Wednesday, June 20, 2007


The latest trends in conferences seems to be critiques. No longer am I just expected to sit on a panel, give a workshop, and do pitch appointments. Now I'm also expected to read material ahead of time and meet the author in person for a face-to-face critique. And so far I'm hating every minute of it. Critiques are difficult for writers in the best of circumstances, but done with an agent you presumably want to impress and in person (when it's difficult to hide your reaction), I suspect that more often than not they're a recipe for disaster.

During a recent series of critiques at least one author was no less than hostile. So much so that I stopped the critique in the middle, handed her material back to her, and suggested that she read it on her own time. With every comment/suggestion I made she was argumentative and condescending. If I suggested she explain something further, she implied (through tone only) that maybe I was stupid for not understanding. As the conversation went on she got angrier and angrier, and by the time she left she suggested that quite possibly I wasn't worldly enough for her work.

I know I'm not a soft and cuddly person, but I don't think I'm an evil witch either. My impression of a critique is that you're not there so that I can simply sit and praise you. You're there because you really want to know what you can do to make your work stronger and, more important, make it marketable to a publisher. I also assume that you're asking to have a critique with me because you respect my 15 years of experience both as an agent and editor and truly want to know my professional opinion of your work. Does that mean you should take everything I say as gospel? No way. In fact, as with everything, I recommend that you feel free to always get a second opinion. However, I do expect that you'll listen respectfully to my comments with an open mind. That you'll at least consider what I'm saying and why I'm saying it. I don't do critiques as a way to tear down writers. My purpose is to try to help.

Maybe I go about things wrong, but during this particular event at least two authors were hostile and angry with me when our time was up. I really think they expected to sit down and hear me gush about their work and ideas and hand over a contract on the spot. Instead I told them both the little changes I thought they could make to strengthen their work, and the larger, more global problems. The real shame is that I wasted my time. I sat for more than an hour making notes on chapters and thinking carefully about what needed work. I know those pages ended up in the trash.



Anonymous said...

It's a shame this happens, but I'm not surprised. In any writer's forum, you'll find people coming online asking for critiques, when what they're truly looking for is praise. Then they get angry or sad when people actually give them what they asked for.


Linda said...

I'm surprised some of the conferences are doing this. Given that many people really can't take a critique, it might create a huge security problem. From what I've seen, the reaction of this writer is all too common.

It sounds like someone dreamed up the idea because writers were trying to figure out the mystery of why they weren't getting any interest. But also sounds like the writers are figuring that if the agent doesn't the critique, magic will happen, and they'll get discovered--then they're rudely shocked when that doesn't happen.

If my local writing conference ever even thinks about, I'll point this blog out to them.

Cab Sav said...

It is a shame. As writers all we want when we start out is praise. It's a sign of writing maturity when we finally realise a) that we're not going to get it, and b) that it's not what we need anyway.
Unfortunately, I don't think there will ever be a way to weed out the praise-seekers from those who would genuinely appreciate and benefit from the critique.

Aimless Writer said...

I think those two authors need to go home and look up the word "critique". When I hand someone my work I tell them to "rip me apart, be brutal" because unless they spot my mistakes I may never learn. Isn't it better to have those things fixed before the work is attached to a query letter? Sometimes I have to think on what was said for a while to let it sink in, but after a while I can usually "see" what they are getting at with their suggestions. As a prepub I see agents as Godlike, a window into the world of publication. Those authors should have been taking notes not arguing. They have no idea what good advice they were passing up.
What would they do if their editor asked for changes? There is a time to put the artist ego in the back seat and know that selling a book is business and you have to know what sells. Don't let the bad behavior of a few mess it up for the rest of us.

December/Stacia said...

It's terrible when your kindness is thrown back at you like that. I'm so sorry to hear that happened to you.

But as Selene said, I'm not surprised.

Jean said...

Having come to fiction writing from a journalism background, I am continually surprised by the way many romance writers, particularly new ones, are so resistant to constructive criticism and, if they've sold, to the edits from their editor. I look at my books as more of a collaboration between me and my editor.

Josephine Damian said...

I belong to a "puff" critique group where everyone pats each other on the back and offers high praise for awful writing.

This only reinforces the bad behavior.

Then it's my turn. I always rip the work - not the person - apart, pointing out every flaw. I receive the same hostility that you did for my efforts. I try to remind everyone in my group that the ONLY people who ever helped improve my writing were those who ripped me a new one, bashed me over the head, figuratively, when I made all the classic beginner mistakes.

One thing that my education in forensic psychology has taught me is how to recognize people with personality disorders, especially the type who react with hostility in the face of critcism. I've learned that they're the one with the problem, not me.

Those writers will never improve unless they're able to overcome their basic personality flaws.


Dara Edmondson said...

Too bad those writers didn't take advantage of the opportunity rather than getting angry. I wonder what they do to their crit partners... I suspect you're not the only agent who got that response. I'll bet conferences will end this practice soon!

Chris Redding said...

I was lucky enough to fall into a real critique group when I first began writing. I learned really quickly how to separate the wheat from the chaff in their comments.
And that nothing was personal and that my writing could only be better.
I'm spoiled, I guess.
I also have a rule that if I'm receiving a critique and I have the urge to explain my point, then I obviously didn't do it in the writing.
So I shut my trap.

Lesley said...

Perhaps these people have never been part of critiques before? Of course that in no way excuses their tacky behavior, but it might explain it. In my experience in critiques you sit there and listen to everything the person has to say about your work with absolutely no argument until the very end when you can ask them questions and explain why you did certain things in the hope of getting their feedback on how it might have come across more effectively. Maybe these conferences where critiques are done should give a brief critique etiquette lesson before you're allowed to take part in them.

Brandi. said...

I'm sorry to hear that those authors treated you that way. I'd love to hear a critique from someone in your position; finding out what catches your attention and hearing how something isn't working is valuable feedback.

Don't give up on critiques because of the few bad eggs. (Think of them as the idiots who corner you at the bar and, instead of offering to buy you a drink and find out about you as a person, only want to pitch an AGENT on their latest project.)

There are many of us out there that *want* critiques (and furiously take notes whenever offered). And, writers, if you only seek praise, ask your mother to read your work.

Colorado Writer said...

Darn it. Those kind of people make it harder and harder for the others who are open and willing to work on their craft.

The grumblers are also the ones who send out crap and keep the slush flowing.

They are also the ones who pop up on writer's forums and expect names of editors, agent email addresses, etc. to be handed out on a silver platter.

They also stand up and make a fool of themselves at Q&A and make others wince with their puffed up egos.

Sorry this happened to you. I truly appreciate the info and advice you are giving away.

JDuncan said...

what are conferences thinking when they do this? Seems that some folks think of them as an alternative to pitching, and get the bonus of more material being read by said agent. You should be paid extra for that service, Jessica. Really. Some people make money providing that service. No reason you should be expected to do it for free. You're providing enough as it is with all the other conference stuff. I've heard a few horror stories lately about bad experiences by agents at conferences, and it makes me think the conference committees believe they're doing you a service by inviting you so you should do all this stuff for them, when it's really the other way around.

That said, I would sure love to have you critique my work. I would find it invaluable without a doubt. Some writers are obviously naieve/foolish enough to believe that their writing is going to be spot on for anyone who reads it. Where's Miss Snark's clue gun when you need it?


Celeste said...

That sounds horribly uncomfortable for both parties. I understand how hard it must have been to listen first-person to your critique (heck, I have a hard time with revisions my regular CP gives), but how did they think you felt giving sitting there across from them? You were offering help and feedback. And truthfully, we learn the most from things that sting a little. Hurt feelings are no excuse for bad manners.

Anonymous said...

Question, Jessica: Do the conference organizers pay you to do these critiques? I ask because in my experience, organizers charge attendees extra for a critique. I recently paid for one at a Miami conference, and was impressed by the effort the editor (in my case) had put into the work. I guess I assumed the conference was splitting the pot with the editors and agents who went to all this trouble. If I were in your position, I sure wouldn't do it for free.

Kim said...

Criticism can sting, but I would so much rather have an honest opinion of what my weak points are. Sure, I'd love it for an agent to smile and gush and offer up a contract :) who wouldn't? But in reality, I'd like to know what I'm doing wrong and how I might fix it.

There's absolutely no point in false gush. It doesn't do me any good as a writer to hear that it's all perfect, unless it really is.

It's a shame that some childish writers are going to ruin it for those of us who want the truth about our work. Criticism comes with the territory - if a writer can't handle it, they have no business trying to submit until they grow up a little.

Keri Ford said...

Are you allowed to be paid for doing the critiques? I was thinking, and please correct me cause I'd like to know, that you basically donated your time, and all your travel and stuff is paid for. I haven't read the AAR rules in a looong while. And I can't recall what RWA considers acceptable. I know there's some loop holes. Like contests, an author pays to enter their work and it gets critted.

Dave said...

I'm surprised tat you don't get those arguements from more authors.

Once, I had the job of churning out 500 (max) words for factsheets on research (science-technical) subjects for non-tech readers. I knew the science and I knew the authors. Ususally they gave me 800 or 900 words of jargon and detail. That where my infamous "Too many words, cut half of them" came about.

I always received hostility back when I said "cut" ... The worst were PHD's, they used to scream at my boss that the little junior engineer with only a Bachelors was an idiot. (behind my back of course). And PHD's don't read instructions bcause they are PHD's. So finally, I used to take the write-ups and cut them down without saying a word. The Bosses loved them for simplcity and clarity.

I see the same behavior online in writing groups and critique groups. It's subtle, but it's the same - a defense of "my precious words" without thought of change. It's painful to see 3,4, or 5 comments saying the same thing and the author insisting that the comments are wrong. It's painful too see scenes of mundane nothingness filling pages, or wonderfully beautiful words decorating the page for no reason. Each word my serve the same purposes - to advance the story.

Critiques are best listened to and accepted. An author might not accept the critique, but to battle with the reviewer or commentator is not productive.

Mark Terry said...

Ah, Jessica, you're the Simon Cowell of the book world, ey? Shame on them.

Although I don't want American Idol, I'm probably one of the few people out there that thinks that at that level what he's saying is necessary. Hey, you want to do this for a living? You want to supposedly make tons of money? Then you'd damn well better perform up to a standard that deserves it and if you don't...

If you can't stand the heat, etc. (wait until Kirkus gets their hands on your masterpiece, schweetheart!)

Cole said...

This definitely makes me 'sad' if you will for both involved. What a wonderful opportunity for that author in so many ways, the least of which... to make a great impression, even if you thought they needed improvement! That could have benefited them later on in life. And I have found for myself personally that if I keep my mouth shut, those comments which hurt the most in the end were the most helpful. I learned the most from these in the end because they were honest and because I forced myself to step back and consider they might have a point.

And alas, for you--I think those getting the crit's sometimes forget that someone took time out of their busy schedules to look and truly contemplate something that is not going to benefit them at all.

I say kudos for doing this even knowing you are going to run into people like this.


Kate Douglas said...

And you do this why? As Linda said, you actually could be putting yourself in danger. There are nuts who really CAN'T take a critique. On the other hand, I am thankful for a critique group that doesn't understand the concept of "fluff." They take great delight in their honesty. :-) They make me better than I could possibly be on my own.

Alli said...

I was fortunate enough to attend a conference last year which offered appointments with editors and agents giving a critique on the first 10 pages and synopsis. It was a hit. The attendees at the conference listened and asked questions, all with grace. It was driven home that if you wanted a critique you had to take the good and bad and take it like a professional. I'm happy to say the authors did this, and the agents and editors remarked how well this went.
As an author, it is our job to be able to listen and process critques. How else are we able to improve our work and make our writing the best it can possibly be?
I really hope this hasn't put you off doing this in the future, Jessica. It would be a shame for dedicated authors to lose the chance to hear your words of wisdom - whether we like the sound of them or not. And as for those authors behaving horribly, shame on you for ruining it for everybody else.

Anonymous said...

Count me in as one who hopes a few bad apples don't spoil the whole bunch. Personally, I would be THRILLED to get a crit from you and know what you really think. Your experience is so valuable - I would soak up every word. I am just learning this craft and industry, with the help of blogs like this. You're providing an incredibly generous service at all the conference functions you choose to attend.
Don't let the egotists, jerks or immature writers get you. There's plenty of us out here who appreciate you very much and respect your opinion.

jjdebenedictis said...

Argh; that does make me angry, because although I can understand why such defensiveness happens, I would love to get a personal critique from an agent. Your time was wasted, and that's a shame, because it's time I would like to have had instead!

The correct response to a critique is "Thank you", not "But...", even if the comments hurt or don't make sense.

2readornot said...

I don't think this is a good use of an agent's time at others have mentioned, even on discussion forums where there are critique sections, writers get defensive when they post their work -- most serious writers have critique groups, I think; those who don't, the types who write something and then post it on a forum, they're the ones who truly do expect nothing but praise. They haven't quite learned the ropes yet, and it's not fair to hand agents a bunch of newbie writers like that. JMHO.

claud said...

After nine months of trial and error, we now have a new rule in my writers group -- before you read you tell the group exactly what criticism you are seeking, and after you read you don't get to say anything (no discussion) -- you just listen. If at the end of the group's critique you feel that they didn't address the issues you asked about, THEN you can ask them to address those specifically. But no defending or explaining.

I was thinking, Jessica, that if this is a new experiment in conferences, it might be possible to add some rules that make sense. Because what you describe here is AWFUL. Maybe to make it work there should be some new rules.

Of course I'm not sure it's such a hot idea to begin with -- it almost sounds like the agent has too many goals/purposes -- maybe, as you say, you're already doing plenty!

The Anti-Wife said...

Instead of appreciating the gift of your critique, they're throwing a tantrum and exhibiting their own lack of maturity. No one can make an unhappy person happy except themselves. Don't take it personally.

Lorra Laven said...

Whenever an agent takes the time to include constructive comments in a rejection letter, I am so grateful, I want to give them a huge hug. Every single comment has helped me improve as a writer. I only wish I had more input, not less.

Some years back, I attended a piano masters' class and I remember being so envious of the students whose playing was being critiqued by the master. I was, therefore, stunned when one young man stood up midway through the critique and stormed out of the auditorium. With an attitude like that, I'm sure he never progressed much further. What an idiot!

Cindy Procter-King said...

Yikes! Appalling.

I attended a small conference in the fall where everyone attending could submit a partial for critique from an agent. The agent who was supposed to attend bowed out (LOL) and another came in her place. It seemed to work for that conference, but then it was more of a retreat. We got our partials back with "score sheets" of a sort that the agent had filled in, and then she indicated if she'd like to see a full or not. I thought it worked great, but then there were no stories of writers running around all ticked off at the agent in question. What a succinct way to ensure the agent NEVER critiques again.


Marsupialis said...

The writer you described in the original post sounds like they have very very little workshop experience. So many people want to be published without putting in the time to actually figure out how to be a writer. I don't know that it needs to be an uncomfortable experience. Perhaps you could start the critique with a few ground rules. One of them would be that, just as in a workshop, this is not a dialogue with the writer. The writer needs to sit silently and take in the critical remarks because when the book gets out into the world (or if it does), the writer is not going to be there to provide a spirited defense to every reader who misreads.

Jim Stewart said...

I have actually lost what I thought was a very good friend because I told him in a workshop that two of his chapters had no tension and that he was going to lose the readers there.

This was in the middle of the book, and I had already told him this was not the case in the early part of the book. I also wrote comments in one of his Kinko's-bound manuscript copies, which I did not realize was sacred to him, probably because he gave it to me as workshop material.

The next day he literally "took his football and went home," coming to my house, taking back the manuscript, and leaving. When I wrote to him to try to make up, he responded that we were never really friends. We haven't talked since.

The point is, a lot of people say they want critique, but when it comes down to it, they just want praise. These people, sadly, are likely to have all their books published at Kinko's.

Laura Kramarsky said...

I am out of the country and accessing the net for the one day of the week I have access (no choice in the matter, I run an online business, so I *have* to get online at least once a week). I promised myself I wouldn't take the time to comment on anything, but I couldn't resist this one.

I doubt you remember, Jessica, because you meet so many people at these things, but you critiqued something for me at Sleuthfest. Although you told me things I might not have been happy to hear (ok, I wasn't happy to hear) about why you couldn't sell my current work, the whole experience was extremely positive.

On the other hand, at that same conference, I met someone who was probably one of the people who argued during her session (if not with you, with whoever critiqued her). It was incomprehensible to me why she wouldn't take advice from someone who knew what would sell and what wouldn't.

The reason I mention this woman is that she was far less defensive when, after she told me what the agent/editor had said, I said the critiques seemed logical to me. In fact, she proceded to follow me around the conference trying to talk to me about how to change her book.

I think she went into her meeting with the agent predisposed to disagree, or with such feelings of insecurity that she really couldn't listen. Why someone would sign up for a critique if they felt that way, I have no idea. But I did want to say that it definitely *wasn't* the way you approached the interview, since I had a great experience even when I didn't want to hear what I heard!