Monday, April 6, 2009

Soul-Destroying Critique? Think Again! Boadicea is Back!

Well, I got a response on that full manuscript. It was rejected. This means I'm now free to continue with my agent queries. That's exciting in itself.

Hafan Deg is different. I know that. It's not everyone's cup of tea, and I wasn't expecting it to be picked up by this agent because I felt it was too soon in my querying journey. Like an apprenticeship, the process should take a long time, I thought, and the very first Full request was unlikely to be successful. We expect that from all that we've read online, and I was totally prepared for the usual brief note advising that this manuscript didn't suit this particular agent - "is not for me at this time...", "not able to give it the energy it deserves...", "not a reflection on the quality of the work itself, but...", and so on. Along the way, I figured I might be lucky enough to hear from people who would generously tell me constructively - why my book wasn't right for them, perhaps even suggesting a bit of re-writing. And, after I'd winced, and licked my wounds, I would weigh this up, and decide whether I had the tenacity to do it once again. But first an agent has to read it.

Hafan Deg is neither high adventure, nor exciting romance; it has no fantasy (other than the heroine's own mental creations); and I never expected it would make the top 10 list at the NYTimes. My protagonist is flawed, of course, deeply scarred by life and now searching for some kind of meaning, but she meets no villains on her journey, and uncovers no evil plots. Frankly, she's not for everyone in today's publishing world of adrenaline-rush-seeking, smart and sassy people. Karen's story is a quiet, introspective little read.

But - oh, my deflated ego - no one warned me about destructive criticism.

For, along with the polite rejection, I received the most scathing, hateful and soul-destroying critique from a "reader" hired by the agent in question. The agent apologized for forwarding it to me, but felt it might be useful(!) and frankly admitted he didn't read the full manuscript himself (because he is a man, and the book is geared to women), relying instead on a trusted reader to give a thumbs up on the manuscript. No such approval forthcoming, he rejected the book. This, despite the fact that the first three chapters (which he had read) intrigued him.

I'm not going into huge detail about what was said in this critique, which went on forever, but there wasn't a single word of encouragement, only negativity upon negativity. Were I just starting out as a writer, it would certainly make me think twice about continuing the craft. Being more seasoned, and less fragile - well, slightly less - I finally recognized this critique for what it is - a poorly-written, distinctly juvenile and very unprofessional tirade.

THis person simply hated my book
. Just as you and I have strong likes and dislikes in reading matter, she has hers. But she was PAID to read it. It was her job. It didn't mean she had to like it. In fact, it was my heroine who generated the hatred. How strange is that? How is it possible for a fictional non-villain to create such nastiness? Perhaps my book has even more hidden depths to it than I thought. If my story bored this reader at times, it certainly isn't worth despising, surely. If it is poorly written, then the focus should be there. But the acid comments were mainly directed at the heroine ... as if she really existed and was getting away with too much. Throwing in a good job to pursue a dream? Trying to reclaim her lost youth? Sleeping with a younger man? Drinking rather too much wine? Smoking pot? Well, really! What next?

Was there anything here that could help me re-structure a book to suit this reader? Hardly, because it's inoperable according to her comments. Should I cast this worthless piece of fiction aside? Hell, no! Donate it to the next SubmissionFail group? No way, Babe! Had the critique given me something of substance to work with, I'd have welcomed it. But all I'm left with is bewilderment. And my stubborn streak.

A supportive (and well-published) writer suggested I take three days to have a good weep and then get back into the fray. I can't do the weeping thing; I've wept too many tears throughout my life over more serious things and I'm fresh out. But, as things stand, consider this posting my Call To Arms. I am, once again, Boadicea with spear at the ready. I'm usually very placid, but when I do 'Mad As Hell' I do it very, very well...

To summarize: I believe my "reader" is of Puritan leaning, extremely young, probably an unpublished and frustrated writer, who isn't getting much sex. Being paid to read is cool, but having to read stuff you hate is a bummer, and it's obviously wearing her down.

There, now I feel a lot better. And Boadicea needs a coffee...

I have nothing else to offer here today, except that I must get back to querying all those nice agents who read manuscripts themselves. I'll pass on their comments, too, if they're not auto-replies, so we can see the other, useful, side of the coin. I doubt I'll ever see anything quite this rude again. But - if I do - I'll tell you about it. You know I will. You need to know what Nasties are lying in wait out there. You need to be prepared for it. Go get your spear...

"I am strong. I am invincible. I am Woman..."


Michelle H. said...

I gave out my story to a reader who told me right off the bat that he would not gush over the words. What he offered was constructive criticism: Harsh at times, funny at times, but helpful when he had and issue an praise when he liked certain parts. I say your analysis of the reader is probably spot on.

I can't understand why the agent wouldn't read the book himself along with hiring the reader. How can he represent any book to the best of his abilities if he doesn't take the effort to get involved with reading it?

Melissa Marsh said...

Excellent post, Fran. I love your attitude!

CNU said...

Outsourcing manuscripts? I've never heard of that. That doesn't sound too professional. Also the fact that the reader seemed to personalize the critique process is ridiculous. I don't believe one person's value system should be imposed on a fictional character, whether it was based on real life or not. It's a CHARACTER for God's sake.


What a strange, strange place in which we all live.


Electra from ERD said...

When I read the Hafan Deg chapters that you posted, I was reminded of two writers whom I read several years ago: Rosemary Pilcher and Maeve Binchy. I don't know who publishes their books or what agents represent them. I keep getting rejected for jobs and I can imagine what it will feel like when I finish my novel and begin the query-rejection process that leads to eventual publication. I find your attitude inspirational; thanks!

P.S. I'm guessing your literary attacker is middle-aged, disillusioned, stuck in a dull marriage with ungrateful kids, earning a bit on the side professionally reading manuscripts and threatened by the courage and freedom she sees in your Karen!

Jane said...

Hi Fran

To be fair sometimes agents don't read manuscripts not because they're mean and horrible - but because they just don't have time. Or if they do - they only read through the synopsis and maybe one to three chapters. Usually, their readers are trusted ex-editors. I'm sorry that your critique was so negative and oddly personal. But look - a really strong reaction is in some ways better than a 'I was bored' - the worst. Put it down, leave it for a while and then when you're feeling stronger go back to it and see if there is anything in there that smacks of truth, even if it's badly expressed in a personal way.

I often pop into this terrific blog called How Publishing Really Works. It's excellent and bracing and reminds me that publishers and agents are there not to kick us writers, even though that's what it feels like sometimes.