Ask Tania: Coping with publisher critiques at conferences and festivals

Sunday, 28 May 2017

WARNING: this post is frank!

Dear Tania
I recently travelled to Melbourne for the KidLitVic Conference and had a really great time meeting up with people I've known for a long time, and sucking in all the information I could. To be honest, it was a bit overwhelming, and then I sat through a manuscript critique with an editor who was either having a really crabby day or just wanted to be mean. It left me feeling disillusioned and disappointed that someone who's meant to be a professional couldn't even say something good about my work.
I'm just not sure how to take this and I feel like giving up.

Dear Disappointed,

First and foremost, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

Everyone receives 'bad' critiques. Everyone. From emerging to published, experienced creators. Everyone's work falls across the desk of someone who doesn't get it, doesn't resonate with it, or just plain doesn't like it.

The subjectivity that comes with this territory is ENORMOUS. I cannot overstate this enough. I've spoken before about a junior fiction/middle grade book I shopped around to four large publishers who each came back with entirely, and I mean ENTIRELY, different feedback. There was not one single parallel on anything each of them said. It was actually quite remarkable how divergent their comments were, to the point where what one publisher loved and thought worked brilliantly, someone else thought woeful.

This is why it's of vast importance that you don't continually seek feedback for your work. I think doing this is not only addling, it sucks the life out of your work, as so many critics put their finger in the pie, and the work is pulled from pillar to post, trying to please every opinion, and it loses its authenticity. Have one or two critiques (with professionals!) share with maybe ONE experienced friend, then have faith in yourself to write from the heart and learn and grow without the thoughts and opinion of a multitude.

Secondly, I think we need to be careful about labelling an assessor as mean or crabby. Hearing things we don't want to hear can be really tough, and this can skew our perception, making it easy to shoot the messenger. Due to time constraints and endless hammering from authors, publishers can be succinct, direct and frank, yes they can. It doesn't mean they're being rude or hate you or your work, so it's important to step back and separate yourself from what you're hearing--to not take it personally (hard, I know! but important!).

Thirdly. I'm not sure where this idea has come from that creators should have glowing, positive critiques that focus on how great everything is and how well it's working. The whole purpose of a critique, by its very nature, is to receive constructive criticism, not praise. Whether you're having an assessment by email or in person, time is often limited, and editors and publishers only have a set period they can dedicate to your work. Wasting time talking about what's working is pointless, and only really takes place if and when you're offered a contract, or a publisher loves your story and is willing to work with you to get something polished enough to take to acquisitions.

Otherwise, it's ALL about improvement. And I beg emerging creators to try to see critiques, even 'negative' ones, as a way to learn and grow. I mean, it's absolutely priceless, if you ask me--to have a professional give you tips and advice for improvement. Pounce on it!

Remember that even the professionals get it wrong, and there's been many a time I've been stunned at what I've been told or others have been told. Just take what works for you and scrap the rest. If you don't agree with something, you don't have to argue with them (BIG mistake). Just hear it and dump it from your brain ASAP. I've done this!

As an example, a wonderful publisher looked at my middle grade manuscript and loved it, but came back to say she thought it need to be chopped in half to make a junior fiction work. I said no. Yes, I said no to a Top Six publisher, because I was convinced it had to be middle grade.

Two years later, I'm chopping the ms from MG to JF. I emailed her to tell her so, and she's really interested in seeing it. The thing is, I could NOT see her point at the time, and I so strongly believed it could work as MG. Since then, I've grown, learned and can now clearly see what she was talking about. I just wasn't yet ready to hear it. And yes, it hurt at the time!

There's nothing wrong with feeling hurt by negative assessments. It's beyond normal and everyone feels it, even our legendary, veteran book creators feel this. It's not an 'emerging' thing at all. Our writing and illustrations are our heart and soul, laid bare. So it's perfectly normally to be upset, angry, pissed off.

Have a day of crying and thumping fists into pillows. Sure. Do it. But then stand up, grab your keyboard or your WACOM pen, and get back on the horse. The difference between those who progress their careers and those who stagnate is the ability to brush off and get back to it. Don't waste your time whinging or venting (especially not online!!). Suck it up and get back to your work.

For critiques, particularly negative crits, here are some tips on how to deal with them, and some suggestions to improve your work beforehand.

  • It's really important to look at a critique objectively. It's not a personal attack. It's utterly subjective and is one person's opinion. Take a look at everything they said (and come back to it in a few months' time, too) and take what works for you at the time. Then let the rest go and get back to work. It's NOT PERSONAL.
  • A critique really, truly is designed to better your work. Again, it's not an attack on you and it's not designed to hurt. The focus is on finding ways to improve what's not working. Crit times are limited--the focus will always be on how to improve, not wasting time on superfluous praise. It's just the way it is. You'll have to find support and praise from your colleagues--we all do. I've worked on books with publishers who have NOT ONCE said a positive word about my work--literally--to the point where I've thought 'why the hell are you publishing me? do you even like this??' And I've just had to let that go and source feedback from close friends. Remember, publishers are absolutely crushed to buggery with work, especially as departments are downsized, and they're working on many books at once, not just yours. You can't take it personally if they don't idolise and baby you.
  • Don't show your work to too many people. Just a handful, and mostly professionals. Go over the responses and note the subjectivity. CYA Conference is brilliant for their ms crits. I've submitted in the past, and you get two different responses to the same ms, which is super helpful. The last time I submitted, again, I literally had two polar opposite responses. One score near perfect, the other scored woefully. Does this make you feel better?? Do you even realise the level of subjectivity here?? (On that note, also remember this: not everyone is qualified to give an effective critique, especially in competitions. I've been an editor for 20+ years and I can spot a ineffective critique a mile away. I don't take it personally, and I don't apply it to my work. I just move on.)
  • The editor/publisher is not being mean or having a crabby day. In ordinary working life, let alone under the intense (and I mean intense) pressure and overwhelm of festivals and conferences, publishers are absolutely hammered with demands and with the same old same old same old (same old mistakes, same old crap). Every industry has its bugbears, from the cafe servers who have to scrape up slammed-down coins from a countertop to queue-jumpers at the cinema, publishers also become exhausted by repetitive errors and issues and demands, not to mention the 'take this home and read it, and let me know what you think' ms shoved in their faces during lunch or in the bathroom. In fact, it astounds me what some creators do to publishers. So be mindful of how you 'see' a publisher during critique. Hearing negative feedback isn't easy, but it doesn't mean they're being cruel. I've been working with and chatting to publishers since 1994, and I've not once met a crabby cow. They are gorgeous, hardworking people who just need to tell it like it is. I'm not saying they don't have bad days, but go easy on them, especially if you want to work with them one day. Don't confuse critical feedback with being 'mean'.
  • Are you failing when it comes to punctuation and grammar? This is such a common mistake, and an inability to understand or master these basics is a huge red flag for publishers. They just don't have the staff, time or wherewithal to have to rewrite and nurture a substandard script that needs tidying up to effect even the most basic syntax errors. Your story idea may be brilliant, but gone are the days when publishers can invest their time fixing things for you. I strongly suggest taking an online course in grammar and punctuation, to bring clarity and professionalism to your work.
  • I also suggest allowing works to 'marinate' over time before submitting (at least a month, preferably three). This allows you to go back fresh and view the work from a different angle. We get so caught up in our own work, we can't see the forest for the trees. Some manuscripts are so wrapped up in the creator's head, no one else can understand it. Remember, we 'see' our story internally, but presenting it in a way that effectively transmits what we see, takes years of practice.
  • Whatever you do, don't publicly whine about your assessment experience. Publishers are everywhere and they are watching. One of the prerequisites to contracts is that you are an open, communicative, positive person who is easy to deal with. Publishers don't have the time or energy for drama or rabble-rousers. If you want to shoot yourself in the foot, by all means, bitch about your experience, especially about a direct experience. If you want to progress and get ever close to publication, suck it up, move on and get back to work.
  • There's a wonderful saying about helping others. If you extend a hand to help, prepare to have it bitten. It's so true. After ten years in the kids' book industry, I'm still stunned at the nasty reaction from some (thankfully, a small handful!) when advice is extended and you're slapped down for it (I'm talking solicited advice, too). Some people just want to hear what they want to hear, and if they don't like it, all hell breaks loose. If you want to be published and move your career forward, don't bite the hand that reaches out to help. The bitten do not forget, and--quite frankly--it's really a dumb move. And whatever you do, don't publicly announce that you're happy to be aggressive and difficult. Who would want to work with you???
  • Remember that conferences and festivals are hugely overwhelming, especially if you're new to the industry. They are not 'real life'. Everything is 100 times bigger, faster and intensified. It's an absolute rollercoaster on steroids, so feeling drained, emotional, overwhelmed, and yes, disappointed, is so very, very normal. If you talk to others who went to KidLit for the first time, they'll all wholeheartedly agree that it was a wrenching experience as much as an enlightening one. So, go easy on yourself. Let it all sink in and wash over you. If you commit to your journey, I promise you it will get easier, and the crit experience will improve.

So, dear Disappointed. I know it's easy for me to say don't be disappointed. But here's the thing. You simply must see your children's book journey as an investment in time. Jackie French has said it takes three years of SOLID industry commitment to make your presence known and up to ten years to be published. Indeed, bestselling juggernaut Andy Griffiths took 10 years to publish Just Tricking, and look at him now. Two friends recently spent 4 years and 8 years, respectively, working tirelessly on manuscripts, and both recently signed with HarperCollins. Although I've been published by the National Library and several indie publishers and imprints, it's taken almost 9 years to sign with a Top Six publisher. You simply can't fast track this, and crits are actually a brilliant way to help you put your foot on the gas.

If you are dedicated to your craft, and willing to take criticism well, to learn and grow and improve, you will get there. But be prepared to put in the hard yards, and understand that it will take time. Remember what they say--the best writers take critique well, the worst writers don't.

You did the right thing going to KidLitVic. Not only is it a great networking and educational experience, you are now on the publisher radar, and this ups your chances of having your work seen again. Many delegates even return home with the invitation to submit directly.

Good luck, Disappointed. Hang in there, smash those pillows and cry, feel the pain, as we ALL do, and grab your keyboard. I so look forward to seeing your first book on the shelves.



Sheryl Gwyther said...

Tania, this is a fabulous article - succinct, informative and honest - just what everyone needs to know about sharing one's stories in the raw in the critiquing world.

It is hard to undergo a ms appraisal that is not what you want to hear, but the most value comes if you listen in terms of 'what can I glean from what this publisher is saying?' There is always something. And never give up.

Thank you for sharing your insight and experience, Ms T! I'll share widely through SCBWI networks. :) (Yes, 8 years sounds a long time to keep 'one's eye on the prize', but in the end, it's not.)

What matters most in this 'publishing game' is ... have a vision for your story and never lose sight of it; take advice offered with grace, be totally honest with yourself. And rewrite!
xx S

Tania McCartney said...

An insightful and gracious response, Sheryl! xx

DimbutNice said...

Hear hear! Living proof examples of dreams come true do exist. There are plenty '20 year overnight successes' out there. They are successful because they are still grubbing away, learning, listening, growing. 'Good things come to those who wait. Better things come to those who work hard for them.' D x

Peter Taylor said...

Superb, Tania, and I love reading of your personal experiences. This article will help many people. You're right, critiques are never personal. The editor will happily read the next story that 'Disappointed' writes and may love it. I don't expect any editor will ever want to contract a story of mine that they appraise (though it has happened, and I guess there's always a tinge of a hope). I pay for a critique from a professional to learn what's wrong, not what's right with a text their opinion. I've been grateful for many light-bulb insights, but some suggestions have been ignored.

Yep, it's hard and a shock when you think you've polished and perfected a work and then get told that it's the 'worst story in the whole history of publishing if not the universe'. It's also really hard to tell someone (particularly someone you know) who has spent months tweaking a story that it doesn't fit publishers' current tastes (perhaps it's a 3000 word talking-heads didactic picture book text with no plot or tension). But it is beneficial to be told what's wrong so that you learn from it. I have a whole collection of 'learning experiences': stories hidden in the bottom drawer from when I started my writing for children 'apprenticeship' in 1998 ...but I enjoyed writing them and elements are still usable.

It took 9 years of conferences, courses, reading, being mentored, critiques and more to have my first children's book published (actually, it was a third of a non-fiction title). In that waiting time I'd developed a reputation as a writer through articles in Pass It On, blog posts, magazine articles, lucid comments here and there, helping with SCBWI, CBCA and volunteering for other organisations when I asked an unknown editor for virtual friendship on JacketFlap (before LinkedIn and Facebook existed) both I and my work were already known, and along with acceptance she asked me if I'd be interested in considering a project. I then had two adult non-fiction books published, but it took me 15 years to keep working on picture book stories before I had one contracted and released.

Even the most famous authors who sell books by the millions don't have everything published that they write ...but they get a phone call to say 'I don't think this is working' rather than hearing nothing after a submission or receiving a standard card or email.

Critiques do reflect personal taste, and as we know, tastes vary - so even when an editor adores a story and takes it to acquisition, if others in the team, or even one other member of the team can't see its merit, it will be rejected.

Darlene Campbell said...

Brilliant! I so appreciate you taking the time for Q&A. CHeers-

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