Writing Craft

Responding to Criticism

When someone tells me she’s not sure she wants me to read her manuscript, I know she’s not ready for publication. Such sentiment shows a lack of confidence and a fear of both rejection and criticism. Even though readers usually treat writers with respect, a critical word can puncture the heart.

Imagine the wounds delivered on Internet sites like Amazon from readers who lack that respect. A major complaint I hear from distraught authors is that people download free Christian novels and then post hostile reviews. A cursory bit of research reveals some say they felt duped because they didn’t realize they were downloading a Christian novel. It is likely they just grabbed it because it was free and did not look at other reviews or the book’s description. These readers aren’t victims of duplicity; they were, at the very least, lazy and then blamed others when the book wasn’t to their taste. Unfortunately, the temptation is for the author to strike back with a serrated reply.

My advice is to take a deep breath and think about how to respond to ridicule.  A few years ago, an author self-published a book without the benefit of an editor, resulting in many errors. When someone criticized the book, the author reacted defensively; and the ensuing “flame war” escalated quickly.

If the author had not responded with such vitriol to a tame, if unflattering, review, she wouldn’t have attracted more bile. Instead, her petulance caused her ratings to descend faster than a barrel over Niagara Falls.

In his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23), St. Paul wrote: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” Summoning the discipline not to defend yourself against criticism may mean praying for an extra helping of several fruits.

When faced with disapproval, consider what is being said. Are the reviewers speaking about you personally? Are they critiquing an idea or philosophy in the story? Are they commenting on the craft? Are they making a religious or political statement in contrast to your own? Or can you learn something from the criticism?

Examine your heart as you ponder what has been said. And be sure to read the many compliments your work is certain to receive as well. An open mind and a gentle spirit will only increase your knowledge and worth.

[An earlier version of this post ran in August 2011.]

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Multigenre Writing: Good or Bad Idea?

One of this blog’s readers recently directed the following question to me: You’ve been a successful writer in several genres. Is that possible for someone starting out today? I could debate the accuracy of the adjective “successful,” but I’ll let that slip for now. It’s true that I have written …

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Barriers to Effective Communication

By Steve Laube

It has been said that ninety percent of all problems in the universe are failures in communication. And the other ten percent are failures to understand the failure in communication. In the publishing business, or any business for that matter, this is so true. There are a couple common barriers to effective communication, assumption and expectation.

But I Assumed

Often one party assumes knowledge that the other person does not know. Or someone without knowledge fails to admit their lack and try to fake their way through the situation for fear of being found ignorant. Simple to fix. Just ask if you don’t know and alternatively make sure the other person knows what you are talking about. I learn something new nearly every single day and hope to continue that streak for the rest of my life.

But even  worse, and more common, is assuming the other party is mad at you for some reason. The fear of that “assumed anger” prevents an open dialogue or at least delays it.

Much of our business comes down to relationships and fear or anger prevent them from being healthy.

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Do You Need to Hire a Professional Editor?

Recently, a blog reader sent the following question: Tamela, as everyone knows, writing can be a desperately lonely pastime. The biggest thing I struggle with is direction or coaching. That is, “Have I developed a good story, concept, or theme? Or, am I seriously off the rails, a hopeless case?” …

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He Said. She Said.

A blog reader recently left an excellent comment on an earlier post:

Tamela, fiction workshop presenters taught me that the best word for “said” is “said”–that others only tend to slow down the reader’s eye. I’d appreciate a discussion on this.

While I don’t know the workshop presenters in question, what I can guess they meant is to avoid substituting creative verbs for “said” as a tag. For example:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare,” the cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards,” the dowager sniffed.

These tags aren’t without merit, because they do help convey the emotions and actions of the characters. In fact, they could even be expanded into effective action tags. At the least, simple punctuation would keep these characters from performing the improbable task of sniffing and chuckling words:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare.” The cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards.” The dowager sniffed.

So why would fiction workshop presenters tell writers to use the word “said” as a tag? I would say that there is a time and place to use a simple tag. In a fast-paced scene, a simple tag will keep the action flowing. For example:

“Get the gun,” Bruce said.

“What?”

“I said, get the gun.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask questions,” Bruce said. “Just do as I say. Now.”

In a case such as this, complicated action tags could slow down the rhythm and urgency of the scene, distracting the reader rather than adding to the story. The “said” tag is used infrequently to help the reader keep track of the conversation.

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Do You Have a Backup Plan?

by Steve Laube

The question is not if your hard drive will fail, it is a question of when. At least twice a year I have a client who has lost their hard drive to equipment failure. There was a recent story of an editor at Wired magazine who got hacked via a security hole in his Amazon and Apple accounts. He not only lost data, he lost all the digital pictures of his baby girl. He wrote the article as a cautionary tale. As the editor admits, he knew better, but did not follow his own advice. So my question to you is, “Do you have a backup plan?”

Hit the Save Button Regularly

Many think that just hitting the “save” button is enough. Sorry. That only saves the file to your local computer. And if that computer fails, you are toast. While hitting the save button helps with immediate things it isn’t a long term solution. What if someone steals your laptop while you turned your back to refresh your drink at the coffee shop?

Save to an External or Portable Backup Device or E-mail Service

Keeping your files on an external drive or a USB thumb drive is okay. But what if you lose the thumb drive (they are so small!)? Or what if you forget to take the external drive with you…and your computer is stolen from your office, along with the external drive?

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Three Questions About Agents

In meeting with writers on the cusp of their careers or flush with new success, we find that three big questions come to the forefront. Today, Tamela shares her answers:

How do I find a literary agent?

1)      First and foremost, visit the Agency web sites to see which ones are actively seeking the type of work you write.

2)      Talk to your agented friends to learn about their agents. Referrals are a big part of our business.

3)      If time and finances allow, attend a conference or meeting where your preferred agent will be appearing and meet the agent.

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Use Your Thesaurus and Dictionary Correctly

Today we look at how one writer uses his thesaurus and dictionary in a fascinating way. The following is a five-minute video from Martin Amis, one of Britain’s well-known literary novelists and essayists. I recommend clicking the “cc” close-captioned on the bottom next to the settings button. That way you …

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How Can You Manage So Many Clients?

by Steve Laube

I am frequently asked this question. It is perfectly understandable as many agencies carry a sizeable list of clients. A prospective client or even an existing one wonders, “Will this agent or agency have time for me?”

We post a list of our clients on the web site because we are honored to work with so many gifted people. Not every agency makes their client list public. It is neither right nor wrong, it is merely a preference. As of this morning we have over 150 clients on our roster.

Proper management of a client base is all about communication and work flow. The best metaphor I’ve been able to use to describe how a literary agency works is “We are like a major airline that is always overbooked but never flies full. But if everyone show up at the gate at the same time, we would be in serious trouble.”

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Our Favorite Typos

Writers aren’t perfect. This may not be news to you. But occasionally we read or create typos that stay with us. Some become favorites, prompting smiles and giggles (and maybe embarrassment) for years to come. I asked writers, editors, and agents to share some from their experiences. Here are their …

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