10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Character Names, by guest blogger Askhari Hodari

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Hello, readers –
Well, I’m delighted to report that authorial blandishment has once again borne fruit: Askhari Johnson Hodari, Ph.D., author of the newly-released boon to name-seeking writers, The African Book of Names (published by HCI Books), has very kindly agreed to share her terrific insights with us today. Specifically, she will be giving us some tips on how to go about naming a character.

I couldn’t be more thrilled: Askhari is absolutely tops at this, as anyone familiar with her latest book could tell you.

I just can’t put it down, actually. In addition to offering an absolutely fascinating list of more than 5000 names, indexed by character attribute (don’t you wish that every name book had the foresight to do THAT?) and region of origin, The African Book of Names offers in-depth advice on how to go about picking a name. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

The African Book of Names: 5,000+ Common and Uncommon Names from the African Continent offers readers names organized by theme from 37 countries and at least 70 different ethnolinguistic groups. Destined to become a classic keepsake, The African Book of Names shares in depth insight about the spiritual, social, and political importance of names from Angola to Zimbabwe. The most far-reaching book on the subject, this timely, informative resource guide vibrates with the culture of Africa and encourages Blacks across the world to affirm their African origins by selecting African names. In addition to thousands of names from north, south, east, central and west Africa, the book shares:

• A checklist of dos and don’ts to consider when choosing a name

• A guide to conducting your own African-centered naming ceremony

• A 200-year naming calendar

As someone who tried desperately to convince her best friend from college to name her second child Harpo — how great a childhood would that have been, eh? — instead of Joe, the name lists fascinate me. My favorites at the moment are the Azanian name Chireshe (pronounced chee-REH-sheh, the book informs me), which means He mixes speech with little bursts of laughter — how charming is that? — the Nigerian Iyora (ee-YOH-rah), I am not a stranger to this community, and the Camaroonian Gukaa (goo-kah), the mouth talks a lot. If I had to christen this blog right now, I would choose these.

I’m going to stop my mouth from talking a lot and let you move on to a guest blog that I think everyone will find extremely helpful. Before I step aside, however, I should mention that THE AFRICAN BOOK OF NAMES is available in bookstores, at Powell’s (for those of you who prefer to support indie booksellers), as well as on Amazon. On the latter, you may also pre-order Askhari’s next book, Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs, due out in November from Random House’s Broadway. (With a forward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu!)

One more word before I go: I sincerely hope that all of you will give some serious thought over the weekend to how you go about naming your characters, what challenges you have encountered, etc. We’re going to be talking about naming for the next few posts, culminating in one of our valuable Let’s Talk About This segments, so please think about what you would like to share with the Author! Author! community.

Take it away, Askhari, and thank you for sharing some of your strategies with us!

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People always call me for names. And not just for baby names, either. I help people come up with memorable, meaningful business and organization names, titles of stories, books, events and programs. And, characters. Characters. I love naming characters. So, I am no expert or anything, but I do know at least…

10 Things to Do When You Are Naming a Character

1. Give your characters names that tell readers something about the character.
For example, a feminist character may keep her maiden name, or hyphenate her name. She may give her daughters androgynous names like Drew, Alex, or Jesse. A formal character would prefer to be called by the formal form of his or her name- William versus Willie, or Constance versus Connie.

Whenever you choose a name, I recommended that you look up the name’s meaning to ensure the name either compliments, or does not conflict with the message you are trying to send.

2. Select names that are both age and time period appropriate.
A character’s name should give the audience clues to the age of the character. Do the names Beatrice, Victoria or Katherine sound like appropriate names for teenagers?

Albert, Alfred, Clara, Doris, Elton, Gladys, Rudolph, Helen, Lillian, Ralph, Sarah and Sadie are examples of old-fashioned names. Yet, some old fashioned names like Anna, Emma, Grace, and Hannah are now trendy. Christopher, Elizabeth, Matthew, and Michael are examples of names that never seem to age.

When selecting a name, I suggest you review old census records, looking for names that were popular in your character’s time. The Social Security site is also a good resource for this type of research.

3. Choose culturally appropriate names to help make the character and story realistic.
Character names should reflect the cultural world of the character. Names like Yang, Ito, Gupta, Lopez, Smirnov, Johansson, and Rossi provide immediate clues as to ethnic identity. However, America’s political reality is such that Blacks frequently carry the surnames of their former slave-owners; and Asians and Jewish persons have historically changed or altered their names so the names were more socially acceptable.

Some characters will have first and last names that reflect different or blended cultures. Christina Yang, and the real world names, Spike Lee and Shaquille O’Neal are examples. Culture can also refer to a non-race specific location- would you expect to have a “Billy Bob” in the middle of Boston? Or, would you expect to find someone named Sergei in Tuskegee, Alabama? No. Not really.

4. Make sure the name is pronounceable.
Say the name aloud several times to make sure it is something you and readers can pronounce readily. For example, I never really knew how Sethe was pronounced until I heard Toni Morrison read from her book. Was it like Seth, or Sethay, or Seththe. And, how would you pronounce Rande—is it Randy, or Randeh, or Rand?

Don’t make your audience walk around for four years pronouncing a character name incorrectly. Why spend time choosing a name readers don’t know how to pronounce? Don’t do it. Just don’t. But, if you do decide to use a name with an ambiguous pronunciation, write something to let the audience know how to pronounce the name. For example, “Rande hated her teacher for pronouncing her name wrong, like Randy, instead of like Randay.”

5. Choose names that are “character” appropriate.
You wouldn’t expect the plumber to be named Joseph, Frederick, or Edward. But Joe the plumber, and Fred the plumber and Ed the plumber sound realistic. Can you imagine a bus driver, or gravedigger with a “rich-sounding” name like Danforth, Witherspoon, Sinclair, Fairchild, or Maximillian? Could be interesting though…

6. Employ syllabic variety.
The length of the first and last name should vary. Tom Sawyer, Erica Kane, Huckleberry Finn, Molly Bloom, or Lennie Small, for example. For some reason, which I cannot explain, variety makes names more pleasing to the ear and easier to remember.

There are many resources for first names, but for last names/surnames, you can visit Nuts and Bolts Filmmaking or download a list here.

7. Choose names that are gender appropriate.
I really, really, really like androgynous names (and repetition). Wasn’t Scout Finch a great name for a girl? However, I would not be a good guide if I didn’t tell you things like short, one-syllable names with hard consonants are usually seen as masculine. Take Jake, Kurt, Max, and Dirk, for example. Likewise, folk seem to feel that names with soft multiple syllables suggest femininity- names like Heather, Gina, Sharon, Jennifer, and Suzy.

Sometimes names imply gender. There is a reason fictional male detectives have names like: Alex Cross, and Sam Spade; and fictional heroines have names such as Scarlett O’Hara, Anna Karenina, or Annabelle Lee. (For a list of male character names, please visit here.)

8. When writing for a novel or television show that is populated with numerous characters, make sure the character names are distinct.
There are a few ways to make sure your audience does not get confused: 1) make sure character names start (and end) with different letters; and 2) avoid names that sound alike (i.e.Paul and Saul; Tim, and Tom).

The Color Purple is a good example of a well-named cast of characters: Celie, Mister/Albert, Shug, Harpo, Sophia, Nettie, Kate, Bub, Squeak and so on. With the possible exception of Celie and Nettie, none of the names sound too similar.

9. Save good names for the major characters.
Don’t waste a great name on a minor character, a walk on character; or an extra. What would have been the point of having an extra, walk-on, or one line character named Tony Soprano, Rhett Butler, Stringer Bell, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Vic Mackey, or Teacake?

10. Keep a handwritten or electronic list of potential character names.
Keep a running list. Whenever you hear a name you like, write it down. Save it. For instance, I had a student once named Harch Decar. Great name- right? You know I am going to change the spelling to something like Harsh DeKar and use that name one day.
So, see? I actually do have a list of some names I plan to use one day. Wanna hear some? Here they go: Ash, Blackbelt, Cade, Cairo, Chata, Cyri, Khaler, Kori, Queenie, Rizi, Ryder, Spell, Tansy, Tantrum, York and Zella. Now, I trust you not to use them before I do- okay?

9 Great Character Names (FROM LITERATURE, TELEVISION AND MOVIES)

1. Sula Peace
2. Yuri Zhivago
3. James Bond
4. Hannibal Lecter
5. Bigger Thomas
6. Easy Rawlins
7. Sherlock Holmes
8. Ishmael (Moby Dick)
9. Celie

8 Things To Avoid When Naming A Character

1. The obvious.
You know the names: a gardener named Herb Green; a nun named Virginia, a lawyer named Justice Scales; an accountant named Matthew…

2. Similar sounds.
Please, please, please, don’t end the first name with the same sound as the last name, and try not to name the characters with names that start with the same syllable. Even though spellings may differ, names can still sound the same. Take, for examples, the names Jack and Zachary; Mary and Terry; and Sam and Tammy.

3. Overly exotic names.
Okay, I am talking about names that are usually reserved for strippers, I mean exotic dancers, professional sex workers and soap opera stars: Remington Steele, Shy Love, Johnny Wad, Trixie Rain, Jack Hammer, Bunny Bleu, Cookie Anderson, Angel Long, Summer Haze, etc.

4. Alliteration and rhyme.
Sometimes, it is difficult to take names beginning with the same sounds seriously: Candy Cane, Mandy Matthews, Ted Thomas, Shay Sweet, and Vicky Vet. Again, these types of names bring exotic dancers (strippers) to mind. Or cartoon characters- Lois Lane, Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, and Vicky Vale.

Rhyming names are also sometimes difficult to take seriously- Ned Ted, Sally Rally, and Chet Wet. These types of names are appropriate for children’s fiction (think Dr. Seuss), but adult work — not so much…

5. Names with negative or precarious connotations.
Did you hear about that three-year-old kid named Adolf Hitler? His sister was named Aryan Nation. And, even though Barack Obama’s middle name, Hussein, means handsome, folk will forever tie the name Hussein to Saddam Hussein.
Other examples of names that have negative connotations include Butch, Pansy, Fanny, Gaylord, Dick, etc.

6. Initials that spell something undesirable or negative.
Avoid this especially when the spellings of the initials don’t relate to the character or to the story, and aren’t going to be used. Take Sarah Tanya Dennison, for example.

Other combinations you may wish to avoid: ASS, BAD, BUM, DIE, DUD, DUM, FAG, KKK, PIG, RAT, RIP, STD.

7. Unnecessary A’postroph’e’s.
Don’t even get me started on unnecessary a’pos’trophes. You know the names: Ta`Qwan, Ga’Nay, D’Angela, Che’nille… What does the a’postrophe actually add to a first name? And, why do this to the audience? Apostrophes are just messy. Messy, I say…

8. Names that end in “s.”
This tip seems trivial until you find yourself having an awkward time writing the possessive form of the name that ends in “s.”

7 of the Worst CHARACTER NAMES (FROM LITERATURE, TELEVISION AND MOVIES)

1. Bucky Wunderlick
2. Ralph Malph
3. Renée Rienne
4. Bob Loblaw
5. Steve Urkel
6. Tess of the D’Urbervilles
7. Captain Marvell

6 Resources to Help You Choose a Name for a Character

1. Name books
2. Soap operas
3. Phone book
4. Bible
5. Television and movie credits
6. Comic Books

5 Electronic Resources to Help You Choose a Name for a Character

1. Muse Names.
40,000 names classified by country or cultural origin. What turns a long list into a powerful tool for writers is the way it selects a name to match a keyword.

2. Name Maker LE
Millions of possible combinations of first and last names.

3. Baby Name Genie
“Granting wishes for the ‘perfect’ baby names.”

4. Parenthood.com
A random name generator that allows you to search by first letter.

5. Sandra Petit’s site
Another random name generator.

4 Things to Consider When Naming a Character
1. Theme, motif.
Themes can add extra layers to the story and enhance the overarching themes of the book, movie, or novel. Often, character names can help clarify theme.

Take, for example, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Several of the characters had names relating to birds: Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson.

In the movie Rocky, the characters have names that represent strength: Rocky, Apollo Creed. A god versus an indestructible force.

In Song of Solomon, several character names (and the title) are taken from the Bible: Reba, Pilate, Hagar, Magdalene, First Corinthians, and Ester. Morrison also had characters named Sweet, Circe, and Sing Byrd. What was the significance of these names? Figuring out the significance of character names also gives the audience something (fun) to do.

2. The Character’s Family.
If the parents of your character are very traditional, the characters should probably have more olde English or Victorian names like James, Mary, Elizabeth or Michael. Or, if the parents are religious, their children would likely have names from the Torah, the Quar’an, or the Bible. If you find character siblings named Diana, Smokey, and Marvin, isn’t it likely the parents are Motown fans?

3. Nicknames.
If your character is a main character, consider a nickname, or term of endearment to show the relationship of the character to other characters, parents and intimates, in particular.

4. Name Fame.
There are times when certain names have positive connotations because of a celebrity or famous person or character. For example, the name Kent now connotes strength, Elizabeth now sounds queenly; John Paul connotes purity, and Abraham or Lincoln suggest honesty.

3 Things People do too much of

1. Add “y”s to a name, unnecessarily.
Nychole, Mykenzie, Karsyn, Miakyel (for a male), etc.

2. Ruin a perfectly good name by adding “sha”, “ra”, “kwa” or “la”, etc.
For example, Kwatina, LaRenee, LaQuincy, DeShane…

3. Try to be too clever.
For instance, naming a writer Auther Book; naming a vegetarian Lett Us; naming an alcoholic, Hein A. Ken.

2 Things people don’t do enough of when naming characters

1. Use places and or things as people names.
There are an abundance of lakes, cities, mountains, numbers, and other constructs that would make great names. Think Africa, Britain, Chad, China, Cuba, Egypt, Everest, Freedom, Georgia, India, Kenya, London, Mali, Nile, Paris, Seven, and Sahara.

2. Use androgynous names for complex characters.
I just love androgynous names: Adrian, Bailey, Casey, Jordon, Justice, Parker, Phoenix, Riley, Sage, Shay, and Sidney. And, so on…

1 THING NO ONE ELSE IS GOING TO TELL YOU

1. Everything I have shared here can be meaningless in a matter of minutes.
For example, who expects a “brother” to be named Bentley Fonzworth? I love the idea of creating a working class man with a wealthy, elegant sounding name. And, even though I said to avoid alliteration, Sam Spade and Marilyn Monroe are effective examples of times when alliteration works. And, my own name rhymes, but I love it—don’t you?

I could go on and on and on about names, but I am going to stop here, so if you want to know more about names, you could check out my recently released book, The African Book of Names. Naturally, the book is filled with African names, but you there is also information you might find useful like a guide to naming ceremonies and a checklist of what to consider when choosing a name.

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black-facts-calendarAskhari Hodari, Ph.D., is a Birmingham-based freelance writer; former Black Studies professor, and the author of The African Book of Names (Health Communications, Inc., 2009); and Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs (Broadway Books, October 2009). She also developed the Black Facts Calendars.

Getting good feedback, part XIII, in which I finally stop yammering on the subject and move on

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Those of you who have been following the epic battle between our yard and the World’s Worst Landscaperâ„¢, a stirring saga of adventure, betrayal, and our quest to banish bizarre pseudo-artistic installations of landscape elements deeply reminiscent of the darker works of Sigmund Freud from our immediate environment, will no doubt be delighted to hear that after eleven months, we have finally discovered where the WWL’s true talent actually lies. No, it’s not in designing and installing innovative and aesthetically pleasing yards — we no longer harbor any illusions on that score — nor in administering staff that might conceivably do so.

He can, apparently, control the weather.

Or so I surmise. Today, we were supposed to have an — ahem — discussion with the WWL about the stack of irrigation hoses that has been lying on the ground so long that the neighborhood opossum has not only begun nesting in within its coils, but is active raising a family there. Yet in the wee morning hours, it began to snow, rendering congregating outside to consider opossum relocation difficult. (Yes, Seattleites are weather wimps.)

I would brush this off as just another delay amongst countless others, were it not the fact that it has begun snowing on all the last three occasions that we scheduled an outdoor ultimatum-fest with the WWL. Apparently, my putting my wee foot down about irrigation hoses triggers some sort of cloud-salting.

Either that, or the WWL has some connections Up There of which we were previously unaware. However he manages it, the power of his conversational inertia is formidable, something out of a Magical Realist novel. Even someone with as high a tolerance for surrealism as yours truly, a lass whose artistic tastes were shaped in part by a mother who insisted upon taking me to see Fellini’s 8 1/2 when I was 8 1/2, this has all been a tad disconcerting.

Enough about the Doors Mankind Was Not Meant To Open. Let’s move on to what I devoutly hope will be my last post on strategies writers can use to wrest good feedback from their first readers.

Last time — and probably a few times in the dim past, knowing me — I brought up the deer-in-the-headlights look that first readers often exhibit when asked post-read for commentary both more complex and more potentially usable than Oh, yeah, I liked it. One would think that a reasonable soul might have at least suspected that at least a few follow-up questions would be forthcoming, but I have it on good authority, through the excellent medium of listening to writers complain lustily about it for many years straight, that it isn’t always the case. (For a genuinely thought-provoking example, please see intrepid reader Nadine’s comment about this phenomenon.)

For the past few days, I’ve been talking about steps a writer can take to minimize the possibility of finding herself post-read without reader feedback that can be incorporated in the next draft. Today, I want to turn the question around, to discuss why intelligent, articulate first readers so often transform before our very eyes into vague, communication-phobic writer-avoiders.

Even when they loved the book. Strange but true.

In practice, first readers new to feedback-giving almost always experience some difficulty giving specific feedback. Oh, they may not say so point-blank, but you may notice them freaking out a little if they are asked pointed questions, as if the author had abruptly transmogrified into an IRS agent conducting a five-year audit.

If you doubt the pervasiveness of this reaction, you might want to spend a little more time watching interactions between writer and audience at author readings. Audience members frequently freeze up if the author of a published book responds to their praise (or, heaven forefend, to a simple request to autograph the book) with, “Thanks — what was your favorite part?”

Note to self: don’t do this at future readings. It ties even admirers’ tongues into sailors’ knots.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that this reaction is primarily due to a pervasive public perception that authors are godlike beings before whom the average reader should quail. (As much as some of us might like that to be the case.) No, ask for a detailed analysis of pretty much any written material, and most readers will suddenly find it difficult to breathe.

Even people who habitually recommend books to their friends will often balk if put on the spot. I find this fascinating.

As a former professor, I can tell you exactly what that panicked flash in their eyes means: it’s the fight-or-flight response of a student suddenly tested on material he thought would not be on the test.

Poor souls, when an author asks their opinion of his book, they think they’re being asked WHETHER they liked it, not why. If they weren’t that they would be expected to cough up a more detailed response than By Jove, yes!, they tend to feel as defensive as if the author told them their opinion was wrong.

As if the author above had said to them, “You actually LIKED that trash? In heaven’s name, why?” rather than, “Please tell me what I did right in this book, so I may cater to that taste in my next, the one that my agent is breathing down my neck to produce while I’m on this book tour,” or even, “I am a seething mass of insecurities; please reassure me.”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate.

Now do you understand why I’ve been so insistent about giving your first readers a study guide, so they’ll know what’s going to be on the test and can prepare accordingly? It’s the best way I know to bridge the communication gap and nip this common anxiety in the bud.

I’m not just saying this because I was the prof who habitually stopped mid-lecture to announce, “Gee, wouldn’t THAT make a fabulous final exam question? Let me repeat it a couple of times, so you can write it down.” (And yes, my department did hate that little habit; thanks for asking.) I am, as those of you who have been reading this blog for a while are no doubt already aware, no fan of concealing from people information they need in order to succeed.

I’m saying it because from the unprepared reader’s POV, being grilled by an anxious author is like a pop quiz on material read for fun. They tense up because it’s not fair, strictly speaking.

Writers giving feedback to other writers are far less likely to have this response, for obvious reasons: usually, we were the folks who ruined the grade curve in English class. Hand us an essay question about a book we like (or hate), and we’ll go on for hours, won’t we? Ask us what we thought of the latest bestseller, and we might still be delivering nuanced critique next Wednesday. So asking some terrified soul to perform an in-depth textual analysis of the various possibilities for revising a manuscript doesn’t strike us as a stress-inducing exercise; it sounds like fun.

But just for a moment, let’s try to identify with the vast majority of the population that does not instinctively respond with joy to being asked to produce a book report on the spot, shall we?

To help you wriggle into the right mindset, let me ask: do you remember that professor in college or that teacher in high school who used to madden you at exam time with vague questions, ones so broad that they essentially invited you to spill out every minor fact you had managed to memorize? Compare and contrast the Renaissance with the Middle Ages, with examples, for instance, or Was the League of Nations a good idea? or The Emancipation Proclamation: what were the arguments on both sides?

Or how about the teacher who resorted to the ever-popular ploy of giving you a quote, and asking you to relate it to the reading? Perhaps you fell under the sway of something along the lines of this little gem:

“There is no ‘objective’ or universal tone in literature, for however long we have been told here is. There is only the white, middle-class male tone.” — Carolyn Heilbrun, WRITING A WOMAN’S LIFE

Relate this quote to the works of Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Dave Barry, Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, Jeffrey Eugenides, Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, Anaïs Nin, Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, and Marvel Comics. Make your answer text-based, and use specific examples.

Students look at this sort of question and wish that bolts of lightning would strike them on the spot. Which, intellectually, is precisely what has happened.

“What the heck does relate mean in this context?” they wonder, surreptitiously sharpening their pencils into weapons of mayhem. “What if I accidentally cite a DC Comic instead of Marvel? Will I lose points?”

I like to call this the what color am I thinking? school of test-construction, because it requires the students to guess, with virtually no guidance, what the teacher wants to see in the essay. Short of employing sophisticated telepathy, how on earth is the student supposed to know what criteria will be used to judge her response?

We’ve all had teachers who placed us in this uncomfortable position, right? My high school biology teacher simply walked into class on the day of our big plant life exam, handed each of us a three-foot-long stretch of butcher paper, and told us, “Show me everything you know about plants.”

Half of my classmates instinctively clutched their chests, anticipating a heart attack. Did Mr. Young intend this as an invitation to draw lilies for an hour, an instruction to reproduce the entirety of The Origin of Species, or an entreaty to write haiku? No one knew until after the exams were graded.

The color he was thinking of was green, evidently.

In grad school, I once had the misfortune to enroll in an extremely poorly-designed class on Eastern European politics. For our first paper, the professor asked each of us the daunting question, At what point could an outside force have intervened to prevent the Russian Revolution from occurring? Or could it have been prevented at all? “Give me your opinion,” he told those of us who asked him for some much-needed clarification, or at least narrowing, of the topic. “I want to know what you all think.”

When he returned the graded papers, it was quite apparent that the answer he had been seeking was some version of, “Track down Karl Marx at his elementary school and smother him.” How do I know that the color he was thinking was not red? Because no one who had argued that changing something after Marx was in long pants or anything within the geographical boundaries of the soon-to-be Soviet Union got above a B-.

My dissertation advisor used to favor assigning paper topics by distributing rambling half-page ruminations on the nature of life, without out ever articulating a question she desired students to answer. Because I value your time and my page space, I shall not reproduce one of her opus here, but trust me, those questions were epic.

“Don’t tell me what I think you should know,” she was prone to urge during endless and frustrating meetings to try to nail down a term paper topic. “Tell me what you think I should want to know about what you have learned.”

Are these examples dredging up your long-buried responses to the kinds of exams that drove you nuts in school? Got that I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-happening feeling firmly in mind?

Good. First readers given no guidance by the authors who have handed them manuscripts often feel as annoyed and helpless as you felt when faced with those kind of vague exam questions.

Especially if they’ve never read a manuscript (as opposed to a book) before. As I hope all of you are well aware, the format is substantially different, for one thing (if that’s news to you, I would implore you to visit the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right with all possible speed), and let’s face it, it’s an intimidating thing to be faced with the task of evaluating the creative output of someone’s soul.

Unless, of course, you have an ego the size of New Zealand, are being paid to do it, or both. Even then, it’s intimidating at first, but hey, both narcissism and nice big checks have their benefits.

So does reading manuscripts for a living at a publishing house or agency. If it’s any consolation for those of you who were told that your English degrees had no use in the real world, editors at publishing houses took those essay tests, too, and aced ‘em. And now, bless their hearts, they have transformed those bsing compare-and-contrast skills into a life’s work.

If you are using folks without either of those advantages as first readers, providing written parameters for criticism at the same time that you hand over your manuscript is an easy way to minimize the potential for future misunderstandings. There’s no need to turn it into a major research project, or to inundate your readers with ten-page lists of questions. Stick to a simple 1-2 pp. questionnaire about the book, highlighting the areas you feel could use some work.

For the sake of your ego, it’s also a dandy idea to include questions about parts that you know you have pulled off well. Even if you are not prey to nagging doubts about the quality of your writing in the dead of night — if you are, trust me, you are far from alone — I can virtually guarantee that at some point along even the most bump-free road to publication, you will appreciate having a list of some concrete reasons to feel good about your book.

In case any of you had heard otherwise, very little about the publication process is designed to reduce a writer’s insecurities — and if you doubt that, I can only suggest that you have a conversation with any author whose first book will be released by a major publishing house within the next year. Yet another reason that a good fit with one’s agent is a positive boon to an author: who better to reassure you about your inherent talent, worth as a human being, and general fabulousness while your book is making the rounds of editors?

But I digress, don’t I? We were talking about that written set of questions you were going to hand to your next first reader.

In your list of feedback criteria, be as specific as you can — questions along the lines of What did you think of my protagonist? tend to elicit less helpful responses than Was there any point in the book where you felt the tension lapsed? If you would appreciate references to specific page numbers (trust me: you do), either ask your reader to keep a list of ‘em or provide some sort of easily-attached tape flags.

I always like to add some offbeat questions, to make the process more amusing for the reader. Did anything in the book make you laugh out loud?, What in the plot surprised you most?, and if you were going to fix up my protagonist’s love interest with your best friend, how would you describe him before the date? can provoke some revealing responses.

If those of you who haunt critique groups have started to wonder if coming up with such a list for fellow members wouldn’t be such a terrible idea prior to exchanging manuscripts, give yourself a gold star for the day.

It’s a good idea to tell your reader up front HOW you would like to receive feedback, too. It honestly isn’t self-evident. In the margins? On a separate piece of paper? As a bullet list to accompany verbal communication? Remember, the more writing you ask to receive, the more of a time commitment you are requesting, but unless you take shorthand or have a tape recorder always handy (which not all first readers will appreciate; ask in advance for permission to record), it’s hard to keep in mind everything said within a context of a conversation.

Especially — and we writers don’t often admit this, even amongst ourselves — if that conversation contains critique that hits close to home. While the stress of sitting down and listening to a litany of criticisms aimed at the nearest and dearest work of our hearts can be pretty overwhelming regardless of the quality of the feedback, the breathtaking was I just punched in the gut? sensation of realizing that you’ve just heard precisely the insight that your book needed can also mess with your ability to process further input. Both the emotional and creative wheels are spinning too quickly.

Which is one reason that I would urge you to think VERY carefully whether you really do prefer verbal feedback to written. Receiving critique face-to-face can be a pretty intense emotional experience; if you don’t think you can keep saying, “Rework the running order completely? Thank you for suggesting that,” for half an hour straight, asking for written feedback may well be a better choice.

As a fringe benefit, it’s also more likely to be detailed — and, in many cases, more honest. Many a trenchant suggestion has died upon the lips of a feedback-giver who just didn’t have the heart to say it to the writer’s face.

If you’re not comfortable discussing all of this with the sweet soul you have selected to give you feedback on your manuscript, consider the possibility that you’re telling yourself that s/he may not be the right choice. If you stop to think about it, you might realize that you two are too close emotionally to render frank professional discussion of your writing feasible, for instance, or that you harbor qualms about someone you see every day at work reading that one particular love scene in Chapter 8. You may suddenly recall that time when your potential first reader flew off the handle at her brother’s 17th birthday party, unleashing a string of epithets that would have made a longshoreman blush, and fear a similar loss of control if you disagree with her radical opinions on comma use.

Or — and please don’t be too hard on yourself if this turns out to be the case — you might just not be ready to expose yourself and your book to the stress of critique. Only you can make that call.

If you find that you’ve made a mistake, whether in timing or in first reader selection — there’s no shame in calling it off. In fact, it will be far, far better for writer and reader both if the decision comes before the latter starts reading; s/he will not, after all, be able to un-read your text if s/he has already launched into it, and you don’t want to be left torn about whether you should ask about those two chapters s/he got to before you telephoned to tell her to stop.

Fortunately, the vagaries of the creative process provide a writer a stupendously non-confrontational excuse for rescheduling feedback: all one really has to say is, “Oh, I was visited by a flash of inspiration in the dead of night about how to improve my book, and I want to revise it before I show it to another mortal soul. You would prefer to read it in its best form, right?”

Easy as pie. It even works if the first reader has already had the manuscript for a few weeks.

Oh, and do remember to mention up front whether you would like the manuscript back after the reader finishes with it. Unless you ask for marginalia specifically, most readers will assume that it is theirs to keep — or recycle, as they see fit. If you expect its return and your first reader lives far away, it’s courteous to send along a SASE.

This is especially true if your manuscript is longer than the reader may have expected — just as agents and editors grow a trifle pale when a 600-page manuscript shows up in the mail, amateur readers tend to balk a little when handed a tome heavier than a lhasa apso. More pages equal more time commitment, inevitably. If yours tops the infamous 400-page mark — where most pros would start to get nervous about marketability for a first novel, incidentally — do tell your first reader that up front.

And finally, at every step throughout the process, observe my final tip: be HUGELY grateful for your first readers’ help — and express that gratitude early and often.

Yes, even if the feedback turns out not to be very helpful. As I keep mentioning, reading a manuscript with an eye to feedback is a far, far different thing than dipping into a book for sheer pleasure, no matter how polished the writing is. It’s hard; it’s merely polite to treat it as the favor it is.

The same holds true when you are the feedback-giver, to a certain extent: the more polite, specific, and clear you can be, the better the experience for everyone concerned.

Which means, of course, that if you find yourself on the receiving end of a manuscript, or in a critique group that does not already have guidelines for feedback established (fie!), it’s perfectly legitimate to ask for guidance BEFORE you begin reading. I’m quite serious about this: both you and the writer will be happier in the long run if you do.

Why? Well, do you want to guess how someone you just met on an online forum or at a writers’ conference prefers to receive feedback? That’s the kind of challenge that can make even the best of readers freeze up. You don’t want to trigger bad exam flashbacks, do you?

Of course not. Not in yourself, and not in your first readers.

Be specific — and for your own sake, be honest with yourself. If you want your critique to be aqua, don’t just murmur something vague about how it would be nice if your first reader could give you something on the blue side of the color wheel. By taking the precaution of explaining precisely what you want from feedback to the person who is going to give it to you, you minimize the probability of ending up staring tearfully at bright orange critique.

I’m proud of all of us for having the bravery to take a long, hard look at this seldom-discussed issue crucial to the happiness of writers. As a reward for our collective virtue, I have a special treat in store for you tomorrow.

So do be sure to tune in — and as always, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part XII: making it easy to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — and congratulations, Governor Gary!

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In the interests of broad inclusiveness, I try not to delve into politics much here at Author! Author! — no easy feat for someone who has spent as much time as I have writing platforms, let me tell you — but today, I can’t resist cheering a bit: hooray for former Washington Governor Gary Locke, just nominated to be Secretary of Commerce!

I’d been hearing the rumors for some time — in caucus states, the politically-involved tend to talk to one another, even outside campaign season — but I wanted to wait until it was official before I added my congratulations. How pleased am I, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: if I weren’t genuinely happy about this appointment, would I have posted a photograph featuring my now-happily-vanished second chin?

Seriously, Governor Gary, as he is known chez Mini, is precisely the kind of person who ought to be in politics: smart, well-meaning, and actually sincere, a policy wonk whose face lights up when discussing soft timber trade issues. (Don’t laugh; it’s perennially at the top of US-Canadian trade talks.) During his tenure in the governor’s mansion, he positively littered Asia with Washington apples, yet was environmentally-conscious enough to establish himself as “Governor Salmon” — wild ones, that is, the kind that need stewardship to keep from going extinct.

I ask you, writers: is that a nickname that would be even vaguely plausible in a novel? Of course not. So imagine Washingtonians’ surprise when Governor Gary started referring to himself that way, as if he were planning to swim upstream to spawn any minute.

But did we all pay attention to the plight of the endangered salmon? You bet.

I wasn’t kidding about his being a superlative policy wonk. Marvelous choice, President Obama — and a brave one, considering the issues that are likely to come up during his confirmation hearing. Best of luck to all concerned.

Okay, let’s return to our series already in progress. Stop picturing a besuited salmon taking the oath of office from a grizzly bear with a timber wolf nodding meaningfully in the background; it’s time to get back to work.

This will be the penultimate installment of my ongoing series on steps you can take to improve the feedback you get from non-professional first readers. For those of you just tuning in, that’s any pre-publication reader for your book who is not paid (by you or anyone else) to give you feedback. In other words, most of the people to whom you might be thinking of handing your manuscript — and, for the vast majority of aspiring writers, whose query letters have not yet borne fruit, the source of most actual requests to read it.

After I signed off yesterday, I had the strange sensation that some of you still had your hands raised with questions about how to set up a productive feedback situation with an inexperienced first reader. “Whoa, there, baby,” some of you must have been wondering, “haven’t you overlooked something here? I won’t get to set reading guidelines for anyone who buys my book after it is published. What’s wrong with just letting my first readers pretend to be those book-buyers, so I can work with their completely spontaneous reactions?”

Pretty smart question, oh hand-raisers, and one that richly deserves an answer — in fact, an answer with many parts.

In the first place, buyers in bookstores will not know you personally, unless you are one of that intrepid breed of author who stops every soul who passes within a ten-foot radius to pitch her newly-released book. (Yes, they do exist, and it’s a wonder to behold. For a crash course in writerly self-promotion, check out the Bette Midler/Nathan Lane film about Jacqueline Susann, Isn’t She Great? It’s not the best-constructed movie ever made, but it is stuffed to the gills — sorry, Governor Salmon — with great ideas for book promotion.) Therefore, your target audience members’ reactions, unless they happen to meet you at a book signing or write reader reviews on Amazon or someplace similar, will forever remain a mystery to you.

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

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

Second, a non-professional first reader is, as I have been pointing out throughout this series, doing the writer a great big favor, particularly if she is also a non-writer. Other than the pleasure she may derive from reading your doubtless charming prose and the I-got-there-first gloating rights several years hence when your tome hits the bestseller lists, he’s unlikely to get much out of the unquestionably difficult task of figuring out how a manuscript could be improved and conveying those suggestions gently to a possibly extremely sensitive author. (As opposed to professional readers, who tend to be paid to give feedback on manuscripts, or members of writers’ groups, who are receiving critique in return.)

Good first readers are charming, generous people who deserve every piece of assistance a writer can give them. So it is only fair to let them know in advance what kind of critique you are hoping to see, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

Why so much more? Because it requires not only taking one’s own writing seriously enough to demand constructive feedback — as opposed to the more frequently-heard vague murmurs of, “Oh, it’s great.” — but putting one’s wee foot down and insisting that other people take it seriously as well.

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

To put it more bluntly than they usually do, they believe that only a moron would not understand without being told the fundamental difference between valuable input that might help a writer revise a manuscript and a dismissive, “I liked it,” or between a close read by a smart person who expects to be questioned about her opinion and a casual skim by someone merely curious about what his cousin has been working on in his spare time, or even between substantive feedback and “Oh, I hated that part.”

In other words, they believe that everyone who might conceivably read their books will think like a writer, not like a reader — and like a writer intent on revision to boot. That’s a mistake, because the demands of revision are far from intuitive. There are plenty of brilliant readers who have absolutely no idea what kind of information a reviser might find helpful.

Unless, of course, the feedback-seeking writer tells them.

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

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

Think about that one for a while. I’ll ponder the future of wild salmon while I wait.

For the reader who is not also a writer, the obligation not only to point out problems but to suggest viable solutions can be completely overwhelming. Giving a list of thoughtful, specific questions for a first reader to keep in mind will decrease everyone’s stress levels.

Besides, you do have some questions about the text you would like answered, don’t you, some fears you would like allayed? Chances are that you do. Unless a writer is a dyed-in-the-wool narcissist incapable of considering the possibility that anything he created is less than perfect in every way, he usually has some idea of where his book’s strengths and weaknesses lie. Pointing the reader toward them in advance will make it okay for her to comment upon these parts, rather than politely avoiding any discussion of them.

Yes, it happens. Often.

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

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

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

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

“My protagonist is an accountant, just as you are. Would you mind making a note on anything she does that seems unprofessional to you, or if the way her year unfolds, particularly during tax season, seems implausible? If you could keep track of the relevant page numbers, that would be great.”

“The last agent who saw this said it was about fifty pages too long, and I know from going to movies with you what a good sense you have for when a scene has gone on too long. t would be really helpful to me if you could tip me off about where the plot seems to drag a little.”

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

That third one made the hair on the back of your neck wiggle, didn’t it? Yes, what you thought as soon as you read it is in fact accurate: few first readers will make notes of the pages where they have spotted problems unless the feedback-seeking writer asks them in advance to maintain such a list.

Remember what I said earlier about the practicalities of giving good feedback not being intuitive? I’ve seen first readers mention proofreading problems without citing page numbers.

Oh, you may laugh, but think about it: why would a reader be aware that saying, “There are misused semicolons on pages 8, 22, 68, 104, and 203,” will be a suggestion far less time-consuming for a writer to implement than, “You don’t always use semicolons correctly or consistently,” if she’s never seen a manuscript before? Since manuscript format differs in so many ways from book format (and if that’s news to you, I urge you to proceed with all possible speed to the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 category on the archive list at right), how is she to know whether what looks strange to her is important enough to risk offending the writer by mentioning?

As the feedback-requester, it is the writer’s job to make her role clear to her. Not only will being clear and specific about your expectations result in better critique, but it will render your first reader’s task more pleasant.

Your first reader is entitled to courtesy, after all: here is a wonderful person who has — for reasons of friendship, bribery, or idle curiosity — agreed to devote many, many hours of her time to giving your manuscript a good, hard reading. She has let you blandish her into that most difficult and dangerous of tasks, telling the truth to a friend.

And if that’s not an occasion for sending some flowers, I should like to know what is. Not only to be polite, but to be instrumental: if this first reader turns out to be a great feedback-giver, won’t you want to use her for your next book, too?

I honestly will wrap up this series tomorrow; turns out I had more to say on the subject of stressed-out feedback-givers than I had thought. Best of luck throughout the confirmation process, Governor Gary, and everyone, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part X: the coffee date you absolutely must keep — and a great resource for tracking down the perfect locale for a solo writing retreat

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Before I launch back into our ongoing series on how to track down good feedback on your manuscripts: here’s an announcement for Pacific Northwest-based writers, particularly those who happen to reside in Portland or Seattle: this week, the HX Gay and Lesbian Travel Expo will be happening here, Tuesday the 24th for Portland, Thursday the 26th for Seattle. In general, I’m not much of an expo person, but always encourage my writing friends to check out these fun events for one simple reason — and it doesn’t have to do with the mountains of free pens, notepads, rubber duckies, and other dosh that the travel-mongers hand out on these occasions.

It’s because they’re an absolutely marvelous place to find really, really good deals on writing retreat space. Hear me out on this one.

Writing retreat space tends to be both hard to find and expensive. As we’ve discussed in the past, there are quite a few organized retreats for writers (although not nearly so many as for other kinds of artist, I notice; Poets & Writers maintains an excellent database of deadlines for application), places that will shelter and feed a humble scribbler for anywhere from a week to a year. While many of these retreats are indeed marvelously supportive places to work in peace, one generally has to write one’s way in, often via an extensive and time-consuming application; as spots are competitively awarded, it can be extremely difficult for as-yet-unpublished writers to land spots.

Even if they do, they often end up paying the retreat for the privilege, in addition to the expense of getting oneself and one’s computer to and fro. And that’s not even counting the often quite hefty application fee, or the long wait (often months) to find out if one got in, or the fact that most retreats require a writer to commit to longer stays than someone living on a budget (and who isn’t, these days?) might be able to take off from work, family, and/or other obligations.

The moral: read those application forms carefully before you sign the check for the fee.

For those with less time or resources to invest, but who would give their eyeteeth for a three-day unbroken stretch of writing away from the aforementioned distractions, a solo writing retreat can be a far less costly option. But it takes some research to find good deals, especially to track down hotels where, say, a woman traveling alone — or anyone else who might not find a well-deserved welcome mat out everywhere — might feel safe.

Beginning to catch my drift here?

If the ’09 edition of the HX expo is anything like previous years, it will be stuffed to the gills with representatives of hotels — and resorts, airlines, etc. — who have given a lot of thought to the needs of the traveler who needs to feel safe. I’ve had many productive discussions with hotel managers, assistant managers, and other eager spokespeople about precisely what I want and need in order to be able to lock myself in a room for a week in order to write. In fact, I found the sites of my last two solo retreats at these expos, thanks to information that let me figure out who had the amenities I wanted in a hideaway spot at a reasonable price. On a beach, no less.

How reasonable, you ask? Well, it varied, but both sites gave me a night for free and meal vouchers.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned the discounts? I have walked out of these expos with literally bags full of coupons for everything from 20% off at a restaurant to 10% a round-trip airline ticket to, yes, the third night free if I stayed more than two. On a week-long retreat, those little things can add up.

So even if you Seattleites and Portlanders think you can’t afford to get away anytime soon, you might want to check out the expo, just to have those coupons handy. For locations and to download a free pass to the expo (hey, I have connections), follow this link.

Okay, time to snap out of that fantasy you’re having about locking yourself in a posh hotel room with your laptop and tossing the key off the balcony. Last time, I stirred up some lovely discussion by taking an in-depth gander at one of the most perplexing of social situations in which a writer may find herself, the friend who asks to read a manuscript — then keeps it forever and a day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And no, I’m not talking about the precocious third grader who stayed up all night when the latest Harry Potter book came out.

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

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

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

First off, remember that giving feedback on a manuscript is indeed a favor, no matter how well-written it is. Unless Gladys happens to work in an agency or publishing house, is a member of your writing group, or you’re paying her to read your work, Gladys is under no obligation to help you and your book. Treating it like a favor from the get-go can go a long way toward minimizing problems down the line.

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

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

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

(a) How you would like to receive feedback.
Verbally? Writing in the margins? On a separate sheet of paper? A Post-Itâ„¢ note on every page where the story flags?

(b) What level of read you are seeking.
Should Gladys go over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb (a real bore, for most readers, FYI), or just ignore spelling errors? Do you want her to keep an eye out for inconsistencies (rife in most manuscripts), or just to tell you if the story ever seems improbable? Would you be happiest if she made it clear how much she did (or didn’t) like the protagonist, or would it float your boat if she pointed out any reason that she wouldn’t tend to assign it to college sophomores?

(c) Any specific questions about the text you might like her to answer.
Don’t assume that Gladys is automatically going to zero on the parts of the text that have been troubling you: speak up. If you’ve been staying up nights, worrying about whether that improbable love scene set on a bridge in a howling gale (“I love you.” “WHAT?”) actually works, this would be the place to bring it up. Ditto if you’ve been fretting about whether the story takes too long to get started, if your hook is genuinely a grabber, or can’t decide your extensive analysis of the hog market in 1832 is thrilling or soporific.

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

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

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

How speedy a turn-around time is up to you, of course, but try not to make it less than three weeks — hey, a professional editor would charge you up to 25% more for a rush job — or much more than a couple of months. That’s long enough for a spare-time reader to get through pretty much any manuscript under 500 pages without pulling any all-nighters, so you need not feel as though you are proposing a pop quiz, but not so long that Gladys will simply set it aside and forget it.

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

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

Before you roll your eyes at that last part, hands up, everyone who has ever had to revise on a tight deadline. I appeal to those of you with your hands aloft: were YOU completely reasonable, or even marginally sane, two days before your deadline?

I rest my case.

If you are working on a tight deadline — say, having to revise an entire novel within the next three weeks, as I had to do a couple of years ago; that’s not an unheard-of turn-around time for an agented writer, by the way — it’s just not fair to expect a non-professional to speed-read your manuscript quickly enough for you to be able to incorporate the feedback. If you can cajole your writing friends into doing it within such a short timeframe, regard it as a great favor, of the let-me-send-you-flowers-and-clean-out-your-gutters variety.

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

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

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

Very private. In fact, you may never mention it again.

After you state the deadline, ASK if it will be a problem for your first reader to meet it. Don’t assume that she will volunteer objections or tell you about that long weekend she has planned with that gaggle of friends who went to the travel expo with her: a Gladys who is too nice to say no to reading a friend’s book is frequently too sweet to mention that the next three weeks are the worst POSSIBLE time to expect her to comment intelligently upon anything at all, since her unreasonable boss is due for his annual inventory tantrum.

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

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

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

As you should be, incidentally. The probability of getting genuinely useful feedback from non-professional readers goes up exponentially if the seeker tracks down more than one Gladys. Multiple first readers may lead to some conflicting recommendations, true, but many eyes are more likely to spot that embarrassing half-finished sentence in the middle of Chapter 8, the one that you never managed to get back to after your mother-in-law called during your writing time even though you’ve TOLD her a million times that creative time is sacred to you. It’s as though she sits there with a stopwatch, waiting until she’s positive that you’re going to be hard at work, then whammo! Ring goes the phone. Before she had any writers in her life, she probably specialized in predicting the moment when her nearest and dearest were just sinking into a nice, hot bubble bath — and calling then.

Oh, was I projecting again? Sorry about that.

While Gladys has your manuscript is a delightful time to re-read your own manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, if at all possible. You’re going to want to do this before you send it out to an agent, editor, or contest, anyway — you do want that, right? Right? Speak to me! — but even if that wasn’t on your to-do-before-submission list, it’s a good idea to refamiliarize yourself with your text before sitting down and discussing it in any depth with a first reader. Not only will you have a clearer notion of what aspects of the manuscript you would particularly like to talk over, but you will be a more receptive hearer of specific feedback on Chapter 2 than if you haven’t taken a gander at it for six months.

Not to mention the minor benefit that it’s the single best way for a self-editing writer to catch typos, logic problems, missing words, and other manuscript booby traps that are hard to spot on a screen.

Yes, I have urged all of you to do this before, but there’s a reason that I’m so adamant about it: despite my perennial admonitions, too few aspiring writers reread their own work — even if they’ve just spent the last two years revising it. That’s a serious mistake, since each pass at revising one chapter is likely to change some details in another. Throughout the course of many revisions, these inconsistencies tend to build up, resulting in what I have dubbed the Frankenstein Manuscript, a text cobbled together from many different revisions. If a writer doesn’t read the whole shebang again, s/he’s unlikely to notice these inconsistencies, but believe me, Millicent will, and she won’t like it.

Don’t make Millie angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

Reviewing the manuscript isn’t the feedback-seeking writer’s only task during the anxious period when Gladys has the manuscript, however. As I suggested yesterday, a week before the agreed-upon deadline, call or e-mail Gladys, to ask how the reading is going. This will give Gladys yet another opportunity to back out, if she is feeling swamped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting good feedback, part VIII: more thoughts on timing — and a book that might help you name your characters

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Before I launch back into my ongoing series on how to find good feedback for your writing, I have some joyful news to report: Askhari Johnson Hodari’s extraordinarily useful and interesting The African Book of Names, published by HCI Books, has just arrived in bookstores all over North America.

Why am I more excited about this book’s release than, say, the many others that came out this week? Well, in the first place (and in the interests of full disclosure), Askhari happens to be a friend of mine; we met at my favorite writer’s retreat of all time, the now unfortunately departed Norcroft. At Norcroft, the brainchild of mystery writer and generous soul Joan Drury, we resident artists were expected to take our work so seriously that we all operated under a vow of silence until 4 pm each day — which in my case, since I usually write in the evenings, frequently meant not speaking until 10 or 11. Which, throughout the course of a month-long residency, adds up to a whole lot of mime time.

But the fact that this book was written by the person who taught me how to build a fire successfully — while neither of us were speaking, no mean feat — is not the only reason I’m so pleased to announce its release to the Author! Author! community, or even the primary one. While this book is being marketed primarily to parents-to-be seeking names for imminent children, I think it’s going to make an additional mark as a tremendously useful book for writers.

After all, who names more people than a writer?

We’re constantly having to come up with monikers for characters — and, as we’ve discussed on this forum, it’s not always easy to come up with a name that simultaneously rings true for the character, is memorable, and looks good on the page. The right name not only identifies a character: it is integral to both the author’s and the reader’s conception of her.

Should anyone out there seriously doubt that, try this test: walk into any writers’ conference and ask all of the novelists present to raise their hands. Then ask everyone who hasn’t changed a character’s name midway through writing a book and felt differently about that character afterward to lower hers. Sometimes, not a hand in the room budges.

Askhari’s book is a wonderful place to seek out the perfect name for a character of African or African-American (or African-anywhere-else, for that matter), but it’s got a lot more to offer than the lists of names and meanings offered by the baby name books that writer so frequently troll for ideas. Yes, there are lists, but they’re organized regionally, to make it easy to find not just an African name, but a name from a particular part of Africa, from Angola to Zimbabwe. For a writer trying to establish the background of a character, this is an invaluable reference.

And that checklist of naming dos and don’ts might come in very handy.

The book also provides a great deal of insight into the technique and importance of naming — something that we don’t talk about much culturally, but a topic that will surely resonate with every writer who has ever thought, “Oh, the name I’m using just isn’t right.” I’ve been brainstorming character names for most of my life, having grown up around writers constantly searching for the apt one, and I kept finding myself saying as I read, “Oh, that hadn’t occurred to me.”

In short, this is a book that I’m definitely going to keep close to my writing desk for the foreseeable future.

Since we’re already on the subject of naming — always a topic that spurs a lot of interest on this blog, I notice — would you do me a wee favor? Over the next week, will you give some thought to how you go about picking names for your characters, what problems you have encountered, and how you have resolved them?

Why spend a week pondering it? Because I have a treat in store for you: next weekend, Askhari is going to visit Author! Author! to share some tips on how to go about it.

I’m looking forward to a very lively discussion, aren’t you?

See what I just did? Because I sincerely want to hear what all of you have to say on the subject, I didn’t just spring the question upon you or assume that you had leisure at your disposal to elaborate upon your experiences right now. Instead, I gave you fair warning that I would be asking your opinion a week from now, so that you would have time to think about it as your no doubt busy schedule permits.

As I asked you to consider yesterday, do the first readers you ask to give you feedback on your manuscript deserve less consideration?

At the risk of sounding like your mother (again), unless you are being airlifted to a trauma center, it’s seldom the best strategy to assume that other people are going to drop whatever they’re doing to pay attention to you. Not only isn’t it particularly polite — and courtesy is always due to anyone who is doing you a favor, right? — but it’s unrealistic.

To coin a phrase, people are busy.

Particularly, as I may have mentioned seventy or eighty times before, the fine folks who read manuscripts for a living. Aspiring writers who have just received requests to submit their first 50 pages almost invariably forget this, but the requesting agent or editor already has others stacked up waist-high next to her desk, waiting for her to have time to read them; so many, in fact, that they’re probably already routinely taking them home to read in their off-duty hours.

Translation: they’re not going to clear their schedules to read your 50 pages the nanosecond your submission packet arrives. Expecting them to do so, as hopeful submitters so frequently do, only leads to bitten-down fingernails, sleepless nights, and a self-destructive urge to call the agency a week after the packet arrived to demand what’s taking so %^&&^%$%! long.

Which everyone reading this already knows not to do, right? Right?

The same impulses tend to kick in after a writer has passed along a manuscript to a first reader, especially if the writer and the feedback giver did not synchronize their timing expectations in advance. Because the manuscript is so important to the writer, he often assumes — mistakenly — that the reader will more or less clear her schedule in order to read it regardless of whether he has actually asked her to do so. In his mind, he didn’t need to say so; what writer wouldn’t want to know right away whether the person he has entrusted with the dearest work of his soul liked it or not?

Of course, we want to know how our work impresses readers. We’re in this to communicate.

Just because that writer still hasn’t heard back by six weeks (or months, or years) later, his desire to know he has touched his reader probably hasn’t disappeared; it’s probably hardened into anger. Or, as often the case when an agent is slow to respond, into the writer’s feverishly constructing scenarios to explain why he hasn’t heard back. The reader’s reluctance to tell him that Chapter 3 should be cut altogether, for instance, or some sort of natural disaster. Perhaps the reader’s entire neighborhood has been quarantined for measles, preventing outgoing mail, and the commented-upon manuscript is languishing in the mailbox on the corner. Maybe the first reader submitted the book to an agent as her own work, and at this very minute, literati in some posh Manhattan loft are toasting your purloined book as the biggest hit since JAWS.

Some of you are shaking your heads ruefully right now, remembering past sleepless nights, aren’t you? Yesterday, when I was discussing the desirability of setting time limits for your first readers, I’m quite sure I heard some chuckles of recognition out there. We writers have an inborn ability to spin stories, after all.

What doesn’t make a good story, and thus seldom occurs to the waiting writer in those dark hours, is the single most likely possibility: he hasn’t heard back because that first reader hasn’t yet read the manuscript.

Which actually isn’t all that surprising, if the feedback-seeker did not have the foresight to set up a return date in advance. Unfortunately, to non-writers — i.e., the very folks that most aspiring writers neither involved in critique groups nor already committed to an agent or editor tend to select to give feedback on their work — the urgency of the situation may be far from self-evident. They may not even be aware that the writer is waiting for feedback. If the writer hasn’t told them otherwise, they may — and often do — treat the manuscript like any other book they brought home to read: something to look forward to enjoying when they have the time.

These facts are stressful to face, I know. If you find yourself hyperventilating, try breathing into a paper bag.

The important thing to remember is that lax first readers rarely delay in order to torture writers; like everyone else, they’re usually just busy — and easily distracted. Even if curiosity drives them to start reading the manuscript right away, chances are that the demands of the lives they were leading immediately prior to agreeing to read the book — small matters like going to work, eating dinner, maintaining relationships with their partners and children, and other frivolities — are not going to evaporate. Which means, in practice, that at some point, that first reader is going to want or need to put that book aside and turn his attention to something else.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Newton’s First Law of Motion could predict what is likely to happen next.

For those of you encountering Newton for the first time (Newton, meet writer; writer, meet Newton), an object in motion tends to remain in motion unless an outside force acts upon it; an object at rest tends to remain at rest. Or, as applied to manuscripts, while a reader is absorbed in a narrative, she tends to keep reading — until something else in her life intervenes. The phone ringing, for instance, or the necessity of getting the kids to school on time. Once she’s set down the manuscript, however, it takes more energy to pick it up again than to have kept reading in the first place.

And that, in case you had been wondering, is how feedback-seeking writers end up gnawing their nails in the dead of night, wondering what on earth could have been wrong with their manuscripts to cause their first readers to hold onto them for three months without saying anything. Most of the time, the delay has nothing to do with the manuscript itself: just as when agents and editors are slow to respond, the usual reason is that the first reader hasn’t yet gotten around to finishing the book.

An object at rest tends to remain at rest.

The less polished a manuscript is — generally meaning, from a non-writer’s point of view, the less like a published book — the more likely an inexperienced first reader is to set it aside, meaning to get back to it later. Also, the less prepared she is for the task at hand, the more likely she is to put off reading further until she can commit some serious time to it.

I can already feel my long-time readers smiling out there, anticipating what’s coming next, and I assure you, it doesn’t have anything to do with the laws of physics. Yes, you’re quite right: it’s time once again for our annual visit from Gladys, clueless first reader extraordinaire.

(Doesn’t that name help establish a strong mental picture of her? Would you be picturing the same character if I had named her Margaret?)

I’m always glad to reintroduce Gladys, because like so many kind souls who befriend writers, she just had no idea what she was getting herself into when she said, “Oh, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” Faced with a five-pound stack of paper and the abrupt realization that she’s expected to say something intelligent about it, she feels understandably overwhelmed.

Yes, overwhelmed, perhaps to the point of panic. As I have pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, for a non-writer — or for a not-very experienced-writer, even — being handed a manuscript and asked for feedback can be awfully intimidating. Yet in a publishing environment where agents and editors simply do not have the time to give in-depth (or often even single-line) responses to queries, writers hit up friends like Gladys who burble requests to read without knowing whereat they speak.

Friends like Gladys are all too often too polite to say no or, heaven help us, think that giving feedback on a manuscript-in-progress is a jaunty, light-hearted, casual affair, as simple and easy as reading a book on a beach.

To be fair, writers proud of their own work and expecting people to plop down good money in bookstores for it frequently share this assumption. A sharp learning curve awaits both parties. At least the writer is aware that some commentary over and above, “Gee, I liked it,” is expected. A reader who is not also a writer may well be unaware of that salient fact.

Gladys isn’t. Never occurred to her.

Imagine her surprise, then, when she starts reading, spots problems — and realizes that the writer might genuinely have expected her not to be a passive consumer of prose, but an active participant in the creative process. Imagine her surprise when she is asked not just to identify what she dislikes about the book, but also to come up with suggestions about what she’d like better.

Imagine her surprise, in short, when she learns that it’s actual work. (Hey, there’s a reason that people like me get paid for doing it.)

“Oh, come on,” I hear some feedback-seekers out there mutter. “I didn’t ask Gladys to edit my book. All I want to know is what she thinks of it. She can’t even manage to tell me that, after she asked to read it?”

I understand your frustration, oh mutterers, but pause for a second and think about the position of a friend impressed into first reader duty: how clearly did her writer friend explain what he was asking her to do? Chances are, Gladys committed herself to reading the manuscript without quite realizing the gravity of the offer — or perhaps not even that she’d made a promise at all.

Stop laughing. From a non-writer’s perspective, “Oh, I’d love to read your work sometime” is not necessarily an actual invitation to share a manuscript.

Honest — for most people, it’s just a polite thing to say in response to the news that an acquaintance is a writer. Among ordinary mortals, a conversational “I can’t wait to read it!” may most safely be translated as “I’m trying to be supportive of you,” “I’m looking forward to your being famous, so I can say I knew you when,” and/or “I have no idea what I should say to an aspiring writer,” rather than as, “I am willing to donate hours and hours of my time to helping you succeed.”

This is why, in case you were wondering, the Gladyses of the world (Gladioli?) are so often nonplused when a writer to whom they have expressed such overtly welcoming sentiments actually shows up on their doorsteps, manuscript in hand. She doesn’t like to say no — but by the time she has read enough to notice that the protagonist’s sister is named Theresa in Chapters 1, 4, and 6, but Teresa in Chapters 2, 3, and 5 (an UNBELIEVABLY common phenomenon, incidentally) and realize that she should have started taking notes the first time she spotted it, it’s a trifle late to be telling her friend that she just doesn’t have time to help him out, isn’t it?

Poor Gladys was just trying to be nice — and that got her into trouble. For the sake of Gladys and every well-meaning soul like her, please consider adhering to my next tip:

Make sure that your first readers fully understand IN ADVANCE what you expect them to do — and that no matter how gifted a writer you may happen to be, reading to give feedback necessarily involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book.

Do I hear members of good critique groups shouting, “Amen!” out there in the ether?

As those of us who have been in the position of feedback-giver can attest, it’s not enough just to be able to spot the problems in the text — the additional challenge is to be able to phrase the requisite critique gently enough that it will not hurt the writer’s feelings, yet forcefully enough for him to understand why changing the text might be a good idea.

In other words, it’s a hard enough challenge for those who already know our way around a manuscript. Imagine how scary the prospect would be for someone who didn’t. In my experience, 99% of casual offerers have absolutely no idea what to do with a manuscript when it is handed to them.

In fact, Gladys is generally dismayed when someone takes her up on her request. Like most people, dear Gladys did not have a very good time in school, and you have just handed her a major reading comprehension assignment; in a flash, you have become her hated 8th-grade English teacher, the one who used to throw his keys at kids who walked in late.

Don’t worry; the school district forced him into early retirement. He’s not torturing children any longer.

It’s not that Gladys doesn’t WANT to help. But in her sinking heart, she is terrified by the book report she is going to have to give at the end of the process.

So what does Gladys do? Typically, she doesn’t read the book at all. Or she launches eagerly into it, reading perhaps ten or fifteen pages, then gets sidetracked by the phone ringing or piled-up laundry or the need to go to work.

Objects at rest, etc., etc.

And that, my friends, is where the problems begin, from the writer’s perspective. Remember, our Gladys isn’t a writer, so she does not have much experience in wresting precious minutes of concentration time out of a busy day. So she sets it aside, in anticipation of the day when she can devote unbroken time to it.

Unfortunately for writers everywhere, very few people lead lives so calm that a week of nothing to do suddenly opens up for their lowest-priority projects. However good Gladys’ intentions may have been at first, somehow the book does fall to her lowest priority — and, like the writer who keeps telling himself that he can only write if he has an entire day (or week or month) free, our well-meaning Gladys wakes up in six months astonished to find that she hasn’t made significant inroads on her task.

Hands up, everyone who has ever been the writer in this situation.

I hate to leave you with a cliffhanger in the midst of our little tragedy, but like Gladys, time is running short in my day. But being a writer, and thus used to wringing time to write from a jam-packed schedule, I shall renew the tale next time.

Trust me, appearances to the contrary, this story can have a happy ending. Keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VII: clarifying those expectations, or, has my watch stopped again?

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Is it me, or are people who take even the slightest, most veiled criticism of their work as either deep personal insults or as proof positive that they should scrap the entire thing and start again rather, well, annoying?

Perhaps they are not to the general populace, but I’m sufficiently annoyed today to let you in on a little trade secret that we professional feedback-givers seldom admit in mixed company: for subtle critiquers, both forms of over-reaction are kind of insulting. Why bother to formulate a nuanced analysis of a work if its creator is simply going to blow up or be plunged into the depths of despair? With someone unskilled in the fine art of accepting feedback, the critiquer is in a no-win situation.

While I’m telling tales out of school, let me add that professional feedback-givers aren’t all that crazy about another species of feedback-taker: the one who doesn’t kick up a fuss upon getting critique, because he has no earthly intention of incorporating it. He either cherry-picks what he wants to hear from the feedback, blithely ignoring what doesn’t fit in with what he had already decided to do (or, even more often, not do), or simply doesn’t listen. In this case, too, the feedback-giver is left feeling that she might as well have saved her breath.

Especially when she’s staring at the next version and notices that none of the problems she pointed out last time have been fixed.

What feedback-giving crisis prompted this extended lament, you ask? Let’s just say that the World’s Worst Landscaper™ has really been getting on my nerves for the past few days. The photo above shows the current state of a wall and steps that are now in the process of being torn down and reconstructed for what I believe is the seventh time since last April. That pile of rocks you see is atop what was through Valentine’s Day a bed filled with burgeoning bulbs and other mildly decorative plant life, now demised. And when I happened to glance up from an editing project yesterday, I noticed someone tearing down yet another wall that no one had ever mentioned touching again. I had to dash outside to keep my favorite rosebush and the cat buried under it from being dug up and summarily discarded.

Talk about deconstruction.

But that’s not what you thought I was talking about at the opening of this post, was it? I would bet a wheelbarrow full of the abundant rock lying all over my yard that some of you, at least, just assumed that I was complaining about writers defensive about their work.

Well, I must say, I can’t blame you for leaping to that conclusion: writers in general (and aspiring writers in particular) are legendarily touchy — at least according to agents, editors, and any first reader who has tried to pass along a couple of suggestions to an ostensible feedback-seeker who secretly only wanted to be told that his work was the best collection of sentences ever produced in the English language; the rest of the scribblers worldwide might as well turn in their printer ribbons now.

I’ve got bad news for writers harboring this yen: from a professional point of view, there is no such thing as a manuscript that’s beyond critique.

Actually, this mythical beast doesn’t really exist for most good readers, either — have YOU ever met a published book that you didn’t think could use an alteration or two? — but professional readers are far more likely than other people to see the same manuscript twice. Given that reality, those of us who are devoted to trying to give useful feedback to writers are often left wondering: where does that astonishingly common aspiring writer’s daydream where the first reader hands back the manuscript the day after receiving it, exclaiming something along the lines of, “I stayed up all night reading this; I just couldn’t put it down. Don’t change a word!” come from?

You’re familiar with that daydream, right? It’s the first cousin of the one about the brilliant book written in secret, without the author’s revealing so much as a syllable of it to any eyes other than the faithful raven perched on the bust of Pallas above the chamber door (and if that last line didn’t make you either smile or groan, I’ve got a bone to pick with your high school English teacher), wowing the first human being to clap eyes on it — usually an agent or editor, in this fantasy — so much that it is snapped up and published without so much as the odd gerund altered. Not only does no one ever dare ask the author for revisions, even minor ones, but all of the normal rules of publishing dissolve into a mist before this august volume. Everything else in the publisher’s print run is shunted aside so that the book can come out within the month. Listing on the New York Times’ bestseller list and genteel protests that the writer never dreamed that her book would ever be so popular (“I wrote it because this was a story I just had to tell, Oprah!”) follow a week after that, and the writer is a household name by Christmas. When platoons of literary-minded interviewers trample down the overnight sensation’s shrubbery to ask neighbors how it feels to live next door to a national treasure, the local gossip is so flabbergasted that he sounds like the person whose block watch captain was just arrested as a serial killer: “Well, I just had no idea. She seemed so normal.”

You do realize that it doesn’t work that way, right?

Don’t be embarrassed if you didn’t — or if you thought, as so many aspiring writers do, that if a book is any good, it will inevitably get snatched up right away; therefore, if yours didn’t, it must not be very good. These are extremely pervasive misperceptions, harmful not only because they encourage writers to harbor unreasonable hopes that will be dashed even if they end up landing an excellent agent and selling their books to the best conceivable publisher, but because they place an amazingly heavy burden on the writer to produce perfect prose on the first draft.

Just doesn’t happen.

If you ever happen to meet an author who actually does produce perfect first drafts, will you be kind enough to introduce me? Because, frankly, I’ve never met one. And even if I did stumble on this to-be-envied freak of nature, I would still expect to hear her grumble about her agent and/or editor’s revision requests — because, I assure you, even Ms. Perfect Composer is going to receive them.

Okay, the volume of disbelieving guffaws has grown so tumultuous over the last couple of paragraphs that I can no longer ignore it. “But Anne,” some of you huffers cry, “that’s ridiculous. If an agent or editor didn’t already like a manuscript, why would she sign its writer? And if she does like it, why would she want it changed?”

Those are clear, direct questions, oh guffawers, and they certainly deserve a clear, direct answer. How I wish that I had one to give you, but at the risk of repeating myself, it just doesn’t work that way.

The fact is, a well-written book is not necessarily a book that an agent can sell to her already-existing contacts in the current market, nor a book that an editor can successfully push through an editorial committee and acquire. It’s not necessarily a tome that booksellers will instantly recognize as appealing to their customers, or one that browsers in bookstores will knock one another over to stand in line to buy. And even if the book in question is simultaneously all of those things — which it has to be, for the publishing world to consider it a success — every single individual who helps the writer bring it to publication will have — and express — his personal reading preferences about it. Unless that writer self-publishes, she’s going to need to take all of that feedback into account.

Since I may already have depressed some of you into a stupor, I shan’t even bring up what the marketing department might want a writer to do to the manuscript prior to publication. Suffice it to say that the book is almost certainly going to read differently in its published form than it did when the writer first approached her agent.

I can feel some of you clinging to that almost in the last sentence, can’t I? “But Anne,” a hopeful few point out, “it’s possible that my book will be the exception, isn’t it?”

Well, yes, it is possible, in theory. It’s also theoretically possible that you will win the lottery, give birth to sextuplets, and get struck by lightning, all on the same day. It is, however, extremely unlikely.

How unlikely, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: if I had a quarter for every writer who believed himself to be the exception to this particular rule, I wouldn’t have to win the lottery; I would be the richest nit-picker on the planet. Queen Elizabeth II would be hitting me up for loans. If I had a dollar for every superb writer whose agent or editor told her, “I love this book — now change it radically,” I would buy a small island in the South Pacific and establish the world’s first combination writers’ retreat/tap-dancing school for dolphins. And if I had five dollars for every writer who has ever heard, “I love your writing — could you give me less of it? How about cutting about a hundred pages from your perfectly delightful book?” I would…well, I don’t know what I would do after I commissioned fine Persian rugs for every drafty kitchen in Canada, but I’m sure that I’d think of something.

Yet hope is a stranger to the strictures of probability, isn’t it? One or two of you are still thinking that your manuscript is that 1 in 100,000,000 that will astonish us all. “Okay, so maybe the odds are a trifle long,” those dreamers concede. “But if clinging to that rather remote hope helps me keep moving forward with writing and submission, what’s the harm in my stubbornly refusing to apply my math skills to this particular situation?”

Apart from causing your future agent to go bald from pulling her hair out in frustration, you mean? Well, let’s me see…one common type of harm involves getting one’s hopes dashed, taking the small handful of rejections (or even just the first) that prove one’s manuscript isn’t the exception one thought it was as proof positive that one should just abandon any further attempts at submission. Another type leaves the writer so unprepared for critique of any kind that the slightest hint for improvement causes him to deconstruct his manuscript down to its very foundations and begin again. A third prompts the feedback-receiver to stomp away from the feedback-giver in a huff, or causes him to stuff his fingers into his ears, merrily whistling until the critiquer gets tired of fighting to be heard and just goes away.

Any of these behaviors sound familiar? They should: they’re precisely the behaviors I pointed out above, the ones that drive good feedback-givers nuts, because they imply that it never occurred to the writer that in producing a book, he would need to please anybody but himself.

Hadn’t thought of it that way before, had you, oh guffawers?

But once you accept the proposition — as every writer who intends to make a living at it must — that it’s part of a writer’s job to accept and incorporate feedback, then you can start to regard good critique as what it actually is in the professional reader’s world: a compliment to a writer’s talent. Because, really, would it be worth a feedback-giver’s time and energy to convey suggestions to a writer who wasn’t gifted and professional enough to use them to improve the book?

In order to work well with first readers — be they agents, editors, contest judges, or that constantly-reading coworker who has expressed interest in seeing your manuscript — that you are indeed worth the effort who ever walked the planet, though, you’re going to need to do more than write a good book. Even if you happen to be both beloved of the Muses and the best natural handler of constructive criticism ever born, you’re going to need to learn how to ask for useful feedback — and mean it.

Up until now in this series, we’ve been concentrating on the problems poorly-selected non-professional first readers — i.e., critiquers of your work who are neither freelance editors, agents, editors at publishing houses, or paid writing teachers — might have in giving feedback. Now, let’s take a gander at some of the more common frustrations feedback-seeking writers encounter, with an eye to figuring out how the writer’s way of making the request for critique might have influenced the outcome.

Of course it doesn’t sound like fun. Eliciting good feedback is hard work.

If you’ve already tried to drum up some useful critique, you’ve probably already encountered the enthusiastic friend who begs to read your manuscript…and then never mentions it again. Practically every serious writer has run into this one at some point. Or the second most common, the person who takes 6 months to read it, then hands it back with no more complex commentary than, “Oh, I liked it.” Or the reader who concentrates so hard on the minutiae (rending his garments and exclaiming, “The way you use commas is INFURIATING!” for instance) that he has nothing to report on the big picture.

“Forest?” he says, gaping at you as though you were insane. “All I saw was a single tree.”

You don’t need the chagrin of any of these outcomes, frankly, but the frustration is not the only reason such interactions hold little value for the writer. Even when such first readers do produce useable feedback, the manner of delivery often renders it either too soft-pedaled, too vague, or too harsh, or simply too late to be of any practical value.

Yet to be fair, most of the time, it isn’t precisely the first-time critiquer’s fault: these outcomes are usually the result of the writer’s not having selected readers carefully and/or not having set firm desiderata for feedback. You owe it to yourself — and the good first readers you will be asking to have faith in you — to invest the time in doing both.

Time is the operative word here, isn’t it? Even gearing up to submit your work to another human being is stressful for most writers, much less waiting to hear back. It’s nigh-impossible to explain to non-writers, but the period preparing to send work out to agents and editors can leave a writer as raw and sensitive as the time while she is waiting for a reply on a submission.

Which is another good reason to select your first readers with care, rather than just handing your baby to the first person that asks. Even when a spate of rejections may well have left you simply dying for someone — anyone, please! — to show an interest in reading your writing, it’s not a good idea to give in to that impulse without first giving the matter some extended thought.

What I am about to suggest may come across as downright prosaic, but I assure you, adding this one step to the feedback-solicitation profess can save a writer weeks or even months of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending whilst awaiting feedback:

Make sure your potential reader has time already available in his schedule to read your manuscript BEFORE you hand it off.

This is not a rude question; actually, it’s rather considerate to ask before you start handing over pages. If the reader cannot estimate a reasonable return date, thank him and move on to another choice.

I know, I know, we all wants to believe that every human being is going to be overjoyed to read our work. But the fact is, a critique-providing first read is not the same experience as reading a book for pleasure — yet far, far too many of us pretend that it is when handing our books to someone who has never given a writer feedback before.

Come on, admit it: even writers read differently for pleasure and for analysis; it’s the nature of the beast.

Reading to spot problems is considerably more time-consuming than other kinds of perusal, not to mention more stressful for the reader — and that will be the case even if the reader does not also have to worry about couching his feedback in ways that will preserve the intimate relationship between you. (For lively reader debate on this last point, I would highly recommend reading the comments on an earlier post on this topic.)

Remember, your first readers are doing you a favor, donating their time to the good cause of furthering your writing career. Even if you are giving them an advance peek at the next DA VINCI CODE so they can say they knew you back when, agreeing to give you feedback is a significant responsibility. Treat their time with respect.

It may seem counterintuitive, but setting some boundaries in advance is one of the better ways to pull that off. As in:

Ask your feedback-giver BEFORE you hand over the manuscript if you can schedule a date for her to return it to you, one that will work within her already-existing rubric of commitments.

Yes, I know: setting even a loose deadline makes it seem like an assignment, rather than a favor, but let’s not kid ourselves here: from the writer’s perspective, it is an assignment, as well as a favor. You honestly do want to hear back within a reasonable period of time, don’t you?

Being wishy-washy about the fact that you honestly do want feedback enough to stay up at night, nibbling your fingernails down to the quick because you’re terrified what your first reader might say, is not the kind of information you’re going to want to spring upon your kind friend as a surprise after the fact.

If you’re unsure why, please go back and re-read the litany of resentments at the top of this post.

Pick an actual date, rather than just saying, “Okay, I’ll expect that back in three weeks.” It’s far more difficult to follow up on a vague understanding than a specific commitment. If your potential first reader hesitates at all, ask him to suggest a date that seems reasonable, then add a week to it.

Obtain timing information even if — and perhaps even especially if — someone has expressed an interest in reading your manuscript simply out of friendship, family feeling, or curiosity. In my experience, such people, while kind and encouraging, frequently do not realize just how much time it takes to read a manuscript carefully – or even that the task is going to be any different from reading any book at the library. Often, these folks end up not finishing it at all or giving inadequate feedback, just because they did not budget sufficient time to read well.

Also, if you ask for this information courteously up front, you will have given yourself permission to take advantage of my next tip:

A week or so before the agreed-upon return date, send a polite reminder e-mail or drop a friendly note to your first reader, asking if he will find it convenient to finish the book in time for your meeting. If he says no, chuckle understandingly and set up a new date.

No, this isn’t nagging; it’s demonstrating your awareness that not everyone may consider reading a book a higher priority than eating, sleeping, and making a living. Crises do come up, and it’s only courteous for a feedback-seeker to give a first reader the option of extending the deadline.

But that’s not the real reason you’re going to want to ask. Creative civilians (or, to put it less colorfully, people who don’t write) almost never understand that writers are serious about deadlines — an opinion that many agents and editors seem to share, incidentally.) How could we be, they think, when we spend years at a time working on a single book?

Forgive them, readers: they know not what they think.

Given the pervasive belief that writers don’t own calendars, a pre-deadline reminder can go a long way toward making sure that the reading actually gets done. Just a quick heads-up, perhaps inviting the reader to coffee or lunch just after the deadline to discuss it, will help keep you from seething three weeks after the stated deadline passed, wondering if you should call now or wait another three days.

Since you will be asking for a time commitment before you hand over the manuscript, it’s a good idea to tell your first reader WHY you want her, of all people, to give you feedback. To put it bluntly, buttering ‘em up will often yield swifter results. Which leads me to my next tip:

NEVER leave a non-professional first reader guessing why you selected her to ask for feedback. If possible, couch your request for feedback in a compliment.

Ideally, you would like your potential first readers to be flattered that you asked, and thus hyper-motivated to sit down and read. There’s no need to make up extravagant praise — just be very clear about why you are asking THIS particular person for feedback, as opposed to anyone else who can read and has some time on his hands. The more specific you can be, the more likely your first reader is to regard the request as an honor, an indication that you respect his opinion enough to want to know what he thinks of your book.

So before you approach a potential reader, ask yourself: why is this person THE person to read THIS book? What special insight or experience do you believe will render this person’s perspective especially useful for this particular story? And, based upon these reasons, what type of feedback would you like from this person?

If you can’t come up with good answers to all of these question (or if the answers run along the lines of, “Um, because she asked to read it, and she’s less of an idiot than everyone else who works at my office. And I know absolutely nothing about either her reading habits or her life prior to two years ago, when she set up shop in the next cubicle.”), are you really sure that this is a good first reader for your book?

When it comes time to make the request, honesty is the best policy, just as your mother spent your youth suggesting. Try phrasing it like this:

“I trust your eye implicitly, so I am relying upon you primarily for proofreading.”

“I’ve always admired your sense of humor — would you mind flagging the jokes that you think don’t work?”

“You always know what’s about to happen in a slasher flick – may I ask you to take a quick run through my manuscript, flagging anytime you feel the suspense starts to droop a little?”

The complimentary approach kills the proverbial two birds with one stone: you will be preemptively thanking your first reader for the effort (good manners), and you will be setting some limits on the kind of feedback you would like (good strategy). Also, by setting these goals in advance, you will be better able to avoid the super-common pitfalls of either your first reader or you mistakenly believing that the manuscript-sharing process is about stoking your ego.

Or bringing you and the reader closer together as friends or lovers. Or even to reveal yourself more fully to another human being you happen to love. No, that’s what your kith and kin’s buying your published books are for: that’s support.

At the risk of sounding like a broken…broken…broken… (Allow me to pause a moment for readjustment.)

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if you’re going to be professional about your writing, the sole purpose of ANY pre-publication manuscript-sharing should be to help prepare the book for submission and eventual publication. As the author, you are the book’s best friend, and thus have an obligation to do what is best for it.

Writers new to the game often forget that. Heck, even writers who have been published for years forget that.

Keep that foremost in your mind, and I promise you, you are far less likely to hand your beloved baby over to the first careless coworker who says, “Gee, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” The writer may be flattered by such attention, but the manuscript deserves not to be sent on blind dates.

Nor do your first readers; it’s not fair to expect them to read your mind in order to figure out how soon you expect them to read your book, or why on earth you picked them for that honor in the first place. Believe me, even if your carefully-picked critiquer turns out not to have much to say about your book (hey, it happens), you’ll both be far happier with the experience if you made the effort to set out your expectations clearly.

More on these crucial issues follows next time, of course, most likely accompanied by — heaven help me! — more updates from the WWL front. Please keep visualizing me cavorting amid walls that go up and stay up, and as always, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIc: gee, maybe we shouldn’t be rushing into this…

slow-sign

Last time, I went on a tear about the desirability of doing a bit of homework about anyone with whom you choose to share your unpublished manuscripts, especially electronically — and why this inspiring precept is a good idea to put into practice even when you’re planning to submit your work to an agent, editor, or literary contest. As much as we would all like to believe that every offer out there is legit, not all are, unfortunately, and it’s awfully hard to tell a scammer’s website from a legit agency’s.

We writers tend not to talk about this much amongst ourselves, but if you think about it for a moment, we spend our lives sending our most intimate productions to total strangers: agents, editors, contest judges, not to mention Millicent the agency screener and post office employees from here to Madison Square Garden. We all know that querying and submitting our work requires great personal courage — take a moment to pat yourself on the back for that, please — but it also requires quite a bit of trust, whether you are sending your work to a soi-disant agent, possibly credible publisher, contest organizer — or that nice person you met last week on a perfectly respectable writers’ forum.

Yes, I do realize what I’ve just implied. Thanks for asking.

To reiterate my main points from yesterday, it is most emphatically not paranoid to take the time to check track records before you pop your manuscript into the mail, hit the SEND key, or — heaven forbid! — write a check for a service for which reputable agencies do not charge — it is merely prudent. After all, any self-styled organization can post call for contest entries; since there is no special license required to become an agent (or an oath to serve the greater good of literature, for that matter), anyone can hang out a shingle.

To be blunt about it, scammers that prey on unsuspecting writers desperate to find agents are the only ones who benefit when writers don’t do their homework.

And while I hate to be the harbinger of doom, scams that prey on attention-hungry writers tend to enjoy greater success during periods when the publishing industry is tightening its belt. So if I seem to be uttering woe like the most Internet-fearing Cassandra of Luddites, it’s only because I worry about my readers falling prey to any of these dastardly schemes, particularly those involving so-called agencies who make their living by demanding payments from potential clients, rather then by selling their already-signed clients’ books.

All too often, agent-seeking writers presume that once an agent requests a manuscript, their role in protecting their manuscripts is over; it’s the agent’s responsibility from there on out, right? Wrong. You need to be in charge of who has your manuscript until an agent or editor takes it off your hands by signing a formal contract.

Why have I stopped my series on finding good non-professional feedback for your work in order to hammer home this point, you ask? Well, as is so often the case, readers have raised the issue when I have discussed manuscript-swapping in the past. Take, for instance, the comment insightful long-term reader Chris posted last year:

Anne, that raises an excellent point that I think a lot of unpublished writers are really worried about — people stealing their work/ideas and publishing them…I know that ideas can’t be copyrighted, only their execution can, but the issue of proving ownership of an unpublished manuscript is interesting. Have you ever seen this happen before? Presumably if the actual writer had many in-progress digital copies of the work, plus a number of marked-up printed versions (for revisions), it would be easy to convince a publisher (or the courts, I guess) that the person with the single photocopied version was a thief.

But what a hassle! And yet at the same time, it seems like some unpublished writers are worried over this issue to the point of extreme paranoia, which seems more than a bit out of perspective.

Yes, I have seen it happen, Chris, but actually, my sense is that it happened rather more often before the advent of the copy machine and home computer. Back in the old days, aspiring writers often produced only a single copy of a manuscript — and unwisely mailed off that sole record of their authorship to the first agent or editor who asked for it. Manuscripts did occasionally disappear, some because they simply got lost within institutions that handled a whole lot of paper (which still happens, by the way, and more often than writers care to think) and some because some unscrupulous soul swapped the title page, whited out the author’s name in the slug line, and submitted it as his own work.

Nowadays, of course, few writers would send out the only copy of their work (which, in case I was too subtle above, is VERY BAD IDEA), for precisely the reason Chris points out: because the original is the soft copy residing on their hard disks. A submission version is thus inherently a copy.

Does that mean that writers no longer need to worry about being able to prove that they were in fact the authors of their own books, unless they happen to enjoy the many and varied sensations that accompany advanced paranoia? No — in fact, the extreme ease of electronic transmission raises some of its own problems.

What kind of problems, you ask with fear and trembling? The first one that pops to mind: literally every time a writer e-mails all or part of her manuscript, she loses control of where it might be forwarded. Which means — are you sitting down? — that even if the person to whom she originally sent it is 100% honest, the writer needs to worry about the honesty about anyone to whom recipient #1 might choose to forward it.

Remember what I said earlier in this post about it’s being the writer’s responsibility to maintain control of who has her manuscript? Think that’s applicable here? You bet your boots — or, more accurately, your great prose.

Let’s look at a few prudent self-protective steps fans of manuscript-forwarding can take. (After the usual caveats, of course: this is intended as general advice to help writers avoid problems, not the last word on the subject. I’m not a lawyer; if you are seriously concerned about your copyright getting violated, or think that it has been I urge you to consult an attorney who specializes in publishing law.)

(1) Make frequent, well-labeled back-ups of every draft of your manuscript and keep them in a safe place.

Proving who wrote what when is substantially easier in the age of the computer than it was in either the bygone era of the typewriter or the long-lingering epoch of the bare hand. While word processing programs do keep track of when particular files are created and modified, so chances are that you already have a historical record of when you began writing your opus, as well as your practice of updating it.

Unless, of course, your computer happened to melt down, get stolen, perish in a monsoon, or fall prey to some other mishap since you started writing. Yet another good reason to make back-ups frequently, eh?

(Oh, come on — did you honestly think I wouldn’t follow up after yesterday’s plea to save your materials early and often?)

Even with computer in perfect health and a closet full of back-up disks, however, you’re still going to want to exercise some care in how you bandy your manuscript around. From a writer’s point of view, it’s a far, far better thing NOT to be placed in the position of having to prove when you wrote a piece.

(2) Always keep BOTH hard and soft copies of every syllable of your own work — and NEVER send your only copy of anything to anyone, ever.

Yes, even if your intended recipient is your twin sibling who rescued you from a burning building at risk to his own life. For obvious reasons, that used to be the FIRST piece of advice the pros gave to new writers back in the days of typewriters.

That, and to keep a pad of paper and a writing implement with you at all hours of the day or night, just in case inspiration strikes. You already do that, don’t you?

Why night as well, you ask? Because as experienced writers know, no matter how certain you are that you will remember that great idea that woke you up at 3:42 AM, if you don’t write it down, chances are very high that it will disappear into the ether like the mythical final stanzas of KUBLA KHAN.

(3) Maintain an up-to-date list of EVERYONE who has a copy of your manuscript at any given time — and don’t keep the only copy of that list on your hard drive.

I’m always surprised at how infrequently aspiring writers do this, even for the agents to whom they submit, but until sign a publication contract, you absolutely must know who has your manuscript. Make sure that you have full contact information for every single soul on that list — not just an e-mail address, a phone number, and/or a first name — so you can track down any of your writing that goes missing.

Get a physical address for the recipient even if you are communicating solely online — any reputable agency or publishing house should post a mailing address on its website. If you choose to post excerpts of it online for critique, keep a record of precisely what you posted, where, and why.

If you’re wondering why I’m suggesting that you should not keep your only copy of this list on your computer, I can only suggest that you re-read yesterday’s post. Hard drives are not immortal, you know.

(4) If you send your work via regular mail, keep records of where and when you sent it — and track delivery.

Literally every piece of your writing that you ever mail to anyone in the publishing industry with whom you do not already share an established relationship of trust should be sent via tracked regular mail, so you may prove that your manuscript actually arrived at its destination, should you ever need to do so. Within North America, manuscript tracking is quite inexpensive these days — the cost of USPS’ electronic Delivery Confirmation varies by how far it is going, but domestically, it’s less than a dollar at the moment — so there is really no excuse for not taking this reasonable precaution.

If you want to make super-sure that you can prove delivery, you can cough up the $2.70 for Certified Mail, so someone will actually have to sign for package. This is an especially good idea if the recipient is someone with whom you’ve never dealt before. That way, should it ever be necessary (pray that it won’t), you will be able to prove that you did indeed send it — and precisely when he received it, the rogue.

Why is being able to prove when he received it as important as if? Because, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, if a question ever arises about who wrote the book, you will be very, very happy that you can produce objective evidence of the first time your would-be plagiarist clapped covetous eyes (and grimy hands) upon your precious pages.

(5) Minimize how often you send any finished manuscript via e-mail to anyone with whom you do not already have a signed representation or publication agreement.

Yes, I am saying that I believe it’s in a writer’s interest to submit in hard copy, rather than electronically. As long-term readers of this blog already know, I frown upon sending original material via e-mail, anyway, for a variety of practical reasons that have nothing to do with the possibility of a manuscript’s going astray. (For a full banquet of my many tirades on the subject, I refer you to the E-MAILED SUBMISSIONS category at right.) For our purposes today, however, I’m just going to treat you to a brief recap of the highlights, by way of review.

First, many, many NYC-based agencies and publishing houses are working on computers with outdated operating systems and not the most up-to-date versions of Word — and virtually all of them are working on PCs. So the chances that they will be able to open your attachment at all, especially if you are a Mac user, are somewhere in the 50-50 range.

If you submit in hard copy, you simply don’t need to worry about this. I just mention.

Second, it’s significantly harder to read on a computer screen than on a printed page — and, unfortunately for acceptance rates, it’s also far quicker to delete a file than to stuff a manuscript into the nearest SASE. (I leave you to speculate the probable effects of these undeniable facts upon speed with which the average e-mailed submission is rejected.)

Third — and if you’ve been paying attention throughout this post, you should be murmuring this in your sleep by now — you can never really be sure where an e-mailed document will end up. It can be forwarded at the recipient’s discretion, and at the discretion of anyone to whom he forwards it, indefinitely.

Quite apart from the threat of outright theft (which, as I mentioned earlier in this series, is exceedingly rare), too-free forwarding could conceivably make it harder to enforce your claim to copyright, should you ever need to establish it: since part of the argument you would need to make if someone else claims to have written your book is that you made a reasonable effort to maintain control over how and where it could be read. Forwarding it as an attachment to anyone who asks does not, alas, convey the impression that you as the author are particularly insistent upon protecting your rights to the work.

For all of these reasons, if I had my way, aspiring writers everywhere would actively avoid sending ANY of their original material by e-mail, at least to people they don’t know awfully well. Now that some agents have started requesting electronic submissions — heck, some even ask writers to copy-and-paste the first few pages of their manuscripts into e-mailed queries — this is not always practicable, of course, but this is still largely a paper-based industry.

Feel free to use that argument when your prospective manuscript exchange partner claims that it would be SO much easier if you would just e-mail your manuscript to her; I don’t mind. If that doesn’t work, tell her that a professional editor told you that it’s infinitely harder to catch manuscript problems on a computer screen than in hard copy — true, incidentally — so you would vastly prefer that she read your work in paper form.

Do I feel some waves of panic wafting in my general direction? “But Anne,” I hear some of you inveterate e-mailers protest, “what if an agent ASKS me to e-mail all or part of my manuscript? I can hardly say no, can I?”

Well, actually, you can, if you want: in my experience, nothing brings an e-mailed submission-loving agent or editor more quickly to a recognition of the joys of the printed page than a writer’s saying, “Gee, I would love to shoot that right off to you, but I think my computer has a virus. I wouldn’t want to pass it along to you. Just this time, I’m going to have to send you a paper copy, if that’s okay.”

Care to guess just how often a reputable agent or editor will say no after hearing THAT sterling little piece of argumentation? You’re the white knight here; you’re trying to protect the world from computer viruses. You’re not uncooperative — you should be up for membership in the Justice League, along with Wonder Woman and Superman.

Ah, I can hear that some of you still aren’t satisfied by promotion to superhero(ine). “But what if the agent insists?” you demand. “Or just has a really, really strong preference?”

Well, since you asked so nicely, and since truth compels me to admit that my own agent has been known to exhibit this preference from time to time, I’ll tell you.

(6) If you choose to send your writing electronically, verify IN ADVANCE that the recipient is who you think he is.

This is a bit of a repeat from yesterday, but If you absolutely MUST send a submission via e-mail, again, double-check that the agency and/or publishing house toward which you are flinging it trustingly has a track record of being on the up-and-up. Verifying that the agent has a track record of selling books like yours or that the publishing house has in fact published them in the past will both let you sleep easier during the submission period and avoid scams. (It will also help you target your queries better, if you do this research well in advance.)

A contest should list past award winners on its website, and most do: if their winners end up getting published, they tend to like to claim credit. If a contest’s site does not provide that information, think twice before sending your entry. (Yes, I know that this stance discriminates against contest-throwing organizations that are just starting out, but my interest here is protecting you, not them.)

Double-checking is harder to pull off with an individual than a business or contest, of course, especially if you happened to meet him online; few sites require that posters prove they are who they say they are. Get to know your potential first reader as much as you can before blithely sending off your work.

And NEVER send your manuscript to anyone for whom you have only an e-mail address. Really.

(7) Whenever you send your writing electronically, e-mail or a copy to yourself — and to someone else you trust.

If an agency, small publishing house, or contest positively insists upon electronic submission, e-mail a copy of everything you’ve sent them to yourself at the same time. This will provide at least an electronic record of what you sent when.

Or print up a copy, seal it in an envelope, sign across the seal (to make it obvious if it gets opened), and mail it to yourself. Once it arrives back on your doorstep, don’t open it; just hide it away in case you need it on some dark future day.

That way, you can prove, if necessary, that as of a particular date, you were the writer in the position to send the material.

If you choose to e-mail, too, it’s also not a bad idea to send blind copies to a couple of friends whom you trust not to forward it along. Ask them to save it until you send them an all-clear signal or until your name appears prominently on the New York Times Bestseller List, whichever comes first.

(8) Maintain communication with those to whom you have submitted your work, particularly if you have done it electronically. If you don’t hear back, follow up — and keep a record of your attempts at further contact.

Admittedly, since so many agents have embraced the rather rude recent practice of not responding to submitters if the answer is no, this one can be a bit difficult to pull off, but unless an agency has actually posted this policy, a submitter can and should follow up if he has not heard back after two or three months. If the manuscript has gotten lost (which, again, does happen more often than writers tend to think it does), a reputable agent will want to know about it.

If the recipient was NOT someone within the publishing industry, you should follow up even sooner, for the most practical of reasons: the longer your work been circulating around, the harder it would be to try to rein it in again.

Think about it: if your piece has been floating around the computers of Outer Mongolia for the last six months, how are you going to prove that you held control over who did and did not read your work? (Although, again, I’m not a lawyer, so if you find yourself in this unenviable position, hie ye hence and find an attorney who specializes in this branch of the law.)

(9) Bite the bullet and register the copyright.

If you are a U.S.-based writer, you might want to just go ahead and register the copyright for your work before you begin sharing it. For the vast majority of submitters, this step isn’t really necessary, but if you are in the habit of circulating your work very widely (or are not very sure where that manuscript you sent out a month ago to a mysterious stranger you met online might have ended up), you may sleep better at night if you take the step to alert the government to the fact that you wrote your book.

Stop groaning. It’s a lot less onerous — and significantly less expensive — than most aspiring writers tend to assume. Go ahead, take a wild guess about how much time it will actually take away from your writing to gain this protection and how spendy it is.

Well, the last time I did it, it took only the time required to print up a copy of my manuscript and fill out a one-page form. And the expense was unbelievable: a $45 registration fee and the expense of having my corner copy shop spiral-bind the thing. If you register it online — through exactly the type of electronic submission I discouraged above, as it happens — it’s only $35.

And yes, nonfiction writers, you CAN register a book proposal. Jointly, even, if you have a collaborator.

What it will NOT help you to do – and what many novice writers give themselves away by doing — is place in the header or footer of every page, © 2009 Author’s Name. Yes, copyright can be established by proving intent to publish, but intent to publish is also established by submitting work to an agent or editor. Contrary to what you may have heard, the copyright bug will not protect you, should push come to shove.

It will, however, give rise to substantial mirth amongst its first readers at most agencies and publishing houses. “Look,” they will say, pointing, “here’s another rookie.”

This unseemly mirth tends to cover an undercurrent of hostility: writers who so pointedly indicate distrust of the people to whom they send their work, the logic goes, are in fact conveying a subtle insult. You are not to be trusted, such marks say, loud and clear, affronting those who would never steal so much as a modifier from an author and not scaring those who would steal entire books outright. Best to leave it out.

The beauty of the registering the copyright to a manuscript, of course, is that it can be done entirely without the knowledge of your recipients. Ditto with the blind e-mail copies. There’s no need to advertise that you are protecting yourself.

But for heaven’s sake, especially if you are dealing with someone that you do not know well enough to trust, take these few quiet steps to let yourself sleep better at night. Chances are, you will never need their help, but remember that old-fashioned sampler: better safe than sorry.

Call me zany, but I would prefer to see you get credit for your writing than the friend of the friend of the friend to whom you happened to forward it.

Whew! That was a long one, wasn’t it? Next time (which may not be for a couple of days, given how much this post took out of me), I shall delve back into the ins and outs of finding good sources of feedback. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIb: not all mysterious strangers are romantic

Or, this raccoon-visitoris not the same thing as this valentino

I meant to get back to our series on how to find useful feedback on your manuscripts — or, more precisely, to my mid-series digression on protecting your work whilst sharing it — over the weekend, or at any rate yesterday. (Happy post-Presidents’ Day, everyone.) However, my Significant Other harbors some absurd prejudice in favor of our spending Valentine’s Day weekend together. Where do kids these days pick up such zany ideas?

I’m mention this not for the sake of romantic one-upsmanship, but as an explanation to those of you new commenters who may have been trying to chime in over this particular weekend. For those of you new to the blog: in order to prevent the truly epic amount of spam I receive from wasting everyone’s time in the comments, my blogging program requires that I personally approve posts by all first-time commenters. As a result, freshman comments sometimes take a few days to post.

It’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.

Over the weekend (which I must admit was probably significantly more romantic than it would have been had I kept sitting down to blog; my SO was quite patient while I held an editing client’s hand through a no-fault-of-her-own literary crisis), I was thinking of you, however. To be specific, I was thinking that it had been quite some time since I asked one of the most basic questions that must be faced by writers in the computer age:

When was the last time you backed up your hard disk — or, more importantly for our purposes, your writing files?

Like, say, the ones containing the novel you’ve been writing for the past two years, or the contest entry you’re planning to pop into the mail next week? If you didn’t make a back-up either today or yesterday, may I cajole you into doing it soon?

How soon, you ask? Well, not to be alarmist, but would now-ish work for you?

I’m quite serious about this; go ahead. (If you’re new to backing up your work, the BACK-UP COPIES category at right may prove helpful.) I’ll still be here when you get back, languishing on my chaise longue.

What’s with the urgency, you ask? I could answer in philosophical terms — he things of this world are, after all, ephemeral, and computer files even more so — but frankly, my reason for nagging you about it periodically couldn’t be more practical. I’ve seen far too many writers lose weeks, months, and even years of good work due to various stripes of computer failure. As a freelance editor, I can’t even begin to tally up the number of times clients have called me in tears, begging me to search my files for a hard copy of an earlier draft of their books, because the only soft copy fell victim to a virus or hard drive meltdown.

Ask anyone who works in a computer repair facility: with even the most reliable system, it’s not a matter of if it will break down; it’s a matter of when. In picking the day of demise, computers are notoriously disrespectful of a writer’s imminent deadlines, requests from agents, or even the joy that accompanies finally polishing off a complete draft. In fact, if the moans I’ve heard over the years are a representative samples of those let down by their computers, the heavy use a computer often sees just prior to the end of a major writing project seems to be conducive to bringing on system misbehavior.

Which leads me to ask again: if your hard drive died right now, would you have a copy of your current writing project? What about of that query letter you spent two months composing, or that synopsis that took you a year to perfect? Would you even have an up-to-date record of whom you queried when?

Ah, that made you turn pale, didn’t it?

Please, even if you save nothing else on your computer, make frequent backups of your writing. It only takes a few minutes, but some day, you may be deeply grateful that you did.

Back to the topic at hand — which, as it happens, will also make me sound like your mother and might make you turn pale with dread. Last time, I broached the always-hot subject of protecting one’s writing from poachers, including — and this is why we’re talking about this in the midst of a series on finding good feedback-givers — unscrupulous folks with whom you might choose to share your unpublished manuscript.

Once again, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so if you were looking for actual legal guidance on a specific copyright-related matter, you’d be well advised to get advice from one who specializes in giving legal advice to such legal advice-seekers.

Everyone got that? Good.

We can, however, go over some general principles here. To see how well I made my points last time, here’s a little quiz:

Rudolf Valentino (hey, it was just Valentine’s day, after all) has written a tender novel with the following plot: boy meets girl; boy loses girl over a silly misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up within five pages had either party deigned to ask the other a basic question or two (along the lines of Is that lady holding your hand your sister or your wife?); boy learns important life lesson that enables him to become a better man; boy and girl are reunited.

Having composed such an original story, our Rudolf, being a sensible boy, seeks out other writers to give him feedback on it, or at any rate to help him figure out why the first 74 agents he queried did not find this plotline unique enough to pique their interest. He joins a writers’ group; he posts excerpts of his first chapter on an online critique site; he sidles other romance-writers in the hallways and charms them into reading his book and giving him their honest responses. (Our Rudolf can be pretty persuasive, you know. If you don’t believe me, see SON OF THE SHEIK.) Soon, several dozen copies of his manuscript are circulating throughout his extensive acquaintance, both in hard copy and electronically. He receives feedback from some; other copies disappear into the ether.

At what point in this process should Rudolf begin worrying about protecting his writing — and at what point running, not walking, toward an attorney conversant with copyright law with an eye to enforcing his trampled-upon rights?

(a) When he notices that a book with a similar plot line has just been published?

(b) When he notices that a hefty proportion of the romantic comedy films made within the last hundred years have a similar plot line?

(c) When a fellow member of his writing group lands an agent for a book with a similar plot line?

(d) When he picks up a book with somebody else’s name on the cover and discovers more than 50 consecutive words have apparently been lifted verbatim from a Valentino designer original?

(e) Before he gave it to anyone at all?

Let’s take the point where he should be consulting a lawyer first. If you said (d), clap yourself heartily upon the back. (I know it’s tough to do while simultaneously reading this and making a back-up of your writing files, but then, you’re a very talented person.) The last time I checked, anything beyond 50 consecutive words — or less, if it’s not properly attributed — is not fair use. After that, we’re into plagiarism territory.

If you said (c), you’re in pretty good company: at that point, most writers would tell Rudolf that he should be keeping a sharp eye upon that other writer. It would be prudent, perhaps, to take a long, hard look at the other writer’s book — which, as they’re in the same critique group, shouldn’t be all that hard to pull off.

But should plot similarity alone send him sprinting toward Lawyers for the Arts? No. Plot lifting is not the same thing as writing theft.

Why? Everyone who read my last post, chant it with me now, if you can spare time from making that backup: because you can’t copyright an idea for a book; you can only copyright the presentation of it.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few small steps that Rudolf might take to protect himself. Unfortunately, most of those steps would need to be taken prior to the point of discovering that some enterprising soul had made off with his writing.

Hint: the answer to the first question in the quiz, the one asking when a prudent Rudolf should begin thinking about protecting his manuscript, is (e). Especially — and this doesn’t happen as much in the age of computers as it did in the age of typewriters, but the warning still bears repeating — if Rudolf was circulating his only copy.

(That couldn’t happen to you, of course. You have a back-up of your writing files tucked away somewhere safe now, right?)

As I mentioned last time, the single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. The problem is, you can’t always tell. The Internet, while considerably easing the process of finding agents and small publishers hungry for new work, also renders it hard to tell who is on the up-and-up. I hope I’m not shocking anyone when I point out that a charlatan’s website can look just like Honest Abe’s — and that’s more of a problem with the publishing industry than in many others.

Why? Well, new agencies and small publishing houses pop up every day, often for the best reasons imaginable — when older publishing houses break up or are bought out, for instance, editors often make the switch to agency, and successful agents and editors both sometimes set up shop for themselves. But since you don’t need a specialized degree to become an agent or start a publishing house, there are also plenty of folks out there who just hang up shingles.

Or, more commonly, websites.

Which is one reason that, as those of you who survived my 2007 Book Marketing 101 series (conveniently collected for those of you who missed it on the category list at right) will recall, I am a BIG advocate of gathering information about ANY prospective agency or publishing house from more than one source. Especially if the source in question is the agency’s website — and if the agency in question is not listed in one of the standard agency guides.

“Wha–?” I hear some of you cry.

Listing in those guides is not, after all, automatic, and like everything else in publishing, the information in those guides is not gathered mere seconds before the book goes to presses. The result: agencies can go in or out of business so swiftly that there isn’t time for the changes to get listed in the standard guides.

That’s problematic for aspiring writers, frequently, because start-ups are often the ones most accepting of previously unpublished writers’ work. But because it is in your interests to know precisely who is going to be on the receiving end of your submission — PARTICULARLY if you are planning to query or submit via e-mail — you honestly do need to do some homework on these people.

Happily, as I mentioned last time, there are now quite a few sources online for double-checking the credibility of professionals to whom you are considering sending your manuscript. Reputable agents don’t like disreputable ones any more than writers do, so a good place to begin verifying an agent or agency’s credibility is their professional organization in the country where the agency is ostensibly located. For the English-speaking world:

In the United States, contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents.

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

I couldn’t find a specific association for Canada (if anyone knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agencies north of the border.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. It’s also worth checking on Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

In case it might influence the decision-making process of those of you quietly rolling your eyes at the prospect of investing even more of your scant writing time in researching folks whose ostensible purpose in life is to help writers, I should add: all but the last site I listed are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query now that the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2009 has receded into memory.

Again, I just mention. And have you done that backup yet?

As with any business transaction on the Internet (or indeed, with anyone you’ve never heard of before), it also pays to take things slowly — and with a massive grain of salt. An agency or publishing house should be able to tell potential authors what specific books it has handled, for instance. (In the U.S., book sales are a matter of public record, so there is no conceivable reason to preserve secrecy.)

Also, even if an agency is brand-new, you should be able to find out where its agents have worked before — in fact, a reputable new agency is generally only too happy to provide that information, to demonstrate its own excellent connections.

Also, reputable agencies make their money by selling their clients’ books, not by charging them fees. If any agent ever asks you for a reading fee, an editing fee, or insists that you need to pay a particular editing company for an evaluation of your work, instantly contact the relevant country’s agents’ association. (For some hair-raising examples of what can happen to writers who don’t double-check, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENTS category at right.)

Actually, anyone asking a writer for cash up front in exchange for considering representation or publication is more than a bit suspect — not only according to me, but according to the AAR. Unless a publisher bills itself up front as a subsidy press (which asks the authors of the books it accepts to bear some of the costs of publication) or you are planning to self-publish, there’s no reason for money to be discussed at all until they’ve asked to buy your work, right?

And even then, the money should be flowing toward the author, not away from her.

With publishing houses, too, be suspicious if you’re told that you MUST use a particular outside editing service or pay for some other kind of professional evaluation. As those of you who have been submitting for a while already know, reputable agents and editors like to make up their own minds about what to represent or publish; they’re highly unlikely to refer that choice out of house. And any reputable freelance editor will be quite up front about the fact that while professional editing can help make a manuscript more publishable, it’s not a guarantee of publication.

Generally speaking — to sound like your mother for yet another long moment — if an agency or publisher sounds like too good a deal to be true, chances are that it is. There are, alas, plenty of unscrupulous folks out there ready to take unsuspecting writers’ money, and while many agencies and publishers do in fact maintain websites, this is still a paper-based industry, for the most part.

In other words, it is not, by and large, devoted to the proposition that an aspiring author should be able to Google literary agent and come up with the ideal fit right off the bat.

Do I hear some more doubtful muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear many voices cry, “I certainly do not want to be bilked by a faux agency or publishing house. However, I notice that you’ve been talking about such disreputable sorts conning me out of ready cash, not potentially walking off with my submission. Weren’t we discussing about protecting our writing, not our pocketbooks?”

Well caught, disembodied voices — and that’s part of my point. The fact is, if an unscrupulous agent or editor were seriously interested in defrauding aspiring writers, stealing manuscripts would not be the most efficient way to go about it. Historically, direct extraction of cash from the writer’s pocket has been the preferred method.

But that doesn’t mean that a savvy writer shouldn’t take reasonable steps to protect both her pocketbook AND her manuscript. Even during a period where the legitimate literary agencies are being so cautiously selective, an aspiring writer should never front money for professional services without knowing precisely what s/he is getting in return. Take the time to do your homework.

Oh, and make backups regularly as well. Imagine Rudolf’s embarrassment if he had to admit to his wide circle of blandished acquaintance that he was the only one of them who didn’t possess a copy of his manuscript.

Next time, I shall delve into manuscript protection itself, I promise — and, shortly after that, return to our larger topic, tracking down sources of good manuscript feedback. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIa, in which we all learn a few life lessons equally applicable to dating and getting feedback on a manuscript, or, dealing with shadowy figures

shadowy-figure1

Yesterday, I talked a little bit about that grand old tradition, the writers’ group, a mutual aid society devoted to helping its members refine and improve their writing. While surprisingly few established writers’ groups deal explicitly with the marketing side of being a successful writer — I have never understood, for instance, why so few groups of writers at the querying stage exchange queries and synopses for critique; it seems like a natural — a good writers’ group can be extremely helpful in providing the feedback that every serious writer needs.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a good, long time may have noticed, I suggest joining a writers’ group every time I revisit the issue of getting useful feedback. Not only does it tend to be more efficient to exchange chapters with many than with just one or two, and not only does one often glean more constructive feedback from writers than from readers who have never tried to cobble a narrative together, but let’s face it, getting involved with even a group that charges for membership (as some run by well-known authors and/or editors do) is probably going to be less expensive than hiring an experienced freelance editor.

On the other hand, a freelance editor will almost certainly be able to give you that feedback considerably faster — and, if s/he’s worth her salt, be able to provide you with greater insight into how agents, editors at publishing houses, and contest judges might respond to your work. While you might eventually accumulate a similar volume of feedback from regular group participation, if you’re meeting only once per month and exchanging only one chapter each time, it could take two or three years to make it through an entire manuscript.

And that’s assuming that the group is small enough that every member receives critique every single time. While we’re engaging in cost/benefit analysis, let’s not forget to count the time and energy a conscientious group member must invest in reading and commenting upon other members’ work.

Because of the substantial and long-term commitment required to run a full manuscript through a writers’ group and potentially rather hefty price tag on professional editing, many aspiring writers turn to a third option: seeking out feedback online, either by seeking out other writers for exchange via a bulletin board, chat room, or website or by taking advantage of one of the many websites that ask writers to post excerpts of their writing online for other readers to critique.

Heck, I have it on pretty good authority that some of my frequent commenters here have ended up swapping manuscripts. After all, they already know that they have something in common, right?

As marvelous as these online exchange opportunities can be for writers, especially ones who are geographically isolated enough to render joining an in-person writers’ group impracticable, I wanted to pause in the middle of this series on feedback to address some concerns about the dangers that can result from all of that electronic manuscript exchange. Writers new to this form of community often do not prepare themselves for the possibility that the nifty writer they’ve never met face-to-face but who sounds like a perfect critique partner might not be, well, completely on the up-and-up.

Oh, and happy Friday the 13th.

To put it another way that makes me sound much more like your mother: just as not every online dater is completely honest about his or her intentions, willingness to commit, height, weight, level of baldness, or marital status, not every writer participating in online communities is representing her- or himself accurately. And it’s equally hard in both venues to weed out the boasters from the hard workers.

How might an inability to tell one from the other harm an honest feedback-seeking writer? Well, in a lot of ways, unfortunately, ranging from investing hours and hours in providing critique for an exchange partner who never bothers to reciprocate to getting one’s writing actually stolen.

So for the next few days, we’re going to veer off my pre-set path of feedback-seeking to talk about what the risks are and how a savvy writer can minimize them.

One vital disclaimer before I begin: I am NOT an attorney, much less one who specializes in intellectual property law. So it would be a GRAVE MISTAKE to take what I say here as the only word on the subject, or indeed to come to me if you believe that your writing has been stolen. (And if you did, I would send you straight to my lawyer, so why not skip a step?)

However, I’ve noticed that most of the time, writers curious about this seem to be asking questions not because they fear that their intellectual property has been lifted or that they’ve violated someone else’s rights, but because they’ve heard vague rumors to the effect that every so often, an unpublished writer’s work has gotten stolen. And those pervasive rumors I can legitimately address.

To set your minds at ease: yes, writing does occasionally get stolen — but it’s exceedingly rare, and it usually doesn’t happen in the way that most hearers of the rumor fear.

Let me introduce Sharon (not her real name, obviously), a writer who approached me a few years ago. I had the impression that she hadn’t been writing very long, but I wasn’t positive, as she was someone I barely knew — the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the brother of a friend of mine, which is as fine a definition of a casual acquaintance as I’ve ever heard. And yet she called me one day, full of questions about how to market her writing.

(A practice that I have historically tended to discourage in aspiring writers with whom I do not already enjoy some sort of professional relationship, incidentally, since effectively, it’s a consultant-client situation, and I do after all donate masses of general information to the writing community here on this blog. I understand the urge to chat with an experienced author and editor about the specifics of one’s book, however. Due to a precipitous rise in requests of this nature in recent months, I shall be unveiling a new venue for one-on-one consultation within a few weeks. So get those manuscript-specific questions ready and watch this space.)

Sharon had written a short piece — an essay, really — that she thought was marketable and had, through sheer persistence and the rare strategy of actually LISTENING to the advice she had been given by published writers of her acquaintance, gotten Ron, the publisher of a small press, to agree to take a preliminary look at it. Would she e-mail it to him with all possible dispatch, please?

In mid-celebration for this quite significant coup, she experienced a qualm: what if this guy stole her ideas, or her entire work? She knew him only through an exchange of e-mails, after all, and until she had started trolling the Internet for small presses, she had never even heard of him or his publications.

So wasn’t she in fact taking a rather large risk in sending an electronic copy of the only thing she’d ever written to a complete stranger?

Once the idea had taken hold in her brain, being a writer, she naturally embellished upon it in the dead of night: if it came down to Ron’s word against hers, who would believe {her}? And how could she ever prove that she had come up with the idea first?

When she shared her fears, however, half of her friends laughed at her, saying that she was being paranoid and unreasonable. The other half told her, in all seriousness, that she should go ahead and register the copyright for what she had written before she e-mailed it to Ron. At the very least, they advised, she should tart up her pages by adding the copyright symbol (©) on each and every one. Whereupon the first set of friends laughed even harder and told her that nothing looks more unprofessional to folks in the publishing industry than the liberal application of that pesky ©.

Understandably confused, Sharon did something very sensible: she tracked down the closest professional author and asked her what to do.

(As Gore Vidal is fond of saying, there is no earthly problem that could not be solved if only everyone would do exactly as I advise. I trust all of you will cling to that inspiring little axiom until your dying breath.)

The problem was, each set of Sharon’s friends was partially right: the vast majority of reputable publishing houses would never dream of stealing her material, and yet, as in any other business, there are always a few cads. At most writers’ conferences, you will hear speakers scoff at the possibility, but anyone who has been in the writing and editing biz for any length of time knows at least one good writer with a horror story.

Better safe than sorry, as our great-grandmothers used to stitch painstakingly onto samplers. (Actually, my great-grandmother was an opera diva who apparently regarded needlework as a serious waste of the time she could be spending being flamboyant, but I’m told that other people’s great-grandmothers embroidered such things.)

In the United States, though, outright theft of a book, or even an essay or short story, is quite rare. To wave the flag for a moment, we have the strongest copyright laws in the world, and what’s more, a writer on our turf AUTOMATICALLY owns the copyright to his own work as soon as he produces it. (Seriously; go ask a lawyer.)

So when writers talk about copyrighting a book, they’re generally not talking about obtaining the right in the first place, but rather registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Which means that the friends who advised Sharon not to mar her footer with © 2008 Sharon were also partially correct: the writer owns the copyright; if Ron planned to steal her essay and she hadn’t actually registered the copyright on it, the symbol alone wasn’t going to provide much protection. In fact, her friends were passing along the prevailing wisdom she would have heard had she asked the same question at your garden-variety writers’ conference: presenters often tell aspiring writers not to use the © bug on their manuscripts when they submit them; it’s redundant.

How so? Well, everyone in the publishing industry is already aware that the author owns the copyright to her own writing — including, presumably, Ron. If the author didn’t own the copyright, a publisher wouldn’t have to sign a contract with her in order to publish it, right?

In theory, then, writers are protected from pretty much the instant that their fingers hit the keyboard. So was Sharon’s other set of advisors merely ill-informed?

Unfortunately, no: in practice, a couple of problems can arise. Rights, as Thomas Hobbes informed us so long ago, are the ability to enforce them.

In the first place, owning the rights to what you write inherently and proving that you are the original author are two different things — sometimes radically different. Occasionally, some enterprising soul will latch on to another writer’s unpublished work and claim that he wrote it first, or co-writers will squabble over who gets custody of already-written work in a partnership break-up. Or, as in the situation I raised at the beginning of this post, an aspiring writer who has trustingly e-mailed his first two chapters to that nice writer he met on a bulletin board walks into a bookstore one day and finds a book that opens just like his.

Or — and this is substantially more common, especially in academic writing — the writer is dutifully reading her former exchange partner’s published work when her hair stands on end because that paragraph on the page in front of her is one that she wrote. With a shock, it suddenly occurs to her that since they exchanged work electronically, all her dishonest ex-friend would have had to do was copy her words and paste them into another manuscript.

In each case, the inevitable result is an unseemly struggle to determine who coughed up any given page of text first — or an aspiring writer who spends the next ten years walking around grumbling to anyone who will listen about how that rat of a published writer stole her work.

Second — and you might want to be sitting down for this one, as it comes as rather a shock to a lot of writers — technically, you can’t copyright an idea; you can merely copyright the PRESENTATION of it. Which means, in practice, that it is not possible to claim ownership of your storyline, but only how you chose to write it.

Aren’t you glad I told you to sit down first?

Learning about this second condition tends to obviate a good 85% of the concerns aspiring writers express about having their work stolen. Most of the time, writers are worried that someone will steal their STORIES, not the actual writing — and I’m not going to lie to you; one doesn’t have to attend many writers’ conference before one has heard a dozen stories about the trusted feedback-giver who later came out with a suspiciously similar book.

There’s not a heck of a lot a writer can do about that, alas, except to spread the story around. So the next time you hear such a tale of woe at a conference, do remember to make sympathetic noises.

But by the same token, unless the lifted plotline becomes a major bestseller, there’s really no reason that you shouldn’t push ahead with your version. Fiction is virtually never sold on the storyline alone, anyway; plotlines and NF arguments are almost never 100% unique.

As no one knows better than a writer, however, presentation — particularly GOOD presentation — generally IS unique. As industry insiders are so fond of telling writers, it all depends upon the writing.

This is why, as some of you inveterate conference-goers may have noticed, when agents, editors, and published writers are presented with a question about book theft, they tend to respond as though the question itself were a sign of an over-large ego in the asker. Just how revolutionary would an aspiring writer’s style have to be, the logic goes, for an agent or editor to WANT to steal it?

Which perhaps leaves the wondering writer reluctant to submit his long thought-out plotline and terrific premise to a publisher, lest it be handed to a better-known writer, but doesn’t really address his concern. Once again, we have a failure to communicate.

Do I see some hands in the air out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protesting, and rightly so, “between the time I submit a manuscript to an agency and the time a book is published and thus equipped with a nice, clear copyright page stating precisely who owns the writing between those covers, it passes through quite a few hands. I may not even know who will end up reading it. Shouldn’t I worry about some of them deciding to make off with my actual pages and passing them off as their own?”

Having some doubts about Millicent’s integrity, are we?

Well, it’s a reasonable enough concern: some of those hands will inevitably belong to people you do not know very well. Agency screeners like Millicent, for instance. Agents. Editorial assistants. Editors. Mail room clerks. The people in the publishing house’s marketing department.

And anyone to whom you give your manuscript as a first reader. Guess which paragraph contains the most likely thief of prose?

If you said the latter, give yourself a big, fat gold star for the day; I’ll be discussing casual exchanges in tomorrow’s post. But let’s think for a moment about why manuscripts sent to agencies and publishing houses very, very rarely turn up with anyone other than the author’s name on the title page.

An exceedingly straightforward reason springs to mind: agencies and publishing houses make their livings by selling work by writers. In-house theft wouldn’t have to happen awfully often before writers would stop sending submissions, right? So sheer self-interest would tend to discourage it.

But I’m not going to lie to you: at a less-than-reputable house or agency, it could happen. And occasionally does, especially to NF book proposals. Any guesses why?

If you immediately answered, “Because you can’t copyright an idea, only the presentation of it,” give yourself another gold star. While the copyright of the proposal materials and any sample chapter(s) undoubtedly belongs to the person who wrote them, it’s not unheard-of another writer to snatch the proposal, rewrite it minimally, and submit it as his own work.

I know: chilling.

The single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. Not only are well-established folks less likely to engage in dubious practices in the first place (this is, after all, a biz that relies heavily upon reputation), but there’s often a better-established chain of accountability if something goes wrong. As I MAY have mentioned before on this blog, it behooves a writer to do his homework.

And at the risk of sounding like your mother again, let me remind you: not every organization with the wherewithal to throw up a website is equally credible.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to check anyone in the industry with whom you’re planning to do business on Preditors and Editors; if you have doubts about an individual agent, agency, or publishing house, check agents out with the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives). These are also good places to report any professional conduct that seems questionable to you; P&E is especially good about following up on writers’ complaints.

I always advise doing a basic credibility check before sending ANY part of your manuscript via e-mail — which clearly includes anyone to whom you might be considering trading manuscripts for critique. As I’ve mentioned several times before here, after you send out an e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where it will end up.

Think about it: part of the charm of electronic communication is ease of forwarding, right? Yet another reason that I’m not crazy about e-mailed submissions. (The other reason, if you must know, is that it’s far, far quicker for Millicent to reject an electronic submission than a physical manuscript. Since rejecting the former requires the push of a single button and rejecting the latter involves stuffing pages into an envelope, which would you guess renders it more tempting not to read much before deciding?)

While it’s highly unlikely that the chapter you e-mail to an agent — or that person you just met on an Internet chat room — will end up on a printing press in Belize or Outer Mongolia, it’s not entirely unprecedented for entire e-mailed manuscripts to wander to some fairly surprising places. Yes, the same thing COULD conceivably happen with a hard copy, too, but as with Millicent’s rejection, it would require more effort on the sender’s part.

Which, believe it or not, is part of the function of the SASE: to maximize the probability that your manuscript will come back to you, rather than being carted off by goodness knows whom to parts unknown.

Stop laughing — it’s true. When you send requested materials off to an agency or publishing house, you and they both are operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission, right? The mere fact that you give them a physical copy of your work doesn’t mean that you intent to authorize them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so, right?

When you include a SASE with your submission packet, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys your expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

The key word to remember here is control. Until you have signed a contract with a reputable agent or publishing house (or are selling copies that you published yourself), you will want to know with absolute certainty where every extant copy of your manuscript is at all times.

If that last sentence gave you even a twinge of compunction about work already written and sent upon its merry way: honey, we need to speak further, and pronto. However, that conversation, along with steps you can take to prove when you wrote a particular piece, is best left until next time.

In the meantime, don’t worry; keeping a watchful eye your work isn’t all that difficult, and it certainly doesn’t require living in a state of perpetual paranoia. Just a bit of advance thought and care.

You didn’t think that your manuscript would have an easier time dating than you would, did you? Happy Friday the 13th, everybody, and keep up the good work!

A few thoughts on getting good feedback, or, why Millicent should not be the first unbiased human being who sees your manuscript

3d-audience

I have quite a bit of material to cover today, but before I launch into what you will be delighted to hear is a brand-new series that has nothing whatsoever to do with red flags on the first pages of manuscripts (well, not much to do with them, anyway), I wanted to take a moment to direct the attention of those of you who don’t habitually read the comments on recent posts (a VERY worthwhile endeavor, often, since readers ask such terrific questions) back to last Tuesday’s post. As those of you with retentive memories will no doubt recall, I raised as a cautionary exemplar of the perils of giving up too easily a character in the soon-to-be-released Canadian indie film ONE WEEK, a gloomy fellow who, according to the rather intrusive voice-over narration, had abandoned his submission process just before he would have reached precisely the right editor at HarperCollins, despite the fact that this fine publishing house, like all of the US majors, does not accept unagented submissions.

I’m delighted to report that a generous soul at HarperCollins caught my ramblings on the subject and wrote in to report that HC has recently established Authonomy, a site that encourages aspiring writers to post excerpts of their work for peer review, essentially. Those that receive the best reviews have a shot passing under the eyes of precisely the kind of editors the hero in ONE WEEK failed to have the tenacity to reach.

What’s the difference, you may well be wondering, between Authonomy and similar sites? You’re going to want to read what the HC denizen has to say on the subject.

No, you’re going to have to go see for yourselves. Shoo.

I have to say, I’m a big fan of writers reviewing one another’s work — and not only, as is often the case on the web, when there’s a competition at stake. Writers often, as John Irving is fond of pointing out, to have strong and sometimes indefensible tastes (hey, he said it; I didn’t), but they tend to read more carefully than other readers. They’re also — and this is vitally important, if one is handing around manuscripts prior to submission — are far, far more likely to catch the kind of errors that might send Millicent the agency screener into a tizzy.

I told you that the series to come had a little something to do with those pesky red flags. If you’re in the throes of querying, now is a terrific time to be seeking out sharp-eyed first readers to help ferret out manuscript problems before you slip those pages under Millicent’s notoriously gaffe-sensitive retinas.

I heard that giant collective guffaw from my long-term readers. “When precisely,” you are no doubt asking yourselves, “does Anne think it ISN’T a good time to scan a manuscript for faults that might annoy Millicent? Or, at the very least, to scan it for common mistakes and deviations from standard format?”

Okay, you’ve got me there. I preach that particular gospel quite a bit here, and with good reason: it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto. Or at least before you send it out, whether to the pitiless scrutiny of an agency, the criticism of a literary contest, the daunting prospect of self-publication, or even a solid peer review.

Why? Because in any of these fora, the author is generally held responsible for mistakes. You’ll want to minimize them.

If you’re submitting your work to an agent, this is absolutely basic to success. Since agency screeners tend to stop reading after just a couple of spelling or grammatical errors, giving a book an honest shot at getting picked up means taking the time to create clean copy. This is not a business where good enough is in fact good enough; technical perfection is expected.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: it’s worth your time to rework your manuscript until it fairly shines.

And I’m not just talking about just running your pages through a standard spell-check, either — although you’d be astonished, I hope, at just how few submitters apparently take even that minimal precaution. Spell check, by all means, but there is no substitute for the good ol’ human eye running down a PRINTED page of text for catching errors.

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

I can already see my long-time readers getting out their hymnals to sing along, so let’s go ahead and sing it together: NEVER submit a manuscript without first reading it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

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

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

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

I’m funny that way. You should be, too.

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

Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits. Most notably, as I intimated above, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in our old pal Millicent the screener’s choking on her coffee and reaching for the form rejection letter. Like, for instance, misspelling your own name or address on the title page.

Stop laughing — it happens more than you might think. Writers are often in a tearing hurry to pop those requested materials into the mail.

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

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

Was that vast collective ulp! the sound of those of you familiar with the gist of my last two posts choking on your herbal tea? What you just thought is precisely correct: due to the pervasiveness of the form-letter rejection, feedback on submissions is usually either minimal or non-existent.

Or so generic that it could apply to any manuscript Millicent saw — remember, just because a rejection letter or e-mail is personalized with your name doesn’t necessarily mean that it was written freshly in response to reading your book. Stock phrases like I just didn’t fall in love with it, this is a tough market for fiction, and it doesn’t meet our needs at this time have graced rejection letters for many years; they’re not intended to serve as meaningful feedback, but as a polite negative.

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

Now, there are a lot of places you can receive such feedback. You can ask a professional freelance editor, as I mentioned back in December (for tips on finding one that’s a good fit for you, please see the aptly-named HOW DO I FIND A FREELANCE EDITOR? category on the list at right); you can join a critique group; you can exchange pages with another writer, preferably one who writes in your book category. No one method is right for everybody, so you may need to experiment a little before figuring out how you most like to receive feedback.

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

DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE THIS PERSON THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

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

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

But DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READERS OF YOUR BOOK.

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

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

Why? Because they like you.

Don’t fault them for that. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself — or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns.

So when your Aunt Ermintrude says she’d just LOVE your manuscript (and trust me, at some point, she will; everyone likes the idea of getting a free advance peek at the next big bestseller), I give you my full permission to use me as your excuse for saying no.

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

No one likes getting called on that. Trust me on that one; I’m a doctor, after all.

And, let’s face it, when you do have a book coming out, you DO want your Aunt Ermintrude to buy it — and to talk all of her friends into buying it. If you think that professional writers don’t cadge on their relatives this way, think again: most of the pros I know keep mailing lists of everyone who has ever cut their hair, cleaned their teeth, listened to their son’s book reports, etc., to send a postcard the instant a new book of theirs comes out.

Oh, before I forget, here’s a bit of advice for those of you who already have agents and/or publishing contracts: break yourself of the habit NOW of promising free copies of your future books to your kith and kin. Since authors now receive so few copies – and are often expected to use those for promotion — it’s really, really common for the writer to end up having to BUY those promised freebies to distribute.

Yes, you read that correctly. Picture everyone who has ever said to you, “Oh, you’ll have to send me a copy when it comes out,” and do the math.

Promise to sign it for them instead. Get Aunt Ermintrude — and everyone else who loves you — used to the idea that supporting you means being willing to shell out hard cash for your book. Let them know that it’s one of the ways you would prefer to receive affection.

But DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

Is any of this sinking in? Okay, here’s a pop quiz: it’s Valentine’s Day, and you find yourself wrapped in the arms of some charming, well-meaning soul who whispers those words that make the average aspiring writer melt like butter, “I’d LOVE to read your book.”

You know what your response will be, right? Right?

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

Ditto with loved ones of every description.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while are already aware, I definitely practice what I preach in this respect. My mother is one of the best editors I’ve ever met, an eagle eye with 60 years of manuscript-wrangling experience (yes, really). Naturally, she is eager to read my work, but we’ve both been in this business long enough to know that giving birth to a writer pretty much automatically disqualifies a reader from being particularly objective about that writer’s work.

So yes, in answer to that loudly unspoken question, I do know precisely how hard it is to say, “I love you, but I don’t want feedback from you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Often, too, when you’re dealing with people unused to giving feedback, being overly-judgmental is not even a reflection of their opinions of your book: in many cases, being vicious is what people think giving feedback means. (And if you doubt this, take a gander at the first efforts of most movie reviewers, who evidently believe that the title critic means that they should never, under any circumstances, say anything positive about a movie that might, say, induce a reader to go and see it.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, keep up the good work!