Sunday, August 21, 2011

Writers Beware: The Fast Yes and the Slow No

In Hollywood, screenwriters soon learn that there are two types of responses that movie producers give to a screenplay:  The Fast Yes and The Slow No.

With the Fast Yes, the producer instantly “falls in love” with the script, clearly sees its commercial appeal, and can't wait make the writer an offer.

With the Slow No, the producer kind of, sort of likes the screenplay, and believes that if the writer would just make a few “minor” changes, he/she would (maybe, probably) like it a lot better and even (maybe, probably) buy it. 

Some writers run off and spend months, even years, dutifully making all these changes, only to find that when the screenplay is polished to the producer’s perfection and resubmitted, the producer still says no! 

The result is that the writer wastes a huge amount time and experiences untold anger and frustration.  Worse, the writer ends up with a screenplay that has been highly customized to the subjective tastes of one particular person, and is of very little interest to anybody else.

Guess what, folks?  Exactly the same thing happens in the publishing industry.  A literary agent or publishing house editor likes your book, kind of, sort of, and strokes your ego by telling you what a good writer you are, and that if you would just make these “minor” changes for them, they will “take another look” (and maybe, probably—you think—make you an offer to represent or buy the book)

Utter hogwash.

98% of the time, this is The Slow No.

If you find yourself tempted to fall for this (and if you really want to be published, you will be), tell yourself the following:

1.  You are not a slave.  You deserve to be paid for your work.

2.  Even if the agent or editor does not understand the highly subjective nature of the feedback he or she has given you, you do!  You know better than to spend weeks, months or years customizing (free of charge!) your book to please the taste of one person, no matter how “powerful” that person would like you to believe he or she is in the industry.

3.  You have developed confidence in yourself and your writing ability.  You believe in your work.  You do not let so-called industry experts dictate what is “good” or “bad” to you.  You let readers decide, because at the end of the day, that’s who you are writing for—readers—not literary agents, book editors or even book reviewers or critics.

It may come as no surprise that when you learn to "say no" to The Slow No, you start making real progress in your writing career.  

That's when people stop viewing you as an amateur and start treating you like a professional.

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  1. I agree! There is nothing wrong with a little constructive criticism, but the trend with the big boys seems to make you fit into some preconcieved mold. They have a tendency to want to revise and edit your own unique voice right out of the story. Stick to your guns. Listen to critiques of your work by people you respect and then of course take it with a grain of salt. Great insight MIke!

  2. You tell it like it is Mike. In every field of artistry work is being done for the critics not for real people. At one time I dreamed of writing books but I'm glad I never did. Writing informational pieces for web-sites has led me to self-publishing on Kindle. This is the way forward and the days of being the slave to the publishing houses and their fickle agents are over. I see that in the e-books I read and the success stories that are all around.
    Here's to the future.

  3. Very insightful post. The more I read your blog, Mike, the more I'm getting addicted to it. :)

  4. But what about those of us that are still honing our craft, Mike. Should we take a slow no the same as a nice rejection?

  5. This is a very good question, Sarah. Really, I think what you are asking is if you can use the agent or editor who suggests the revisions as a writing teacher, someone to help you hone your skills. And the answer to that is, yes, of course you can. This happens frequently. But usually it happens AFTER some commitment has been made on the part of the agent or editor who is making the suggestions. In other words, the agent likes the book and believes in you (as a writer) well enough to sign you on and work with you to get the book into what he/she believes is the right shape to pitch to publishers.

    This is quite a different situation than the agent whipping out a one page letter of suggested "improvements" with a vague promise of "taking another look" at your manuscript when you make them. This,I would not do.

  6. P.S. Sarah, I also want to say that anybody who is getting these kind of letters is making real progress as a writer--you have every right to be proud. But this also the tricky point. You have to be very careful not to be taken advantage of.

  7. I'm sorry, but as the CEO and founder of two writing schools, I can't agree with this:

    "You do not let so-called industry experts dictate what is “good” or “bad” to you. You let readers decide.. you are writing for—readers—not literary agents, book editors... "

    Back in 1980 I would have backed you up with pickets and a sit-in, but I learned better. You'll never get to the readers until you get through the editors.

    Writers who make their own rules and live by them are falling on their own sword. I know. I did it for 10 years, and I didn't get published. There are NO shortcuts in this business.

    Learn the rules! Follow them diligently. Editors and publishers hone writing to a higher level and writers who try to reinvent the wheel will only see their articles/stories in self-published material.

    Deborah Owen
    Creative Writing Institute

  8. Thanks for your comments, but I can't agree with you. What you say holds try only for those who wish to pursue the traditional publishing route. "You'll never get to readers until you get through the editors." What? Self-published authors are reaching MILLIONS of readers now, and some are extremely successful.

    1. Since you revived a two-year-old discussion by tweeting it...:)

      I think Deborah is aware of how well many people are doing without the aid of publishers or professional editors. But I think she has a great point when she says "You'll never get to the readers until you get through the editors." If editors are seeing serious flaws in your work, readers will see it, too.

      Producing a book that is free from errors, plot holes, and boring spaces is paramount to success. If an editor is giving you feedback that there are fundamental flaws in your writing, you need to address those or you won't find any success with readers.

      However, I agree that it's pointless and silly to rewrite something to fit an individual's exacting ideas of what is a good story, a good character, or good prose. You have to find the balancing point between being open to criticism (and knowing how to sift it for useful application to your work) and having enough confidence in your own work to discard criticism that is not useful to you, and to back your work confidently once you have discarded what won't work.

      That is a very tough still to develop, but it is key to success as an indie writer.

  9. Deborah, as an afterthought, perhaps you've misunderstood what I meant in the article, which is probably my fault. I'm not suggesting that editors serve no purpose or that writers do not need to hone their skills by taking classes, getting professional feedback, etc. (I teach writing, too!)--what I am saying is that ultimately, readers will decide the financial success of a writer. And there are more ways to hone one's skills and please readers than by going through the traditional publishing system.

    1. Yes, I was just going to site a (growing) number of indies who are immensely successful but you've beat me to it. And they all hired copy-editors, dev editors, etc and took classes as well.

  10. Great article. Thanks for posting this. A lot of information that might be hard for some of us to swallow, but necessary.

  11. interesting to read points made on both sides of the discussion.

  12. Great article, Mike! I wish I'd read it last year before cutting the heart out of my novel to meet the word count demands of an agent. That rewrite took three months of twelve hour days. By then, her website was down. I assume she left the business.

    I gave the story a new heart (and wrote from mine) I also gave it a riskier but more satisfying ending, hired a publicist and a copy editor and published it myself.

    "Enchantment" has met every sales goal so far and is getting great reviews. Instead of trying squeeze my vision into someone else's mold, I'm 70% through the first draft of the sequel and doing what I love ... writing.

  13. First of all, thank you, Pete, for a website full of interesting blogs, tips, and discussions. Secondly, my two bits' worth: There is a world of difference between criticism and advice which aims to fit your novel into a certain category -"Cut it by half and aim it a younger audience", as I was once told by a publisher who shall remain nameless :-) and constructive criticism which may actually make your novel a better, sharper version of itself. I listen very carefully to editors, agents and readers I respect, because ideally they are the writer's version of a personal trainer. He (or she) won't turn you into someone else (though sometimes, honestly, you'd like him to ...) but he can trim away some excesses and help you achieve sharper definition and more punch ;-) The people you really want to watch out for are the ones who look at your story the way a surgeon might view an organ donor: "Well, the liver's no good, but we might get some usage out of the kidneys and the spleen ..." Working out which is which, though, can sometimes be a devil of a job.

    Lene Kaaberbol

  14. Good article. Thanks for sharing, Mike. Something writers could benefit from, esp those just entering the industry.

  15. Interesting perspective and food for thought, eden

  16. A valuable advice that no one really talks about.

  17. Interesting post. I think this is one of those things where you have to go with your gut before doing major revisions. Make sure you trust the agent/editor telling you what to do--are they on board with the overall vision for your book? Or just trying to make your book look like every other book?

    Even in critique groups, you have to be discerning about whose advice you listen to closely. You have to do what resonates with YOUR book and makes it stronger. That's what a good editor does, anyway. They cut the junk and encourage you to polish the good stuff.

    Glad to find you via twitter!

  18. Great blog. The comments are just as interesting as the post.

    It took me years to hear the "fast yes" and it kicked off a fresh series of edits to my book. I didn't always agree with every suggestion my editor made, but I always gave the suggestion consideration. Many times I agreed with the editor. The few times I didn't and wasn't willing to let it go, we negotiated.

    The big difference was, I had a contract and knew my editor and I were working together towards the same goal.

  19. Mike, I've gotten the revise and resubmit responses from editors and it HAS resulted in a contract.

    It's not always a slow no. And I've gotten pages of suggestions on a rejection and made them because it made the work stronger. Yes, you have the right to be paid, and no, you should NOT go through more than ONE R&R without an offer, but sometimes that advice is valid, even if it comes with a no.

  20. Mike, I've heard both scenarios. Ones where multiple changes went nowhere and some where changes resulted in a sale. I suppose it depends on the editor/agent. Harlequin is big on requesting changes, and often will contract if the story is a better product. Some changes do make the story tighter, better. While I think a writer needs to be true to themselves, I also think that a few changes are not always a bad thing.

  21. Hi Mike, I'm really enjoying your blogposts. Being a fledgling writer, your shared experience and advice is really great. Thank you Mike :)

  22. I can tell you that, although I agree you should not completely rewrite your manuscript according to the tastes of one other person, getting feedback from an agent can be very helpful. Sure, don't hone your book for years based on one email and then be surprised when it's a no, but DO pay attention when someone from the professional publishing world makes a suggestion. If they saw something in your writing that motivated them enough to draw you into conversation, but not sign you, then they may just be trying to encourage you not to give up writing.
    Most agents love developing books as much as writers love writing. Remember, most agents have second jobs, because agenting is not exactly lucrative unless you're representing Harry Potter. They do it because they love books. They're not out to get you, they're not out to squeeze money out of you. They want you to succeed as well.

    I can't tell you how many times I've read something in the slushpile that made me want to reach out to the author, because it was almost there. I don't very often, because I fear this reaction. Given the multitudes of submissions I have slogged through, which means I have seen a spectrum of submissions that all make the same mistakes, I could make some very useful suggestions. But if I do make a rewrite suggestion there would suddenly be an expectation behind following that advice, and so I just end up form rejecting that author.

    If you do get a "slow no" as it were, take it as a compliment. And sometimes a slow no, just might turn into a yes.

  23. I went through the "Slow No," revising and revising (and revising again) only not to make that sale to a very big publishing house. I don't regret the experience, because I learned a lot about how the industry works. I also got a lot of *good* feedback that I took to heart, and the editor's suggestions made for a better book.

    But ultimately, the author must trust his or her own judgment and know when to say "Enough!" When a publisher's suggestions turn into demands -- and these demands change the very nature of your book, your creation -- then it's time to call it a day. I encourage every writer who's ever been in the "Slow No" situation to take a chance and self-publish that book! Traditional publishing set the bar high, and if there was something that sparked an editor's interest in the first place, it will also spark the reader's interest as well. :)

  24. Being somewhat new to all this, please take comments as such. I have an original work as yet unpublished. I have let a few published (traditional and indies) review my work and seeing the common threads in their suggestions am making those changes to the product.
    The next step is to figure out what route to take; Self pub, epub/indie, or traditional. Finding myself at this crossroad I am ingesting all information I can to make the best decision possible.

    Thank you for the posting and all the info you are sharing.