Submission, or Learning to Love Critique

Submission, or Learning to Love Critique

I had the opportunity to attend Grub Street‘s wonderful yearly writing conference, Muse and the Marketplace, last week. I participated in their Manuscript Mart program, in which you provide your query letter, synopsis and first 20 pages to an agent or editor.

It’s a great program, one I’ve participated in both in 2018 and 2017 when I attended the conference. It’s helped me know what to expect, to get a feel for how agents think, and to learn what they are looking for. Plus, it takes some of the fear factor out of the interaction (“wow, agents are people too!”)

But this year I was taking these meetings more seriously. My novel The Halting Problem is currently out to my beta readers and, based on their feedback, I believe that this next revision will be relatively minor and the novel will be ready to start querying very soon. So this was the last practice before the big game.

This morning I was reading the most recent Poets & Writers, enjoying a lovely article about the writing process by Camille T. Dungy titled “Say Yes to Yourself.” One particular quote stood out for me, and helped me catalyze some of what I’ve been feeling about my agent interactions at Muse.

“…submit work that you feel is finished and ready to go into the world. I love that word: submission. It is in fact the best word for that act. I have to humble myself in the process of submission. To give over my trust to another reader. And often it will not go well. Usually it will not go well. That’s part of the process. You can’t please everyone. You shouldn’t even be trying to do that.”

My first agent meeting was OK. She doesn’t represent much in the Thriller genre, and clearly wasn’t into my book. But she gave me some really practical advice about how my early chapters are too dialogue heavy (a point my first two beta reader responses so far agree with). So she didn’t love the book, but was constructive in her feedback.

My second agent meeting didn’t go quite as well. She clearly didn’t like the book, didn’t like the characters, didn’t understand why I’d set it in 1990 rather than today. She criticized the slow start to the book, my choice to start out with character development rather than with a bang. I was defensive about that because I’d made a decision over a year ago to remove a prologue that showed a critical death, instead having a character discover it in the early chapters. She also didn’t like the title, said it was boring. She upbraided me saying that I’m marketing as much to the agent who might represent me, even if the publisher changes the title later.

I left that meeting pretty annoyed. I felt like she didn’t like the project and piled on. Then over the next week the dim refrigerator bulb began to shine over my head. She responded as a reader. I needed to listen to that. So when I connected with my first two beta readers over the last week, I asked them: would you want to see the death in a prologue, and is the title wrong? No surprise. They said yes to both. To be clear, they both loved the book, but the critique was valid and I needed to listen. I’m working on the prologue now, and the book title has already been changed to The Halting Problem.

As a funny coda to the conference, my third agent meeting was in the final hours of the conference. He was totally pumped about the book and told me to make sure to submit when I am ready.

And I will. Submit, that is.

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