Saturday, August 25, 2007

Publishing As Speed Dating

Agent Jonathan Lyons had a couple of great posts at the end of this week--one defining "net royalties" on Friday and another from a children's agent on Thursday. Read Jonathan's blog here.

The children's agent, Edward Necarsulmer IV of McIntosh & Otis, reminded readers that publishing is a very subjective business by saying "one editor’s coal is another’s gem."

I don't think this point can be stressed often enough to newbie writers. I've met writers who gave up after their first round of rejections from either agents or editors. Despite spending months, or even years, writing a manuscript, they tucked it away forever after five or six rejections.

Unlike many other professions, writing is a solitary task. It requires self-motivation and self-discipline to forego spending precious leisure time in order to sit staring at a blank page.

It also requires a fair amount of courage to share what you've written with others. I came to think of it like a child learning to walk. First he crawls (shows a chapter to his nearest and dearest), then he takes his first steps (shows it to other writers) and finally he runs (sends his manuscript to agents and editors).

The sooner you can begin that process, the better. Among the mistakes I made was not sharing my work soon enough. Instead of finding critique partners while I was still writing my first novel, I waited until I had a completed manuscript.

I'd strongly recommend that any newbie writer seek out critiques as soon as possible. For one reason, good critique partners will help you break poor writing habits (over-dependence on adverbs, poor punctuation, too much telling rather than showing) before they become too entrenched. For another, you begin developing calluses on your ego--a necessary and important step before you start sending your manuscript out into the world to fend for itself.

After a few years in the work world, most employees learn to accept professional feedback. They recognize professional criticism is about the work, not about them personally.

Even though I'd been in the business world for years--both as an employee and as a supervisor--I still had to learn that lesson all over again when I started writing.

I was a psychiatric social worker for years. In that profession, we had to learn to empathize with our clients--I thought of it as becoming a mirror reflecting back what I saw and heard. A mirror doesn't feel what it reflects. I summarized by employing such empathetic phrases as "I hear what you want is . . ." or "So you're telling me that you feel . . ." The client heard me expressing what s/he was trying to say and could then be confident I understood the situation from his/her perspective.

Empathy is distinct from sympathy. Sympathy steps over the line into sharing the experience with the other person. Sympathy is best described when one person tells another, "I know how you feel." The unspoken end of that sentence is often "because I've felt it before."

When a social worker or cop or nurse moves into sympathy, their own feelings become engaged and their ability to help the client is impaired because professional judgment is no longer the only factor in the dynamic. Some people call it maintaining a professional distance; I always thought of it as not jumping into the ocean of emotion with the client. When I did that, we both risked drowning.

Writing--for me, at least--involves lowering that professional wall so I can tap into the emotions of my characters and write as though I were experiencing what they are experiencing in the here and now.

Then I finish the manuscript and must put on a different hat--that of the professional selling a product. But this isn't a widget, this is a product that is a part of me. And, because of that, it's easier to feel bruised by rejection; to feel as if it's not just the product that's being rejected, it's me.

The critiquing process helps toughen the skin for those inevitable rejections and helps remind the writer that this is a business. An agent or editor assesses the work to see if it is likely to sell. If not, it's a pass. No matter how hurtful that rejection may be to the writer. It's business, nothing personal.

Even so, agents and editors are human, too. They have their own likes and dislikes. It is far easier to sell a manuscript in which they believe.

And, if they don't feel that special something for your manuscript, maybe the next agent will.

Think of it as speed dating. Sure, you have to talk to a lot of people, but maybe . . . just maybe . . . the next one will be THE one.

1 comment:

katemoss said...

Well said, Maya. And just what I needed to hear right now. I've been debating getting crit partners now or waiting till my manuscript is finished. Thanks.