Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: looking both ways before you cross the street


Throughout this week, I have been talking about strategies to help a writer accept written feedback — you know, the kind that editors scrawl in margins after they have acquired your manuscript — with aplomb, professionalism, and a minimum of self-destructive blood-letting. Or at the very least to discourage writers from applying the leeches of self-torture to themselves with too liberal a hand.

Yes, I’m perfectly aware that’s a disturbing image. After one has spent years holding writers’ hands through crises of literary faith, one’s standards of disturbing rise considerably. And it’s not as though I posted a photo of a leech, right?

While having one’s baby subjected to ruthless examination in the name of improving it is undoubtedly a rather traumatic experience (many authors never really get used to it), developing good listening, consideration, and response skills can render the process substantially less painful.

Experience, of course, is how most professional writers become acclimated to dealing with the take-no-prisoners clarity of professional critique. However, as I’ve been arguing for the past couple of weeks, a writer’s usually better off not waiting until after selling that first book or even signing an agency contract before beginning the toughening-up process.

Today’s paradoxical truism-of-the-trade: the more sensitive a talented writer is to critique, the earlier in her writing life she should start to seek it out.

Before I launch into elaboration upon that rather cryptic statement, let’s revisit the strategies we’ve discussed so far:

1. Don’t argue about the feedback with the feedback-giver.

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

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

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side. Even when it doesn’t feel like it.

Give a shout if any of those are still puzzling you, please. In the absence of anguished bellowing from my readership, I’m going to move on.

5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first reader of your manuscript. Get other feedback first.

Seems like a strange thing for a freelance editor to say, doesn’t it? Yet the more time I put in as a book doctor, the more I’m convinced that this is a good idea.

The vast majority of aspiring writers do not agree with me, however — or so I surmise from the astonishing high percentage of manuscripts that are apparently blithely sent off to agents and editors without any human eyes save those belonging to the writer having scanned them.

Heck, in submissions with many typos, a professional reader is sometimes tempted to wonder if even the {writer’s eyes} wandered over it between the moments of composition and submission.

It’s appealing on a fantasy level, isn’t it? A writer works in secret for years on end, polishing a manuscript to the nth degree of perfection whilst his obtuse coworkers, ungrateful friends, and/or monstrous family meander through their lives, unaware that they are under the merciless scrutiny of an author extraordinaire.

The writer sends off queries and submission in secret, mentioning his ambition to no one (because, naturally, NO ONE UNDERSTANDS HIM) until the happy day when he can burst into his workplace/favorite bar/dysfunctional home, book contract in hand, and announce, “Hey, bozos, you’ve underestimated me for all these years!”

Whereupon everyone who has ever been mean to him promptly shouts, “Touché, Frederick. Guess I’ve been wrong about you all along. Let me spend the rest of our collective lives making it up to you.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but I’ve sold two books and published many shorter pieces without inducing any ex-friends, ex-lovers, and enemies (to lift a line from the great Joe Jackson) to tumble out of the woodwork and apologize for their general schmuckery.

Try as I might, I have never been able to negotiate that particular stipulation into my publishing contracts.

In practice, not showing one’s work to people one knows prior to submission to judgmental total strangers such as agents and editors generally results in bad news for the writer, even when the response is good, by professional standards: if the manuscript is rejected, the writer doesn’t have a context in which to understand why, and if it is accepted, the writer suddenly finds herself on the receiving end of a whole lot of quite blunt professional feedback.

Hard to wrap your brain around, isn’t it? In this biz, it’s the really good work that’s singled out for critique.

Elementary school certainly did nothing to prepare any of us for that eventuality.

To tell you the truth, I’ve always thought that the no-win situation faced by writers who eschew pre-submission feedback was a pretty disproportionate punishment for being shy — the most popular reason for not hitting up all and sundry for manuscript evaluation. After all, few, if any, agencies post advice on their websites about the desirability of seeking out non-threatening first readers. How on earth is the writer new to the biz supposed to find out?

In a word: experience.

Personally, I suspect a whole lot of human misery could be avoided if those of us farther along in the process sat aspiring writers down and leveled with them — on a blog, for instance. In that spirit, I’m going to share just a scant handful of the bushel of very, very good reasons NOT to make a pro your first reader:

a) It doesn’t give the writer a chance to learn about unspotted writing or formatting problems before an agent or editor sees it.

b) Since form-letter rejections are now the norm, submission only to agencies is unlikely to yield feedback that will enable the writer to improve subsequent drafts of the manuscript.

c) It encourages the writer to begin to regard professional acceptance as the single standard of quality, ignoring the fact that the literary market is notoriously mercurial, seeking out very different kinds of books at different times.

This is not a complete list, of course — I brought this up at greater length and in exhaustive detail a few months back, in my GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK series (see category at right, if you missed it). My goodness, though, those three are enough, aren’t they?

“But Anne,” I hear some of you call out, and not unreasonably, “why tell us this in the context of a discussion about taking written feedback well?”

Prompt jumping on that cue, faceless chimers-in; your check is in the mail. For yet another reason plucked from the aforementioned bushel:

(d) When the writer receives her first professional feedback, she’s too likely to treat every syllable of it as Gospel. Even if that feedback is merely a form-letter response to a query letter.

The most common result: the writer feels crushed.

That’s because she’s set herself up. Deciding in advance that any single sentient being — be it agent, editor, best friend, mother, or Creature from the Black Lagoon — is going to be the sole arbiter of whether her work is any good places far, far too much power in that person’s hands. It can elevate what is in fact a personal opinion (which any rejection is, ultimately) into a final referendum upon whether the submitter should be writing at all.

If the writer-designated deity du jour happens to be the editor handling the manuscript or the editor who acquires it, the results can be even more ego-devastating. Suddenly, the affirmation of talent implied in the agency or publication contract seems to fade in the face of the first critique the manuscript has ever faced.

In that moment, how prepared would you expect that author to be to listen critically to feedback? Or to evaluate its usefulness?

Uh-huh. And yet that author would never DREAM of crossing a busy street without first checking both ways to see if there are any vehicles about to barrel down upon her.

Don’t get caught in that trap, I implore you. Get enough pre-submission feedback to have some sense of your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses before you submit it to the tender mercies of the pros.

Whew, that was a dense one, wasn’t it? Don’t worry; I’ll select tomorrow’s with an eye to making it easier to swallow. And if you’re very good indeed, on Sunday, I’ll give you a special reward for virtue in working through this difficult series.

No, no hints: it’s a surprise, I tell you, a lulu. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

(PS: the original of today’s image appears courtesy of the fine folks at

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


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

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

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

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

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

ANNE (breathlessly): Hello?

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

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

BOB: You must be his wife.

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

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

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

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

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

BOB: That’s impossible.

ANNE: I can report your company for calling us.

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

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

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

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

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

ANNE: Break up many relationships with that line?

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

PHONE: Click. Buzz.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Don’t argue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: the written rules


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready? Here goes:

1. Don’t argue.

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

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

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

The important thing is what ends up on the PAGE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call it a fact-finding tour of the manuscript.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

When a writer’s buttons get pushed


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give or take a coffee break or two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, it happened that way in the book.

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

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

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

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

(Okay, I can’t keep it up anymore.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entr’acte: let’s talk about this, or, if it could happen to Tru, it could happen to you


I was prowling my bookshelves last night, seeking out the source of a dimly-remembered quote, when I came across a marvelous writer-taking feedback scene in Truman Capote’s BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, of all places. I had to laugh, because the narrator goes through so many of the reactions to in-person feedback we’ve been discussing for the last week.

Take a gander:

Very few authors, especially the unpublished, can resist an invitation to read aloud. I made us both a drink and, settling in a chair opposite, began to read to her, my voice a little shaky with a combination of stage fright and enthusiasm: it was a new story, I’d finished it the day before, and that inevitable sense of shortcoming had not had time to develop. It was about two women who share a house, schoolteachers, one of whom, when the other becomes engaged, spreads with anonymous notes a scandal that prevents the marriage. As I read, I each glimpse I stole of Holly made my heart contract. She fidgeted. She picked apart the butts in an ashtray, she mooned over her fingernails, as though longing for a file; worse, when I did seem to have her interest, there was actually a telltale frost over her eyes, as if she were wondering whether to buy a pair of shoes she’d seen in some window.

“Is that the end?” she asked, waking up. She floundered for something more to say. “Of course I like the dykes themselves. They don’t scare me a bit. But stories about dykes bore the bejesus out of me. I just can’t put myself in their shoes. Well, really, darling,” she said, because I was clearly puzzled, “if it’s not about a couple of old bull-dykes, what the hell is it about?”

But I was in no mood to compound the mistake of having read the story with the further embarrassment of explaining it. The same vanity that had lead to such exposure, now forced me to mark her down as an insensitive, mindless show-off.

Holly Golightly wasn’t the only one fidgeting during this recital, was she? Did I feel some of you out there who were only familiar with the story via the Audrey Hepburn movie (or by reputation) exclaim a little over the use of such language in a bestseller from 1958? Holly’s salty talk is not the only thing the screenwriters buffed away, incidentally: the story’s about the relationship between a gay man and a straight woman who makes her living by being a professional tease, essentially.

It’s a beautiful story. Someday, someone really ought to make a movie out of it.

In addition to engendering this “Oh, my God — tone it DOWN!” reaction from moviemakers, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is an interesting work from an editorial point of view. Revision requests dogged it practically from its inception.

Which is fascinating, since Capote’s devotion to sentence-level perfection was already legendary. This was most emphatically not a novella that sprang from its creator’s head fully formed and armored, like Athene. Purportedly, the first draft of the first page — which, in its final form, is for my money one of the best openings in English prose — looked a little something like this:


By all accounts, it was far from a smooth writing process: he had trouble coming up with an ending for the story (which remains the novella’s primary weakness, I think), which lead to some deadline-meeting difficulties. To complicate matters, although he already had a book deal with Random House for a collection of stories, he had also contracted with Harper’s Bazaar (a magazine for whom two of the novella’s characters work, amusingly enough) to print THIS story as a teaser for the book.

The year was 1958, if you will recall. Can anyone out there familiar with the text — or, for that matter, anyone who read the excerpt above — anticipate what happened when the manuscript fell on the magazine’s editorial desks?

Hint: it has a great deal to do with our current series.

You guessed it: a positive avalanche of revision requests, ones that cut to the very heart of the piece. They asked Capote, for instance, to remove all of what were then primly called four-letter words from the novella AND, um, change how Holly paid the rent, if you catch my drift.

Naturally, Capote was furious — surely, all of us can identify with that, no? After all, Holly was, as he said in later interviews, his all-time favorite creation.

So what did he do? He refused point-blank to make the requested changes — and Harper’s Bazaar cancelled the publication contract.

Oh, were you hoping for a happy ending for that anecdote? Actually, there was one, but it took a while to happen: the book came out to huge acclaim; naturally, the well-publicized battle attracted readers in droves. Capote’s literary star rose even higher, and he reportedly made scads of money from the movie rights.

And the movie studio promptly disemboweled his story to turn it into a romantic comedy. A pretty good one, as it happens.

Since our pal Tru did ultimately get the last laugh: in having stuck to his guns to an extent that a less well-established author (or a less well-heeled one) would not have been able to have afforded to do, he did ultimately bring out what is arguably one of the best novellas of the twentieth century, a work that remains surprisingly fresh today.

But there’s no denying that the short-term cost of this literary bravery was very, very high.

I’m telling you this story not merely because, after a week of learning tongue-biting strategies, an author who fought back might seem rather refreshing, but also as fodder for discussion. So let me ask you, readers:

How do you think the narrator of the story could have handled his first reading better, to minimize the pain to himself and improve potential feedback?

If you were in Capote’s situation today, selling your work in the current hyper-competitive market, would you have made the choice that he did? If not, how might you have gone about it differently?

I know, I know — these are the kinds of questions that you might expect to see on your American Literature 203 midterm, but for a career writer, these are practical issues of earth-shattering importance.

So while there are no right or wrong answers here, I would encourage you to think of this not as a literary exercise, but as an opportunity to test-drive your feedback-accepting reactions in a supportive environment. Before, you know, the stakes are as high as they were for Truman.

The usual Let’s Talk About This caveats apply, of course. Let’s try to keep this constructive, and do bear in mind that a comment posted on a website tends to stay there for an awfully long time. Please feel free to post your responses anonymously, if it makes you more comfortable being honest — but try to keep the language acceptable for Harper’s Bazaar, okay?

I’m looking forward to what you have to say. Keep up the good work!

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!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

One small problem with these beliefs: neither is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice, deep breaths. That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Let’s all play a guessing game!


I know, I know: for weeks now, I have been promising to launch into a lengthy series on common manuscript problems and professional readers’ pet peeves, as a follow-up to my late series on polishing contest entries to a high gleam. I do intend to so launch, I assure you, but first, I’d like to prep the ground by tackling a phenomenon that often renders it difficult for aspiring writers to regard their own work with the critical eye necessary for good revision to take root.

My, that opening was cryptic, wasn’t it? Good; today, I would like the speculative part of your brain firing on all cylinders. (And speaking of cryptic: I only just noticed that the gentleman on the far right in the photo above is someone who was long a major deity of the publishing world, Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf. How’s that for a happy coincidence?)

Why do I want your mystery-sniffing noses to be a-twitchin’? Because the phenomenon I have in mind is so pervasive that it tends to permeate not only the pre-submission stages of the publication process, but often rears its ugly head all through an author’s career.

Think I’ve teased you enough? Not by a long shot. Here for your diagnostic pleasure are five scenarios involving very different manifestations of the phenomenon in action. See if you can figure out what it is.

All five of these situations, incidentally, are common.

Cryptic scenario 1: Alcibiades has just sold his first novel, GARDENING FOR BEGINNERS, to Bennett, an editor at a major publishing house. Carlton, Alcibiades’ agent, has negotiated a manuscript delivery date that permits his client the month of last-minute polishing he prefers, as well as time to incorporate a few minor changes Bennett has requested. Although the advance is small, Alcibiades is thrilled.

Once the manuscript lands on Bennett’s desk, Alcibiades assumes, as many writers new to the business do, that his own work is over, so he can go back to his next book and day job. But no: upon consultation with the marketing department, Bennett requests a few more changes — including the addition of a funeral in a plot where no one currently dies, in order to ramp up tension and sympathy for Ermintrude, the protagonist. Because the pre-publication clock is already ticking, these revisions need to happen very quickly.

Despairing, Alcibiades looks over the list of requested changes, some of which are far from superficial. Should he, for instance, introduce a new character merely in order to kill her off, in the manner of a hunter releasing tame pheasants in order to shoot them for sport? And what’s so wrong with that 50-page flashback dealing with the thrill of victory and agony of defeat for Ermintrude’s second-grade hopscotch team, thus laying the foundation for her later passion for one-legged war veteran Lance?

Instead, he shoots off an e-mail to Bennett, trying to explain why none of the changes are actually necessary — and even if they were, they would not be possible to make within the very tight timeline he’s been allowed.

Bennett, to put it mildly, disagrees. Words like slow, pointless, and does her hopscotch partner really need to have polio? begin to trouble the phone lines.

After two weeks of increasingly heated exchange, Carlton intervenes to make peace, and Alcibiades resentfully makes the changes.

Calm reigns for several months, but our hero is still bruised from the encounter. One day, Alcibiades receives an e-mail from Bennett: the marketing department has asked for the title to be changed. Could he please choose amongst the following three options, or suggest a better one of his own: SEX AND DEATH IN MOSCOW, POLLINATED BY WASPS, or WHORTICULTURE.

This time, Alcibiades’ trigger is much easier to trip, and he instantly composes a stinging reply, explaining with a lucidity that would have made the situation clear to an unusually slow four-year-old why he chose the original title.

Bennett responds that the marketing department knows what it’s doing. The situation again escalates into a bitter exchange of views, and once again, Alcibiades is forced to accept a change that he does not believe will be good for his book.

WHORTICULTURE receives good advance reviews and sells moderately well for a first book. Alcibiades does everything the marketing department tells him to do — sets up a website, appears at the signings they schedule for him, lassos his friends into generating glowing reviews on Amazon — and even manages to draft his next novel, GARDENING TECHNIQUES OF MIDDLING DIFFICULTY, while he’s promoting it. Yet when Carlton telephones Bennett to pitch his new book, the latter exhibits some resistance to reading it.

“But why?” Alcibiades demands when Carlton tells him about it. “My book is selling pretty well — and believe you me, it hasn’t been easy to explain that title in interviews.”

Carlton hesitates, obviously attempting to put something diplomatically. “He says that you’ve gained a reputation for being difficult.”

Cryptic scenario 2: Dahlia feels as though all of her dreams have come true — after years of querying, Françoise, one of the top agents in her book category, has just signed her to a year-long contract for her memoir, NORMAL OVERLOOKED TEEN: THE TRIUMPHANT REFORM OF AN UNDERAGE EXISTENTIALIST .

“I want to read the book again,” Françoise tells her, “and then I’ll have a few notes for you. Nothing major; the book’s terrific. I just want it to be in the best possible shape before I start sending it to editors. Oh, and you might want to think about shortening that title. It doesn’t make a good acronym for a memoir: NOT TRUE.”

A tad disappointed that there’s still work to be done — like many writers new to working with an agent, Dahlia had assumed that once her book was in her agent’s hands, her own share of the labor would be over — she generates a few title possibilities, then clears her schedule of everything not absolutely essential in anticipation of Françoise’s feedback.

It’s hard for a junior candy factory executive to take any time off in the pre-Easter season, but since surely everyone must know that April is the big chocolate-covered tulip crunch, she figures that Françoise must be very hot on the book.

Three months later, she’s still waiting for feedback. Timidly, she sends a box of caramel-laced bunnies with licorice whiskers, along with a note taking all of the blame for the delay upon herself. “We had a marshmallow meltdown,” she writes, “but now that the sticky situation has been cleared up, I’m all yours again.”

Françoise e-mails, apologizing profusely for the delay: she’s been just swamped with the sale of Colin Powell’s NO, I’M A REPUBLICAN, REALLY.

A few weeks later, she sends several pages’ worth of very specific change requests, including a suggestion that perhaps her tenth-grade mousy best friend Daphne be replaced with either a crack-smoking teen model who overcomes dyslexia to win an Olympic silver medal in hurdling or a stunningly-sculpted, promiscuous-yet-unpopular boy genius who will go on to become a software giant at the end of the book, in order to heighten the book’s potential for later movie sales.

“Of course,” she adds at the end of the note, “it’s up to you. But I would like to be circulating this within a month.”

Although Dahlia has been expecting this list — and had even requested it — she feels blindsided: there must be more than three dozen change requests here, none of them simple to apply. (Hadn’t that prom scene already been done in CARRIE?) Even if she took an unpaid leave from her job — which would mean leaving the Oompa-Loompas in the lurch in the middle of a major redesign for Kandy Korn — and worked on these changes full-time, this would easily be weeks’ worth of revision.

Realizing that she is too upset to have a productive conversation with Françoise about the situation, she stuffs the list into her bottom desk drawer along with the bones of her long-hated Algebra I teacher, promising herself she will get to them when she’s more reasonable.

Three months later, Françoise e-mails her: “When may I expect the revised manuscript?”

“Soon,” Dahlia writes back, glancing fearfully at the still-unopened bottom desk drawer. “I’m trying to clear enough time to do a good job. But it’s not easy — candy canes don’t grow on trees, you know, and I’m trying to keep the Peeps from walking out over dental benefits.”

Starting to gain some inkling of the shared problem here? Read on.

Cryptic scenario 3: Griffin has enjoyed substantial success in getting his short stories published, both through submission to magazines and entering his work in contests that include publication as a prize. Why, his trenchant examination of boy-on-bird love, WHERE THE HEART DARE NOT FLY, in a single year won the Giant Peach from the Atlanta Writers’ Consortium, came in second for the Golden Banana Slug in the Santa Cruz Fiction Fest, and appeared in a slightly modified form (the boy became a girl, the bird became Keanu Reeves, and all of the sex scenes were expunged) in Tiger Beat. Submitted in its original form along with a personal essay on beaver-farming whose complete avoidance of adjectives and adverbs elicited a personal note from the fiction editor of The New Yorker, his work earned him a $6,000 grant from the Canadian government along with a winter-long residency in an artists’ colony in Banff.

A detail-oriented soul, he delights in working and re-working his manuscripts until they shine, jealously guarding them from the scrutiny of others until he is sure they are perfect. (And if you think it’s easy to keep other writers from reading your work in the middle of a three-week snowstorm in Banff, you’ve got another thing coming.)

His credentials seem to catch agents’ eyes easily; most of his query letters for his novel engender requests for at least partial manuscripts. Yet even with this impressive track record, no agent has yet made an offer. So far, the most encouragement he has received was a hand-scrawled note in the lower-left margin of a form rejection letter, reading, “Help! I’ve been locked in the screeners’ room for the last 27 months. Save me! — Millicent. PS: do birds really act that way?”

Nonplused by their non-response, Griffin decides to pursue a route that has worked for him in the past: entering the first chapter of the book in a contest. If he wins, he reasons, that credential alone should convince an agent that his writing is publishable, and if he doesn’t, well, he has picked a contest that gives written feedback, so he will be able to learn precisely why he didn’t.

As he seals the entry envelope, though, he has no real doubt of the outcome: THE FLAMINGO FLIES BY NIGHT is a major work of literary fiction, obviously. His work has won prizes in the past; surely, the judges will see what the agency screeners evidently did not.

“Bird-haters,” he murmurs under his breath.

Months pass, and he still hasn’t heard back from the contest — and frankly, his canary is getting worried. The conference where the winners will be announced is now just around the corner, and don’t they have any idea how hard it is to get a seat on a plane that comfortably accommodates a cage? Sighing at the organizers’ lack of consideration, he makes his flight and hotel reservations.

Most of his friends and fellow ornithologists, naturally, assume that this means Frank is a finalist. But the skeptic that lurks in any crowd — in this case, a rogue goose-fancier who works down the hall, cataloguing seed supplies — can’t help but ask him, “If you’re not a finalist, are you still planning to attend the conference? I thought that your plan was to let your entry’s success speak for itself, not to pitch.”

Griffin brushes the inquiry aside laughingly in the moment, but later, in the dark of night, after the cloth is draped over his cage, he starts to wonder. Knowing that he will never be able to get to sleep unless he puts this nagging doubt to rest, he starts his computer and checks the contest’s website.

He is not on the list of finalists.

Nor is he there in the morning when he checks again, just in case he had read it incorrectly with sleep-deprived eyes. “Why didn’t they tell me?” he rages at some nearby finches. (They don’t know.)

Quietly, he cancels his flight and hotel reservations; fortunately, he had not yet registered for the conference itself. After all, what could he learn from a bunch of idiots too dumb to see the true value of his writing?

When the SASE containing the conference feedback arrives, he tosses it into the recycling bin, unopened and unread. Why should he bother? He has another contest to enter.

That one made you a little less sure of your diagnosis, didn’t it? I promise you, Griffin suffers from the same underlying problem as Dahlia and Alcibiades. So will Harriet, our fourth exemplar — but it’s her sad fate to wait until next time.

Since these examples have stretched into such a long post — and I have two more that I would like to share with you — I’m going to sign off for the day. Contrary to my usual practice, I’m not going to answer the question du jour right away, but wait until you’ve had an opportunity to peruse all five.

Keep up the good work.

A few words on feedback, part X: making it easy to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth


Hey, I spaced out yesterday, apparently, but kudos to a community member are definitely due: congratulations to long-time reader Thomas DeWolf, whose memoir, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History came out yesterday! Congratulations, Tom!

You may remember Tom from his guest blog last month — why not pop by one of his many book signings and ask a follow-up question or two?

Here’s to his success — and to my making a similar announcement about YOUR book in a future post.

Back to business.

Welcome to the penultimate installment of my ongoing series on steps you can take to improve the feedback you get from non-professional first readers. For those of you just tuning in, that’s any pre-publication reader for your book who is not paid (by you or anyone else) to give you feedback.

In other words, the vast majority of first readers.

After I signed off yesterday, I had the strange sensation that there was some disgruntled murmuring out there in the ether. “Whoa, there, baby,” these disembodied voices called to me in the dead of night, “haven’t you overlooked something here? I won’t get to set reading guidelines for anyone who buys my book after it is published. What’s wrong with just letting my first readers pretend to be those book-buyers, so I can work with their completely spontaneous reactions?”

Pretty smart question, ethereal questioners, and one that richly deserves an answer — in fact, an answer with many parts.

In the first place, buyers in bookstores will not know you personally, unless you are one of that intrepid breed of author who stops every soul who passes within a ten-foot radius to pitch her newly-released book. (Yes, they do exist, and it’s a wonder to behold.) Therefore, your target audience members’ reactions, unless they happen to meet you at a book signing or write reader reviews on Amazon or someplace similar, will forever remain a mystery to you.

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

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

Second, a non-professional first reader is, as I have been pointing out, doing the writer a great big favor. (As opposed to professional readers, who tend to be paid to give feedback on manuscripts.) Good first readers are charming, generous people who deserve every piece of assistance a writer can give them.

So it is only fair to let them know in advance what kind of critique you are hoping to see, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

Why so much more? Because it requires not only taking one’s own writing seriously enough to demand useful feedback, but putting one’s wee foot down and insisting that other people do so as well.

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

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

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

Think about that one for a while. I’ll wait.

For the reader who is not also a writer, the obligation not only to point out problems but to suggest viable solutions can be completely overwhelming. Giving a list of thoughtful, specific questions for a first reader to keep in mind will decrease everyone’s stress levels — and you, as the author, probably already have some idea of where the book’s strengths and weaknesses lie. Pointing the reader toward them in advance will make it okay for her to comment upon these parts, rather than politely avoiding any discussion of them.

Yes, it happens. Often.

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I know, I sound like your mother (are you sitting up straight?), but honestly, this is a situation where courtesy really pays off in both the long and short terms. Here is a wonderful person who has — for reasons of friendship, bribery, or idle curiosity — agreed to devote many, many hours of her time to giving your manuscript a good, hard reading.

She has let you blandish her into that most difficult and dangerous of tasks, telling the truth to a friend. And if that’s not an occasion for sending some flowers, I should like to know what is.

Not only to be polite, but to be instrumental: if this first reader turns out to be a great feedback-giver, won’t you want to use her for your next book, too?

I honestly will wrap up this series tomorrow; turns out I had more to say on the subject of stressed-out feedback-givers than I had thought. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

A few words on feedback, part IX: this above all things, to thy own self be true, or, would it kill you to ask for what you want?


For those of you joining us late in this series, I’ve been talking recently how to get the most from non-professional feedback — which, let’s face it, is the vast majority of the substantive feedback aspiring writers get these days. While there are undoubtedly some agents and certainly many editors who give good editorial feedback to writers AFTER those contracts are signed, the agent or editor who gives concrete feedback to a rejected manuscript is rapidly growing as extinct as a bespectacled dodo speaking Latin and writing in cuneiform on the walls of a pyramid.

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

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

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

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

But how on earth is a writer to know what needs to be changed before a book looks yummy to the folks in the industry?

You could, of course, always pay a freelance editor to run through your work with a fine-toothed hacksaw, but most aspiring writers are reluctant to shell out the dosh for this service. After all, pretty much everyone who has had the self-discipline to write an entire book did so while living on the hope of other people paying to read it; to most writers, the prospect of paying a reader to struggle through their prose is pretty distasteful.

Come on, ‘fess up.

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

This sounds very noble, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop sniggering. This isn’t as uncommon as you might think; freelance editors see it all the time. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to want.

As desires go, it’s a pretty harmless one — unless the writer is not up front about it. Why? Well, if the writer was seeking praise, and the reader thought he was looking for constructive criticism, both parties will end up unhappy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember, the feedback is for YOU, not for anyone else. Customize your request as much as possible. And if you are feeling insecure, it is completely okay to say:

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

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

“Don’t worry about proofreading, Sis,” you can say. “I have other readers who can give me technical feedback. Just enjoy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a radical idea: use your first readers as a means of learning how you do and do not like to hear feedback, not merely as a device to elicit feedback applicable to the book in question.

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

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

Next time, I shall wrap up this little series on getting good feedback with a bit more discussion of how to ask for what you want. In the meantime, it’s a brand-new year: why not celebrate by backing up your writing onto a Greatest Hits of 2007 disk? Or at least back it up to your iPod?

Oh, and keep up the good work!

(PS: the photograph above — it’s an overloaded bookshelf, in case I got carried away in playing with it — appears courtesy of the fine folks at

A few words on feedback, part VIII: the coffee date you absolutely must keep


Last time, I stirred up some lovely discussion by taking an in-depth gander at one of the most perplexing of social situations in which a writer may find herself, the friend who asks to read a manuscript — then keeps it forever and a day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First off, remember that unless she’s a member of your writing group or you’re paying her to do it, Gladys is under no obligation to help you and your book. Treating it like a favor from the get-go can go a long way toward minimizing problems down the line.

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

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

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

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

Also, what level of read are you seeking? Should Gladys go over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb (a real bore, for most readers, FYI), or just ignore spelling errors?

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

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

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

You choose, but try not to make it much less or much more. That’s long enough for a spare-time reader to get through pretty much any manuscript under 500 pages without pulling any all-nighters, so you need not feel as though you are proposing a pop quiz, but not so long that Gladys will simply set it aside and forget it.

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

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

Before you roll your eyes at that last part, hands up, everyone who has ever had to revise on a tight deadline. Were YOU completely reasonable, or even marginally sane, two days before your deadline? I rest my case.

If you are working on a tight deadline — say, having to revise an entire novel within the next three weeks, as I had to do around this time last year; that’s not an unheard-of deadline for an agented writer, by the way — it’s just not fair to expect a non-professional to speed-read your manuscript quickly enough for you to be able to use the feedback. (Actually, most freelance editors would charge quite a bit extra for a turn-around time this short.) If you can cajole your writing friends into doing it within such a short timeframe, regard it as a great favor, of the let-me-send-you-flowers variety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A week before the deadline, call or e-mail, to ask how the reading is going. This will give Gladys yet another opportunity to back out, if she is feeling swamped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few words on feedback, or, a proposition to which you should NOT say yes on New Year’s Eve

I’m posting late today, I’m afraid — the news about Benazir Bhutto, while not exactly a surprise, left me very much saddened. I have been following her career since I was in college; we share an alma mater, and my work-study job involved maintaining files on the doings of alumnae. (Yes, in the 1980s, Harvard did not house the men’s and women’s files together, nor did male and female undergraduates receive the same diploma. You’ve come a long way, baby!) Her story was so interesting that I kept an eye out for her even after it was no longer my job to do so. The world is less fascinating without her in it.

Back to business. I may be jumping the gun on the parade of virtue that prevails in early January, that period when folks are still adhering to their New Year’s resolutions, but as many writers have a day or two of vacation right around now, I thought this might be a good time to start talking about the revision process — and its ever-helpful first cousin, useful feedback.

To clarify the timing: we DO all know better than to send off our queries and submissions during the first three weeks of any given new year, right? Half the writers in the English-speaking world bravely embrace SIOA (Send It Out, Already!) as their New Year’s resolution.

The result: Millicent and everyone at her agency is swimming in exponentially more paper at that time of year than at any other — and in the U.S., agencies are required to get tax statements about the previous year’s sales to their clients by the end of January. The combination of stressors tends to make ‘em a mite grumpy — and, believe it or not, even more eager than usual to reject.

So in case I’m being a bit too subtle here: if you can’t t get requested materials out the door this week, hold off until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Trust me on this one. The average New Year’s resolution lasts a touch under three weeks (one of the many reasons that I deplore them), so the influx of paper calms down pretty quickly. You can afford to wait until it does.

And while we’re re waiting: it’s revision time! Hooray!

I heard that giant collective guffaw from my long-term readers. “When,” you are asking yourselves, “does Anne think it ISN’T a good time to revise a manuscript? Or, at the very least, to scan it for common mistakes and deviations from standard format?”

Okay, you’ve got me there. I have been preaching that particular gospel quite a bit this month, and with good reason: it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto.

Or at least before you send it out in a few weeks, after all of those resolvers have gotten it out of their systems. Because you, clever homework-doer that you are, know that there is more to landing an agent than making a single push: success comes to those who keep trying again and again.

And since agency screeners tend to stop reading after just a couple of spelling or grammatical errors, giving a book an honest shot at getting picked up means taking the time to create clean copy. This is not a business where good enough is in fact good enough; technical perfection is expected.

Sound like familiar advice? It should; both of the successfully self-published authors in my recent interview series said precisely the same thing — it’s worth your time to rework the manuscript until it fairly shines. Which just goes to show you that the standards of excellence prevailing in the world of traditional publishing may not be as far from those of the self-published world as one may have heard.

Either way, the author is generally held responsible for mistakes, so you’ll want to minimize them.

Because technical perfection is so important, I implore you, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker as your only source of proofreading. As any professional editor will tell you, they tend to be rife with technical errors — mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re — and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept caseless when you mean ceaseless.

Spell check, by all means, but there is no substitute for the good ol’ human eye running down a PRINTED page of text for catching errors.

Why not proof on your computer monitor? Because, as those editors to whom I referred above will happily tell you, the screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain quite a bit of dialogue). It’s just too easy for the eyes and the brain to blur momentarily in the editing process, sliding past an error unseen.

Yes, even if you have a simply immense computer screen — this is an instance where size truly doesn’t matter. (And the masses rejoice!)

Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it. But I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit, both for my work and for my clients’. As my downstairs neighbor would, I’m sure, be overjoyed to tell you, if a deadline is close, I’m going to be sitting in my library, reading the relevant manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, out loud.

I’m funny that way.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at it. At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, it is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. (Or the press, if you are intending to self-publish.)

Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits. Most notably, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in our old pal Millicent the screener’s choking on her coffee and reaching for the form rejection letter.

Like, for instance, misspelling your own name or address on the title page — which happens more than you might think. Hey, people are in a hurry.

Other than the simple fact that other eyes are more likely to catch mistakes than you are the 147th time you read a text, there is another reason that you should run your work by another human being before you submit them. I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM.

The result, of course, is that the agent’s feedback is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

And, as those of you who have submitted to an agency lately know first-hand, that feedback is usually either minimal or non-existent. Or so generic that it could apply to any manuscript Millicent saw — remember, just because a rejection letter or e-mail is personalized with your name doesn’t necessarily mean that it was written freshly in response to reading your book. Stock phrases like I just didn’t fall in love with it, this is a tough market for fiction, and it doesn’t meet our needs at this time have graced rejection letters for many years; they are not intended as meaningful feedback, but as a polite negative.

It does not, in short, tend to be feedback that’s likely to help a writer improve his work before the next round of submissions. Your writing deserves feedback with content you can use.

Now, there are a lot of places you can receive such feedback. You can ask a professional freelance editor, as I described a few weeks ago; you can join a critique group; you can exchange with another writer. No one method is right for everybody, so you may need to experiment a little before figuring out how you most like to receive feedback.

But remember just before Christmas, when I was preparing you for that inevitable moment when some well-meaning co-celebrant leans over to ask, “So, dear, how’s your writing coming? Published anything yet?” No matter how sincerely this person asks to read your work, no matter how flattering her request may be, no matter how much she swears that she would love nothing better than to read it and tell you what she thinks — if this person is a close friend, lover, would-be or ex lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member,


Long-term readers, chant it along with me now: the input of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover(s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs. No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

Far be it from me to suggest that anyone who cares about you might be sweet and generous enough to lie to spare your feelings, but frankly, it happens. Be grateful that you have such supportive folks in your life. Cherish them; appreciate them; cling to them with the tenacity of an unusually insecure leech.


Get other first readers for your manuscripts, because a first reader who does not have the objectivity — or, often, the reading experience in your genre — to tell you the truth about your manuscript is simply not useful for a writer.

The closer the tie, the lower the objectivity — and no, smart people who read a lot are not exempt from this rule. Even if your father runs a major publishing house for a living, your sister is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback.

Why? Because they like you.

Don’t fault them for that. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself — or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns. So when your Aunt Ermintrude says she would just LOVE your manuscript (and trust me, at some point, she will; everyone likes the idea of getting a free advance peek at the next big bestseller), I give you my full permission to use me as your excuse for saying no.

Do it politely, of course, as if you were acting upon medical orders. “I’m sorry, but I’ve been advised by Dr. Mini that until I find an agent, I need to limit myself to objective readers,” or “I would love to, Aunt Ermintrude, but I have a writing group for feedback — what I need you for is support!” tends to go over MUCH better than “What, are you just trying to get out of buying a copy of the book?”

No one likes getting called on that. And, let’s face it, when you do have a book coming out, you DO want your Aunt Ermintrude to buy it — and to talk all of her friends into buying it.

If you think that professional writers don’t cadge on their relatives this way, think again; most of the pros I know keep mailing lists of everyone who has ever cut their hair, cleaned their teeth, listened to their son’s book reports, etc., to send a postcard the instant a new book of theirs comes out.

And for those of you who already have agents: break yourself of the habit NOW of promising free copies of your future books to your kith and kin. Since authors now receive so few copies — and are often expected to use those for promotion — it’s really, really common for the writer to end up having to BUY those promised freebies to distribute.

Yes, you read that correctly. Now picture everyone who has ever said to you, “Oh, you’ll have to send me a copy when it comes out.” It can be costly.

Promise to sign it for them instead. Get Aunt Ermintrude — and everyone else who loves you — used to the idea that supporting you means being willing to shell out hard cash for your book.


So on New Year’s Eve, should you find yourself wrapped in the arms of some charming, well-meaning soul who whispers those words that make the average aspiring writer melt like butter, I’d LOVE to read your book,” you will know what to say, right?

Right? Stop fantasizing about meeting a gorgeous stranger who wants to read your book and concentrate. Trust me, it will be better for both your book and your relationships with your loved ones if you thank him/her/them profusely — and say no.

Ditto with loved ones of every description. My mother is one of the best editors I’ve ever met, and naturally, she is eager to read my work, but we have both been in this business long enough to know that giving birth to a writer pretty much automatically disqualifies a reader from being particularly objective about that writer’s work.

I can feel that some of you still aren’t convinced. Perhaps you have kith and kin who just adore giving their unvarnished opinions to you, ostensibly for your own good. “Is it really worth worrying,” I hear voices out there saying, “that the cousin who told me I looked stupid in my prom dress will be afraid to tell me that Chapter Three doesn’t work? Since Grams has no problem telling me that she hates my husband, why should she hesitate to rip my novel to shreds, if it needs it?”

This is the other primary reason not to ask your loved ones for feedback, even if they are noted for their blithe indifference to any pain their truth-telling might cause to others: if you care about the advice-giver, it’s hard NOT to be emotionally involved in the response.

Ponder that for a moment, and you’ll see that it is true. If your favorite brother critiques your book, rightly or wrongly, it’s probably going to hurt more than if a member of your writing group gives precisely the same advice. And by the same token, the emotional baggage of the relationship, even if it is neatly packed and generally non-obtrusive, may make it harder to hear the advice qua advice.

Also — and I hesitate to bring this up, because, again, I’m sure your kith and kin are marvelous human beings — but all too often, critique by loved ones often runs in the other direction, particularly if you happen to be loved by the type the psychologists used to call passive-aggressive.

Seriously, I have had many, many editing clients come to me in tears because their significant others have pounced on the first typo of the manuscript as evidence that the writer should never have put pen to paper at all. Long-repressed sibling rivalries often jump for joy when they see a nice, juicy manuscript to sink their teeth into, and are you quite sure that your best friend ever forgave you for the time that your 4th-grade soccer team beat hers?

What you need is feedback on your BOOK, not on your relationships. Or, at least, that’s what you need in order to improve your book. (The state of your relationships is, of course, up to you.)

Which is why (hold your ears, because I’m about to start shouting again) YOU SHOULD NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

Often, too, when you are dealing with people unused to giving feedback, being overly-judgmental is not even a reflection of their opinions of your book: in many cases, being vicious is what people think giving feedback means. (And if you doubt this, take a gander at the first efforts of most movie reviewers — or, heck, if you happen to live in the Seattle metro region, at the majority of film reviews in the local free paper THE STRANGER, where most of the contributing writers evidently believe that the title of critic means that they should never, under any circumstances, say anything positive about a movie that might, say, induce a reader to go and see it. Given their editorial philosophy, I’m surprised to see any starred reviews at all in that paper.)

I’m not saying not to show your work to your kith and kin — if it makes you happy, do. But even if your Aunt Mary won a Pulitzer in criticism last year, you probably should not rely solely upon her critique of your manuscript.

Yes, I know: finding good first readers is a whole lot of work, especially if you live in a small town. But, at the risk of wearing out the record, if you are going to be called on a mistake, it is FAR better to be a little embarrassed by a good first reader than rejected by a hyper-critical agent, editor, or contest judge.

That way, you can fix the mistakes when the stakes are low — and, frankly, you are far more likely to get usable feedback. If you are one of the many too shy or too busy to show your work to others, yet are willing to send it out to be evaluated by grumpy literary assistants hyped up on seven lattes before lunch, consider carefully whether you really want your first reader to be someone who does not have either the time or the inclination to give you tangible feedback.

Because, really, will We’re sorry, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time tell you whether that orgy scene in Chapter 8 is the problem, or if it’s your constant use of the phrase “Wha-?” in dialogue?

Trust me, you need first readers who will tell you PRECISELY that.

Next time, I shall talk about strategies for getting the kind of good, solid feedback you need without treating your first readers like mere service-providers. (Hey, if you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends.)

Until then, keep up the good work!

See for yourself, part VI: but wait, there’s more!

I was all set to clamber onto my moral high horse again and dispense more of yesterday’s philosophy, honest — but then sharp-eyed long-time reader Janet caught, as is her wont, the missing puzzle piece in my illustrated romp through standard format. So I’m sliding elevated ethical questions to the back burner for the nonce and diving right back into practicalities.

As Janet so rightly pointed out, I completely skipped over one of the more common first-page-of-chapter controversies (and yes, in my world, there are many from which to choose), whether to place the title and/or chapter designation at the top of the page, or just above the text.

To place the options before you, should the first page of a chapter look like this:


Or like this?


Now, I had been under the impression that I had waxed long and eloquent about the side I took in this burning debate, and that quite recently, but apparently, my eloquence has been confined to posts more than a year old, exchanges in the comments (which are not, alas, searchable, but still very worth reading), and my own fevered brain.

So let me clear up my position on the matter: the first version is in standard format; the second is not. No way, no how. And why do they prefer the first?

Chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT TO THEM.

Yet, if anything, agents and contest judges see more examples of version #2 than #1. Many, many more.

Admittedly, anyone who screens manuscripts is likely to notice that a much higher percentage of them are incorrectly formatted than presented properly, this particular formatting oddity often appears in otherwise perfectly presented manuscripts.

And that fact sets Millicent the agency screener’s little head in a spin. As, I must admit, it does mine and virtually every other professional reader’s. Because at least in my case — and I don’t THINK I’m revealing a trade secret here — I have literally never seen an agent submit a manuscript to a publishing house with format #2. And I have literally never even heard of an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry’s asking for a chapter heading to be moved from the top of the page to just above the text.

Oh, I’ve heard some pretty strange requests from agents and editors in my time, believe me; I’m not easily shocked anymore. But to hear a pro insist upon placing the chapter heading where you have to skip down a third of a page to read it…well, that would have me reaching for my smelling salts. (Do they even make those anymore?)

But clearly, somebody out there is preaching otherwise, because agents, editors, and contest judges are simply inundated with examples of this formatting anomaly. We see bushels of ’em. Hordes of aspiring writers are apparently absolutely convinced that the sky will fall in if that chapter heading is located anywhere but immediately above the text.

In fact, it’s not all that uncommon for an editor to find that after she has left a couple of subtle hints that the writer should change the formatting…


…the subsequent drafts remain unchanged. The writer will have simply ignored the advice.

(Off the record: editors HATE that. So do agents. Contest judges probably wouldn’t be all that fond of it, either, but blind submissions mean that a writer must submit the same chapter two years running to the same contest, have the entry land in the same judge’s pile — in itself rather rare — AND the judge would have to remember having given that feedback.)

This may seem like a rather silly controversy — after all, why should it matter if the white space is above or below the title? — but sheer repetition and writerly tenacity in clinging to version #2 have turned it from a difference of opinion into a vitriol-stained professional reader pet peeve. (See earlier comment about how we tend to react to our advice being ignored; it isn’t pretty.)

Which, unfortunately, tends to mean that in discussions of the issue at conferences degenerate into writing-teacher-says-X, editor-at-Random-House-says-Y: lots of passion demonstrated, but very little rationale beyond each side’s insisting that the other’s way just looks wrong.

However, there is a pretty good reason that moving the chapter heading information to just above the text looks wrong to someone who edits book manuscripts for a living: it’s a formatting tidbit borrowed from short stories, whose first pages look quite different:


There, as you may see for yourself, is a mighty fine reason to list the title just above the text: a heck of a lot of information has to come first. But that would not be proper in a book-length manuscript, would it? Let’s see what Noêl’s editor has to say, viewing this as the first page of a book:


Ouch. (That last bit would have been funnier if the entire page were readable, by the way, but my camera batteries were running low.) But as Millicent and that angry mob of pitchfork-wielding ignored editors would be only too happy to tell you, short stories don’t HAVE chapters, so who on earth are they to be telling those of us in the book world how to format our manuscripts?

Stick with version #1.

While I’ve got the camera all warmed up, this would probably be a good time to show another ubiquitous agent and editor pet peeve, the bound manuscript. As with other ploys to make a manuscript appear identical to a published book, binding the loose pages of a manuscript for submission will NOT win you friends in the publishing world.

Why? Not only does this not look right (I spared you the chanting this time), but it seems so wrong that Millicent will be positively flabbergasted to see a submitter to do it.

Seriously, this is one of those things that is so engrained in the professional reader’s mind that it seldom even occurs to authors, agents, or editors to mention it as a no-no at writers’ conferences. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it once within the last six months — and by anyone’s standards, I’m unusually communicative about how manuscripts should be presented.

So pay attention, because you’re not going to hear this very often: by definition, manuscripts should NEVER be bound in any way.

Not staples, not spiral binding, not perfect binding. There’s an exceedingly simple reason for this: binding renders it impossible (or at least a major pain in the fingertips) to pull out a chapter, stuff it in one’s bag, and read it on the subway.

Hey, paper is heavy. Would YOU want to lug home ten manuscripts every night on the off chance you’ll read them?

In practice, I’m sorry to report, a bound manuscript will seldom survive long enough in the screening process for the chapter-separation dilemma to arise, because — and it pains me to be the one to break this to those of you who’ve been submitting bound manuscripts, but if I don’t tell you, who will? — those pretty covers tend never to be opened.

Remember that immense pile of submissions Millicent has to screen before going home for the day — and it’s already 6:30? Well, when she slits open an envelope that reads REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside, she fully expects to see something like this lurking between the cover letter and the SASE tucked underneath:


But in the case of the bound manuscript, she instead sees something like this:


Kind of hard to miss the difference, isn’t it? And unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the next sound a bystander would hear would be all of that nice, expensive binding grating against the inside of the SASE.

Honestly, it’s not that she is too lazy to flip open the cover; she just doesn’t see why she should. Her logic may not be fair or open-minded, but it’s a fairly common argument throughout the industry: if this submitter does not know this very basic rule of manuscripts, how likely is she to know the rules of standard format? And if she does not know either, how likely is she to be producing polished prose?

Yes, this logic often does not hold water when it comes down to an individual case. But from her perspective, that matters less than we writers would like — because, as unpleasant as it is for aspiring writers to realize, her agency is going to see enough technically perfect submissions this week to afford to be able to leap to unwarranted conclusions about this one.

Don’t waste your money on binding.

Now that I have depressed you all into a stupor, let me add a final note about learning to conform to these seemingly arbitrary preconditions for getting your book read: any game has rules. If you saw a batter smack a baseball, then dash for third base instead of first on his way around the diamond, would you expect his home run to count? Would an archer who hit the bulls-eye in her neighbor’s target instead of her own win the grand prize? If you refused to pay the rent on Park Place because you didn’t like the color on the board, would you win the Monopoly game?

I can go on like this for days, you know.

My point is, submitting art to the marketplace has rules, too, and while your fourth-grade P.E. teacher probably did not impart them to you (as, if I ran the universe, s/he would have), you’re still going to be a whole lot better at playing the game if you embrace those rules, rather than fight them.

You’ll also, in the long run, enjoy playing the game more.

And remember, you’re playing this game by choice: you could, after all, make your own rules and publish your book yourself. Weigh the possibilities, and keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: there’s a reason that it’s called line editing

Sorry about the skipped day of posting, everybody: yesterday just seemed to slip away from me somehow, probably because I was in the throes of Deep Thought. This summer has been an unusually intense one for me, teaching fewer classes, but editing more; doing less original writing, but selling one NF book and making the last tweaks on a novel to head out the door just after Labor Day. So it’s safe to say that I’ve spent the last few months buried up to my neck in the sand of publishing industry expectations.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most graceful image.

But it does give an accurate sense of how the prevailing norms both surround and constrain a writer. Or an editor, for that matter: a freelancer like me is at the double disadvantage of enforcing the prevailing rules without being able to reward good book with a publishing contract.

I was thinking about this yesterday, and I realized with a jolt that even though we are approaching the end of the Summer of Marketing (to be followed, I devoutly hope, by the Autumn of Craft), I have not yet written about one of the single most important truths a submitter needs to know about the industry. It is this:

Agents and editors do not read like other people.

Do I hear some guffawing out there? “Come on, Anne,” I hear the odd skeptic calling from the gallery, “give us a little credit for paying attention. Of course, they don’t read like other people, or at any rate don’t read submissions that way: while the rest of us read for pleasure, they read for business. Whether they pick up a book or not is not merely a matter of whether they LIKE it, but whether they think they can SELL it.”

My, but the skeptics are articulate today, aren’t they?

And smart: all of this is indeed true. However, there is another immense difference between the way professional readers and other book-lovers scan a manuscript. When your garden-variety reader picks up a book, she will generally read a few pages, a chapter, or even the entire book before making up her mind about it, right? Even if she doesn’t like one of the characters, or finds an aspect of the premise improbable, she will usually give the book a chance to change her mind.

Professional readers, on the other hand — and that includes not just editors like me, but agents, their screeners, and pretty much everyone in a position to say yea or nay on acquiring a manuscript for publication — read a manuscript line by line, especially at first. Then page by page.

And if something in one of those lines, or on one of those pages strikes them as off, they will stop.

Now, when an editor stops reading a manuscript she’s already acquired, it’s generally to write suggestions on the manuscript page; when an agent is perusing an already-signed client’s work, that tends to be the case, too.

But in a submission, it’s not the agent or editor’s goal to improve the manuscript: it’s to decide whether they want to take it on.

Which is precisely why the VAST majority of submissions are not read beyond the first page.

If this is news to you — in my bones, I felt a number of you clutching your hearts immediately after I typed that — I implore you to set aside a couple of hours before the next time you submit to read through the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right.

It may be a trifle depressing to see just how many ways a first page can garner rejection, but winnowing out the factors that tend to provoke a knee-jerk reaction in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, will improve your submission’s chances of getting past her to the agent of your dreams markedly.

The fact is, agency screeners and editorial assistants are generally told to stop reading as soon as a red flag flutters its nasty little head.

Even if Millicent does not begin her career in submission-reading thinking this was a good plan, after she’s spent a few months, or even weeks, going through fifty submissions at a pop, she’s quickly going to realize that this policy is not about hating literature or making it as hard as possible to pass the Rubicon of landing an agent: it’s about time management.

Which means, as I have been saying for a couple of years now, that yes, presentation counts. It means that it is not only possible that some very small problem will knock a submission out of consideration, but that it is the norm.

Thus the difference in how they read and how we do: they are looking for a reason to stop reading; we are living in hope that the author will wow us.

I think it would save a great deal of chagrin if this simple dichotomy were more widely known. But the opposite seems to be true: the vast majority of aspiring writers believe, bless their optimistic hearts, that agents and editors will read with a kindly eye, one that can see errors in presentation and execution understandable in someone new to the biz to the talent that lies underneath.

You know, the way the members of a good critique group do, pointing out the problems, yes, but responding to the essential story and craft.

Most writers believe, in short, that when an agent asks to see the first chapter or the first 50 pages, someone at the agency will read the entire thing; if the agent asked to see the entire book, he will read it end to end in a single sitting. Then, and only then, will the agent decide whether to give the author a chance or not.

Believe me, my friends, if I ran the universe, the industry would work this way. Every submission would receive a full, thoughtful consideration before any decision was made. Armies of literature-loving cherubim would be employed around the clock to write encouraging, helpful analyses of each manuscript, to explain precisely why it did not, in the parlance of the industry, meet their needs at this time. Rejected submitters would be urged to work on specific craft issues, clearly explained in the feedback, and resubmit at a later date.

And flower gardens would spring up spontaneously amongst urban sprawl, every child in the world would have adequate health care and a good reading light installed over her wee bed, and dear little birds would come and perch on my finger while I drew water from the well to prepare the Seven Dwarves’ dinners.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I do not run the universe.

99% of the time, rejected writers never find out just why Millicent bounced their manuscripts. But I’ll bet you a nickel that no matter what aroused her ire, she did not read even a sentence beyond it.

I mention all this not to depress you into a stupor, my friends, but to empower you: most of the time, a rejection is not based upon an entire manuscript, but a fraction of it. Which means, contrary to popular belief, that Millicent is not passing judgment on the entire book when she tucks that form letter into a SASE.

Logically, she can only have rejected only the fraction of it that she read. So does it make sense to revise the entire manuscript in the wake of such a rejection — or to go back, sit down, and figure out where she probably stopped reading?

Yup. That’s a LOT less work for you. When you start getting rejection letters that give substantive feedback, where the agent or editor has taken the time to explain why he is passing, THEN you can be sure that someone in the industry is basing his opinion upon a close reading of your entire work.

When that happens, you should be very pleased: it means that your manuscript is so clean, so free of logical leaps and narrative problems, so interesting that even a time-pressed professional reader, someone whose entire career has trained him to respond on a line level to writing, couldn’t find a reason to stop reading.

And that, my friends, is why detailed, personalized sorry-it’s-not-for-us letters are known in the biz as rave rejections. If the rejecter didn’t like the book quite a bit, he wouldn’t have read that far.

Allow these home truths to settle in the backs of your minds, awaiting the next time you receive a request for pages. Then, when you sit down with — long-time readers, chant it with me now — a hard copy of your manuscript and read it out loud, in order to catch any potential problems, you can try to read like a professional reader: when you encounter a problem, you will stop reading and fix it before moving on.

I actually will launch into my promised discussion of query letters tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The plague of passivity III: oh, what am I to DO?

Toward the end of my last post, I snuck in an aside about how writers often use passivity as a means of increasing their protagonists’ perceived likeability. Likeability tends to be a sore point amongst fiction writers, especially for those of us who write about female protagonists: when we include characters in our work whose political views are a bit challenging, for instance, or have sexual kinks beyond what the mainstream media currently considers normal, or even pursue their goals too straightforwardly, we are often told that our characters are not likeable enough.

Translation: according to New Yorkers, this chick might not play in Peoria.

Frankly, I think the industry tends to underestimate Peorians, but the fact remains, it actually isn’t all that unusual for an agent or editor to ask a writer to tone down a particular character’s quirks. Usually, these requests refer to secondary characters (as in, “Does Tony’s sister really have to be a lesbian?” or “Could the Nazi brother be just a little bit right-wing instead?”) or to specific scenes (“Need she tie Bob down?”).

Occasionally, though, the request is not quite so helpfully phrased: “I didn’t like the protagonist,” an editor will say. “If you fix her, maybe I’ll pick up the book.”

(Did I just hear some jaws hitting the floor? Yes, Virginia, it has become quite common for editors to ask for major revisions PRIOR to making an offer on a novel. Sometimes several rounds of revisions, even, so the writer is essentially performing rewrites on command for free. THAT’s how tight the fiction market is right now; ten years ago, most good agents would have laughed at such a request before a contract was signed.)

Much of the time, the author responds to such requests by making the character MORE passive — a bad move. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s a common writerly mistake to believe that a passive protagonist is automatically a likeable one.

It’s understandable, of course: Passive Paul’s a courteous fellow, typically, always eager to step aside and let somebody else take the lead. Almost all of his turmoil is in his head; he tends to be rather polite verbally, reserving his most pointed barbs for internal monologue.

Why, his boss/friend/wife/arch enemy can taunt him for half the book before he makes a peep — and then, it’s often indirect: he’ll vent at somebody else. His dog, maybe, or a passing motorist.

Romantically, Paul’s a very slow mover, too; he’s the grown-up version of that boy in your fifth-grade class who had a crush upon you that he had no language to express, so he yanked on your pigtails. He’s been known to yearn at the love of his life for two-thirds of a book without saying word one to her. Perhaps, his subconscious figures, she will spontaneously decide she likes me with no effort on my part — and astonishingly, half the time, his subconscious ends up being right about this!

Our Paul most emphatically did not cause the central problems of the plot — far from it. He’s usually the guy who tries to get everyone to calm down. Passive Paul has taken to heart Ben Franklin’s much-beloved maxim, “He in quarrels interpose/must often wipe a bloody nose.” He just doesn’t want to get INVOLVED, you know?

Oh, he SAYS he does, and certainly THINKS he does, but deep down, he’s a voyeur. All he really wants is for the bad things happening to him to be happening to somebody else four feet away. As a result, he watches conflict between other characters without intervening, as if they were on TV.

Yes, plenty of people feel that way in real life, especially Ordinary Joes who are unwittingly drawn into Conspiracies Beyond their Ken. We all have our moments of adolescent yearning when we long to have the entire universe rearrange itself around us, in order to get us what we want.

But as appealing and universal as that fantasy may be, it is very hard to turn into an exciting plot. What tends to end up on the page is a great deal of what we here on the West Coast call processing: lengthy examination of self, loved ones, and/or the situation in order to wring every last drop of psychological import from one’s life.

What does this look like on the page, you ask? Paul encounters a thorny problem. (Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.) So he dons his proverbial thinking cap…

…and two pages later, he’s still running through the possibilities, which are often very interesting. Interesting enough, in fact, that they would have made perfectly dandy scenes, had the author chosen to present them as live-action scenes that actually occurred. Instead, they are summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown.

Did that set off warning bells for anyone but me?

Yes, there are plenty of good books where the protagonists sit around and think about things for chapters at a time. But before you start quoting 19th-century novelists who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this: how many novels of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years? Written by first-time novelists?

Okay, how about ones NOT first published in the British Isles?

Come up with many? If you did, could you pass their agents’ names along to the rest of us with all possible speed?

Because, honestly, in the current very tight fiction market, there aren’t many North American agents who express this preference — and still fewer who act upon it in establishing their client lists. They see beautiful writing about inert characters more than you might think.

(Especially if they represent literary fiction; unfortunately, there seems to be a sizable and actively writing portion of the literary community who proceeds on the assumption that literary fiction SHOULDN’T be about anything in particular. But literary fiction refers to the writing style, not the plotline: Cormac McCarthy’s hyper-literary current hit THE ROAD is a reworking of a premise long familiar to any SF/Fantasy reader, after all.)

Protagonists who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to thought-ridden passivity: life happens to them, and they react to it. Oh, how lucidly they resent the forces that act upon them, while they wait around for those forces to strike back at them again! How redolent of feeling do the juices in which they are stewing become!

This is fine for a scene or two, but remember, professional readers measure their waiting time in lines of text, not pages.

To say that they bore easily is like saying that you might get a touch chilly if you visited the North Pole without a coat: true, yes, but something of an understatement, and one that might get you hurt if you relied upon it too literally.

“But wait!” I hear some of you shouting. “Now I’m so paranoid about Passive Paul and his lethargic brethren and sistern that I’m terrified that my book will be rejected every time my protagonist pauses for breath! I’m no longer sure what’s being nice and what’s being passive!”

Never fear, my friends. When you are in doubt about a scene, ask yourself the following series of questions about it, to reveal whether your protagonist is taking an active enough role in, well, his own life. If you can honestly answer yes to all of them, chances are good that you don’t have a passivity problem on your hands.

(1) Is it clear why these events are happening to my protagonist, rather than to someone else? (Hint: “Because the book’s ABOUT Paul!” is not an insufficient answer, professionally speaking.)

(2) Does the scene reveal significant aspects of my protagonist’s character that have not yet been seen in the book?

(3) Is there conflict on every page of this scene? If yes, is my protagonist causing some of the conflict?

(4) Does the conflict arise organically? In other words, does it seem to be a natural outcropping of a person with my protagonist’s passions, skills, and background walking into this particular situation?

(5) Does this scene change the protagonist’s situation with respect to the plot? Is either the plot or an important interrelationship between the characters somehow different after the scene than before it? If not, is this scene absolutely necessary?

(6) Is my protagonist doing or saying something to try to affect the outcome or change the relationships here? Is the protagonist integrally involved in that change, or merely an observer of it?

(7) If the scene contains dialogue, is my protagonist an active conversational partner? (Hint: if Paul’s linguistic contributions consist of “What?” “What do you mean?” “How is that possible?” and/or “Really?” you should consider tossing out his lines and writing him some new ones.)

(8) If my protagonist is not saying much (or anything), does he care about what’s going on? If he doesn’t feel that the situation warrants intervention yet, are the stakes high enough for the reader to worry about the outcome of this conflict? If not, is this scene necessary to keep?

#8 may seem like a harsh assessment, but make no mistake about it, to the eye of someone who reads hundreds of submissions, a protagonist who observes conflict, rather than getting actively involved in it, seems as though he doesn’t care very much about what’s going on.

Or, to translate this into the language of the industry: if the protagonist isn’t passionate about what’s going on here, why should the reader be?

To be fair, this assumption may not have as much to do with your manuscript as with the last fifty manuscripts the screener read, half of which opened with slice-of-life vignettes that demonstrated conclusively that the protagonist was a really nice person who did everything she could to avoid conflict. After a couple of dozen of these, a rude and pushy Paul can start to seem rather refreshing.

Yes, these are a lot of questions to ask yourself about every questionable scene in the book — but kindly notice that I have considerately dumped this truckload of queries upon you immediately prior to a long holiday weekend, at least in the U.S. And if you don’t plan to implement them right away, there are always those sleepless summer nights ahead.

It’s a great alternative to counting sheep, after all: Passive Paul would never consider using his pondering time to such useful effect.

Keep up the good work!