On one of the writers websites where I lurk, a fellow showed up one day asking why agents couldn’t take the time to give an aspiring writer a one or two word explanation for the rejection of his query. He’d been trying for ten years to find an agent to represent his “epic fantasy,” a 278,000 word first novel (and the first of a trilogy!). Almost immediately, and predictably, a dozen or so folks told him his word count was a show stopper. Absolutely not, he said. That manuscript had been trimmed and polished to a fine sheen. There was no way it could be shortened, and God forbid it could be divided into two.
Then we coaxed him to post his query.
If the word count wouldn’t have stopped an agent, the query was sure to. Fifteen names were mentioned, all of them seemingly made up by a blind typist. And it was thick enough to stand up a lead spoon at half mast.
Criticisms were offered, ranging from the dainty to the damning, and eventually, the Sensitive Artist when huffing off, hurling sanctimonious epithets. “Deviant ayatollahs,” we were (among other things).
This got me thinking about my relatively short experience as an aspiring writer. I’ve come to this rather late in life, via a short career in state legislative politics, lobbying, a stint running a large institutional legal department, years of standing in front of angry mobs of NIMBIES, and raising two teenagers. What all of those experiences gave me (to the extent I wasn’t born with it) was thick skin.
It occurs to me that thick skin is as essential to the aspiring writer as craft, imagination or storytelling. Yes. As essential.
Why? Because no matter how good our craft, imagination or storytelling might be (as developing writers), it can always improve.
And it improves, significantly, through the receipt of honest criticism from well-meaning and talented writers whom we are lucky enough to know.
My first serious crit was from a brilliant Brit who’d found me on Youwriteon.org and dragged me to a private writers website for special “attention.” I have save his redlines in a special file and look back on them whenever I think I’m getting “good.”
Then I followed him and some of the others on the site over to Authonomy, where I posted the first 10,000 words of Small Fish and begged for other writers to “rip me a new one.” I had no desire for fawning praise. I didn’t deserve it, and it wasn’t what I asked for. A healthy dozen or so obliged. Many revisions ensued.
Did I read searing, sarcastic ridicule about the treatment of a sex scene? (“Come on, you weren’t serious, were you? That was laughable.”) A death scene? (“Syrupy self-indulgence. Bile raising in its self-consciousness.”) Wordiness? (Jaysus, Pete, you do go on!”) Yup. Did it bother me? Well, for a microsecond, yeah. It did.
But then, I asked for it, and I got what I asked for. And I had no right to be anything but appreciative.
Thick skin allows you to evaluate criticism as objectively as you, the writer, are able. We can’t possibly be so confident in our skills that no word of our creation is imperfect! There is always a different, better way to say something! A shorter, simpler way. A more poetic, sympathetic, brutal, honest or guileful way. That’s why we ask.
So now, as I wait for my scarily industrious agent to finally get back to me with her own edits, I say that I wouldn’t have that agent – in fact I may not ever have finished the book at all – if I hadn’t been fortunate to have several dozen unsympathetic ogres open up with guns blazing and help me make it something worth reading.
And I can still write two more novels to get to the 278k word count!
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Tags: agent query, editor, novels, small fish