Getting good feedback, part V: what is truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

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

Ellery Queen cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you jumped at (e), you might want to go back to the very beginning of this series and start again.

Are those impatient sighs I’m hearing an indicator that I’ve carried this quiz show a bit too far? “Oh, come on, Anne,” I hear some of you muttering. “Even Dashiell Hammett would have relieved the suspense by now.”

Okay, okay; you’ve worked hard enough. My mistake was that like virtually every writer who seeks feedback from non-writers, I leapt to the assumption that a request to read my manuscript was identical to an offer to give feedback.

It probably wasn’t. How do I know that? Because, from the point of view of someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time around working writers, a request to act as literary critic might actually seem rather presumptuous, not to say judgmental.

Hard as it may be for those of us who live to share our thoughts in writing to believe, people who don’t read for a living tend to do it for pleasure or to learn something, not to be of service to writers. Since the average reader may never have seen a manuscript before, s/he is unlikely to understand it as a work-in-progress; s/he generally expects something more or less identical to what s/he might find in any bookstore. So in asking to take a gander at a writer friend’s opus, s/he is expecting to receive, rather than to give.

And that’s a perfectly reasonable expectation, of course. However, it is an attitude substantially more likely to produce a vague, “Oh, I liked it,” than the reams of useful feedback for which a sensible writer longs.

What we have here, in other words, is a failure to communicate. And to ask the right questions going in about who is assuming what.

So far in this series, I have concentrated on finding the right people to read your manuscript, and for good reason: selecting the wrong first readers can bring tremendous chagrin into a writer’s life, in the form of everything from hyper-harping on insignificant punctuation issues to keeping it for a year without reading it to handing it back to you with no feedback at all to causing strain in a marriage. I suggested that most of these standard first reader problems could usually be avoided by simply not asking people who are not qualified to critique your book to read your manuscript.

Perhaps qualified is putting it a trifle strongly, but let’s face it, what we’re talking about here is tracking down the best non-professional feedback available for your work.

If you’re looking for professional feedback — as in from people who read for a living, such as agents, editors, freelance editors, and/or teachers — you usually either have to pay for it (I’ve gone over how to find a good pro under the HOW DO I FIND A FREELANCE EDITOR? category at right) or wait until a pro has signed you. Agents and editors at publishing houses seldom have time to give significant feedback to people to whose books they haven’t already committed, and both classes and freelance editing can cost serious money. So most aspiring writers, at least the ones professional-minded enough to be open to feedback, turn to the far less costly and more easily available readers at hand.

Which is to say: ones who are free.

Which means, inevitably, that the etiquette is a bit delicate. When one is asking a favor — as soliciting concrete critique from a first reader gratis definitely is; don’t kid yourself about that — one may not feel justified in saying, “Um, do you mind if I grill you a bit about your background before I hand this manuscript to you?”

Yet you should. There is, after all, a good deal more to providing useful feedback on a manuscript than simply saying what one did and did not like.

That comes as a surprise to many people — including many writers, many of whom automatically assume that being able to write well means being able to edit well. Far from it. The best feedback is both practical, suggesting how and why to make necessary changes, and market-savvy, taking into account both the reader’s personal opinion and the tastes of the target audience.

Do I hear some of you out there harrumphing? “Yeah, right,” go the almost-audible grumbles, “she’s a professional writer and editor with a Ph.D. and masses of writer friends. She probably doesn’t think ANYONE is qualified to read a book.”

Actually, depending on your genre or field, a highly-educated person can be the WORST first reader imaginable: most attorneys, for instance, are trained specifically to regard anything but brevity as undesirable, and academics to insist that every assertion be backed up with footnotes full of evidence. Neither predisposition would be particularly desirable for, say, a mystery.

Nor would a scientist necessarily be the best first reader for a science fiction piece; she might raise all kinds of practical objections to how things work on your imaginary world. (You know, the one where both time and gravity run backwards occasionally.)

And the last person able to give objective feedback on a memoir is someone who lived through the events described in it. That person might, like my college buddy, have an uncanny ability to point out factual errors and forgotten details, but by definition, every participant in a real-life event will have her own interpretation of it.

Just ask the relatives of any successful memoirist.

Ultimately, the best qualification for knowing whether a book will appeal to an audience is being either a member of that particular audience or very familiar with what that audience likes to read. If you were writing for fifth graders, your ideal first readers would be a classroom full of kids, not a symposium of philosophy professors. Or even, necessarily, a conference room full of child psychologists.

If you’re looking to sell a book to a fish, in short, you might want to learn a bit about what life looks like from inside a fishbowl — and solicit feedback accordingly. As Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, the answers are always inside the problem, not outside.

However, astoundingly few aspiring writers actively seek members of their target audiences as first readers for their manuscripts. Heck, I’m constantly meeting disgruntled members of writing groups to whom even the question, “Well, if you’re not getting useful feedback from your critique group, have you given any thought to whether you would expect those readers to BUY your book, if they didn’t know you?” comes as a surprise.

Which I’m guessing it did for some of you. So allow me to ask the next question I invariably pose to unhappy feedback-seekers: if you’re not looking for first readers amongst your target audience, why not?

In my informal polling on the subject, the most common answer is that it’s just easier to ask people the writer already knows — and it turns out that writers aren’t always any more aware of what their friends do or do not read than anyone else. Not that there’s usually outright deception involved; sometimes, it’s just a matter of a friend’s trying to seem more literate to a literate-minded buddy.

Hey, people don’t always give pollsters straight answers, either: they often say what they think will make them sound better. Back in the early Neolithic period, when the Nielsen ratings statistics were compiled by families’ keeping a written record of which television shows they watched, PBS got suspiciously high ratings compared to, say, Network Battle of the Ts and As. (If you don’t know what T and A stand for, thank your lucky stars that you weren’t watching American television in the 1970s.)

When the honor system was replaced by electronic monitoring, Masterpiece Theatre turned out to be significantly less popular than previously reported.

I assure you, that shift wasn’t because the level of intellectual debate on Network Battle of the Ts and As became any more scintillating. But I digress.

When I ask writers how they pick their first readers, the second most common answer — brace yourselves — is the sheepish (and often astonished, because the responder hadn’t previously realized it himself) admission that the writer has simply been handing the book to anyone who said, “Gee, I’d love to read it.”

In other words, most of the writers I ask seem not to be using any selection criteria at all.

No wonder so many writers have negative experiences with feedback: they’re essentially leaving selection of those vital first readers as much up to chance as if they cut up their local telephone directories, tossed the shards into a hat (a big one, like Abraham Lincoln wore), pulled out a slip of paper randomly, and shouted: “You! You’re my first reader!”

You’ll pardon me if I collapse briefly on the nearest chaise longue: as a professional reader, the very idea makes me feel a bit woozy.

Why? Well, let me put it this way: if you wanted to find the best escargot in town as an anniversary surprise for your spouse, you wouldn’t simply open the Yellow Pages randomly at the restaurants section and allow the fickle finger of fate to decide, hoping that the restaurant blindly chosen won’t turn out to serve Icelandic or Korean food instead of French, would you?

Sacre bleu, non! You would ask someone you are sure knows a thing or two about garlicky snails before investing in a potentially expensive evening at an unknown restaurant. I can’t think of a single reason to treat your manuscript with less respect, can you?

Intriguing question, isn’t it? Your time to consider it starts…NOW!

Next time, I shall go through a few more tips on selecting productive first readers, and begin to discuss how to frame your request for feedback in ways that will encourage useful commentary. In the meantime, I’m going to go and apologize to my friend for overwhelming her with my unwarranted assumptions.

Keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part III: unrealistic expectations, artistic tantrums, and other things to avoid if you want to get good feedback on your manuscript


Do you believe in omens? Or at least the historically very tenacious notion that certain people seem to walk around with clouds of doom hanging over their heads?

Normally, I’m not very superstitious, but like all good editors, I am a pattern-noticer. It’s come to my attention that all winter, whenever the fellow who is supposed to be landscaping our yard has deigned to show his frowning mug on our property, or even calls and hints that he might be considering a state visit, the heavens crack open within a few hours of when he’s supposed to show up and dump snow all over us.

Snow. In Seattle. Where it snowed a grand total of twice in the first decade I lived here.

Long-standing readers of this blog will recall our old friend, the World’s Worst Landscaper, from early last April. when he and his motley and ever-shifting band of rogues first began ripping up our yard. We’ve had five different-shaped back patios since June, ornamental cherry trees and blooming rose bushes backed over by backhoes, and the total disappearance of about 200 flower bulbs, varied of course by the weeks at a time when the crew just disappears. And don’t even get me started on the demise of the deck that used to have the hot tub in it.

RIP, hot tub. And adjacent tree.

There have been compensations, of course. The Montana ledge stone walls holding up my few remaining flower beds are genuinely pretty, if one manages to remember not to walk, kneel, or plant anywhere near them, lest they tumble over and send one flying into the dwarf witch hazel. For a few dimly-remembered months, we boasted a lovely New England-style stone wall in front of our house, at least until the landscaper fired the very talented stonemason who appeared to be descended from a long line of gnomes and decided to fix the one rock that was awry all by himself, with results easily anticipatable by anyone who ever played Pick-Up Stix. (I’m sure the pile of rubble will eventually be reformed into something that remotely resembles a wall.) He installed, rather over our objections, a faux old-growth cedar grove by importing a series of stumps that can only be described as either Freudian or biologically-correct, enthusiastically erecting one particularly exuberant log with a salmonberry bush growing frothily from its tip (which was, naturally, shaped precisely the way you are picturing it, but as I want teenagers to be able to join us on this site, I shall not describe it further) in the precise center of the grove. When we demurred over…how shall I put this for the family hour…the visual similarities between the resulting landscape and certain models we remembered from 9th-grade health class, the WWL informed us huffily that he is an artist, and we had our nerve questioning his vision.

We had him remove it, anyway. Children live in our neighborhood.

If ever a human being gave off a disaster-attracting miasma, it’s the WWL. He merely has to glance at an irrigation hose for it to break, tie itself into a knot that would defy even Alexander the Great’s ingenuity to untangle, or burst because the water inside it has spontaneously decided it wants to form an open-air ice sculpture.

Still, I didn’t really worry until early this morning, when I peeked out into yet another work-delaying snowfall to discover the art installation shown above, a scarlet A the WWL had left on his dust-and-snow-gathering materials.

Even though I find it unlikely that the WWL has been reading Hawthorne in his apparently abundant free time, I have to wonder what artistic vision he was pursuing here. Did he intend the A as an homage to the only A-named person in the household (sweet, in a twisted way), as a reference to Hester Prynne (considerably less flattering), or as a means of grading his own work? Or perhaps none of the above? As with so much modern art, it’s a trifle difficult to tell whether it’s just a carelessly tossed-aside pile of rubble or a Statement.

I’m inclined to the latter, as the WWL apparently employed ruler and protractor to place it in the exact center of our back patio.

Why am I bringing this up, other than to illustrate my ambivalence toward the recent snowfall that probably means that the art installation will be on display in my back yard for at least another three weeks? (When the WWL is discouraged by poor weather, he tends to remain discouraged for quite some time, predictably.) To remind all of you feedback-seekers out that while those of us who consider ourselves artists often do believe ourselves to be beholden to a different set of standards than other mortals, artists trying to make a living at it are not magically exempt from the obligation to present their work to others in a professional manner. Many an extremely talented writer has fallen flat in the publishing world because he refused to meet the demands of the business side of the business.

And agents tend not to have too much sympathy for that because, lest we forget, there are plenty of self-proclaimed artists like the WWL out there, using their alleged callings as an excuse for irresponsibility. Any agent who has been at it a while has already met more than her share of writers who predictably don’t meet deadlines, conform to the expectations of the industry, or take feedback well. So has any editor. If you buy them a drink in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference, I’m sure they’ll be delighted to regale you with horror stories about bad clients.

Unfortunately for writers’ collective reputation, they encounter far more writers who believe talent is the universal solvent of rules than those who do not. So perversely, if you want to stand out as the exception, not complaining at length about how market force artists to compromise is the better strategy.

Why? Well, a couple of reasons. In the first place, anyone who makes a living representing or selling art is already well aware that the market doesn’t always reward good art lavishly; that’s hardly news. Since agents and editors have experience with how books are marketed, they have first-hand knowledge of how the writers with whom they work have had to compromise their visions in various ways.

They don’t need reminders; if you want to be an agent’s dream client, save the cries of “But it’s my ART!” for the battles that really count.

Because, as the agent of your dreams would be the first to tell you, if you gain any success at all as a writer, the day will come when you’re going to be asked to make a change you don’t want to make in your book. If a writer has already established a reputation as a tantrum-thrower (yes, that’s how they think of it), an editor may well balk at acquiring a book he believes needs revision.

Which leads me to the other reason — and the one more pertinent to the subject of this series — is that while all us are familiar with the cultural stereotype of the artist who, like the WWL, rants and raves over the slightest, most veiled criticism of his work, in the real world, many, many people will have the right and even the obligation to give feedback on a book between the time an agent signs the writer and the happy day when the book lands on bookstore shelves. Not merely the agent and the editor handling the book, but the publisher, marketing department, and for nonfiction, sometimes the legal department will all have their say.

Taking feedback well is, in fact, an essential skill for a professional writer. So essential that it’s a pretty good idea for an aspiring writer to get some practice at it before signing with an agent or selling a book to a publisher.

Convenient that we’ve already been discussing how to go about finding non-professional feedback-givers, isn’t it?

For those of you joining this series already in progress, we spent all last week about feedback — when an writer is and isn’t likely to get professional critique during the query and submission stages, where outside the publishing world that same writer is likely to turn in order to find it. While the vast majority of aspiring writers choose to self-edit (at least until they sign with agents, many of whom habitually request revisions in their clients’ work), often not exposing their manuscripts to any human eyes other than their own prior to mailing off that requested submission to an agency or posting those first few pages on an agency website along with a query, omitting what most professional writers consider the necessary step of eliciting reader feedback can leave a manuscript vulnerable to rejection.

Many, many writing problems are extremely difficult for a self-editor to catch: pacing, for instance, or ways in which a protagonist may be trying the objective reader’s patience. To be blunt about it, you may think giving your protagonist the catchphrase, “You’re telling me!” is endearingly hilarious, especially on the fiftieth repetition, but the reader may not. Unless you’ve run the manuscript past a few unbiased sets of eyes, you can’t really be sure, can you?

Most first-time submitters are positively stunned to learn that such information is only very rarely included in rejection letters, but then, those new to querying are often astonished when their SASEs come back without any indication of why an agent chose to pass. As I mentioned earlier in the week, unless an aspiring writer actually pays for professional feedback — from a freelance editor, for example, or by taking manuscript revision class — s/he is highly unlikely to gain substantive critique through the querying or submission processes.

Sorry to be the one to have to break that to some of you, but better that you hear it from me than get your heart broken by the agent of your dreams, right? Try not to take minimal response personally; it happens to virtually everyone who queries or submits.

I hear some impatient sighing from those who followed last week’s discussion closely. “I get it, Anne,” some of you are telling me. “I shouldn’t expect to receive any substantive feedback from agents at the querying and submission stage; that will come later, after one picks up my work. So where should an aspiring writer turn for feedback prior to signing with the pros?”

Good question, impatient sighers. Ideally, you would run your submission materials past your writing group, or a freelance editor familiar with your genre, or a published writer who writes books similar to yours.

Allow me to reiterate the desirability of finding first readers conversant with the current market IN YOUR BOOK CATEGORY, not merely with books in general or what was being sold ten years ago. As I may have mentioned a couple of thousand times before, the conventions and styles prevailing in one genre are not necessarily those that reign supreme in another, nor are the standards of 7 years ago those of today. And no matter how good a poet is, her advice on your nonfiction tome on house-building is unlikely to be very market-savvy, unless she happens to read a lot of house-building books.

However — and this is not an insignificant however — not all of us have the kind of connections or resources to command that kind of readership. Professional editing, after all, isn’t particularly cheap, nor are the writing conferences where you are likely to meet writers in your field.

And even then, it’s considered pretty darned rude for an aspiring writer to walk up to a total stranger, however famous, and hand him a manuscript for critique. As in any relationship, there are social niceties to be observed first. (If you’re in any doubt whatsoever about where the lines are drawn, I would strenuously advise a quick read through the INDUSTRY ETTIQUETE category at right BEFORE you even think of approaching your first industry insider.)

So where does that leave the isolated writer seeking feedback? Usually, soliciting commentary from pretty much anyone who murmurs, “Oh, you write? I’d love to see something of yours sometime.”

That hasn’t been working out too well for most of you who have tried it, I’m guessing. “I give my manuscript to first readers,” I hear some of you brave souls grumbling, “and they NEVER give me feedback. Or they hold onto the manuscript for so long that I’ve already made revisions, so I can’t really use their critique. I’ve gotten SAT scores back faster. Or they so flood me with minute nit-picking that I have no idea whether they even LIKED the manuscript or not. I really feel burned.”

If you’ve had this experience, you are certainly not alone: trust me, every freelance editor has heard these complaints hundreds of times from new clients. In fact, freelance editors ought to be downright grateful for those poor feedback-givers, as they tend to drive writers either to despair or into the office of a pro.

At the risk of thinning the ranks of potential editing clients, I have a few suggestions about how to minimize frustrations in the first reader process when handing your work to non-professional readers — i.e., someone who is not a professional writer, editor, agent, or teacher.

First, never, but NEVER, simply hand a manuscript to a non-professional reader without specifying what KIND of feedback you want. (Actually, this isn’t a bad precept when working with more seasoned readers, either.)

Remember that intimidation factor I mentioned yesterday? Well, the first-time manuscript reader often becomes so cowed at the prospect of providing first-class advice that she simply gives no feedback at all — or just keeps putting off reading the manuscript.

Sound familiar?

Other first readers will begin with enthusiasm, but once they come up with genuine critique, they will fear to mention it, instead preferring to murmur something vague about how much they liked it. Why sugar-coat what might be useful feedback? Because they, like everyone else, are familiar with would-be artists like the WWL. They don’t want to risk your flying off the handle at them.

Still others, conditioned to expect that every syllable in your manuscript will exactly resemble a published book, will run in the other direction, treating every typo as though it were evidence that you should never write another word as long as you live. Both of these outcomes will make you unhappy, and might not produce the type of feedback you need.

Second, in case anyone has missed the subtle hints I’ve been dropping over the last couple of posts, RELATIVES, LOVERS, AND CLOSE FRIENDS ARE POOR CHOICES FOR FEEDBACK.

And furthermore, it’s not particularly fair to them to be expected to provide it, unless they already have experience giving it. It’s a Catch-22 for both parties: if they like the book and say so, the writer may think they’re lying to be nice; if they report they hated it, the writer is left wondering whether that wince-worthy critique was really about the book, or if the loved one is still secretly livid about that disastrous trip to Grandma’s house sixteen years ago.

So think very, very carefully before you place anyone you love in that particularly hard spot. I shan’t break any confidences by revealing just how many of my editing clients’ SOs have privately thanked me for letting them off the critiquing hook, but suffice it to say, I’m no longer particularly surprised when it’s the first thing they say when they eventually meet me.

If you DO have loved ones read it, make a positive statement when you give them the manuscript, limiting what you expect in response.

By telling them up front that you do not expect them to do the work of a professional editor (which at heart, many first-time manuscript readers fear with an intensity usually reserved for cobras and other venomous snakes), you will make the process more pleasant for them and heighten the probability that you will get some useful feedback.

Couching the request in terms of feeling reactions rather than textual analysis is a great way to make both writer and reader comfortable: “I have other readers who will deal with issues of grammar and style,” you can tell your kin, for example. “Don’t worry about sentence structure. I want to know if the story moved you.”

Better still, you can couch the request in a compliment. “You know the world of the pool hall so well, my darling,” you can suggest to your lover, “that I want you to concentrate on whether the characters feel real to you. Don’t give even 38 seconds’ consecutive thought to the writing itself; I’ve got someone else reading for that.”

Notice how I keep bringing up other readers? Again, may I suggest that this strategy is substantially more effective if you already have a few well-qualified first readers waiting in the wings?

If you do (sigh…) decide to use your kith and kin as first readers, it can been VERY helpful to cite the existence of other readers, even if they’re imaginary. Why? Knowing that others are available to give the hard-to-say feedback can lighten the intimidated reader’s sense of responsibility considerably, rendering it much, much more likely that s/he will enjoy reading your book, rather than coming to regard it as a burdensome obligation.

“Burdensome?” I hear some tremulous souls cry. “My delightful literary romp?”

To an ordinary reader, perhaps — but did you seriously believe that handing your baby to your cousin at Thanksgiving, knowing full well that you were scheduled to meet again at Christmas, wasn’t imposing an obligation to read it, and pronto? Or that giving in to your coworker’s repeated requests to read something you’ve written, even though that meant her having to meet your reproachful, why-haven’t-you-read-it-yet eyes every week at the staff meeting, didn’t involve establishing a tacit deadline?

To appreciate the literature-dulling potential of deadline-imposition fully, you need only cast your mind back to high school: which did you enjoy more, the book you were assigned to read, the one that was going to be on the final exam, or the one you read in your own good time?

You don’t have to answer that; I spent enough years teaching to guess.

Still unsympathetic to first readers who hang onto manuscripts forever and a day? Would it help to consider that most people don’t understand that writers want to submit their work to agents, editors, and contests almost immediately upon completion? And that it would never occur to most non-professional readers that you might be waiting to hear their reactions before you submit again.

I feel you reaching for your hair to tear it out. Don’t do it. Take a deep breath instead and consider where you might find readers less hesitant to give you the feedback your book needs — and more likely to understand without your having to bully them the concept of turning around the manuscript in a timely manner.

Your best first reader choice (other than a professional reader, such as an editor, agent, or experienced contest judge) is a fellow writer in your own genre, preferably an already-agented or recently published one. Ideally, you want someone very up on the current market in your type of book — and writing for it. Trading manuscripts for critique can be very fruitful.

Second best would be a good writer in another genre, someone who is already familiar with the basic demands of the market (and how a manuscript differs from a published book, something that tends to flummox less experienced first readers a bit) and the value of specific feedback. Good critique groups are often made up of writers working in different book categories; if you are setting up a group from scratch, just make sure that you all discuss the ways in which your genres vary before anyone starts trading chapters.

Third is an excellent reader who isn’t a writer, one who has read widely and deeply and is familiar with the conventions of your book category.

In a pinch, if you feel that all your manuscript needs is a rigorous proofreading, you could always pick the most voracious reader you know or the person so proud of her English skills that she regularly corrects people in conversation. My litmus test is whether the potential reader knows the difference between farther and further — yes, they mean different things, technically — and uses momentarily in its proper form, which is almost never heard in spoken English anymore.

(Poor momentarily has been so abused that some benighted dictionary editors now define it both as for a moment — its time-honored meaning — AND in a moment, as we so often hear on airplanes: “We will be airborne momentarily…” Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be in a plane that was only momentarily airborne…unless you have a serious death wish.)

Which brings me to another suggestion: stick to readers familiar with your genre. Someone who primarily reads nonfiction is not the best first reader for a novel; an inveterate reader of mysteries is not the best first reader of literary fiction or a how-to book. Readers tend to impose the standards of the books they like best onto anything they read, with results that can sometimes puzzle writers and readers of other genres.

For instance, my fiancé, an SF/fantasy reader since his elementary school days, shocked me on one of our first dates by confessing, in the middle of my rhapsody in praise of John Irving, that he had not been able to make it all the way through THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, one of my favorite novels of all time. “I found it boring,” he admitted. “Not much happened.”

“A character gets castrated in mid-car crash,” I pointed out, stunned. “How much more action do you want?”

From the perspective of my SO’s reading background, though, he was right: it’s rare that more than a page goes by in a good SF novel without overt action; mainstream novels tend to be lamentably devoid of, say, time travel. John Irving would be wise, then, to avoid my sweetie as a first reader.

As would I — oh, here’s a great opportunity for a pop quiz. Why don’t I use my SF-loving SO as a first reader?

If your first impulse was to cry out, “He’s double-disqualified! He’s more or less kith and kin, AND he doesn’t read either adult fiction or memoirs on a regular basis! What’s that he’s reading on the chaise right now, yet another Orson Scott Card paperback?” you get an A.

Above all, remember that it’s the requesting writer’s job to make the expectations clear, not the potential feedback-giver’s. Most of those who offer to be first readers are simply curious, or being polite, or trying to show support; they may honestly have no idea whatsoever what you hope to gain from having them read your book in manuscript form, rather than waiting to buy it when it’s available in bookstores everywhere.

Heck, they may not even be aware that asking to read it conveys any expectation that they will give feedback at all — or when — unless the writer tells them so. And doesn’t THAT make you think slightly differently about those well-meaning folks who begged to see your work but never said anything?

That makes a certain amount of sense, if you’ve been trying to use non-writers as first readers: unlike what would-be artists like the WWL seem to think, a working writer learns to welcome helpful, honest feedback on her work. Good writing is all about communicating the author’s artistic vision to the reader, not making the reader guess what that vision is.

Just a little something to think about. More on the care and feeding of first readers follows in the days to come. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part II: why “Guess what, Grandma — I’ve written a book!” might not be the best strategy for eliciting usable feedback


Last time, I waxed long, if not precisely poetic, on the desirability of getting some trustworthy soul to read your work IN ITS ENTIRETY before you send it out to an agent, editor, or contest. Trustworthy, in this case, means objective as well as truthful, well-read in your book’s genre yet not inflexibly wedded to its conventions. Kind is a plus, but not actually necessary to the task.

In other words, not the kind of reader that you’re likely to find through the simple expedient of asking everyone at work who happens to think your impression of Groucho Marx is funny. It can be tough to find a good first reader, but from a professional perspective, it’s imperative, even for the most gifted self-editor.

Why, you ask? Because even the most coldly rational of us cannot read our own manuscripts the way another human being would, especially after repeated readings. There’s no way that a writer can truly assess beyond a shadow of a doubt whether her protagonist is genuinely likable, for instance, or if that plot twist is actually surprising. It’s just too easy for the writer’s mind to fill in the logical gaps that might confuse an independent reader, as well as to gloss over grammatical or spelling problems because it looks right to me!

And don’t even get me started on how difficult it is for a writer to judge plausibility in her own work. While even a prescient independent reader will seldom greet an unlikely plot twist with, “Oh, I’ll buy that, because if this doesn’t happen now, the denouement the author wants will be impossible,” authors are all too prone to tell themselves, “Why does that happen? Because the plot requires it!”

Memoirs present especially difficult self-editing problems. Having written both my own memoir and somebody else’s (long story), as well as having edited many, I can say with absolute authority that there’s nothing stranger than having someone else edit your life story — even when it’s done with sensitivity and tact, it feels as though the editor is critiquing one’s life — but for a memoir to work on the page, it needs to be dramatically satisfying, as well as true and interesting. Even when a writer pulls off the difficult tightrope act of being simultaneously intimately in touch with her own memories and objective enough to write about them well, standing outside oneself completely enough to perceive one’s own memoir’s protagonist purely as a character is well-nigh impossible.

Ditto with true stories told as fiction, or real-life characters imported into novels. At the writing stage, having a life experience upon which to base an account can be a considerable advantage, permitting richness of observation and detail. Throughout the revision process, however, the very intensity of that recollection tends to lead the self-editing writer to assume that everything he recalls mentally actually ended up on the page.

But the problem of objective distance not the only reason that feedback’s so useful to a writer who genuinely wishes to improve his work. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s essential from an emotional perspective as well.

Is that widespread guffawing I hear out there a response to something I said? “Yeah, right, Anne,” guffawers everywhere chortle. “It took me years to work up the nerve to start querying, much less to submit my manuscript. While I have queries out or materials circulating, I have minor panic attacks every time the phone rings, lest it be an agent offering to represent my work; when I’m gearing up to pitch, I have nightmares about agents and editors bursting into mocking laughter at the second line. So how precisely will handing around my manuscript render me less anxious?”

Well, think about it: what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a total stranger who, after all, has the institutional ability to change your life by bringing your book to publication? It raises the stakes of that first reader’s reaction to stroke-inducing levels. Basically, it’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency.

Maybe not the best FIRST choice, in terms of bolstering your self-esteem.

As I have pointed out several times this fall, amongst professional writers, agents, and editors, feedback tends to be honest to the point of brutality; professionals have no reason to pull their punches. If a publishing professional does take the time to critique your work — a compliment that has become rarer and rarer for submissions, as we discussed earlier this week — the criticism comes absolutely unvarnished.

Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.

I’m trying to save you some headaches here. Far too few aspiring writers get honestly objective feedback on their work before they send it out — which is why, as my long-term readers already know, I like to run a series on feedback-acquisition once a year or so.

Oh, they may be getting some feedback — although I think we have all met the aspiring writer who scribbles away in private, not telling even her nearest and dearest about her project in anticipation of the great day when she can bounce into her living room with a published copy like Jo March and reveal herself to her astonished kith and kin as a published author — but it’s probably not feedback that actually helps them revise the book.

How do I know this? First, from taking the novel approach of asking many, many aspiring writers how they solicit feedback, and second, from long experience listening to writers at every stage of their writing careers, from just having started a novel to the short list for the National Book Award, complain about how little actual information they have gotten from the first folks to whom they handed their manuscripts.

Most of the time, there’s a pretty clear reason for this: as I deplored at length last time, the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers show their pages only to relatives or friends, whether or not these otherwise worthy souls have any experience whatsoever giving the kind of feedback good writers need. Even when these would-be helpful folks do have relevant reading or writing experience, the prospect of having to walk the thin line between being truthful enough to provide useful critique and crushing a loved one’s fragile ego can be awfully darned intimidating.

Save your supporters for support. What you need from a first reader is well-informed, practical advice based upon a thorough understanding of your target market.

Translation: it shouldn’t come from people who already love you.

Or hate you, for that matter. One of the miracles of both love and hate is the emotion’s ability to jaundice the eye of the beholder.

No matter how supportive, kind, literate, critical, eagle-eyed, or brutally honest your parents may be — and I’m sure that they’re sterling souls — their history with you renders them not the best sources of feedback. The same principle applies to your siblings, your children, your best friend since you were three, your best work buddy, the person upon whose shoulder you last wept, and anyone who has ever occupied your bed while you were in it for any length of time for any purpose other than engaging in profound, contact-free slumber since you hit puberty.

ESPECIALLY anyone who has ever occupied your bed . Even on a very casual basis.

And yes, in answer to the question hanging on the tips of so many tongues out there, that includes other writers. Being horizontal with a first reader can have the same effect on truthfulness as tears on mascara: things get murky, and lines previously well-drawn begin to blur.

Which is not to say that pursuing rich, full emotional relationships with fellow writers is a bad idea. It can be immensely fulfilling — as long as everyone concerned has a clear understanding of when support is called for, and when no-holds-barred critique. You might want to reserve at least a small handful here’s no rule that dictates that when two or more writers get together, they must perforce exchange manuscripts.

(Psst: it’s also not a bad idea to talk about who has first dibs on milking shared experiences for material. As I can tell you from personal experience, there are easier things than waking up one morning to find a baby picture of oneself on the cover of a friend’s book: ask first.)

You don’t actually need to hide your writing from your nearest and dearest, of course — just don’t use them as your only first readers, or at any rate the ones you rely upon for determining what, if anything, you need to revise. It’s perfectly acceptable, for instance, to hand the first two chapters of your magnum opus to your boyfriend, kiss him on the cheek (or any other body part you two might happen to favor; it’s none of my business), and say, “Honey, I want you to come up with three things you LOVE about this. Feel free to come up with more, but don’t worry about telling me what’s wrong with it — I have other first readers for that.”

This strategy works with pretty much anyone emotionally attached to you who expresses a desire to read your as-yet-unpublished book, by the way — but it works best when that last part is actually true.

Lining up a couple of reliable first readers does require more effort than simply using whomever’s around, but it truly is worth your while. If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback.

I know, I know: it seems as though I’m harping on this point. However, I can’t even begin to calculate how often I meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.

Trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you at that juncture.

If you belong to a writers’ group, you already have a built-in problem-catching system in place — or you do if you belong to a GOOD writers’ group. If you have been hanging with other writers too polite to tell you about logical holes in your text, grammatical problems, or the fact that your protagonist’s sister was names Myrna for the first hundred pages and Myra thereafter, it really would behoove you to have a few more critical eyes look over your work before you send it out.

But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Jo March types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy individualists would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.

And maybe you are right; not having read your manuscript, I can’t say for sure. It’s certainly not completely out of the question for a writer to be a good judge of her own work — he can, if he has a well-trained eye, is not prone to coddling himself, and sufficient time to gain perspective on it.

That last condition is the rub, isn’t it? In our eagerness to land an agent and get into print, who has time to let a text marinade for a month or six?

Ray Bradbury, I’m told, used to lock each of his manuscripts up in a desk drawer for one full year before taking them out for revision. After that long, and after working on so many projects in between (our Mr. B. has always been rather prolific), he could come back to it with a relatively unbiased eye.

Relatively unbiased is the operative term here, as complete objectivity about one’s own work is not possible — or even, I would argue, a desirable thing were it practically achievable. Someone, after all, needs to be able to make the final determination about whether a paragraph that every first reader said should go should remain in the text.

Ooh, that hit a sore spot for some of you, didn’t it? I’m not too surprised; since writers love words so much more than other people, we probably shouldn’t be astonished — as agents and editors sometimes seem to be — when we exhibit deep infatuation with some particular sentence, paragraph, chapter, etc. that evidently holds few charms for anyone else. Or, frankly, that might not entrance even the person who wrote it five months hence.

Love’s like that: when we fall, we fall hard. Then we wake up one day and think, “Hey, what was I thinking?” One of the great gifts of seeing one’s exes from time to time is to remind ourselves how much our tastes change over time.

No offense to my college boyfriends. I assume the feeling’s mutual.

I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings — hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.

Take that, Dorothy Parker!

However — and this is a lulu of a however, I warn you – until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure whether those darlings deserve to live…or, indeed, how good your own eye is.

That being the case, isn’t it just a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills? Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you wailing, “where would I FIND such estimable souls to ask? And how can I figure out who is too fond of me to be objective?”

Excellent questions, oh heartfelt wailers — fine enough that they deserve a post of their very own. Tune in next time.

As always, keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XI: fending off those pesky resentful teenagers, over-articulate tots, and ever-chattering corpses

Last time, I went on a bit of a tear about how infrequently those of us who regularly give advice to writers — speakers at writers’ conferences, folks like me who blog on writing-related issues, writing teachers, and sometimes even members of critique groups — talk about the practical implications of four of the classic knee-jerk rejection reasons: old-fashioned style, style or storyline too similar to a past bestseller, redundancy, and just plain lack of interest. Since writers chat about these so little amongst ourselves, it’s no wonder that the vast majority of submitters apparently don’t know to self-edit for these.

I’m sure that the sharp-eyed among you spotted a significant omission from that list of potential feedback-givers: the agents, editors, and contest judges who determine the fate of manuscripts. I didn’t include them for the exceedingly simple reason that until a writer is signed, the two former will seldom comment on her work, and most literary contests don’t offer feedback to entrants. 99% of the time, a rejected writer will merely receive a form-letter rejection, regardless of both the actual reasons for rejection and whether the decision to reject was easy or hard.

Did I just hear some jaws hitting the floor out there? I suppose I should explain. For those of you who have not yet begun submitting, it’s extremely rare for a rejected writer to receive any substantive explanation at all from the pros who passed on his work, even if the agent or editor requested the entire manuscript. It’s even become rather common for agents not to respond at all if the answer is no. And that is very frustrating for submitting writers, because such terseness prevents them from learning from the rejection experience.

Which means, incidentally, that since form-letter rejections are practically universal, you shouldn’t regard them as the particularly emphatic negative that they used to be ten years ago. Back then, submissions that were near-misses usually sparked a personalized rejection letter. These days, though, even very polished manuscripts are frequently met with a generic response like this:

Thank you for submitting your manuscript to us, but it does not meet our needs at this time. The market for this kind of book is very tough right now, and I just did not fall in love with this enough to be confident that I can place it. Best of luck elsewhere.

All across the English-speaking world, rejected writers expend huge amounts of energy trying to read between the lines of missives like this in an attempt to extract some practical feedback from it, but the fact is, it means just what it says: the agency is passing on the manuscript in question because, for some reason that its staff doesn’t have the time or will to communicate, the book strikes them as difficult to market.

Which leaves the writer to guess precisely why they reached that conclusion.

After a writer has been submitting for a while — at least long enough to have figured out that the publishing industry has developed generic terms for justifying rejection — it’s only natural to start to chafe at this guessing game. It is likely to occur to one: yes, agency screeners read a lot of submissions in a day, but how hard would it be to scrawl a single sentence fragment in the margins at the point where they stopped reading, so the submitting writer would know why it was rejected? Or even just make a mark on the page, so the writer would know where the screener stopped reading?

Heck, since manuscript problems repeat themselves across submissions, they could just place the appropriate sticker on each page, or invest in a few rubber stamps: Show, don’t tell, or Where’s the conflict? At least then, aspiring writers would know what the red flag was, so they could take steps to improve their pages before submitting them again.

From the rejecter’s point of view, the reasons for being terse in rejecting a manuscript are rather obvious, not to mention identical to why they utilize form-letter rejections for queries: a desire to minimize the amount of time they invest in a manuscript that is not going to make them money (because they will not be marketing it) and not wanting to provoke further argument.

Writers hear much more about the former than the latter on the conference circuit, of course: we’ve all been told over and over again that the sheer volume of submissions requires swift decisions merely in order to plow through them all within a reasonable period of time. Thus the all-too-frequent page 1 rejection — since agencies (reputable ones, anyway) are not actually paid to screen manuscripts, their staffs are encouraged to sift through the tens of thousands of pages they receive with all possible dispatch.

Which means, if we’re going to be blunt about it, that although Millicent the agency screener actually will have a specific reason for rejecting any given manuscript, she really doesn’t have time to communicate it. And honestly, if she’s read only the first page or a fraction of it, it’s not too reasonable to expect a fully fleshed-out analysis of the submission as a whole.

Not wanting to provoke further argument is less discussed on the conference circuit, I suspect, because the very concept is likely to raise ire in the average aspiring writer. By not assigning a specific reason for rejection, an agent reduces the probability that the rejected writer will write or call to demand, “What do you mean, my physical descriptions are heavy-handed? Explain to me precisely why you think so.”

Or, even more likely, to offer eagerly, “You said my protagonist isn’t very likable — but I’ve fixed that now. May I resubmit?”

From an aspiring writer’s point of view, these responses would make abundant sense: by giving specific feedback, Millicent would be opening a conversation about the book, right? Or, better yet, a negotiation. Essentially, by giving editorial advice, she would be implying, if not actually saying, “Revise and resubmit.”

Not entirely coincidentally, back in the days of personalized rejection letters, agencies did often request that writers of promise would revise their work and resubmit it, but that’s become exceedingly rare. Today, well-respected agents receive so many technically perfect manuscripts by talented writers that they can afford to let a fish that needs to grow a bit more get away.

I know, I know: not a very appealing way to think of one’s own work, but you must admit, it’s tremendous incentive to take a fine-toothed comb to your submission, isn’t it?

On that note of brave desperation, let’s return to the Idol list of rejection reasons. (If you do not know what I am talking about, please see the first post in this series.) Today, I want to concentrate on the rejection reasons that would make the most sense for agency screeners to rubber-stamp upon submissions if they were in the habit of doing so: these are the common technical problems that are relatively easy for the writer to fix.

If he knows about them, that is.

My favorite easy-fix on the list is #50, an adult book that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene is often mistakenly assumed to be YA. This is funny, of course, because even a cursory walk though the fiction section of any major bookstore would reveal that a hefty percentage of adult fiction IS about teenage protagonists.

So why is this perception a problem at the submission stage? Well, in an agency that does not represent YA, the book is likely to be shunted quickly to the reject pile; there is no quicker rejection than the one reserved for types of books an agency does not handle. (That’s one reason that they prefer query letters to contain the book category in the first paragraph, FYI: it enables agency screeners to reject queries about types of books they do not represent without reading the rest of the letter.) And in an agency that routinely represents both YA and adult fiction, the submission might easily be read with a different target market in mind, and thus judged by the wrong rules.

“Wait just a cotton-picking minute!” I here some of you out there murmuring. “This one isn’t my fault; it’s the screener’s. All anyone at an agency would have to do to tell the difference is to take a look at the synopsis they asked me to include, and…”

Stop right there, oh murmurers, because you’re about to go down a logical wrong path. If you heed nothing else from today’s lesson, my friends, hark ye to this: NO ONE AT AN AGENCY OR PUBLISHING HOUSE IS LIKELY TO READ THE SYNOPSIS PRIOR TO READING THE SUBMISSION, at least not at the same sitting. So it is NEVER safe to assume that the screener deciding whether your first page works or not is already familiar with your premise.

Why is this the case? Well, for the same reason that many aspects of the submission process work against the writer: limited time.

Getting pretty tired of that excuse, aren’t you? So is Millicent, in all probability: she needs to figure out whether the submission in front of her is a compelling story, true, but she also needs to be able to determine whether the writing is good AND the style appropriate to the subject matter. An adult style and vocabulary in a book pitched at 13-year-olds, obviously, would send up some red flags in her mind.

So, given that she has 77 submissions in front of her, and she needs to get through them all before lunch, is she more likely to (a) devote two minutes to reading the enclosed synopsis before she turns her attention to the writing itself, or (b) only read the synopses for the submissions she reads to the end?

If you didn’t pick (b), I would really urge you to sign up for a good, practical writing class or attend a market-minded conference as soon as humanly possible; a crash course in just how competitive the writing game is would probably be exceedingly helpful to your writing career. From the point of view of a screener at a major agency, two minutes is a mighty long time to devote to a brand-new author.

I know; it’s sickening. But knowing the conditions under which your baby is likely to be read is crucial to understanding how to make it as rejection-proof as possible.

So for those of you who write about teenagers for the adult market, I have a bold suggestion: make sure that your title and style in the opening reflect a sensibility that is unquestionably aimed at adult readers, so your work is judged by the right rules.

This can be genuinely difficult to pull off if your narrator is a teenager — which brings me to #49 on the Idol list, narration in a kid’s voice that does not come across as age-appropriate. (For the record, both an agent who represents solely adult fiction and one who represents primarily YA noted this as a problem.)

This issue crops up ALL the time in books aimed at adults that are about children; as a general rule of thumb, if your protagonist is a pre-Civil War teenaged farmhand, he should not speak as if he graduated from Dartmouth in 1992. Nor should a narrator who is a 6-year-old girl sport the vocabulary of an English Literature professor.

Usually, though, the problem is subtler. Often, teenage protagonists are portrayed from an adult’s, or even a parent’s, point of view, creating narrators who are hyper-aware that hormones are causing their mood swings or character behavior that is apparently motivated (from the reader’s point of view, anyway) solely by age. But teenagers, by and large, do not tend to think of themselves as moody, impossible, or even resentful; most of them, when asked, will report that they are just trying to get along in situations where they have responsibilities but few rights and little say over what they do with their time and energy.

And yet screeners are constantly seeing openings where teenage girls practice bulimia simply because they want to fit in, where teenage boys act like James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, where teenage characters flounce off to their rooms to sulk.

Yes, many teenagers do these things, undoubtedly, but in novels, these things have been reported so often that they come across as clichés. And teenage characters and narrators who diagnose these behaviors as an adult would are accordingly rife.

Also, NYC-based agency screeners and editorial assistants tend to be quite young: they weren’t teenagers all that long ago. Sometimes, they are still young enough to resent having been pigeonholed, and if your manuscript is sitting in front of them, what better opportunity to express that resentment than rejecting it is likely to present itself?

So do be careful, and make sure you are showing the screener something she won’t have seen before. Not to give away the candy store, but the best opening with a teenage protagonist I ever saw specifically had the girl snap out of an agony of self-doubt (which could easily have degenerated into cliché) into responsible behavior in the face of a crisis on page 1.

To submission-wearied professional eyes, reading a manuscript where the teenaged protagonist had that kind of emotional range was like jumping into a swimming pool on a hot day: most refreshing.

One of the most common ways to set up a teenage scene in the past involves rejection reason #63, the opening includes quotes from song lyrics. Yes, this can be an effective way to establish a timeframe without coming out and saying, “It’s 1982,” but it is also very, very overused. I blame this tactic’s all-too-pervasive use in movies and TV: in the old days, soundtracks used to contain emotionally evocative incidental music, but in recent years, the soundtrack for any movie set in the 20th-century past is a virtual replica of the K-Tel greatest hits of (fill in timeframe), as if no one in any historical period ever listed to anything but top 40.

I’m fairly confident, for instance, that there was no period in American history where dance bands played only the Charleston, where every radio played nothing but AMERICAN PIE, or every television was tuned to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. Yes, even when Elvis or the Beatles appeared on it.

We’re creative people — can’t we mix it up a bit more?

Other than ubiquity, there are other reasons that agents and their screeners tend to frown upon the inclusion of song lyrics in the opening pages of a book. Unless the song is within the public domain — and the last time I checked, HAPPY BIRTHDAY still wasn’t, so we are talking about a long lead time here — the publisher will need to get permission from whoever owns the rights to the song in order to reproduce it. So song lyrics on page one automatically mean more work for the editor.

Also, one of the benefits of setting a sentiment to music is that it is easier to sound profound in song than on the printed page. No disrespect to song stylists, but if you or I penned some of those lines, we would be laughed out of our writers’ groups. For this reason, song lyrics taken out of context and plopped onto the page often fall utterly flat — especially if the screener is too young to have any personal associations with that song.

#45, it is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead, started cropping up on a lot of agents’ pet peeve lists immediately after, you guessed it, THE LOVELY BONES came out. It’s hardly a new literary phenomenon, though — ghostly narrators began wandering into agencies with a frequency unseen since the old TWILIGHT ZONE series was influencing how fantasy was written in North America on a weekly basis. And wouldn’t you know it, the twist in many of these submissions turns out to be that the reader doesn’t learn that the narrator is an unusually chatty corpse until late in the book, or at any rate after the first paragraph of the first page.

Remember what I was saying the other day about agents not liking to feel tricked by a book? Well…

I need to sign off for today — I’m off to have dinner with a sulky teenager who prattles on about peer pressure, a child who speaks as though she is about to start collecting Social Security any day now, and a fellow who may or may not have kicked the bucket half a decade ago; someday soon, I hope I’ll know for sure. Honestly, if agents and editors would only recognize that we writers are merely holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, all of our lives would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?

More analysis of common rejection reasons follows next time. Keep up the good work!

Author bios, part VIII: and then there are those pesky loose ends

Is everyone feeling relatively happy about her author bio draft? Has writing yours made you feel genuinely fascinating — and eager to show the publishing world (notoriously crammed with fascinating people, at least on the creative side of the biz) just how interesting you are? Or have you been storing these how-to tips away like the proverbial squirrel with a stray nut or two, saving them for the day you will need ‘em?

Since this is my last post in this series — presuming that no one posts a great follow-up question as a comment over the next few days, hint, hint — I’m going to seize the opportunity to say this just one more time, for the benefit of all you procrastinators out there: please, I implore you, do NOT put off writing at least a viable first draft of your bio until the day after an agent or editor has actually asked you to provide one.

On that happy day, you will be a much, much happier human being in every way if you already have at least the beginnings of a great bio sitting on your hard drive. Trust me on this one.

And may I suggest that those of you involved in writers’ groups — critique-based or support; in either case, good for you — devote part of a meeting to brainstorming about and giving feedback on one another’s bios? (Or query letters, for that matter? And what about synopses?)

Even very market-oriented groups seldom set aside time for mutual bio critique — which is a trifle mystifying to me, as a session devoted to it can be a whole lot of fun, as well as very useful indeed. Besides, how much do you really know about that sharp-eyed person who keeps telling you to show, not tell?

Speaking of great questions (yes, I know; I was speaking of it several paragraphs ago, but humor me), readers past and present have posted requests for clarification on a couple of points. Since not everyone reads the comment strings — especially, I notice, whilst perusing the archives — I want to devote the rest of today’s blog to dealing with some of those pesky loose ends that I may have left dangling from my previous post on the subject.

Let’s begin with a thought-provoking question from long-time reader Gordon:

I’m not sure how to word this, but I’ll try – should an author bio written by an unpublished (in any media) writer include what you call “promotional parts”? Meaning life connections with the novel’s subject matter. As a youngster in his seventies there have been many twists and turns in my life. Should one’s bio chronologically hit the high points or mainly focus on the ones pertinent to the novel being submitted?


You did fine, Gordon. The short answer is yes, on both counts.

Well, glad to have cleared THAT up. Moving along…

I didn’t really fool you there, did I? Especially since those of you who have been following the comments on this series closely undoubtedly immediately cried, “Wait, Gordon asked this toward the beginning of the series, and Anne sort of dealt with this later on. Perhaps she is trying, albeit clumsily, to drive home the point that good questions from readers help to expand the range of her posts.”

Well, I like to think so. However, looking back on the ways in which I wove the spirit of this question into this series, I’m not entirely positive that I ever answered its letter, so to speak. Now, I’m going to tackle it directly.

The direct answer: it depends.

To be specific, which way one should fall on the choice between devoting one’s bio to a chronological account of the highlights of one’s life as, say, an obituary might tell it (sorry, but it’s the obvious analogy) vs. creating the impression that every significant event in one’s life was leading inevitably to the writing of this book and no other depends largely upon several factors, including:

a) whether there are events in one’s life that are legitimately related to the subject matter of the book in question without too many logical leaps. If mentioning a particular life experience would tend to make you a more credible source, it’s usually to your advantage to include it in your bio, to differentiate yourself from any other yahoo who might just have been guessing what that particular experience was like.

Hint: “Writerly Q. Author visited the Statue of Liberty once,” when his protagonist passes through Ellis Island briefly in Chapter Two is a stretch; “Writerly Q. Author spent twenty years as a merchant marine,” when his entire plotline takes place on a pirate ship is not.

b) whether one has genuinely lead a life that would produce a couple of entertaining paragraphs, regardless of connection to the book. It never hurts to sound darned interesting in your bio.

However — and this is a big however in practice — writers of purely chronological bios often…how shall I put this delicately…overestimate the detail in which a rushed industry type might want to hear the life story of someone s/he has never met. Remember, Millicent reads a LOT of bios; keep yours snappy.

If you’re in doubt whether yours is leaning toward overkill, hand your bio to someone who doesn’t know you particularly well (having asked politely for his assistance first, of course; don’t just accost a stranger) and have him read it through twice. Buy the cooperative soul a cup of coffee, and around the time that your cup begins to seem light in your hand, ask your guinea pig to tell your life story back to you uninterrupted.

The points that he can’t reproduce without prompting are probably less memorable than the others.

c) in the lucky instance where both (a) and (b) are genuinely true, whether the wealth of interesting biographical detail threatens to render the connections to the book less memorable. When in doubt, lean toward the directly applicable; it’s more important information for the marketing department.

Everyone comfortable with that? Remember, the point of an author bio is not to tell your life story — that’s what post-publication interviews and memoirs are for, right? — nor to include all of the things that you would like total strangers who pick up volumes in a future bookstore to know about you. The goal in a submission bio is to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Or, in the case of nonfiction, to write the book being proposed.

Everyone clear on the relevant distinctions? Good. Let’s move on to another question. Another long-term reader, Cerredwyn, wrote in to ask,

Does an author photo need to be a head shot?


No, it doesn’t — as long as you are identifiable (“That’s she, officer. That’s the author of the book!“) and the background isn’t too busy, you can certainly use a broader shot.

In fact, as our friend Elinor Glyn’s author photo for IT above shows, a head-and-torso shot is actually a bit more common on jacket flaps. However, 1/2, 3/4, and even full standing shots are not unheard-of. John Irving’s early works tended to have particularly hunky-looking shots from the waist up, for instance.

Not that I noticed as a teenager or anything. I was reading his books for the writing and the stories, I tell you.

If you’re having trouble deciding between different ranges of shot, spend some time in a well-stocked bookstore, taking a gander at the author photos published in books in your chosen book category within the last few years. If you notice an overall trend in styles, you’re not going to offend anyone by submitting something similar.

Oh, and speaking of styles, unless you have written something ultra-hip or happen to be a magazine writer (whose material by definition changes constantly), it’s usually not a great idea to dress in the latest fashion for your author photo — and it’s DEFINITELY not the time to sport a hairstyle that’s not likely to be around a decade hence.

Don’t believe me? Ask any 80s author who embraced a mohawk. Or Elinor Glyn, a decade after the photo above was taken.

Remember, if your book is successful, it will be gracing shelves in private homes, libraries, and book exchanges for even longer than it will be hanging out in Barnes & Noble. A too-trendy style will date the photo.

So as a general rule of thumb, adorning yourself for your photo with the expectation that the resulting photo will dog you for the rest of your natural life is a good plan.

A reader too shy to be comfortable with identification sent me an e-mail (which I generally discourage as a means of asking me follow-up questions on blog posts; leaving them as comments here means that everyone benefits from the answers) to ask:

“I’m all excited about my next book, but I’m marketing my first. Would it be completely tacky to mention what I’m working on now in my bio? What if the books are in different genres?”


It’s far from being tacky, Anonymous One; in fact, it’s downright common for a submission bio to end with a brief paragraph along the lines of:

Lincoln lives in Springfield, Illinois with his wife, eight sons, and golden retriever, Manifest Destiny. He is currently working on his second book, Hey! Where Are You Taking Half of My Country?, a comic memoir covering the Civil War years.

I sense some disbelief out there, don’t I? “Yeah, right, Anne,” I hear some of you scoff. “Stop pulling our collective legs. I’ve never seen an author bio that covers future work, or even unpublished work. Bios are always backward-looking, aren’t they?”

Actually, jacket bios that mentioned future projects used to be fairly standard; in the mid-70s, the last line of most bios was some flavor of Smith lives in Connecticut, where he is working on his next novel. Gradually, this has been falling out of fashion, perhaps because it implies some faith on the publisher’s part that Smith’s current release will sell well enough that they will WANT him to bring out another. (It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that this particular last sentence fell out of fashion at approximately the same time as multi-book contracts for first-time novelists.)

However, the author bio that an aspiring writer tucks into a submission packet and the one that ends up on a dust jacket are not the same thing — they are intended for the eyes of two different audiences, to create two different impressions. The dust jacket bio is promotional copy aimed at the reader, designed to pique interest and answer basic questions like why should I believe this guy’s NF account of life on the moon? The submission bio, by contrast, is designed to impress agents, editors, and their respective Millicents with the author’s claim to be an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Is there an echo in here? I could have sworn that I’ve heard that last bit somewhere before.

Because the submission bio is geared for industry-savvy eyes, mentioning completed book projects in categories other than the one to which the currently-submitted manuscript belongs (try saying THAT three times fast), as the Anonymous Questioner suggested, is a perfectly legitimate use of space. No need to hawk the other projects; simply mention the book category within the course of a single-sentence description that describes the project as still in progress. As in:

Now nicely recovered from his contretemps with an assassin, Garfield lives in retirement, working on his next book projects, a YA baseball romance and a historical retrospective of his own brief presidency.

Why would Pres. Garfield speak of his completed YA book as a work-in-progress? Strategy, my dears, strategy: it neatly sidesteps the question why isn’t it published?

Finally, reader Rose inquired some time ago:

I’m at a whole single-spaced page, no photo. I have a pro photo, recently taken, that looks great. Would it be better to reduce the bio and add the photo?

I’m querying for a novel, btw, and I’d been under the impression that you shouldn’t submit an author photo when trying to pitch one.

Contrary to the impression Rose has, by her own admission, picked up she knows not where, there is no hard-and-fast rule about whether a fiction writer’s submission bio should to include a photo. No Millicent who has found a submission engaging enough to read all the way to the last page, where the author bio lurks, is going to cast her latte aside in a petulant fit at the sight of a photo, screaming, “Oh, darn — now I have to reject it. I liked that manuscript, too.”

Not going to happen.

The reason photos are often not included in novelists’ bios is not because they’re unwelcome, but because the burden for gathering marketing materials prior to selling a novel has historically been significantly lower than for a NF book. (If any of you novelists doubt this, take a gander at a NF book proposal sometime; its many, many pages of marketing material will make you feel much, much better about writing only a query letter and a synopsis.)

If your photo is pretty ravishing, Rose, I say go ahead and include it. A nice photo does make the bio look a touch more professional, after all, and it’s never a BAD thing for an agent or editor to think, “Hey, this author is photogenic”

Even without the picture, though, it sounds as though Rose’s bio is a bit long for professional purposes: it’s usually one DOUBLE-spaced page, or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced under a photo. Yes, one does occasionally hear agents these days mentioning that they’ve been seeing more single-spaced bios lately — but as I’ve virtually always heard this pronounced with a gnashing of teeth, I’m inclined to regard such statements as complaints.

Call me zany.

I’d stick to a more standard length. As with a query letter, when in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Believe me, if your bio is too short, the agent of your dreams will be only to happy to tell you so –after she signs you.

(Oh, she’s going to want you to change a lot of things after she signs you, no matter how much she initially loved your book or book proposal. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

One last thought on the subject before I sign off for the day: If, over the years I’ve been a book doctor and particularly over the 3+ years I’ve been answering questions online, someone had given me a nickel for every time an aspiring writer asked me whether the spacing or length of the bio — or query, or synopsis — REALLY mattered, I would have been able to build my own publishing house. I don’t mean that I would have been able to buy one — I mean that I would have been able to construct the necessary buildings and offices entirely out of coins.

Would it surprise you to hear that even after that many repetitions of the same question, my answer has never changed, no matter how much aspiring writers might have wished them to do so? Or that if I could wave my magic wand and remove all formatting requirements, I probably wouldn’t do it?

Why, I hear you gasp? Because when an author bio — or query letter, or synopsis, or manuscript — is properly formatted, the only bases for judging it have to do with the quality of the writing, the premise’s marketability, whether the professional reader likes it, and so forth.

You know, the bases upon which aspiring writers WANT to be judged.

So yes, agents really tend to hold aspiring writers to the standards of the industry, just as they hold their clients to them. (See earlier comment about one’s dream agent making demands upon one.)
As I’ve explained many, many times on this forum, they don’t do this to be mean; it’s just that when someone — like, say, Millicent the agency screener — spends hour after hour, day after day, month after month staring at manuscripts, she’s unlikely NOT to notice if one is formatted differently than the norm.

As in, for instance, an author bio that doesn’t look like the ones I showed you yesterday. Even if a single-spaced bio DOES indeed fit onto the requisite single page, thus meeting the bare minimum standard for professionalism, it’s not going to resemble the bios Millicent’s boss is sending out with her clients’ submissions.

Or at least, it probably will not. Naturally, as with any group of human beings, some agents have individual preferences that deviate from the industry standard — the source, I suspect, of Rose’s impression of unspecified origin — and if you can find out what these quirky desires are, you should definitely adhere to them in your submissions to that particular agent. It seldom pays, however, to assume that any one such preference is universal to the industry.

My point is, as annoying as it may be to bring your bios — and queries, synopses, and manuscripts — into line with the most common professional standards is so that Millicent may ignore the formatting and concentrate on what you are SAYING. Because, after all, your aim in your submission bio is not to cram as many facts as you can onto a single page, but to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Yes, you have heard that somewhere before. See, I don’t recommend sticking to the general standards just to be mean, either.

Keep up the good work!

I want candy!

We begin today with great news about a member of our little Author! Author! community, campers: reader Jake La Jeunesse’s OLD FRIENDS has taken an Honorable Mention in the Stage Play category of the 2008 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. Congratulations, Jake! Way to build up your ECQLC!

That’s short for Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, for those of you joining us late.

Ah, ECQLC, those lovely little tidbits that make Millicent the agency screener’s weary eyes light up in the biographical paragraph of a query letter. Placing in contests (particularly ones known to attract many entries and stiff competition, like Writers’ Digest’s), acceptances to writers’ residences (such as the ones I discussed yesterday, which also usually involve one’s writing fighting its way through heavy competition), writing programs (either degree-granting or of the intensive workshop variety), public speaking experience, even consistent participation in a well-established critique group — all of these are legitimate professional credentials for a writer, every bit as much as previous publications.

Make sure to mention ‘em in your query letters.

If you are in the querying stage of your writing career, or plan to be there within the next year or two, it’s definitely worth giving some thought — and entering the occasional contest — to building up your ECQLC quotient. Credentials generally take time to accumulate, after all; heck, a three- or four-month turn-around time for a contest entry is positively abnormally quick. And it can take time to convince the editor-in-chief of your community paper to let you write a couple of book reviews, even if you do it for free, in order to be able to list it as a publication credential.

Do I sense some squirming discomfort out there from those of you who have read my last couple of posts? “But Anne,” I hear a harassed few exclaim, “you’ve just been telling us that we need to make time for our writing, so I thought you understood. I have a full-time job, family, friends, obligations — as it is, I feel as though I have to fight tooth and nail to carve out any time to write at all! Come to think of it, one of the things I resent most about the querying process is how much time it sucks away from creating new work.

“Given the choice,” these intrepid souls continue, “why would I — or any sane aspiring writer — place our books on a back burner in order to devote still more of that scant time to entering contests or writing free pieces for local papers, just so I’ll have clippings?”

Interesting point, time-pressed many. For the most part, I’m with you on this one: marketing (which querying certainly is), learning about craft, attending conferences, making connections with other writers who may help you improve your writing now and/or help you down the line — these are all time-consuming and often expensive. As you say, you could be using those resources to complete your book-in-progress.

See? I do get it.

For that reason, I wouldn’t advise letting the pursuit of ECQLC make serious inroads into your writing time. You don’t, after all, have unlimited amounts of it, and all of the marketing classes and networking in the world won’t make a particle of difference if your book is not well-crafted.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration: we’ve all stumbled across volumes in the bookstore that made us gasp, “Okay, who does THIS author know” (to put it politely) “to have been able to land an agent for THIS?” But presumably, if you were already a celebrity or had connections that would permit you to bypass — again, putting it politely — the craft-related steps of the production of the book, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?

Oh, don’t deny it. You’d be off hobnobbing with your fancy friends, with no thought for those of us who nursed you as a pup.

For those of us operating under the normal restrictions of landing an agent and getting published, I would consider it reasonable — better than that: cleverly career-minded! — of you to set aside deliberately, say, 5% of your writing time for professional development activities like contest entry, taking classes, going to book readings to meet local authors, etc.

Why 5%, you ask? Because if you write on a regular basis, it’s enough time actually to accomplish something, yet it’s not a high enough chunk of your writing time to prove a major obstacle to the progress of your book. Think of it as a smart investment in your future.

Before any purists out there start screaming that I’m mercenary-minded, allow me to add quickly: for the sake of our art, I wish I could tell you that the publishing world routinely rewards single-minded writers who rigorously refuse to be distracted by the less creative aspects of the business. But I’m not going to lie to you — over the years I’ve seen many, many, many truly talented writers passed over by agents and their Millicents.

Why, you cry to the heavens? Because it’s far, far easier to dismiss an uncredentialed writer than one with some ECQLC.

Yes, regardless of the quality of their respective writing. Long-time readers, take out your hymnals and sing along with me: if you can’t get an agent or editor to READ your manuscript, the quality of the writing isn’t going to help get it published.

Sorry about that. If I ran the universe…well, you know the rest. In the universe I don’t run, here is what I hope is a pleasant flashback to your childhood, to help cheer you up:

All nice and calm again? Excellent. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.

Toward the end of my last post, I suggested that it might behoove you to make a list of the conditions you believe you would need in order to have a productive writing retreat. All right, everybody, hand in your homework, so I can grade it.

Just kidding; no need to post your lists as comments. But your breath caught for just a moment out of long-ago school habit, didn’t it?

I do hope that you’ve been giving some serious thought to what should be on your list, however. If you haven’t started, or if you’re having trouble even beginning, let me rephrase the question: what is the absolute minimum you would need to have with you/over your head in order to dig in for anywhere from a long weekend to a couple of months and to literally nothing but WRITE.

Did you catch the logical problem with what I just said? Obviously, no human being can write 24/7, with no breaks at all. Eating, for example, is more or less indispensable to the maintenance of human life, contrary to what some of us thought in the mid-80s. So, I’m told, is sleep.

You’d be amazed by how frequently writers forget to budget time or money for either when they’re planning to retreat.

Completely understandable, of course: it’s not all that hard to picture a gleeful writer, pleased almost to the point of disbelief at the prospect of being able to devote unbroken time to a writing project, packing in unseemly haste, muttering, “6 days — that’s 144 hours of work. I can finish my revision in 144 hours, if I don’t take breaks and live on protein bars stuffed in my cardigan pockets, so I don’t have to move even a few feet in order to feed myself…”

Stop right there: trust me, you can’t. And you will be (a) completely miserable, (b) quickly become unproductive, and eventually (c) make yourself sick if you even try.

So promise me you won’t, so I don’t have to stay up at night worrying about you. Thank you.

The impulse to overtax oneself on retreat is, I suspect, part and parcel of a mindset that often afflicts time-strapped writers, whether they are lucky enough to be able to go on retreat or not. See if this scenario sounds at all familiar:

Stephanie so yearns for sustained writing time that when she is finally assured she’s going to have an entire day (or two, or twelve…work with me here, people) to herself, she’s beside herself with joy. In a frenzy of excitement, she spends the week prior to her writing day(s) feverishly making lists of everything she plans to do: finish Chapter 12, write Chs. 13-15, compose a new and improved query letter from scratch, compose synopsis…the list goes on and on. As the day itself approaches, Stephanie finds herself doing housework and running errands during her regularly-scheduled normal writing time: ah, well, no matter; she can make it up later.

Once her planned writing intensive begins, though, Stephanie sits down, makes sure everything around her is perfect — and two hours later, is in tears because she can’t seem to write. What happened? she wonders angrily.

What did happen to Stephanie? Any guesses?

If you suggested that perhaps she had raised her expectations of what she could achieve in her allotted time, give yourself a gold star for the day. Aspiring writers do this all the time — they build up the pressure on themselves to perform that they set themselves up for…well, not necessarily failure, but at least for disappointment in themselves.

The common name for this is writer’s block.

Allow me to share a professional writer’s secret: in the long run, it’s far more sensible to set small, reasonable tasks, eating away at a big project like completing a novel in ladylike little bites, rather than trying to write an entire book in a sitting.

Oh, you may laugh, but at every formal writing retreat I’ve ever visited, I’ve met at least one writer who was attempting to polish off her long-neglected novel during a week- or month-long residency, because she just didn’t know when she’d have time to get back to it again, driving herself crazy in the process. Or who was trying to start one and get halfway through it before he left.

Keep your expectations about what you can achieve during your writing time reasonable. Really, you’ll accomplish more in the long run, I promise.

For those of you who would like some extra credit, here’s a follow-up question: Stephanie did something else that made her intensive retreat time less likely to be successful. What was it?

35 points (on a scale of what? Who can say?) if you immediately piped up to point out that she stopped honoring her usual daily writing time. Why was this a poor idea, since she knew she had some spare time coming up? Because that raised the expectations for her own productivity during her intensive writing time even higher, rendering falling short of them even…class?

That’s right, even greater. Help yourself to a lollypop on your way out the door after the bell rings.

On that candy-related note (I knew I’d get back to it somehow), I’m going to wind down for the day, but before I do, allow me to place the proverbial bug in your ear while that lollypop is in your mouth: when planning intensive writing time, it’s a really, really good idea to budget in — over-budget, even — thinking time into it.

Or, as your horrified mind probably just referred to it, time when you’re neither writing, eating, or sleeping.

No, I haven’t gone mad, nor am I nudging you surreptitiously toward lowering your performance expectations even more. (Although, hey, I wouldn’t stop you from doing the latter, by any means.) I’m talking, my friends, about what the pros call processing time.

That being said, I’m going to wind up today by repeating my question from yesterday: what factors would you actually need to have in place in order to work productively on a writing retreat? May I suggest adding to your list time to eat, sleep, and just plain think about things?

Hey, let’s run with that and add a secondary set of goals to our list: tweak it to include conditions you would need in order to do these not-writing-yet-necessary-activities happily and well. Because, believe me, planning for those will assist you in the pursuit of your primary goal, scoring yourself some prime-quality intensive writing time.

So, at the risk of sounding redundant across blog posts, give some thought to what you would need. I promise you, we will put your homework to good use.

Keep up the good work!

Referral-seeking, part II: et tu, Brute? You want me to recommend you to my agent, too? But I referred Cassius last week!

Yes, yes, I know: I had implied — okay, said that I was going to start running through the rigors of constructing a professional-reading synopsis this weekend. Honestly, I have been thinking about it endlessly, trying to rack my already-taxed brain to come up with something new, scintillating, and enlightening to say on what is arguably most writers’, established and aspiring both, least favorite task ever.

How have I been coming along, you ask? Well, does the fact that I’m running a second post on the dos and don’ts of seeking out referrals from authors to their agents give you a clue?

Actually, I have been wanting to revisit the pitfalls associated with approaching established writers to ask for their assistance in landing an agent for quite some time now, because as the literary market tightens, such referrals skyrocket in value. Not because, as many writers seeking such a recommendation apparently believe, it is an automatic entrée into representation — as the agents themselves like to say, it all depends up on the writing – but because being able to say so-and-so sent me is necessary to get your submission read at all at some agencies.

Basically, garnering recommendations from authors can open some doors that are otherwise hermetically sealed to the average querier — and even at agencies where the doors are relatively easy to open, a good word from an established client can often increase the probability of the agent’s requesting pages.

Obviously, this would be beneficial at any time, but the harder it is for agents to sell books to editors at any given moment — as, for instance, when the big publishers are worried about a recession — the more selective your garden-variety agent will probably be in taking on new clients.

Translation: some doors that usually swing pretty freely have been known to stick a bit of late. Thus, introductions are more in demand.

And trust me, aspiring writers have been demanding them, both directly and indirectly. The results tend to look a little something like this.

Referral-farming scenario 3: after years of polishing her craft, seeking out the Larry, the right agent for her work, and producing several books for Larry to market, Laurentina has just signed a publication contract for her first novel. Thrilled, she lets everyone on her Christmas card list know about her success. Before Valentine’s Day, she’s received half a dozen requests from writer friends to be connected with Larry, since HE’s been so successful.

“If you want to read my manuscript first,” the seventh of these requesters generously offers, “I’d be happy to give you a copy.”

Staring at the six manuscripts already piled on her desk, Laurentina is seriously tempted just to say, “Sure — just say in the first line of your query letter that I sent you.” A second later, she reconsiders: obviously, she’s not going to jeopardize Larry’s good opinion of her by sending him a potential client without finding out first whether that person can write. But in the face of the mountain of revisions her new editor has requested, how is she ever going to find time to read a seventh novel?

“I feel like Millicent,” she grumbles, trying to figure out how to tell #7 that if he wants her help, he’s going to need to wait six months to a year. “Who died and made me Larry’s manuscript screener?”

In a way, Laurentina is lucky: at least the referral-seekers who approached her were already her friends. It’s not at all uncommon for a published (or even just agented) writer to receive similar requests from people she’s never even met. A couple of common examples:

Referral-farming scenario 4: Dario’s second novel has just come out; by dint of tireless travel to every bookstore within driving distance and working word of mouth, he managed to sell almost 4.000 copies his first, a sensitive literary fiction depiction of the relationship between a coal miner’s daughter and the crow who loves her. His publisher hopes that the second, a sensitive literary fiction depiction of the relationship between a salmon fisherman’s daughter and the seagull who loves her, will do at least as well.

Suffice it to say that Dario is pretty eager to charm potential book-buyers.

So when he receives a comment on his blog, THE GIRL-FISH ROMANTIC, asking him for a recommendation to his agent, Darlene, Dario doesn’t hesitate to fire back a long e-mail in her praise.

Within an hour, he hears from the requester again: “No, stupid,” it reads. “I wasn’t asking you to recommend Darlene to ME; I was asking you to recommend ME to HER.”

Don’t like that one much? Understandable. Here’s an even more pervasive one:

Referral-farming scenario 5: established writer Tammy has earned the right to some free time: after years of struggle to find an agent and find a publisher for her hyper-realistic novel, YEARS OF STRUGGLE FINDING AN AGENT, and the subsequent success of her follow-up titles, WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, and WHAT DO YOU MEAN, I HAVE A THREE-BOOK CONTRACT?, she is now finally making enough in royalties that by teaching half-time, she can quit her day job. Well done, Tammy!

One day, taking a break from working on her fourth novel, MY AGENT SAYS I HAVE IT IN ME, Tammy opens her e-mail and finds a message from Tina, the girlfriend of a former coworker. “Tom said you wouldn’t mind,” the e-mail gushes. “I’ve written a mystery novel, and I want to know how to get it published. Can you help me?”

Tammy glances at the shelf full of books, articles, conference brochures, and weekend workshops she had to plow through in order to figure out how to break into the business. Where, she wonders, could she even start to answer Tina’s overly-broad question? How can she even inquire how much homework Tina has already done on the subject? And what on earth does Tom think that she writes, to have sent her a mystery novelist.

I’ll get you for this, Tom, she thinks, searching her schedule for a day when she can have lunch with Tina.

Yet when she tries to explain the process over lunch, Tina looks at her with the eyes of the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. “Oh, that sounds like a whole lot of work,” she cries, dismayed. “Isn’t there another way? Maybe you could just ask your agent about it?”

What would I say? Tina thinks, reaching for the check. Hey, Teresa, here’s someone who thinks being a professional writer isn’t hard work?

Didn’t like that one any better? Okay, try this on for size:

Referral-farming scenario 6: Editor Pablo’s old college friend Pierre doesn’t keep in touch very much, but when he does, Pablo always enjoys chatting with him. After all, Pierre’s a funny guy: on an ordinary day, Pablo likes to save his e-mails for last, as a treat; on a bad day, he reads them first, as a boost.

Today, however, Pierre’s message proves to be neither: “Hey, Pablo — I’ve just met this guy, Peter, who wants to be a writer. I think he’s been working on a memoir. He wants to find an agent — can you help him?”

Naturally, this places Pablo in a quandary: he spends the next half an hour trying to come up with a funny way to say that he cannot possibly assess his ability to assist someone about whose talent he knows nothing in placing a book about which he knows nothing.

In the end, he gives up. “Gee, I’d love to help out,” he writes hurriedly, “but I’m afraid I’m just swamped.”

Have you flung your hands over your eyes in horror yet? No? Okay, let me reward you for your bravery by showing you an example of how someone who HAS done his homework about the biz might unwittingly push the boundaries of request-reasonableness:

Referral-farming scenario 7: Barry has been querying his memoir, 47 THINGS I DID TO HERONS, for a couple of years now. He’s gotten a couple of nibbles from agents who have asked to see his book proposal (and, in one case, the first 50 pages), but for some reason, the quotidian plight of a boy raised by waterfowl doesn’t seem to strike any of them as particularly marketable.

Worried that he lacks the necessary perspective to revise his work for the 151rst time, Barry joins an already-established writers’ group, one where the participants take the responsibilities of critique very seriously indeed. A few sessions in, a fellow memoir-writer, Barbara, mentions something her agent had said about building the dramatic arc in a memoir. “Just because it actually happened,” she quotes, “doesn’t mean it will necessarily work on the page. Cull, cull, cull.”

Barry feels as though he has been hit by the proverbial stroke of lightning: could he have been providing too many details in his memoir? He’s reluctant to believe that his story could be told in under 1,015 pages, but hey, if that’s what the pros want, it’s worth a try.

Two months and 600 pages of cuts later, Barry appears at critique group, beaming. “I took your agent’s advice,” he announces to a startled Barbara. “When can you get him my manuscript?”

See the problem here? Barbara never actually offered to put Barry in touch with her agent; because his request is so abrupt, he has placed her in the awkward position of having to decide on the spot (a) whether she likes Barry’s writing enough to recommend him, (b) whether she thinks Barry will handle himself professionally enough after such a recommendation not to embarrass her, (c) whether, based upon what she knows of her agent’s tastes, he’s at all likely to be interested in Barry’s work, (d) whether Barry is going to hold her responsible if he doesn’t, and thus (e) whether doing this favor may result in her having to find another writers’ group.

Do I hear some huffing out there from those who identify with Barry more than Barbara? “Oh, come on, Anne,” some of you point out, “isn’t Barbara being a little paranoid here? All Barry is asking her to do is put in a good word for him with her agent — after all, it’s up to the agent whether to accept or reject Barry. She may have qualms, but she’s just being a dog in the manger if she says no.”

Actually, Barry gave Barbara a pretty good reason to hesitate: instead of asking for a referral, he assumed that not only would she be willing to help him, but that she would be happy to take on the responsibility of conveying the manuscript as well.

Essentially, he’s making the case that because she was kind enough to give him advice before — actually, in this case, to pass along second-hand advice from her agent — that she should continue to help him. Like many a referral-seeker before him, Barry hasn’t paused to consider the gravity of the favor he’s asking; apparently, he’s only thought about Barbara’s assistance in terms of what it could mean to HIM.

Does this assumption strike you as a wee bit familiar? It should: all of today’s examplars have suffered from it.

This is an oversight to which frustrated agent-seekers are especially prone: the notion that people in the publishing industry OWE assistance to up-and-coming writers — or, if not to all of them equally, at least to oneself.

It’s an understandable feeling, of course. When marketing one’s first book to agents and editors, it is all too easy to forget that EVERY writer with whom they have contact loves his or her book, too, longing for its success with all of the fierce passion that each of us devotes to ours.

In the face of literally millions of similarly passionate hopers, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that agents and editors tend to get a bit jaded by the sight of writerly excitement.

This is why, to pull out one of my favorite broken records again, the tactic of querying or pitching by saying, “This is the best book you’ll ever read!” literally never works. This kind of hyperbolic praise rings in the industry’s ears as hollow, as if they had just asked a group of doting parents watching their third-graders in an aesthetically God-awful elementary school production of THE WIZARD OF OZ which kid currently mangling the choreography is destined for stardom.

The invariable answer: “Why, my child, of course.”

The problem of the overenthusiastic writer who assumes that everyone who stands between himself and publication can (and what’s more, should) drop whatever they’re doing in order to help him (and, one assumes, only him) is not discussed much on the conference circuit — or rather, it’s not discussed much in front of contest attendees. It IS discussed by agents, editors, and authors backstage at conferences all the time, I assure you, and in outraged tones.

Why? Because while the majority of aspiring writers are polite in their approaches, a predictably large minority, bless their warm and impetuous hearts, overstep the bounds of common courtesy pretty regularly. Ss I can tell you from direct personal experience, it’s not easy being the first personal contact a writer has with the industry: one tends to be treated less as a person than as a door or a ladder.

And no one, however famous or powerful, likes that. Case in point — and this time, I warn you, there is going to be a quiz at the end, so do pay attention:

Referral-farming scenario 8: at a writers’ conference, Karl meets Krishnan, a writer who has recently acquired an agent. The two men genuinely have a great deal in common: they live in the same greater metropolitan area, write for the same target market, and they share a love of the plays of Edward Albee. (Don’t ask me why; they just do.) So after hanging out together in the bar that is never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference venue, it seems perfectly natural for Karl to e-mail Krishnan and ask him to have coffee the following week.

When Krishnan arrives at the coffee shop, however, he is dismayed when Karl pulls a hefty manuscript box out of his backpack. “Here,” Karl says. “I want to know what you think before I send it to the agents who requested it at the conference. And after you read it, you can send it on to your agent.”

Krishnan just sits there, open-mouthed. As soon as his cell phone rings, he feigns a forgotten appointment and flees.

Okay, what did Karl do wrong here?

Partially, he succumbed a more advanced case of the plague of galloping assumption that afflicted our friends above: he just assumed that by merely being friendly, Krishnan was volunteering to help him land an agent.

However, there are a LOT of reasons that industry professionals are nice to aspiring writers at conferences, including the following, listed in descending order of probability:

*Krishnan might have just been being polite — which will no doubt thrill his mother.

*Krishnan might have regarded Karl as a potential buyer of his books, and as such, did not want to alienate a future fan — which will no doubt thrill his future editor.

*Krishnan might have been teaching a class at the conference, or hoping to do so in future, and wanted to make a good impression — which will no doubt thrill…well, probably nobody, but it was intended to thrill Karl.

*Krishnan is lonely — writing is a lonely craft, by definition, right? — and is looking for other writers with whom to commune, which could potentially cause them to thrill one another.

*Krishnan is looking for local writers with whom to form a critique group — which, again, might cause them to thrill one another, but probably will be less than thrilling to everyone concerned’s SOs.

*Krishnan’s agent might have asked him to be on the lookout for new writers at the conference (rare, but it does happen occasionally), which would have been precisely the thrill Karl was seeking, had he played his cards right.

Of these possibilities, only the last two would dictate ANY willingness on Krishnan’s part to read Karl’s work — and the next to last one definitely implies that reading would be exchanged, not one-way. However, if either of the last two had been Krishnan’s intent, it would have been polite for Karl to wait to be ASKED.

Ditto with Karl’s request that Krishnan pass the manuscript on to his agent. Even with a super-open agent, an agented author cannot recommend others indiscriminately. If Krishnan recommends Karl, and Karl turns out to be a bad writer, a constant nuisance, or just plain nuts, that recommendation will seriously compromise his ability to recommend writers in future.

Unpleasant but true: writers like Karl, while usually well-meaning in and of themselves, collectively make it harder for everyone else to get this kind of recommendation.

There’s another reason Krishnan would be inclined to run from such an approach: underlying resentment. Not of Karl’s rather inconsiderate assumptions that he would automatically be willing to help someone he’s just met, but of Karl’s attempt to cut into a line in which Krishnan stood for quite some time.

Just as it is relatively safe to presume that the more recently a writer landed an agent, the more difficult and time-consuming the agent-finding process was — because, by everyone’s admission, in this market, it’s harder than it was ten or even five years ago to wow an agent — it is a fair bet that an agent who has been signed but has not yet sold a book will be lugging around quite a bit of residual resentment about the process, or even about his agent.

If an agented writer’s hauling a monumental chip on his shoulder about his agent seems a little strange to you, I can only conclude that your experience listening to those whose first or second books are currently being marketed by their agents is not vast. Almost universally, a writer’s life gets harder, not easier, in the initial months after being signed: as exemplar Laurentina would be happy to tell you, practically any agent on earth will ask for manuscript revisions of even a manuscript she loves, in order to make it more marketable, and no one, but no one, on the writer’s end of the game is ever happy about the speed of submission.

Even if Krishnan’s agent is a saint and habitually works at a speed that would make John Henry gasp, Karl was unwise to assume that Krishnan would be eager to speed up the agent-finding process for anyone else. For all Karl knows, Krishnan struggled for YEARS to land his agent — and, unhappily, human nature does not always wish to shorten the road for those who come after.

Just ask anyone who has been through a medical residency. Or a Ph.D. program.

Note, please, that all of the above applies EVEN IF Krishnan actually has time to read the manuscript in question. Which, as the vast majority of agented-but-not-published writers hold full-time jobs and have to struggle to carve out writing time — as do many of the published writers I know; not a lot of people make a living solely from writing novels — is NOT a foregone conclusion.

The best rule of thumb: establish an honest-to-goodness friendship before you ask for favors.

It may well have turned out that Karl had a skill — computer repair, eagle-eyed proofreading, compassionate dog-walking — that Krishnan would be pleased to receive in exchange for feedback on Karl’s book. Krishnan might even have asked Karl to join his critique group, where such feedback would have been routine. But Karl will never know, because he jumped the gun, assuming that because Krishnan had an agent, the normal rules of favor-asking did not apply to him.

The same rule applies, by the way, to any acquaintance whose professional acumen you would like to tap unofficially. If I want to get medical information from my doctor about a condition that is plaguing a character in my novel, I expect to pay for her time.

Nor, outside of a formal conference context, would I expect a professional editor to read my work, an agent to give me feedback on my pitch, or an editor to explain the current behind-the-scenes at Random House to me unless we either already had a close friendship or I was paying for their time, either monetarily or by exchange.

Be very aware that you are asking a favor, and a big one, when you ask an author to help you reach his agent. Not only are you asking the author to invest time and energy in helping a relative stranger – you are also expecting him or her to put credibility on the line. And that, dear readers, is something that most authors – and most human beings – do not do very often for relative strangers.

No, not even if Tom or Pierre ask it on someone else’s behalf. Go figure.

Tread lightly — and keep up the good work!

“Tell me again — who sent you?”

Autumn’s in the air, which means two things in my line of work: the release this year’s crop of literary fiction likely to be nominated for major awards and Millicent the agency screener, her boss, and the editors to whom the latter likes to pitch getting back to work, digging their respective ways through the piles upon piles of submissions lingering after the annual summer hiatus, not to mention the new, post-conference submissions..

It is, in short, a great time to be querying and submitting.

Since I know that many of you are spending your weekends/spare time/whenever your boss isn’t looking over your shoulder at work pulling together lists of agents to query, this seemed like an especially good moment to answer a question sharp-eyed reader Jake asked a few months back:

Just to be sure, if an agency does say it only accepts clients through recommendations, am I to assume they’re listing off these guidelines, but expecting to see the recommendation in the query? (I don’t actually know anyone who can refer me, but I’m wondering if querying these agents anyway is worth the hassle or a waste of time and money)

Before I answer Jake’s question, let’s define our terms, shall we? In some agency guides, agencies will list themselves as accepting clients by referral . In plain English, this means that a querier who has not either been invited by one of their agents to submit or had the way smoothed by a third party might as well not query at all.

Don’t call us, in other words; we’ll — well, actually, we won’t call you.

A more common notation is accepts clients mostly through recommendations — and here, the unconnected writer need not despair as thoroughly. It’s a simple statement of fact, information a would-be querier needs to know: this agency is more likely to pick up a new client through a referral than via a cold query.

So to whom do such agencies look for these recommendations, referrals, and general good word of mouth — and how does an aspiring writer go about procuring same?

Most of the time, agents receive referrals from their already-signed clients — and not necessarily those who already have books out, by the way — editors who have met writers at conferences, journalists, their college roommates…in short, from the people they know.

Which is why, in case those of you living outside the greater New York City metropolitan area have been wondering, you’re far more likely to hear authors from that part of the country say at book readings, “How did I meet my agent? Oh, networking,” than those domiciled anywhere else.

That is not to say that writers residing elsewhere need write off this means of entrée into an agency. It’s merely a little more work.

Okay, so it’s a lot more work, but often worth it: even at an agency that obtains new clients mostly through querying and conference-trolling, a recommendation from a standing client, particularly one they like, does tend to increase the likelihood of being asked to send pages.

Why? Well, good writers who have been kicking around in the field for a while tend to know other good writers — or, at any rate, know ones who have done their homework about what being a professional writer means, over and above being talented: presenting a manuscript in standard format, the desirability of meeting deadlines without undue whining, and the learned skill of taking intensive feedback without regarding it as a personal attack, to name but three desirata.

How might a professional writer spot these traits in others? By being in a critique group with them, for one thing, or by exchanging manuscripts. A perceptive observer can learn a lot about a writer by how s/he responds to feedback.

Kind of changes how you might think of joining a writers’ group, doesn’t it, or staying in one? One of those people might well hit the big time someday and be in a position to say either, “Clarice? Oh, she’s a great writer, really even-tempered,” or “Well, Clarice is talented enough, but if you suggest changing so much as a comma in her work, she bursts into noisy tears and accuses you of trying to poison her.”

If that last comment seemed like an exaggeration to you, you either haven’t been in many critique groups or have been fortunate enough to be in really good ones.

Most of the time, though, aspiring writers pick up referrals to agents in the most straightforward manner imaginable: by walking up to an established writer IN THEIR BOOK CATEGORY (important; an author in another genre may reasonably be expected to be able to provide a referral to an agent with a track record of selling books in his own book category, but not necessarily in others) at a book reading, conference, or other literary occasion, striking up a conversation, and eventually, asking for a referral to the author’s agent.

It’s the eventually part that tends to be problematic. Too many aspiring writers just blurt out the request right away, with little or no preamble.

To understand why this might land the requester in hot water, let’s take the case of Isabelle.

Referral-farming scenario 1: Isabelle notices in her local paper that Ignatz, a writer whose work is similar to hers and is aimed at the same target market will be giving a reading at a local bookstore. She makes a point of attending the reading, and during question time, asks who represents him – and asks permission to use him as a query reference.

Ignatz laughs uncomfortably, tells an agent-related anecdote, and when she presses for a name, tells her to see him afterward.

Isabelle waits patiently until all those who have bought books have presented them to Ignatz for signing, then repeats her question. “I haven’t read your book,” she tells him, “but from the reviews, our work has a lot in common.”

Ignatz, professional to the toes of his well-polished boots, casts only a fleeting glance at her empty hands before replying. “I’m sorry,” he says, “my agent has asked me not to refer any new writers to him.”

What did Isabelle do wrong? (And, for extra credit, what about Ignatz’s response marks it as a brush-off?)

Isabelle committed two cardinal sins of author approach. First, she did not evince ANY interest in Ignatz’s work before asking him for a favor — and a fairly hefty favor, at that. She did not even bother to buy his book, which is, after all, how Ignatz pays his rent. But since he is quite aware, as any successful writer must be, that being rude to potential readers may mean lost business down the line, he can hardly tell her so directly.

So he did the next best thing: he lied about his agent’s openness to referrals.

How do I know he lied? Experience, my dears, experience: had his agent actually not been accepting new clients, his easiest way out would have been simply to say so, but he did not. And, realistically, most agents rather like it when their clients recommend new writers; it saves the agent trouble, to use the client as a screener.

Hey, who doesn’t like to have someone to blame if a blind date goes horribly, horribly wrong?

So, generally speaking, if an agented writer says, “Oh, my agent doesn’t like me to recommend,” he really means, “I don’t like being placed in this position, and I wish you would go away.”

How has Isabelle placed Ignatz in a tough position? Because she has committed another approach faux pas: she asked for a reference from someone who has never read her work.

From Ignatz’s point of view, this is a no-win situation. He has absolutely no idea if Isabelle can write – and to ask to see her work would be to donate his time gratis to someone who has just been quite rude to him. Yet if he says yes without reading her work, and Isabelle turns out to be a terrible writer (or a terrible pest), his agent is going to be annoyed with him. And if he just says, “No, I don’t read the work of every yahoo who accosts me at a reading,” he will alienate a potential book buyer.

So lying about his agent’s availability is Ignatz’s least self-destructive way out. Who can blame him for taking it?

Let’s hope and pray that Isabelle has learned something from this encounter. Manuscript in hand, let’s send her to another reading.

Referral-farming scenario 2: Isabelle spots another reading announcement in her local newspaper. This time, it’s an author whose work she’s read, Juanita; wisely, she digs up her dog-eared copy of Juanita’s first novel and brings it along to be signed, to demonstrate her ongoing willingness to support Juanita’s career.

She also, less promisingly, brings along a copy of her own manuscript.

After the reading, Isabelle stands in line to have her book signed. While Juanita is graciously chatting with her about the inscription, Isabelle slaps her 500-page manuscript onto the signing table. “Would you read this?” she asks. “And then recommend me to your agent?”

Juanita casts a panicked glance around the room, clearly seeking an escape route. “I’m afraid I don’t have time to read anything new right now,” she says, shrinking away from the pile of papers. “Oh, my phone is vibrating — will you excuse me, please?”

This, believe it or not, happens even more that the first scenario – and with even greater frequency at writers’ conferences. Just as some writers have a hard time remembering that agents have ongoing projects, lives, other clients, etc. whose interests may preclude dropping everything to pay attention to a new writer, so too do established writers – many, if not most, of whom teach writing classes and give lectures in order to supplement their incomes.

So basically, Isabelle has just asked a professional author to give a private critique of her manuscript for free. Not the best means of winning friends and influencing people, generally speaking.

Yes, the process of finding an agent is frustrating, but do try to bear in mind what you are asking when you request help from another writer. Just as querying and pitching necessarily cuts into your precious writing time, so do requests of this nature cut into established writers’ writing time. Other than your admiration and gratitude, tell me, what does the author who helps you get out of it?

This not to say that some established writers aren’t willing to offer this kind of help; many do, and some of them like it. (Others charge a pretty penny for it, but that’s another story.) But even the most generous person tends to be nonplused when total strangers demand immense favors.

Establishing some sort of a relationship first – even if that relationship consists of nothing more than the five-minute conversation about the author’s work that precedes the question, “So, what do you write?” – is considered a polite first step.

In other words: whatever happened to foreplay, baby?

Don’t jump the gun, my friends. Remember, established writers are climbing up the publishing ladder, too, and respect their time accordingly. Make the effort to read, or at least buy, an author’s work before you approach her – and producing a little well-phrased, well-informed flattery never hurts, either.

I want to run through a few other examples illustrating the dos and don’ts of approaching an author for a recommendation, but that’s a project for another day. Right now, for the sake of confining the answer to Jake’s question to a single post (the easier to find it in the archives, my dear), let’s address the question of how an aspiring writer lucky enough to garner such a recommendation should USE it.

Jake’s assumption is correct: whatever else an agency says in its listing or on its website still applies when you have a referral. A referred writer should not, for instance, send an unsolicited manuscript or telephone and say, “Your client, Penny Scribbler, told me to contact you.”

A much, much better — not to say more courteous — approach would be to send a query letter beginning, “Your client, Penny Scribbler, suggested that I contact you about my thriller, BODY PARTS…” and proceeding like any other query letter targeting that particular agent.

That way, the agent or her Millicent knows from line 1 precisely why you are contacting her — and that she might want to pay a bit more attention to this query.

Naturally, you should ONLY open a query in this manner if Penny Scribbler actually did refer you — and if Penny’s agency makes it clear in its agency guide listings or on its website that it’s not very open to queries unaccompanied by a referral, think very carefully about whether it is worth your while to approach her agent without one. I have known a couple of writers who have landed agents by cold-querying agents who list themselves as requiring referrals, but it’s extremely rare that someone gets picked up that way, for all of the obvious reasons.

Personally, I would hold off.

However, if an agent that’s listed in a guide as only accepting referred queries seems like a particularly good fit for your book, it’s worth checking its website to see if that policy is still in effect, if every agent within the agency operates that way, etc. Sometimes, guide listings are out of date; unless there’s been a big personnel shift, many agencies will simply use the same listing for years. A new agent at such an agency may well be looking for new clients.

But, generally speaking, when agents set the referral limitation, they mean it.

Another reason to check out their websites, latest listings, etc., is to find out who their clients are and see if THEY have websites, give readings, etc. Many a writer who has written a fan letter has ended up with a recommendation to the author’s agent down the line.

Which brings us right back to Isabelle’s situation, doesn’t it? As I said, that’s a topic for another day. Next time, I shall run through a few more of the common gaffes eager referral-seekers tend to commit — because, after all, it’s far, far better that my fictional exemplars stumble into those gopher holes than my readers, right?

Keep up the good work!

Avoiding the bad laughter, as well as a few more good choice words about Hollywood Narration


Before I launch back into dissection of the all-too-pervasive Hollywood narration phenomenon, I should amend an oversight from last time: I brought up the concept of bad laughter without really talking about why it can be death to a manuscript submission. Rather than leaving those new to the concept whimpering in confusion, I’m going to revisit it briefly now.

A bad laugh, for those of you who missed yesterday’s post, is a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy, but arise from the narrative anyway. It typically arises when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.

Or, most commonly, just a really, really bad line of dialogue. It can spring from many sources, but in the moment it occurs, it invariably shatters the reader or viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief, causing her to stand, however briefly, outside the world created by the story.

That’s bad.

Hollywood narration is NOTORIOUS for provoking bad laughter, because by this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.

Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!”

Openings of novels are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins. Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning PRECISELY what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance.

We’ve all grown accustomed to this, right? Yet there’s actually seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.

Listen: as I have undoubtedly pointed out before, TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can use scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because ALL of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell. Generally speaking — fasten your seatbelts; this is going to be a pretty sweeping generalization, and I don’t want any of you to be washed overboard by it — a screenplay that can tell its story through sight and sound with little or no unobtrusive Hollywood narration is going to speak to the viewer better than, to put it bluntly, characters launching upon long lectures about what happened when.

Unfortunately, I gather that my view on the subject is not shared by all movie producers.

How many times, for instance, have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for the otherwise excellent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin in the Sky told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals? Here’s a very common gambit:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “So, are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in the big city. When my girlfriend left me, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (stepping into his good lighting as much as possible): “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available.

What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?

When the scene is actually filmed, call me nutty, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will be accompanied by visual clues to establish that these two people are rather attractive as well; their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, tend to think such terse conveyance of information is nifty — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers of books have caught that, too.

I’m not talking about when voice-overs are added to movies out of fear that the audience might not be able to follow the plot otherwise — although, having been angry since 1982 about that ridiculous voice-over tacked onto BLADE RUNNER, I’m certainly not about to forgive its producers now. (If you’ve never seen either of the released versions of the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf, proto. It’s immeasurably better.)

No, I’m talking about where characters suddenly start talking about their background information, for no apparent reason other than that the plot or character development requires that the audience learn about the past.

If you have ever seen any of the many films of Steven Spielberg, you must know what I mean. Time and time again, his movies stop cold so some crusty old-timer, sympathetic matron, or Richard Dreyfus can do a little expository spouting of backstory. You can always tell who the editors in the audience are at a screening of a Spielberg film, by the say; we’re the ones hunched over in our seats, muttering, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell!” like demented fiends.

I probably shouldn’t pick on Spielberg (but then, speaking of films based on my friend Philip’s work, have I ever forgiven him for changing the ending of MINORITY REPORT?), because this technique is so common in films and television that it’s downright hackneyed. Sometimes, there’s even a character whose sole function in the plot is to be a sort of dictionary of historical information.

For my nickel, the greatest example of this by far was the Arthur Dietrich character on the old BARNEY MILLER television show. Dietrich was a humanoid NEW YORK TIMES, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and KNOW YOUR CONSTITUTION rolled up into one. (He also, several episodes suggested, had a passing familiarity with the KAMA SUTRA as well — but then, it was the ’70s.) Whenever anything needed explaining, up popped Dietrich, armed with the facts: the more obscure the better.

The best thing about the Dietrich device is that the show’s writers used it very self-consciously as a device. The other characters relied upon Dietrich’s knowledge to save them research time, but visibly resented it as well. After a season or so, the writers started using the pause where the other characters realize that they should ask Dietrich to regurgitate as a comic moment.

(From a writer’s perspective, though, the best thing about the show in general was the Ron Harris character, an aspiring writer stuck in a day job he both hates and enjoys. Even when I was in junior high school, I identified with Harris.)

Unfortunately, human encyclopedia characters are seldom handled this well, nor is conveying information through dialogue. Still, we’ve all become accustomed to it, so people who point it out seem sort of like the kid in THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

“Why has Mr. Spielberg stopped the action to let that man talk for three solid minutes about backstory, Mommy?”

“Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that.”

Well, in a book, there’s PLENTY odd about that, and professional readers are not slow to point it out. It may seem strange that prose stylists would be more responsible than screenwriters for reproducing conversations as they might plausibly be spoken, but as I keep pointing out, I don’t run the universe. I can’t make screenwriters do as I wish; I have accepted that, and have moved on.

However, as a writer and editor, I can occasionally make the emperor put some clothes on.

By and large, agents, editors, and contest judges share this preference for seeing their regents garbed. It pains me to tell you this, but I have actually heard professional readers quote Hollywood narration found in a submitted manuscript aloud, much to the disgusted delight of their confreres.

What may we learn from this degrading spectacle? At minimum, that an over-reliance upon Hollywood narration is not going to win your manuscript any friends if your characters tell one another things they already know.

There’s a lesson about bad laughter to be learned here as well: if a device is over-used in submissions — as Hollywood narration undoubtedly is — using it too broadly or too often in a manuscript can in and of itself provoke a bad laugh from a pro.

And that, too, is bad, at least for your manuscript’s prospects of making it past Millicent.

This danger looms particularly heavily over first-person narratives, especially ones that aspire to a funny voice. All too often, first-person narratives will rely upon the kind of humor that works when spoken — the anecdotal kind, the kind so frequently used in onscreen Hollywood narration — not realizing that pretty much by definition, a spoken joke does not contain sufficient detail to be funny on the printed page.

Especially on a printed page where the narrator is simultaneously trying to sound as if he’s engaging the reader in everyday conversation and provide the necessary backstory for the reader to follow what’s going on. Think, for instance, of the stereotypical voice-over in a film noir:

Someone kicked my office door down, and this blonde walked in on legs that could have stretched from here to Frisco and back twice, given the proper incentive. She looked like a lady it wouldn’t be hard to incite.

Now, that would be funny spoken aloud, wouldn’t it? On the page, though, the reader would expect more than just a visual description — or at any rate, a more complex one.

To professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

But think about why the example above made you smile, if it did: was if because the writing itself was amusing, or because it was a parody of a well-known kind of Hollywood narration?

More to the point, if you were Millicent, fated to screen 50 manuscripts before she can take the long subway ride home to her dinner, would you be more likely to read that passage as thigh-slapping, or just another tired piece of dialogue borrowed from the late-night movie?

The moral, should you care to know it: just because a writer intends a particular piece of Hollywood narration to be funny doesn’t mean that it won’t push the usual Hollywood narration buttons.

I shudder to tell you this, but the costs of such narrative experimentation can be high. If a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

I hear some resigned sighing out there. “Okay, Anne,” a few weary voices pipe, “you’ve scared me out of the DELIBERATE use of Hollywood narration. But if it’s as culturally pervasive as you say it is, am I not in danger of using it, you know, inadvertently?”

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is that you’re absolutely right, weary questioners: we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration in our lives that it is often hard for the author to realize she’s reproducing it. Here is where a writers’ group or editor can really come in handy: before you submit your manuscript, it might behoove you to have an eagle-eyed friend read through it, ready to scrawl in the margins, “Wait — doesn’t the other guy already know this?”

For self-editing, try this little trick: flag any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by variations upon the popular phrases, “as you know,” “as I told you,” “don’t you remember that,” and/or “how many times do I have to tell you that. Reexamine these sentences to see whether they should be cut, or at any rate reworked into more natural dialogue.

Another good indicator: if a character asks a question to which s/he already knows the answer (“Didn’t your brother also die of lockjaw, Aunt Barb?”), what follows is pretty sure to be Hollywood narration.

Naturally, not all instances will be this cut-and-dried, but these tests will at least give you a start. When in doubt, reread the sentence in question and ask yourself: “What is this character getting out making this statement, OTHER than doing me the favor of conveying this information to the reader?”

And while you’re at it, would you do me a favor, please, novelists? Run, don’t walk, to the opening scene of your novel (or the first five pages, whichever is longer) and highlight all of the backstory presented there. Then reread the scene WITHOUT any of the highlighted text.

Tell me — does it still hang together dramatically? Does the scene still make sense? Is there any dialogue left in it at all?

If you answered no to any or all of these questions, sit down and ponder one more: does the reader REALLY need to have all of the highlighted information from the get-go? Or am I just so used to voice-overs and characters spouting Hollywood narration that I thought it was necessary when I first drafted it but actually isn’t?

Worth a bit of mulling over, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

Writing with teeth…or at least with gums

The beast prior to the procedure

I meant to post yesterday, honest I did, but I couldn’t drag myself to the computer because of an overwhelming sense of guilt. Remember that shelter kitty we adopted last fall, to keep me company while I was lolling on the couch with mono? The one with the past that would make Charles Bukowski turn pale? Well, it turns out that he (the kitty, not Bukowski) had a set of teeth that imply that he spent his kittenhood ingesting crystal meth on a daily basis.

We’re relatively sure that he didn’t, but pretty much all of his front teeth had to go anyway. Thus my Friday o’ Guilt.

Actually, the kitty seems to be taking it all better than I am on this suddenly summer-like spring day:
he’s raring to go; I’m walking around apologizing to him every fifteen minutes.

Oh, no: I inadvertently used the evil phrase, the one involved in my first A CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like aversion therapy for repetitive phrase use. Pardon me, everybody…my vision is going wavy…

I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B range.

So there I was, all eyes and braids, holding my mother’s hand while my father watched my older brother go on D and E ticket rides, waiting in a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. As each ship-shaped (literally) car took a new crew of tourists into the ride itself, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Three feet forward. “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Six more feet. “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Tears have by now come to my mother’s eyes, but we’re too committed to the line to back out now. “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

After about five minutes of listening to that annoying voice while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions. By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times. It’s all I remember about the ride.

And that, my friends, is how one grows up to be an editor: howling, “Oh, God, not that same phrase AGAIN!”

Yes, I know: I’ve used this example before here, but I don’t think most writers have any idea just how much word, phrase, and even concept repetition grates on professional readers and contest judges. Fingernails on a chalkboard doesn’t even begin to describe it.

But it makes the average pro want to hide under the bed like a cat threatened with a visit to the vet — and, since folks like me are trained specifically to catch redundancies a hundred pages apart, even a single repetition can sometimes send us diving bedward.

Did some of you out there just go pale? Are you perhaps thinking of my last post, where I mentioned that readers do not necessarily remember every detail about every character?

Good; that means you’ve been paying attention.

For those of you whose blood pressure remained normal, let me disturb it: character trait redundancy is really, really common in submissions. Why? Well, for precisely the reason cited above — fearing that readers may not recall important plot points or characteristics, many aspiring writers repeat such information throughout the book.

How common is this practice? Well, let’s just say that most of us who read for a living (and, I suspect, for most who review movies for a living as well) see the second instance and say immediately, “Oh, okay — THAT fact is going to be crucial to the climax.”

The best way to avoid engendering this reaction, as I suggested last time, is to introduce the relevant facts or characteristics in such a vivid way the first time around — showing them, perhaps, instead of simply telling the reader about them — that the reader may be safely trusted to recall 300 pages hence that the protagonist’s sister is allergic to the beets that are going to kill her on p. 423.

Gee, who saw THAT coming?

Did that sudden stabbing sensation in my back mean that some of you found that last observation a trifle harsh? “But Anne,” the repetition-fond point out, “readers honestly do forget details — my first reader/writing group/my agent/my editor keeps writing in the margin, ‘Who is this?’ when I reintroduce characters toward the end of the book, or even, ‘Whoa — this came out of nowhere!’ when I’d thought I’d laid the groundwork in the first third of the book. I’m just adding the repetition to address these concerns, because, frankly, unless the reader has that information, the conflict loses some of its oomph.”

You could do that, repetition-mongers, but I would translate this feedback differently: if your first readers are not recalling certain salient facts introduced early in the book by the time they reach the closing chapters, isn’t it possible that the earlier introduction is at fault?

My first response would be to rush back to the first mention of the information in question to see if it is presented in a memorable manner. Or if, as we discussed last time, the reader is presented with so much information that the important bits got buried.

Actually, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to go back and double-check anytime you notice yourself repeating information. Is there a reason that you’re assuming that the reader won’t remember it if it’s mentioned only once?

This strategy will only work, however, if the writer catches the repetition — say, in the course of reading her manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it to an agent, editor, or contest.

I’ve noticed that writers are very frequently unaware of just how much their manuscripts DO repeat themselves. There’s a very good reason for that, of course: repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time.

Not just in everyday conversations — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, go find a community that’s experiencing a heat wave, sit in a popular café, and count the variations on, “Hot enough for ya?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well.

Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Gladys — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist with a summa cum laude from MIT, George, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My favorite example of this tendency is the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special designed to break the news to young folks like me that Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. (See, I even remembered the morals, doubtless due to repetition.)

Because it’s not as though we could be trusted to draw conclusions like that for ourselves from real-world observation. Because these playlets were intended to be EDUCATIONAL (as opposed to, say, entertaining), Afterschool Specials tended to hammer home their points with SUBTLE TOUCHES OF IRONY on the order of some minor character’s saying to our tragic heroine (played by someone like Helen Hunt in braces), “You know, Esther, I don’t think that you should even consider taking those drugs. They might make you go CRAZY.”

Any sane viewer, naturally, would recognize that this would mean that Helen Hunt was going to (a) take those drugs, because where would our object lesson be otherwise? (b) in fact go crazy, and (c) probably be dead within the next ten minutes of screen time.

Strangers With Candy had a great deal of fun with this kind of foreshadowing: the heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphs upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.”

Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

It’s funny in the series, but it’s less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as most professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do say things like, “But Emily, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

All the bloody time. Even when the first 200 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping.

At base, this is a trust issue. The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the murderer first revealed that he had a lousy childhood.

Who could have predicted THAT?

I’m sensing some squirming in desk chairs out there. “But Anne,” I hear some consistency-mongers protest, “doesn’t the fact that we ARE all accustomed to being spoon-fed the information we need when we need it mean that we writers should be ASSUMING that our readers will have some memory problems? Especially someone like Millicent, who might read the first 50 pages of my novel, request the rest, then continue reading a month or two later? Surely, I should be including some reminders for her, right?”

Good question, squirmers. Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. One of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is indeed the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions.

For precisely the same reason, one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day.

“But WHY?” the consistency-huggers persist.

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. REALLY boring.

We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

And here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are substantially more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition ACROSS manuscripts as well.

Let me ask you: just how much control does the average submitting writer have over the OTHER manuscripts Millicent might have already scanned that day?

That’s right: absolutely none. So while following the cultural norm for repetitive storytelling might not annoy a reader who curls up in a comfy chair with only your manuscript, if your tale repeats twice something similar to what the submission before yours saw fit to convey 37 times in 22 pages…

It may not be a problem to which your manuscript falls prey — and if so, hurrah for you; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a project for a rainy day: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim.


Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

No? What if I also ask you to highlight similar phrases in the narration? First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows.

Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. It would be surprising if common dialogue HADN’T made its way into all of our psyches, actually: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.

Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies?

No? Well, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?

“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s doing lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it inadvertently from time to time.

The rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are. Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries told me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance, something they apparently didn’t do before the 1930s.

But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting — or not come across as hackneyed — translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies.

Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert is kind enough to maintains a database of them.)

Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. But a writer cannot perform that magic trick without first identifying where it should be applied.

It’s time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today; I’ve got some cat appeasement to do. (I wonder if he’d like a salmon milkshake…). More tips on catching repetition follow anon.

Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: giving good feedback


My decimated garden calls me today, dear friends, begging me to put its squashed hellebores and bifurcated tulips to rights. Rather than waste a posting day — or, to put it more cynically, a day of web-surfing whilst avoiding filling out those tax forms — I’m going to ask you to add beauty and grace to this feedback-incorporation series by sharing YOUR thoughts on what kind of feedback makes the most sense to you.

The question du jour: what makes feedback good? How can feedback-givers present it in such a way that it is most useful to you? What practices should be avoided like the proverbial plague, in your opinion?

I can already hear some of you chortling, eager to launch into this one, so I’m going to let you get right to it without further preamble. Readers have been posting some great observations on what makes for great feedback throughout the series, but I’m curious to hear more. (Also, not blog-browser habitually goes back and reads comments on past posts. If you don’t: this would be a great time to make an exception, because this series has engendered some fantastic commentary.)

Usual cautions, of course: please avoid profanity, so underage writers can continue to visit this site from their school library computers; avoid naming names, no matter how tempting it may be to out a terrible feedback-giver, and remember, things posted online tend to turn up in web searches years later.

I will get the ball rolling: one of the most useful ground rules I’ve ever encountered in a critique group is a ban on ever simply saying, “I liked X,” or “I don’t like Y,” without further explanation. Unless a writer knows the particulars of why a first reader responded to a particular part of the book, s/he can’t really implement the information in a useful manner.

I would also vote for banishing one-word responses from feedback altogether, for the same reason. Perhaps I’m a suspicious soul, but whenever a first reader says, “Great!” or “Brava!” or even “I loved it!” without further comment, I immediately start to wonder if the commenter just can’t think of anything useful to say. (Or didn’t finish the manuscript.)

Okay, it’s your turn: knock my proverbial socks off. I promise that I’ll respond with something more than, “Ooh, I liked that.”

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback, part V: coping when the bookworm turns


This has been a tough little series, hasn’t it? Rarely have punches been pulled less here at Author! Author!, or truths more frugally varnished. A little over a week into this, I can see why so few writing sites tackle to this particular issue in a systematic way: we’re talking about learning to quiet the good old hard-wired human flight-or-fight response here, after all.

This will be my last post — phew! — on what is potentially the most confrontational of feedback-receiving situations, the face-to-face meeting. Before I wrap up the list, tie it with a bow, and tuck a chocolate bunny into the basket, let’s revisit the goodies already nestling in that absurd plastic grass:

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.

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

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

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

10. Don’t ask for feedback from someone whose honest opinion you are not prepared to hear.

After my last post, I could feel in my very bones that not all of you were satisfied with this array of coping mechanisms. “But Anne,” I heard some of you professional feedback veterans plaintively pointing out, “I WAS open to the feedback experience when I walked, and I DID want to hear an honest opinion of my work. But the critique I’ve been getting has been so overwhelming — where do I even begin?”

I’m glad that you brought this up, battle-scarred feedback-receivers. You’ll be delighted to hear that I’ll be dealing with this issue at some length in my next set of posts, which will concentrate on the art of accepting written feedback. But I do have a couple of tips that apply beautifully to this dilemma vis-à-vis verbal feedback.

11. Don’t penalize yourself by expecting perfection.

To put it in a slightly less judgmental manner — because, hey, some of us are sensitive to criticism — if you’re submitting a manuscript for critique, it is by definition a DRAFT, right, not a finished book, and thus a work-in-progress? Heck, from the industry’s point of view, a book is still potentially changeable until it is actually sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Sometimes, it’s not beyond further meddling even then.

Revision is just a fact of the business. A writer who expects not to have to alter his or her manuscript at SOMEONE’s request at SOME point in the publication process might have some bad news coming about the Easter Bunny, if you catch my drift.

Avert your eyes, children. Truth isn’t always pretty.

A misunderstanding of this fact of publishing, I suspect, is often lurking under the skin of the writer who over-reacts to substantive critique. Because he has put so much work into the book, he is stunned to hear that the manuscript he thought was ready to send out to agents and editors — or might win a literary contest — might require MORE of his time and attention.

Completely understandable, of course — but not at all reasonable, from the industry’s point of view. Or from the feedback-giver’s, usually.

Again, this is a matter of expectation. No matter how talented a writer is, pretty much every book that ends up published goes through a multitude of drafts. Believing otherwise almost always ends in tears.

As in the kind that come out of one’s eyes, not what happens when a distraught person takes sheets of manuscript between his hands and rips. Although the latter is not an uncommon first response to feedback from a writer who had expected to hear nothing but praise for his work.

Which leads me to one of the best pieces of feedback-reception advice you will ever hear, even if I do say so myself:

12. Don’t apply what you’ve learned from feedback right away. Give it some time to sink in first.

Oh, how I wish that every agent, editor, and hard-line critique group member would have this tattooed on her forehead! I can’t even begin to describe the amount of human misery it might prevent.

Look: hearing the hard truth about a manuscript, even a brilliant one, is not the most pleasant process for even the best-adjusted writer’s psyche. In the heat of the moment — to be precise, the first moment a writer finds herself alone with her computer after receiving a whole heap o’critique — we’ve all been known to overreact a trifle, haven’t we?

In little ways, like deleting the computer file containing the manuscript. Or deciding that a quip about one scene’s momentary implausibility means that the entire subplot relating it should be cut.

Train yourself NOT to give in to these urges. Bite on the nearest sofa cushion, howl into the night, eat two gallons of chocolate chip ice cream at a sitting — but do NOT, I implore you, go anywhere near your manuscript when you’re still in what people like me tellingly call critique shock.

I’m quite serious about this: you may feel perfectly fine, but a hefty portion of the creative part of your brain is in shock. No matter how much sense cutting half of Chapter Two and placing it at the end of Chapter Seven seems to make at the time, just make a note of the idea AND WALK AWAY.

Trust me on this one. No matter how well you took feedback in the moment, your judgment WILL be impaired at first. You’ll be much, much happier — and end up with a substantially better revision — if you wait a few days before you begin leading those darlings of yours to the sacrificial altar.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you huffing incredulously, “what if I got that feedback at a conference, and one of the agents and editors there asked me to send chapters? I need to put that critique to work right away, don’t I?”

Let me answer that question in three parts: no, no, and NO.

The average requesting agent or editor would not be AS surprised to see a mail carrier flop your manuscript on his desk within the week as to see the Easter Bunny hop in with it, but he certainly doesn’t expect it. Heck, he probably would not lift an eyebrow if he didn’t see the 50 pages he asked for last week before the Fourth of July.

Although you might not want to push it so far as having it delivered with by the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver in December.

As those of you whose long-term memory happens to include last year’s Book Marketing 101 series (in particular, the posts in the HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? section) are already aware, a request for materials does NOT need to be fulfilled within the week.

Or even the month. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: what matters is how GOOD the submission is, not when it gets there. (Within reason, that is.)

Take the time to make sure that your submission is in tip-top shape before you send it out. If that means you want to incorporate substantive feedback first, great — but there’s no earthly reason to tackle that arduous task the nanosecond the conference is over, when you will be positively vibrating with “a real, live agent asked to see MY work!” adrenaline.

Take a few days to calm down first; your logical faculties will be working better then, I assure you. And it’s not as though the request for materials is going to expire by next Tuesday.

Above all, be kind to yourself in the wake of feedback. Exposing your work to hardcore scrutiny takes quite a bit of bravery — allow some time for the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response to stress to stop rushing through your system before you apply your racing brain to the daunting task of tearing your pages down to rebuild them with a stronger foundation.

On to responding to written feedback! Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback, part IV: what do you mean, those pretty fishies might bite?


I hope I haven’t been scaring you, dear readers, with my last few posts on strategies for accepting verbal feedback gracefully; I’ve been reading over the list so far, and I’ve noticed that more of my examples have been of the hair-raising variety than the warm and fuzzy. If this has been making some of you worry about showing your writing to other people, please don’t — most readers out there honestly are pretty kind to writers.

Especially writers who make their feedback expectations clear to their first readers. I cannot emphasize enough how much clearer and more helpful to revision manuscript critique tends to be when the author has equipped the critiquer in advance with specific instructions on how to focus the reading. (For some tips on how do go about doing this without seeming like a martinet given to imposing pop quizzes on his first readers, please see the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right.)

So why have I been concentrating on more negative feedback experiences of late? Simple: those are the ones writers approaching either professional or group critique for the first time tend to anticipate.

Seriously, aspiring writers express this anxiety all the time. Since verbal pitch sessions have become more and more common at literary conferences in recent years — borrowed from how screenplays are marketed, one suspects — I teach classes a few times a year on how to pitch to agents and editors. Without fail, students will bring up the fear that the pitchee will be mean to them, thus prompting a preparation strategy that emphasizes living through the experience rather than learning something from it.

Having been on the receiving end of some pretty bizarre pitch responses myself, believe me, I sympathize. (Remind me to tell you sometime about the agent who assumed that the novel I was pitching was autobiographical, prompting her to yell at me for 15 minutes — five more than our allotted time — about my presumptive moral turpitude. Like so much in the writing life, it makes a great anecdote in retrospect, but wasn’t all that pleasant in the moment.)

It’s not at all an unreasonable fear, and it is wise to prepare for that contingency, especially the first time one exposes one’s work or book concept to professional scrutiny. As I believe I may have mentioned in this forum, oh, eighty or ninety times, professional readers — in other words, agents, editors, contest judges, critics, writing teachers, and other folks paid to scrutinize those pages — simply don’t read like other people.

How is it different, you ask? Instead of scanning an entire chapter or scene before forming an opinion on the quality of the writing therein, many, if not most, judge sentence by sentence. That way, they can stop reading the nanosecond they hit a patch of writing they dislike.

As I invariably add at this juncture, agents, editors, and contest judges don’t do this to be mean; they read in this manner because for every one manuscript they can accept, they need to plow through thousands. It’s a time-saving strategy, and an understandable one, if you ask me. (Not that anyone did.)

Because an experienced first reader is often aware of how common this hair-trigger response is in the industry, her feedback can be very, very nit-picky. So much so, I have often found, that those new to the experience occasionally mistake it for the practical application of a personal vendetta — and confuse the cut-to-the-chase response to a pitch with a generalized hatred of writers.

So perhaps it is not surprising that aspiring writers tend to approach situations where their work and/or book concepts might be critiqued with a certain amount of trepidation, in much the same spirit that they might approach, say, a rhino that is calm right now, but might charge at any moment.

Just keep smiling, they think, tiptoeing into its notoriously charge-happy field of vision, and maybe it won’t gore me.

However — and this is one whopper of a however — maintaining a sprightly mien in the face of criticism, while face-saving in the moment, tends not to be especially conducive to absorbing constructive feedback. It’s too energy-consuming, for one thing, and preparing only for the worst-case scenario (as aspiring writers so often do) can lead to making a feedback situation more confrontational than it needs to be.

If I seem to be harping on ways to make your life more difficult…well, in the first place, is that really a surprise to those of you who’ve been visiting Author! Author! for any length of time? I don’t think I’ve been all that secretive here about my enduring fondness for the harsh-but-rewarding path.

But aside from all of the moral bonuses to be gained by facing one’s demons (think of the advantages to your karma!), there is a very solid practical reason to move beyond merely surviving critique.

If you intend to be a professional writer, receiving no-holds-barred feedback is simply a fact of life in the industry. The better you can get at hearing, responding to, and incorporating it with a minimum of drama and hurt feelings, the more smoothly your professional life will run.

To flip that around, having a reputation for NOT being good at absorbing and incorporating feedback can hurt the publication prospects of even the most promising manuscript. And not all aspiring writers — or even published authors — are sufficiently aware of this, because the horror stories one hears from agents and editors tend to concentrate upon the stripes, not the whole tiger.

Make no mistake — it is the tiger itself that these stories are regretting. The well-known markings of the breed are distinctive enough — responding to gentle, well-meant critique by breathing fire on the critiquer, throwing rejection letters away prior to reading them (or not opening ones that clearly contain a returned manuscript at all), treating even the most veiled reference to marketability as a sign that the feedback-giver is borderline illiterate, to name but three — that most of us who have been hanging around the literary marketplace for a while can identify the snarl of the beast at twenty paces.

To put it a trifle less picturesquely, developing feedback-receiving chops can make a writer much, much more welcome in agencies, publishing houses, and writers’ groups everywhere. Heck, eventually, you might even learn to be flattered that a real pro took the time to help you improve your work.

Or, at any rate, help make it more marketable.

Help, of course, being the operative word here. I know that it’s hard to bear in mind in the midst of being told that you might want to consider spending the next six months rearranging the entire running order of your novel, but in the vast majority of feedback situations, the critiquer IS trying to help the writer improve the book.

So let’s take a quick gander at the strategies we’ve learned so far for making yourself easy to help:

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.

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

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

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

Happy with all that? Okay, maybe not precisely happy, but comfortable with the concepts? Let’s move on:

10. Don’t ask for feedback from someone whose honest opinion you are not prepared to hear

Some of you probably find this one a bit counterintuitive, don’t you? “Oh, come on,” I hear selected segments of my readership muttering, “why would I put myself in a critique situation unless I WANTED to hear the truth? You’re the one who is always saying that writers need feedback to gain perspective.”

Wanna hear a professional secret of the editing trade? Many, many critique-seeking writers don’t actually want feedback on what’s on their pages; they seek out first readers primarily because they long to be told how wonderful the book is.

Which isn’t all that unreasonable a desire, when you come to think about it, especially if the writer in question has been sending out queries and submissions for years. We could all use validation from time to time.

There’s nothing wrong with this attitude, inherently, but in a critique situation, it can often lead to difficulties in hearing feedback. Of the “oh, my God — how dare you attack me like that?” variety.

Or, equally common, of the “What you’re suggesting would take MONTHS! You can’t possibly be serious!”

Interestingly, the intensity of these responses often has little to do with the extent of the revisions being requested. The sad fact is, for writers who were expecting to hear that their books were essentially market-ready, practically any meaty suggestion for needed change is going to sound like a Herculean task.

Don’t set yourself up for this. It’s no fun, I assure you.

Here is what I would suggest instead: think long and hard about what you would like to gain from a feedback situation BEFORE you place your manuscript in one. If you find upon mature reflection that you do NOT want to be told specific ways in which your manuscript, hold off on asking professional readers for feedback. Seek out a more supportive feedback environment instead.

If you’re not clear on why, please go back and re-read my comments above about professional readers’ piranha-like notion of being helpful. Honestly, if they didn’t think your work had potential, they wouldn’t bother to be bluntly honest about how desperately it needs to be deconstructed and rebuilt.

You didn’t think that they would tell just ANY writer to change her protagonist’s lesbian sister into a bench-pressing brother with no political beliefs, did you? Try to think of it as a compliment.

Hey, I didn’t say it would be easy. But you’re a writer, aren’t you? Use your creativity.

Here’s something slightly easier: try to walk into your feedback situations with realistic expectations. And don’t expect your feedback-giver to read your mind about how you would prefer to receive critique. If you would feel more comfortable with a gentler approach, or if you would like to build up to toughness in slow increments — a perfectly reasonable long-term strategy — it’s up to you to make that abundantly clear at the get-go.

Know thyself, my friends. A tall order, I know, but hey, people ambitious enough to start with a blank page in the hope of ending up with a published book aren’t exactly folks noted for avoiding challenges, are they?

A scant handful of further tips follow next time. Keep up the good work!

(PS: the fishy photo came from, in case you’re interested.)

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!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: the face-to-face checklist, part II


This week, we’re concentrating upon building one of the most useful skills a career writer can have: the ability to take feedback well. Why is it so handy, you ask? Because from the industry’s point of view, an ability to respond to even gloves-off critique calmly and reasonably isn’t just a nice optional feature on an author — it’s part of the standard equipment.

With an eye to that reality, last time, I began going through a list of strategies for the critique situation where a writer is most likely to over-react, the face-to-face feedback session.

Are the shy among you sitting down? Good, because I have some potentially startling news to share: face-to-face critique moments positively abound in the writing world, in every form from the aforementioned writers’ group to a pitch session with an agent or editor to being approached by a less-than-enthusiastic fan at a book reading.

Unless you are lucky enough to land that one-in-a-million literary berth that enables you to hide out in a well-furnished cave in Outer Mongolia, typing away in solitude while the royalty checks roll in, then, you might want to prepare yourself for the experience.

The wise writer’s goal in these situations is simple: to hear critique of your work without taking it personally and respond appropriately, in a manner that both helps your book’s market and artistic prospects and maintains a positive relationship with the critiquer.

It may not sound like a lofty goal, but as those of you who have been on the receiving end of a honest-to-goodness professional critique already know, in the moment, it can be pretty difficult. Let’s recap yesterday’s suggestions:

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.

Is everyone up to speed with those? Fabulous. Let’s move on, then.

4. Be an active listener.

If you watch the body language of someone unused to accepting critique gracefully, you’ll notice something interesting: most of the time, their bodies appear to be straining at an invisible leash, in constant preparation for jumping in to contradict the feedback-giver. It’s very confrontational; often, the listener even keeps his mouth slightly open while the critiquer is making her case, to prevent even the slightest delay in shooting out a response.

But contrary to popular opinion, feedback on a manuscript is NOT an invitation to an argument; it’s a series of points that a writer should take back to the manuscript to consider applying. And that is as it should be, because no matter how well a writer can defend a particular literary choice verbally, ultimately, what matters is what’s on the PAGE.

Seriously, ask any agent, editor, or contest judge in the English-speaking world — honestly, they’re not looking for a fight. They just want to help the writer improve the manuscript.

As I pointed out yesterday, it’s very, very hard for anybody to listen well when he’s trying to come up with a reply to each point being made. Believe it or not, though, the opposite response, to sit there stony-faced — or, as often happens in pitch meetings, with a forced smile plastered on the face — is even harder on the feedback-giver.

Why? Well, a mask is difficult to read, after all; can a critiquer really be blamed if she occasionally mistakes a blank face as a sign of boredom? Or concludes from the fact that the writer is responding to both high praise and deep damnation with exactly the same expression that the feedback is not particularly welcome?

Active listening is an ideal compromise between the two extremes. An active listener is engaged in the conversation, even when she is not speaking: she smiles at the jokes, nods at the good points, looks thoughtful when an interesting point is raised — and yes, even frowns when she disagrees with something.

What she does, in short, is pays the speaker the compliment of appearing to be interested in what he’s saying.

Heck, yeah, it takes a lot of energy to listen this way, but embracing this practice brings a very tangible reward: it forces the writer to LISTEN to the details of the feedback. Which, in turn, renders it infinitely more likely that she’s going to glean something useful from it.

Look: not every piece of advice you’re going to get is going to be stellar, or even apt, even if you’re hearing it from the world’s best-qualified first reader for your work or the agent of your dreams. A professional writer needs to learn to sift, to separate the wheat from the chaff, to pan for the gold amid the sand, and…well, any other sorting metaphor you might care to mention.

The point is, it’s the writer’s job to figure out which is which.

That can take some pretty close listening — and it’s almost impossible to listen closely when a writer is constantly on guard to respond to a perceived attack or concentrating on maintaining a jaunty facial expression no matter what is said, as if she were on trial for murder based upon ambiguous evidence and the jury might convict based upon a fleeting frown or two.

Yes, I’ve seen both in feedback situations.

Instead, engage. Trust me, it will make the person giving you feedback respect you more than if you pursue either of the alternatives.

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

All throughout #4, I sensed the timid out there wanting to ask a question. “But Anne,” they murmur unobtrusively, “what if I’m really blindsided by what the feedback-giver is saying? For instance, the last time I pitched at a conference, the agent cut me off before I’d said three sentences, telling me that she didn’t represent that kind of work. It took 100% of my energy not to burst into tears on the spot.”

I’m glad you brought this up, Modest Mice. Here’s a little tip that I wish every conference pitcher learned BEFORE that first face-to-face meeting: if the agent or editor says s/he is not interested in the book, the pitcher is under no obligation to stick around, doing violence to his emotions in a dreadful effort to remain polite until the time allotted for the meeting expires.

Yet in 99% of such meetings, the writer DOES just sit there, miserable and confused. There are some other ways to handle this, of course (discussed under the PITCH FOR AN AGENT OR EDITOR MEETING category at right, in case you’re interested).

But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, leave. Take a powder. Vamoose. Believe me, the agent or editor isn’t going to take umbrage if you slip away quietly; usually, she’s not any more comfortable in this situation than the writer is.

Of course, you’re going to want to maintain your dignity as you go; manners, as nice British mothers used to tell their children, cost nothing. Murmur a quiet thanks, if you can manage it.

The same logic applies to any critique situation — if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it is a far, far better thing to ask for, say, a five-minute break during your writing group than to bite your tongue until it bleeds. If you need to run into the nearest bathroom and scream into a scrunched-up pillow because you feel the critiquer has completely missed the point of your chapter, go ahead.

Or how about saying to the fellow writer with whom you have exchanged manuscripts, “Look, I’ve had a hard day. Do you mind if we postpone talking about this until I’m a little more coherent?

While it may seem like a cop-out, it’s infinitely preferable to a meltdown that results in burned feelings. Even walking into a meeting knowing that scuttling away is a viable option can render the situation less stressful.

If you don’t feel that you can call for a time-out, consider borrowing a trick from academia and forcing a lull in the discussion. Professors tend to be past masters at this, and for good reason: they have to answer a lot of questions on the fly, and — I’m exposing a trade secret here, so pay attention — they don’t always have the answers at on the tips of their tongues. Sometimes, they need to slip off to their offices and look something up.

Yet surprisingly few of them (or I suppose I should say us, as I used to be one of their number in the dim days of yore) are willing to say, “Actually, I don’t have an answer to that. Mind if I slither off to the library and consult a reference volume?” Instead, they often turn the discussion so they needn’t answer the question until they’ve had time to do precisely that.

To be fair, looking things up isn’t always an option — especially in the midst of the form of medieval torture known in academia as a job talk. In order to get a job as a professor at most major US universities, the top candidates have to give a lecture on their current research projects, with every professor in the department they hope will hire them sitting in the audience, eager to leap upon any logical holes in the argument.

Even for someone who wants to give lectures for a living, this can be a pretty daunting prospect. Especially when the job talk is scheduled, as it so often is, at the end of a couple of days’ worth of individual meetings with all of those professors, the department’s graduate students, and university administration. That’s a whole lot of sustained good behavior, particularly in the kind of well-regarded department that I used to occupy, where everyone one of those professors had a legitimate right to expect the hapless applicant to be intimately familiar with every article he had ever produced.

Speaking of something you might want to rush off to the library to look up.

Why the endurance test? Well, in the US, there are often a few hundred qualified applicants for every professorial position in a good department, so to be invited to give a job talk, your application has to have impressed a whole lot of people. But by the time they fly you in, the people you impressed will have been debating with for a month with the people who fell in love with Candidate B’s curriculum vitae, arguing with those who just adore Candidate C’s research agenda, and trading barbs with those who think Candidate D will vote with them at faculty meetings.

Question time at the job talk is typically when all of these intradepartmental squabbles come to the fore. The advocates for other applicants will leap to their feet as rapidly as their laurelled-but-aging bones will allow, to try to make Candidate A look worse by asking really, really difficult questions.

Many of which, I regret to report, tend to take the form of, “Why didn’t you approach this problem precisely the way I would have?” If not the even more dreaded, “Could you relate this to my last article?”

I mention this not to discourage any of you out there from pursuing the academic life, but because this last type of critique, the self-centered, is actually not confined to its hallowed halls. In a pitch meeting, an agent who specializes in mysteries might well take issue with the ways in which your thriller does not resemble a mystery; if you are the only memoirist in a critique group full of novelists, you’re probably going to keep hearing that you’re including too much backstory.

And so forth. Since the literary market is so diverse — and conferences can’t possibly import pros who deal with every conceivable book category — we writers often find ourselves receiving advice and feedback from folks who don’t specialize in our type of book.

But since the literary world is all about networking, it’s usually not a very good idea to point that out to a feedback-giver whose category preconceptions are, well, a bit off the mark.

As you may easily imagine, givers of job talks find themselves in this position all the time. So how do they handle it? By buying some time to think — or turning the discussion.

How does he go about it, you ask? First, the neophyte professor will pause after the questioner has finished speaking, as though considering it in all of its complexity. (Actually, this is a good strategy whenever an intellectually-insecure person asks you a question; it implies that it was a really good question that requires serious thought to answer.)

Then the wise job talker will extend an olive branch: “That’s an interesting question. I’ll have to think about that.” This is a very difficult conversational move for the questioner to counter, as it conveys a compliment while it defers further discussion.

Which is precisely why this tactic almost always works in a literary critique situation. Pretty much everyone is flattered by the notion that he has raised a point so incisive that the author wants to meditate upon it at length.

If all else fails, move on to tactic #6 — which is more than the poor job talker could get away with doing:

6. Say, “Thanks for your feedback– but I would like to re-read the critiqued pages before responding to what you’ve said.”

Aspiring writers often seem surprised when I suggest this, but in practice, there’s no better way to defuse a critique exchange that threatens to become personal or hyper-emotional. Expressing an interest in going back and reading the manuscript with an eye to the points the critiquer has raised is a perfectly reasonable request.

It’s also a pretty good idea in any feedback situation.

Think about it: when are you most likely to be able to give a revision suggestion a fighting chance to convince you to try it, immediately after you’ve first heard it and while you are still face-to-face with your critiquer, or a few days later, when you’re alone and face-to-face with nothing but the text?

Basically, this strategy will minimize the probability that you’ll dismiss a great idea in the heat of the moment — and maximize the potential for any follow-up discussion’s being productive for you and your book.

“Um, Anne?” I hear some of you calling. “I’ve been in a writers’ group/class/book collaboration with someone who does this, and the results aren’t, to put it as gently as possible, always positive, I can’t possibly be the only writer who has given feedback to someone who seemed to take it well at the time, only to stun me three days later with a 20-page e-mail explaining in exquisite detail, with textual illustrations, exactly what kind of an idiot I am to have suggested changing so much as a syllable of the chapter in question?”

Good point, anonymous commenters: the strategies of allowing time to pass and taking another gander at the text will not fuse into a magic wand that will automatically turn a behind-the-scenes seether (which, let’s face it, is not an uncommon writerly specialty) into an open-minded feedback-receiver who blesses those who help him.

In fact, as you so rightly point out, it can have the opposite effect.

So let me clarify why I am advising this: the point of going back to the text is NOT to come up with concrete evidence to support a future argument with a critiquer; it’s to try to figure out if the critiquer might have a legitimate point. This is high unlikely to happen within the first few seconds after the critique has departed the feed-back-giver’s mouth.

Speed of revision is sometimes valuable after a writer has begun working with an agent or editor, because publication deadlines wait for no man, but trust me on this one: no one familiar with the trials and tribulations of revising a manuscript actually expects the author to come up with the necessary changes within a minute or two of the suggestion to make them. You have every right to take some time to think about it.

In fact, I would argue that to be the best guardian of your book’s interest, you have an OBLIGATION not to react on the spur of the moment. Because — chant it with me now, everyone — the goal of getting feedback is to improve what’s on the PAGE, not to silence the objections raised by someone kind enough to read the manuscript and give substantive feedback.

This isn’t to say that a writer shouldn’t ask follow-up questions about feedback — if they’re warranted, she definitely should. But even then, the manuscript itself is usually the best place to start pulling together requests for clarification.

Besides, you wouldn’t respond to a change request from the agent of your dreams or the perfect editor for your book without first going to the part of the text they’ve flagged as needing revision, would you?

Um, you wouldn’t, would you? Hello? Anybody out there? Or would some of you just rather avoid thinking about that particular situation until it’s upon you?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, kids, but being on the receiving end of critique from a thoughtful agent or editor is the GOOD outcome here. Try to think of the feedback situations along the way as dry runs for that happy day.

And when that day comes, you’ll be such an old hand at taking feedback that you’ll listen carefully, pause long enough to indicate that they’ve raised interesting points, then open your mouth and chirp, “Wow, that’s an intriguing idea. Let me sit with it and the manuscript for a few days, thinking about it.”

Hey, it’s my job to envision you at your best and most successful. More tips follow next time — and please, critique veterans, feel free to pass along wry anecdotes and helpful hints of your own.

Keep up the good work!

(PS: today’s picture appears courtesy of

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: live, baby, live


What’s that pile of jagged rubble, you ask, and why am I asking you to contemplate it? Is it a close-up of a stepped-upon family of crabs, or perhaps the aftermath of something extremely large having been dropped from a plane? No such luck, my friends: this is my flower and herb garden, immediately after those nice men who came to solve the drainage problem in the basement stopped destroying all life forms unwise enough to be planted in their path.

Or, to be precise, my garden is under what you see; the backhoe is relaxing after its Herculean labors in concealing it from human eyes. Originally, there was a full-grown rosebush compressed between the top two levels of slab, sticking out sideways with its tender new leaves reaching desperately toward the sky. However, once I came running out with my camera, the workers hurriedly whisked most of dead and dying plant life out of shot.

I’m pretty annoyed about the demise of my bulbs — silly me, I had thought that something growing two feet tall with a flower on one end of it would have self-evidently been something to save, but evidently, that’s a matter of debate — but even at the zenith of my pique, I couldn’t help but gasp at how apt a metaphor it was for this week’s topic.

After all, isn’t it one of the great rules of creation that it usually involves some destruction?

Just as (my SO assures me) the construction of a new, improved, and in every way far more admirable backyard patio and garden required ripping up the old concrete patio and dumping the shards of its dislodged corpse on top of every green and growing thing within a hundred yards, often, building a revised draft of an already-written manuscript entails ripping out some of the foundation, to clear space for new reinforcement.

Unlike the perpetrators of many other structures, the writer of a manuscript-under-construction is often present when critics are hacking away at the second floor solarium and that view-blocking cypress tree just outside the library, unfortunately. And that can be trying to even the calmest temperament.

You know the situations I’m talking about, right? Writers’ groups. Face-to-face pitching sessions, especially those at conferences where the pitchees have ostensibly read an excerpt from the work being pitched. Lunch or a phone call with one’s agent or editor — or with some generous soul who has agreed to be a first reader for your manuscript.

Like it or not, while querying and submission usually generate written responses, ideally suited for psyche-clearing tantrum-throwing in the privacy of one’s home, getting concrete feedback on your work often requires your physical — or at least auditory — attendance. Pulling this off well is a matter of will — and of practice.

We’re all familiar with what happens when a writer doesn’t pull it off well, right? As we saw with this weekend’s exemplars, all too often, writers respond with defensiveness (“What do you mean, there’s something wrong with my manuscript, Candace?”), anger (“What kind of a fool are you to think you have the right to criticize my work, Jerome?”), or endless explanation about why the manuscript positively needs to remain precisely the way it currently is (“Clearly, Ted, you’re not understanding what’s going on, so let me proceed on the assumption that what’s on the page is far less important than my intention in placing it there.”)

None of these responses is constructive, and all are as likely to prevent good feedback from sinking into the writerly noggin as to ward off misguided advice. Still worse, they tend to discourage honesty in future feedback.

The funny thing is, most of the time, writers who embrace these tactics DO want feedback on their work — but they make the fundamental mistake of confusing the time and energy they’ve expended with the quality or clarity of the writing. In other words, they respond as though the industry graded manuscripts for effort, not for what actually ends up on the page.

Which, as I believe I have already mentioned in this series, is backward, logically speaking. If it’s not on the page, it doesn’t count, as far as agents, editors, and contest judges are concerned — and, really, most bookstore browsers feel the same way, don’t they? Who walks into Borders thinking, “Gee, where can I find a book upon which the author lavished care and attention?” rather than, “Hey, where can I find a great read?”

So when an agent encounters a new client whose first response to a change request is defensive, or an editor finds that her brilliant new discovery apparently enjoys endless discussion over the smallest prospective change, they tend not to be too sympathetic.

And that’s a shame, really, because very, very often, what the author is actually saying is, “Hey, I put a lot of work into this. Can’t we stop and recognize that before ripping it apart? Or do you really mean that you don’t think I have talent?”

We sometimes see a similar reaction, interestingly enough, in authors on their first few book tours. “What do you mean, you would have ended the book differently?” they demand of some trembling soul who wanted only to say something intelligent while having her copy of the book signed. “Everyone’s a critic?”

In the age of the Internet, just how often do you think an author needs to snap at a well-meaning fan before he gains a reputation for being nasty at book readings?

Because this tendency to knee-jerk defensiveness is extremely common, I’m a big fan of aspiring writers pulling the pin on the criticism grenade BEFORE they are under professional scrutiny. Critique groups can be tremendously helpful in learning to respond well to commentary, as can working with a freelance editor. Entering contests that provide feedback, and even exchanging manuscripts with a helpful friend can be marvelous ways to learn to subvert the instinctive negative reaction.

In short, why not test your capacity for critique first in a venue where a momentary lapse could not conceivably to cost you a representation or book contract — or readers?

Of course, I’m not going to send you into a high-powered writers’ group entirely unarmed; like our exemplar Harriet, writers who walk into their first face-to-face critique not knowing what to expect are often frightened away.

Never fear: being the preparation-oriented self you all know and love, I have come up with a few strategies for handling it with aplomb. These are not the only tools you could use in this situation — and those of you who are critique veterans, please chime in with what has worked for you — but armed with these techniques, no writer need be afraid of making a fool of himself by over-reacting to well-meant feedback.

Note, please, that these techniques do not depend upon how good the feedback is; they will help you keep a high chin, straight face, and positive attitude even if it’s dreadful. (Don’t worry — I shall be talking about how to deal with unhelpful feedback later in the week.)

Ready? Here we go.

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

Those of you who survived last December-January’s series of posts on how to seek out useful feedback (gathered under the unambiguous title GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK in the category list at right) might recognize this one. In my experience, the level of critique is almost always improved if the writer gives the reader a bit of advance warning about what he’d like to discuss.

Even if the structure of the feedback situation prevents a pre-reading heads-up, it’s still an excellent idea to come into a face-to-face critique (a conference meeting with an agent who has read your first chapter, for instance) with two or three concrete questions you would like answered about your work.

Why? Well, to be blunt about it, it helps give you some control of a situation that can be overwhelming — and it’s can be a positive boon if you should happen to find your work being critiqued by someone genuinely nasty. Trust me, you’ll be far, far happier if you have prepared yourself to say, “What did you think of the pacing of the opening?” rather than finding yourself stammering, “What do you mean, you didn’t like it?”

But there are far more positive reasons to go this route. First, it’s a courtesy to your critiquer: it demonstrates that you value his opinion. Or, perhaps more importantly for dealing with an agent or editor, it makes it APPARENT that you do. (Whether you actually value this yahoo’s opinion or not is, of course, nobody’s business but you and your personal Jim’ny Cricket.)

It also forces you to take a critical look at your own work, to determine where it might have some weaknesses. That is a HUGE advantage walking into a feedback situation, because it enables a writer to open her mind to other perspectives, rather than feeling that she needs to defend what she’s done.

Remember: the purpose of manuscript critique is to make it better, not to punish past errors. Keep your eye on the prize.

A couple of questions to get you started: if you write comedy, consider asking if there was anyplace in the manuscript that made the critiquer laugh out loud — or a bit that didn’t quite work; if you write memoir, ask if every scene seemed plausible, or if the ratio of scene to narrative seemed right; if you write fiction, also ask if every scene seemed plausible, or if the protagonist seemed likable or interesting enough to follow throughout the entire book.

Yes, you DO want to be that concrete, if the feedback is going to help you revise.

2. Bear in mind that today is not necessarily the best day to respond to what you’re hearing.

In other words, consider not saying anything when you receive feedback. Just listen carefully, nodding occasionally as a courtesy to the speaker, trying to absorb what will be most useful to you and the manuscript.

This strategy often surprises writers, but there is no rule that requires us to have a witty riposte ready the instant after a first reader has just pointed out a fundamental flaw — or even a minor one — in our manuscripts. Feedback is not, after all, an invitation to argument, but a set of specific suggestions about how to improve a book.

Silence is a perfectly acceptable response — and if you’re new to face-to-face critique, it is often downright preferable. To illustrate why, I’m going to jump out of the realm of art for the moment and into the murky waters of group psychology.

In the Northern California of my childhood, a form of group interaction known as an encounter group was fleetingly popular. A bunch of individuals got together, picked (I almost said victim) one member to be the subject, and talked exclusively about that person for a set period of time, to give the subject what was supposed to be an unprecedented view of how he appeared to others. Two rules prevailed: everyone was supposed to be absolutely honest, and the subject was not allowed to speak until the session was over.

I just felt half of you recoil in horror, didn’t I? Well, yes, it could be mighty intense, but since everyone in the group was going to be the subject eventually, the idea was that everyone would be equally vulnerable — and that by preventing the subject from voicing an instantaneous defensive reaction, people could say precisely what they thought without fear of interruption.

The idea of exchanging manuscripts for critique, as opposed to personalities, suddenly seems a bit less threatening, doesn’t it?

That’s not why I brought up encounter groups, however: in the face of feedback, it is usually far easier to hear what others are saying if part of your brain isn’t spinning constantly, trying to come up with a pithy comment in response, if not something so devastating that it will be passed down to future generations as a proverb. (Oh, as if writers aren’t prone to doing that.)

Try just listening. You may be surprised at how much stress it leeches from the critique encounter.

3. Take good notes.

This one is in response to all of you who were picturing yourself just sitting there fidgeting while others told you how to improve your work. You’re going to be keeping yourself occupied, I assure you.

Bring a pad of paper and writing implement. Apply the latter to the former liberally.

Do I hear some shy souls shuffling their feet out there, working up nerve to ask a question? “But Anne,” these timid writers say, “isn’t it a bit rude to be scribbling while someone else is speaking? Won’t they assume that I’m not paying attention, but have started doodling out of boredom?”

Actually, a feedback-giver usually finds it flattering when a writer keeps jotting things down, for the same reason that a lecturer finds it encouraging when her students seem to be taking copious notes: it implies that the scribbler respects what the speaker is saying enough to want to remember it.

The higher her educational level, incidentally, the more likely she is to be pleased. In fact, when academics get together for symposia, it’s almost unheard-of for a lecturer NOT to take notes during the question-and-answer period. While the questioner is asking. Not only is this not considered impolite — it’s regarded as a way that the lecturer conveys to the questioner that she’s asked a good question.

So feel free to write down what your feedback-giver says about your work — yes, even if the critiquer happens to be the editor to whom you’ve just pitched your book project. Write down any follow-up questions you might have. Write down any inspirations you might have for applying the feedback to the manuscript.

Why? Because even the best feedback isn’t going to be very useful if you can’t remember it tomorrow, is it?

My, that’s a lot to digest in one post, isn’t it? More strategic tips follow tomorrow, of course, but just before we end for today, take a moment to pat yourself on the back for being open to accepting feedback on your baby at all. By being brave enough to allow others to take a long, hard look at your writing AND developing the skills to listen to their honest responses, you’re taking an important step toward approaching the job of writing like a professional.

And if the prospect of soliciting feedback still feels like someone’s about to take a backhoe to your beloved backyard garden, well, today of all days, I sympathize. Necessary renovation can have some pretty disorienting short-term side effects. But isn’t having to replant the bulbs worth it if the basement is no longer going to fill up with water when it rains?

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

The guessing game resumes


Did you enjoy yesterday’s little guessing game? For those of you tuning in while this show is in progress, last time, I invited readers to consider an array of fairly common writerly dilemmas — well, okay, three of five; the rest will come today. Rather than concentrating upon each as its own problem, as is my wont with exemplars, I challenged you all to try to identify the underlying thread that connected all of them.

Why would I take up your valuable time with such an exercise, especially stretched over two days of posts? A couple of reasons, of the fine variety. First, as I mentioned last time, the phenomenon that runs through each of these scenarios is not only typically a stumbling block to revision, but also very, very common in general. I see it constantly posing problems for writers at every level of the biz.

By clearing it out of the way, so to speak, before I launch into my series on manuscript megaproblems and agents’ pet peeves, any necessary changes should be easier for you to implement.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, being a working artist means having to wrestle with issues like this on a daily basis. The better a diagnostician you are, the more easily you will be able to root out writerly conflicts at their cores, rather then writhing for years under their influence while treating only their symptoms.

Also, the examples are kind of amusing, aren’t they?

Let’s move on to #4. Remember, the name of the game here is guess what issue underlies all of these case studies — and bear in mind that in none of these cases is the basic problem the only issue.

Cryptic scenario 4: over the last two months, Harriet’s sent out six queries for her mainstream novel, THE MICHELANGELO QUOTE THAT CARRIES A FAIRLY OBVIOUS HIDDEN MEANING THAT NO ONE HAS PICKED UP UPON FOR THE LAST 500 YEARS, yet no agent seems interested — even though she lucidly points out in her query letter that the book is very much in the tradition of a recent megaseller, and should appeal to the same audience.

Clearly, she concludes, the market isn’t looking for anything good or original these days.

But Harriet’s a hearty soul, so she sends out three more queries. No nibbles — and that astonishes her, because her husband said it was the best book he’d ever read, her mother raved over it, and her best friend at work handed the manuscript back to her after only three short days, saying, “It was great. I couldn’t put it down.”

Demoralized, Harriet stops querying, instead channeling her energies into letting everyone around her know how frustrated she is. (Her therapist says that this is good for her.)

She’s so at it that at holiday time, Idabel, assigned by the fickle finger of fate to be her Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver in the office pool, takes the hint and buys her a subscription to a well-respected magazine for aspiring writers, PENNERS’ PROCESSING, as well as a copy of the most recent WRITERS’ MARKET and one of the standard agency guides. Idabel is an aspiring writer herself, you see; her gift even includes a box of Manila envelopes topped with a Post-It note reading, “Use them!”

Around the Fourth of July, Harriet gets around to reading one of these helpful publications. Ten pages in, one of the agents interviewed mentions that he likes it when queriers include the information that they are members of an established writers’ group. He regards it as a sign that the writer in question has done her homework about how the business works. “Of course,” he adds, “the writing has to speak for itself, and it has to be original. I mean, if I get one more query for one more carbon copy of THE DA VINCI CODE, I’ll…”

The proverbial light bulb suddenly appears over Harriet’s head. “No wonder they haven’t been asking to see my book,” she muses. “I didn’t have an important professional credential.”

Amazingly, though, the Yellow Pages doesn’t seem to have any listings for either writers’ group, critique group, or professional writers’ credentials. After a couple of weeks of searching, she has the bright idea of turning to a more experienced writer for guidance.

“My group’s full,” Idabel hedges after hearing a full account of Harriet’s efforts, “but why don’t you check with our local writers’ association?”

After tracking down several false leads, Harriet is thrilled to be asked to join a group that has just lost a member. Staggering into the first meeting pushing a wheelbarrow stuffed with bound, 1200-page manuscripts, she is surprised to learn that in this group, members exchange only individual chapters in advance, then meet to discuss them; she had always assumed that writers read their work out loud in every critique group on the planet.

Still, she has copies of her first chapter with her, if she doesn’t mind doing some ripping, so she hands them out to everybody. When the others e-mail her their chapters (along with synopses, since she has joined at a point where many of them are mid-book), she reads them diligently. She thinks hard about what she wants to say at the next meeting; since they’ll be praising hers, she doesn’t want to be caught with nothing nice to say.

But at the second meeting, Harriet is astonished at how many specific criticisms people are giving one another. By comparison, her murmurs of, “This character was really likeable, for a sociopath; I wanted him to win,” “I was really rooting for the couple to get together after their cars collided,” and “Did Tanya really have to die after being run over by that bulldozer? It makes it less of a feel-good book, doesn’t it?” don’t seem to be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

When the group gets to her manuscript, the river of critique seems to intensify into a flood. She tries to keep smiling and taking notes, because that’s what the earlier victims had done, but it feels as if these people are ripping the flesh from her very bones. Although most of them preface their comments with a few (forced?) bits of kindness — along the lines of, “Your albino character was so convincingly…pale,” and “It’s interesting to describe a protagonist as Tom Hanks-like” — it’s clear that they positively hated literally every sentence in her chapter.

Or so she surmises, from the fact that they keep harping at her about her margins and her 14-point typeface. If they’d actually understood her chapter, would they have been concentrating on such trivialities? Or — and here poor Harriet’s heart hits her shoes — was her writing really so bad that they can’t talk about her plot at all?

She manages to keep her dignity until after the meeting breaks up, but she slips out without saying goodbye to anyone. Once home, she throws her notes into the trash, along with the manuscripts to read for the next meeting. She never goes back to the group again.

Wow, that was a sad one, wasn’t it? Is the problem becoming clearer now? Here’s the next example:

Cryptic scenario 5: Johannes is an Internet junkie; both in spare moments at work and every evening, he’s always surfing, always learning something new. He’s been working on a daring novel, AYN RAND LIVING IN PLATO’S CAVE IN A MACHIAVELLIAN WORLD, written in the present tense, the second person plural, and with semicolons decorating every other sentence.

So naturally, he’s been hanging out on writers’ forums. Having heard (well, seen) so many aspiring writers talk about their submission experiences, he feels well prepared to start the process himself. He does a Google search under “New York agencies,” and after a few false leads that produce terse replies demanding a head shot, he manages to narrow his list down to 50 or so.

Yet once he starts e-mailing out copies of his manuscript to agents and publishers, they seem to disappear into the ether. Why isn’t he hearing back? Are these people just going to steal his book and market it as their own?

Fortunately, Johannes now has online friends to ask this type of question — or rather, he has places where he can vent to the extent that other aspiring writers might figure out what his problem was. Much to his astonishment, his longtime sparring partner, Flam R. Høthead informs him that he should not have been sending out unrequested materials — he’d gotten a bit confused, since some people on the forums seemed to be mailing entire manuscripts — but instead should have been sending out something called a query letter first.

Johannes is furious. Why the heck hadn’t anyone told him this before?

So he composes the best, brashest, most self-promoting query letter he can imagine. Dear Agent, he e-mails, brace yourself for the greatest literary experience since MOBY DICK! Do yourself a favor and take a look at my novel — you’ll regret it if you don’t. It’s the next bestseller, and you wouldn’t want to be left with egg all over your face at Pulitzer Prize time, would you?

Yet amazingly, it only generates responses that seem oddly impersonal. What the heck do they mean, the book doesn’t serve their needs at this time and the novel market is tight right now? Obviously, his novel is too out there for the agents to appreciate.

He posts accordingly.

Another forum member, Bitr G. Nyess, explains to him the concept of a form letter rejection. Johannes spends the next month railing on three forums about the gross unfairness of the practice, a rant in which many, many frustrated aspiring writers are more than happy to join him.

Soon, his thread on his favorite forum is as howl-filled as a production of King Lear, but this doesn’t really seem to be getting him published. He notices that certain online sources keep being recommended by other forum readers in other contexts, so he traipses off to see what these so-called experts are suggesting.

Criminy, what drivel he finds! Everywhere he turns, he finds himself blamed for how he’s been abused. One sourpuss keeps telling her readers how awful their query letters are; another keeps yammering about something called craft; a guy who works at an agency keeps telling readers that it’s his job to reject as many of them as possible, and there’s even some insane chick who claims that all manuscripts are supposed to LOOK alike. And amazingly, when Johannes posts comments on these websites, pointing out that

(a) they’re contracting one another, so how on earth is a writer supposed to find out what to do?
(b) what they’re suggesting would take WEEKS of work to follow, and
(c) would they be interested in taking a look at his manuscript and passing it along to their friends in the industry?

they don’t seem to regard these points as fatal flaws. Or even points requiring response.

Instead, other commenters on these forums give him even more of the same kind of advice. They seem to expect him to change his book! Haven’t they ever heard of integrity? Of artistic vision?

Back on his writers’ forums, though, he is able to find many people to seem to share his outrage, though, and his threads on various forums lengthen well-nigh into infinity.

After a while, it occurs to him that he’s expending so much energy venting that he’s not writing much at all anymore. He stops posting so much, tosses his manuscript into a drawer, and starts a new book, UNRECOGNIZED GENIUS. Maybe the literary world will have matured enough by the time he’s done to be ready for THIS one.

Okay, campers: I know that there’s a lot going on here, but what’s the shared problem common to all 5? (Hint: each of these writers did quite a few things right AND wrong.)

Still stymied? I’m going to give you one final example, showing the problem in its baldest form — and incidentally the one that agents, editors, and freelance editors like myself see most often.

Cryptic scenario 6: Kimberley has just spent several years completing a novel, YOUR EYES ARE LIKE LIMPID POOLS. Justifiably pleased with herself and knowledgeable about how submission works, she sends off a flotilla of queries. Because she writes well and has done her homework, several of her queries prompt requests to see the first 50 pages.

When all of these attempts result in rejection, Kimberley is hurt and flabbergasted. For weeks, she pores over her rejection letters: what on earth does I just didn’t fall in love with the characters mean? If her book doesn’t meet our needs at this time and this is a book I probably could have sold ten years ago, are they asking her to resubmit or go away? If the former, how soon?

No matter how much she obsesses over the various possibilities, however, she can’t figure out why the book was rejected. She looks into freelance editing, but the sample edit of her first five pages came back so full of nit-picks, esoteric editing-speak like run-on and prettily written, but which one of these is the protagonist?, and cryptic statements about appealing to a target market that she realizes that the editor isn’t at all in tune with what she’s trying to do.

Besides, freelance editing is expensive. Instead, Kimberly seeks out a writers’ group filled with intelligent, creative people apparently genuinely interested in helping one another refine their work for publication. They seem excited about her project and eager to read it. (Unlike that stupid editor, who obviously wouldn’t know great literature if it bit her.)

By now, you can see this coming, can’t you? Follow the bouncing ball and sing along, people.

At the first meeting, one of the members, Linda, points out that Kimberley’s book category as listed on the title page seems a bit over-broad: romance-thriller-horror for the mainstream women’s market is not, Linda intimates, a category generally recognized by the industry. Glibly, Kimberley explains at great length why this designation is absolutely necessary: her novel stretches the parameters of boring commercial fiction.

When Linda objects that each of the named categories has a rather different expectations about vocabulary, storytelling, and voice, Kimberley takes pity on her literary ignorance and goes over, point by point and in exhaustive detail, all the ways that her book resembles THE SHINING, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, RAISE THE TITANTIC, TITANIC (yes, dear, the movie), THE VAMPIRE LESTAT, and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY. Clearly, then, her book has an audience out there — and what’s Linda’s agenda that she would suggest otherwise?

Since Linda and the rest of the group eventually stop registering objections, Kimberley figures that she’s convinced them. She continues sending out manuscripts featuring this hyphenate category on the title page.

At the next meeting, Linda does not appear, but Martha, another member, mentions that Kimberley’s opening is a bit slow — in fact, the narrative doesn’t really warm up until page 10 or so. “Given how quickly agency screeners tend to make up their minds,” Martha says, edging her chair away from Kimberley’s increasingly frightening visage, “is it possible that this might be placing your work at a disadvantage?”

Although Kimberley is furious at the implication, she takes the time to explain patiently to Martha and the absurd group members who seem to agree with her that anyone even remotely familiar with Joseph Campbell’s concept of a heroic journey — you know, the one that they used to put together the plots for STAR WARS? — should know that the first stage is to present normal life. Of course, that normal life isn’t going to be as exciting as the challenge of the plot itself, but how can the reader possibly appreciate the drama of Chapter 2′s escalation without the mundane for contrast?

“Besides,” she adds huffily, “haven’t you people ever heard of symbolism? Each of those five scoops of coffee I describe in detail as the barista — who never appears again in the book, so I don’t know why how you could possibly see this as a distraction, Martha — pours them one by one into the espresso machine represents — I can’t believe that I actually have to explain this to you — a different stage of a woman’s life. Trust me, it’ll all be clear by the end of Chapter 15.”

Kimberley makes her case well — so well, in fact, that within a scant ten minutes, Martha and everyone else in the group have gone completely silent. Satisfied that she has won her point, Kimberley doesn’t revisit Chapter 1.

In fact, in the meetings that follow, she defends her book so well that eventually, the other members evidently come to realize that it doesn’t need additional revision at all. Or so Kimberley concludes from the fact that they stop bringing up any but the most picayune, sentence-level quibbles. She soon puts those to rest.

These days, her manuscript still attracts requests from agents occasionally, but for some reason, it has not yet been picked up. Clearly, the industry is not ready for literature of this caliber.

Is the pattern clear now? Has Kimberley laid it all out for you, or do you need to spend a year in her writing group to catch on to the problem? I’ll bet you a nickel that the group has vacancies.

Like Alcibiades, Dahlia, Griffin, Harriet, and Johannes, Kimberley has never learned to take constructive criticism constructively — or to tell the vital difference between good and bad feedback, or even to differentiate between well-meant manuscript and career advice and personal attack. Not all of the feedback our exemplars received was genuinely useful, or even necessarily correct — but these writers’ responses to it virtually guaranteed that none of it would prove helpful.

And that’s a serious problem for all six, although the symptoms were different in each case. Professional critique pulls no punches; working authors are expected to be able to listen respectfully to constructive feedback, sift through it to determine what would be best for the book, and apply it sensibly to the manuscript in question.

The earlier in a writing career one can learn this valuable set of skills, the better — and the less likely one is to get hurt by the process. For the next week or so, we’re going to be talking about how to avoid the grisly fates of the Exemplar Six.

I don’t promise that it will be fun, but trust me, once you’re working with your dream agent and editor, you will bless the week that I brought this up. Keep up the good work!

Protecting your pages, part II: dude, where is my manuscript?


Before I launch into today’s post, allow me to snap back into that periodic nagging mode that assails me every time I hear from a good writer experiencing a computer meltdown: when was the last time you backed up your hard disk — or, more importantly for our purposes, your writing files?

If it wasn’t either today or yesterday, may I cajole you into doing it soon — say, now-ish? If I ask really nicely? Because, really, picturing the anguish of one author of a possibly fried book in a day is all I can manage in my current weakened state.

Not that I’d try to guilt you into it or anything. But while you’re thinking about it, why not do it this very instant? I’ll still be here when you get back, languishing on my chaise longue.

(If you’re new to backing up your work, the BACK-UP COPIES category at right may prove helpful. I just mention.)

Back to the topic at hand. Yesterday, I broached the always-hot subject of protecting one’s writing from poachers. Once again, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so if you are looking for actual legal guidance on a specific copyright-related matter, you’d be well advised to get advice from one who specializes in giving legal advice to such legal advice-seekers.

Everyone got that?

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

Llewellyn has written a tender novel with the following plot: boy meets girl; boy loses girl over a silly misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up within five pages had either party deigned to ask the other a basic question or two (along the lines of Is that your sister or your wife?); boy learns important life lesson that enables him to become a better man; boy and girl are reunited.

At what point should Llewellyn be begin running, not walking, toward an attorney conversant with copyright law with an eye to enforcing his trampled-upon rights?

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

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

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

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

If you said (d), clap yourself heartily upon the back. (I know it’s tough to do while simultaneously reading this and making a back-up of your writing files, but then, you’re a very talented person.) Anything beyond 50 consecutive words — or less, if it’s not properly attributed — is not fair use. Then, we’re into plagiarism territory.

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

But sprinting toward Lawyers for the Arts? No. Plot lifting is not the same thing as writing theft.

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

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few small steps that Llewellyn might take to protect himself.

As I mentioned yesterday, the single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. The problem is, you can’t always tell. The Internet, while considerably easing the process of finding agents and small publishers hungry for new work, also renders it hard to tell who is on the up-and-up.

I hope I’m not shocking anyone when I point out that a charlatan’s website can look just like Honest Abe’s — and that’s more of a problem with the publishing industry than in many others.

Why? Well, new agencies and small publishing houses pop up every day, often for very good reasons — when older publishing houses break up or are bought out, for instance, editors often make the switch to agency, and successful agents and editors both sometimes set up shop for themselves.

But since you don’t need a specialized degree to become an agent or start a publishing house, there are also plenty of folks out there who just hang up shingles. Or, more commonly, websites.

Which is one reason that, as those of you who survived last summer’s Book Marketing 101 series will recall, I am a BIG advocate of gathering information about ANY prospective agency or publishing house from more than one source.

Especially if the source in question is the agency’s website — and if the agency in question is not listed in one of the standard agency guides.

“Wha–?” I hear some of you cry.

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

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

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

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

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

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

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

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. It’s also worth checking on Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days.

These are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query after the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2008 recedes in a week or two.

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

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

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

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

Actually, anyone asking a writer for cash up front in exchange for considering representation or publication is more than a bit suspect. Unless a publisher bills itself up front as a subsidy press (which asks the authors of the books it accepts to bear some of the costs of publication) or you are planning to self-publish, there’s no reason for money to be discussed at all until they’ve asked to buy your work, right?

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

With publishing houses, too, be suspicious if you’re told that you MUST use a particular outside editing service or pay for some other kind of professional evaluation. As those of you who have been submitting for a while already know, reputable agents and editors like to make up their own minds about what to represent or publish; they’re highly unlikely to refer that choice out of house.

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

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

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

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

But that doesn’t mean that a smart writer shouldn’t take reasonable steps to protect both her pocketbook AND her manuscript.

Next time, I shall delve into manuscript protection itself, I promise. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: what do you wish you had known before you first handed your manuscript to another human being?

Just when you thought the feedback discussion portion of this year had concluded, the monster returns…but the monster always returns, so you were expecting THAT plot twist, right?

Actually, you have bright long-term reader Dave to thank for this one: he posted a comment yesterday suggesting that the next time I attack this topic, it might be interesting to ask readers what they wish they had known before they started soliciting feedback. It’s such a good idea that I’m going to stand it on its head and ask that question now.

So, tell me: what DO you wish you had known before you printed out that first set of pages and asked someone else to comment upon them??

A corollary for those of you who have done time in writers’ groups: what do you wish you had known about them before you joined? Alternatively, what did being in a good group teach you about giving and receiving feedback? (Hey, we might as well maximize our discussion time here.)

The usual rules apply, of course: keep it G-rated, please, as not everyone who reads this blog is old enough to vote (and I like it that way). Bear in mind that comments on a blog post are more or less immortal, so using full legal names may not be the best strategic move for you. And if you are new to posting comments on this blog, please be patient, as I need to wade through a whole lot of spam each day to approve new comments.

I’ll start, to get the ball rolling: I wish I had figured out sooner that a group of talented, nice people who happen to write does not necessarily a viable writers’ group make. I’ve found that it’s genuinely helpful if everyone concerned either writes in a similar genre or is a habitual reader of other members’ genres. I learned this one not because I was the odd man out in a group of literary fiction writers, but because someone else was: he wrote mysteries. Very different stylistic expectations, and I fear that he got over-critiqued.

Now it’s your turn. If you could travel back in time and tell your former self something about the feedback experience, what would it be?