Thursday, September 17, 2009

Critiques

When a writer submits a manuscript to an agent, they obviously will get an offer of representation or a rejection. But rejections come more often than offers, even for some of the great writers out there, and when writing a rejection (I always feel bad, I mean I want to love everything), I can send off a quick "form rejection" - the it's not for me but I'm sure someone else will love it or I can send notes with reasons why I don't love it.

So, once upon a time I was a writer - I think a lot of people in publishing have done some writing. But I'm better at editing and critiquing than I was at writing, and I'm sure the whole I never let anyone read what I wrote thing didn't help me much.

But when I read a manuscript (and this is when I've requested the full) I don't want to send just a form rejection or a rejection that doesn't really explain why I'm rejecting. Because if I was the writer and I was taking the step to send my work - my blood, sweat, tears, and tireless nights - out into the world, I'd want feedback. Or at least, I think I would. And of course, as the reader I've spent a few hours of my life reading and taking notes on this manuscript trying to think of ways to make it better. I don't want to throw those notes away, then all that time I spent has no pay off.

I've taken to sending rejections with a few of the most important notes I've written just as a this is what turned me off kind of way, and I do make sure to mention that they're only my opinions and someone else could totally disagree with me.

Some writers have written back to express thanks for my opinion and time and effort - a few I've even kept a running dialogue with and have looked at the manuscript again as another set of eyes before they submitted to another agent - and some writers don't respond at all which is fine too because there's enough traffic in my inbox. But some writer responses, which usually fall into the rant or justification category, make me wonder if a form rejection would just be better off.

Rants. I've gotten a few scathing responses about how I didn't understand the genius of the work (which is quite possible. When I was teaching, I told my students quite often I did not know everything). But this is kind of, well, rude. And unnecessary. There aren't any writers or any books out there that everyone loves. (As a camp counselor I tried to connect with all the little kids by talking about Harry Potter and three little girls told me he was evil and against Christians. And those classics? People argue about them all the time, they even have a name for them - literary critics.) Writer's have to learn to take criticism - even if they don't agree with it. I have no problem with a writer who thinks I didn't understand the genius of their work, but I don't need them to write me a manifesto via about it either. And it's a poor way to represent yourself. Publishing is a small industry and people network with each other a lot. What if an agent who likes a manuscript runs into someone who has received a rant from the writer? Most people don't want to work with people who send ranting emails.

Justifications. I know a writer hasn't just slopped something down on paper for no reason. I know there's a reason, probably a good one, for the choices the writer made. But as a reader who can't see into the writer's mind I have a different impression and a different perspective. That doesn't mean I'm right, but it might mean another outside person should read it too. And while I'll take a justification over a rant any day, it doesn't really accomplish anything for the writer. It's not going to change my mind. My reactions are mine and they're honest, and they still exist no matter the writer's intention. And manuscripts and books don't go out to editors or the public with a justification attached for the writer's choices. Perhaps for the writer it's a more cleansing thing - to write a justification down, but it probably doesn't need to get sent off to the agent. I think these emails are ones that can get written and saved but never sent.

8 comments:

Kate said...

Hi, really thought provoking post. I know very little about writing it is nice to know how things work your end!

Kate x

Alyssa Kirk @ Teens Read and Write said...

Thanks for the insight. I still mystified by writers who send rude messages when they get a rejection. There are so many things wrong with that.

Yes they have put themselves into their writing but a rejection isn't personal. Reading preferences are so subjective that a writer just has to respect that what they love just isn't someone else's cup of tea. So get over it and move on.

It's wonderful when agents take the time to comment on why it didn't work for them. That gives the writer something to work with and improve on. It's very generous on the agent's part and should be appreciated as such.

Thanks for the interesting post and I hope you get more people who appreciate your kindness...and just forget about the morons who don't!

Rhiannon Hart said...

Fantastic post! I'm querying right now and am more than happy with form rejections from a query but got one from an agent who requested the full, which sucked. Actually, they communicated only through their assistant, which sucked even more! I was SO grateful to another agent who read the full and then rejected it with feedback. He was spot on and actually gave me something to work with. It felt so good to be taken seriously. So many friends/family had read it and just said "oh, it's good" which is ridiculously unhelpful. But friends can't really tell the truth about these sorts of things :)

Rabid Fox said...

I can't imagine I could ever turn into the kind of writer who would turn so venomous against a person with a less than complimentary opinion of my work. Disappointed, sure, but hardly to the point of burning bridges.

I do not envy your experiences.

Melissa said...

On some level, I can understand the angry responses. I've been rejected a lot over my writing career and it always hurts, sometimes to the point where you just want to beat on a punching bag for a while.

But you know what? If you're angry, you go off on your own and vent...maybe beat on an actual punching bag or do something else to cool off. There's no excuse for rude responses. Yet I'm surprised by how many people, even at my work (mostly my old work, where there was a lot more pressure), seem to think it's OK for them to publicly lose their cool and be openly rude. So it's not just a literary thing.

I have to say, I'm immensely grateful to any agent who takes time out of their very busy day to give feedback. I don't think agents realize it, but their critiques are usually much more insightful than what writers usually get.

I love my beta readers, they're a great group, but their critiques are never as focused as an agent's. It's like having a car that doesn't run right. My beta readers will tell me there's a funny noise in the engine, an agent will tell me exactly what the problem is and sometimes, if I'm very lucky, how to fix it.

And as a writer, there's nothing more frustrating than knowing something's not quite right with your story, but having no idea what the problem is or how to fix it.

So thank you for the feedback. It can make a huge difference to a writer, even if not all writers appreciate the gift they've been given. I hope you continue to give out advice for as long as you have the time and patience for it!

Jake Kirk@Teens Read and Write said...

All you can do is laugh it off...and by the way we've got an award for you here!

Cassandra said...

I totally agree with that last paragraph - there's nothing more cleansing than writing a ridiculously scathing, cuss-filled, beyond rude email - and then deleting it immediately.

Mechelle Fogelsong said...

Janet Evanovich got rejected for ten years before she got published (or something like that). Can you imagine? I love her books! Who would reject them?

And now she's #1. I keep this in the forefront of my thoughts every time I find a rejection letter in my mailbox. If Evanovich had given up, the world wouldn't have Stephanie Plum! Egad!

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Five Random Things About Suzie

1. I drink so much orange soda, it's probably running through my veins. I've been known to go through a twelve pack of diet sunkist in a day.

2. I'm legitimately nocturnal (or a vampire). I will be so exhausted at two pm that I'm falling asleep standing up - it has happened before, at Six Flags no less - but as soon as the sun goes down I'm wide awake.

3. I have a gorgeous unused $6000 Reem Acra wedding dress hanging in my closet, and it showed up on my doorstep the same day my (now ex) fiance broke up with me. And thank God for that. I wouldn't have wanted to waste that dress on him.

4. Social anxiety plagues me daily. I write a script and practice in front of the mirror when I have to make a phone call, but most people who interact with me have no idea how nervous I am (or perhaps they lie) because I've worked so hard to try to overcome it.

5. I'm actually worried that I will never love my children (when I do have them in the far off future) as much as I love my dogs. I just like animals better than people - they're sweet and innocent and soft and furry - is that so wrong?