Thursday, December 10, 2009

Feedback Blues: When You Love Your Characters, But Nobody Else Does

by Martha Engber

(The third post in a three-part series published Dec. 7 – 11, 2009)

I once queried a top New York literary agent to represent a literary novel I’d written. I wanted this agent in particular and so sent a very personalized and impassioned query letter that must have been persuasive, because within a day she emailed a request for the entire manuscript. I sent the package without delay.

By this point I had been in the writing business long enough to develop a keen accuracy in the interpretation of the subtleties embedded in agent replies, and even more importantly, their silences. I knew if she replied within three days, she would most likely accept me as a client.

Three days passed. Then four, then five. I emailed the agent.

She very kindly said that though I had a very interesting voice, she felt she needed to pass on this book, citing the poor economy. When put through the agent-to-writer translator, that meant the story did not grab her.

Unlike some forms of stories that can command attention through the precision of detail, uniqueness of a situation, or strict and competent adherence to an accepted formula, I knew my book would be sold on the strength of my main character. So I asked the agent, “Did you love my main character?”

And she said, “I felt concerned for her,” which is agent-speak for no.

Had I been a new writer, this news would have crushed me, but I’d since learned if a reader doesn’t love my characters, it’s not because my characters are unlovable, but rather I haven’t yet allowed the reader to see the characters as I see them.

The best attitude for writers, then, is to continue seeking feedback with the goal of getting guidance on how to further development the characters. Success will be had when readers see the characters as the authors do.

Martha Engber, author of The Wind Thief, will facilitate Grow A Great Character, Grow A Great Plot! from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sat., Jan. 16, at Book Passage in Corte Madera. The workshop is based on her book for writers, Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up: A Thorough Primer for the Writers of Fiction and Nonfiction.

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