Thursday, August 30, 2007

Author Beware: When Feedback Does More Harm Than Good

Quite some time ago I received the following letter from an author I had corresponded with and read a number of manuscripts from.

I am extremely frustrated by your repeated rejection letters. Each time I receive one I do the work you ask for and each time I submit revisions I get a new rejection. Clearly you are not making yourself very clear and explaining what you want. In one breath you encourage me and the next moment you tell me I'm not ready for an agent. Well do your job, make me ready. I want to learn and it's your job to tell me what needs to be changed and to make me ready.

Now when I look on it this letter saddens me. I remember the author and I remember the work, even though a number of years has gone by. She was a writer with some talent, but also someone who needed a great deal of help. Clearly the feedback I was giving her was helping, but as I’ve said before, if it was easy enough to explain in one sentence I would have offered representation. The frustrating thing here for the author is that she wanted it to be my job to make her work publishable, and as every writer knows, it’s the author's job to really figure out what is wrong with the book and what may or may not be working. As an agent I can only guide you along the way.

Jessica

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

In this case, wouldn't it be beneficial for this author to consult a book doctor? The author could learn more about what they're doing wrong, along with how to make it better.

Also, I hate to say this, but it's my philosophy that if an agent doesn't offer representation after several submissions of the same project, maybe the agent just doesn't love it enough to take it on. If she has enough passion for a project, isn't it likely that she'll sign the author for representation, then work further with revisions for the project?

Chris Redding said...

Get thee to a writer's group.
And a critique group.
Take classes. Listen to workshops.
Go to conferences.
You cannot write in a vacuum anymore.
The industry is way too competitive.
I've appreciated the suggestions in your past rejections letters to me. But I also realize that they are one person's opinion. And when more agents said the same thing then I knew I needed to change it.
It's called a learning curve. And no amount of sitting in front of the computer is going to teach her about the industry or about writing. That's the most important thing she can do, but it isn't the only thing.
On a good note, right now, she's one less person I have to compete against.
Cmr

Faye Hughes said...

My heart goes out to her/him. This was clearly one of those letters that should have never been sent, though I totally understand the frustration of the author.

Chris Redding's suggestions are excellent. As for a book doctor, Anonymous, I think that would be a waste of the author's money in this situation--better to take craft classes, interact with other writers, etc., IMO.

Faye

Mark Terry said...

This letter just bleeds frustration.

Most of us published authors have been there, I think.

As I try to remind people on my own blog regularly, comments from editors and agents are probably not terribly useful (sorry, but it's true) and although I'm grateful for them, generally, you have to take all that with a grain of salt.

What a rejection means is that on any given day a given agent/editor didn't respond to your work enough to want to rep/publish you. No more, no less.

Yes, you might suck. But nobody is just "there" with their writing. It's a constant state of not being "good enough." The only solution is to keep writing.

Anonymous said...

Ah Desperation: Thine name is writer.

I believe we all understand the frustration expressed in this letter. Just when you think you have it all figured out, an agent points out another aspect of your writing that needs correcting, which means, of course, you need to understand and learn about what the agent is telling you before you can fix it.

There was so much I needed to learn in order to write fiction (I had only written non), I finally broke down and hired a writing coach who I ended up working with for almost a year. (I got her name from a well respected agent after I begged the agent to give me some names since I was terrified of hooking up with a charlatan. The writing coach is well respected and has published a number of books on novel writing.)

Of course there is still much to learn and I continue to hone my writing skills as I receive helpful comments from agents. If I don't fully understand their comments, I usually ask them for clarification. They've all patiently explained what it was they were talking about.

What's important though, is that once I am clear on an agent's comments, I thank them and then leave them alone. No begging, weeping or expecting a longterm relationship. We're done.

But I have kept track of who has been helpful and I plan to query them with the next project. (Aren't they just the luckiest ducks?)

Anonymous said...

PS from anon 8:52.

I hope you're about to tell us that the writer is now successfully published. That would be a nice afterword to that letter.

Kate Douglas said...

I really understand this writer's frustration. For years I heard editors tell me to "write your own story." I thought that's what I was doing. It wasn't until I wrote a story without any thought toward publication that the directions finally clicked. I'd been writing what I thought the publishing market wanted, not what I wanted to read. Once I got over that hurdle and began to write for my own enjoyment, I finally understood what I'd been missing all along. When I figured out what it meant to write my OWN story, it all came together.

Lori said...

Honestly, unless you've been a writer, I dont think agents and editors really understand how desperate writers become for the attention of an editor or agent. Because we are so use to being ignored and brushed off with the form letter, the slightest bit of encouragement represents hope. I had an agent recently reject me. She told me all the good things about my work, which was nice, but made it clear that she didn't want to see more. But really, I was so grateful to her for giving me something other than the standard rejection. Help is awesome. I'd love for an agent or editor to offer me advice, but I would also like it to be made clear from the beginning if I can resubmit or they just aren't interested.

Josephine Damian said...

So an agent should be a book doctor for free? That's what this "broken record" seems to think.

As long as this person doesn't have what Hemingway called "the built in sh*t detector" - the ability to recognize when their own works stinks - no amount of advice will help them.

Sure, beginners need a ton of advice, that's what crit groups are for, but this person said they'd been at it a long time; if they haven't figured out the problems with their writing, they never will.

And their lack of understanding of an agent's role and time constraints is reason enough to reject them.

I wish them luck. Talent is one thing, but without discipline and professionalism, you have nothing.

Brandi. said...

Longtime reader, first time commenter.

That letter is heartbreaking. And I think you're completely in line: it sounds like you've helped this writer for a number of years and she can only find the fixes within herself.

Peter Selgin writes a great piece about rejection in this month's Poets & Writers that she may find helpful.

I hope the writer follows her instinct and continues the seven other stories. Perhaps she'll find what her first manuscript needs. Perhaps she'll cannibalize it for these other pieces. Perhaps it'll be her "sit in the drawer novel" that will allow her to claim herself as an author and motivate her forward. Perhaps she'll try other genres or shorter pieces. Or, perhaps she'll find another art area that she can also love.

I agree with Faye Hughes that Chris Redding's suggestions are stellar, but I think his attitude is ugly. Viewing writing for publication as a competition only makes the task harder. It's difficult to learn from the other talented writers in the room if they're all the roadblocks to your publication. The biggest enemy to publication is often your own mind.

Precie said...

I'll admit I'm rather new to this industry, but from everything I've read, it's like a gift from the gods if an agent actually offers suggestions for revision, rather than the standard rejection letter. It's a tremendous sign of promise and interest.

While I empathize with the writer's frustrations at revising and revising and revising, Chris's suggestions sound spot-on...In the end, no one can truly improve your project but you. And it's not just about the words...it's about the vision, the structure, the import behind them.

Honestly, when I'm ready for the query stage, I can only hope to find agents taking such a vested interest in my work.

Anonymous said...

I was understanding of this letter (been there) up until I realized that this author is not represented by this agent. If this author were writing this letter to an agent with whom she'd already signed, I would understand it, but to write it to an agent who has only offered rejection is silly.

I recently wrote a similar letter to my agent--the one whom I hired. She was pecking me to death with picky little changes to the manuscript and finally I said ENOUGH, your changes have nothing to do with characterization or plot, they are simply your preferred word choice.

Similar letter--different situation. So, a letter like this might be justified, but not in this situation.

p.s. Happy outcome. My agent and I came to an understanding after this, and she is now sending out the manuscript.

Kimber An said...

There are plenty of resources and mentors out there to help writers improve their craft. None of them will do a writer any good unless she has an effective learning attitude first.

Anonymous said...

I've felt this frustration, and it breaks my heart.

While all this advice is great, the issue I see here is a person struggling with their ability to let go.

The author has been struggling twenty years, she has a number of books that she started with that she keeps revising, and she is clinging to a perceived personal relationship with an agent that has rejected her more than once.

One of the only ways to grow as a writer is to move forward, and you can't move forward chained to the past. Put old manuscripts away, sometimes forever. Say thank you to those who help, then figure it out. Seek out new people to give you advice and perspective. And if you have to, let it go altogether.

I think sometimes we are overly discouraged from ever giving up. And there is something to be said for tenacity. (I'm still here after seven years) However, if it is slowly killing your soul, time to find another talent.

Good luck to all those with their feet still in the trenches.

Chessie

jjdebenedictis said...

On a good note, right now, she's one less person I have to compete against.

That struck me as a mildly jerkish thing to say, and a misguided one.

You aren't competing against other writers. If your writing "isn't there", then it doesn't matter if the agent has seen one great manuscript in the past year or twenty, you won't get signed.

Once your work is publishable, you will get published. How many other writers are shopping their work at the same time is irrelevant.

jodi said...

*sigh*

never vent.

It's the hallmark of professionalism. 'Cause you never know the people out there reading you, and for all you know, something you write in a letter may be a permanent part of the internet tomorrow. I wrote a "letter to the editor" TEN years ago, and it was picked up by a school who keeps it alive and kicking (I hate them). No matter how frustrated. How angry. How desperate. Find a friend. And talk to them instead.

...but yeah, it is sad.

Jellybean said...

Oh, writer. Dear writer. This is the sort of letter you should write to yourself. Really, it is tempting to blame other people out there when your work hasn't progressed far enough, and we all want to ask for help from time to time. But, in the end, it is your own responsibility.

I'm not a fan of "venting letters", but if you feel the need to write one, do not send it. Put it in a drawer and look at it again the next day. The next week. Use it remind yourself what frustrates you, what motivates you. But don't send it. It is never a good idea.

spyscribbler said...

Awww. I wish I could send this author a cyberhug. With that kind of dedication to working, I hope she made success for herself?

I do wish we all wouldn't be so focused on NY or bust. If she was really that close, I bet she could find herself a nice, profitable niche somewhere. You can take all the classes you want, learn from whomever you want, but at some point, we can't just write.

Writing's different for everyone, and so is their career path. But, at some point, we have to make the transition from writing a story down to telling a story TO a reader.

amy m said...

I understand this writer's frustration, I really do, but it just really wasn't a good idea to send that letter. Especially the part with "I'm frustrated with you." That's a nail in a coffin, alright. Venting is better to be done with friends/other writers and not to the person you're venting at.

It is extremely frustating to be part of a writers group, a critque group, attend the classes/workshops, and still not be able to figure out what was wrong with your book. I had this experience with one book, put it away, and started shopping around another one.

Immediately one agent gave me her opinion of what wasn't working, then another did the same. It was the same thing. It shed light on what was wrong with the first one.

Chumplet said...

The poor dear. I really feel for her (or him). A caring group of fellow writers will help her more than anything else, but only if she lets them.

Look up 'critique' and you'll see such words as evaluation and assessment. Look up 'criticism' and you'll see disparagement and disapproval. She likely sees the latter.

Hopefully her dedication and hard work will pay off, if only she lets others help her.

Form letters are frustrating, but personalized rejections are silver, if not gold. Try to interpret them and you'll find a little nugget to help you on your way.

Anonymous said...

Do letters fall under copyright law? Don't you need that writer's permission to post this?

Anonymous said...

OK, it's sad, I agree. But the author had a point--an agent needs to make it clear when they're offering suggestions to be nice, and when they're offering "I'll consider representing you if..." suggestions.

Cindy Procter-King said...

Aw, that was a sad letter. I feel sorry for the writer, but I don't think she or he should have sent it.

Chris Redding said...

So no one thinks me a complete jerk, I meannt one less person's book that my book had to compete with in the book store. Not compete with to get published.
Chris Redding

Michele Lee said...

To be successful at being and author you need to have the writing and have a marketable story. I've seen a lot of people focus on the writing, and not the other part. Beautiful writing doesn't mean poo if your story is derivative, or plotless (or worse, has a plot like 30 years of soap opera in 90k)

Once I understood this I accepted my rejects much easier.

The tendency is to blame the writing itself, and not the marketability. Crit groups sometimes don't help, as one must always consider the source of the crit. Groups of new authors often don't understand what to look for and sometimes get caught up in personal spats and that affects crits.

Diana Peterfreund said...

I do wish we all wouldn't be so focused on NY or bust.

1) Is everyone? I see a lot of folks (especially online) who aren't at all. Of course, they aren't the ones submitting to agents.

2) Why not? I was NY or bust. I did all the research and saw it as the best way to become a career, working writer. If that's what you want, then you have to look at it that way. And you do what it takes to make it the former, not the latter.

I feel for the author of this letter. The frustration just pours out. But I agree with others that it's a letter she should not have sent. It's a common refrain "tell me how to make it work." but the thing is, no one can. The longer I'm in this business, the more I see that a talented agent/editor/writing coach can make a good work great, and critique partners can make a good work better and a horrible work readable but meh, but it's only the writer who can make the leap from unpublishable to publishable.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jessica: it is definitely the author's responsibility to make her work readable and marketable. The agent is not there to hold one's hand. I submitted my manuscript to an agent who sounded very enthusiastic about it after I sent her my query. She sent the ms back saying that it needed polishing, that there were errors starting with the first page. This hurt me, but it also made me realize that I, too, had thought the same thing about that first chapter. I knew something was wrong with it, but was too lazy to fix it. It took somebody else telling me to make realize that it definitely needed to be revised. So, I revised it... and turned it into one kick-ass opening chapter to boot. I resent it to that agent, but she took too long to reread it, and I interpreted that as loss of interest on her part (she could've also been busy). So I sent it to another agent, who loved it and signed me on the spot.

The agent in question didn't point out the things that needed fixed; it was something I had to figure out on my own. A good writer has a little editor in him/her, and should trust his/her instincts. In hindsight, I should have trusted mine. Even though I am not signed with that agent, I am glad I contacted her, for she made a big difference in getting my book noticed.

Aimless Writer said...

No matter how frustrated I got I would NEVER send that to an agent! Wow. I'm sorry, but it sounded needy and like she expected you to do her work. Any morsel of critique you might happen to give in a rejection letter is always appreciated butI agree with others who said find a critique group. Better yet, SHOP AROUND for a group. I've been in a few bad ones and it took time to find the great one I'm in now.
And I've recieved a few rejections from your agency. I file them in my Micky Mouse can and just go back to work. They are merely notches in my writer's belt. You didn't like my last one, maybe you'll like the next.
Question; How do you like having the same manuscript resubmitted after rewrites? I always took a no thanks as a no thanks.

Anonymous said...

seems to me like the author has problems that go beyond writing frustrations....

Jennifer McK said...

I have to say that I do understand the frustration.
For me, I have a book that I've been trying to "revise" for two years. The premise seems to appeal but every time I submit it, the execution falls short.
There comes a time when putting that baby away becomes the next step. Frankly, I don't know when that will be for me. I have not focused entirely on that one work and have shorter work published.
I, too, received a "revise and resubmit" from an agent and tried very hard to made it "publishable" but upon a second R&R, I put the story away for a while and concentrated on other work.
I'm back at that manuscript again and it IS frustrating.
This sounds like a case of letting go and writing a different story.
I could be WAY off here though.

jodi said...

never give up, Jen. One day I'll get that "regency-that-won't die" pubbed and then watch out, Avon, lol.

You just gotta keep hacking at it.

Midwestern Writer Wannabe said...

...as every writer knows, it’s the author's job to really figure out what is wrong with the book and what may or may not be working.

But when an author receives such advice as the following:

-If an agent rejects you, it could mean they just weren't the right agent for the work.

-If an agent rejects you, it could mean you work just isn't what is being bought up by publishers right now.

-If an agent rejects you, it could mean your manuscript just needs too much work to make it publishable.

-So on and so forth

Personally, I can sympathize with this writer. I don't know what was said back and forth during those original submissions, but it certainly seems that vague would be a great understatement.

I'd also question the advice of trying to get feedback from all kinds of other people on what needs to be fixed in a manuscript. Certainly, one needs to find decent reviewers to scan their work, but those people aren't agents, and don't seem to be nearly as fickle (in general).

Midwestern Writer Wannabe said...

it certainly seems that vague would be a great understatement.

This statement was meant to describe agent responses in general, not the responses between this author and the agent in question. Just a point of clarification...