Six impossible things

Being professional before you are

This week, my walking buddy told me about an incident involving a mutual friend, who is a major tech consultant-type. Seems some gentleman who wanted advice on his algorithm offered to pay for two hours of critique/consulting time at a not-unreasonable-but-on-the-low-side rate. So the consultant-type agreed, took a look at the algorithm, and gave the gentleman his opinion.

Whereupon the gentleman attempted to open a correspondence arguing about the consultant-type’s analysis, in effect demanding a) more of the consultant-type’s time, unpaid, and b) that the consultant change his mind to an opinion the gentleman would find more palatable.

The incident got me thinking. It corresponds almost exactly to a problem faced by many, many professional writers: the would-be and wannabe writers who approach the professional, requesting or demanding review and comment and critique on their unpublished manuscripts. Many of us would very much like to assist these folks, as a pay-forward for all the professionals who helped us out back in the day, answering our newbie questions and providing information we didn’t know we needed.

The problem is that we don’t have the time to help everybody. We are writers, not teachers. Doing review and comments and critique and advice takes time, and when we’re on a deadline (and often even when we aren’t) there just isn’t time to spare for everyone who wants it. So we have to pick and choose and figure out how to tell people “No” – and which people to tell it to. And one of the things we base that choice on is how people behave.

Back in business school, they used to say “if you want a better position, you have a better chance of getting it if you dress and act as if you already have that position.” It holds for publishing, too: if you want to be professionally published, behave like a professional.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ask for advice or help; it merely means that if you do, you will get the best results if you do so in a professional manner. “Behaving professionally” is mostly common sense, but here are some guidelines:

1. Be polite. Always. Dust off your grandmother-manners; say “please” and “I really appreciate this” and do not make demands or insult the author, the author’s work, or the publishing industry (“With all the crap that gets published, I figure my book should be a shoe-in for the bestseller list. I figure you can confirm that since you’re published, even if I haven’t ever seen your name on the NY Times list.”)

2. Do not take your paper ms. to a convention, autographing, speech, or other author/editor appearance in hopes of giving it to them there. They are probably away from home and don’t have room in their suitcase anyway.

3. Do not accost a writer or editor at their sister’s wedding, their cousin’s bar mitzvah, their spouse’s office party, the church social, or any other non-publishing related event and start talking about your manuscript (or worse, your terrific as-yet-unwritten idea). It is insulting to the sister, cousin, spouse, or whatever the event is actually supposed to be about. And yes, those are real examples.

4. Let the subject of books, writing, etc. come up naturally (and it probably will). If you want to speed things up a little, you can ask if they’ve read anything interesting recently, but I’d advise against it unless you are actually willing to talk about other people’s books and what’s good and bad about them, rather than about your own ms. If you are willing, you may very well learn some things, and will probably end up with some excellent book recommendations, even if you never get around to mentioning the thing that you wrote.

5. It nearly always works best if you do not ask for comments or crit, even after the subject has come up. If the writer knows you, likes you, and has time, they may – may – offer to look at your work. Say thank you and try not to expect an introduction to their editor or agent, or even a blurb. Intelligent comments are actually going to do you a lot more good in the long run.

5a. If you already friends with one or more professional writers, do not be afraid to ask for help and advice. Most of the previous guidelines apply to people who are cold-calling, so to speak; folks who are meeting an author/editor for the very first time and hoping for some help. It doesn’t apply to you, because you already know the person. You won’t screw up years of friendship by asking, as long as you are willing to take “Arggh, the copyedit just came and my cat is sick and the dryer broke and I can’t, arggh” as a reasonable answer. Or a writer’s answer, anyway.

6. If you are going to ignore all of the above and approach a writer you don’t know, or know only slightly, directly with a request for crit, offer to pay for it up front. And be aware that you won’t be paying minimum wage, either. A good book doctor got roughly $10 per page the last time I looked at rates (several years back), and that works out to $3,000 for a 300-page ms. And the better known the writer is, the higher the reasonable price of their time will be. You are not just asking them to spend four hours reading your book and another six or eight hours writing up comments for you. You are asking them to spend twelve hours of writing time on your book. There is an opportunity cost. Recognize it.

7. When you get the author/editor’s comments, listen. Do not argue. You asked for an informed opinion (or were offered one); that’s what you are getting. If you don’t like what you hear, too bad. You have three professional-behavior choices: you can do what the author suggests, you can ignore the author’s advice completely, or you can decide on some different way of fixing whatever difficulty the author has fingered for you. Arguing and objecting is not one of the options here. Neither is explaining to the author which bits of his/her advice you deem acceptable and which you are going to ignore or handle differently. You don’t have to justify it or explain it, and you’re much better off not doing so. Just quietly make the changes you’re going to make and ignore what you’re going to ignore.

8. You can, and should, ask for clarification or explanation of any comments you don’t understand. You are allowed to ask “Why didn’t you like the protagonist?”; it is “But you are supposed to like the protagonist!” or “No, of course you like the protagonist! You have to!” that are…inadvisable arguments. The reader knows whether he/she likes something or not, and whether he/she understood something or not. If the author suggests something that you think is completely impossible, the most useful response is not “That’s ridiculous!” but something more like “I see what you are saying, but I have no idea how to fit it into this scene without slowing everything down.” If you are brave, you can ask for specific suggestions (assuming they haven’t already been made), but don’t do this unless you are serious. If you have every intention of ignoring the writer’s advice on this point, just say “thank you for that observation” or “I will certainly think about that” and move on.

9. The fact that someone is your favorite author does not mean that he/she will understand, enjoy, or approve of your ms. It also doesn’t meant that he/she will be particularly good at giving critique. Not all of us are. Also, everybody has hot buttons, and if you accidentally hit one of your critiquer’s, things can get remarkably fraught very quickly, because your critique is not reacting to your manuscript but to that horrible incident when they were trapped in a closet for five hours when they were nine, or whatever. Again “Thank you, I will think about that” can usually move things out of heavy waters without too much damage being done.

10. You have your own hot buttons. Try to be aware of them, so that if your critiquer hits one, you can take a deep breath and set it aside. Because your critique doesn’t know that you already tried opening the ms. ten months earlier and it didn’t work, or that there’s a bit of backstory that won’t come out until Book 3 that makes it impossible for the sidekick to ever get together with the hero’s sister.

11. Be polite. Always. Say “thank you for taking the time” even if you hate everything you’ve heard. Do not go home and rant on your blog about the horrible advice you got from the nasty professional author, not even if you do it “in private” to a few close personal friends. On the Internet, it’s never truly private, and it lasts forever, most especially whenever you particularly don’t want it to.

  1. Well said. I’m fumbling my way into acquiring beta readers (at a less exalted level), and each one is a treasure.

  2. I’m curious what the tech consultant did or said in response to the guy’s unreasonable expectations.

  3. I was half expecting someone to write a comment that asked you to read their MS 😉

    Also, when you wrote “Arggh, the copyedit just came and my cat is sick and the dryer broke and I can’t, arggh” I totally pictured you saying this with a pirate accent, which made it awesome 🙂

  4. I found working with a writers’ group, online, that it helped to take notes on the crits. Gave you some emotional distance from the substance.

  5. Tiana, try it with this slight change: “Arr, me copy-editor savaged my work — he’s fer the plank, I tell ye! — m’cat o’ nine tails broke, and I slipped on a wet deck the swabbies didn’t dry.”

  6. One problem is that when a beginning writer finally sells a book, and then asks a favorite writer to critique, they might get a reply that the established writer has been assigned a stack of books from his publisher to read. Publishing is a business, and they want their writers to help sell their books.

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