How do two people write a novel together? by guest blogger Stanley Trollip

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Hello, readers –

Anne here, with a real treat for you today: a guest blog by Stanley Trollip, one-half of the writing team readers will soon know as Michael Stanley.

I’m always thrilled when a good author gives in to my blandishments to write a guest post: since the road from concept to publication is often long and arduous for even the best and most market-savvy of aspiring writers, it’s great to see one of us — or, in this case, two of us — make it at last!

And how! Their first novel, A Carrion Death, will be released in the US and UK this coming week, so I’m tickled the proverbial pink that Stan was willing to take time out of his hectic signing schedule to give us here in the Author! Author! community some tips on writing collaboratively, the revision process (appropriate timing, eh?), and the about-to-be-published life in general.

The book sounds like a hoot, incidentally. Here’s the low-down:

Smashed skull, snapped ribs, and a cloying smell of carrion. Leave the body for the hyenas to devour—no body, no case. But when Kalahari game rangers stumble on a human corpse mid-meal, it turns out the murder wasn’t perfect after all. Enough evidence is left to suggest foul play. Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department is assigned to the case. From the sun-baked riverbeds of the Kalahari to the highest offices of an international conglomerate, he follows a blood-soaked trail in search of answers. Beneath a mountain of lies and superstitions, he uncovers a chain of crimes leading to the most powerful figures in the country—influential enemies who will kill anyone in their way.

Sounds exciting, eh? Should any of you be planning to write query letters in the foreseeable future, THAT’s what a terrific, attention-grabbing summary paragraph looks like.

A Carrion Death is already available for pre-order on Amazon for US readers, Amazon for Canadian readers, and Amazon in the UK.

I mention all three, not just to make ordering easier, but also because the first Amazon is carrying editions with the left-hand book cover above, and the other two are offering versions with the cover on the right. Go figure.

Just between us, this book — whatever cover may happen to be on it — has been receiving some pretty stellar advance reviews. Seriously, Publishers Weekly doesn’t give starred reviews to just any book — this is the stuff of which writerly daydreams are made. Take a gander:

“The intricate plotting, a grisly sense of realism and numerous topical motifs …make this a compulsively readable novel.”
(Publishers Weekly, February 25th, 2008)

“[A] fast-moving story… Rich with the atmosphere of modern Botswana, and peopled with interesting and well-drawn characters, this is an exciting debut.” (Booklist, February 1, 2008)

“This well-plotted debut introduces a new mystery series and will enthrall readers.” (Library Journal, March 1, 2008)

“The police procedural story line is superb…” (Genre Go Round Reviews, February 9, 2008)

May we all be blessed with reviews that good!

For all of these reasons, I’m pretty psyched to welcome our guest blogger today. Take it away, Stan!

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It’s an exciting month for us. Our first mystery novel, A Carrion Death, introducing Detective Kubu will be launched by HarperCollins on the first of April in Minneapolis. Two days later, Headline releases it in the UK. The us is Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip:

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and we use the (rather obvious) pen name of Michael Stanley:

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I divide my time between Minneapolis and the coastal town of Knysna in South Africa, while Michael lives in Johannesburg. So this collaboration is long distance. Many people are surprised by a successful jointly written mystery story at all, let alone one where the authors are at least a thousand miles apart most of the time. Yet we’re told – even by people who know us well – that it is hard to attribute a piece of writing to one of us or the other, and that the flow is smooth and has no disturbing changes of style. So how did we do it?

Well, let me say up front that when we started, we knew little about writing fiction and, if we had understood all the predicted problems around writing collaboratively, we might not have embarked on this adventure! But on our travels, we’d been talking about a detective story set in the African bush for many years, and when Michael suddenly wrote a chapter rather out of the blue in the middle of 2003, it seemed like great fun.

And that’s how we approached the whole project: having fun together. We had no great expectation of the novel ever being published, and we wrote and rewrote it many times as we started to learn the ropes of working together and, more importantly, as we developed our writing and plotting skills.

It was a dreadfully inefficient process. We each wrote several chapters that the other didn’t like at all resulting in a lot of material being thrown away. The plot kept changing of our own volition, as well as the result of the invaluable input of professionals like our agent, Marly Rusoff, and our editors at HarperCollins and Headline. We were also very fortunate to get honest (and often painful) feedback from some of our reader friends. More changes! The book seemed to get too long, too fast, too slow.

I guess that most new novelists experience these types of problems. The wonderful thing about collaboration with someone you know and trust is that you have an immediate, interested and very critical reader for everything you write. Education theory is clear on the value of collaborative learning. Why should learning to write fiction be an exception? Both of us have experience with collaborative writing of non-fiction; both of us enjoyed it and were reasonably successful. So, again, why should fiction be an exception?

So let me try to answer the question of how we write together. Of course, collaborative work is going to depend on the partners, their styles, and interests. Still, there are a few ground rules which must be pretty universal:

• You have to leave your ego behind. You have to be willing to take immediate and possibly quite sharp criticism of your ideas, your characters and your writing. However, wouldn’t you prefer a partner provide such feedback, rather than an editor or a critic?

• You need to agree on the basic direction and structure of the plot. Of course, the characters will take over to some extent, but you need to know generally where you’re heading.

• You have to watch carefully that the characters behave consistently, whoever’s writing. The issue we had was that as we developed characters, their early appearances became less convincing. This must be a problem facing most authors writing a first novel.

I’ll describe how we went about writing our second Detective Kubu novel – The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu. It’s due for relese in 2009. By the time we started, we had rubbed off most of the rough edges that arose from our inexperience rather than from anything to do with our collaboration. A Carrion Death will see the light of day almost five years after we started writing it, Second Death will be closer to three. That is the benefit of experience.

Our major lesson was to structure the plot really carefully first. The synopsis we sent to our agent when we started the book is still close enough to describe the final version, although the details have changed quite considerably as the characters and texture developed. We spent sometimes frustrating weeks writing nothing and talking the plot through together.

Here it was important to be together and brainstorm, while always being ready to catch an inconsistency arising from the other person’s enthusiasm for his idea. Michael has a habit of killing off characters when we paint them into a corner; I try to resist this for humanitarian reasons if nothing else!

The writing we divide, each picking up pieces where we have ideas and mind pictures of how the scene will work. Obviously this means working on different chapters of the book at the same time. That’s not a problem as long as it’s agreed how the piece will fit with the overall structure. And the great thing is that as soon as the piece is written, there is someone excited and keen to read it immediately, albeit with a critical eye and ‘track changes’ generating washes of colored notes.

All of that needs to be discussed and worked through – from the basic approach to the exact wording – and so the piece goes through multiple drafts. Skype is a huge boon here; hours of discussion take place over each chapter – sometimes with Michael in South Africa and me in the USA. Email is a given; it would be unthinkable to do this by fax, let alone snail mail!

So it’s put together, we have a draft of a part and settle down to read it, seeing how it flows, how the characters work, whether the plot moves forward. Often we will each find different things needing improvement. We change and polish, and Skype runs hot.

At the end we look back and think about what fun we’ve had and how lucky we are that other people seem to share that. And we wonder why one would want to write fiction alone?

We are also often asked how we went about getting an agent. Did we have one lined up before we started writing? Did we submit our book without letting people know Michael Stanley was, in fact, two people? Or were we up-front about the dual authorship?

We began writing without any thought of agents. After all we were doing it for fun. And my research led me to believe that no agent would be interested in considering a partial manuscript from an unknown author. So it was only when we had a decent draft of the book that we started looking for an agent. And we did so with a clear plan in mind.

We devised our plan by putting ourselves in the position of an agent. Our mental picture was of an agent’s desk piled high with manuscripts – an overwhelming sight each morning. We hypothesized that the agent would then try to reduce the piles as quickly as possible by discarding any manuscript that had a ‘problem’. A generic query letter? Into the trash! A query letter that was too long or didn’t provide the specified information? Into the trash! A query line that didn’t grab attention? Into the trash! A typo? Into the trash! A dog-eared page? This manuscript had been sent to someone else before coming here! Into the trash!

And so on. Our philosophy was to give an agent no excuse for trashing our submission without reading it. We realise that our mental picture may be incorrect, but it forced us into paying meticulous attention to detail. Every query letter we sent out met every requirement or guideline of the agent. No exceptions.

We were also upfront about Michael Stanley being the pen name of two authors. We had nothing to hide and, if anything, people would be intrigued by fiction being written collaboratively. So our query letter started “We would like to bring to your attention our recently completed mystery novel, entitled A Carrion Death.”

For the most part we approached agents who accepted queries via email. We sent out about 40 queries in a couple of waves. About a third of the agents never bothered to respond. About a third were immediately not interested. And about a third wanted to read the first few chapters.

We ended up having two agents wanting to represent the book. We were so fortunate. We ended up choosing the wonderful Marly Rusoff as our agent. And she has done us proud with contracts with HarperCollins, JC Lattés in France, and Sonzogno in Italy. ref=”http://www.crime-files.co.uk/”>Headline in London bought the UK rights from HarperCollins.

Now the waiting begins. Will readers enjoy our tale? Will they want more? Or is our only reward going to be that Michael and I had so much fun writing together and are better friends now than when we started?

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/ms_bw_small.jpgMichael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, both South Africans by birth. Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business, Sears in South Africa and Trollip in the USA. Their love of watching the wildlife of the African subcontinent has taken them on a number of flying safaris to Botswana and Zimbabwe. A Carrion Death is their first novel.

/stanley-trollip-small.jpgSouth African-born Stanley Trollip lived in the United States from 1971 until his retirement in 2003. Now he divides his time between Minneapolis and Knysna, South Africa. As a professor he was interested in how computers can facilitate teaching and learning. He is also a pilot and has enjoyed many flying safaris through the countries of southern Africa.

/michael-sears-small.jpgMichael Sears was born in Johannesburg, and grew up in Cape Town and Nairobi, Kenya. He is a mathematician by training. At the end of 2007, he retired from the Anglo-American corporation where he managed a remote-sensing group. He has traveled widely in Southern and Central Africa, with Botswana always being a special favorite.

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: is that a dagger I see before me?

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Welcome back to Part II of my series of tips on how to accept feedback with a minimum of angst, mutually hurt feelings, and/or swordplay. Since we have a lot to cover today, let’s rush right into reviewing our tools so far for dealing with written manuscript critique:

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.

5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first — or only — reader of your manuscript.

Oh, look — here’s a corollary to #5:

6. Don’t expect your readers to drop everything to read your manuscript. Especially if they happen to work in or with the publishing industry.

To put it another way, just because an agent, editor, or friend expresses an interest in reading your book does NOT imply either that (a) s/he has nothing else to do but sit around until you cough up the manuscript OR (b) s/he is planning to drop everything else s/he currently has on her plate in order to read it from beginning to end the nanosecond it arrives in the mail.

But try explaining that to an aspiring writer who has just received such a request from a pro for the first time.

Because this is such a common set of misconceptions, those of us in the biz see them manifest in quite a variety of ways. Let’s see if we can’t unearth another examplar or two to show how:

Written feedback meltdown #4: Tatiana’s agent, Ulrich, pitched her novel, PAY ATTENTION TO ME NOW! to editor Vivienne in last November — and now, at the end of March, Vivienne still hasn’t yet vouchsafed an opinion on it.

Tatiana is going nuts with anticipation. She wants to be a good client, yet she can’t resist sending Ulrich e-mails every few days, asking if there’s been any word yet.

No? How about now? Or…now?

He answers every third tersely: “What makes you think that I would keep that kind of news from you?”

She knows that he has a point, of course. She tries to restrain her anxiety, but she’s a novelist, after all — she’s an inveterate situation-dissector. Her brain is hard-wired to make up motivations.

So on Monday, she attributes the delay to Vivienne’s difficulties in gathering an editorial committee so close to Easter; on Wednesday, she is depressed into a stupor because she’s convinced that Vivienne has passed on the book, and Ulrich just doesn’t know how to break the news to her; by Saturday, she’s frantically re-editing the manuscript, absolutely certain that Vivienne has spent the last three months unable to make it past the first page.

Long-time readers, would you care to guess where that’s manuscript actually been for most of the intervening period?

That’s right: under three other manuscripts-to-be-read on Vivienne’s coffee table, competing for her time and attention with the editor’s significant other, work, meetings, her sister’s impending wedding (not another puce bridesmaid’s dress!), desire to make it to the gym occasionally, desire to sleep occasionally, the ambient noise of New York, and any TV show she might happen to watch on a regular basis.

None of which have anything whatsoever to do with Tatiana or her book, of course.But in the throes of worried speculation, the author simply cannot see that. Maybe if she tweaks that dodgy section in Chapter 10 one more time, something good will happen.

This is what we literary types like to call magical thinking.

Those of us who know and love Tatiana send our best wishes her way, along with sincere hopes that Vivienne will get around to reading that manuscript before the author starts sleepwalking, muttering that all the perfumes of Arabia won’t sweeten that little hand of hers.

That’s right: Lady Macbeth went nuts because she was an aspiring writer waiting for professional feedback.

(Think about it — it’s not as though the play gives a really convincing alternate explanation for why she cracks at that particular moment. And if you think turn-around times are slow today, what must they have been in the 11th century, when rejection letters would have been traveling on horseback — or, for an editor really in a hurry, via the local witch’s broomstick? )

Not seeing the moral? (Other than DON’T MURDER YOUR DINNER GUESTS, that is.) Let’s try another.

Written feedback meltdown #5: after many months of querying, Xerxes is elated to receive a request from agent Yarrow to submit the first 50 pages of his memoir, AND THEY SAID I WAS WASHED UP IN 480 BC: RECOLLECTIONS OF A COMEBACK KID.

Like so many frustrated aspiring writers, he interprets this request as an implied command to throw work, sleep, relations with loved ones, flogging the slaves, and personal hygiene to the winds until those pages are safely in the hands of the fine folks at FedEx.

Hey, those slaves aren’t gonna flog themselves.

Do I see some of this blog’s long-time readers with their hands raised, jumping up and down to capture my attention? “Wait just a Babylon-invading minute!” I hear these sharp-eyed protesters roar. “Did Yarrow ASK him to overnight his submission? If not, didn’t Xerxes just waste a fair amount of money?”

Well caught, readers: take a hoplite or two out of petty cash.

(Okay, I’ll admit that the jokes in this post are starting to get just a tad esoteric. Trust me, readers of Thucydides would have found that last one a real thigh-slapper.)

You’re quite right, in any case: there is absolutely no reason to shell out the dosh for overnight shipping for a submission. But hey, this was the guy who had his troops beat up the Hellespont when his bridge across it collapsed during a storm.

A bridge made of flax and papyrus; our pal Xerxes isn’t exactly the king of reasonable.

Having sent off his pages with the greatest possible swiftness, Xerxes naturally takes a week off work to rotate nervously between checking his e-mail every ten minutes, pacing outside to examine the contents of his mailbox every half-hour, and picking up his telephone receiver to make sure there’s still a dial tone every time the second hand clicks.

Yet amazingly, Yarrow does not get back to him before he runs out of vacation days. (Being king of Persia carries fewer fringe benefits these days than in ancient times. Back then, he would have had time to take a vacation long enough to discover the New World twice, if he’d wanted.)

By the time she asks to see the rest of the manuscript a month later, Xerxes has become a mere shadow of his former self: listless with chronic lack of sleep, he’s even too tired to rends the papyrus of his next book into 50,000 pieces and feed it to the palace dogs himself; he has the army do it.

But when an agent asks to see pages, pages be sent, right? So he gulps down a few handfuls of vitamin capsules, puts his entire scribe brigade on round-the-clock inking duty, and is able to send out the entire work in record time.

Once again, the wait is long, at least as far as Xerxes is concerned. “Criminy,” he grumbles. “Conquering Babylon took less time. How is she reading it, three words per day and six on Sundays?”

His patience pays off, Baal be thanked: Yarrow asks to represent him!

After the agency contract is signed, Yarrow tells her new client that she has a few pages’ worth of small tweaks that she would like him to make in his manuscript. “Nothing major,” she assures him on the phone. “Shouldn’t take you long at all.”

Exhausted by his extended vigil, yet eager to get his book into print, Xerxes rushes to his e-mail, rapping his fingertips nervously on his desk until Yarrow’s list of revisions arrives. He opens it — and ye gods, it must have a hundred points!

Overwhelmed, he begins to bash his head rhythmically upon his gold-encrusted desk, bringing his retainers running. How can he possibly do it all?

Catching my drift here? No? Okay, let’s try again:

Written feedback meltdown #6: Zelda has written what she modestly believes and hopes is the best novel in human history, MY HEART ON A PLATE. While not at all autobiographical, she assures every agent she queries, it is the story of a woman who went to her alma mater, holds her current day job, and was apparently married to her first husband.

The schmuck.

After much querying, leads to a handful of requests for pages and no offers of representation, she realizes that she is no closer to her goal of publication than she was at the beginning of her queryfest, for the simple reason that no one she has approached has actually told her anything about her book.

Other than, “We’re sorry, but it doesn’t meet our needs at this time.”

Perplexed, she begins reading every how-to book she can find on the writing life, only to find that most of their advice is of the pep talk variety; it’s not telling her why HER book isn’t getting published. But she does the suggested breathing exercises, makes a voodoo doll of herself and places it strategically within a carefully-arranged diarama depicting a packed book reading, and sacrifices a goat or two to the Muses.

As she’s been told many successful authors do.

She begins haunting writers’ conferences and surfing the net, looking for better answers. One day, she stumbles across a blog where a freelance editor was threatening to chain herself to a rock and expose herself to sea serpents unless all of her readers agreed to get some feedback on their manuscripts before shipping them off to agents and editors.

“Eureka!” Zelda cries, digging around in that nifty tote bag she got in return for her $500 literary contest registration fee. Surely, she jotted down contact information for a few of the nicer writers she met there.

She e-mails the one she liked best, Zippy (I don’t have the energy to go through the alphabet again, people; sorry), asking if he would like to exchange manuscripts.

Zippy responds that he would indeed like that very much, but he is about a month away from polishing off the latest draft of his novel, NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY EITHER, REALLY, the tender story of an accountant striving to be a novelist.

“But I’ll have quite a bit more time on my hands after tax season,” he assures her.

Delighted, Zelda immediately e-mails her entire book to her new friend — and is nonplused when Zippy writes back a few days later to suggest that they exchange physical manuscripts, for ease of reading, rather than each expecting the other to print up 700 pages or so.

Shaking her head at his unreasonableness — he sounds just like her ex, Xerxes — Zelda digs up her last rejected copy and hands it over.

A month passes with no more word than a quick note from Zippy saying that his revision is taking a bit longer than he’d anticipated. “Turns out taxes are due in April,” he informs her cheerfully. “Who knew?”

No matter, Zelda thinks: a slow read means more thoughtful feedback, right?

Another month goes by, however, and Zippy is still not ready to exchange: last week’s horoscope told him that he was too stressed out, so he took a much-needed break from revision to take up curling. “But I am reading yours,” he writes apologetically between slides across the ice. “I’m enjoying it very much.”

Zippy has an unexpected crisis at work — his client Tatiana is being audited — pushing back his projected completion date still further. By this time, Zelda has gnawedher fingernails down to the quick: she really needs this feedback.

Still, she knows that he’s doing her a favor, one that he hasn’t yet made it possible for her to return, and tries to be patient. Is it possible, she wonders, that he isn’t aware that she can’t query again until she’s weeded out any problems with her work?

Yes, long-time readers, I saw your hands shooting into the air: Zelda SHOULD have kept querying all throughout this process. She also should have found more than one first reader, made sure that he had time to give her feedback, and made specific requests about how she would like to receive it and when.

But then, she hasn’t had the advantage of having read the posts in my GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK series (conveniently available in the category list at right, Zelda), and you have.

At three and a half months, she writes and asks Zippy to lunch the following Saturday. “Maybe,” she suggests brightly, “we could talk about my novel?”

“Don’t have time,” he writes back. “Sea monsters have just carried off my favorite writing blogger.”

Losing her temper completely, Zelda sends him a lengthy, tear-stained explanation about why she had sought out feedback in the first place. “If you hate it,” she concludes, “or if you never intend to finish reading it, just tell me so. It’s kinder than toying with my feelings. My God, it’s been like Acts II-IV of Macbeth — all I’ve been able to do is wait!”

Contrary to what some of you cynics out there may have concluded, Zippy actually HAS read her novel; he genuinely is extremely busy. (Sea monsters can’t be relied upon to hack off their own heads, obviously.) So he tosses together a few supportive-sounding paragraphs saying how much he liked the book and sends them to her.

Delighted to have critique in hand at last, Zelda opens it — only to find that he has not given her ANY specific suggestions about how to improve her manuscript, only some vague statements about liking this character, not liking that plot point, and so forth. Her howls make all the cats of the neighborhood rush for cover.

Clearer now? Yes, each of today’s exemplars stumbled in several ways (heaven forefend that I should ever provide an illustration of only a single point) in facing genuinely frustrating situations over which they had virtually no control.

But Tatiana, Xerxes, and Zelda greatly exacerbated their own suffering by walking in with unrealistic expectations about when others would read their work. (And, in Zelda’s case, not setting up sensible ground rules for exchange before anyone so much as thought about budging a manuscript.)

As I MAY have mentioned seventy or eighty times before, agents and editors are REALLY busy people. If you imagined most of them buried up to their delicate necks in paper, you wouldn’t be far off about how much they have to read.

Yet most writers expect to hear back more or less instantaneously — and if they don’t, come up with all kinds of explanations except for the single most likely one: the agent or editor hasn’t had time to read it yet.

Why do unrealistic timing expectations make incorporating feedback harder when it actually does come? Because the writer has already expended so much vital energy in fretting over the differential between how quickly she wanted to hear back and when she did, energy that would have been much better spent, say, drafting the first chapter of her next book.

You can’t fool me about why Lady Macbeth went mad, Bill Shakespeare: you didn’t give her anything to do after Act I but wait around for her husband to slaughter half of Scotland. A long wait is an open invitation for an imaginative mind to prey upon itself. No wonder she started strolling the battlements at midnight, moaning.

Of course, she shouldn’t have told her husband to kill the king, either, but hey, no one’s perfect.

Since you’ve all been so very good, we’re going to take a break from this series tomorrow for a post on something completely different — and trust me, it will be a treat. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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

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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 FreeFoto.com.)

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

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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.

(Curtain.)

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

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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.

Wait.

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

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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.

(Curtain.)

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

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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:

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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

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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?

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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 FreeFoto.com, in case you’re interested.)

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

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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!