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Did anyone see their new nest? It must have been built by a Dodo!

It’s a simple fact: We’re all critics, and we’re all critiqued.

I’m not just talking about critiques of our writing. I’m talking about reviews of our fashion choices, our parenting, our politics, our partners; everything that we are, everything we do, is fodder for critique.

And we all do it. Come on now, admit it. The woman in the shiny Lexus SUV who almost took out your limping 1997 CRV because she was texting through a busy parking lot this morning? Yeah, you bet I critiqued her.

Of course we’re all entitled to our opinions. Absolutely. It makes us who we are and makes the world a thrillingly diverse place. But at what point does criticism cross a line between disagreement and unwarranted disdain?

I think you all know where I’m going with this. Think Amazon reviews.

Now I should admit I have never written one, and when I read them, it is usually after the fact, if I’m curious as to whether another reader shared my admiration or confusion over a book’s plot point, ending choice, etc. But what boggles my mind is the excessive amount of unproductive criticism that is out there for books. (It’s out there for just about everything, I know, but I’ll keep this relevant to writing for now.)

For example, I’ve read Amazon reader reviews that suggested Pat Conroy can’t write. Now come on, stop it. Just stop it. I mean, seriously, who can write that with a straight face? You can say Conroy’s stories are often built on tough subject matter that you don’t enjoy reading about, or that his characters are sometimes fiercely unlikable and make choices that infuriate you. But I’m sorry–you simply cannot say the man can’t write. Now admittedly, I’m biased. I’m a huge fan. I think his prose is heartbreakingly beautiful. But telling me and the rest of the reading public that an established author can’t write is not only not true, it’s not helpful.

So of course this realization has made me consider how I’ll take my own share of disgruntled readers to my debut novel when it comes out next year. Will I be tough enough to take the reviews with the necessary grains of salt (on the rim of my consolatory margarita?), or will I find myself wracked with self-doubt? It’s easy to blow off harsh criticism of another writer’s work–but what about when it’s mine?

I remember very vividly as a young girl that the very whisper of criticism sent me down the rabbit hole of despair. No matter how gentle or how faint. No matter if delivered with a no-bake cookie or a glowing smile. I. Was. Crushed.

Then, something happened. I grew up and began to take criticism..well, well.

Maybe it was my college art professor who took one look at my still life of a paper bag and declared to the rest of the class that my highlighting resembled “pigeon shit”. Okay, I thought. So it looked like pigeon shit. I didn’t sputter a defense, I didn’t wilt. I nodded, I might have even smiled. It was a review. There’d be a lifetime of them. Better get used to them if I wanted to put my work out there.

And I did, repeatedly. Query after query of work. And I won’t lie and say the rejections didn’t sting, or that it got easier to kick myself out of my own pity party when everyone else had gone home, but for those of us who put ourselves out there, for that date, that job, that manuscript, we don’t have a choice.

Nowadays I crave reviews of my writing. When my editor has notes on a draft, I can’t wait to hear them. I mean it. I see every review, every constructive piece of criticism as an opportunity to grow as a writer. And I love it. I really, really do.

So tell me how tough you think you are when it comes to criticism of your work? Have you ever written a harsh review of a book? What was the first time you realized constructive criticism could actually be GOOD for a person?

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When I first began querying agents and editors in the 90’s (Yes, it’s true–years ago, in certain genres, you could submit unsolicited manuscripts to publishing houses, AND, even more amazing, expect and receive lovely, personalized responses!), I was writing romance novels and I used something called the Romance Writer’s Pink Pages in my quest for publication. It quickly became my handbook, my bible. I highlighted the heck out of it, folded over page corners two and three times, scribbled in the margins and underlined, underlined, underlined.

By the time I had finished my fifth manuscript, I had almost memorized the exhaustive list of agents and editors that filled its petal pink pages. I had amassed (and still proudly own) many, many replies, almost all of which were typed or hand-written on letterhead. Some were for partial requests, more were gentle rejections, some even from a few incredibly generous agents who gave me pages (that’s not a typo) of notes, even though they didn’t plan to offer representation.

But with the dawn of email, the game changed a bit. Well, at least the field did, but not the rules. Whether writing to an agent using a typewriter and a SASE, or sending off an email, the basics of query-writing have remained the sameĀ  through the years and the changing technology. And out of all the query-writing tips that so many other agents, editors and writers have put more eloquently than I will have here, these five have stood out the strongest for me.

1. Keep the query simple. In the old days of hard-copy, it was obvious if your query ran longer than a page, but some might think that email allows for more wiggle-room. Don’t let it. A page is a suitable length for a query and forces you to keep your pitch short and tidy. Always include word count and genre, and cut to the chase as cleanly and fast as you can. You want to entice your reader right away. This isn’t a first date. Feel free to open the closet and let the skeletons fall out as quickly as possible.

Wicked cute picture of tiny frog found nestled in a lily, isn't it? Too bad it has absolutely nothing to do with this post.

2. Make the query about the book. An agent isn’t particularly interested in how old you are, where you live, or how many instruments you play. Unless any of those facts are needed to give credibility to your story’s pitch, leave them out. For now, your product is your book. Focus on that.

3. Know your recipient. There’s no question that the internet makes it easier to learn about an agent’s tastes, and yet we read over and over about how agents are inundated with queries for genres they don’t represent. There’s no reason for it. Maybe you think your novel is so amazing that it will be the one to change an agent’s tastes. Doubtful. In the old days, you might not have dreamed of wasting a stamp on a “what the hey” pitch, but with email, a click is free. But before you click away, keep in mind that agents remember pitches, and why take the chance of looking uniformed when you might actually end up writing a novel that does fit within that agent’s tastes down the road?

4. Keep track of your submissions. And I don’t just mean a checklist, I mean notes. If you plan to write and submit more than one book, always keep a record of which agents requested a partial or full. It is perfectly acceptable, and highly encouraged, to make mention of this in another query for a different book; ie, You kindly reviewed my last manuscript, LOVING LOBSTER, and now I’d like to offer my most recent novel, THE LAST CRAB, for your consideration. Agents have good, good memories, and will usually remember work they wanted to see more of.

5. Be courteous. Agents and editors are as crazy busy as the rest of us. Always take the space to thank them for their consideration and be patient for their reply. Out of office replies are not an invitation to converse further. And as much as we are disappointed by a no, it’s never good form to follow up a rejection with a request for why the agent didn’t want to offer representation. Move on. Query on.

Now your turn: What tip or tips for query-writing have served you the best over the years?

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