Thursday, 19 March 2009

Writers Should Know Better

Last week, Editorial Anonymous blogged about a very foolish writer who seemed intent on shooting himself in the foot as many times as he possibly could. And as usual, I have my own version of this story to tell.

A few weeks ago a writer complained to me about the lack of help available to struggling writers. He had submitted his book widely but he had received nothing but standard rejections, with no indication of why his work had been rejected. He had edited and revised it as much as he was able to and simply had no idea what was stopping him from moving on to the next level with his work.

He seemed genuinely frustrated and keen to improve so I offered to take a look at his first one thousand words to see if I could spot anything obvious. I promised him a no-holds-barred opinion, warned him to brace himself: and he seemed grateful.

I should have known better.

The first clue came when he sent me his entire novel because (as he mentioned in his email) he didn't have time to mess about separating the first thousand words of it into a new file. This irritated me: not only did it imply that his time was more important than mine, it also clogged up my internet connection because, living out in the sticks as I do, we don't have access to broadband and so I rely on a very slow dial-up service to connect to the outside world. His book was over 750 pages long (single spaced...), and it took nearly forty minutes to download.

If he had been submitting to a publisher he would have earned himself a swift rejection right there for the tone of his email and for ignoring the submission guidelines which I had provided. But I had promised to look at his work, and so I kept my word. I read his first chapter and was not impressed: his writing was patchy, cluttered with clich├ęs, and very passive in tone. However, his premise was intriguing and despite the problems his writing did show promise: some of the better patches were quite good, and could have been very much improved with just a little bit of rewriting.

I emailed him my thoughts, along with my annotations to his first chapter and my reasons for suggesting such changes: and in reply he told me I didn't know what I was doing and that rules are made to be broken. He made it quite clear that he disagreed with everything I had written, and would not be making any of my changes.

So I e-mailed him back just a few words: "I'm sorry I couldn't be more help." And he sent me back a long, detailed email in which he called me names, accused me of being a racist (even though I hadn't been aware of his colour until he made his accusation), and said that I’d completely missed the point of his book.

And that's why so many editors and agents are no longer prepared to give personalised rejections.


R.R.Jones said...

Point well mad.
What an awful situation though; you try to help only to be called a bigot and ignoramus!!
It reads like something out of a Spike Milligan book, lol.

TOM VOWLER said...

I cringe at some of the fiction I submitted to agents / publishers five or so years ago. Fortunately, some of them were kind enough to offer invaluable detailed feedback, which I gratefully accepted. I can't stand misplaced arrogance. Keep up the great work, Jane.

Nicola Morgan said...

Unfortunately, although I am appalled that you had to put up with that after your own generosity, you will not be surprised to hear that I am not surprised. People like him are responsible for the fact that people like me and a whole load of other otherwise generous people now refuse to read anyone's work. And they do a huge disservice to all the polite and decent writers out there who actually could become published.

Well, one thing's for sure: he will never get an agent or publisher if he behaves like that, mainly because if he can't listen to someone who could improve his writing, his writing will never improve.

acpaul said...

Wow. Just, wow.

Some of us would be eternally grateful to have an editor look at our first chapter. This guy gets that privilege and then... unbelievable.

I can't imagine the egotistic narcissistic worldview it takes to respond like that to someone who is trying to do you a favor!

HelenMWalters said...

Ditto acpaul, who has said what I would have said had I not been rendered completely speechless by this!

Anonymous said...

The difference between people who want to be writers, and those of us who actually do write for a living, is that we can take criticism. That's not to say we like it. It's horrible. I hate notes. I hate notes even more than cleaning my oven (which is encrusted with grime and only gets done once a year when I'm really stuck on a plot point). But, I know that getting editorial notes forces me to revise my work and make it better. It's a cliche - but writing is re-writing. Anyone who can't face this, stands no chance.

Jane Smith said...

Nicola, you're quite right (as are the rest of you): I've not offered to look at anyone else's work since because I really can't be bothered to put up with such nonsense again; and when I offered there was a small voice in my head (compared to the large, shouty one which makes me eat so much chocolate all the time) which suggested that it was a bad idea. I should have known better.

As for you, Dorset Girl, buy yourself an Aga. They never need cleaning inside AND you can use them to dry out wellies, and books that you've dropped into the bath. Win-win.

Derek said...


ONE WINTER a Farmer found a Snake stiff and frozen with cold. He had compassion on it, and taking it up, placed it in his bosom. The Snake was quickly revived by the warmth, and resuming its natural instincts, bit its benefactor, inflicting on him a mortal wound. "Oh," cried the Farmer with his last breath, "I am rightly served for pitying a scoundrel."

-- Aesop's Fables Translated by George Fyler Townsend

Christian Writer said...


Jane Smith said...

Derek. All this talk of snakes and bosoms: you're getting a little Freudian, aren't you? Ha!

I did have a rather rude reply typed up but have thought better of it as I am trying to maintain a dignified and professional reputation here. All I'll tell you is that it included the word "suffocate". You can fill in the blanks for yourself.

pinkgecko said...

I thought writers like that were a myth. I love receiving feedback and so often it confirms things you weren't sure about or sets off a light bulb in your head. All the better if there are some positives. After all if we want to sell any work we have to write for a market (or aspire to in my case as a newbie).

Rod H said...

It seems this person has no awareness of anyone other than himself, so we have to wonder (editorial 'we')if he has what it takes to write fiction.

Marion Gropen said...

Oh, dear. One of them.

Sadly, they're not limited to writers. I work with many small presses and help run a couple of the publishing listservs. I run into analogous situations all the time.

When you're asked to critique someone's baby (literally or otherwise!), it's hard to avoid giving offense. One thing that works? Making them pay for the privilege of hearing your advice.

Oddly enough, you can do more good by being mercenary than by being charitable, sometimes.

Unknown said...

Oh my. What a terrible experience. I think it's one that many writers have had when agreeing to read someone else's work. I know I rarely make the offer now.

Taire said...

I am sorry you got kicked in the teeth on that one, Jane. You made me laugh, Dorset Girl. An Aga, ouch the price tag! I'll be scrubbing my Kenmore.

Daniel Blythe said...


It's true - my heart sinks at first when my agent sends detailed notes on a proposal.


And then I tell myself not to be so silly because the fact that she has engaged with it in this way means that it is worth engaging with. She is (almost) always right.


writtenwyrdd said...

Can I apologize on behalf of this idiot? Because you deserve an apology!

I gave up on because I got responses like that from a couple of people who, sadly, could barely write a grammatical sentence.

Anonymous said...

How do these people support themselves?

Jane said...

I think I might have taught this particular nobhead. A very similar sounding type right down to the 'you don't get what I'm trying to do' whine was on a creative writing course I was teaching and every suggestion I made was met with aggression and rebuttal. Finally he dropped out of the course. I'm afraid I am not as mature and restrained as you Jane because when he too sent me a nasty email, detailing my failure to recognise his work for the genius it is, I told him to fuck off.

. Salon Noir . said...

Geez. What a moron. Jane, you have a lot more patience than I do. I would have written that guy an email response he would never forget. I'm afraid I wouldn't have been able to conjure up the restraint. Wise move on your part.

Jane Smith said...

Marion Gropen wrote, "One thing that works? Making them pay for the privilege of hearing your advice."

That's very wise advice, Marion--and I'm sure it works. Things which are paid-for are often treated far better than things we get for free.

Jane, I was sorely tempted to tell him to do that: but the more reasonable I became, the more outrageous his behaviour became and I'll admit to finding a certain smug pleasure there.

And Daniel Blythe: you know me far too well!

catdownunder said...

Ouch! I probably committed an unforgiveable sin when I sent a disc - but that would only take a moment to load - and I was not expecting the recipient to publish it anyway! (And I am much too timid to ask her what she actually thought of it.)

Melinda Szymanik said...

This sounds like one of Miss Snark's setting-her-hair-on-fire moments. That person needs a clue by four. The redeeming feature of this guy, is that the more people there are like him, the easier it is for almost normal people like me to be liked by publishers. He sounds like a dementor - you definitely need chcolate (although there's never a time not to have chocolate).

Anonymous said...

BWAHAHAHAHA! Ahem...sorry, Jane. Didn't mean to laugh. Welcome to the Dump on an Editor Club. If you look in your gift bag, you'll see that you have a full bottle of tequila (for margaritas), chocolate, and a list of hit men. I believe you know what to do with all three items...

DOT said...

OMG - I hope the experience hasn't done serious damage to your well of human kindness.

It would encourage me to take up contract killing as a career.

none said...

Did he say, "Be as harsh as you like, I can take it"? Those are the ones to run away from. Fast!

Anonymous said...

Well, I won't be critting anything for a friend in a hurry (with a handful of talented exceptions). It's so hard not to give offence when you don't say, "My what awesome writing." On the other hand, I'm not exactly the world's best at accepting criticism. It usually involves feelings of aghast self-doubt and weeping. Then a few days later, I knuckle down.


Word verification mities: small, itchy patches behind the knees.

wealhtheow said...

Good heavens.

I mean, nobody enjoys being told all the ways in which their writing needs work. But ... well. There are persons of very little clue in every walk of life, and I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the unpublished writer category has its share.

In more than a decade's work as a copy editor, I've found that the best writers (I work with learned journals, not fiction) are very often, though not always, the most receptive to suggestions, the most thorough and accurate in answering queries, and the likeliest to thank me for my trouble. I don't think this is a coincidence.

Penny said...

It is sad that ungrateful writers--or would-be writers--act that way. It is very disheartening that seasoned writers, even regular readers, won't venture an opinion due to the behavior of those who can't accept criticism or follow directions.

I've asked a couple of TV show hosts and onliners to read a sample scene of my book, to no avail, generally, so that I could have some feedback, hopefully honest and even better, if well-informed. To me, the opinion of readers, whether they are Editors, Agents or everyday schmoes, is highly respected.

I do try to understand the rigors and pitfalls of giving critism or critique and it not being well-received by the seeker. Tough for them...they shouldn't ask. But what pisses me off, if that a nobody, newbie like me who has no one to go to for direction, encouragement or an honest damn opinion, is left to sink in an ever-growing cesspool of unrealized dreams. People don't want to take the time--or have the time--to help other writers out, and I think that is unfair. We all have to start somewhere, but if those, like yourself, who have the exposure and knowledge to offer an experienced opinion, refuse to reach out a hand to another writer (who very well may have serious potential), then that author will be lost. And it's not because their writing wasn't good enough, or that they failed to follow one rule or another, but they are lost because those who have made it have forgotten the difficulty of doing so, and have forgotten that God sometimes sends particular souls to you, hoping you will find it in your heart to help in some small way, at least.

I do realize you and other members of the writing world can't possibly help everyone, that you don't have the time, but with so many doors and gates being shut down tight...where are we newbies to go when we are hopeless and have no one to shake us out of our funk?

I say all this because I don't have family and friends who support me. It's been lonely and getting harder to even continue writing my book. I feel it will never be completed, that there will never be enough time for me to complete it. And I can't afford to go to conventions. I think the publishing world forgets those of us swimming in the lower socio-economic stratems, that not everyone has an arsenal of friends, family or I have no choice but to ask others for help. And when people read my material, yes, I want people to venture an opinion--yay or nay--how else will I grow as a writer. I want my book to be a success. I want Oprah to announce my book as her next book club choice. I want my book adapted to the big screen or Masterpiece Theatre. But to get there I need help.

And, yes, it's hard to hear the truth even when it's invited, but how can I perfect my craft if I can't spot my errors and shortcomings. I love people who do offer an opinion, because it isn't an easy thing to do for most people. I also realize that I won't be a great author if I'm not willing to suck it up and keep plowing forward, thus I plant myself wearily at the computer every day until I can straighten out the kinks in my novel and remove those blasted detriments that get in the way of my story. Thank you for your article!

Penny AKA Sweet Little Angel

Jane Smith said...

Penny Manning wrote, "I do realize you and other members of the writing world can't possibly help everyone, that you don't have the time, but with so many doors and gates being shut down tight...where are we newbies to go when we are hopeless and have no one to shake us out of our funk?"

Penny, this blog is my most visible attempt to help writers in your position: but after having had this latest experience with our matey whose reaction I described in this post, and many others like it from other similarly-positioned writers, I've just had enough of spending lots of my time critiquing a piece of work only to be sworn at. And I am not alone in that view.

However, there are still plenty of places you can go to have your work critiqued and to receive advice about your work: have you looked at Absolute Write? There's a link on the right, there: do have a look. Once you've spent some time there, if it doesn't suit, there are plenty of other similar sites out there.

Anonymous said...

It does take help to get anywhere with your writing, and we've all had help - paid and unpaid - to get where we are, and we're grateful for it. Arvon, the Arts Council, the AHRC... all do have grants and studentships, however competitive. Writer's circles and the online equivalent are free or cheap, and brilliant, if used selectively: you learn as much from critiquing other work as from other's critiquing of your own, which is where they're arguably actually better for your long-term writing than help which only goes in one direction. Plus one aspect of learning to be a writer is learning what to do with feedback, even from your very own publisher's editor: it comes down to accept, adapt or ignore, so anywhere where you get several opinions at once is priceless training in how to choose between those strategies.

But I had to accept when I was aspiring and looking for help, and it works the other way now I'm... well, I still aspire to all sorts of things, so, now I've got a bit further... that writers are freelance. Any time a freelance gives for free, is time which might otherwise be earning money. The writing life is so badly paid and so insecure that I often have to make a hard decision about which I do. I'm sure most writers have had people ask if they'd mind 'just reading their novel and telling me what you think,'. They're are genuinely surprised, when I tell them that I'd be happy to do so and it would cost £X. That £X is this week's foodbill, you see...

I know from experience how hard it is when you're aspiring and you're short of time and money, but it's not impossible, otherwise the only published authors would be trustafarians and kept women without children. To be really, really brutal, there's no trade in the world which doesn't ask you to pay in money or labour for your training: the quid pro quo is that at the end, you have a trade.

Jane Smith said...

Emma Darwin wrote, "Writer's circles and the online equivalent are free or cheap, and brilliant, if used selectively: you learn as much from critiquing other work as from other's critiquing of your own, which is where they're arguably actually better for your long-term writing than help which only goes in one direction."

That's very true--and it feels far safer to criticise other people's work than to start on your own, which makes it a very useful way into criticism (apart from the poor person who has to take first turn at having his work reviewed!).

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear of this horrid experience! I do hope it doesn't put you off reading other peoples' work for good.

Did occur to me that if you ever do decide to help someone out again, one way of sorting out the wheat from the chaff might be to suggest they try putting it on and mention you'll probably take a look after it's been up there for a few weeks. That way there's a chance to see what the work is like and also tell whether the writer is prepared to actually take advice.

Please keep up your own good work. I love your blog!

Jane Smith said...

Jenny, I'm afraid that wouldn't work.

It was a YouWriteOn writer who caused me this problem; and the last time I ventured onto the boards at YouWriteOn Ted deleted several of my posts there for posting "misleading information" about publishing.

I think it's better for people who would like a decent criticism of their work to try Absolute Write or Write Words: there's a high proportion of professional, knowledgeable writers in both places, who can and do really help.

Anonymous said...

Penny Manning: if you want to improve your writing and find out what informed professionals think of it, do what the rest of us have always done. Submit; wait; scream; LEARN. And then do it again and again and again.
And/or, as someone has said on here, PAY someone to look at your work. I may sound harsh here, but most of us don't have time to read other people's stuff for free, even if we didn't know we would be added to a Lynching List.


David Harmon said...

It was a YouWriteOn writer who caused me this problem; and the last time I ventured onto the boards at YouWriteOn Ted deleted several of my posts there for posting "misleading information" about publishing.

Yikes! Sounds like a site to avoid. Also, I hope you reported that stalker-rejectee you described to the police!

David Harmon said...

Ah, I just link-chased to your comment at "Editorial Anonymous", and see that your did indeed talk to the police, fruitlessly.

smsarber said...

Wow! It's going to be my guess that he is a new writer. When I first started writing and posting stories in Share Your Work on Absolute Write I had a similar attitude. Thank God I've learned the value of critiques and the time people take out of their schedules to read and comment on my work. I hope he learns one day.

But kudos to you for sticking true to your word and trying to help, even though he couldn't even follow simple directions. :)

Anonymous said...

I bow my head to you with the kindness you gave this person. Like ytou said you should have known better but you still gave it a shot..I appreciate the nicieties you showed this man..he was quite the defensive one huh? I remeber when i first started writing i was a bit stubborn but i later realized that constructive criticism is needed to build the potential in the story written..Again kudos to you!!!!


Penny said...

Hello, Ms. Smith!

Since you said that this blog is your way of helping others. I thought it fair to let you know that I followed through on your suggestion to try Absolute Write. I have recently signed up and received some very illuminating feedback. I love it too! Finally in years of not receiving content-related feedback, I can see my errors. THANK YOU!

Just to remind you...not everyone slams the door in the face of critical critique. You see, my submission didn't go over well, but I thanked each critiquer and acknowledged their suggestions as something I would look into or follow through on. Later, my harshest critic commended me for my manner of response. Then a few others gave me encouraging comments. So, I'm proud of myself for being one who can accept that everything I write isn't Earth-shattering. Hahaha. I know I have great potential and don't plan on giving up. I'll try harder and I'll succeed.

By the way, why do the Publishing world and Readers hate First Person, Present/Past Tense so much? Again, my deep appreciation.

Jane Smith said...

Penny, sorry I took so long to respond--I missed your comment, and am embarrassed now.

I'm glad you like AW: it's fab, isn't it? And so big that there's something there for just about everyone. I post there as Old Hack: tell me your user name and I'll have a look at your stuff there (and probably ruin everything!).

Why does everyone hate first person so much? I don't know, because I don't. I love it. I find a perfectly-written third person, past tense voice a little tiresome, to be honest, and LOVE a well-written first person, present tense POV. The trouble is a good example of the form is relatively rare: it's a very difficult form to get right, so it's more vulnerable to criticism than the other POVs. Done well, though, it's immediate, compelling and wonderful.

Penny said...

Thank you, Ms. Smith...I wasn't expecting a response because I figure you have quite a lot on your plate. However, I'm honored to receive one, AND I'd love (tears aside...LOL) another brutal swig of honesty on either post below! My user name is Penny Manning (the fearless newbie). I have two posts:

1. Does this scene pique your interest? (l believe it was moved to Literary SYW)

2. I want to join the wind and rain challenge! (History SYW)

AW is Sweet! Critiquing other people's work really does help me see the errors in my writing.

A few days ago, still reeling from a week of critique, I was on the couch, trying to decide whether to continuing writing in 1st person, present tense or try past tense. (Third person, past wasn't very appetizing--I love reading it but...) then in my head, gentle and clear, came a new title for my book: The Manningfield Diaries. Next came the idea to write the novel in diary form (that idea has since morphed into an Epistolary--is there even a difference?).

Two days later I checked my AW responses. Lo, and Behold, Firedrake suggested I write the novel in diary form! The idea made me jump to my feet and say "Yes! Maybe that could work."

Don't know how you feel about coincidence VS divine guidance, Ms. Smith, but I believe coincidences are spiritual nudges that say "Why don't you try this?"

In the days following, I discovered a wealth of books (and screenplays) written under the guise of an Epistolary or Diary form. IF I can work in my 5 POV characters (including the MC), Epistolary/Diary may be the start to finishing my book.

Today, I've taken a break from mind-numbing Googling and have begun work on a sample chapter. Even with the prospect of an extensive rewrite, I'm excited and hopeful. Blessings to you, Ms. Smith, because I agree, AW is fabulous. Penny