Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Critique-al Thinking

by Katherine Ayres

As I prepare to mail off batches of manuscripts to readers who will be critiquing at a coming writers’ conference, again and again, I imagine the emotions on the other end of the process—the senders—the hopeful writers. I’m tempted to include a cautionary paragraph with the schedule that goes something like this:

Dear Friend and Fellow Writer,

You have chosen to participate in a manuscript critique session at this year’s conference. Congratulations! You have a manuscript you’re ready to show the world, or at least one new person. That takes courage. We hope you will enjoy the conference, critique session and all. That takes perspective.

Somewhere down deep in your writer’s heart, you may be nourishing the hope that at the conference, the miracle will occur. That the editor or agent who reads your manuscript will say something like: This is a wonderful story. I want to publish (or represent) it. Admit it. Even in the most professional and seasoned writer’s heart, such hopes flicker to life from time to time.

It’s not having the hope that’s the problem; it’s what you do about it. Believing in your story is important—if you can’t get excited about your prose on the page, how can you hope to find a sympathetic reader? But don’t let your wish for a miracle set you up for a blow to confidence, a ruined conference. Our stories, like our flesh and blood children are often flawed. And seeing the flaws within our own pages is one of the hardest tasks a writer faces.

The key word in the coming event is critique, as in critical. While most writers dream of receiving a manuscript love–note—a hymn of praise—more likely you will receive thoughtful, insightful reactions to your story. There should be some praise included—we all need to have our strong points recognized and there is usually some aspect of your story which is praiseworthy.

But there are also, most likely, weak spots: overwritten paragraphs, slow passages, poorly realized characters. What you are paying for, at a conference critique, is a few minutes of a professional editor’s time and an honest response to your story. This is the moment to go beyond: Not suitable for our list, thank you, good luck placing this story elsewhere. This is the moment when, if your ears are open and your defenses down, you might hear the why it isn’t yet suitable, the what’s missing, the where to go from here.

I think there are three types of writers who sign up for manuscript critiques. Positive Polly hears only the first part of the critique. An interesting idea . . . “She liked it, Polly enthuses. It’s a great idea, this New York editor said so . . .” After hearing those three little words, Polly’s head is so in the clouds, she misses 90% of the content at the conference, which by the way, might help her become a better writer. And she’s totally taken aback, a few weeks later when the selfsame manuscript boomerangs back from that selfsame New York editor with a no thank you.

Negative Nate can hear the same exact words and take away a different meaning. An interesting idea, but it still needs some work on the plot. “She hates it, the plot stinks, the whole thing is a disaster.” Nate moans and groans and in the process, he too misses most of the conference for which he’s paid real dollars.

More sensible is the approach taken by Realistic Rita who begins the day by taking the sawdust out of her ears and accepting the fact that her story probably isn’t perfect. “What specifically about the plot needs attention? Do I need to speed up or slow down the pacing? Does this sort of story work in today’s market, or is it an overused idea? Would the story work better with an older main character? At the end of the day, Rita has enjoyed the conference, made a friend or two, packed her mind full of new ideas, and has at least one notion of how to improve her manuscript. She’s used the expertise of the presenters to enhance her skills and techniques. In other words, she’s gotten her money’s worth and then some.

I’m always amazed by the sturdiness of a writer’s soul—perhaps it’s just stubbornness or masochism. If we’re sensible and well behaved, we pay real dollars for someone to criticize our most carefully crafted work and at the end, we say, “Thank you so much.” Then again, writers are the folks who invented the expression, a good rejection letter. Twisted? You bet.

So take yourself, sturdy soul and open mind, to the nearest writers conference. Take the sawdust out of your ears, take tons of notes and take heart—well–aimed and well–received criticism can lead you to a stronger story.