Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Miriam Goderich on "Taking Criticism"

I hate it when I’m wrong. My type-A tendencies and absolute certainty that I know everything are not a good combination when it comes to taking criticism. Soon after I started working with Jane Dystel (sometime in the Paleozoic Era) she pointed out to me that my editorial memos were mean. I was affronted. I was trying to help authors by giving them the benefit of my brilliant insights and I really didn’t have time to soft-soap my comments! I’m sure Jane was laughing internally when she suggested that maybe I should start my missives with a positive comment or two about the work and then offer my honest opinion in a thoughtful, sensitive way without showing off or trying to make the recipient feel like a no-talent slob. She was right, of course, and I learned that if the goal is to have an author improve his/her work, I needed to be nicer when I offered my feedback. Jane made me realize that we are more likely to digest and respond well to criticism if it’s offered with kindness and sensitivity rather than relish and disdain. It was, for me, an invaluable lesson.

The fact is that a big and important part of our job as agents is to offer constructive criticism that will take a proposal or manuscript to the level it needs to be at in order to maximize our chances of selling it. All of us here at DGLM spend a great deal of time on our clients’ projects helping authors to clearly communicate their message, smooth over rough prose, beef up a weak marketing section, etc. Sometimes, it’s our unpleasant task to tell someone that their work is simply not good enough and that no amount of fixing is going to change that.

In my experience, the best, most talented authors are the ones who take their criticism neat. They knock it back with a big gulp, thank you for your time and effort in reviewing and critiquing their materials, take a little while to process what you’ve told them, and do their best to incorporate your comments and suggestions into that piece of fiction or nonfiction they thought was perfect when they sent it in to you with the expectation that you’d be able to immediately sell it for six figures. These authors put their egos and bruised pride aside (no matter how successful they are) and get to work. They ask follow-up questions and evenly discuss why they think they might or might not agree with one or more of your edits. The result, more often than not, is a much improved proposal or manuscript that has a much better shot at the big time and an author who is genuinely grateful for the help.

Then there are those authors who never get past their anger and disappointment and whose reactions range from the merely childish, “I’m taking my marbles and going elsewhere,” to the unprofessional, “You suck and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Recently, an author suggested that both his editor (someone who’d been successfully plying her craft for over a decade) and I were mistaken in our critique of his work, strongly implying that neither one of us had understood his category well enough to be able to comment intelligently on his novel. His words were offensive in a way that our criticism had not been. We were both trying to help him.

I sincerely believe that authors (or any artist for that matter) must be able to defend their vision of and approach to their work. But, they should also have the ability (and humility) to look at the manuscript they’ve slaved away on for months or years and see it as a living, evolving thing that is never going to be absolutely perfect and that will probably benefit from an informed and caring review. They should also understand that in this agent/client partnership it’s in no one’s interest to purposely give bad advice and that only a sadist takes pleasure in inflicting pain. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that knowing how to take criticism with grace is an indicator of success in our business. It’s often what separates those who have thriving writing careers and those who just sit around darkly muttering over their rejection letters.

Almost twenty years after that enlightening conversation with Jane, I’ve figured out that I don’t, in fact, know everything, and so I rely on instinct, experience, my skills as a lifelong, passionate reader, and hard-earned knowledge of our business when I offer authors criticism of their work. The whole point is to sell their novel or nonfiction and to set them on the path to successful writing careers. Ultimately, we, as agents, don’t succeed unless our clients do.


  1. Thanks for this. It's a good reminder!

  2. This is a great post, and so very true. Writers tend to wait for those editorial memos with a butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling and all too often fail to recognize the value of criticism. Good, constructive criticism shows that an agent has taken an active interest in your novel or proposal, and that he or she is only trying to strengthen the work. It's one of the most important lessons a writer can learn. I certainly wouldn't be writing for a living today if I hadn't learned it a long time ago. (And, for the record, I am one of the Lucky Few, because Miriam was my first editor...)

  3. Wow, Miriam. What a wonderfully candid post. Knowing what an often long and painful process it is to secure reputable representation, I still have a hard time believing that some writers choose to spit in the face of criticism from agents who have taken them on. But I believe you. :-) What the heck do these writers think agents are for? Any agent who looked at a ms draft of mine and said, "It's perfect! Don't change a thing!" would raise my suspicions immediately. I'd have to assume there would be a fee involved somewhere.

  4. Repeat after me - it's not carved in stone. It's not carved in stone, it's not carved in stone.

    My first editor was the toughest and she taught me the most. My favorite quote from her is "When in doubt, leave it out," and "A pretty phrase a good book doesn't make."
    I have a very laid back editor now, and we go through edits in a matter of hours. I like to think it was thanks to my first, fire-breathing, passionate, and dedicated editor that I'm an easy edit today. But I admit - the first book was really tough. I felt like every word I changed was written in fresh blood. I was - *gasp* - doing surgery on my Baby!

    Note to editors - be firm.
    Note to authors - it gets easier.

  5. Miriam,
    Great advice! I am unpublished at this point but an uber agent I sent my first three chapters to edited them, and asked to see the changes along with the entire manuscript.

    At first I was offended by some of her comments, then I thought about it, hey, she's helping me because she thinks that she can sell my book. That's the cool part. I made the changes and I am currently checking them over, three months later. I'm a perfectionist. :*) I told her I would need that long because I had to revamp a few areas.

  6. Great post. :-) I have learned over the past two years how to interpret Jim's always pleasant and encouraging emails. His enthusiasm for a project tends to show itself in exclamation points. If there are no exclamation points, I figure it's best I move to something else. LOL

  7. Thanks for this post.

    It's an important thing to learn - to be able to step back and look at a manuscript and, as you said, "see it as a living, evolving thing that is never going to be absolutely perfect and that will probably benefit from an informed and caring review" --

    I read an interview with John Irving - Irving mentioned that he was never entirely satisfied with a manuscript, sometimes even after a book had been published.

    I took from this that a book, even a very well-written book, did not come to the author intact, as if sent down from his/her muse. And that second drafts and careful criticism are necessary to bring out the most polished, finished book possible.

    That said, I've just recently sent a few pieces of my work out into the world to be critiqued (on another blog) - and it's a strange, uncomfortable feeling, until you see how much help it is.

  8. Miriam, can I just say, I've seen you picture and you don't look remotely old enough to have worked with anyone for almost twenty years. I actually used to wonder why Jane had decided to blend her agency with such a young, new agent. Apparently I was wrong.:)

    As for your post, I tell authors this over and over and I know many still just don't listen. I was (I think we all were once:)) one of those new authors who didn't want to hear *anything* negative about my boook, thank you very much!! But it was only when I started listening that my book got any better. And it was great prep for getting an agent because we went through three rounds of revisions before getting ym book ready to shop and every single one of those revisions was crucial.
    There was one issue i counterred her on and when she saw my reasoning, she agreed. (See agents are people too!) And then I had to revise further so the reader would understand.:) Ha!
    The publishing industry is all about smoothing the rough edgeds. But if you refuse to hear about the rough edges, they're never going to go away.


  9. I received a critique from a partial I sent to an agent I had met at a seminar. After reading the letter several times, I read the partial, bearing in mind her comments. She was SO right! I was grateful that a professional saw enough potential in my work to give their insight and their time. Critiques should be treated like gold: If invested wisely, it could make you rich.

  10. I completely agree with all of this. My Harlequin editor and I have worked together for 3 years now and though she will give me the straight-up news and comments, good or bad, I know that she cares about me and the book, and she always goes the extra mile to make sure I understand her comments. We also have good back and forth on how to address issues, and how to make fixes -- she is as willing to listen to me as I am to her. This is the key, I think.

    Agents and editors know that authors are often harder on themselves than anyone else, and while they can't hold back on their crit, I've experienced nothing but kindness along with frankness, and both are always appreciated. However, you're also busy people, and sometimes you just need to make your point -- I think most writers can accept this. The ones who can't are in the wrong business.

    However, I think your comments from this blog were taken out of context on a recent RTB discussion. A lot of romance writers are getting attacked left and right by snarky reviewers who think writers should not only take their comments in silence, but apply them to their writing as legitimate crit. I can't agree with this. Reviews are not criticism, they are reviews. They are meant as recommendations for readers, not writers. I would personally never let a reviewer's comments direct my writing. Ever.

    It's my view that editors and agents, these are the people writers need to listen to -- they know writing, they know the market, and even with all that experience, many of the agents who have passed on my work were very careful to say "this is only one opinion, so don't go changing your whole life over it, I could be wrong." This to me is a professional stance, a person who is aware of their audience and such. It makes me take their comments even more seriously for that fact.

    This is not the same situation as responding to a negative review. If there is a particularly nasty review that's high on snark, I think a writer has every right to respond if they want to, and even to be angry. I don't think we necessarily have to take that gracefully. However, I also think it can be a waste of energy, and why bother -- probably better to ignore it all together.

    Anyway, thanks for a great blog.


  11. One of the most important lessons a writer can learn is to know the difference between objective criticism and subjective criticism. The former can only help; the latter means nothing at all.

  12. Trouble is, when I get "constructive criticism" from more than one person, they often contradict each other--sometimes precisely the opposite suggestions! So, whose advice do you take?

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