Peer Feedback & Editors: The Miss Demeanors Have Their Say

Published authors have the benefit of wonderful agents and in-house editors to help them polish—and sometimes restructure—manuscripts. My editor at Crooked Lane Books asked me to change the location of my first mystery. She was right, and I enjoyed the challenge.

But what about pre-published writers and those still seeking agents? How do they get help with craft? This week we’ve been thinking about feedback and the various avenues for aspiring authors to receive comments on their work. The Miss Demeanors have been there. What has helped us? What hasn’t?

SUSAN: As someone who teaches a critique group for a living (Gotham Writers), I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make them effective. You can teach people a lot of things about craft, and that’s essential, but there’s a magic to truly good writing that I believe comes from within. I’ve been in a lot of critique groups, but the most helpful one was last year at ThrillerFest when Steve Berry was the group leader, read my first chapter, and said, “Nope.” Then proceeded to slash and burn his way through the second, third, and fourth chapters. But by the time I stopped whimpering, I realized he had transformed the very thing that had been giving me trouble. This writing life takes courage!

CONNIE: I had a similar experience, Susan. Years ago at Sleuthfest in Florida I paid for a chapter critique from the famous editor and publisher Neil Nyren. When I sat down for his feedback, my heart in my throat, he said, “Well. This needs some work, doesn’t it?” Then he proceeded to tell me exactly what was wrong. While gutted (and, to be truthful, out of sorts for the rest of the conference), what he said was exactly right. After that experience, I decided to fix what I was doing wrong—or die trying. He did me a tremendous favor by being honest.

ROBIN: When I was starting out, I was in a couple of different writing groups, and it felt like the blind leading the blind (which it was). Frustrated, I asked for advice from a non-fiction author I know who gave me a pep talk and suggested finding workshops. I attended a workshop in San Francisco that included page reads and pitches in a supportive and constructive atmosphere. Armed with more understanding about both craft and the commercial market, I polished up a draft I’d taken as far as I could on my own. Then I hired a content editor to get an objective opinion before pitching agents. There are a lot of scams out there, so I tread carefully. I read acknowledgments in books I liked and Twitter-stalked thriller authors I admired to see who they worked with. The same name kept coming up, so I did a little background research until I was satisfied the editor was legit. As for beta readers, there’s definitely value, especially when I’m doing the “is this too techie” language check. I’ve learned to make sure the reader is a fan of the genre. I sometimes give them a list of questions, kind of like book club questions, to avoid general “I liked it” responses.

MICHELE: I was in a writing group for 11 years. Two of us were in the group the entire time. Several were members for many years, and a few wandered in and out. We all wrote different genres, which was good and bad. It helped me understand mystery writing from a distant perspective, but I was unsure how much value to place on criticism from people who rarely read mysteries. I made lifelong friends in the group, but in retrospective, the experience teetered close to group therapy at times. I learned a lot about other kinds of writing and broadened my reading scope a lot. Now I prefer professional editing and a small number of trusted beta readers.

CATE: I get the most helpful feedback from my agent and editors. I’ve never found fellow writers all that helpful because we all have our own styles, and it is very difficult to not edit another’s work the way you would write it. It’s also why I keep my comments solely positive for other writers. The things I don’t like might be just my own taste or heavily influenced by the choices I would make—and it’s not my book.

PAULA: The important thing is to get feedback from an informed publishing profession. Whether it’s an author, an editor, or an agent, what matters is that the people giving you advice actually know what they’re talking about. So many writers get their creative souls crushed and give up writing based on the opinions of people who don’t know any more than they do. When you do get an informed opinion about your work, listen. When it comes to revision, resistance is futile. Everybody has to revise. The writers who get published are the ones who 1) finish and 2) revise. It’s that simple, and that difficult.

TRACEE: I agree with Paula. Advice from those closely connected with the industry is critical—with agents and editors at the top of that list. Of course, we all have beta readers—and a mix of people can be good as long as you know why they are beta readers. Is it to make you feel good and keep you going or to offer professional-level criticism and possible solutions? Any book can be made better. I’ve always appreciated it when the tough comment comes with a kind preface. “I can tell how hard you’ve worked” is enough…then slide into the real stuff. Trust me, I can cry in private.

LAURIE: I agree with looking at professional input for the most effective revisions. Beta and friend readers are best at helping you find holes and cheering you on. Also, if that professional input is vague, look for patterns. The first rejections I received were quite nice and affirmative, but they’d say things like, “I loved it but it doesn’t read like a thriller.” Mine was a historical mystery, not Gone Girl, so I was confused. Did they mean not enough adventure? More tension? Shorter chapters? Too much clue deduction? After a while, I saw a pattern in the vague rejections and decided what they were looking at was pacing. That I could work with! I don’t mind revising if I have specific guidelines that I believe in.

Now it’s your turn. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received? The worst? Was there a comment that put you on the path to publication? Please share your story!

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