Category Archives: Evan Braun

Gatekeepers: Do We Need Them?

I recently came across an online discussion between a couple of friends of mine and an established science fiction writer. The conversation lasted several days and became a little heated at times-at least, so it appeared to me. What were they talking about? Okay, seriously, I’ll give you exactly one guess.

You don’t need one, you say? Not surprising, seeing as the publishing world seems entirely preoccupied these days with one subject and one subject only.

Indeed, the discussion revolved around the debate between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Let me state clearly that I am not trying to present a comprehensive argument on that subject through this blog post. I would prefer to focus in on one aspect of this debate, which is gatekeepers, and whether or not we have a need for them.

What do I mean by gatekeepers? Let me explain. In the traditional publishing model, writers send their work to agents and publishers, who in turn evaluate the suitability of said manuscripts and judge whether or not they are viable for publication. This, in essence, is gatekeeping. Not everyone can get their books published, because there is a system in place to filter out the books that are worthwhile from the mountains of books which are not. In the publishing world, this mountain of dreck is known as “slush.”

But all of that seems to be changing, and self-publishers are increasingly of the opinion that gatekeepers of any stripe are obsolete. In the modern world of ebooks, in which the Amazon juggernaut will allow anyone to publish anything, regardless of quality or questions of legality (a post for another day, to be sure), there is no one manning the gate. In this cutthroat world, the burden of literary filtration is more and more being placed on the backs of readers.

This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. The reading market now has more freedom to choose-and more freedom must be a good thing, no? Some readers are well-suited for this brand of freedom, though I would suggest they are a minority. Instead of going to the bookstore and choosing one of the several dozen titles on the bookrack in front of them, readers now must select from literally thousands of books, and they must be increasingly wary and educated about how they go about this process of selection.

There are great resources available to help readers make informed, wise decisions-again, a blog post for another time. But my question is this: should this responsibility fall to the reader at all, and does the average reader want it?

I, for one, would like someone to man the gate. My opinion is influenced by the fact that I am currently in the middle of filtering my way through a massive slushpile of my own. Part of my job this summer is to go through the ten huge boxes of books piled up in my living room, distilling them into a shortlist of ten viable manuscripts (pictured above). It’s hard work, and doing it right requires weeks of intense labor and concentration.

Do I think the average reader values the notion of having someone take on the slushpile for them? Yes. Yes, I do, though I don’t know what form such gatekeeping may take in the future.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

The Harsh Side, Part III: The Key Is Specificity

Writers should be in contact with other writers, not holed up in their offices typing to themselves. The result is that you, as a writer, will almost inevitably be called upon to evaluate someone else’s work.

Yesterday, I shared some unfortunate anecdotes about my history as a bad critiquer. All of that was mere prelude to today’s checklist, in which I reveal the tools and techniques I have found to be particularly helpful in the reviewing process.

Of course, I can’t pretend this checklist is exhaustive! In the comments, feel free to share your own unique approaches.

  1. Determine the book’s target audience. First thing you need to do is determine who the book is written for. Is it you? If it’s not, say so upfront. Don’t withhold your comments if you aren’t the book’s intended audience, but consider that from time to time you and the author aren’t necessarily going to be on the same page.
  2. Be polite. It seems obvious, and yet judging from my responses to the contest manuscripts (see yesterday), I was slow to learn this lesson. Always be nice… bearing in mind that it is possible to be too nice, thus giving the author the wrong impression! Being polite and offering false praise are two very different things. Don’t say things you don’t mean.
  3. Be specific. If you’re trying to avoid offending someone with harsh criticism, you might think your salvation lies in being vague. Stifle that impulse; it does no one any favors. By being specific and clear about what isn’t working for you, you’re bringing something fixable and practical to the author’s attention. Don’t leave the author guessing about what you mean.
  4. Give examples. In the same vein, provide concrete examples for each point of criticism. Giving examples is an invaluable illustrative tool. Being specific and giving examples also have a secondary, subliminal effect: it demonstrates to the author that you read the book carefully. If you’re vague and can’t point out examples, the author might deduce (perhaps correctly) that you don’t really care about their work.
  5. Offer to demonstrate your points of criticism. After being specific about your criticism and providing examples from the text of where it went wrong, offer to demonstrate how you might personally go about fixing it. It’s critical at this juncture that you make it clear that you’re not trying rewrite them or make story choices on their behalf. Such a demonstration can mean writing a few paragraphs or providing a short outline of how you might approach a chapter or storyline differently. One of my writer friends once went so far as to write a three-page alternate opening to my book. I didn’t use it verbatim, of course, and he got a lot of the details wrong, but it easily ranks as the best feedback I’ve ever gotten. And the fact that he took the time to do it meant the world to me. But remember: only offer to do this. Don’t go the extra mile if the author doesn’t want you to.
  6. Cut your losses if you have to. If you’ve gotten 10,000 words into a 100,000-word novel and you can already tell the book isn’t worth your time, listen to yourself. It may be that you’re completely the wrong audience. It may be that the writing and grammar is juvenile. It may be that the story is deeply, hopelessly flawed. If this is the case, provide feedback on the part that you did read and be specific about your reasons for not going further.
  7. But: offer to read more at a later date. Don’t just leave the author hung out to dry. Let them know that you care enough to follow up. (And you actually have to be willing to do it, when the time comes!)

Ultimately, there are some people out there who are simply not prepared to handle harsh criticism. No matter how polite you are, you may not be able to please them. If that’s the case, you’ll need to accept that and move on.

That said, these final two items can help reduce the damage:

  1. Give praise where praise is due. Even in the most hopeless manuscript (and I’ve encountered some doozies), there is always something to praise. Be just as specific about what works well as you are with what doesn’t.
  2. Encourage the author that their work is valuable and has promise. Being a great author requires a lot of growth and a lot of work. Even if a book is 90% unsalvageable, recognize the monumental effort that has gone into writing it. I once delivered a critique in which, after all my points were laid bare, my main piece of advice was, essentially: “Have you considered giving up on this one and moving on to your next idea?” Of course, I wouldn’t have said this to just anyone. But the author was a twelve-year-old girl. Even though she was spectacularly good for her age and experience, without a doubt her writing was going to improve the most by continuing to exercise her creativity, not by fixating on editing her first novel to perfection.

Like I said, let’s hear some of your own critique stories and techniques. Taken together, I’m sure we have a broad range of experiences on which to draw.

Come back tomorrow for the concluding post in our series, The Harsh Side, Part IV: The Gentle Shove, in which Colette turns the tables and reveals the various ways that we, as writers, can direct the feedback we receive from our critique partners in order to get the most out of their efforts.

The Harsh Side, Part II: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Three years ago, I got a call from my employer, a small Canadian press who I had just started doing freelance editing for. One of their clients had contacted them and abruptly cancelled their editing contract. Apparently she was so upset by my edit-and my incendiary comments-that she was brought to tears.

To say I was devastated would be putting it mildly. To this day, I feel the sting. While it may be possible that this particular client was unusually sensitive, there are a lot of things I could have done to soften the blow of what had turned out to be a fairly harsh critique.

The problem was that I was very inexperienced at this whole business of delivering critiques. Looking back, my comments to her were pretty tactless. Over the years, I’ve had to turn “softening the blow” into an art form. (I’m still not a full-fledged critique artist, but I’ve come a long way.)

Fast forward a few months. That same small press was receiving manuscripts for a summer publishing contest, and they found themselves taking in far more submissions than expected. Quite a deep slushpile had built up. I was hired to take that slushpile home and whittle it down to ten finalists, a more manageable reading load for the contest’s judges.

Never having done something like that before, I came up with a simple system. I threw down a post-it on each manuscript’s cover page and wrote what I thought of it. Strange that it never occurred to me that these books’ authors would want to know what the critiquer thought of their work. Indeed, my comments were “for internal use only.”

-“Severely incompetent. If my dog could read, he would give this book two paws down. Way down.”

-“Utterly incomprehensible. Does this author even speak English?”

-“Please pardon the dark red stains on the opening pages. I was bleeding uncontrollably from the eyes.”

I’m not sure these comments were even helpful for the purpose of internal use. I can’t imagine the looks of horror on the faces of the poor people who were charged with communicating this feedback to inquiring authors.

To put it mildly, this particular employer has been more patient with me than I deserve.

Of course, I’m more writer than editor, and therefore I have been on the other side of the fence, too. Many, many times.

This past year I wrote a science fiction epic. By the time I hit the one-third point in my first draft, I contacted a published friend of mine and asked him if he’d like to take a look. I was proud of my work and felt confident the response would be a positive one. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t expecting much of a critique; I was expecting praise.

I’m sure a lot of those contest authors had been proud of their work, too, before I eviscerated them!

Similar to what happened with Colette-and if you haven’t read yesterday’s post, make sure you do-my friend only read one chapter and then decided to cut his losses. In retrospect, he cannot be blamed for doing so. I got a lot more wrong in that first draft than I got right.

So what do you do if you’re in the awkward position of providing negative feedback to a fellow writer? Well, tune in tomorrow, for The Harsh Side, Part III: The Key Is Specificity, for my trusty checklist.

The Empty Nest

For most of my life, I have been striving to become a writer. One day, I thought, I will be a writer. Of course, I know this was wrong thinking. I have constantly been told, “Writers write.” Writers don’t simply begin writing one day when they finally hit the big leagues; they have to put pen to paper for years before anything comes of it.

Armed with this common knowledge, I did just that. Ten years ago, I began developing a science fiction epic. I finished my first draft, entitled Colony, last December. Five years ago, I began a second story. I finished my second draft just this past week.

I thought I was getting busy. I thought I was being preemptive, practicing my craft and preparing for the day when my career would begin.

I was wrong.

As a creative type, I’m not so good at math, but let’s add up my progress so far. In the ten years that I’ve been “committed” to being a writer, I have written two novels. On average, that’s one novel per five years – and 90% of those words were written in the last twelve months. This means I’ve been pretty unproductive for someone who intends to somehow make a living at this.

Well, my two novels are done now. They’re fully birthed. I would like to pat myself on the back for having churned through so many words this year, but the reality is that I have to get much faster at this process.

Ideally, I need to be writing two books per year, and I can’t take five to ten years to conceive of them, which means it’s time to get going on something new. I need to get going yesterday, to be honest!

But there’s something stopping me.

I’ve got a bad case of “Empty Nest Syndrome.” You know what I’m talking about, right? After parents finish raising a family, their children go off into the world, leaving them alone for the first time in twenty years or more. What are these parents supposed to do with themselves? They clutch to their children as long as possible, fearing the separation anxiety they know is just around the corner.

Well, the metaphor only goes so far. I’m not worried about separation anxiety. I am worried, however, that I won’t be able to have any more kids. Do I have another two books in me somewhere? How about four or five? Ten?

A lot of writers have great ideas coming out the yin-yang, but I’m not sure I’m one of them. Most of my writing time has been so obsessed with nursing the babies I have that I haven’t spent much time grooming new prospects for the future.

Well, the future has officially arrived.

I have become a little spoiled. Writing a first draft is fairly easy when you have ten years of background research in hand. However, my new babies are barely embryonic. If I’m going to meet my two-books-per-year goal, I don’t have time to spin my wheels in development.

The question is this: how does one write from a blank slate? How does one develop a workable outline from an idea that’s only partially formulated?

At this point, you might be waiting for me to offer up a sage piece of writing wisdom, some neat and tidy advice to get you on your way if you’re in a similar position.

But that’s not the kind of post this is today. Rather, today’s post is a call to action.

Starting today, I’m going to ignore the blindfold over my eyes that represents my creative uncertainty about the vast terrain of untold and unconceived story laid out before me. Starting today, I plunge forward into the unknown, step by step, word by word.

It’s hard to believe that, in six months’ time, this baby is going to be headed off to college.