The critique pact

June 5, 2011

Firstly – this post is illustrated with book jackets from three just published – or about to be published – Greenhouse authors. Relevant to my topic? Not really, except that all three authors (Amanda Cockrell, Sarah Aronson, Harriet Goodwin) have, at different times, been both critiquer and critiqued, so it’s a neat segue to what I really want to write about. Which is . . . .

Critiques – you know, those short one-on-ones agents/editors/published authors do with new writers, usually at conferences. Love them or loathe them?

I’ve done (ie, given) lots of critiques this year, at a variety of conferences, and some of you will already be bracing yourselves for maybe your first-ever critique at the SCBWI summer conference in LA this August.

How scary is it to present your precious baby (aka manuscript) to the hawk eyes of an industry insider for 15/20 excruciating minutes? I bet it’s awful. You’ve tended and nurtured this frail little shoot for months, maybe years, and suddenly someone you don’t know, whose very name engenders acute anxiety (you’ve read about them in PW! They do deals on Publishers Marketplace!), comes along pawing and picking at every treasured word. Don’t they realize your self-confidence is even more fragile than your plotting?

You have my sympathy – and, dare I say, empathy. I also have surprising news for you. Critiques aren’t easy for the critiquer either.

WHAAAAAAAT!? you say. How can it be hard for YOU? All you have to do is sit there passing judgement and then walk away without a care in the world. YOU don’t have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and unpick/reknit some or all of those mangled pages (best-case scenario). Or (worse-case) deal with the possibility that the whole premise was wrong from the start.

Firstly, let’s get something straight. Most of us know what it feels like to be rejected, passed over, mocked, dismissed, criticized or otherwise told we’re not good enough – in ways far worse than in generally gentle critiques. Let me throw my humiliation hat into the ring:

Back in the early ‘90s, my band/singer-songwriter days, when a drunken man standing somewhere in the darkness beyond the spotlights completely ruined my rather beautiful accappella song about genocide in Bosnia (yes, we’re looking at you, Ratko Mladic…..) by yelling, ‘Open a vein, Luv!’

Or how about much earlier, maybe my 21st birthday, when a certain ex-boyfriend (He Who Shall Not Be Named) patiently explained to me why we would not be getting back together – ‘I’m really sorry, Sarah, but you see, I just couldn’t feel proud of you in public.’

Hah yes, I thought you couldn’t match THAT one! Ladies, there’s a reason why we all throw ourselves on to the dancefloor when Gloria Gaynor sings ‘I will survive’. Right?

So, it doesn’t take a big leap for me to put myself in your head when it comes to critiques. When I sit down opposite you at one of those little tables, I am fully aware of your nerves – and my power. I can hurt you, perhaps irreparably in terms of your writing, with one phrase. And that’s why I find these sessions so hard. I want to speak the truth, I want to be honest, I want to give you a golden nugget of advice, and I want to send you on your way feeling good about yourself. Or at least, encouraged, enabled, and enthusiastic about the future.

Is it easy? Often – either because a writer is so nearly publishable or because they are so open and keen to learn that they just can’t get enough advice and guidance. Plus they are incredibly gracious. Frequently all the above.

image Other times it can be tough – maybe because the writer is absolutely new and their work is very raw. Sometimes because they just don’t want to hear anything that isn’t 100% praise and they’re actually only there because they want an agent to take them on (and will tell you so very clearly). Occasionally because they have so much invested in this story, this dream, that the emotion is just too much and the tears come at any indication that their pages may not be destined for a 6-figure deal at a major publishing house. (Please note, if you ask a direct question it is very hard for the critiquer not to answer it.)

When I enter a critique I am hyper-aware of every word I say. Critiquing is very tiring because I roll every phrase around my mind before I speak, trying it on for size and possible effect, striving to find ways to maximize these few minutes for you while also leaving you with a positive experience. It can sometimes feel like walking over a minefield. The critiquers will probably forget and move on; for the writer, those phrases may live again, on an endless repeat, for months to come. It’s a big responsibility!

For all the many of you whose openness and courage make critiquing so rewarding – thank you. In those few minutes we can bond as human beings with a love of writing and books, and a shared understanding of how we can use language to encourage and inspire each other. It can be a really stimulating and enjoyable experience.

As you head off to whatever conference awaits you in the coming months, I believe there is a critiquer/critiqued pact we can make.

For the critiquer: To be very familiar with the pages before the meeting (and to have written some notes on a handover sheet); to be honest, with only the goal of helping to make these pages even better – and always speaking with great care and kindness. Above all, to leave that writer encouraged and positive for the journey ahead, perhaps with one big point that will stick in their mind.

For the critiqued: To approach the meeting with openness and a real desire to learn. A critique is not a fast-track to getting an agent (if that does happen, a wonderful surprise). It should not be a forum for a writer to argue with their critiquer and tell them that they are wrong and the manuscript is perfect. It probably IS a good idea to slip a fresh Kleenex into your pocket – just in case!

image Always remember – you are paying for this time. It is YOUR critique, so use it to the max.

Going to LA? If so, I’ll be in town seeing film people, but staying at the conference hotel during the event. Look out for me in the lobby, around the pool, and we’ll have a drink. I’m not attending the conference, so won’t be doing critiques – this time – but I’ll be in action again at the Tri-State conference (WV, PA, DE) in Gettysburg in November!

The critique pact. Critiquer and critiqued – neither side is a walk in the park. Shall we pinkie promise to make it easier for each other?