Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Eye of the Beholder

“So give me something to believe

Cause I am living just to breathe

And I need something more

To keep on breathing for

So give me something to believe”

- Samuel Bingham Endicott, Song “Believe” The Bravery

I’ve been inhaling books and agents’ blogs to find out what to do and, more importantly, what not to do when writing and submitting. When I send a query, and sometimes a synopsis and pages of the manuscript, I’m not provided with any feedback as to what I’ve done wrong.

Most rejections provide vague responses:

“Not right for our list.”

“Doesn’t suit our present needs.”

“I’m sure another publisher will feel differently.”

These comments don’t do anything for morale or improve queries and writing. Then I recently read a post that said all rejection letters are lies, and not to believe a word. That is NOT helpful.

Everyone recommends critique groups. But join a group of four and I’ll get four different types of advice, pulling me in different directions. Who is right? Who is wrong? A manuscript exchange partner limits the comments and the perspective, but is that better or worse? Go to conferences and do a critique round table on first pages and there’s some valuable advice, but as with regular critique groups, the comments are all over the place, and if I’m not jazzed by their writing, how can I trust their feedback?

A professional critique is the answer! For the last two years, I’ve utilized that option, with its negligible expense at conferences. This has been helpful, but then after I make improvements that person isn’t there to give me more feedback. I could hire someone, but that’s a significant expense; it may cost as much as my first advance, without guaranteeing one.

Now I’m reading, Hooked by Les Edgerton, which is all about inciting incidents, story worthy problems, and the like. It’s made me look at all my manuscripts in a different light, which is great… but… as I change them, how do I know I’m heading in the right direction?

Worse, is that, like Edgerton, these agent sites and blogs state, “Don’t do this, unless you are (Fill in the famous author who did do it successfully).” How do I know if I’m good enough to do it or should I err on the side of I’m not worthy? During my first conference, I actually heard an agent tell a writer, “Don’t write in rhyme, unless it’s done well.” Is proper prose in the eye of the beholder?

But not all feedback gives mixed messages. This is what I’ve learned (And most of these are crimes I’ve committed):

- With the tight economy, more and more agents and publishers only

want a query, so it better be an intriguing premise and flawlessly written

in order for anything additional to be requested.

- Don’t begin with a character waking up*. (Oops!)

- Only provide as much back-story in the opening scene as is required

to fill in the reader.

- Only provide details of scenery or weather unless it adds something to

the action/scene.

- Don’t be over-expositional.

- Don’t be cliché.

- Show and not tell – keep the character engaged in action, rather than

thought as much as possible.

- Foreshadowing and tension must be present in the opening.

- Keep flashbacks to a minimum.

- Don’t do a preface as a way to sneak in back-story.

- Don’t spell everything out for the reader – give the reader credit and

keep some mystery.

- Your character must grow as a person from chapter to chapter and

from beginning to end.

- Novel recipe: create a baseline for your character, add an

inciting incident, work your way up to the climax, and bring the

protagonist back to baseline, but a better baseline than in the beginning

(And don’t drag the story after the climax).

- Vary the lengths of sentences and paragraphs.

- Your manuscript must be error-free upon submission. Seems obvious,

but it’s easy to make a few errors with 43,000 words, even when others

edit it. How many published books do you read that still have a typo or


- If the writing doesn’t immediately draw the agents or publishers in,

they won’t read past the first page, so make it good.

Not at all daunting.

It’s my fault for not taking writing more seriously when I was younger that I have to learn this now. In high school, I paid attention to what I found interesting, glossing over the less glamorous lessons on grammar. In college, except for one Creative Writing course, I didn’t develop the craft of writing. Then I waited fifteen years from the time I took that class to begin writing seriously. Now I am reading and writing every spare minute I can snatch. I'm striving to be the best writer I can be.

*Read an excellent article, “Fix Your Beginning”. Continue on in the comments section to see me get reprimanded:


  1. Hopefully Robert can catch the typos.

  2. The fact is that you need to learn all these things yourself. Getting feedback from others can be useful, but it is worthless unless you have already developed the analytical and writing skills necessary to evaluate that feedback. The trick is to just keep writing and keep reading and keep working to improve. And don't get caught up in the trap of thinking you need an agent. I don't know if the queries you mention are being directed at agents or publishers, but if you are not at a stage where you have a finished, polished, completed manuscript that you know does not need more significant work, then you don't need an agent or a publisher, and thinking about them is a distraction. Even then, you may not need an agent. By the time you are ready to approach an agent, you should have a moderate-to-long list of publications and be confident in your work (as much as you can be, everyone worries). Otherwise you are worthless to an agent and an agent is worthless to you.

  3. In other words, what you have written indicates that you aren't ready to be sending out queries, and these rejections might have been acceptance letters if you'd waited until you were ready. Instead, they are rejections, and now you can't send your finished, polished manuscript to that publisher or agent.

  4. Maybe I'm misjudging what you've written here, or where you're at. In any case, I don't mean to discourage, but to help.

  5. Just one more PS -- I get plenty of rejections, just like you, and yes, it can be frustrating that they are vague and not helpful. But you have to understand that their purpose is not to be helpful. Their purpose is to reject the work. It's just business correspondence, notifying you of a decision. The assumption is that anything you submit is 100% completed. Therefore, from their perspective, you don't need advice. You need a letter that announces a business decision to reject the work, since for any number of reasons, they aren't going to publish it.

  6. Thanks for the advice, Jonathan.

    When I wrote my first manuscript, I didn't know what I was doing, and sent it out with little chance of getting a contact. I've learned a lot since then.

    I send polished work, but when I got a few rejections with feedback on a particular manuscript, Indigo in the Know, I went back to revision. That said, my writing has improved immensely since my first manuscript. I just reworked Indigo, and I have someone looking at it to catch any glaring errors. When that's done, I'd like to resubmit it to the publisher that had requested the entire manuscript after reading the first three chapters, but then rejected it. Since I had two requests for the whole thing, I take that to mean that the premise is appealing.

    I started off targeting publishers, but have focused more on agents because I'm wary of negotiating a contract (Should the lucky day come). I've heard that if I get an offer, I could contact an agent, who would probably be happy to take me on, since they would have a lot of the work done for them. There are a couple of agents that have given me more than the standard rejection, so they may be good people to contact at that point.

    You are right - rejections are just that. I don't expect the agents and editors to hold my hand, but I'm just airing my frustration in figuring out where I went wrong: query, genre, writing style, age of protagonist, inciting incident, and so on.

    Do you have an agent?

  7. I've never wanted an agent, so never approached one. I may get one this year, I'm not sure if I really want one yet. At this point, I've been publishing things for a while, have a book (of poetry) out and a second under contract, and many friends with agents (I can surely get some referrals). Also, I've had publishers contact me out of the blue, having heard rumours that I've been working on the novel, so there is interest out there. I'm in Canada so the world is a little different, and it's easier to get noticed, although it's more competitive in some ways. Anyway, none of this means I'm going to get decent money or even end up with a large press, but it does mean that I can say with some confidence that the book will be published, by somebody, and that I can probably get an agent if I want.

    Of course, there is a certain point after which you can't say anything with certainty. I'm no moneybags writer, by any stretch, but this is the kind of position you want to be in -- where you are blipping along fine, with no agent, and so in a good position to attract one if you want. You don't need agents to get published, you just need them to do very specific things on your behalf or introduce your work to certain people. And agents want to work with people who don't need them, but who the agent could possibly take to a new level. This is why, as you've heard, it's fairly easy to get an agent with a contract in hand, compared to when you are starting out.

    It's a lot easier to get published than people think. There are only two things that you can possibly be "doing wrong": either you are not producing publishable work or you are not sending it to an appropriate market. Now, there are other reasons why you might get rejected. But those rejections would not come because of anything that you "did wrong" and so can be discounted. You just need to determine if you are doing something wrong or not. And again, there are really just these two things you could be doing wrong. It sounds like you've got a pretty good grasp of things but are maybe having a bit of trouble being objective and seeing if, in fact, you've done anything wrong or not. Good luck! It's the toughest thing, to get that objective eye. We could all do better.

  8. I should just add that I know nothing about the world of kidlit. So discount everything I've said if you think that the difficulties you're having are particular to that world.

  9. Thank you again for your comments and advice.

    My first manuscripts suffered from show and not tell, but I've gotten that problem licked (I think).

    The age of a character in comparison to the target audience seems to be an issue with children's lit. Editors and agents want the characters to be on the high end of the target audience age-range, figuring that in the 9-12 category, a 12-year-old won't want to read about a 9-year-old. They are also sensitive to the child not behaving older than his or her age. Those kinds of comments cause me to consider big revisions.

    For the manuscript I just revised, I needed to make the protagonist be more affected by and grow from using her sixth-sense, which I think I've done.

    Soon I'll send it out again and find out.

  10. Good luck -- as I say, I know nothing about kidlit, the idea that there is a 9-12 category seems moronic to me.

  11. The ages roughly correspond to usual reading level, but also content.

    For chapter books:

    Early Readers Ages 6-8
    Middle Grade Ages 9-12
    Young, Young Adult Ages 11-14 (Newer category)
    Young Adult Ages 14 and up

    And so the protagonist is supposed to the high end of the age range (or older), but the content must be appropriate for the age range.

    Unfortunately, the age of the character and story pop in my head without paying attention to the categories. And sometimes, the category doesn't become clear until I'm well into the manuscript. Then I have to decide what to do if the age of the character is low for the range. I also didn't know how this worked until after I'd written a whole manuscript.

    I know, more than you ever wanted to know.

  12. I've heard this kind of thing a few times. The whole issue of "categories" for kidlit is idiotic, in my view. There is no such thing as an early reader, age 6-8. There are only individual children who read. The idea that there are particular guidelines for content that can be meaningfully determined on the basis of a child's supposed reading level is absurd. One of the many reasons I don't want to write kidlit, I guess. Anyway, good luck with it, I hear that the field is growing despite this kind of lunacy on the part of its publishers.