Copyright by Jerry Segraves
I am not an armadillo…
Anyone who knows me well knows that I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I make no apologies for that. I am who I am. With age, comes wisdom (and gray hair, but that’s despite the point). I understand most times why things must be as they are, but sometimes the emotional response isn’t as tempered as you might expect of an ahem-year old woman. So, why not become a writer? Why not throw yourself fully into a profession where there are zero guarantees to balance hundreds of hours of work, where the answer will most likely be “no” or non-existent? The answer is this: I am ahem-years old as previously stated. I can’t keep “growing up” forever. Writing is a dream. And I’ll be damned if someone tells me I can’t do it. So there.
I have recently finished my first middle grade novel, yet second novel as I wrote a young adult novel last year. Novels are hard. So are picture books, but in a much different way. In novels you have a cast of characters, the major plot, subplots, setting, tension, etc. that must all intersect in such a way to engage the readers and make them invest in the character and storyline. I recently had two opportunities for critiques that I jumped at. Any early feedback from insiders is invaluable. Here is what I learned.
1. My main character Bernie (aka Bernadette) is not likable. A rather no-nonsense, get to the heart of the issue, yet well-respected NY agent said, “I have to say, she’s still coming across as too prissy, unreasonable…She’s reading unsympathetic right now and that could be a killer.” Ouch. A very kind, (meaning she can say nice things, too!) senior editor at a well-known NY publisher said, “Bernie is a difficult character to develop empathy for.” My first reaction was…well…, honestly it was, “You suck, Marcy. You’re never going to get this right. You’ll never make it as a real writer.” After my moment, my second reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I love Bernie. Everyone loves Bernie.” But those NY agents and publishers get 1000’s of emails a week. If they don’t like what they see in the first few pages (or paragraphs), you’re cast aside. I need to grab the reader immediately, not in chapter two. I need to tell the reader what I already know about Bernie, and I need to do it right off the first page. Better yet, I need to show the reader why Bernie is strong, yet lovable. The insiders were right.
2. Also confirmed after these two critiques was that kindness makes me work harder and negativity ticks me off, raises my blood pressure, but also produces the same response. The agent said nothing positive. Nothing. As part of a webinar, I paid to have the first 500 words of my 31000 word novel critiqued. She found only flaws and countered it with, well, with nothing… The second critique, again paid for, as part of the Michigan SCBWI conference (awesome event!), done by a senior editor at a well known publishing house, said many of the same things about my first chapter but started with the positives. There was even a section entitled, “The positive aspects of the work.”
I understood the message of both individuals. I so appreciate the opportunity to fix these issues early in the submission stage. I also don’t need my hand held. I know these professionals don’t have time to coddle, nor should they. Some people appreciate the meat and potatoes of a critique. Sorry. Nope. Not me. Tell me something nice first. Then I’ll work harder. Is it that hard to say, “While I think this manuscript needs work on ….., I do like… ?” If I don’t ever hear that I start to feel like those American Idol hopefuls who sing before the judges waiting for their golden tickets only to be so obviously rejected because they stink. But no one in their inner circle has ever told them how bad they truly are. No, I am not one of those people. I hope that if I were I’d have someone nicely pull me aside and say, “This writing thing really isn’t for you.”
Laini Taylor, author of the young adult novel Daughter of Smoke and Bone, also spoke at the SCBWI event last weekend. She shared how she likes her editors to start with the positive points first when she submits her revisions. How refreshing to hear another author say essentially, “Please me nice to me, and then tell me what I should fix.” (my words, not Laini’s)
I would love to share this post with agents and editors, but, alas, they’d probably laugh at me, and tell me to grow some thick skin. Take it or leave it. I am who I am. Now, I have work to do. I have to make you love Bernie as much as I do.