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Thursday, January 09, 2014


IF YOU'RE NEW TO MY BLOG, I OCCASIONALLY WRITE ABC posts covering basic writing issues. Today, we're looking at who can give you the best feedback on your work. For novels, a seasoned and experienced agent will give you sound advice if you're lucky enough to get one. But it isn't enough to simply land an agent - you'll need one with an impressive track record who works with an established firm. There are no regulations; anyone can become an agent if they so choose. Furthermore, even with some agents who have established themselves, I've heard too many stories where writers are collected and their books treated like spaghetti thrown at a wall: in the hopes that a book will stick with an acquisitions editor, said agent tosses it to the editor with little preparation beforehand. Then, when the book is turned down, the writer is advised to rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. The best agents will always be a second set of eyes who will assess your work in terms of its saleability before they send it out. 

Editors also give excellent feedback, but they all have their biases. Editorial collectives are the same everywhere, whether they represent the interests of a short fiction magazine or book publishing house. Even though there are five of us at On Spec, we don't always agree on what makes a great story. It's also next to impossible to get free editorial advice unless you have an 'in' with an editor - ie., she's your personal friend, he's doing you a favor, or you happen to belong to a writing group she mentors. If he hosts a blog like this one, you'll find good but general advice; it won't be specific to your work. (Which is an idea I've been toying with: if writers are willing for me to post sections of their work here, on Suzenyms, I could do a personalized critique. As I said, I'm toying with the idea, as it would take time out of an already busy schedule. It would also depend on interest. In the meantime, I'll continue to post the occasional 'Letters to the Slush Pile'.)

Professors of English, particularly if they have a love for the genre, and Writers in Residence at your local library or college are excellent resources, too. There are also writing groups you can join or form. If you're looking to join a writing group, your local Writers Guild may have various groups devoted to different genres. You can also make contacts and see what's out there by attending writing conventions, or you can surf for groups on-line. A word of caution regarding writing groups - some exist mostly to socialize or to flatter themselves, so they won’t be helpful. I have one friend who was tossed from a flattery group because he was a bit too brutal with the truth. If you’re fortunate enough to find a good writing group, the best ones will have writers who are more experienced than you are, who have published more short stories or novels than you have, and where some of the members are also writing at your level. One of the fastest ways to improve your technique is to learn how to accept honest critique gracefully, while at the same time, having an opportunity to criticize other people's work. The more works-in-progress you see, the faster you'll develop a sense of what works, what doesn't, and why. If everyone in the group comes from a position of mutual respect and offers constructive criticism, the writing will benefit. That said, you don't need to take all critiques seriously. Some people are just plain wrong. On the other hand, if you receive three similar comments about the same issue, it's probably best to address it.

Who shouldn't you ask for feedback? Family and friends are the last people who should critique your work (unless they happen to be professional editors, publishers, or writers), because they will always be swayed by your relationship.Your mother will likely be proud of whatever you write (no matter what its quality). Your non-writing friends may be too worried about sharing their thoughts honestly.

There will come a time when you'll trust your own inner guide. When that happens, you'll likely be in a place where the only people who can give you feedback will be your agent or your editor. You'll want to listen to them, of course, but congratulations. You've come a long way. 

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