In my agenting days, I was the first in line to receive the inevitable pass letters (or rejection letters, as many negatively refer to them). For my fiction writers, the feedback was varied…mainly the editor passed on the novel because they just didn’t “fall in love” with the writing, characters or story. And really, for an editor to commit to a novel for one to two years worth of priceless editorial attention, the editor must fall head over heels in love with the book and the publishing house planets must align. I’ve heard tale of Stephen King wallpapering rooms of his house with this type of pass letter; some authors use them as fire kindling. This type of feedback is subjective and I counseled my writers to take it worth a grain of salt. For a few others, editors had very direct feedback about the style of writing and construct of the book. This is the kind of valuable feedback a writer needs to seriously consider. This is usually non-subjective feedback and is directed toward the mechanics of the craft and voice. Even though reading an editor’s less than glowing comments about your “baby” can be painful, it’s critical to eventually see their point (especially if several are singing the same song) and make plans to implement their suggestions to the best of your ability or hire a professional editor to give your work a make-over.
Feedback for nonfiction is very different, very black and white. Either the concept is compelling and the author has made it totally relevant and unique or it’s dated and unoriginal and it’s a no-go. The author either has a platform or doesn’t. If the latter is the case, the project is a no-go. The writing is good or it isn’t. The author is either media ready and ready to rock some major book events or they’re not, in which case the book deal is definitely a no-go. The great news is, nonfiction publishing is fairly formulaic and the feedback relatively easy to implement; all the writer must be is open to implementing the feedback, willing to put in the grunt work and patient. There is a wealth of info available guiding writers how to create a nonfiction book from concept to platform to completion and I specialize in this counsel.
I know this sounds shocking, but agents and editors don’t want to hurt your feelings with their pass letters. They may not spend much time making you feel great about your work (and it would be unreasonable to expect this), but they’ve got precious little time in their day and any constructive feedback you receive should be appreciated. Now, there will be some pass letters along the way that make you say, out loud, “huh?!” Just disregard those or remember them when you need a laugh.
Another kind of feedback is through finding a mentor, a trusted professional who is where you want to be. Getting feedback and ideas from these folks is not only extremely valuable, it’s a major success step in the right direction and will make you feel great about where you’re going with your writing career.
What’s the difference between finding a mentor and just asking a publishing professional, be it agent, editor, author, literary or publishing consultant, questions when the time comes? No doubt just starting out in the business you have many questions. Everyone does. In choosing a mentor, you discuss with them: 1) Your goals; 2) Your admiration of their work, success and your desire to be where they are; 3) The guidance you’re hoping to receive from them; and 4) A mutually beneficial time to discuss your path as you move along and their feedback of your work. Mentors don’t charge you for their time. Your relationship is mutually agreed upon.
Periodically emailing a few questions to an agent, editor or consultant you’ve made a connection with is fine, but don’t expect a timely response and loads of advice. Do expect them to tell it like it is and don’t take it personally. This doesn’t really count as a mentorship. Agents are busy selling their clients’ work, editors are busy editing their authors’ books and publishing consultants are paid by their clients to answer a multitude of questions and guide them through the process of publishing from concept to completion and beyond. If you do get a thoughtful response back, make sure to thank the publishing pro for their time and ask if they wouldn’t mind answering a few questions from time to time (not every week). If they get back to you with a positive response, value their time as you would an attorney’s. If you don’t hear back from them, give them a week and email again to ask if they had received your previous email and what their thoughts are. If you still don’t hear back, consider it a lost connection and graciously move on.
So what does all this talk about feedback have to do with building confidence? The first answer’s easy…when you receive good feedback, you know you’re on track and that feels great! That’s an easy confidence boost. Keep doing what you’re doing but always strive to improve your craft and product. When you choose to consider and implement constructive feedback, you’re actively making you and your work better. You will begin to act and create more confidently which ultimately, is better for your overall career.
Whether you’re fresh to the writing world or a well-heeled member of the literati, knowing what to do with feedback is critical to your confidence and your overall success. Choose to react wisely to the feedback you receive along your path. If it’s purely subjective, literally and figuratively toss it. If it’s constructive, tell the ego to take a back seat while you polish your work and turn that so-so project into a masterpiece!
Caveat: Make sure you’re sending the right project to the right agent and editor so you get the best feedback possible. Literary fiction only goes to agents and editors who have a track record of acquiring and selling literary fiction; likewise with commercial fiction and nonfiction work. Only commit to making changes once you've heard the same type of feedback from several agents and/or editors, not just the professional opinion of one.