Meaningful Feedback

Picture made entirely of words by Ann A. Murray

Picture made entirely of words ©Ann A. Murray

My family recently attended an annual one-man art exhibition by my uncle, Eldridge Bagley, at the Glave Kocen Gallery in Richmond, Virginia.

Because my daughter, Ann, enjoys photography, I encouraged her to ask the gallery director his opinion of her work. He liked several of her photos, and guided her on which types of images would sell in Richmond versus which would be more appealing to buyers in D.C. He also mentioned that in the future, her work might be included in a juried exhibition held at their gallery. This means she will receive feedback from other knowledgeable professionals.

We were pleasantly surprised by this possibility. Not only had the director offered tips, but if Ann is able to participate in the exhibit, she will gain more feedback. This feedback might help her decide where to place emphasis in her studies at Liberty University since she is interested in several fields of discipline.

Her experience made me think of writers and how they can garner effective feedback. Today, I’ll share a few of my ideas:

1.) Agents: Agent feedback is one of your best sources, but only if you are on the cusp of needing representation. This is because agents (and editors, for that matter), are only able to focus on manuscripts they might be able to pursue. Unfortunately, most agents are unable to give meaningful feedback to queries sent to their slush piles, especially if the manuscript has multiple problems. At our agency, we try to answer all legitimate queries. But we simply have too many queries to have time offer our detailed opinions on every submission. Also, as Steve Laube noted in the comments section of one of my posts, sometimes agents’ attempts to edit manuscripts may not be beneficial. But if you do receive helpful comments from an agent, pay attention. The agent may be opening the door to a working relationship with you.

2.) Contests: Writers can gain excellent insights from contests, particularly from those requiring judges to comment. However, contest coordinators want judges to be encouraging. So while you can learn much from contests, be aware that any comments you gain are likely to be filtered toward a positive bias. Also be aware that a contest win, or even several successes in contests, won’t guarantee you will soon be awarded a contract. Why? Because entries are judged on quality and not necessarily marketability. Many quality manuscripts are not marketable. However, contest success does tell agents and editors that your work was good enough to be noticed. For more on contests, click here.

3.) Conference meetings with agents and editors: These are superb opportunities to see if you might work well with a particular agent or editor, but I find it impossible to evaluate a manuscript in fifteen minutes. Granted, I have helped many authors during these meetings (manuscript starts in the wrong place; theology is controversial for CBA), but the meetings are most effective as relationship starters, in my view. Be prepared to discuss your work; just don’t expect a full evaluation then and there.

4.) Critique partners: Once you find a great fit, don’t let go. That chemistry isn’t easy to find, as I pointed out here. However, critique partners with knowledge of the industry, love of story, and with a genuine interest in your success are a perfect way to gain detailed feedback on your work with very little professional risk.

Your turn:

Have you gotten feedback on your manuscript? From whom?

How do you deal with unflattering feedback?

What was your best feedback experience?

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Really, You Don’t Have to Ask

Over the years I’ve seen lists of questions you’re supposed to ask an agent before signing a contract. Some of the questions are excellent. But I believe if you ask others, at least at the stage when the agent is discussing the possibility of representation, you may have not done the right research ahead of time. I culled these questions from a number of lists on the Internet. Most of these questions appeared on more than one list.

Can you give me a list of authors from whom I may ask for references? A quick trip to most agents’ web sites will tell you about the authors they represent. The Steve Laube Agency site lists all our authors. I’m always glad when authors talk to one another, and I often find new writers based on the recommendations of current clients. But in my view, asking for a list of references is off-putting unless you want to talk to another client before making your decision. If you are unsure of that agency, don’t send them your proposal until you know you’d be thrilled to work with them.

Who do you represent? See Question One. There are exceptions. Some agencies prefer not to make their client lists public and when speaking to them, this question makes sense. But if their client list is already on their web site, your question might give the wrong impression.

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Email Gaffes

Do you think what you send across the Internet is private as long as you’re careful? Think again. Here are just a few things that have happened over the years to some of my friends, and to myself:

I didn’t realize Auto-Complete would send my mail to the wrong person

We’ve all misdirected mail when we have people with a similar name in our address books. Steve Laube shared a story with me that happened years ago:

Many years ago I sent contract questions, in an attachment, to an author instead of a publishing executive. The problem was that the author was not associated in any way with that particular deal. Both had the same first name and the computer filled in the rest without me checking carefully. The author was gracious and let me know he did not open the attachment and deleted the email.

A lesson we have all had to learn, the hard way. One way to prevent it is to turn off the Auto-complete feature. Or better yet, double check everything before hitting the “send” button.

I thought the message I sent in response to a loop post was just going to one person but it went to the loop.

Maybe. Maybe not. I’m on several loops, and I can never remember without referring to the address field. Always, always, always check before dashing off a message meant for one pair of eyes only. And while you’re at it, think about the message itself. If it’s a deep, dark secret, should it be addressed in an email? Again, maybe going offline would be better.

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Yes, This Post Is About You

Almost every time we post a story or give a “don’t do this” example, we receive emails and phone calls. “Were you talking about me?”

Why, yes. Yes we were.

Actually, something you did may have reminded us about something someone else did, which reminded us about something else that happened years ago. I’ve been an agent for well over a decade, so I’ve seen lots of situations happen more than once. So I might be inspired to write about an event because the fact it’s happened more than once shows that addressing it will help a lot of people. Maybe even you.

If it makes you feel better, realize it’s a two-way street. People also write about agents. I may read a post and wonder if I’m the particular agent who offended someone. Maybe. Maybe not. But I can learn from reading posts about how I can be a better agent.

Think about your stories. Aren’t many of your characters composites of people you know? What would happen if you had to field phone calls from offended friends and relatives every time a character misbehaved in your book? How would you address an angry phone call from your sister-in-law? Or the dismay of a cousin? I suggest first, thank her for being one of your readers.

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The Tell-All You Can’t Live Without

Karen Ball

Okay, okay, I admit it, the title of this blog is hyperbolic. Kind of. But let me explain why it’s not that far off the mark to say you really can’t—or at the very least, shouldn’t–live without it. Also, let me explain why I’m addressing something that Tamela addressed a mere 3 months ago.

So far this week, I’ve had no fewer than seven conversations with writers, agents, and editors, all of which hit on the same topic: finding out important information long after they should have. The conversations covered a broad range of information:

An author calling to say s/he was going to miss a deadline—a week before the deadline. A client receiving an extension on a deadline from an editor A publishing house moving a pub date without letting the author know A book arriving with a cover that was completely different from what the author approved

My response in every case was utterly profound:

“Are you KIDDING me??”

So though Tamela addressed the following in March, let’s talk about it again. Because friends, this is important stuff. (And because you know who will address it next: Mr. Steve. And he won’t be as nice as Tamela and I are! <insert evil grin here>)

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A Bit of Blogs, Just for You!

I’ve recently discovered a couple of new blogs that I really like, so I thought I’d share them with you.

The first is by Jeff Goins, at I like his perspective on writing, not just the craft, but the work of it. And he has a sense of humor, too. That’s always nice.

The second is The Creative Penn, by Joanna Penn. I love the diversity of topics she addresses, and her knowledge of publishing is really broad. Plus an added bonus: she’s got a lovely accent!

Last but not least, here’s a blog on, you guessed it, blogging! Anytime you’re struggling with keeping up with the bloggers, or if you want to feel as though someone is walking the blogging road with you, just hop on over to Successful Blog ( with Liz Strauss. She’s got great counsel and ideas that can help not just with blogging, but with your writing as well.

How about you? Any blogs you can’t get through the day without reading? Well, other than the Steve Laube Agency blog, of course! (And those already recommended in the right hand column under “Industry Blogs.”) But share your discoveries so we can all benefit.

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A Few Things Your Agent Needs to Know

You have an agent, but want to be low maintenance. You value your agent’s time and hesitate to fill her in-box with lots of chatty emails or tie him up on the phone all day. I’m sure your agent appreciates you for being considerate.

Still, writing is a serious profession and a business. Therefore some personal events and occasions in your life are critical for your agent to know:

Happy Event

If you are the bride or groom, the parent of the bride or groom, expecting a new life in your family, are taking a month-long vacation to Hawaii, or have another major happy event planned, let us know so we will be aware that you might not be around for stretch of time.

Death of an Immediate Family Member

If you don’t tell us about a death that affects you in a major way, we won’t understand your emotional state. Also, consider that if you are responsible for executing a will and disposing of an estate, it’s best to let your agent know you are involved in time-consuming, heart-wrenching work that could affect your productivity.

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Are We Speaking the Same Language?

by Karen Ball

I love languages. I started studying French in the 7th grade (“Bonjour, Monsieur DuPree. Comment-allez vous?), and by the time I had my double college degree in multiple-languages and journalism, I’d studied French (12 years), Spanish (5 years), and Russian (1 year). But I confess, I never expected to have to learn a new language when I entered the publishing world.


I remember the first time I realized words and terms had very different meanings in publishing. As a PK and PGK (preacher’s kid and preacher’s grandkid), I knew my duty to widow and orphans. It was right there in the Bible. So you imagine my astonishment when I discovered it was now my goal to kill the widows and orphans. Then I learned that bleeding in the gutters had nothing to do with murder, that picas weren’t fuzzy little forest animals, leading wasn’t something done to stained glass, fonts weren’t receptacles for baptismal water, a kill fee wasn’t about hiring a hitman, and a galley wasn’t the kitchen on a ship.

It all reminded me of a line from a poster I had up in my college dorm room: I know you believe you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure that what you heard is what I really meant to say. Or the poster in a friend’s room that said, “I’m not as drunk as some thinkle peep I am.” (Okay, it has absolutely nothing to do with that last one. I just put it in because it makes me laugh…)

It’s taken years of study and practice, but I’m finally fluent in Pub-Speak. Or so I thought until a few days ago when I had a discussion of editing terms with the illustrious Steve Laube. It went something like this:

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Build it Before They Come

If you want to be a published writer, realize that someone will look for you on the web. Agents will Google your name. I guarantee that editors and marketing folks will visit your web site to find out more about you.

Thus your web site needs to be both professional and effective. It is a bit like putting on your “Sunday Best” before going to an interview. That first impression is critical.

Allow me to share unscientific, subjective thoughts regarding a few elements I especially enjoy as an agent learning about writers through their web sites:

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