The sign of a strong writer is the ability to listen to critiques. In addition to developing thick skin during the publishing process, it’s equally important to be able to discuss your book; to take the necessary critiques and general responses from editors/agents.
As a person who respects the role of any writer, and happily wants to stay in the role of agent, I often get to witness the general anxiety of writers in conference settings, let alone the inbox queries. I recognize it’s hard to put oneself on the line without a sea of emotions attached to one’s book.
While we often talk about the need to accept rejections—to learn from them—it’s equally harder to take the specific reasons (for those rejections) and to look at your manuscript with new lenses. How does one tackle this without sacrificing the spirit of the book?
My first reminder is to take time to digest the provided suggestions. There’s no need to respond to any critique, let alone implement the suggested changes, within a short period of time. If an agent or editor takes the time to explain why they rejected your book, study and consider those reasons. There will be points that will benefit anyone’s book, but if it’s a matter of personal taste, you should keep the story that is closest to your heart.
Case in point: over two years ago, I read a work of fiction that was pitched to me at the Madison Writers Workshop. The writing was haunting and the prose dead on, but unfortunately it wasn’t ready yet. There was still a bit of work to do on the final third of the novel. By the time I sent the notes to the author, almost six months had passed. I asked for a revised manuscript if any of these notes/edits appealed to him.
Yes – it was a rejection. Yes – I would read that book again if the author was interested in the critiques I provided. I did hear back three months later: they needed to spend some time with those notes, and promised at some point I’d get see the book again.
This is made possible by surrounding yourself with fellow writers (of varying categories) who can be a proactive soundboard and whose input you’ll trust. It’s impossible to make every reader happy, but it’s hard to deny someone is a good writer if the narrative is strong.
When I’m considering a new idea, I will reach out to a wide variety of beta readers, generally assuming at least one may not necessarily love the idea. (That’s to be expected.) If there’s 100% consensus on the strength of the writing, I’m even happier. Yet this also means that I sometimes have to hear things I don’t want to hear. If I’m thrilled about an idea, but everyone I’ve spoken to states it’s not the best, this is confirmation I may need to consider the idea a little longer. Or to possibly walk away from it.
As you fine tune your book, it’s important you gather input from those who will be professional, and always remember to never take it personally. These high level critiques will help determine new direction(s) your book may need to go; let alone if it’s worth shelving the idea for even a short period (before returning to the editing process).
Finally, it’s important to ensure that there is noticeable sensitivity when creating your characters and storyline. It’s always going to be difficult to pitch an idea successfully to agents/editors if the writer inadvertently lacks the necessary awareness (or the severity) of the words chosen.
Whether in the form of a query or pitch session at a conference, it’s normal to cross paths with a writer who needs a lesson on sensitivity. Sometimes it’s a generational issue, other times it may be lack of experience in writing, and sadly there are times where some questionable descriptions are used intentionally. When writing a book, it’s important to remember diverse voices and readers. Try to avoid stereotyping POC, women, and the LGBTQI communities.
As one of my authors did recently, it is well-worth the investment to find betas who can provide a sensitivity read. By being proactive, you are doing your future readers a service by showing this level of respect in regard to your storytelling. You should assume it will be an emotional experience, but taking the time to listen to how one’s book correctly reflects a culture and its people, will add to the value of your story.
It’s always hard to hear things we aren’t expecting in publishing, as those critiques are intended to strengthen a book vs. weaken it. By showing a willingness to learn from your storytelling, through the input of others, you will be able to build a stronger foundation for your book, as well as those future ideas someday.
Dawn Michelle Frederick is the owner & literary agent of Red Sofa Literary, established in 2008. Red Sofa Literary is a celebration of the quirky, eclectic ideas in our publishing community. Dawn’s previous experience reflects a broad knowledge of the book business, with over a decade of experience as a bookseller in the independent, chain, and specialty stores, an editor for a YA publisher, and an associate literary agent at Sebastian Literary Agency. Dawn earned a BS in Human Ecology and a MS in Library & Information Sciences from an ALA-accredited institution. She is also one of the founders of the MN Publishing Tweet Up, which brings writers and publishers together over a monthly happy hour. Red Sofa Literary was voted as one of the Best 101 Websites by Writer’s Digest in 2012 and 2013.