The Benefits of Critique

Last weekend I drove 2-1/2 hours to participate in a Agent/Editor Day with my New England SCBWI chapter. The day was focused on middle grade and young adult manuscripts, and we had the opportunity to share the first chapter of our novel with 2 different agents or editors. We received feedback from two agents/editors, as well as the other participants.

I had participated in SCBWI conferences before, but this was my first Agent/Editor Day. I shared the first chapter of the novel I am currently working on, called Modern Girls. I was nervous going into the day, a range of thoughts swirling through my head from “What if they hate it?” to “I hope they like the characters as much as I do.”

I was pleasantly surprised, and thoroughly enjoyed the insight of the two editors, Monica Perez from Charlesbridge and Stephanie Kasheta from Merit Press. They each asked different questions and challenged me in different areas. I felt buoyed by the positive reinforcement on my character development, learned what areas hold more opportunity for exploration, and what questions I still need to ask myself about my characters and their relationships. In addition, I enjoyed listening to all of the other stories shared – fantasy, science fiction, adventure, mystery, and animal stories. Such creativity all in one room!

I do know the power of critique- it’s one of the reasons I joined a critique group many years ago and still benefit from their wisdom (besides the best part – they are wonderful women and writers!). My critique group keeps me focused, encourages me to keep going through the hard work of writing and revising, and are partners with me on my journey to become a better writer. Joanna and Anne are invaluable to me, and I hope I am able to provide them with an ounce of the honest and beneficial feedback they give me every month.

What I learned last weekend was that we must always be searching for how to write more concisely, look at our characters a different way, and better express those ideas in our heads. We must steel ourselves to truly hear the feedback, digest it, and decide how (or not) to incorporate it into our work.

My critique partner Joanna introduced us to Lisa Crohn’s Story Genius, and I applied what I learned from it to completely rewrite the first chapter of my novel. It is that rewrite that I took to my critique group, and that rewrite that I took to the Agent/Editor Day. Being open to the feedback, whether it be from trusted critique partners, craft books, or industry strangers, will hopefully help me to write my best novel yet.

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The Value of Honest Feedback

I’m a big believer in honesty. Not painful, hurtful honesty, but the idea that being upfront with people (especially friends and family) avoids much drama, misunderstandings, and unnecessary conflict.

However, for honesty to work fully we must be open to feedback. Sure, honest feedback might still sting a little, or initially rub us the wrong way, but if we can ultimately incorporate the information it can be a gift.

Take the writer’s submission process for example. Joanna and I were discussing how we hopeĀ for open feedback when we submit our work to agents and editors. Even a little open feedback instead of a standard rejection would help us to know which direction to go. Such as:

“Not really the kind of book I represent.” – Try another agent.

“Strong concept, but the prose needs tightening.” – Now you know where to focus your revisions.

“Good idea, but I wasn’t hooked at the beginning.” – Time to rework the first few chapters.

“I like the characters, but the stakes for them aren’t high enough to keep me interested.” – More work needed on the plot and character development.

Knowing how to proceed in this highly subjective art of writing is invaluable. And why I need my critique group so much. We encourage each other, make suggestions, and give balanced feedback that helps us each be better writers.

So if someone asks you for your honest feedback, consider giving it. It could make all the difference.