Monday, May 21, 2007

Author Beware: Strong Writing

Over the years, as an editor and agent, I have built a pretty good-sized author beware file. This file is made up of the letters and emails I've received from authors that I know I want to avoid. From time to time I'm going to dig out one of those letters and post some of what was said. And, of course, I’m going to comment.

Another reason why agents don’t give feedback in their letters . . .

In your recent rejection letter you told me that writing was "strong enough." But without any details I'm afraid I'm not sure what you mean. Could you give me details? Was it my character? or the beginning of chapter three? WHAT?

Besides that though you told me to join a critique group and I want you to know that I am in a fabulous critique group full of amazing people. Some are even published.  Thanks for the advice though.

I didn't mean to sound defensive even though I probably am. I'm disappointed of course, but you're not the only agent out there and I'll keep plugging away. In the future though let me give you some advice, try not to make so many assumptions about a writer's abilities when sending out rejections, at least until you've read the entire manuscript.
And, just so you know, my writing is too strong.

I think if we all took a moment to think about it we would know the difference between strong writing and writing that isn’t strong enough to be published, whether it’s your own work, and that first manuscript sitting under your bed, or the work of one of your writing partners. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad or unreadable. It’s simply not quite there. And you know what, I can’t always give you specifics. That’s the tough part of rejection letters and why they are so often form letters. I can’t always tell you why it didn’t work. Sometimes it’s just plain horrible, sometimes it’s actually entertaining but is missing something and I can’t quite put my finger on it, and sometimes it’s a personal preference, I just didn’t like it.

As for this author’s writing group, one thing really jumped out at me and that’s the phrase “an excellent group of women.” Are they an excellent group of women or a sincerely helpful writing group? These are not necessarily one and the same. I think writing groups are an invaluable part of this business, but I also think that everyone should regularly evaluate whether or not the groups they are in are still benefiting them.

I know this author is defensive and I’m actually fine with that. We’ve all been there and blasted off that email in a weak moment when we shouldn’t have. What I wasn’t happy about was the accusation that I was making generalizations and assumptions when I was trying to honestly give my evaluation of her work. I’m sincerely sorry that it upset her, for that was not my intent. My intent was to give a real reason for my rejection. I’m not sorry I did it, but I think you can now see why I don’t do it very often.



Kate Douglas said...

I think a lot of writers make the mistake of choosing friends as their critique partners. It does no one any good to hear nothing but wonderful things about their work. My critique group consists of a professional editor, two publishers of ebook companies, and a number of published authors. They literally rip me to shreds. What my editor gets is not the first version I've written, not by a long shot! I think the first thing a writer has to lose, when they want to find an agent or an editor, is their ego.

Roseywinter said...

Wow... that reply scared me. lol. Not really, but it did shock me! I think I was just surprised--not so much by the defense, but more so by the attack about you making assumptions, etc. I mean, goodness... you didn't HAVE to give them feedback, but you did. Plus, they wasted a bunch of energy writing that letter when they could have just looked at their work with fresh, detached eyes and worked on improving their manuscript. Ah well. I wonder if, in the future, somebody will recite these own very words of mine back to me when I receive my first ever rejection letter, and my own ego flares? lol. Just kidding (I hope).

Babe King said...

Um, wow. Poor you. The problem with being "there" is you never really know whether you are or not until someone taps your shoulder and says, "Oh, you're there all right!" I guess agents get a lot of projected angst they don't deserve.

Beverley Kendall said...

Maybe when they start looking at the fact that writing is also a business you'll stop receiving letters like this.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

I was told early on by fellow writers that the correct response to a rejection was "Thank You". It may be through gritted teeth and I may disagree with everything someone says, but "Thank You" is still the response they get from me.
I'm grateful you've reinforced this. Any personal comment on a submission is progress as far as I'm concerned.
And like Babe said, it's hard to know when you're "there".

Kimber Li said...

We all need constructive feedback in order to make our writing stronger, especially if we can't afford to pay for help. One thing is certain, we're NOT going to get this feedback we need so badly and say we want by being defensive. Thick Skin. It's nothing personal.
Absolutely, the correct response is 'Thank you!'

Unknown said...

If you can't say thank you, say nothing at all.

Anonymous said...

I have spent 35 years in this business and it never fails to amaze me how flippant people can be about writing, especially writing books. If I have heard once, I have heard a million times, "Oh, I'd like to write a book," as if one can do it as easily as one bakes a pie. Young writers are disproportionately gifted with tender egos which are bolstered by blind and uncritical affinity for their own words. Their desire to see their writing -- untouched or unedited -- in print is tantamount to a student getting an A in Biology 101 and thinking, hey, I think I'll be a doctor and assuming that he doesn't need to go to med school. Beverley is right. It is a business, like law or education or dentistry. New writers need to realize this, learn everything they can, develop professional demeanors and realize their words are not their fingers and toes. And Kate Douglas is right. Egos need to be left at coat check. Real writers wear confidence earned by hard work, business saavy, talent, honesty and, most importantly, by the ability to be taught and to learn.

Anonymous said...

Real writers wear confidence earned by hard work, business saavy, talent, honesty and, most importantly, by the ability to be taught and to learn.

Words to live and write by.

I can understand some of the frustration. How lovely and easy it would be to fix an issue if the person could zero in on it and tell us exactly what's wrong in minute detail. However, that isn't realistic, nor is it applicable across the board. What one agent doesn't like, another will love.

I like to think that while agents are in the business of selling books, they are also readers. As readers we can't always say exactly what about a book we liked or didn't like.

Best course of action here would have been a simple thank you for reading and for commentary. Anything else is superfluous, and and this case damaging.

Grace Draven

Anonymous said...

"I think a lot of writers make the mistake of choosing friends as their critique partners."

Sometimes, though, your really close friends are the only ones who'll tell you the truth. My husband and I are both writers, and we run everything we write past each other. At one point he sulked and asked why I was meaner than everyone else who read his work. I said, "Because I know you can do better. It's fine as is, but it could be great." And, several drafts later, it was.

That doesn't mean I'm not a big baby when I get the same type of critique in return. But we trust each other's judgement, and know that saying "the second half of the story falls apart" doesn't end the relationship.

Kimber Li said...

The fact is a baby human can't walk on the day she's born and it would be cruel to spank her for that.

Likewise, this writer is in the beginning phase of the learning process we all go through. The choice is hers now, whether to continue learning or to give up. I hope she chooses to continue learning and remembers how this feels, so that in years to come she can offer compassion and advice to the next class of new writers.

Caren Crane said...

Well said, Kimber An. The hardest thing to see is new writers coming into my writer's group and experiencing all the firsts: first hopeful submission, first bad critique, first rejection. Writers need a hefty dose of self-confidence. Sometimes they even need ego to sustain them through the rough times.

But, as Kate pointed out, ego has no place in your editor/agent/writer relationship. I prefer brutal honesty to faint praise.

Anonymous said...

I've had an agent tell me my writing was very strong -- only to send a form after reading the full. To me it said that she wasn't the agent for me -- not because of the form, but because clearly she liked aspects of the writing, but not the entire bag. And that's okay. (Though, sure, I was bummed at the time -- but I didn't e-mail her about it, thankfully.)

Anonymous said...

I've written several books, published a couple. NEVER baked a pie. The whole process mystifies me. Especially if there's lattice-work involved.

Blows my mind that someone would respond like this to an agent, though. The proper reaction would be: 1) shrug, or 2) "maybe she's right."

I've received rejections saying my writing wasn't strong enough. Since the book proceeded to get several offers from other houses and sold at auction I took it for what it was, an opinion, and *moved on.*

Anonymous said...

Thanks for addressing the issue of why form rejections are often sent. I can't tell you how many times I've heard writers complain that agents "should at least provide a helpful line or two of feedback" if a partial or full manuscript is requested.

Kristin Nelson blogged about this last year, too. She explained, as you did, that sometimes you can't put your finger on the reason the story didn't work, or that it was a personal taste issue.

Anonymous said...

I often encounter writers who need a blunt, and yes- cruel, critique partner. A writing partner that can feel free to tear your work to shreds is worth his or her weight in gold.

Rejection sucks wide and tall -- but it's best to keep that angst to yourself and just keep writing.

Anonymous said...

Ooof. Not good. I think one of the most difficult things to hear is that the agent/editor "just didn't love it enough." You want to ask all the questions that come to mind--what would have made you love it more? How much is enough? Was I in the ballpark? But if you think about the last novel you read and thought was, meh... try and describe "meh." Not easy, I'd imagine, especially when most of what you read all day is "meh." You really can't rely on an editor or agent to tell you how to get better, and it's real gravy when they do.

Greg said...

Arrrghhh. People like that drive me nuts.
I've compiled over 100 rejections in the past 4 years. Never responded to one, nor would I ever *think* of responding to one in this way. I consider myself a professional. People like this make us look bad.

Anonymous said...

The babyish "my writing is too strong" says it all. She didn't want to hear anything but "sign here", and she punished you for that.

Miss Snark blogged about a similar letter, wherein the author replied to the suggestion of joining a critique group with a snotty, 'a lot you know, because I'm already in one'. She said it made her laugh, because clearly the wannabe missed the point. If you're in a critique group but you're not getting any closer to success, the group might not be too helpful.