Monday, October 12, 2015

How to make the most of a group critique at a conference

I will soon be attending an “agent roundtable.” Here I will sit with six other authors, and we will have our manuscript’s first 750 words critiqued by an agent and the other authors at the table. There are also two marked “networking” opportunities during breakfast and lunch with the agents. We will be able to query these agents (several of whom are otherwise closed to queries) for two months after the event. Do you have any tips on how a shy, clueless woodland creature (who has never attended anything like this before) can make the most of this opportunity)?

oh god this sounds like hell.
I've DONE this to authors and it still sounds like hell.
In fact, this kind of thing is what prompted this post for one of the Rules for Authors: Be Brave

But there you are, all set to march into hell so here are some things to remember:

1. Do NOT argue. Not with the agents, not with the other authors.

2. Take notes on what is said. That means bring a SEPARATE note pad and pen for this critique. Do not use your regular writing notebook, or anything else that you need to use during the rest of the conference.

Here's the reason for that: you're going to take those notes, and then put them away for a while. Maybe a day, maybe a week, maybe a month.

Going through one of these kinds of critique sessions can shatter an author. Otherwise good advice can't be heard if you're in shock. Or tears. Put the comments away and get them out again when you've had time to regain your poise.

Even if you feel ok, don't read them right away. Give yourself some time to absorb the conference. Do NOT obsess about the critique. Tell yourself you will read the notes later. Give yourself a date if you need to.

Example: I will not think about the notes until After Noon on Tuesday.  Say that out loud to yourself every time you feel your mind sliding back over to the obsession place.

Time to think and reflect and absorb the experience will help.

If you absolutely can not follow this advice and you read the notes and feel yourself falling into wallow: PUT THE NOTES AWAY. Have a drink. Eat a chocolate. Watch Love Actually (twice if need be). Then get BACK to the conference and get some new experiences in your head to divert your brain.

3. Don't expect anyone to say anything nice, ever. It's a whole lot easier to find things that don't work than to find things that do.

4. If they do say nice things: BELIEVE THEM. Do NOT fall in to the trap of "they're just saying that to be nice."

5. It's entirely possible everyone who critiqued your manuscript is wrong. It's entirely possible they're godawful readers.  If you get notes that you think are clearly wrong wrong wrong, don't doubt yourself first.  Consider the notes coolly (later) but have confidence in yourself.

6. The most helpful thing early readers can do is tell you if the manuscript starts in the right place. Pay close attention to comments that say "my interested engaged HERE" and it's not sentence one, page one.

7. The other most helpful thing early readers can tell you is if your writing doesn't have energy. Using words that are tepid, with sentences that are too convoluted (or just plain too long)  drain energy from a book. Listen for critiques that mention those kinds of things.

8. Even if your writing sux, you do not suck as a writer.  Every writer alive and dead has written things that suck. It's part of the process. It's a necessary, horrible terrible no good no fun part of the process. Your writing will get better. It will get better as you do more of it, and as you develop your ability to evaluate critiques from people reading your work.  You're at the start of that right now. You will get better, but ONLY if you keep going.

And, let us know how it goes ok?


Colin Smith said...

This is really tough advice. If my wife's critiques of my work will play through my mind for days after, I can only imagine what it's like hearing critiques from agents and writers.

But Janet's right (as usual). Put the notes away and look at them with fresh eyes and a cool mind later.

"Don't expect anyone to say anything nice, ever." I went to Bouchercon expecting Janet to kick me straight back to Carkoon. As it was she bought me a drink... then kicked me straight back to Carkoon.

People can surprise you! ;)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

So that's what hell looks like? Man-alive.

I am guilty of focusing on negative critiques which I receive in my other profession. It takes a lot of retraining (and I'm STILL retraining after all these years) to absorb anything positive in the midst of my nervous energy which focuses only on the negative.

I keep an (sporadic) affirmation journal and a digital file of affirmations. I read through them to remind me that I am not ALL bad. And I hang out with people who value me, feed me, listen to me, remind me of my wholeness.

In my writing life, I have lovely Crit Partners. They show me what they like about my story. They ask me questions when somethings confusing. And they let me know what absolutely does not work.

It seems easier, if there are no relationships built beforehand, for critiques and criticisms to become brutal.

Opie, wishing you strength for the journey and, as QOTKU wrote, let us know how it goes.

Susan Bonifant said...

A while back, I read the piece that Janet Reid wrote and referenced today, "Be Brave." When I did, it made me stop breathing because it was like she was talking directly to me. And then it made me cry.

I printed it out, I push-pinned it to the wall in front of me, and I read it, often.

I visit this site all the time. Not only because Janet Reid's advice is so stunningly down to earth, or because Janet Reid has as much heart for the writer as the writer has for his or her work.

I visit this site mostly because of a time when I thought I would quit. I believed I should, hated that I wanted to, and worse than anything, didn't know what would stop me. My bravery wasn't enough anymore.

Janet Reid stopped me. At the right bad moment, for only the moment it took, with that piece.

Thank you, Janet Reid. And thank you for today's post, which I promise you, will be tacked to more than one person's wall for a long time to come.

Adib Khorram said...

I may be a bit weird in that I always find getting notes invigorating, even when they're harsh and even when I disagree with them. For me, the most frightening thing is the moment before I hit send and share something with others. Once that's done, I'm not too neurotic waiting for feedback, and I bounce back pretty quickly if I hear feedback I don't like.

This conference event actually sounds really excellent to me. Sharing three pages with six other authors sounds like a great opportunity to find critique partners!

Has anyone read CREATIVITY, INC. by Ed Catmull (President of Pixar)? It's a brilliant book and it has great insights on the value of honest feedback. Jane Friedman sums up the finer points here:

I think Janet may have posted (or maybe tweeted?) this same link a few months ago, but I STILL go back and look at it frequently.

Matt Adams said...

So this is good for me to get right now, because I've gotten back the edit from my agent-recommended-but-still-spec editor. And while she's nice and put a lot of work into the edit, it's brutal. I'm only 90 pages into it, and I've already lost 26 pages. It feels like I'm butchering my baby.

But ...

I think we're used to editing. I've edited my book 18 times now. But they've always -- for the most part -- been my edits, or edits that were easy to dismiss. This is a professional, someone who's had the job of acquiring books. She knows what she is talking about, one must assume. So I'm doing it, losing what I felt were crucial scenes, crucial characters, in order to make the book more palatable to some who might have bought it. of course she can't buy it now, because she's at home with a very cute baby.

I think one thing that's good to know is you have to decide who you're going to trust, and then trust them. It sounds good when I say it, but every time I highlight a big block of text -- stuff that took me a while to come up and with and to flesh out and revise and revise again, I find that advice a lot harder to take than I would have thought.

Brian said...

I would also add, have a very strong support system in place. I don't mean someone who will simply say, "you're writing is great," "don't listen to them," "they don't know why they are talking about," etc., you need someone to lift you up when you do start to fall into the pits of critique despair. It's happened to me and I'm thankful I have a partner who has been there for me from the beginning, seen the tears, the frustration, the anger when I received a critique that I wasn't happy with. While he has agreed with some of them, he pushes me to continue because he knows I can be better, for example, he's constantly (and tirelessly) reiterated that my writing has improved since day one and it will continue to improve. Having him by my side has definitely helped (and rescued) me, so hopefully you have a "forever cheerleader" next to you.

BJ Muntain said...

That sounds like an awesome opportunity, OP! Congratulations for the chance - and for the courage it took to get it. Great job!

Anytime anyone gets a critique of their work, the number one rule is (should always be): It's your novel. You know what is right for it. No matter what anyone says, you will be editing your work to make it fit your story.

That doesn't mean you don't listen to what others say. As Janet said, you will get information you need to act on. But you will act on them in ways that fit *your* story.

Some things to look at:

- If more than one person agrees on something, listen to what they agree on. Something probably isn't quite working. You can figure out your own fix though.

- If even one person doesn't understand something, take note. It may be because they're not your audience, or they read your work at the wrong time of day for them to see what your words say... but it's also possible that something just isn't clear. Again, figure the fix out on your own - it may be as simple as changing or adding one or two words.

- If you don't agree with something someone has said, again, try to figure out *why* they said it. It's the 'whys' that are most important. The whys point to the problems. Others ideas may only serve to whitewash those problems - that is, if someone says, "This person needs a different job", the new job might serve to hide or repaint a flaw in your character development. Perhaps the 'why' is that your plumber just isn't very practical in his work. Should you make him an artist, instead? Should you write him to be more practical? Or is there some way you can use his lack of practicality to create tension in the novel?

- Always listen for ways to up the tension. Whether the critiquer mentions them or not. And you don't have to listen to these ways, but listen FOR them. For instance, if someone says they don't like a particular character, that's not a clue to get rid of that character. That may be a clue of what you can do with that character - are they too clingy? Too shallow? How can you use that to add tension? Or if someone says you can cut a scene that you *know* is important, maybe you need to add tension to that scene to make it work better.

One note: You might get someone who rewrites your work - feel free to ignore the rewrites. Those are rarely helpful. But find out *why* they wanted to rewrite. Was there something they didn't understand? Or is it just they wanted to put it in their style? (Yes, some critiquers do this, because they don't understand the critiquing process.) If a critiquer rewrites even a sentence of my work, I'm so stubborn that I will work hours to figure out how to work it without using their words. Because it's my work, darn it. I will change whole paragraphs if I have to. Only if it still doesn't work after doing all this, will I actually, finally, use someone else's words.

And remember: You will be critiquing their work, too. And you will be learning from that, too. You'd be surprised how much you can learn by critiquing someone else's work. You learn to be more objective about what you are reading, and can use it on your own work (once you've taken some time away from it so you *can* be more objective).

Enjoy this opportunity. There's so much to learn - and you get to meet with and spend time with industry professionals. Learn all you can about the industry from them.

Good luck!

BJ Muntain said...

Okay. I now just read Matt's note about his editor. I understand what I said above might disagree with something he's said - but I do agree that you need to find people you trust. There will always be people whose opinions you trust over others'. You'll give their critiques more weight than those of other people's. You may trust them because you've worked with them before, or they have a lot of experience in the industry, or you love their work... you'll figure out who you trust more and why.

Even so, just remember that it's still your story. You will follow your vision for your story. And if you trust someone enough to make big changes to your story based on their words... make those changes, but keep true to the story.

Dena Pawling said...

As a follow-on to something Janet said above, when it's your turn to critique another writer's work, try to mention what's good about it before you provide HELPFUL critique on what might not be working. You're all in this together. Good luck.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I'm cheering for you, OP!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Janet's two most important words, "DON'T ARGUE."

There were about eighteen of us in the memoir class. Most were matrons with life-stories they thought were interesting. The younger ones had tragedies to share and then there was me, no life story, nothing tragic just a want to learn and connect with other writers.

The best dressed student, the one which dripped money, the matron with every hair in place, the lady with the perfect nails and the Mercedes parked up front was the first to read her assigned piece. The teacher, a newspaper editor, author and college level writing teacher, and writing conference head, pre-read our assignments and offered critiques. He is an amazing writer and someone I completely respect and admire. The student's piece was terrible and I mean crap-awful.

She argued.

Every bit of respect she would have garnered from us, and him, was lost when she opened her mouth to bolster her writing. She looked like she could buy and sell every one of us and she was an arrogant jerk.

BTW the teacher loved what I wrote. Did he critique my writing, of course but what I heard and remembered was what he loved about what I wrote. I fixed the other stuff, stuck with what I felt worked and reveled in the positive of the experience.

I thanked him for the time he took to set us right.

OP, do not use what you hear as an opportunity to prove yourself right and someone else wrong, use what you learn as fodder for success.

Susan said...

I want to second Susan B's comment. Every day I'm grateful I found this blog--not just for the community, which is wonderfully supportive, or for the wealth of information, but because Janet understands the writer's heart, and I'm beginning to think that's more of a rare thing than we realize. Writing is personal--no matter the genre or audience, you pour your time, energy, and pieces of yourself into your work. It gets personal, it just does. Even though we know critiques are meant to better our skills and stories, they can be hard to swallow depending on how they're delivered, and especially if we feel misunderstood.

There are some people who don't have that tact. There are some people who just don't care. There are some people who find joy in tearing other people's work apart. There are some people who are truly genuine in their desire to help the writer and are aware of the writer's sensitivity. That last one is so important; it's what makes the difference between helping a writer improve and breaking their spirit, making them want to give up.

OP, I echo Janet's advice: you know your story better than anyone. This sounds like a great opportunity to get your work in front of those in the know and soak up all the knowledge, so use it to your advantage. But be brave, as Janet says, and--at least for now--be resolute.

Craig F said...

There is a local critique group that does it kind of like that but without an agent. A chapter or short from each writer gets sent around by email a week before each one. That gives you a chance to get acquainted with the material and take notes.

That first time I went I saw one of the guys carry in a box, which he set by his chair. One the first round I saw that they were props. The props were to make the other writers realize that they needed to show their points and not tell them.

He tossed out tissues and paper towels, a Nerf arrow and a few other things. My turn came and he pulled out a shoe.

Best of luck. Better than to be brave would be to be prepared. Sounds like boy scout camp.

BJ Muntain said...


So so so true. You don't have to agree with the critiquer, but never argue. You're there to learn. They're trying to help you. Be gracious, whatever they say.

You might find that others are also beginners, and may not be as gracious. If someone tries to push their opinions onto your work, just say that you're going to look at your work and the critiques with fresh eyes in a week or so. If they continue, just say, "I'll remember that. I'll keep that in mind. I'll look at that when I get back to editing next week." You do not have to make any decisions to do with your work at that very moment. Don't feel pressured to do so.

And if someone else argues with you about your critique on their work, just say that that's what you saw, and leave it at that. It's up to them what they change and why. It's their story, after all. And even if they're arguing with great ideas and suggestions, it's still their story and they will do what they think is right for their story. And maybe once they're out of that situation, they might be able to look at the advice with a clear head.

Theresa said...

Loved this advice!

At some point, most writers find themselves in a workshop situation much like this. It's great to know how to get the most out of it: listening, not arguing, and taking careful notes to read later.

The most difficult thing will be to believe the nice comments. I've been trying to develop a thick skin to deal with criticism and tend to forget that feedback can be complimentary.

Janice Grinyer said...

Oh gosh, I didnt know of this Hell...This is in America, correct? We are still free in America last time I checked? So anything anyone ever says to you in one of these round table Hells (besides "STOP. POLICE!") can be written down in a calm manner because after all, you're free to go and they cant hurt you physically, right?


I have been critiqued to the point that if I were the wicked witch of the West, my critical audience at that time would have vanished in a little poofy pile of horse apples. But I did the church lady thing and listened politely, gave them affirmation that I heard them correctly, and then took a look later at said advice to see if it was appropriate to consider when it came to decision making on the topic. Kind of applies to a lot of things in life. Great advice as usual from JR.

Also, for me, writing confidence boils down to not listening to the little gremlin sitting on your shoulder telling you "you are shit!", but listening to your mighty muse who reminds you "you are a work in progress, just like the stories you produce...".

But then,

I just like being alone in the woods too ;)

John Frain said...

You know, it's not often you actually LOL when you type LOL. But this did it: "oh god this sounds like hell."

OMG, and now that I hit cut and paste, I realize I did a reado, the reading equivalent to a typo. I thought Janet said "Oh GOOD, this sounds like hell," reveling once again in making writers squirm. Okay, never mind, back to the answer. (No wonder I'm getting confused so often.)

John Frain said...

By the way, I like how #6 twists the old "I stopped reading here" into a positive of "I got really engaged HERE" critique. Nice.

And by gosh, somebody already seconded what Susan B said, so I'll third it. Damn Robert's Rules of Order!

BriMaresh said...

A creative writing professor I had once said that the only thing you should need to say when someone gives you a critique is, "thank you." It seems like the right way to handle a group critique like this - it keeps you from arguing or asking for clarifications until everyone is blue in the face. I think that's the hardest thing - trying not to ask what everyone means, why they think the way they do, to pick their brains apart.

The other bit of advice she gave is that there's no shame in ducking to the bathroom to have a good cry after - but only if you manage to make it to the after.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Waving a belated flag for Susan B's comment.

AJ Blythe said...

Opie, some great advice here to add to JRs words of wisdom. The big thing to remember is that the people giving the critique are trying to help you. From what I've heard from editors and agents at conference it's just as nerve wracking for them as it is for you. You don't want to hear the bad stuff, but it's just as hard to actually have to deliver the negative when the person is sitting right in front of them.

You're obviously wanting to embrace this opportunity and that already puts you one foot ahead, because you're already stiffening your back ready for the comments.

I did Kristin Nelson's "Agent Reads the Slush Pile" and my ms was one of the ones chosen to be read out. For me it was mortifying because she didn't get very far before she stopped reading. Of course, I didn't make a noise so no-one around me realised it was mine. But as I listened to the people around me talk about her comments I realised how valuable they were. I scribbled a heap of notes, went home and turned those first few pages into something far better than I had originally. Be brave and relish the wonderful help you are about to get.

Aside... has the font in the comments section shrunk for everyone else, or do I just need s stronger glasses prescription?

DLM said...

Adib, I'm the same way. When Russ Galen provided a good 3/4 of a page of critique on AX, it stung, but I was immensely grateful. And every damned bit of it was right on. Holy beans, he took the time to give me such a gift.

Janet is right, too: once, when I got critique back on a contest submission, I sat with it and gave it a chance. In the end, I had to ignore it; these were not the right readers, my work was not what they were used to.

AX never got so much love as when one of my best readers ever told me to slash the first sixty pages. SIXTY. PAGES. She is part of my support system - and, in this case, 'support' meant 'tell me what is wrong.' Geez, the JOY I felt, losing those opening chapters!

Brian, you are so fortunate! I have a forever cheerleader, but he actually hates critiques of my writing FAR more than I do, and ended up opting out of being a reader for me when I told him I was cutting things. "There was good writing in there!"

One of the things we have to learn is that there is much, MUCH more to good writing than "good writing" - there is also knowing when the pretty trim is just trim and it's overwhelming the garment, so to speak. It can be made of GREAT textile - but it's still not good for the dress.

John Frain, not only do I love "reado" (LYSDEXICS of the world, UNTIE!), I kind of love the read you got there!

AJB, yes: I'm getting a teeny Times Roman, usually it's a 10 pt. Arial or something close to it.

RachelErin said...

My piece of encouragement is that I just did a baby step version of this - and it was so helpful.
I sent my first chapter to two friends who have read my genre for years, and are thoughtful types. Hearing what didn't work was so helpful! I can get a lot more conflict and emotion into those first few pages now, and be more intentional with the secrets I'm keeping.

Getting critiqued by a bunch of people is a bit like getting directions from a bunch of locals in a city with no reliable map. Everyone has their opinion on which restaurant you should go to, and how to get there, and sometimes they forget that everyone has to get lost a few times to really know their way around.

This sounds weird, but when I'm scared of putting myself out there, I'll sit with a good friend and we'll come up with all the meanest things someone could say about what I did - tactless, possibly even malicious. Then we translate them to useful-speak, or, how your bff writer pal would say it. It can be good practice at finding the value on the fly, like in a workshop situation. If you role-play it a few times, it will be easier to stay poised.

DLM said...

racherin, I love this to pieces: "I'll sit with a good friend and we'll come up with all the meanest things someone could say about what I did - tactless, possibly even malicious. Then we translate them to useful-speak."

That is GENIUS! I want to do this RIGHT now, and I know exactly with whom, too. What a great idea.

Naomi said...

This is wonderful!

I got a fairly tough critique from a writer who has since been nothing but friendly and supportive to me. At some point she must have seen me looking crestfallen and she said, "Look, the reason I'm being so tough on you about these things is that I do them myself and I catch them, or someone else catches them, and I correct them." I feel as if successful writers-- and this one is successful-- have become good at incorporating criticism and also judging its usefulness, whether or not it's a bit painful.

Mark Ellis said...

I once participated in a roundtable critique featuring notorious hard-liner James Frey (How to Write a Damn Good Novel). My story opened with a kid finding an old scrapbook. Frey hates stories that start with a kid finding an old scrapbook. He handed back my pages like he was delegating a catbox removal. None of the authors said anything. Of course he was right. The story now opens with an assault; we get to teh scrapbook later.

Anonymous said...

It's useful to listen to the critiques of the other author's work and decide if you agree with those critiques or not, or notice any patterns. Then you have some context in which to place their feedback to you.

I've phrased it to myself as, "Well, you agree with how Agent X is criticizing that ms, so you'd better take Agent X seriously when they talk about yours."

Janice Grinyer said...

"He handed back my pages like he was delegating a catbox removal."

Ah Mark, when I get brave enough to do an Agent/Authors round table, I will remember that line of yours, and will probably inappropriately laugh when I get my pages back like they were delegating a cat box removal. :D

CynthiaMc said...

I only belonged to one critique group and we only met for a couple of writing weekends at the beach (one on the Gulf, one on the Atlantic). We were all different ages (30's, 50's, 70's), different backgrounds. 3 were mystery writers, I was working on the Civil War book, 1 was a poet. None of us were mean, all of us were truthful. We were friends with a common goal, trying to help each other be as good as we could be. We worked almost non-stop on those weekends (we brought a lot of stuff to share) made our private notes on each others' work, then discussed as a group. We had so much fun and energized each other, stopping only for seafood, boat rides, and walks on the beach. We all brought vastly different perspectives and didn't always agree. Our rule was "If we all agree on something, it's either really good or it really needs fixing" depending on if we all loved it (keep!) or all found it off somehow (take another look).

I miss that group. We didn't realize just how special it was.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

I am late to this post (I was lounging at my best friend's house after BCon like the damn lady that I am.)

Given the timing of this post, I do believe I am familiar with where she is going and the event she will be participating in.

A few rules:

1) Relax. This event is very laid back.
2) There won't be a ton of pointed critique. It will be more high level.
3) Watch the agents and other attendees body language. It will give you a better gauge of how they like it.
4) Relax. You will get some notes. Take heed of them. But do not worry.