Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Appointment Expectations by Andy Scheer

I sure hope two people I'm scheduled to meet at the upcoming writers conference have a good attitude. If not, I'm in for some painful half-hours.

I hope they realize they requested and paid for a critique—not an inside track for a double-length appointment with an agent who'd be holding his breath and hoping they'd sign a contract.

Having accepted the responsibility to critique their fifteen pages, this Saturday I gave each at least a half-hour in reading, assessing, and making comments about problems large and small.

I hope the writers realize that's not what I'd have done if I'd been wearing my agent hat. If that had been the case, I'd have given neither more than a couple minutes, if that.

I can't speak for my colleagues, but I don't have the luxury of investing large blocks of time with projects with no potential--or ones that aren't nearly ready. And beginning with the cover letters, I could see that neither was.

It's not a good sign when you have to re-read the cover letter's first sentence to confirm what it's trying to say. Or when that letter for a nonfiction manuscript barely hints at the intended audience. Or that the manuscript's opening anecdote doesn't get to the promised topic (something about spirituality for busy people) until page nine.

And it's not a good sign when the novel's cover letter not only contains Random acts of Capitalization, but also botches the Name of the Writers Group to which the author belongs. (I've spoken at the group's conference, so I know its name.) And things go downhill fast when a vaguely worded opening paragraph leaves readers open to misconceptions that aren't set straight until the middle of page two.

So with an eye toward my years as a mentor for the Christian Writers Guild, I hope to spend those half-hour appointments learning where these people are in their writing career, then pointing out places where they can strengthen their craft. I hope they're prepared to learn and listen.

I still cringe when I remember an appointment years ago at another conference. After I pointed out multiple point of view problems on the opening pages that kept me from entering deeply into the story, I feared the author would burst a blood vessel or punch me in face.

I know not all editors or agents see eye to eye. Still, a conference appointment or critique session offers a rare opportunity to receive feedback from multiple professionals. 

Constructing a book or a proposal takes considerable work. Those who've done so can rejoice in how much they've accomplished. So I hope they don't despair—or punch someone out—if they get the news they still have a ways to go. At least they've been shown the way.


Faith Bogdan said...

Amen to this post! I always cringe a little when I hear faculty members say in class, "Keep submitting! Don't give up! Save and frame your rejections!" I wish more conference faculty would instead spend that time explaining the difference between "good rejections" and a bad ones, and treat writing like any other skill. Anyone can sing, but not everyone is good enough to cut a record. Anyone can try their hand at pole-vaulting, but few will get the Olympic gold. The rise of self-publishing means that one can now become an author without being a writer. The public slush pile is growing while well-meaning editors candy-coat the truth about poorly written manuscripts. It's an injustice to not shoot straight with would-be writers who have a long way to go, or shouldn't be writing at all.

Timothy Fish said...

I afraid wishful thinking gets us all. It is one thing to know how things are supposed to go, but that doesn't keep someone from daydreaming about the agent saying, "I've read your fifteen pages and I'd love to show it to a few publishers."

Faith, I don't quite understand your statement that "one can now become an author without being a writer." I can see where a ghostwriter might be said to be a writer without being an author, but I don't see a way for a person to author a book without writing the book.

Faith Bogdan said...

Timothy, I don't mean to come off as a writing-snob. I'm glad for your question. What I meant by that statement was that one can now become published without having a basic grasp on good writing skills. I've seen it over and over--people who don't even read books, much less understand anything about writing fiction, and they're trying to sell poorly-written self-published books. Recently someone asked my honest opinion about his first attempt at a novel. He was getting nothing but rejections. I took at look at his work and suggested he take some writing courses and read fiction for a while before attempting to write. He thanked me profusely for being honest rather than encouraging him to keep submitting. That's all I'm trying to say. :)