Sunday, December 5, 2010

How to Survive a Query Critique

Each critter brings their unique life experience to the table -- and that can color not only their perception of your query but of your story. Not every critter will "get" your book, your story, and/or your characters.

Advice comes in all shapes and sizes: some of it is good, some bad; most of it, though, is sincere. That means every critter deserves a thank you. Or at least deserves not to be bashed. (Thank you to everyone who's contributed on this site -- we haven't had any people-bashing here!)

For most of us, the hardest part of being on the receiving end of a critique isn't hearing what others have to say but filtering what they say.

I have an auto-respond in my ego that immediately sets up a shield whenever someone points out there's a problem with my writing. I don't care what mindset I go in with, my first reaction is always that the critter is wrong, that they just don't "get" me, that they don't understand and I will simply ignore them. It's not MY issue, it's THEIRS. This reaction is hardwired in me, but I've learned to cope.

  1. I quickly read through all the comments and deny each one that doesn't sing my praises.
  2. If it's a blog site, I might explain where MY head was at and some more about the story if it's a query or synopsis being critted. Done correctly -- as in, not sounding overly defensive -- this usually elicits more feedback that I will automatically not agree with.
  3. I give myself 24-48 hours where I don't look at any of the comments. My subconscious is hard at work, though. It starts off grumbling and complaining and suggesting my conscious is an idiot for putting out my pristine work for the unwashed masses to pick apart. Gradually, if grudgingly, it will concede on a point or two. Then on two or three more. When it's ready to lower its shields, I then--
  4. --return to the critters' comments and really read through them.
  5. By this time, I've got my filter, not my shields, fired up and I can start processing which comments make sense and which I'll ignore.
When to Change It

If there are multiple comments hammering on a point, I know I have to fix it. Even if I'm right.

Read that last bit again.

Example: Recently I had a story set during the Civil War where the narrator mentions "howitzers." It doesn't matter that the term and the weapons have been around since the 1700s. The majority of readers perceived it to be anachronistic and lost faith in the author -- ME! -- when they read the word. I could argue my point with the critters (which yeah, maybe I did -- under the excuse I was teaching folk a little something about history and who doesn't love learning something new), but since I can't prove myself to everyone reading the story, my only option was to CHANGE IT.

So multiple comments that agree on a topic are generally easy -- in theory -- to deal with.

Competing Advice

But what if you get conflicting advice about the same thing?

That's when you just have to trust your gut. Ultimately, it's YOUR story. Go with the advice you're most comfortable with.

Or decide which critter you trust more. Do you disagree with 10 things one critter says and only agree with a couple? Do you disagree on only a couple of minor things another critter points out, but find yourself agreeing on the rest? Then, in general, go with the advice of the person who "gets" your story and your voice the best.

Or if you still can't decide, send it out for a tie-breaking third critique and ask critters to pay special attention to the problem area.

So Why Should You Listen to Me?

You shouldn't. If after considered thought you don't agree with something I suggest, ignore it. While I may have a bit more experience editing in general and critting queries in specific than some folks you approach for a crit, none of that matters if I don't connect with your work. And even if I do connect, mine is still just a subjective opinion. I also have pet peeves and "bad-hair" days when I just can't untangle someone's words and get them to lay neatly on the page.

When applicable, I hope others will jump into the comments to contradict me and offer up a different opinion.

After all, it's not about what I want to hear. It's about what the AUTHOR needs to hear.

Why You Should Listen to Me

I do have a pretty good batting average judging from the lovely comments and emails I've received over the years I spent at Evil Editor's and now here with my own site. While most of the emails cite an increase in agent/editor requests, a number of my revision suggestions have made it all the way onto Amazon and into publishers' online catalogs nearly verbatim. That's the reach of a really strong query.

It's a tough market, though, so even a great query may generate only a handful of requests. None if the accompanying pages don't likewise sparkle. But an average query won't invite anyone to even glance at those 5 sample pages you're sending with every query.

That said, those sample pages are what will make or break you if you pass the query test. And boys and girls, sometimes even great writing, a great query and a great story aren't enough. A LOT of very good writers are getting passed over these days. But without any one of these tools, the hard truth is that you won't stand a chance.

Let It Go

Some people don't revise enough. Some people never stop revising. Neither strategy is very profitable. Over-revision, though, often leads to a flat voice that has neither edge nor excitement nor the raw power to draw readers in. When you find the balance point between what the critters are saying and what your gut is telling you, it's time to let go -- whether it's after 5,10 or 20 revisions. At some point you have to take a deep breath, trust your query, trust yourself, and send it out. Because, ultimately, you have to be your own best critter.


Slush said...

Great advice and great acticle!
I have to say, I tend to follow the same steps you go through when receiving crit feedback.

I am still thankful that your blog exists because without outside opinions an author may miss obvious flaws in their query.

fairyhedgehog said...

It helps when critiques are worded positively - as they are here.

I like your example about the howitzer. A query letter isn't the time to educate people about anything!

Tara Maya said...

"Auto-respond in my ego" is just about the best way I've heard it described.

Good advice.

Anonymous said...

Great post, we have a valuable teaching/learning/growth opportunity with this site.
Looking at your own query on this blog or Evil's is like standing naked in Time Square on a fat day with your eyebrows shaved and missing one shoe.
So thanks to Phoenix, submitters, comment folk. The gems that tumble out are priceless.

Phoenix said...

I also love seeing how people react differently to the same set of words on "paper" -- the various interpretations from different life experiences and different tastes. I'm still brought up short sometimes that not everyone sees those words the same way I do.

Whirlochre said...

Having nemerous quality critters is a must.

All will bring different crits to the table and help you make choices, but as you say, it's the unanimity of UGHs and HOORAHs which is worth gold dust.

Sylvia said...

This is really useful - you might want to link it separately for people to find quickly in the future.

Phoenix said...

Oh, good idea, Sylvia. A bit of a site redesign should be in my future, I think.