When I started my my job at a new local ad agency, the account manager for our largest client pulled me into her office to discuss a piece I’d written. She started out with something like, “So, uh, this is a really good overview of (X)! It’s well-written, it’s –” and I held up a hand and stopped her and said. “Let’s not mince words. Give it to me.” And she laughed and proceeded to tell me that I’d misunderstood the purpose of the piece, and written it with the wrong audience and call to action in mind, and needed to scrap it and rewrite it. And I was like, sure, no problem. Because, like, getting this shit right is literally my job. These are just words. If the words are wrong, you write them until they are the right words that work for the account manager and ultimately, the client.
This is literally the job of a professional ad writer.
A lot of writers, even professional writers at ad agencies and, of course, novelists, are not good at taking criticism. Hence the circular roundabout I sometimes run into when getting feedback on pieces. It’s meant to soften the blow, but it often just means stuff takes more time, and because we aren’t communicating honestly, projects drag, and then no one is happy.
There is the opposite of this, of course. I once had feedback from an account manager at another job whose feedback was, “This is just a jumble of words,” which is not only incredibly unhelpful, but, frankly, an insulting thing to tell someone who makes words for a living. It’s like telling an architect that their plans are “Just a jumble of lines.”
That kind of feedback says more about the comprehension of the account manager than it does about your work. Oftentimes, they say stuff like this because they don’t know how to articulate themselves. Other times, at larger companies, it can be a political thing, as all the feedback comes in writing, and they want to cover their butts if a piece doesn’t perform. I dealt with marketing managers all the time who blamed low-performing pieces on “the creative team” and of course, as the creative team, we often blamed the marketers. The blame game suits no one, though, and my best writing is always done when I get clear and concise feedback, even if it’s painfully honest. Even better is when I have actual data regarding what messages have worked in the past, which allows me to further fine-tune my pieces so that they perform progressively better over time. The truth is we are all making this shit up, and we have to work collectively to make the work that best achieves the clients’ goals.
I have been a professional copywriter for more than ten years now, and I admit that it’s helped me take criticism about my books a lot more easily, too. Instead of sitting around after an edit letter or critique going, “I’m the worst writer ever and I’ll never amount to anything,” I shrug and say, “Well, that sucks, but clearly the words aren’t right, so I’ll continue working at it until they are.”
That’s not to say I don’t still have moments of despair, but they are fewer.
So when my agent got back to me about the latest word dump that is The Broken Heavens on a call yesterday, I had ten years of experience to fall back on when she basically said I needed to scrap large chunks of it. I had followed the outline that we’d agree on, trying to get all the characters to the right place at the right time. The trouble with this sort of outline – as I felt during writing and as my agent confirmed on reading – is that it created a plot-driven story instead of a character driven story, and as my agent noted, the “plot” such as it was, was basically “lets get all these people where they need to be” which was just… a lot of traveling. So the “plot” per se, wasn’t terribly compelling either, just lots of traveling and lots of meetings where there wasn’t much tension.
When you hear criticism like, “hey, this book actually starts in the fourth act, and only about 20% of what we have may be salvageable” after you’ve spent a year working on a book and the last several weeks crunching on it, and it’s already a year late, it can be demoralizing. But good feedback is always about the work, not about the writer, and you have to remember that when you’re getting feedback, it’s not about you, or what you meant to write, it’s about the work that’s on the page. My agent and I don’t agree on everything, of course. One of my favorite characters, Meyna, is pretty much her least favorite, and I think if it was her book she would have killed that character long ago. But when my agent does her book-doctoring magic, it does mostly jive with what I know is, intuitively, the right thing to do for the story. We spent a lot of time talking about other fantasy books and reader expectations for a third and final book. I agreed with what needed to happen and how we needed to actually start the book. Yes, it involves throwing away a lot of words, but sometimes you need to pretty much write the whole back story before you write the book itself.
So I’m starting some stuff over, but hoping that I can make significant progress very quickly, as I need to leave for Helsinki August 3rd and I want the next draft in by then. I mean THAT’S THREE WEEKS PEOPLE EASY PEASY RIGHT?
Sometimes the words just aren’t the right ones. This is another reason that paying writers by the word or by the project just isn’t reflective of the amount of work that goes into something. I have written books in a few months, and written half a book in a couple weeks. And then there are books like this, where you literally write the whole thing once, and then write the whole thing a second time (or a third or fourth time, in the case of The Mirror Empire). God’s War was tinkered with endlessly before it finally came out, and I tossed out the entire second half of Infidel and rewrote it from scratch at one point. For awhile there, Empire Ascendant – with its weird sky mechanics and alternating POV’s that needed to line up in a coherent way – was the hardest book I’d ever written. With Stars are Legion, coming up with the actual backstory was the hard part, but the writing itself was fun, and I wrote half of it over a long weekend.
I seem to be back to basics with this book, which has proven to be even more complex than Empire Ascendant, and the current political climate sure as hell isn’t helping any of us be coherent or productive in any of our work. But, you know: we are fucking professionals, and this is what we do. So.
You write until the words are the right ones.
So if you think that leveling up as a writer means that nobody ever critiques your work again, or every word you shit will be gold, here is your reminder: it doesn’t get easier as you go. The bar gets higher. You need to jump further, climb higher, level up. If you didn’t make a million out the gate your first time, welcome to the long slog toward the breakout book, where you constantly have to stay on top of your game or fall down and start over again.
I have heard from many writers that I was “lucky” to make it out of the implosion of my first publisher with a relatively high profile (if not high $$, though Legion sales are steady af) career afterward. The best writer career path is, frankly, to have a “hit” right out the gate and build on that success. While it’s VERY possible to get a break out later (I can think of several writers who had written anywhere from 4-11 books before their breakout book), it sure does seem easier, from the outside, to build on that success than to take the long way up like I am, slowly, slowly, selling more and more books with every contract.
But here’s the thing. I’m well aware that to write a breakout book, I have to level up my work. We like to pretend it’s ALL luck with a breakout book, and sometimes that’s true (the “Hollywood bought it!” phenomenon), but sometimes it really is about skill, about writing a story that connects with more people, a story folks can’t put down, a story that everyone goes, “You have to read this trilogy because it’s great and OMG the third book has THE BIGGEST PAYOFF AND MOST EPIC THIRD ACT.” That part isn’t luck, it’s writing a good story. And to write that good story takes consulting with other professionals and working to make the story the best it can be. You will always be the ultimate owner of anything that you write (Meyna is staying in the book!), but you have to learn when to be able to take constructive feedback for what it is and when to throw out stuff that doesn’t work with your own vision. That’s a tough skill, I admit. I struggle with it all the time. Being able to sort through feedback to find the right way through takes a lot of practice, and it’s this, too, that makes you a pro.
I have gotten plenty of feedback that I didn’t agree with, including some stuff where an editor wanted me to cut a whole chapter (I kept the whole thing) and perhaps tone down some grossness (I did not). In the second instance, that is the scene that pretty much EVERYONE who reads Stars are Legion comments on (“OMG CHAPTER 14,” they say). My agent wanted more politics there in the opening of tSAL, and I didn’t, because I wanted to get to the gooey underbelly of the world faster, so that’s what I did. But when someone points out that there’s an emotional story missing, and the plot is just traveling, and the whole second half of the book probably needs to be composed of what you just get to in the fourth act, and you take a look at that and find yourself nodding along, well…. then you know you have a lot of work ahead of you.
Most importantly of all, when you hear that and sigh and go, “Well, it is what it is” instead of “I am a failure as a human being,” then you know you’re really leveling up your pro writer game, and congrats to you (and to me).
Get back to work.