Monday, January 17, 2011

SCBWI TEAM BLOG Pre-Conference Interview: Advice on Critiques From Editors & Agents

SCBWI's Annual Winter Conference in New York is just eleven days away! If you're attending, you may be planning your outfits and your evening activities in the city (which you certainly should), but you should also be thinking about how to make the most of the event. So I checked in with a few of the editors and agents participating in the conference to ask for some advice to pass on to you.

Today's topic: CRITIQUES

Editors Krista Marino (Delacorte), Franceso Sedita (Penguin) and Jennifer Rees (Scholastic) and agents Kerry Sparks (Levine/Greenberg) and Kary Kole (Andrea Brown) are participating in the Writers' Intensive that kicks off the weekend of conferencing. At this day-long event, writers have the opportunity to get feedback on a manuscript from a several editors and agents, and writers offer feedback to one another.  

Intensives have limited space for writers and this year's Writers' Intensive (as usual) sold out super fast. But even if you aren't attending it, you probably have been or will be in a critique situation, whether at a conference with an editor or agent, one-on-one with a critique partner, or in a critique group setting. Here are some things to keep in mind offered by our group of industry insiders.

What's your best advice for writers regarding making the most of a manuscript critique?

KRISTA MARINO: I think that sometimes writers use critique time to “defend” their work or pitch their idea instead of to hear what people took away when they read the piece. Writers need to remember that they won’t be standing next to a reader as their book is being read to defend a decision. And we don’t need you to tell us the market or how your work has a readership. It’s our job to know these things. Always keep in mind that editors and agents want to work with writers who are open to suggestions, not writers who think their work is already done. Act appropriately.

FRANCESCO SEDITA: Do it because you love it. Go in with an open mind and just take it all in. Don't worry about what is said; it's all for you to take in and digest. It's very hard to hear criticism when the pressure is high. It's hard to keep the "Wait, I didn't win the Oscar face?" on when some bonehead is telling you that your project isn't right for whatever reason. Breathe.

JENNIFER REES: I encourage writers to really listen to what everyone is saying--whether you agree with it or not. For a moment, set aside what you think you know about your story and listen to what others tell you. And take lots of notes! Then you can go home, sort through everything with an open mind, and choose what you want to listen to and what is best to dismiss.

KERRY SPARKS: I think coming prepared to hear criticism is key and being open to really hear what people are saying. But also being strong enough in your work to knowwhat you can and can’t change.

MARY KOLE: Try not to be overwhelmed or respond emotionally. If you're in a critique situation, take the feedback that's being offered to you and make sure to ask specific questions or for clarification. Critiques often feel like they fly by...don't pass up a chance to really nail down your personal feedback with the person who read your sample. You should also ask for ideas on next steps: What should you do next? How can you grow and evolve from this point forward?

What's your best advice for writers regarding offering criticism of other writers' work?

KRISTA: Always remember to treat people the way you would like to be treated. If you have criticism, offer a compliment as well. And make your criticism constructive. “That’s horrible” or “I hate horses” isn’t helpful to anyone.

FRANCESCO: Don't speak because everyone else has. Um, that's sort of my advice in life. But it's really important here because then you just say something dumb and dumb sometimes leads to inadvertent mean and mean leads to someone crying and crying just brings everyone down, people.   Nobody needs that. Speak from your heart--as a reader, a writer, and a person who is just as crazy about and committed to their craft as the person you're addressing.

JENNIFER: My advice is to speak up! Some writers clam up because there is an editor sitting there and they don’t want to look foolish, but if you can be generous enough to share your insights into another writer’s work with the whole group, then chances are that they’ll do the same for you when your time arrives!
KERRY: Offer criticism by first finding a way to compliment the work. There is almost always at least a few good aspects to any work, so starting off with that and then leading into what might not quite work will soften the blow. Also, really offering a solid suggestion of an action step the writer can take to improve it is really helpful.

MARY: It is crucial to learn how to critique the work of others. That keen editorial eye that you develop when you're critiquing will, one day, filter down to how you look at your own work. When you're critiquing, avoid emotional and unhelpful reactions to material, like "I didn't like it" or "that sucked." If you have something like this on the tip of your tongue, try and think why you may be having an issue with the piece. It's much more helpful for a fellow writer to hear something like, "The pacing of this scene is slow, so I found myself skimming. Maybe there's too much description going on between dialogue exchanges," or whatever. Also, you can throw out ideas and suggestions, but don't take the wheel and prescribe what a writer should do. Just give them feedback. Addressing it is their job.

You'll hear from this generous group of editors and agents again soon. In the meantime, you can still register for the Annual Winter Conference. Click here for information.

And remember, check out the Official SCBWI Conference Blog for live coverage of the event by SCBWI TEAM BLOG.


Sharron said...

Great comments about being critiqued. Wish I knew about them before my first critique. Also wish I could be with you in NY - but I'm enjoying the sharing on this blog. Thanks!

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

I love this round-table approach to the interview - focusing on a single topic! There's some great advice here, and thanks to Alice and all the editors and agents for sharing!

Ishta Mercurio said...

Thanks so much for this post. It's easy to go to a conference with a big head - especially when we believe that we're bringing our best work - but it's so important to remember that there is always something that we can learn from hearing how others respond to our work.

Marcy said...

This may be my favorite post so far! I am one of the writers who will be attending that intensive. Honestly, that day has seemed far more daunting, albeit terribly exciting, than any of the other two days! What a thrill to "hear" the agents and editors give some feedback before we even arrive. Thank you guys so much! See you soon!

SCBWI said...

Thanks Marcy! I'm glad you found the post helpful. The Intensive can feel, well, intense, but I think if you keep the editors' and agents' advice in mind, you can get so much out of it. (I'll be hanging around during the Writers' Intensive. Please say hello if you can.)