Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Recently I spent considerable time working with clients in preparing proposals for submission to editors. As I interacted with various clients, I observed a truth I’ve seen time and time again–each of us has a preconceived notion about our projects that can make us intractable in the face of others’ opinions. That inability to listen and take another look at a project can keep us from finding a publisher for our work. How can you succeed in publishing? By listening.
Two cases in point:
1. A client has a stunning idea with much potential.
Tied to a key event in our country’s history with an upcoming anniversary, this idea could make a strong contribution in examining the event. The author is convinced a publishing committee will grasp the importance of such a book, and therefore he doesn’t need to submit the first two chapters of the book that explain the moment in history and how the manuscript adds to our understanding of it. Instead, the author wants to submit chapters starting with #3. This will not lead to how authors succeed in publishing. May I just say that I have no confidence an entire team at a publishing house would get it? Wouldn’t it be smarter to write those first chapters? And to listen!
2. Another client has a strong idea for a project, but the competition is stiff.
I’m trying to get her to understand that she needs to more tightly focus her idea so it clearly is differentiated from books by well-known authors who have written on the same topic. But she’s so intent on her perception of her proposal that she can’t hear what I’m saying.
It’s like deciding to open an ice cream shop but refusing to recognize that the three already established ice cream shops in town present a major roadblock to success. Maybe you need to add clowns and free balloons to differentiate your shop. Or create ice cream with unexpected ingredients like basil and lavender. Whatever you choose, be smart about it; make your project stand out from a field crowded with celebs–that’s how to succeed in publishing.
So what’s with this inability to listen?
We all turn a deaf ear to advice at times, but these authors aren’t grasping that I’m pointing out significant issues that can make or break their next projects. It’s rather like the emperor who has no clothes. Plenty of folks will pretend right along with you that you’re regally garbed. And it can be dangerous to point out the, uh, naked truth, but somebody has to do it; wouldn’t you rather it be an astute critiquer or your agent–or even your mother–than an editor who chooses not to take your project to committee or a publishing committee that gives your project the thumbs down?
To Succeed in Publishing
If you want to succeed in publishing, you have to have a discerning ear: Whom should you listen to? Is it worth forcing yourself to put the brakes on your enthusiasm and refine your project? Or is the naysayer wrong, and you should barrel ahead full steam?
In these two examples, I’m not asking either writer to throw away an idea but to more thoroughly think about the idea. To take it to the next level. Now, that’s what makes a project one that is likely to break out–or break into publishing.
How do you bring yourself to overhaul a manuscript or book idea when you realize it won’t succeed in its current condition? How did you find the right people to listen to?
Want to succeed in publishing? Then try listening. Click to tweet.
How listening can lead to publishing successes. Click to tweet.
My mind goes into hyperdrive, and all I hear is the rush of excitement. Suddenly, I realize that I quit listening to God. When I stop and breathe, I hear his still small voice:
“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3).
* Funny how a dose of sober judgment opens my ears.
Terrance Leon Austin
Listening to good advice…
Thank you Janet.
I trust that when I do my part (pray, research agents/publishers, polish query and proposal, network at conferences, etc) that God will bring the people I need to help fulfill the assignments He has given me – who, coincidentally, are often those whom I should also be listening to. Even before God brought a publisher (for which I am so grateful), I asked God to give me a humble, teachable spirit (and I need to do this over and over). These do not come naturally for fallen humans, but if we are in Christ and ask Him, He will answer such a prayer every time 🙂 When my manuscript came back from the editor a few weeks ago, he suggested a revision to the last chapter (not major, but a shift of direction nonetheless) and after wrestling with it in my thoughts and prayers (AND reviewing your post “How to Work with an Editor,” which I had printed and saved in anticipation of this phase), I knew he was right – and the final manuscript is all the better for it. (I also remind myself that the publisher has been publishing for 30 years and I, well, haven’t 😉
At the end of the day, as Christians, we are writing for God and if we yield to Him, the books we write will fulfill all that He desires to accomplish. For me, I find that the most important thing is to listen to His voice and all other voices will in turn eventually become clear.
Give me a humble teachable spirit.
Shadia, it sounds as if you handled the editorial suggestion with maturity and aplomb. And, yes, it’s okay that wasn’t your first response. Sometimes we need time to thread our way to being okay with suggested changes. Glad my previous post helped you to get there!
Thank you (I also began praying for the editor as soon as we signed the contract, asking God to help the editor hear from Him as we work through the project. If we’re all listening to His voice, it will all eventually come together 🙂
Mary Kay Moody
Well said, Shadia. My goal as well.
What an interesting post, Janet…and I pray that your authors have the wisdom to take your counsel.
* I don’t tend to fall in love with my work; indeed, my job in having written the book is just the beginning of a production process. I’m entirely uninterested in cultivating the self-image of a lone genius – being part of a successful team is so much more fun!
* In terms of whose counsel to accept, I’d run every change request by my agent (if I had one!). The agent is far more likely to understand the culture of individual houses, and to be acquainted with the ‘players’ involved. She’d know what requests had to be taken seriously, and which could be deflected.
* While writing toward a ‘finished’ draft, I try to find willing readers who understand both my message and voice, and who are willing to be unsparing of any feelings I may have in their evaluation of my work. Insincere praise, delivered out of misguided courtesy, becomes a lovingly applied straitjacket which binds the author to a daydream.
“Insincere praise, delivered out of misguided courtesy, becomes a lovingly applied straitjacket which binds the author to a daydream.” Aptly put, Andrew.
Damon J. Gray
Andrew, Do you find it difficult to get straight feedback? I do. There are times I have begged readers to flood the pages with red ink. Yet, they are reluctant to do so. It is frustrating!
Damon, it’s tough, and I base a request like that on several years’ worth of friendship, or at least acquaintanceship.
Damon J. Gray
Sadly, Andrew, it is those friends who seem a bit reticent to say the hard things I need to say. Fortunately, with my current manuscript, I found a couple of folks to flood it with the red ink I’d been asking for.
Janet, this is a timely post for me. I am about to begin a major overhaul to a project I’ve put a lot of time into. One thing I’m learning on this journey is that I may have a vision for a story, but it’s very limited. Making a story the best it can be requires outside eyes, especially people who know the market.
*I tend to be one who needs time to process big changes. But the more I think about the suggested changes, the more I often see their validity. I hope your authors will take the wisdom you’ve offered and apply them to their projects.
*I listen to my mentors. When someone I trust makes suggestions to change a story, I seriously listen and dialogue with them to determine how to best apply their suggestions.
Love this Janet. Where listening begins…. In the heart and soul of a project taking the I out of the equation and replacing it with We. God me and the ones he sends to develop a relationship built on mutual trust, balancing the scale to an amazing projects end, in agreement.
Janet, in thinking about this overnight, I wonder how much of the tendency not to listen comes from the desire to be someone other than whom we were created to be, and to reject the talents with which we’ve been blessed, wanting those others gifts that seem to glitter, just out of our reach?
Andrew, that might be the case, but I think it’s more that the writer has a set idea of how to approach his or her topic and can’t see other possibilities–even when other options are presented to them. The struggle is to free oneself from the mire of “what is” to reach “what could be.” It’s much harder to get unstuck than one would think.
“How do you bring yourself to overhaul a manuscript or book idea when you realize it won’t succeed in its current condition?” By understanding patience. Waiting on God. Sleeping on the problem overnight. Keeping in mind there may be a reason God wants me to Wait. Is there something I have not been shown yet He wants to add in the advice of others or in the waiting? I he working all to the good of the project by bringing each “player” in His timing together for his purpose? Could be. So in confidence and in listening, in Hope and endurance we wait on the Lord and yes Listen when we are told to move or overhaul if necessary 🙂
Recently, I began talking with another expert in the field of one of my novels … she gave me so much more information. After speaking with her, I knew I couldn’t leave my book the same. I wouldn’t abandon her advice, and I wouldn’t abandon my novel either. I would make it work. It really takes determination and persistence. And sometimes all it takes is adjusting it a bit to fit. She told me how much she appreciated the fact that I wanted my story to resemble reality … that she’s worked in this field for so long, and it breaks her heart to see the field, though far from perfect, misrepresented time and time again. And she’s offered to read and critique it for me. I’m so thrilled over that. She actually came across my path when I had to write an article on this topic. And I should have reached out to her when I began my novel. I probably didn’t because I had just started writing … and who would want to help me with something that might not go anywhere? But … she was eager to help, regardless of what becomes of it.
Shelli, I love that God allowed your path to cross with this lady, and that she’s willing to help you so much! That is truly exciting.
Shelli, I think people with expertise often love to interact with others about their field of knowledge. How often does someone come along who wants to explore the intricacies of, say, being a great dog groomer? Your comment encourages other writers to seek out experts and dig deep into what their career really is like.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
It boils down to the simple fact that if I want to improve, I have to listen to someone who knows more about the subject than I do.
If I’m learning a new choral piece, I do not just belt it out. A) I’m not Ethel Merman, and B) why embarrass myself?
If an MS needs re-doing? Cry in your tea, and then get yourself together and get rolling. But don’t waste time lamenting that your work is far superior to everything out there and everyone who disagrees is wrong, that’s what non-and-never-gonna-be-published writers do.
Damon J. Gray
So many ideas fly through my head as I read this. It is critical to realize that I, my agent, editor, publisher, marketing strategist – we are all on the same team. When one of us is successful, all of us are successful. If I am stubbornly and arrogantly refusing to hear the advice of those who know more than I do on a given subject, I am hurting the team – and we are a team. I realize that my name is prominently displayed on the cover of the book, but that is just the perk of being in my specific role on the team. As my first manuscript went through the editing process, and suggested updates were incorporated, my wife (greatest cheerleader and supporter) became concerned that “if you make all these changes, it’s like it isn’t your book anymore.” One of my truth lessons of life involves the value of surrounding myself by people who know more than I do. It has been said that each of us is the mean/average of our five closest associates. I want to surround myself by men and women in the publishing industry who know more than I ever will, so I can listen to, incorporate, and benefit from their valuable input.
Well said, Damon. We are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with–and if we listen to them.
I’ve also learned how important it is to listen to other writers/authors. Two years ago at the Mount Hermon Writers Conference, I was pitching a Bible study featuring 6 less-renowned characters of the Bible, for a 6-week study. While I was waiting for my turn to meet with an editor, I found myself sitting next to a published author who asked about my proposal. I told her about it – and confessed how difficult it was to stop writing the first chapter since there seemed so much more depth to the story (based on Hagar in Genesis). I explained that maybe one day I’ll explore her story more, but for this book, her story is only supposed to be one chapter (I was clearly in a box). She asked to look at my proposal and then unceremoniously tossed it over her shoulder, leaned in towards me and challenged me, “if God is giving you more to write on Hagar, why don’t you write on her and turn these chapters into a series of Bible studies instead?” I was floored and intrigued, but still had to fight my way out of the box I had spent so much time building. She then added, “you know, publishers really like book series.” That impromptu conversation was truly a gift from God – and I’m so glad I listened 🙂
Nothing like a little drama–like a proposal being tossed to the wind–to get your attention, eh? We do construct little boxes and then spend a great deal of time maintaining those boxes rather than seeing our writing afresh.
Lol – and Amen. It was a moment (and a lesson) I expect I’ll never forget! ?
I honestly can’t imagine not listening to you, you have such wisdom and experience. I wouldn’t be a client of an agent whose direction I didn’t trust.
I’m sure difference of opinions will happen eventually. But these examples don’t sound like true artistic differences, they sound like refusing to dig in and do the work.
I remember having to overhaul my first novel because editors didn’t like the format. I did not enjoy that process at all, but I looked at it as part of the process. Like any other task I don’t enjoy, I broke it down into manageable chunks and just did it.
Trying to find a new angle on something would be hard in a different way. I think I would have to step away from it and take a walk and let my brain wander then come home and make a mind map. It might take me awhile to figure it out, but I hope I wouldn’t just refuse to do it.
Angela, the first example was a matter of not wanting to do the work of writing additional chapters since the author had started out writing chapter 3. (Why I don’t know.) The second example was more a matter of the person not being able to see a different way to focus her idea. That’s a different problem, of course.
I appreciate your willingness to see your work in fresh ways, even when it’s hard at first to cast a new vision for material you’ve already labored hard over.
Stephanie Grace Whitson
That “need to overhaul” is just another reason to have confidence in one’s agent. After all, we writers hire an agent to understand the industry in ways we can’t and to have expertise we don’t. It’s not smart to fail to listen. And it’s equally not smart to blame the agent if we don’t listen and then miss an opportunity to land a contract. My 2 cents. As to the overhaul … sometimes I have to take a step back and let an idea rest before I try to remake it.
Stephanie, that’s a good point about the agent’s role. Sometimes we forget why certain people are on our team.
It always blows my mind that novice authors will push back against the advice of industry pros. Yes. Listen.
Bill, I believe not listening when you’re a novice writer stems from not realized how much you don’t know.
Great advice. I would much rather hear the truth from someone who has my best interests at heart (be it an agent or my mom), rather than from an editor in a rejection. I am just wrapping up my first novel, but as I (hopefully) head into this process, I will be keeping this advice in mind. Cheers!
Mary Kay Moody
Finding the right people? Read, talk, listen. See who is available to read the MS or coach you. “Interview” to see how they work and if that meshes with your style. I usually need to let suggested changes percolate a bit. It also helps if the “why” is explained and perhaps an example. A writing mentor suggested I entirely cut 1 thread (relatively minor, only 4 scenes) in the story, saying it was extraneous. We discussed it on the phone twice. Finally a few days later, I clearly saw what she referred to. While a lovely little side road, nothing that happened in those chapters actually moved the story along. It expanded the interactions between a 3 minor characters. But nothing either helped or hindered in the story’s resolution. Snip, snip. They’re gone.
Janet, I so appreciate what you said about novice writers simply not realizing how much they (we) don’t know yet.
Mary Kay, thanks for your example of how you eventually came to see why the writing mentor was right in her advice.
It’s hard to know who to listen to sometimes. With so many voices and so many opinions, I have to decide which voices I trust. For me, I know it’s worth listening to the people who really listen to me.
*An example: when I first spoke to Rachelle, she was the first agent I had spoken with who I felt like really listened to the heartbeat of my project and took time to get to know me. It was an instant trust builder that assured me her voice was one I wanted to listen to.
*Also, after spending years in the dance/theater community, I recognize the value of having people to help oversee and guide a project (like an artistic director does for a production). I’m eager to listen to people who aren’t as deep into something as I am because they help keep me on track or refocus the work in a better direction.
Damon J. Gray
As I read your comment, my mind went immediately to a couple of cases where I have been given conflicting advice, and it each case, it was from individuals with significantly more expertise in the subject than I possess. I respected them both, yet could not reconcile the conflicting advice. Has that happened to you? If so, how did you deal with it?
YES! That’s actually how I ended up in a conversation with Rachelle. I’d gotten a lot of conflicting advice/response from agents, so I found someone who I felt like was a more expert expert.
Becky, those are good examples of when to listen. If someone doesn’t know where your heart is or your motivation for writing your piece, how can they possible help you to focus it in a way that fits in with your motivations as well as meets the market’s current needs. Also, someone with creative direction experience will tend to have good instincts, or that person would not have succeeded in that role in the past.
I thoroughly agree about the need to listen and consciously choose to be open to learning a new perspective; I guess if we cloaked this concept in Biblical thought, it would be to not cling to our pride but to humble ourselves so that we can be teachable. Or, as so eloquently stated in James 4:10, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.”