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And The Dreams That You Dare To Dream Really Do Come True

I’m going to love up some writers in Miami on Thursday and Friday. I’m giving a talk called “Why Your Book Isn’t Selling.” I’m getting a little nervous that it might be too negatively cast. Even worse, I got roped into reading pages and doing the fifteen minute consult. I stopped doing these years ago when a woman cornered me in the ladies room, deeply upset my response to her pages. She was crying and yelling, mascara streaking her face.  I was done doing consults after that. But somehow the nice folks in Miami got me in a weak moment. I feel like these 15 minute consults are the drive-by shootings of the conference world. Of course, I’ll do my best to help the writers who dare seek the great and mighty Oz. I want to save everyone, that’s my problem. I’ll also want to race back to the hotel and get a solid hate on for myself while I watch as many episodes of Law and Order the universe will offer up.

Have you ever had a writing consult of any kind? How did you handle it?

51 Responses

  1. Betsy, I live in Miami. Where are you doing your drive by consultation? I’ll bring my uncle’s memoirs for you to opine on. They’re entitled, ‘Dreams of Little Men Who Never Dreamed Big Enough to Dream it Small Again”.

    Or something.

    • Or I could check out your events page. You’re coming to my town! I’m going to ditch my Cinco de Mayo party and bring along my manuscript. Or bring the party with me. Or abduct you and take you to the party?

  2. Only via email. I screamed and cried in my head. Would never do it in person, though. Not when you’ve given your valuable time to offer your expertise. She sounds unstable.

  3. One of my best friends, a writing professor (and a fine writer) started to go through a short memoir piece with me, line by line. He was very scrutinizing, and started asking me questions I couldn’t answer. I started hyperventilating and said, “In order to preserve our friendship, we have to stop this right now.” It was just the wrong time, since I’ve been able to take criticism on many other occasions, with no ill effects. Bob and I are better friends than ever, but he is newly married and has no time to read my stuff now. Opportunity lost.

  4. This sounds like such fresh hell for all involved. Betsy? Writer? Like no one warns to be there. Or is it just me?

  5. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I’ve done 2: the first one was organized by a bookstore and resulted in the agent claiming to love my work but then wanting me to PAY them $$ to “further” my book. The second consult was sponsored by my writing group. That agent admitted she did not represent the genre of my book, referred to my protagonist as a bitch and wished me well. Yet another reason why I do not need cable TV – so much alternative entertainment disguising itself as professional development.

  6. Once. At Bed Loaf. I’m so co-dependent when I read his slumped shoulders and exhausted face I told the agent that I had nothing to pitch, and just wanted to hang out and gossip about writers and crazy people during my 15 minutes.

    I gave up the speed date your way to representation after that and got my agent the old fashioned way: a protracted stalkathon involving roses and breath mints.

    • OMG, that’s exactly what I said to the one and only agent I ever had that gruesome experience with. He’s still my agent today. And then there was the time I had a 30-minute unprovoked grammar lesson from the editor of a verrry famous lit mag, but that doesn’t count because it was part of a fellowship prize and I may or may not have been drunk, which I blame entirely on George Singleton.

  7. I’m up for risk-taking, so in between getting married 4 times I submitted to 3 consults, which turned out fine, as I’m pretty good at picking critics and husbands who loook really good in the beginning. One was a gentle poet who suggested I expand the short story, told me what he liked and what didn’t work; the next was an editor who said my book proposal was a great idea and she wanted a copy when it was published. The third was apprently on a par with some of the men I didn’t marry, as I can’t remember what he said or what I showed him.

  8. Before you leave for Miami, I’d recommend that you work on perfecting the delivery of your Mark Ruffalo line.

    Offer effusive praise to the worst of the lot, then, as you’re saying a regret-laden goodbye, hand them one of your rivals’ business cards.

  9. I thought consult was a fucking verb.

    • Vince, I see what you’re saying.

      In the past, “consult” was used only in the manner that you have described.

      Recently, however, lexicographers and linguists formalized an agreement stating that “consult” can be employed as a verb denoting “hand relief,” “oral sex,” and “rumpy-pumpy,” as well.

  10. I’ve put myself in the direct line of fire twice. The first time I braved to show my work the critique was so harsh (from a well-known agent) that I cried, but then again I was 16 at the time.

    The second time was when I paid to go to a conference and I got my 15 minutes and the comments were very positive. I was 24 at the time and wouldn’t write again seriously until I was 28.

    I am a firm believer that generally when you let someone critique your work they either pick out the things that are wrong you didn’t see and so then you feel like a worthless jackass or they pick out the things you already knew about but you don’t know how to fix them.

    Either way having people not like your work is something you have to deal with at various points in the process. If you can’t get back on the horse there’s no point to getting back in front of the blank page unless you want to write books no one will ever read except maybe your next of kin when they sort out your estate.

  11. Not as yet but I’m getting my tissue box out in preparation. There is a problem I’m having, however. The older I get, the less I care what others think. I realize that’s counter to finding an agent/publisher but I can’t help it. It’s liberating.

    By the way, be careful in Florida. I hear there’s an inordinate amount of drugs at the ready. It’s true. I heard it on the teevee. A young, unchaperoned girl like yourself? Could be Trouble. If you do have to go, don’t drink the water. That’s always how it’s done. I know. It happened to me. ‘Course I was in Israel and it was God who reigned down on me, not some horny bastard. But still. You get my point, right?

    • I”ll bet that God has moves for that are WAY smoother than those of the average horny bastard!

      (I wish he’d write a book.)

  12. I had a fifteen minute consult with an editor, once, and it was pretty positive, though he did say he couldn’t tell what I was going to do with the set-up. I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not . . .

  13. I’m not good with consults. If they’re positive I don’t believe them, and if they’re negative I stop writing for months.

    If I were going to that conference I would definitely not seek a consult, Betsy! You’re safe from me!

    • “If they’re positive I don’t believe them, and if they’re negative I stop writing for months.”

      We must be related.

  14. Yes. I reddened with shame at my ineptitude, tamped down my welling urge to burst into sobs and screams, choked back any stammering attempt at justification, silently swore never to again expose myself to such humiliation, cooled off and calmed down on the way home, sat down at my desk, got back to work and made the piece better. This has happened more than once.

  15. Quite a few times over the years, but I always look on them as critique, not criticism. Last year, I checked out one such critique, took note of some suggetions and ignored another. It’s part of the game. I don’t get too excited about it.

  16. I’ve had three face-to-face meetings with the same uber-famous, uber-intimidating agent and showed up at all three empty-handed. The agent woman a virtual aunt to my best friend in Charlotte, so every bat and bar mitvah (and most recently 50th b’day dinner) she flies down for, I’m elected to drive her to the hairdresser or to the party, where she’s forced to sit next to me, and usually says something like where in the hell is your book Karen McBryde, I’m sick to death of hearing about it…and I mumble something vague about it not being quite ready, and then babble about everything but….way off my conversational game, all thumbs, and wake the next day filled with regret over my inability to execute….

  17. I apparently met up with Glinda the Good Witch at every consult I’ve had. They loved the pages, saw no problems, couldn’t wait to see more. I’d like to attribute it to a flawless and fabulous ms–but the same folks requested fulls from nearly everyone.

    I would bet it’s tough to walk that fine line between giving writers false hope and inciting them to slit their wrists.

    • Agreed! But wouldn’t you rather the editor/agent offered you better feedback than “it’s great!” That’s what you’re paying for. Giving everyone love and requesting fulls from all is a cop out. I’d rather know for realz what’s wrong w/ my sample, my summary, etc. If I want love I’ll ask my mother.

  18. Never actually done one, but attended a conference where they were on offer, along with a “writers’ support” service designed to offer comfort and hand holding for those who had not enjoyed the process….

  19. Anything other than honesty is bullshit; I want to hear the good and the bad.
    I’ve never thought of how the person in the front of the room must feel, but writers respect what you have to say, your kind eyes and no nonsense soul.
    Like rhubarb, the first taste of spring isn’t sweet, but throw in sugar and some juicy strawberries, wrap it in pie dough and bake until brown, and you’ll have some of the finest pie this side of Guy Lombardo in heaven.

  20. LOL, and I predict that the crying woman in the washroom will never get her mascara stained manuscript published. But the ones who took what you said and applied it stand a chance. I am glad you are bravely doing this, wish I could be there. I have learned that those who critique my work the toughest are the ones that help me the most. Maybe you can break up Law and Order with NCIS or CSI, my favorites. Have a great conference. Heather

  21. No. So far, I’ve known all too well what was wrong with my work. I’m just starting to get beyond that. But after all I’ve put myself through, I doubt there is an agent out there who could make me cry.

    Make me take a lot of notes and then need a drink, sure.

    15 minutes, though? Hard to say more than “crap” or “not crap” in that amount of time. I hope your consultees all behave themselves this time.

  22. To me, it is the same as having someone say, “Your hair is an odd color” or “Why are your teeth so big?” I couldn’t set myself up for that. Maybe when I was younger and knew my hair was the perfect color and my teeth were amazing.

  23. yes. lotsa times. learned something new every time. met a couple of people who are now friends. went home and did some thinking and rewriting. i don’t have a problem with comments and edits.

    only had one weird experience when the writer said “why are you writing like Hemingway? i mean, Hemingway was Hemingway.” i didn’t really know what to do with that particular comment and filed it under weird.

  24. I had a fairly mild one. Most of it was a love fest but she felt I left the reader breathless with no place to recover. She wouldn’t give suggestions of how to fix it but after giving it a lot – A LOT of thought I think I figured it out. If anything, the process gave me the confidence to keep pounding out my story. Sure, there was a little disappointment that it wasn’t absolute perfection right out of the gate, but the realist in me already knew that and appreciated finding out how to make it better. On the flip side another editor liked how fast paced it was and said she loved having to put the pages down every now and then and think holy shit. Yes, her words. So, what exactly is a girl to do?

  25. Never done a consult, and having read the comments here, I think I’ll pass on it. No sense in wasting everyone’s time just to bruise my ego. I do that well enough by myself.

    • I don’t think they’re a waste of time; I think they can be valuable as long as the agent/editor is able to be honest (much harder in person than by written word) and the writer can handle the honesty.

      • “… as long as …”

        Three key words.

        How can writer’s conference attendee be certain that the consult agent is being honest?


        Consult agents should be hooked up to polygraph machines whenever the meet with writers.

        I know what you’re thinking.

        Yes, most agents learned long ago how fake out the old “voice stress analysis” machines.

        Today’s literary consult agent has evolved into a state of being where the dolloping out encouragement to writers is naturally done in a voice-modulated tone to avoid detection.

        Fortunately, for those of you who remain loyal to Team Honesty, you can demand that the sponsors of your conference hook the consult agents to the
        latest in lie detection technology. These devices offer non-invasive monitoring using functional transcranial Doppler (fTCD).

        Whether or not fTCD actually works is irrelevant — the only important thing is that the agent providing the consult believes that it does.

  26. I just had one this past weekend and it was wonderful. Not because she loved my work, but because she gave me such insight. Just so you know, there is at least one grateful writer out there.

  27. Sort of…from you, Betsy (via email). You told me my collection of newspaper-published pet/wildlife columns would never get an agent unless I had a huge platform and/or…well, a huge platform. How I handled it? I self-pubbed them on Amazon…like my four other books (short stories, suspense novel). In any case, I truly appreciated your honesty…

  28. I’ve never had one in this format. Sounds like it could be unsettling for both parties. How on earth do you evaluate someone’s work that fast?

  29. First one I had was at the end of a week -long workshop with a I writer whom I loved but whose I work I didn’t even really know about until I took her class(she won the Pulitzer for fiction later that year). I told her my idea for a novel and asked her if I should focus on that or continue with short stories. Definitely the novel, she said. That was summer 2008 and I started writing said novel in October 2009. It’s really helpful to remember her words on some dark mornings.
    Problem with consults (when you’re the one playing oz) is that some people are not even in the ballpark, not even within the realm, no way, no how. Who’s going to be the one to tell them? Hopefully, they’re not wearing mascara that day.

  30. I never had. I’d like to sometime, actually — get someone to really pick apart some of my reviews and maybe I could figure out what I’m doing. I wouldn’t cry. Nothing makes me cry except for stories where the dog dies or if you mention the word D*mbo.

    Where’s Jeff? I miss Jeff.

  31. I almost went to this event purely to sit thisclose to you, give you cow-eyes and see if I could get you to cuss. But I wasted all my vacation time writing. Maybe next year when I have a finished manuscript and a backbone. Enjoy the humidity!

  32. I can’t resist pulling this out of my dusty closet: I ‘take what I want and leave the rest…’ — and most of the time, I’ve found them right on the money and get my ass back to work, grateful to the reader for time spent, insights, shared. (Thanks again, Betsy)

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