I preach about critiques. I do. You can find my thoughts and comments on the SCBWI Carolinas conference information pages. In the What Happens in Critique… section I write about preparing, relaxing, listening. In truth, I think critiques can be scary, heartening, frightening, illuminating and mostly cause some amount of distress. After all you are putting out for some brand new eyes, for some relevant industry professional, work you have invested your time and what talent you have. And there is no doubt about it, you are asking for judgment! Yes, it is just one person. Yes, this is the whole reason why you are there. This is a review of what’s good and what’s not so good. You want to know about your voice, your character, your plot, the language, and the marketability and how the reviewer sees them based on the experiences they have had. WowZer!
And even more, we pay to receive this judgment! Double WowZer!
Let’s admit there are good critiques and bad critiques. A bad critique is where there is no information. I’ve had one of those with an agent who stated at the beginning of the session that this genre was not something the agency represented. This was my first critique at SCBWI LA. I blanched. But I had paid for a critique. And thirty plus years of HR management, of interviewing prospective employees for jobs clicked in and I began to ask questions: was the dialogue realistic? what about the main character’s voice? was my language appropriate for the age group? And eventually I pulled out information that helped me go back and review what I had written and what I needed to do to make this story better.
Interestingly enough, it was the same story, about seven years later, that I submitted this year to SCBWI LA. I have tinkered with the story over time–back and forth about whether it is sustainable as a middle grade novel, written two middle grade mysteries that are about [about being the most abused and least valuable word in the English language] as good as I can make them and I’ve sent them out, but I keep coming back to this story, because I love the basis of the story. I love that I can’t seem to find that same basis out there in the market place. And I love that this story gives me an opportunity to have an unreliable narrator tell a story that will have a satisfying yet unhappy ending.
And this critique was a good critique. ‘Gripping opening.’ ‘Engaging action.’ ‘Compelling mystery.’ ‘I liked the way you established the dynamic between family members.’ There was also, ‘develop Erin’s personality’, ‘punch up tactile details’, ‘beware of too much internal/self reflection’, ‘ let readers decode the mystery themselves.’ So lots of positive to sustain me, but lots of suggestions as to why this is not yet done.
And, that’s how I took it.
When I shared with peers the ‘good’ critique’, the first question was ‘did the agent ask for it?’ And my response was ‘thank god, no.’ It’s not ready. I know that. This story, from the time of the not-so-good critique to this one, had not only had multiple drafts and POV changes including a move from a male main character to a female one, but it has several incarnations in setting, plot, motivation and execution. I am pretty sure-especially with the feed back from this critique- that I may FINALLY be on the right track with voice, POV, plot and setting.
For me this was a great critique. I have all of the agent’s notes, written liberally on the SCBWI Critique Notes & Talking Points as well as scattered throughout my submission and synopsis. I have the time and the freedom to think more about this story. The time and the freedom to explore our discussion and see if that is where Erin’s story takes me and if I can execute the unreliable narrator with a satisfying but unhappy ending. And, if, at that point in time, I am still agent-less, well then I have the opportunity to submit via the agency’s guidelines, reference this critique and all the positives and how I have worked with the negatives.
So, ‘did the agent ask for it?’ Thank god, no!