?)

Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help.

Best to stay on her good side: for starters, let’s all pledge not to scream at the kind souls who give us necessary feedback. Yes, I suspect Ataraxia would really enjoy that sort of sacrifice.

I’ll confess, I have not always treated Ataraxia with respect myself. How tedious revision is, I have thought from time to time, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on a project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it: hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn.

Over time, though, I have started to listen to what I was actually telling myself when I complained about revision. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad; I’m a writer, so that’s what I do. It wasn’t that I felt compelled to rework my novel for the fiftieth time, or, in cases where I’ve been incorporating feedback, that I thought the changes would be bad for the book.

No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears. Am I alone in this?

But Ataraxia watches over even the most ungrateful of writers, so she whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways.

So now I know: whenever I start procrastinating about necessary revisions, it is a pretty sure sign that I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my first readers’ suggestions about my memoir in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

Just a suggestion: instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

Try to move beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

But the next time you find yourself in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time. No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Feed the cat. Plot a better way to get legions of elephants over the Alps. Anything to get your eyes off the printed word for awhile.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

As Ataraxia wants it to be, I suspect.

Okay, I feel less self-indulgent now: I think I have wrested some good, practical advice out of my very, very bad day. And naturally, unlike your garden-variety agent or editor, I’m not going to give up on this writer because of a single loss of temper. Nor, unlike the average writer’s friend with a manuscript, am I going to let the one writer who implied that my feedback on his work was the worst idea since Stalin last said, “I know! Let’s have a purge!” discourage me from giving feedback to others.

But please, the next time you are confronted with feedback that makes your blood boil, take a deep breath before you respond. Think about me, and about Ataraxia, and force yourself to say, “Gee, what an interesting notion. May I think about it, and we can talk about it later?” Then go home and punch a pillow 700 times, if you must, but please, don’t disembowel the messenger.

She may be bringing you a news flash from Ataraxia. Keep up the good work!