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What do you do when an agent laughs at your manuscript and says it’s awful?
B. Beg her to read it again
C. Throw a brick at her
D. Learn from it and vow that one day, you’ll have the last laugh
This happened to me at a writer’s conference years ago. Well, not just to me. It happened to a lot of writers at that conference. We signed up for pitch sessions and critiques, where literary agents and editors reviewed samples of our manuscripts.
These sessions are similar to job fairs, but can be worse. Imagine a job recruiter saying he wouldn’t use your resume for toilet paper and that you’ll never find a job. A critique session can be a literary version of American Idol—you can find “judges” who are compassionate human beings or sadistic monsters who love crushing your dreams with brute force.
For my session, I submitted sample chapters of my novel Partners In Crime. It was a new experience for me, so I didn’t know what to expect. Well, the agent I selected really let me have it. As she flipped through the pages and laughed while telling me everything that was wrong with it, my first instinct was to ask a female friend to do a Jet Li move and drop kick her across the table (after all, I won’t hit a lady).
However, I forced myself to listen. As much as her words hurt, I refused to curse her, like some other authors did that day with their reviewers. Some even cried. Of course, not all sessions were bad. Some agents/editors gave glowing reviews and two writers walked away from the conference that day with book contracts.
Obviously, I wasn’t one of them. Instead, I chose Option D above. I learned from it. Now, I don’t even care about having that last laugh. I’m just busy improving my craft. So if you ever plan to have your written work evaluated, keep these things in mind:
Beware destructive critics
- They’re also known as haters. They love to critique everyone’s work and point out what they didn’t like or what they would change. Rarely do they point out good things. You can’t please them. Of course, they’ll never submit their own work for critique. They don’t want to taste their own medicine.
Beware the lovey-dovey critics
- These people are on the opposite end from the haters. These folks think that even a grocery receipt is a beautiful story that encapsulates the struggles, triumphs, and endearing passion of the human spirit. They’ll definitely think your writing will be an immediate international bestseller. As tempting as it may be, don’t seek them for advice. While it’s nice to hear their kind words, it’s hard to take them seriously, especially if they can’t give concrete reasons or examples WHY they love it. It may be that they just love you and not necessarily your work. Or perhaps you can’t handle rejection or criticism well and they’re avoiding the drama that comes with being honest with you. If that’s you, learn to accept criticism. You’ll never get better without it.
Appreciate the constructive, objective critics
- This isn’t easy. Even today, I cringe a little when people critique my writing. I poured my heart into my book, and like every writer, I want people to love it and say it’s an awesome book. But I have to come back to reality. Every author can improve. Read Amazon reviews for best sellers; you’ll find readers trashing novels like the Da Vinci code, which only sold, oh, a billion copies. Even the bestselling book of all time, the Bible, has denouncers. What hope does anyone have of writing a perfect book?
- So hold on to these valuable people who offer objective, constructive feedback, even when they say they don’t like something. They are worth more than gold.
Still, take the nuggets from scathing critiques
- Even though I hated sitting in front of that agent that fall day in Los Angeles, I had to admit she had valid points. Although her tact and delivery could’ve been softened, and even though she was meaner than the worst of the aforementioned haters, she pointed out things I had to work on if I wanted to publish a murder mystery series one day. I just had to swallow my pride and listen.
The point? Do the best you can. Don’t let someone ruin your dream and never change your work just to please someone who didn’t like it. That’s not to say there may not be a valid point in what is said. You have to be objective and decide if it’s worthy feedback. But if you’ve done your hard work and put together the best product you can, I promise you that more people will love it than not!
Man, I love my friends, family, and readers. They are very supportive. Since I’m like every other author out there, struggling to build awareness, they think Oprah is the answer to all of my problems.
They feel I’m just one phone call away from stardom. One phone call from Oprah to highlight my book before I start signing movie deals and counting huge amounts of cash. When I tell them that there are a million books published each year, and other authors hear the same things, they pooh-pooh my realism and tell me to think positively.
But Oprah still hasn’t called yet. No invite to her show. No multimillion dollar contract. She hasn’t magically sensed my novel on the market and felt a strong compulsion to fulfill my dreams of fame and fortune. What’s her problem?
My friends and readers say “Send your book to her! She’ll read it. You never know!”
I try not to chuckle when I hear that. Oprah must have warehouses full of unrequested books that people throw her way. Besides, I’ve never known her to highlight my genre, which is murder mystery. If I’m putting all my hopes into a magical discovery that happens all of a sudden, I’ll probably be disappointed.
We live in a culture that highlights those who reach the pinnacle of success or luck. From the Powerball lottery winners to the young woman who wins American Idol, we’re inundated with these stories. Yet, they are just one in a million. Maybe one in several hundred million. However, people see these folks and believe that anyone can do it, too.
What we don’t see are the people who work hard and keep striving despite seeing any visible signs of progress. We don’t see the little things they have to stick to, day in and day out, to reach their goals. So we get lulled into that belief that we can get those miracle finishes without much difficulty.
Promoting a book certainly falls in the ‘difficult’ category, especially when I don’t have $3,000 a month to spend on promotion. Yes, several PR companies specializing in book promotion quoted a price of over three grand per month to promote my book. Maybe if I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t need to worry about promoting my book to increase sales. So when my optimistic friends and readers tell me to call Oprah, I smile, say ‘sure!’, and keep it moving. Like most authors out there, I have to do this the hard way.
That’s not to say I won’t break Olympic records running to my phone if Oprah’s name pops up on my caller ID. I just won’t expect it to be that easy. I need to keep things simple and start with easier tasks before I get that invite to Chicago. Like writing five or six bestsellers first. Easy enough, right?
Then I won’t have to worry about Oprah and get upset because she hasn’t called me yet…
(yes, borrowed from Dave Chappelle and Comedy Central)
In a previous post dated January 8, 2014, I stated that every aspiring author has been told to write about what you know.
Yet, some focus only on their existing knowledge, which is usually limited to their day jobs. Even though they might want to create the next great American legal thriller, they don’t believe they’re qualified to do it if they aren’t parading through courtrooms every day, hypnotizing juries with skilled wordplay. So they get stuck and never start. Or they force themselves to write about things that doesn’t excite them as much. Which means people won’t be excited to read them, either.
In case you find yourself in that situation, I’d like to save you some time. My previous post shared some things I learned as I wrote my first novel, Partners In Crime. The first step I outlined was to start with Data Research. Obviously, this is crucial, especially if you want to write about something in which you have little to no daily experience. People who don’t know what I do for a living usually think I’m a cop after they read my detective novel. Some express surprise when I tell them I’ve never worked in law enforcement. So gathering tons of data certainly helped me.
But that’s just the start.
Next, you have to:
I. Do your People research
- This is hard for introverts like me, but you need to socialize. Suppose you want to write that legal thriller, but you work as an aircraft mechanic. So how do you find out about life as a criminal defense attorney? Well, you could always commit a felony and meet one that way, but a better option is to find out where they hang out. So…
a) Ask around! In this example, start by asking friends and coworkers if they know any attorneys or paralegals. Someone always knows someone who knows someone. Ask for referrals or contacts if you can’t access your targeted people directly. Some of the best leads will come from those you least expect (it was an unexpected lead that helped me interview homicide detectives, go on ride-alongs, and visit crime scenes).
b) Join a local writer’s group. They are filled with people just like you, people yearning to share their colorful stories with the world. Every writer’s group I joined had someone who knew someone who I needed to talk to. You can find them on the internet or through sites like Meetup.com.
c) Go to writer’s conferences. These present an incredible wealth of knowledge. They will have workshops devoted to helping you improve your writing in your particular genre. They’ll have various subject matter experts serving as guest speakers and they’ll tell you what you need in order for your book to sound authentic.
d) Find trade shows or conferences where your subject matter experts are likely to attend. For example, I’ve met police officers at gun shows, martial arts and Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments, etc.
e) Find professional groups. If you’re that aircraft mechanic wanting to be the next John Grisham, network with attorney’s groups. There are a billion lawyers in this country, so you should be able to find some legal group nearby. Many of them have charitable functions, fundraisers, and other events open to the public that you can attend.
f) Be Honest. When you meet the people you need to, get them talking about themselves first. That warms them up. Then simply tell them you’re working on a book about ______ and you’d love to take them out to lunch to pick their brains. You’d be surprised at how helpful people are once you start talking to them. I haven’t had anyone turn down a free lunch yet.
II. Understand it’s all about the characters, not the research
- This is important. As a first-time published author, I initially felt I had to prove my research by stuffing my book with a billion details. But as I kept writing, I realized it was less about the details and more about the character interaction, plot, pacing, suspense, etc. Realistic details are important, but you don’t need all of them. Sprinkling a few authentic details here and there will do. While you still need to conduct your research and know these things, putting the right details in the right places at the right times will work wonders.
Now these are just the things that I’ve found to be helpful for me. There are plenty of other things that people can do to gather insight that helps them create great stories and smash the boundaries of their everyday lives. For those who have finished books, what are some ideas you’ve found helpful?