It’s never easy to accept criticism gracefully. After you’ve poured sweat and tears into a creation, getting negative comments can be at best bruising and at worst devastating. But, like taking knocks from a sparring partner, good constructive criticism can spur you on to be better.
Constructive vs. destructive
Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.
If the comments are based solely on what the commenter liked or didn’t like about the piece, without any objective elements, beware. You’ll find nothing useful there. Family and friends often say they love your work (if they say anything at all). Or they might say they hate it. Neither is helpful, though they can still elicit an emotional response.
Unrelieved negativity, especially if spiced with personal vitriol, says more about the commenter than their target.
Put up your guard
Whether or not you sought it out, critique can help. But assess it first as above. Critique does not consist of insults and slurs. Don’t stoop to that level. Walk away from trolls and don’t engage in a flame war that will hurt your brand and your soul.
Defence not attack
Don’t hit back immediately. You’re here to learn something, so first listen to the comments. Take extra time to process the message if you need it.
Probing for weaknesses
A sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them. The idea is to improve and strengthen those areas. Nobody’s perfect and if you think you are above criticism, here’s one: that idea needs to change if you want to improve. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person. You are not your creation, though part of you may be in it. Breathe and listen.
Engage in rational discussion
You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight. It might take time for the emotional hit to lessen. Take that time and come back to it cold.
Look for the kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept.
Consider the alternatives presented.
If you maintain your present position, be prepared to justify it.
You don’t have to accept all parts of the critique. You, the creator, are in charge.
Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end.
Thank your critique partner for their time and attention.
Having considered the critique and decided what lessons you have drawn from it, put them into action. Good critique is focussed and objective, with examples, and offers specific remedies.
Poor critique says “I didn’t like that piece but I can’t explain why. You’re useless.” Good critique says “I found that piece hard to read because the sentences and paragraphs were very long. You could try having just one idea in each sentence and two or three sentences per paragraph. That will give more white space on the page, which is easier to read on a screen.”
Now you have something to work with. You might cut down your sentences and play with them until you see that it does look better. Or you might find that short sentences don’t suit your writing style. Either way, you know more than before. You can make informed choices in future.
The student becomes the teacher
Everyone’s a critic and dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving out useful critique though: that’s hard. I invite you to try it, and learn the other side of the challenge. A writers’ group IRL or online will give opportunities to try it out. Being respectful is the first and golden rule. Producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions, like all good teaching, is harder than it looks.
Sharpening your own critical faculties makes it easier to read and watch like a writer. Deconstructing the magic trick helps you understand how to do it yourself.
Your writing relationships and your own work can only benefit when you learn how to give and take criticism like a pro.
I’ve been following Kristen Lamb ‘s blog for a while now, and she always has something interesting to say about writing and publishing. She is not afraid to say that writers should be paid, for example, and then to write about the ensuing storm of comments. That is not a discussion for today, but if you want to read more, it’s here.
Today I want to talk about query writing, and how to hook a literary agent. Of course I don’t pretend this is the last word on queries, there are resources everywhere. This is what I gleaned from various sources and from Pitch Perfect, one of Kristen’s webinars I attended recently under the WANA banner. She runs regular courses aimed at getting writers skilled, published and noticed.
How to find an agent to query
Literary agents represent specific genres according to their personal taste. They take on a book they believe in, and sell that book to a traditional publisher to offer in bookshops and stores. They also sell rights to film, TV, translations and so on.
You want someone who likes the kind of thing you write. Do your research so you won’t end up sending gory horror to someone who likes cookbooks and cosy mysteries, or indeed vice versa. You and your agent will conduct a business relationship aimed at selling books and making money. It pays to find the person who will be the best fit for you and your story.
Acknowledgements sometimes mention the agent by name. Check in books that are similar to yours – in other words, comparative titles.
Attending conferences and festivals can yield contacts.
Twitter can be very useful for making connections with agents. Also try looking through hashtags such as #mswl (manuscript wish list) which details stories agents are looking for right now, or genre based such as #scifi or #romance. Not all agents are very active on twitter, but it offers a chance to interact and importantly, to see how people behave online.
Google can be your friend here. Searching manuscript wish list + genre + agents will yield more options to look at.
Your agent will be getting 15% of your earnings, typically, so you want to be sure they are adding value. Check their websites to see what they have sold recently, who their other clients are, and so on. Remember that most of their energy will be spent on servicing existing clients. That said, everyone wants the next bestselling author. The new agent looking to build their list might have more time for you than JK Rowling’s agent.
Draw up a long list, and send queries out in batches of 10-12. They need to go in groups, it can take some time to get a reply so sending them singly takes far too long. If two (or more!) agents want to read more of your work after seeing the sample pages, you can always grant one exclusive reading for say, two weeks. Then they need to decide or you can move on to the next prospect.
What to write in your query
First read the submission guidelines. Let’s say that again.
First read the submission guidelines. Then follow them exactly.
Every agent has a slightly different preference. You look this up on their website, and you do not deviate. This is no time to show your creativity, you need to show that you can follow instructions. The agent or assistant has hundreds of these emails to read. They’re looking for a reason to say no and make the job easier. Tough, eh? But that’s how it is. Not dissimilar to making a job application, you need to demonstrate a professional approach. Reading and understanding instructions is a basic skill.
Everything is pasted into the email. Nobody will open an attachment. That’s the quickest way to viruses, the modern-day equivalent of the plague.
The query itself
The query is brief, no more than one page. Write in Word or your preferred program, and trim until it fits. Four paragraphs should cover it.
Greet the agent by name.
If unsure of gender, avoid titles and use the whole name eg Dear Sam Smith. This is a formal letter to a stranger, so unless you know them well, no first name terms. State your connection if applicable, eg met them at a conference, referral from a mutual contact, conversed on Twitter. Otherwise state how you found them eg from manuscript wish list, represented similar books, or anything else.
Write about the book.
“TITLE is a (genre) novel complete at (word count).”
If you have a comparative title, mention that here, “in the style of (title)”. Don’t be overambitious and mention a mega-selling book. Just a current best-seller will do.
Summarise the story, beginning with your log line. This is intended to whet their appetite to read more, it should sound like back cover blurb. It is not a full synopsis, that comes later.
Author biography goes here.
Keep this simple and on topic. Any writing credentials such as an MFA, and any publishing credits or competition wins belong in this section. Personal details such as age, job, how long you’ve been writing, are irrelevant until you meet your agent. The exception is where your thriller is set on an oil rig and you worked in the business for fifteen years, for example. That’s relevant.
No credentials? Just state you’re a writer living in X, you write Y genre, and you’re currently working on Z. Don’t apologise for it. Absolutely every writer started with nothing to their name.
Thank you for your time.
Agents read constantly. Between meetings, while commuting, in the evenings. They have lives just like us, and they love good books, and they don’t get a penny until you do. A thank you is basic good manners, and rude people are remembered for the wrong reasons. Don’t be that person.
Below this, you paste the sample pages or chapters as per the submission guidelines (check them again). And below that, a one page synopsis. This is the one time Kristen suggests going off-menu.
I’ll cover the theory and practice of the log line and synopsis next time.
And on with part 2 of thoughts and tips on self-editing.
All the following are suggestions. You are the author, you are in charge of your words. Feel free to disagree, just make your choices conscious ones.
These words support our speech, giving us time to think. Actually, um, honestly, so, are all examples. You might find them when you write natural sounding dialogue. Good dialogue is not the same as natural speech. It’s natural speech, polished.
When we write, crutch words are those we use repeatedly, and often without being aware of them. I discovered that I use ‘but’ way too often, to start sentences and join clauses together. You can find them using a word frequency counter. Next, you need to search and destroy. Print the list, and highlight them individually in your document using the Find/Search function. Now you can consider each one separately, and decide if it stays or goes. Some more tips, such as using a word cloud generator, can be found in this post by Alyssa Hollingsworth.
If you cut out a proportion of and, that, when, but, and similar words, it will tighten your prose. It immediately becomes clearer.
Adverbs: friend or foe?
I read that when asked what she would change about the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling said she would remove all the adverbs. The first book in particular contains lots of adverbs that tell rather than showing. I am a huge JKR fan, and it’s interesting to see how her writing (and editing) evolved over the series.
It is an article of faith that adverbs should be killed off, but like all absolutes this is too extreme. Think of them as seasoning, to be added judiciously lest they overpower the whole. Often in rewriting, there is a better choice to be made.
‘Walked quickly’ can become strode, hurried, ran, or another word that conveys the exact meaning. When you can’t quite remember the word you want and the thesaurus isn’t helping, try this site for the word that’s on the tip of your tongue. Maybe English isn’t your first language, or it is but you’ve temporarily lost your words. This site is brilliant for those times.
This is a favourite construction of mine, and maybe yours too. Perhaps this is because we naturally retell events this way, but good prose is more than natural dialogue.
While you need not banish was/-ing totally, minimising its use improves your prose. Consider the following examples – featuring adverbs (and a cliché for good measure).
She was walking slowly along the road, when suddenly he came into view.
She walkedslowly along the road, and then saw him appear from nowhere.
She shuffled along, eyes scanning the road ahead. There was no time to hide when he stepped into her path.
Most times, the simple past tense, with or without a better choice of verb, will improve the text. If you overwrite and need to cut words, this is one good way to do it without losing the sense of your text. If you underwrite, better verb choice and more description might be needed. Search for ‘was’ and look critically at every instance.
No matter how detailed, or how loose, start with a plan. You cannot reach the destination without a goal and at least a few markers set along the way.
“bury the treasure well”
The plot twist, the clues, Chekhov’s gun. They must be planted ahead of time, before anyone realises, while they are thinking of something else.
You of course, are following the plan. You know what is coming.
“right plant, right place”
You may fall in love with something gorgeous.
If it does not fit, you must either provide the right conditions for it, or put it somewhere else. Remember my space pirate last week? He awaits the right plot.
You may create beautiful prose, so lovely you weep tears of joy when you read it back. You need not kill your darling, this post tells you what I do with mine. Nothing wasted, in a garden as in writing.
“subtlety is underrated”
A bold swathe of colour is lovely to see, but hard to pull off in a garden. It can also leave the plot looking a bit bare in other times and places. It works, if well supported by action elsewhere. Whether writing or gardening, a single bravura flowerbed or scene is not enough to sustain interest.
A quiet gradation with one plant leading gently to another can have great impact, as well as ending a long way from the starting point without jarring. Not everyone will appreciate the thought behind it. But some will, and it is satisfying to add another layer of meaning, to challenge your own skills.
“enjoy your harvest”
My garden’s variety of plants and purposes leads to this. Fruits and vegetables to savour, knowledge for next season, compost made from those that didn’t make it.
My story, long or short, leads to this. Plots, subplots, character arcs, the seeds of a sequel, must all culminate in a satisfying conclusion.
It’s hard work, but let’s not forget why we do it.
Whether you are a fiction writer or a gardener, you must tend your plot. The more I write, the more I find parallels between my two loves, writing and gardening.
1 Find your plot
When we moved to our house, there was a huge lawn, some mature trees, but no garden at all. Even though we had less than no money, busy jobs, two children under three, and no family to help, I resolved to make a garden. I needed a place to wander around, to dig, to dream.
So naturally, I invested money I didn’t really have to get experts in and draw up a plan. Two plans, in fact. We combined the best of both. Yes, I was laughed at by those who didn’t understand why I then planted four saplings in the middle of the lawn.
I smiled to myself. I knew they were the basis of the secret garden. What secret? The doubters had to wait and see.
Gardens are particular to their position. I could plant anything here, but some will do well and some are definitely not suitable. I can’t grow oranges outside, but there are lots of other fruits that will thrive.
With a story, have some kind of outline and plan. Plant your flag at The End and work towards it, with as much detail as you wish. Plotter? Lots of details. Pantser like me? Vague notions contained within a loose overall feel.
The genre is the location where you will plant your story. Genre has rules about what can be included. You can break the rules, of course. You can add things that are not native to the genre, or mix genres. But it will need more work and clever execution to pull it off.
2 Do the heavy lifting first
It saves time in the end. Oh it’s tiresome, pulling nettles, raking out rocks, making compost bins. But future you will thank present you for doing it. Afterwards it will be much easier to get on with what you really want, which is creating.
If you don’t get that weed out now, it will have sturdy roots that weave through your precious plants. It may even choke them. Remember your ultimate goal, as you dig through heavy clay soil in the rain. Put anything you will need later in a holding bed.
Make sure that your story idea will really fit the location. Some stories are short, some are novels, and some are operatic, requiring a huge space to bloom fully.
Composting in this context, is letting all those little flakes and fragments settle in your subconscious while you get on with something else. Not every idea will find a place, but capture them and have them ready if needed. Notes are your friend, however you prefer to keep them.
Weeding out is only for the big things at this point. You might have a character in mind, but a space pirate does not belong in a light contemporary romance. Probably.
3 Prepare well
Now there is some idea of scope. A clear plot, a plan of some sort. The next step is research. What direction is the prevailing wind? Where are the shady, dry, wet or sunny spots? What plants are your favourites? Which plants will do best in which situation? It’s time to make some choices.
Those choices will shape the overall feel of the garden. Start with the bigger, more structural things. Allow enough space for each to fill out. Small plants can come later, when things are more developed.
If you’re a pantser, know that you might not have everything finalised, and that’s fine. Start with the main characters and the main plot points, and sketch out how they all hand together. Note any gaps.
Read up on 18th century lace production, or space ship propulsion, or whatever your story needs. If you have subplots, make sure they are included. They are your second layer, benefiting from the first layer and supporting it.
Compost is equivalent to backstory. A fertile bed in which to grow your characters and nourish their roots. But no-one wants to see it, so it has to be worked in subtly.
4 Begin in earnest
Finally, start creating! A garden cannot be created in one go. The seasons take precedence, deciding that you cannot buy this or move that. Big plants like trees better go in first. If they’re wrong, it’s not such a big job to move or remove them.
For example, I planted a flowering cherry. It grew and grew. It had few flowers and so-so autumn colour. Well, since those things were its job, I cut it down after five years and replaced it with Acer griseum, which is much more attractive.
I bought what I could afford, which was not much. I bought small and opted to wait. I haunted bargain corners and market stalls. I had to be creative because money was a huge constraint. The garden started in one corner and moved out from there. It was done in short bursts and not in a logical order.
So, you’re gonna write a story. But where to begin? You could start with chapter one. Or you could start with a major scene that’s itching to get from your brain to the page/screen. Start anywhere, just begin. The outline is there to guide you, so that even if the pieces are out of sync, they all relate to a proper whole.
How does that work? This is an example of mine.
I wrote the start of my novel (planted the cherry tree) out of order (when the time was right). After taking some advice I added more detail (let it grow). It looked better, but it still didn’t do its job of hooking readers (so-so result). I really wanted to keep it, but reluctantly took more advice.
I realised it was backstory (kill your darlings) and used it as such (put it through the woodchipper). I took the useful pieces and slipped them into the story (compost and feed). With a stronger root system, my subplots thrived and my story was more cohesive. I wrote and rewrote a new chapter one that is a hundred times better (the Acer).
5 Refine and revise
A garden is never done, but it can reach maturity. At the end of each season I cast my eye over it critically. Seeing what worked, what died, and where the gaps are is fertile material for the fun part; buying more plants. Sometimes I don’t have to kill my plant darlings, for they simply die. That’s okay. It means they were the wrong plant, or in the wrong place. If it’s in the wrong place, maybe I can replant it elsewhere.
Some things get too big, and need cutting back. Others can be divided and produce new plants elsewhere. Impulse buys are part of my semi-planned garden. I started with big permanent things, and fill in with this and that, anything that catches my eye. Others take a measured view, sticking closely to their masterplan.
A story must reach the end, and then needs revision and editing. Pruning away the excess reveals the essential. A small addition may contrast with a larger element and bring it into focus. Darlings must be examined and dealt with ruthlessly, though sometimes they can find another home, as I explained here .
The plotter sees everything unfold as planned. The pantser has room to wander within the boundary, seeing what happens. Both may have to perform radical surgery, if the whole is not more than the sum of the parts. Sometimes, other people can see more clearly what needs to be done, so take advice you trust.
You worked hard, so remember to enjoy your achievement. When the garden looks good, walk in it, photograph it. Most of all, sit in it and rest. Look at the sky, at the birds, at the leaf colours and flowers. Dream.
Few people manage to finish writing a story, fewer still an entire novel. When you have let it sit for a while, read it again. Better yet, if you have a Mac, use the text to speech and have it read to you. Maybe you’ll hear something that text editing did not catch.
But best of all, you get to experience your story in a different way, one that links us back to stories told around campfires and in caves, since man first learned to speak.
But gardening is different from writing…
Writing lets me forget the world and live in my dreams.
Gardening gets me out of my head, and grounds me in the real world.
Reading stories lets me share somebody’s head for a while and forget the world.
There’s a ton of advice out there on how to be a better writer. Books, blogs, websites all have a few things to say on the subject. From my seat, I can see seven books about the craft of writing. Two are still on my TBR pile.
Yes, I have a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. (That makes at least eight craft books.)
Am I a good writer yet? That’s a question I can’t answer, it is mostly down to others to decide. I know this much; I am not good enough yet and I could be better. I will be better if I continue to practise, but this alone does not make me a true writer. The one thing that has been a better teacher than anything else is quite simple.
Finish your stuff.
Simple and yet transformative, as all good advice should be.
Am I a cook if I never serve a finished meal? Am I a musician if I drop my instrument in the middle of a song, never to return? Am I a traveller if I sit down in the road before I reach my destination? Well, kind of… but not really.
Real artists ship.
Steve Jobs, Apple Computers.
Jobs meant that while it is good to have a vision, ultimately you must deliver a finished product.
Getting to the end can be hard. I wrote about my struggle with a story and I get it. Sometimes writing anything at all is the victory. But one day, when I am feeling stronger, I will wrestle that story to some kind of conclusion. Only then is it possible to edit, to look critically, to shape and improve.
Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
Leaving work unfinished means you never learn how to craft a satisfying ending. You never learn how to fix that sinking feeling that the story ran out of steam. You never learn that juggling too many subplots is exhausting, and trying to tie them all up is a nightmare.
You never learn what needs to improve, or build the skills to do the job right.
Yes, write more, read more, switch genres, switch locations, whatever it takes to get started. The most important thing to do then, is to grit your teeth and see it through to the end.
Marathon runners talk about the 25th mile. Whether they ran fast or slow, they push through because the end is in sight.
Don’t give up before the finish line, because beyond your resistance lies the prize.
A story is a journey that only makes sense when it reaches its conclusion.
So, your competition entry was unsuccessful. You get a polite standard email from the agent, or worse, you check the calendar and realise that no news is bad news. Your short story is ‘not what we’re looking for’ or they decided to pass on your poetry this time.
During this Rio Olympics season, it’s fantastic to watch people at the top of their game perform. But let’s not forget that the losers, those who didn’t make the cut, those who were pipped for the bronze, or who were off their best, all worked just as hard. They gave everything, but it didn’t work out.
“It is possible to commit no mistakes, and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.”
Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation
So, what to do when that happens to you?
You are not your writing, even though you put part of yourself into it. This is not the worst thing that could happen, and it doesn’t mean you are a total failure as a writer and a human being.
Make sure that you followed all the submission guidelines, met the deadline, and didn’t fall before the first hurdle.
It’s uncommon to get useful feedback. If you get any, use it. I sent a piece to a magazine once, and while they didn’t accept it, they offered feedback. I grabbed with both hands, so to speak. They liked the writing but weren’t sure about the plot. I used that comment to improve, by going back and reviewing the story.
Maybe ask a trusted writing friend, or use point 1 and pretend it was written by someone else. By taking the emotional attachment out, you can see more clearly where it could be better (tip: it can always be better). Relate the feedback to your work, but take the useful parts and discard the rest.
If you conclude that the story is still good, it might be suitable to submit somewhere else. Keep a file of stories tagged with themes, and look over it when you’re thinking of submitting again. The judging process is subjective, and the next reader might love it.
I subscribe to Writing Magazine and study their annual Writing Competition Guide frequently. There is an online edition, but I like to read a physical copy, with a mug of tea in hand. Plus, there is a section each month on where and what to submit, apply and enter. It’s invaluable, and keeps me thinking what next?
Find a reputable information source, and check back regularly.
It’s important to have a portfolio of completed pieces, first because finishing things is essential to progressing in skill, second because it gives a sense of accomplishment, and third because one day, someone will ask “do you have anything else?” and you want to be able to say yes.
Write something new. Make it the best you can.
That’s easy, compared to the next part.
Take a deep breath, and let it go. Procrastination hides perfectionism; perfectionism hides fear, and fear is the enemy. Call it by its name. Step out of fear’s shadow and do the thing anyway.
You cannot win if you don’t enter the race.
You did it! You got in the game, and learned from the experience. Now you have to do it again, and that’s hard. Remember though, that whether they got a medal or not, all those athletes have to get back out there; training, eating clean, clocking the miles and gym hours, all without a guarantee of reward. And they have to perform the miracle again while the world is watching.
Pat yourself on the back. You faced down your demon and won this fight, though the battle continues. Keep a record of your campaign, take a small reward for effort. And make sure you have the right incentive in mind, a gift to award yourself for that glorious day when it all comes right and you are a winner. Be like an athlete.
Visualise success, work for it, believe in yourself.