Saturday, November 28, 2009

Top Ten Reasons the editor doesn't love what your critique group loves

I want to reconstruct my incredibly brilliant post that got lost when the PC crashed. You’ll have to take my word for the brilliance, because this reconstructed one won’t be as brilliant. As you read it, just think, “I bet the original was brilliant.”

Top Ten Reasons Why the Editor Doesn’t Applaud What Your Crit Group Loved:

10) The critique group knows too much-- the context of your story and how much you've improved and what this all means. But the editor knows only what you submit: “This writer never heard about killing her darlings—and she sure has a lot of darlings, all very precious and twee.” Sometimes what we love is actually a bit… self-indulgent. Once I started a mystery set in a critique group, with both the murderer and the victim as members of the group, and each fictional group member was based on a member of my then-critique group, and it was screamingly funny—to us, anyway. Actually, it’s not a bad idea, but I can certainly understand why editors weren’t rolling on the floor when “Sadie” and “Mary” once again debated semicolons and “Laura” went on a diet and the other members kept bringing chocolate to meetings, you know, exactly as happened in my critique group! (It was really funny! My critique group just howled!)

9) The critique group sees things scene by scene, by the editor sees the manuscript as a whole: “Huh? What’s this got to do with the story? Is it an outtake from some other book?” Scenes can be terrific each on their own, but not always fit into the tone or plot of the rest of the book. The crit group might see your story a scene at a time and love each individually… and never read the entire book and so not notice if one scene is out of place.

8) “Nicely written, but (insert trendy plot device) is so last year, or will be next year anyway.” From acceptance to publication is usually a year, so the editor has to scout ahead and imagine what will be appealing to readers not right now, but in 12 months. So you and the critique group might be right, that your wizard is better than Harry Potter… but the editor might be getting up-to-the-minute info from the sales force that wizards’ popularity is dropping off, and will be nil next year.

7) “Good story, but the prose is so rough—I just don’t have time to fix every sentence.” There is a minimal level of prose, and sometimes your critique group might, um, have a lower minimum than the editor does. If the overworked editor has two good stories, and one requires maybe three hours of editing, and the other twelve hours, which would you suggest she take? It’s your job, not hers, to make this story publishable. And editors are editors. We love the English language, grammar and all. When you turn in a manuscript full of errors, it’s kind of like you’re disrespecting our great love. We can’t help but take that personally!

6) Your critique group expects a rough draft, a chapter with crossouts and handwritten additions. The editor expects something else: “I can’t believe she submitted this manuscript in this condition. The paper reeks of smoke; there is a bloodstain, I’m pretty sure, on page 12. Who does she think she is? Stephen King delivers a clean manuscript — if this no-name wants to be a professional, let her get started on acting like one.” You think I’m kidding? I’m not. If the editor has an asthma attack opening your envelope, or goes looking for latex gloves so as not to encounter your bodily fluids, well, let’s just say, no matter how great the story is, it’s probably not going to be read. Print out a new manuscript for each submission. And keep your paper and your printer in a room where no one smokes.

5) “Great idea, well-executed, but, umm, we don’t publish short stories (or horror novels or non-fiction or…).” Your critique group might be right— you are the next Alice Munro. But if the editor doesn’t edit short story anthologies, you can’t count on her taking the manuscript across the hall to the appropriate colleague. I was sort of shocked, when I became an editor, how many submissions I received which had nothing to do with what I could acquire. Do your research, and don’t waste the editor’s time and your postage with the sort of book she doesn’t edit.

4) Your critique group is probably filled with experienced readers who get a kick out of something new and fresh. The editor might too… until she remembers that she’s not the target audience: “Very quirky, very cutting-edge—but our audience would never buy this.” Publishers are only as innovative as their customers. They might be wrong—publishers frequently underestimate the ability of readers to adapt quickly to what might seem experimental—but editors do have to take the attitude of the higher-ups into consideration, and the higher-ups generally think their customers are conservative and change-resistant.

3) Your critique group loves your premise and thinks it’s just the high-concept the publisher is looking for—easy to market, easy to blurb. And the crit group is right. What they don’t realize, however, is that the editor knows more: “We have another book with a similar premise coming out in three months. This is better, but that’s already paid for.” There are no unique ideas, or they’re not unique for long. I remember one editor saying she got – in one week-- three manuscripts using the premise of Jesus being cloned from the blood on the Shroud of Turin, and each of the authors arrived at that premise independently. Only one book got bought, probably the first to hit the desk. You and the critique group might be exactly right, that you came up with this on your own, but so apparently did someone else-- earlier.

2) Your critique group probably loves you no matter what. And heck, you might be a prince in F2F personal relationships. You remember birthdays, and you’re always there with an encouraging word, and they have a history with you, so even if you’re grumpy one day, they’ll forgive you. The editor, however, might think, “In the dictionary, next to the word ‘difficult,’ is a photo of this writer. Depending on the time of day he calls (and he’s called every day since he submitted), he seems to think that I am either his enemy or his therapist. I cannot, cannot, cannot deal with him for the next year. Maybe he’s the next Dean Koontz and I’ll get fired for rejecting him… but so what? No job and no author is worth this increase of stomach acid.” An editor has to do more than acquire a manuscript. She has to edit it and shepherd it through, which means continued contact. How much do you want her to dread that? Think of that before you pick up that phone or hit “send”.
1) Your critique group is right. It’s really that good a book. And seriously, if there was any justice in the world, it would sell at auction and the advance pay for two kids in private college. However: “I love it, but my boss will hate it.” No accounting for tastes. I remember an editor-in-chief refusing a book because the heroine had the name of an ex-girlfriend. The author offered to change the name… no go. Lesson—sometimes it doesn’t make any sense. Great books get rejected all the time, for good reasons and bad. The market is fickle, and so are bosses. And the trouble is, you might never know whether your book was rejected “for cause,” or if it really is as great as your critique group says, and some factor completely beyond your control interferes.

So keep writing, keep critiquing, keep growing, keep trying. And make sure your critique group knows you want absolute honesty, and reward them with openness and gratitude. They might not have the editor’s perspective, but they’ll be the best readers you will ever have, and they can help you hone the manuscript to its best form. Then, well, then luck, timing, all that uncontrollable stuff, will factor in. But you will know you’ve done everything you can!


Anonymous said...

I just like that you used the word "twee" in a sentence. I've been trying to do that for years without success.

Also, excellent advice, good lady. Thanks for reminding me the market's just that fickle, and for crushing my dreams well in advance of the completion of my first novel.

Kidding. About the novel completion thing...

Weronika Janczuk said...

This applies so well to groups I've been in. Great advice, and very timely, too. Thank you!

Edittorrent said...

Simon, write the best book you can write, and submit sensibly. What else can you do?

Good luck!!!


Anonymous said...

What else can I do, good lady? I can continue to make passive-aggressive comments on editor and agent blogs, and hope that's enough to get me published someday, sans manuscript...


Linda Maye Adams said...

Excellent points, particularly #9. When I was in a critique group, we had this one guy who was a great writer of the words. Most of the members lover what he wrote. I kept looking at the big picture of the story, because I knew that's what the agents and editors look for. And he had--no kidding--70K and had yet to start any story. It was a collection of scenes. Well, written scenes, but no story. I was the only one who commented on it--again and again. He chose to ignore me because everyone else was giving such great comments that I must be wrong. Sigh ...

Eva Gale said...

Precious and twee?! -I had to stop myself from squeeing, "She used TWEE!" and scaring the bird off it's perch.

Awesome post.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed this one.

Leona said...

You see Simon, this is her idea of less than brilliant. It's a lot to live up to :D All the more reason to keep writing!

Anonymous said...

Great post and very informative. You are right in that critique group have probably seen the whole process go forward, discussed this and that character with you. As such, they have a lot more information to work off of when forming an opinion. Thanks for an excellent post.

Gossip Cowgirl said...

This reminds me of all the reasons why I want to have a good critique group *and* a good editor. :-)

Great post!

John Barnes said...

Those are all good; as a writer with 20+ books and a variety of editorial experience, I'd say the list could be three times as long and there would still be important reasons for the problem left off.

So a few candidate additions:

1) Most of us are better salespeople than we realize, especially if we only have to warm up and never have to close. Over time we bring people around to our point of view. So if there's something dreadful you do that you love doing (in your fiction! not necessarily in your life!), and that you wish there was more of in your reading ... your critiques of other people's stories, your conversation, everything will gradually sell your group on that as a fictional value. Eventually you'll be getting your own ideas back but with the authority of the outsider. But when you step outside that concealed loop, the editor will look and say, "Why is there a buffalo on every other page?"

2) Critique groups essentially require people to come up with things to say -- preferably helpful things. That means there are two comments about the manuscript always out of order: THIS SUCKS and IT'S READY. You have to be really bad to elicit the former and I'm not sure anyone can be brilliant enough to elicit the latter from a critique group. So your intent rarely focuses on avoiding the one and getting the other -- but those are actually the two decisions that an editor is most likely to make. So a critique group subtly teaches you not to seek exactly the feedback that's available from editors. It's like the problem beginning tennis players have when they rally all the time and never play for a point -- they get the habit of trying to get a response (put the ball where their partners can hit it), rather than trying to win (put it where they can't possibly hit it). Gradually your group teaches you not to go for the win or fight not to lose.

3) Also because people go looking for things to say, over time many critiquers develop far too much ability to find something or other so that they'll always have something to say. "You could replace this said with an action tag." "Some of the information in this paragraph is redundant." "This is told when it could be shown." "Your pronoun references are confusing." Any of those can be useful to know, but some people become experts at spotting that problem so that they always have something to say, and once you've got the action tag/redundant/show-tell/pronoun wizard in your group, you will eventually be putting a great deal of effort into avoiding their stock comment -- and editors buy stories that have all those (and a thousand other) common problems all the time. Your focus, again, is pulled to getting from "already good" to "excellent" in some common area, when what you most need to work on is some area that no one in your critique group has a bug about, that needs to move from "feeble" to "adequate."

Three is probably plenty ...

Edittorrent said...

John Barnes! I quote you all the time. No, really, about theater and the need for structure in drama.


Annette Lyon said...

Great points. I was quite happy to be able to mentally check off each thing as something my group does NOT have a problem with. We started out 10 years ago as unpublished, aspiring writers. Now we have over two dozen books and many awards between us.

The right group can make all the difference.

Sandy said...

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to learn to edit your own work.

I had a mentor who was an editor, and she taught me many things about editing. I was the queen of repeating the same information over and over. Eeeks!

Anne R. Allen said...

Fantastic list. Important stuff.

John Barnes' additions are good too.

I'd also add that your critique group only hears a chapter or so at a time. You may write great scenes but your overall story arc may be weak.


Great advice all around! There have been times my editor/agent hated something my critique partners love, and also times one of them adored something my CPs weren't too sure about.


Andrew Burt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Burt said...

Hi, Alicia, I saw your post and wanted to comment that as far as in person critique groups go, you comments are spot on. I feel a bit biased about the list from the perspective of online critique groups and think there are some significant differences.

(I'm biased in that I, er, created the first critique group on the web 15 years ago, , and which I've just expanded to a ton of other genres, so I'd have to be labeled pretty "pro" workshop. :) But I also run the preditors&editors voting poll that you won, so hopefully that makes up for it -- and congrats!) :)

Taking your list, items 10, 9, 7, 6, 4, & 2 are all problems an online critique group can avoid -- primarily because the larger size brings in a mix of readers who both have seen your work and ones who haven't, plus the lack of personal Svengali influence over people you've never met and can't see. But I certainly agree no critique group can know details or quirks that are in a specific editor's brain (alas).

As for John's additions (hi John!), #1 is again the Svengali thing, and not relevant on-line. #2 I would debate: Online reader comments might not say specifically "this sucks," but you can intuit that it isn't ready from the range of responses; and a lack of major problems from the peanut gallery can be taken as a sign that "it's ready," if you read between the lines. I'd also dispute that it's a bad thing to be forced to have to find something to say about a piece: Unless it's a shoo-in award winner for "best ever written," every piece can probably be improved. #3, about the small details, while it's true editors buy stories with those kinds of problems in them, they also may tend to find such problems an easy reason for rejection. Tweaking Pascal's wager, one might think thus: If I have such problems and they might or might not cause rejection, shouldn't I be better off without them? And online groups with a wide variety of readers neutralizes the impact of the one-horse action-tag/etc. reviewer -- who also loses their Svengali powers online.

Anyway, just wanted to toss out the meme that online critique groups don't face the same issues as in-person ones. (They probably have their own different list!) :)


Andrew Burt

Anonymous said...

great post.

Amanda said...

Point #1 is so true (and hilarious!) -- who wouldn't love it?

epic said...

Critique groups are only useful if they involve bottles of bourbon and no critiques. People who write for a living use other smart people who editor for a living. I always have. BUT MAYBE I'M CRAZY.

Magdalen said...

Great post -- although I just know the original was even more brilliant! :-)

I'm hoping the converse is true -- that an editor likes what my critique group doesn't. (I know that doesn't sound possible, but...)

I've recently joined a general fiction critique group -- the long-standing members are working on an MG historical, a comic novel, a memoir, a graphic novel, a dystopian novel of misogyny, and a thriller. I'm their first romance writer.

Last week I read them the first ten pages of my WIP -- not a rough draft (it's a finalist in a contest) but I figured it was smart to start with the opening so they can meet my protagonists and I can get a sense of how a straight-up contemporary romance novel will be received.

I got some great feedback about places I need to be clearer, so I'm a happy clam. But as for it being a romance? The reviews were mixed. What I think I saw was a fair number of preconceptions about the genre that didn't necessarily track with what I'd written.

At least an editor who is interested in publishing contemporary romance novels should be used to the genre. (That's what I'm hoping.)

In the meantime, I will definitely squeeze all the value I can from the critique group without worrying about converting them to the romance genre.

Chloe Quinn said...

This really helped me alot! I am only 14 and i am starting to write longer stories. I am a year 9 but my writing is year 11 stuff.
I am still playing around with plots.
Your advice is brilliant and it helped me understand more about publishing.

Naminé said...

No offense but way to scare a (hopefully) future author!! This has me scared out of my wits because nowadays it's all supernatural fiction but I'm only fourteen and it will probably be out of the market before I even finish my novel (if ever) let alone find the guts to send it in!!!!

matriarchShene said...

I fell through your rabbit hole via another writer on Bookrix telling yet another writer to check you out.

The other writer has English as a second language and God knows having it as a first language doesn't guarantee total understanding, so one can see where a second string of linguistics can be daunting.

At any rate, you have made me laugh reading several of your blogs, so I will be a regular visitor.

Scribble Orca said...

Enjoyed reading this - even if your first post was even more brilliant! I'm not in a crit group for all these reasons, although I miss the idea of the comradeship. It's geographically also an impossibility for me.

It's taken ages to gather a couple of trusted crit partners - they receive the MS once when it is finished and then never again. Precisely for all those reasons you state.

The MS is also read (after working in the crit partner's comments) by a handful of its target audience - the target group aren't thinking about the marketing but they are the final consumer and that is vital feedback.

Great post.

cripple mode core said...

Hi Alice,
I too would like to thank you for the spot on article and would like to add that I would differ greatly with those who would mislead people into believing that the online forums might offer a better chance.

I've been there and done that. Pardon my grammar. These are all prone to fail out of one major flaw and that is their anonymity. Forums end up with a core of people who pat each other on the back and tend to exclude and squash the newer poster who might try to bring in the voice of reason. They also tend to create their own writing rules. And since many are not established authors I've no idea where those rules come from.

A person is much better off with a group they can be face to face with and recognize when there is a true Svengali in the bunch.

That said I agree that it's a mistake to believe that any group has brought you to the place where you believe everything you have at the end is the tightest neatest most editorially correct version you could have.

It will be just that much more disappointing when you find out you have 12 months of editing to do to make this piece work.

Edittorrent said...

Crip, some writers just want affirmation, I guess, not actual critique. Seems a waste of time after the first year or so!

Richard Sutton said...

T'was a brilliant post, after all. As Bill Munny said to Little Bill, in the movie Unforgiven, "Deserves has nothing to do with it."