Nobody Knows Nothing
If you follow this blog, you know that I’m not a big believer in feedback. By that I mean “notes,” “critiques,” “comments” about one’s work from writing groups or editors or friends or just about any other source.
It’s been my experience that very, very few people can read something and tell you accurately what’s wrong with it. And practically nobody can tell you how to fix it.
Feedback from anyone else will just screw you up.
Here, unexpurgated, is an e-mail exchange between me and a hard-working young writer named Michael G. S. Hesse. Michael has given me his permission to post this. Please feel free to jump in to the Comments section either with encouragement for Michael or brickbats for me for applying too much “tough love.”
Dear Mr. Pressfield,
When do you know if you need to return to a project and polish or start anew?
I get up at 4:30 am. Every morning. I get up, brew coffee, and fix a nibble for my wife before she scurries off to work. By 5:30 I’m awake enough to write. I write from 5:30 to 7:30 every morning before leaving for my paying job. I do this seven days a week. On weekends I sleep till 5:30 and then write until noon. I’ve been doing this ever since my ‘turning pro’ moment two years ago.
During this time I’ve written a 206,000 word fantasy novel. I sent it out to ten agents. One asked for a partial and then the full. A week later I received an encouraging rejection letter suggesting that she felt the novel hadn’t been edited down enough. She suggested going back and cutting it down to the 150K range. I thought about her comments, agreed with them and got to work. Two months later I’d trimmed the novel to 146K. It was much the better for the effort.
I contacted the agent and asked if she’d be interested in re-reading it. She agreed. I sent it off. Several weeks later I received another rejection letter. This time she stated that she’d read it all the way through twice, she liked it very much. She said the novel was engaging and said that she loved the voice, but it was too heavy. She felt suffocated by the narrator. She felt it needed polishing, but she couldn’t put her finger on what was missing. She also suggested that I send it out to a number of other agents and get their feedback before doing any more work.
Eighteen other agents have since rejected the novel based on the query. Two suggested that 150K was too long and they’d be interested in looking at it if I were willing to cut another 25K. Both of these agents expressed an interest in seeing future projects.
When do you know it’s time to shelve a project or get back into the trenches? I’ve spent two years with these characters. I’ve learned a great deal about them and their motivations. I can see places where the prose could be tightened, but I’m also itching to begin new projects. Where is Resistance rearing its ugly head? Is it telling me that I’m tired of working on the same project for so long and that I should be writing something new or is it the desire to write something new that is keeping me from polishing my manuscript to the point where it is deemed publishable?
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Michael G. S. Hesse
I recognize that Michael is asking, “Have I spent too long on this project? Is it going nowhere? Should I move on?”
But the bigger issue to me in Michael’s note is evidence of the pernicious temptation to rely upon the opinions of others. On the one hand, one must appreciate the effort that agent put into reading and responding to Michael’s long, long manuscript. Who does that nowadays? On the other hand, did she choose to represent it? All she did was hammer Michael’s spirit and lead him into a labyrinth of self-questioning and self-doubt.
Michael, I commend you on your work ethic and salute you for finishing your book and getting it into the hands of so many agents. This is no small thing and I congratulate you. Here is what I suggest to you as goals for this year:
1. Make every effort to break the habit of listening to other people’s opinion of your work. Not one person in a hundred is qualified to give feedback to a writer, including me. You will drive yourself crazy listening to people’s (particularly agent’s) comments that they “loved the voice but felt it was too heavy.” Break that habit.
2. Make every effort to learn to evaluate your work yourself. If you can, find ONE PERSON you trust for feedback. A friend, your wife, whatever. If you have to pay them to read your stuff, pay them. Frankly, I doubt you will find anyone. The skill is just too rare. You have to learn to do it yourself.
3. Put this project aside for a while. Move on to something fresh. Meanwhile keep getting it out there to agents and anyone you can. Just don’t listen to their feedback. If they don’t tell you, “I love it, I want to represent it,” don’t listen to another word.
4. After a minimum of three months, read your novel again with fresh eyes. Evaluate it yourself. Make decisions from there.
5. Do NOT write me back with another “ask.” DO NOT ask me to read your novel. I don’t have time.
It may help you with perspective to consider the following:
1. I had my dear friend of twenty years (and a superb editor) Shawn Coyne read a manuscript of mine a couple of years ago for feedback. I paid him $40,000. That’s what professional-level feedback is worth. Keep that in mind when you ask for help for free—or when you get it for free.
2. On the shelves of my office are 21 screenplays (each of which took me six months to write) and three novels (two years each) that never sold. It is VERY HARD to find a buyer or an agent. This is the reality of the writer’s life.
3. A friend who opened her own literary agency spent an entire year before she opened her doors reading screenplays and books, seeking writers whose work she believed she could take out into the marketplace and sell. How many did she find in those twelve months? Zero. (She finally found two, a team, and built a successful business around them.)
I have heard stories of writers submitting their work hundreds and hundreds of times and not getting a single read.
It’s hard, that’s all there is to it.
All that being said, Michael, your work ethic is tremendous and you clearly have the passion to break through and succeed. I wish you all the best as you acquire the thick skin a writer needs and you continually raise your level of professionalism and your understanding of the realities of the business.
P.S. A good book to read: “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman.
Good luck and keep up the great work ethic!