10 Agent Feedback Tips

10 Agent Feedback Tips

This month’s 10 on the 10th is from Ruth Walker, a partner in Writescape and author, poet & creative writing teacher:

I’m fresh from over two hours of a one-on-one Zoom meeting with my agent, Ali McDonald of 5 Otter Literary. She’s had my Young Adult Science Fiction manuscript for a few months and, at last, she’s finished her editorial read and response. Thank goodness, she still loves the story. But—and you know there’s always a but – the MS is not yet ready and I have a boatload of work to do to send her something she can share with editors and publishers this fall.

Our discussion was not all book, book, book. We both have busy lives and spent some time being a bit social. But the majority of our chat focused on strengths along with logic glitches, character development, questions, a bit of copyediting and the several substantive changes I’ll need to add new scenes, cut others and arrive at the sweet spot of 90,000 words (currently at 94,000.)

Besides the MS covered in Track Changes edits and highlighted Comments, my agent also sent me 10 pages of notes. Narrative issues. Sensitivity issues. Dropped threads. Confusion. Suggestions. Questions. And, fortunately, many nice things said as well.

Ali did a terrific job. As we chatted and exchanged ideas and asked questions of each other, I realized the old saying: Choosing to write with hopes of publication is not for the faint of heart. For better or worse, here are some of the qualities you’ll need to have on hand during “that talk” with your agent or your editor:

1   Patience – your agent has spent a lot of time with your words, so you need to give your agent time to explain why – why that edit, why that question, why that isn’t clear, etc. Don’t rush this opportunity to absorb and consider how you can further hone your masterpiece.

2   Focus – early on. I failed miserably at this in our meeting.  I actually allowed myself to be interrupted by a call on my cell. Nothing should be more important than having my agent’s time. I hope I made up for it for the rest of our time together. Cell turned off. Eyes on Ali. Listening.

3   Curiosity —  your curiosity needs room at the table. If a note or edit does not make sense to you, don’t pretend to know it all. Further and Farther came up with a note I needed to be consistent. I thought I understood the meaning of each and I was right. But obviously I used them incorrectly often enough to deserve a mention.

4   Commitment – set boundaries on your time for revision work and stick to it. “No, I’m sorry. I’ll have to miss the BBQ”, etc. Then set and stick to a deadline. But also be clear with your agent about your timelines and intentions. Make room in your calendar to produce.

5   Critical thinking – making revisions is more than chopping out words or fixing typos, as you know. But using your critical thinking skills as you discuss big (and small) changes to recognize the ripples it will have on the whole narrative. A deleted scene in Chapter 2 could leave characters talking later on about something that’s no longer in the book. Discuss this with your agent and leave reminders for yourself right in the MS so you won’t make that mistake.

6   Humility – maybe this should be number one but I’ve left it down here on the list for a reason: so you won’t skip it. Most writers carry some level of insecurity. We’re often in a tug of war between feeling we’ve written something brilliant and feeling that we are useless hacks. But we also have an ego and sometimes that ego needs to be reminded that it doesn’t know absolutely everything. (Case in point: further/farther and other embarrassing typos.) So be prepared to be educated about what you missed. Fortunately, you’ll likely also get some lovely ego strokes.

7   Kindness – of course, you need to show kindness to your agent. As noted in the preamble, Ali and I both have busy complicated lives. I could have been all “What took you so long?” or “This better be worth waiting for” and so on. But I already knew she’d been dealing with a lot personally. The fact that she was meeting with me despite working through COVID-19 showed her commitment to me and my book. So, I really appreciated all the effort on her part. But I also will remind you to be kind to yourself. This is tough work, writer, so go easy on yourself. Treats go a long way to ease difficult times.

8   Acceptance – “gird your loins” is an old saying that might be useful here. You are receiving gold even if it is hard to swallow. Let’s face it – it’s your baby we’re talking about and somebody is telling you what needs to change. (Thanks goodness, I haven’t had to send any characters off to the Island of Unwanted Characters…yet.) But you are getting professional advice, writer, and you need to accept it. It does not mean that you need to MAKE all those changes but you do need to accept that the suggestions are coming from someone who knows the industry. So don’t dismiss the feedback – use patience, humility and critical thinking as you consider.

9   Fear – this may feel contrary but a good dose of healthy fear can be the ticket to keep you on the job. Yes, there will be obstacles. Yes, you may think you’ll never overcome them. And yes, your story may never find a publishing home, even with an agent on your side. It can all be paralyzing. But only if you let it take over. Consider the edge that racers feel revving their engines just before the starting pistol or the nerves that fuel actors before they walk into the spotlight: fear can be useful as motivation. Don’t let fear of failure take hold: instead, harness it and ride that energy to “The End”.

10   Love – oh my god, there have been days when I thought I could dump my book and its characters into the storm sewer and be done with it. But those days are rare. It’s been a long haul since my story’s first steps at the 2014 Muskoka Marathon. I loved my characters even back then and as I worked and reworked Garnet’s story and those she lived among, I kept loving her story. Year after year. Edit after edit. Until it became a chore and not a joy. I put Garnet away for a time. When I could love her and her story once more, I started up again. And remember writer, it isn’t just your story or characters that you need to love. Love yourself by doing things that support your writing journey, that help you keep on track and offer you inspiration exactly at the time you need it.

My commitment: a finished next draft of 90,000 words with copyedits incorporated and substantive edits made to Ali by August 31, 2022. If I’ve done a thorough job and stayed true to the sacred heart of Garnet’s story, we might be ready for our close up.

If not, I might have to pull out all ten of these qualities once more to keep on track for the next draft. Wish me luck!

Beta Readers & You

Beta Readers & You

Ruth E. Walker

The writer in the attic garret, a single candle barely illuminating the page, the scratchscratchscratch of the pen crossing the paper. Is this your idea of the writer’s lonely life?

Well, not this writer. Yes, the act of writing is solitary. And some of us do isolate ourselves for short periods of uninterrupted time. Sometimes, even with a candle or two. But eventually, even the most private of writers needs to surface and find readers. Because, with few exceptions, that is what writers crave: a connection to others through the writing.

At a recent workshop, one writer asked the others if they wrote with an audience in mind. The answers were as varied as the participants. Some start out with an “ideal reader” in their head; some brought in the idea of a reader later on, the second or third edit, for example. But we all agreed that eventually we work with the concept of someone actually looking at our words.

An agent. An editor. Readers.

So you have the final draft of your manuscript. Seeking publication and submitting our work is a challenge at best and often, it borders on terrifying. Surely there’s a simple way to feel more confident when you press the SEND button.

I belong to a fairly intense critique group: Critical ms. That intrepid bunch has saved my writerly bacon many times as they gave feedback on chapters and scenes every few weeks. And over the past summer, they all read my final draft manuscript. I know I’m lucky to have them; critique groups rarely look at the complete work.

So what if you don’t have a Critical ms in your life? You have the manuscript in hand, hoping to catch a publisher’s attention. And you want feedback from readers. Here’s where beta readers come in. They are not copy editors or proofreaders. Instead, they will read that entire manuscript and give you a reader’s response.

How to find beta readers

Beta readers often read your work for no charge. But some charge a fee. Decide in advance how you will ask for the favour or if you will pay experienced beta readers for the service. If you decide on paid readers, make sure you ask for and get recommendations on their past performance.

Connect with beta readers through networking, word-of-mouth opportunities and social media:

  • Workshops and conferences for writers are great places to meet other writers working at the craft, just like you. They can be your beta readers or connect you with their beta readers.
  • Offer to be a beta reader: give and you can receive. Besides, a wise writer learns from reading others’ writing.
  • Tell friends and family members you are looking for beta readers (proceed with caution: feedback from people you know and care about can be more emotionally energized than you realize.)
  • Connect through writing blogs, reader/fan-fiction websites, social media such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. You can let others know you want beta readers through these platforms.
  • Be open to readers who are unfamiliar with your genre or topic. They might ask questions and see things that others gloss over when they read your work.

How to treat a beta reader

Once you find a beta reader or two, let them know what you expect. And give them the tools they need to do that.

  1. Don’t offer a rough manuscript to beta readers:
    • A polished manuscript is properly formatted: page numbers, chapter headings/numbers, 2-inch margins, double-spacing and indented paragraphs.
    • Work hard yourself first to ensure few typos, grammar glitches and logic slips
    • Imagine your beta readers talking with others: I just read this really confusing book. I couldn’t make sense of the timelines and the characters were just so flat…
    • Ask yourself: Is this draft complete and ready for readers?
  2. Present your manuscript professionally:
    • Have your polished draft ready in both electronic and hard copy formats.
    • Some want to read it more “book style” — 2 pages per sheet, landscape format; some want it in manuscript format (see point #1)
    • If they want a hard copy, be prepared to print it: don’t expect them to pay for the printing.
    • Ask your reader: How do you want to read this?
  3. Give your readers guidance:
    • Offer at least a cover page, outlining what you are looking for, such as: plot glitches, slow sections, any confusions, characters that don’t connect with the reader, etc.
    • Prepare a checklist if that is simpler for you and your reader, but leave lots of room for comments and questions.
    • Encourage your reader: I welcome any and all criticisms and suggestions, and appreciate your time in reading my book. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings.
  4. Use beta readers to help with your query or marketing:
    • You can include positive comments from your readers in your query letter. But keep it really brief and professional: Beta readers offered excellent feedback that helped refine the final draft.
    • If you’re self-publishing, a snippet of praise on the back cover or inside can help sell your book.
    • Example: A fast-paced and exciting thriller… A timeless love story that kept me reading to the end…
  5. Say thank you:
    • Send a personal note following up after they give you their feedback.
    • When your book is published, it may be appropriate to thank your readers inside.
    • Ask: I’d like to recognize your help. Can I mention your name in my acknowledgement page?

Remember: A beta reader is not there to feed your ego. Don’t take the comments personally. Perhaps you don’t agree; reading is subjective, after all. But always say thank you, nonetheless.

And if you are getting comments or questions from more than one reader on the same topic, perhaps you need to rethink your opinion. This just might save you from having an editor or agent ask you the very same questions.

DID YOU KNOW?

Mark Coker

Mark Coker of Smashwords, the highly successful e-book distributor, has a few things to say about beta readers. He and his wife used a specific process for their novel Boob Tube to ensure their beta readers had the right tools to respond. He shared some great tips in Publishers Weekly online.

Do you use beta readers? Let us know about your experience.