Feedback; it isn’t just a radio term

October 28, 2009

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Feedback:

Feedback is a mechanism, process or signal that is looped back to control a system within itself.

Great holy Twinkies, isn’t that exactly what we writers look for when we write our brilliant tomes? Based on the feedback, we alter our “systems”  – our stories. This elevates feedback to a new level of importance, doesn’t it? It’s the vehicle that tells us we either have a good story or birdcage liner.

But what if the feedback is nonexistent or ill-advised? Then the author has no solid foundation in which to determine their book’s worth. In short, they make bad decisions that impacts their viability of their book.

I agree there are many good books out there that, for whatever reason, didn’t find a home and whose loss to the literary world is tragic. So how do we determine whether our writing is bilge water or the beagle’s overpriced designer water that comes in fussy little bottles?


Most authors who are caught in this net of “I MUST be published” get very little feedback from informed sources. Their mother, auntie, bestest friend, or wayward beagle insists the story is fahbulous, mahvelous, amazing! Pulitzer stuff. The problem is, they aren’t an informed source. There are a ton of layers a book goes through before it lands on the shelves, and the best gift an author can give him/herself and their book is getting feedback from informed sources who understand the marketplace.

Writer Boards:

There are any number of wonderful writer boards and blogs where authors can submit parts of their writing for critique and get their query letters checked over. I would be mindful about posting your work in a totally public forum. Seek boards that are private so that not every Tom, Dick, and Alice can see your work.

Independent Editors:

I know of many very good authors who use independent editors. Now, these folks are a dime a dozen, so choose wisely. I’m talking about folks who brag a clientele who have gone on to being published by solid trade publishers. These are editors who understand the marketplace and the rigors of publishing – because chances are, they worked in the industry at some editorial capacity or they’re well-published.

Beta Readers:

I’m not talking about a couple here and there, but a well-thought-out cross section of readers. Beta readers are your bestest friends because they represent the marketplace. I have an author, Barry Petersen (Jan’s Story, which is utterly brilliant) who chose a cross section of beta readers; people who knew nothing of his story (nonfiction), people who did know his story, and his agent. Aside from his agent, he chose readers, not people who are in the publishing business. These are the people who will tell you your main character is a wimp, or your plot is predictable.

Writer’s Conferences:

I can’t stress this enough. Go. To. A. Conference. This is where you pick all kinds of information that you never realized was out there. There are workshops where you can get crits and improve your writing. There are agent/editor one-on-ones, where you can get feedback on how your first pages struck us. You’ll get feedback on your pitch, your marketing ideas, learn about promotion. This is feedback on steroids, and I dare anyone to attend a conference and not come home a better, wiser writer.

How do I figure out the good feedback from the bad?

I love it when I get all rhetorical-like. The answer is, you don’t. I’ve seen authors go insane with feedback because so much of it is contrary. One beta reader may love a particular scene that another hated. How do you decide? That’s when you listen to your gut. Your gut always knows what feedback makes sense and what is white noise. It takes confidence to be a writer, and this is exactly why.

I have no problem duking it out with my authors during the editing phase. Just because I have an opinion about something doesn’t mean I’m always right. Maybe my problem with a particular character or scene is the result of improper development. Perhaps the way in which it’s written doesn’t showcase its importance to the story. That is why communication is vital. Once I can get the author talking about a character or scene, I can understand more what’s taking place in their minds and help them tailor the problem so that it communicates the intent.

And that’s something writers should think about when the receive feedback that makes their teeth itch. Ask yourself why a particular comment bothers you. Is it because it makes you think outside the box too much? You won’t always get well-detailed feedback. It could be as plain Jane as “I didn’t like your main character.” If you can ask why, do so. If you can’t, take into account as to why someone wouldn’t like your MC.

There’s a lot of detective work that goes on in writing, and the key is to not drive yourself crazy with conflicting feedback, but to lay it out on the table and consider their validity. Your gut will be your Sherlock Holmes.

So in the end, it’s lovely Mom lurves your work,  but let’s be honest; most of our moms would lurve our writing, even if it reeked. Moms are – or should be – totally off limits in the feedback department. Except you, Mom. You can always read my stuff. I just won’t take it to the bank.

Am I in trouble now?

For the most part, you want to be “in trouble,” and feedback will put you in the center of the bull’s eye. That’s what forces you to improve, to dig deeper in order to bring out the very best of your story. Feedback is, hopefully, what prevents you from making bad decisions about your book. Once it’s gone to a vanity press or a POD, it’s gone forever. Unless that was your intent all along, listen to the feedback and let them be your guide.

There’s no crying in publishing

July 30, 2009

Of late, I’ve had a spate of whiny emails from authors who were hurt over my comments about their manuscripts.  To offer some perspective, most editors don’t offer critiques after reading a full. They either say yay or nay via form rejection letter. My feeling is, if I’ve gotten to the full manuscript stage – meaning I liked the query and their first thirty pages – then I owe the author a reason as to why it didn’t work for me.

I don’t give feedback in order to invite an ongoing dialog where the author can tell me where I’m wrong in my assessment and, oh by the way, the quality of my critiques sucks stale Twinkie cream. I don’t need to be lectured about how I should have said something nice [which I really try to do], and have the author tell me my crits weren’t constructive. And I reeeeally don’t want to ever hear this, “how are negative comments supposed to make me grow as a writer?” Oh, the horror. Are they kidding? Beagle, warm up the blender.

Folks, there is no crying in publishing. You take your licks, and whatever sobbing you do is done in private. You don’t go crying back to the agent or editor, or someone who critiqued your work and tell them they hurt your little feelings.

Authors must take care of their insecurities on their own time and on their own dime. When I’ve spent hours reading a full, I’m fulfilling my professional duty as editorial director of a publishing company, and the last thing I expect to encounter is an author who has the maturity level of a string bean.  I can guar-an-tee that I won’t  stop the publishing train to whup out a box of Kleenex.

I know this sounds harsh, but geez,  do people cry to their banker if he refuses to grant a loan and tell him he hurt their feelings? Do they bawl in front of their boss when he their report isn’t fit to send to the homeless guy down the block? No, they suck it up and behave like a professional.

If you feel the need to be spoon-fed a critique in a specific style and manner, then I submit that you aren’t ready to play with the big kids yet ‘cos there is no crying in publishing.

Fragile egos – got what it takes?

July 23, 2009

I shoved the query letter and first five pages across the table to the woman seated across from me. I swear I could see her quaking in her Vickie Secrets, so worried was she about my reaction.  I felt like a schmutz because I could tell from her storyline and writing style that she was nowhere near ready to begin the query process. She’d agreed to buy me lunch in exchange for my comments on her query letter. Yikes. I didn’t know her all that well and envisioned her going postal on me and slashing my bra straps.

“Have you given some thought to a critique group?” I asked. “There are a number of wonderful online groups that can help you finesse your writing.  Or what about a local crit group?”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to work that hard. And besides, I don’t think my ego could take it. I just want to start querying now.”

Dumbfounded, I blinked repeatedly like I had a herd of gnats swimming in my eyes.  “Lemme get this straight. You don’t want to be critiqued because your ego is too fragile, but you’re ready to start querying – an adventure that can leave your ego flopping about like a beached carp. Your thinking is backasswards.”

And so it goes with many writers. The idea of going through a critique group and facing suggested (more than likely warranted) rewrites is too scary, yet they believe they are ready to hop into some of the hottest oil in the biz only to face probable rejection over and over and over again. Talk about the  ego singe of a lifetime. I would just as soon have my eyelashes yanked out with rusty pliers than submit something that hadn’t been critiqued by anyone. I mean, how do you know if you’re any good?

Many writers live on Writer’s Island, and this means that their isolation insulates them from scrutiny and critique, and their first venture out will almost surely be a rejection letter. And it won’t be their last.

I submit that a writer who is afraid their ego can’t handle the analysis of a critique group – be it online or in person – is going to have an equally hard time being rejected continually. They will question what they’re doing wrong – which, ironically enough, they could have learned up front had they joined a crit group.

So when does one shove their ego into their Pravda handbag? The minute one begins to write their story. Writing is a learning and evolutionary process that is made more difficult when the ego is constantly in the way, saying, “oo, oo, stroke me! Love me! Listen to me! Aren’t we just the most wonderful thing in the world?” Since that raspy little ego prevented you from listening to anyone else’s perspective, you have no way of knowing if you’re ready to go out into Query Land with girded loins and a healthy attitude toward rejections.

I’ve done some of my best writing due to crits. Critiques are a lot like listening to your mother. You could take her advice and not go to that party where all the cool people are hanging out because the cops might be called, or you could tell her she’s the most fabo woman in the world for looking out for your safety.

And then sneak out to the party anyway.

“I have a big hoo-ha agent!”

July 10, 2009

The rest of that sentence is the usual, “So now I have it made in the shade! Yah-freakin’-hoo!”

It’s wonderful to sign with a very big agent because the assumption is that they’ll get you the mega-deal, and you’ll be asking your own beagle to peel you a grape and mix up batches of margaritas. But before you start shopping for private islands, keep in mind that not all clients are on equal footing. Some authors are signed because the work rocks and is brilliantly written. Agents see the work as needing minimal tweaking before they send it out for query.

There’s the other layer of client that is signed because, even though the writing needs work, the plot is over-the-top fabo. This is a tough position for the author because no one knows if they have the writing chops to do proper rewrites. I’ve had several agent friends tell me stories of this very scenario; huge plot, but challenged in the writing department. They work with the author for months; years even, in hopes that the writing will live up to the plot. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t.

I’ve seen lots of incredible plots that were, frankly, too big for the author because they didn’t have the writing chops to pull it off, and this is a variable agents always have in the back of their mind. I value agents who recognize a great plot and try their best to mentor their clients. It’s an invaluable education few get. But I always cringe a little bit when I see an author constantly singing from their personal mountain tops that they’ve signed with Hoo-Ha Agent.

Be excited by getting signed, for sure. But don’t belabor the point and beat it into the ground because you have a long way to go. The time to crow is when the works sells.

There is also the other side of the big hoo-ha agent. I’ve had a number of authors tell me they felt their agent spent more time on their big money authors. Well yes, this is logical because agents are in this business to make money, so they’re gonna attend to their cash cows. If it’s the difference between selling Tom Clancy and Mary Margarita, the agent is going with Tom. That doesn’t mean the agent won’t eventually get to Mary, but it may take a long time. Or . . . maybe never. Seen it happen. So what happens is the Marys end up leaving big hoo-ha agent in search of someone who will give them more face time.

The point of this post? Keep your head on straight. I’ve seen many an author get a swelled head over signing with hoo-ha agents, and I’ve seen authors whose egos got a good shellacking. I’m happy you were signed by the agent of your dreams, but it’s only the beginning, so keep your head about you. And good luck!

Temper temper

March 24, 2009

I understand frustration. No, really, I do. I realize that when I take the time to write back to authors who queried me, I may be on the business end of someone’s temper tantrum. Like this gent who took issue with my questions regarding his query:

You know, on second thought, you’re a fucking moron. I don’t want you anywhere near a contract of mine.

I’d say he has some ego/anger issues, wouldn’t you? The idea that I’d be anywhere near a contract of his is the stuff nightmares are made of considering he couldn’t cough up a decent pitch.

This used to really bunch up my Victoria Secrets, and that’s why I instituted a form rejection letter policy a long time ago. However, since I’m all about helping authors, I just can’t manage to stick to my guns on the form rejections all the time. There are some queries that are so poorly written, like Mr. Potty Mouth above, that they speak to me; as in “either shoot us and put us out of our misery, or help us.” Of course, in retrospect, I should have just shot it and thrown it a shovel.

But before Mr. Potty Mouth’s outburst, there were three other queries where I offered some insights, and all three wrote back thanking me profusely for my help and promised to improve the quality of their queries. That’s what it’s all about, right? If I had let the barf bags of the world bother me that much, those three might still be floundering around and collecting rejections. It’s not that my insights are sooo brilliant, but that my opinions come from an informed perspective.

Publishing is cruel and heartless enough, yet it’s populated with some of the coolest people on the planet. Seems like a dichotomy to me, but we really are motivated to help where we can. It’s the fetid bilge water like my buddy here who ruins it for everyone else.

Last night I told my good buddy, Lauren Roberts of BiblioBuffet [a book review site that will improve your brain, make you popular with the opposite sex, give you whiter teeth and fresher breath] about Mr. Nasty Pants, and she asked whether I would stop writing comments and just use the form rejection letters all the time. I decided that I was better than that. By allowing the rantings of a turgid son of a diseased yak to quiet my little red pen is giving him more power than he deserves. Screw that. I told Lauren I was thinking about inserting a disclaimer at the bottom of my submission guidelines. Something along the lines of:

Please be advised: there are times that I will comment on your query. If you have an overinflated ego, believe your writing originates from the hands of the Great Cosmic Muffin, or you’re just an ass, please state this at the top of your query, and I will joyfully send you a form rejection letter.

We had a good giggle over it, but I don’t see myself going quite this far – no matter how much I’d love to. It could be one of those warnings, like don’t remove that tag from your pillow or the law will be after you. Edited to add: yes, apparently I am that twisted and have altered my submission guidelines with the warning at the very bottom. I’m sick; I know this.

This incident made me think about the differences between nations. I have a lot of exposure to Brits, who are simply delightful. They haven’t lost their good breeding and maintain that charming British stiff upper lip. Sure, Yanks make fun of it, but we could stand to take a page out of their book. If they’re going to insult you, they at least know how to do it with élan. Why be so coarse as to tell someone to fuck off when you can invite them to go forth and fornicate with a rabid mongoose? I admire that.

So why do I open myself to insults? After all, it’s alot more time-effective to yank out the form rejections. It’s a pay it forward kind of thing. We entered this business via the backdoor, and if anyone is interested, I may tell the story one day.  Because we did enter through the back door, we were infinitely fortunate to have so many people help get us where we are today. I want to take that indebtedness to help authors be the best they can be as well because I love this business, and I love authors – even the buttbuns. So while there are those whose manners were bred in a musty barn with rabid fleas, I’m willing to overlook them in order to help those whose goal is to be a writer – not an author [said in my snootiest Brit accent]. Thar be a difference.

Ego check

February 3, 2009

Here’s the dictionary’s definition of ego, what I call the “it’s all about me” word:

The “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.

I have no problem with a hale and hearty ego provided its manufacture is in relative perspective to the rest of the bells and whistles that comprise our brains. A healthy ego begets confidence and conviction that any task can be accomplished, be it rewrites or promotion.

A healthy ego is all about balance. Their sense of self isn’t undercooked over overcooked. They write with confidence but understand their words didn’t come directly from the hands of Great Cosmic Muffin. They are willing and happy to learn, and they accept critiques in a professional manner because they know it’s about the writing, not them. They understand there is process to the query stage and learn how to do it right before jumping in with both feet. I adore these types of writers because they make my job so easy.

Conversely, it can be hard going if an author’s sense of self is over- or underinflated – especially in this business. The overinflated “it truly is all about me” author barrels through the query letter process without bothering to learn how to write one. They ignore the submissions guidelines and don’t provide the information we request because, hey, those were written to keep out the tourists. Certainly not ME! They send what they want and expect a hasty reply in the preferred method of genuflection and enthusiastic praise. And of course, a contract. These types are usually the last to know that the publishing world got on nicely without them and will probably continue to do so. Rejection is a gargantuan shock to these types because they never considered the possibility.

The underinflated ego comes in two flavors; one who spends half their time apologizing to us during a meeting, or is so insecure that they can’t accept rejection. This latter type is the wretched soul who responds to a rejection letter with colorful metaphors and invitations to perform all sorts of carnal acrobatics. The apologist is scared of their shadow and feels guilty for taking up space and breathing air. I’ve been in meetings where I came close to ripping my eyelids off because the author kept apologizing whenever I made an editorial comment.

Don’t forget that we’re not just judging your writing; we’re judging you as well. We want to know how you’ll do during promotion of your book. If I have to worry that the apologist is going to turn into her shell during an interview, this doesn’t help to promote the book. It does not bode well for the author, the book, or the publisher if the author writes to Publisher’s Weekly and tells them they are a bloated codfish for the hatchet review they did on their book. (seen it; pinky swear)

I’m not suggesting authors need to have their dreams interpreted and submit to shock therapy, but self analysis is not a bad thing. Publishing is tough and competitive. As authors, you will be rejected, scrutinized, discussed, tossed in the blender, and put in the spin and rinse cycle. It’s far better to know up front whether you’re incapable of critique or sorry that you walk on the planet with so much talent. Only through self-examination can you take steps to work through your fallibilities and attain balance, confidence. Hollywood may have plastic surgeons, but writers have Freud.

Consider this tidbit the golden lure in your literary tackle box.

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