Thursday, 26 November 2015

Tweak or Give Up? - Some dodgy advice from yer uncle Jon - by Jonathan Allen




Finally sending an idea out to an agent or a publisher is always an act of faith. Faith in your own ability and in your own judgement. The trouble is that when ideas get turned down it can make this faith seem completely misguided. . . That depends on your mental resilience of course. I always say, somewhat flippantly, that there are two ways people react to rejection, one is to conclude that they are total rubbish and have rubbish ideas, and the other is to take the attitude that 'the fools don't appreciate my genius'!
The latter is probably better for your sanity, but rather too close to delusion perhaps, and the former is just defeatist.
Having faith in your own judgement is a big part of being a writer, (and any other kind of creator or maker) and that faith is a fragile thing so you have to look after it ;-)
Easier said than done, I know.
Rejection is part and parcel of being a writer, it's not pleasant, but its a fact of life and has to be accepted as such otherwise no one would ever send their precious ideas out into the world at all.

So us writers and illustrators work hard on our ideas, tweaking and revising to make them into something a publisher can look at and see how they would work as books. The difficult bit is knowing when an idea has reached that point, knowing when to stop tweaking the idea and submit it. Knowing when to jump. . . Is it underworked or overworked? Too loose or too prescriptive?

You hope you have worked hard enough and got the idea as 'right' as you can get it because once something has been turned down, you can't really tweak it and send it in to the same person again to see if they like it with your added 'improvements'. They won't have the time or patience for that.
There are no doubt exceptions to this, but generally, if a publisher or agent is interested in an idea they will make some allowances, and will often suggest ways to make it work better if such is needed. If they aren't interested, they won't be willing to spend their precious time analysing it and telling you why it doesn't appeal.


So, do you tweak your idea and send it to someone else?
The trouble is, it is impossible to know why an idea gets rejected. There may be two people in a meeting who are mad about it, but three who weren't keen. There may be two really good ideas on the table and only one slot in the Spring list, so someone has to lose out. Or it may be because your idea is rubbish and nobody in their right mind would touch it with a barge pole. . . It's unknowable, so really it's not useful to speculate too much. Also, to complicate things still further, your 'improvements' might not enhance the idea at all, and the next person to see it may have preferred the first or untweaked version had they seen it. . . Or not. . . You could drive yourself nuts with this stuff.

So really, you have to put the effort in and have faith. Get an idea to the point where you like it and you think it 'works', then let it go knowing you have done your best. If it doesn't find a publisher, move on. You will keep having ideas.


Some might be rubbish ideas, as writers can easily be too close to an idea to fully judge its value, and of course the last thing you'll have wanted is to have spent your precious time and energy in the ultimately futile pursuit of a rubbish idea. But on the other hand, often the only way you can get an idea to the point where you can make some kind of judgement of its worth, is by putting the time and energy in and seeing how it turns out. 'Wasted' time is a given. It's part of the deal.

Only you can decide if your continued faith in an oft rejected idea is misplaced. You may get a flash of inspiration and find the perfect way of making your idea work, or you might find that you have just added more wasted time to time previously wasted. Are you being laudably persistent or are you flogging a long dead horse? I've been in both situations so I can't really offer useful advice on how to tell the difference other than by the result, or lack of it.

Basically I think we are all winging it and hoping for the best, argubly from an increasingly informed perspective as time goes on, but don't quote me on that. ;-)

Good luck btw. . .


14 comments:

  1. A thoughtful post, Jonathan.

    Publishers are always asking me to re-draft a story in response to what they perceive as a shortcoming. I usually do as they ask and often it will result in a better story. But if the publisher then decides that they don't want to take the story I always try to take a step back to evaluate if I should send the re-drafted version or the original to the next publisher I approach.

    Sometime I send the redraft, sometimes I decide that the original is stronger and send that, and sometimes I send a new half-and-half draft that reflects some, but not all of the first publisher's feedback.

    As you say in your post, judging how to respond to feedback is an important skill for a writer or illustrator.

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    1. I guess editors and publishers are winging it too, up to a point, so their feedback is something you have to make a judgement on, keeping the bits that resonate and ignoring the rest.

      ps - I changed my google account name to reflect another blog I have that is about other non kids book related stuff I do. I am Jon Burgess in that incarnation. Sorry to confuse. . .

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  2. This is a really interesting post. I had a situation with a publisher recently where editorial loved the text, but sales and marketing thought it wasn't commercial/loud enough so it was turned down. I tweaked it and tweaked it to try to make it fit what sales and marketing wanted but in the end editorial didn't like it as it felt over-worked (which it was). They much preferred the original 'cleaner' idea - and so did I. It's always tricky because books are both a literary and a commercial product - which is what makes them so difficult to get right! :)

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    1. I guess sales and marketing people are necessary but sometimes I don't know what planet they live on. . . I'm sure the feeling is mutual ;-)

      ps - I changed my google account name to reflect another blog I have that is about other non kids book related stuff I do. I am Jon Burgess in that incarnation. Sorry to confuse. . .

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  3. I did a huge rewrite for Don't Panic, Annika! for one publisher, who eventually decided against. It then went to another publisher who took it on and I didn't see it again until the roughs were done. I'd THOUGHT it was the new version that had been sent on by my agent but it turns out it was the original, and they'd taken it on with only about two words changed from the original manuscript. I was then in the strange position of asking them if I could make some changes to incorporate some of the revision I'd done for the other publisher...
    For me, though, this is where a really trusted critique group comes in handy. They pick up on all sorts of things that an editor would pick up on so that I can straighten those bits out before they get to the editor.

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    1. The trouble is that there are so many people in the 'chain' who can get it totally wrong that knowing which advice to take can feel like a lottery. Who do you believe?

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  4. What a great topic! FAITH is a good word for this quandary, but also GUT FEELING. When you get lots of feedback - from your critique group, an editor, agent, Sales & Marketing and your dog – you have to go back to that zen moment where you created the story in the first place and REMEMBER why you wanted to tell it. Is the new version true to that idea? Does it feel right? Listen to your gut instinct. It's often trying to tell you something.

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    1. Absolutely, you have to live or die by your gut instinct, at least that way you have followed your own path and not made changes you felt uneasy about through uncertainty and anxiety.

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  5. I agree it's tricky and frustrating. Plus with picture books, even established writers expect to get a proportion of manuscripts turned down. It's part of the picture book process and not the same as novels (unfortunately).

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    1. You're not wrong, we have to accept it and hope for the best though. . .

      ps - I changed the 'reply as' choice so as not to confuse people with the 'Jon Burgess' thing. . . should have thought of it before.

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  6. So true about the 'wasted time' being part of the process. In fact I don't think any creative thinking time is ever wasted, and always feeds into future work - It's sort of the way writers 'work out'. Plus ideas that were rejected can come back strong in time. I've a new picture book out that is a story I wrote some years ago. After a couple of no's I left it hidden away for years - Then the right publisher eventually came along and didn't change a thing. I've got a few more things in my locker that I lost confidence in after some criticism put me off going near them. But they're still there, perhaps for the future.

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    1. Yes, I have ideas in my locker. There's always one or two rejections that you were perplexed by that you feel ought to have another chance. I agree, it's not really 'wasted' time, even though it feels like it.

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  7. Ha, love this. I usually never really give up. I make a vow to revisit that manuscript in the future. You know how that goes. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER give up! Writers must get that in their heads. Then work on craft. :-)

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  8. My locker is bursting with rejected picture book pieces (some rejected more politely than others), and my loss of confidence has let to a new crop of half-finished pieces. In the past, I could write them off by saying I'm at heart a YA writer, but I'm now translating picture books, so I'm hoping I can get the knack for writing them by osmosis. I think that at some point I'm going to have to sign up for a workshop, but I guess the big question is whether it's worth the investment and what are the best ones.

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