A Tale of Two Critiques

 

 

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A critique by Rachel Orr, my agent
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A subsequent draft critiqued by another agent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anxious about a critique?  Or disappointed because an agent didn’t like your work?  Read this.

 

This March after several years of searching, I signed with Rachel Orr of the Prospect Agency. I met Rachel in October at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference where she critiqued my MG adventure, DUNCAN AND THE CASE OF THE KILLER CAKE.

 

Going into the critique, I was feeling optimistic. Days before I had received a two-page rejection letter from another agent. Page one listed all the things that he loved about the MS while page two ticked off a list of his concerns. In his closing, he said that he’d be happy to take another look if I could “revise and resubmit.” It wasn’t what I had wanted to hear, but I knew the MS was getting closer.

 

A Bit of Background:

I had worked on DUNCAN AND THE CASE OF THE KILLER CAKE for the better part of two years. After writing in isolation for a year, I discovered SCBWI where I joined a critique group that helped me improve my writing. After my last set of revisions, I read the opening at the NYSCBWI roundtables. While other writers constructively savaged each other’s work, addressing common page one mistakes, the MS received near unanimous praise. One editor opined that I should “change the exclamation point on page two to a period,” so I was confident the crucial first pages were ready.

 

Critique One: October 2015: Rachel praised all the jokes and loved all the things that she was supposed to. DUNCAN, a fat kid who wears a girdle to avoid being teased, felt “nicely fleshed out.” However, after enduring several uncomfortable minutes of praise, she said that dreaded yet expected word: but. Then she asked some questions, praised the work some more, and requested the full MS.

 

Critique Two: November 2015: I met with an editor who described my novel as a cross “between James Patterson and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” (Yes, those were my comps titles too, but I figured no one would believe me.) Though he suggested that I move some elements sooner in order to clarify the genre from page one. He also commented that I had a “witty, distinct voice” and “an underdog protagonist who was easy to root for.” At this point, I was pretty sure I had written a winner.

 

Although things seemed to be moving in the right direction–Rachel was busy reading everything that I’d ever written, including the cocktail napkins that I was sure would become full-fledged novels—I didn’t want to stop my momentum so I signed up for two additional critiques.

 

Finally, in March, Rachel offered me a contract. I signed immediately.  But since I had made some small edits and had already paid for the critiques, I figured I might as well go and listen.

 

Critique Three: March 2016. An agent said my book was “laugh out loud funny.” She read her favorite lines and covered her mouth. Then she proceeded to say “I should make it funnier” and that I should “keep perfecting it.”

 

Critique Four: April 2016. Given the previous feedback, I wasn’t expecting a beatdown. The agent started positively. He said he liked that “Duncan is a self-conscious character. You don’t find many boys who are,” but that was his only sentence of praise. He proceeded to explain that he felt that my voice and my main character felt flat. When I asked him whether Duncan’s actions or dialogue revealed anything about his personality, he said no.

 

I walked out of the critique stunned. Had I been at a different point on my journey, I might have been devastated. If I were still writing in isolation and if I didn’t have my critique group and other professions behind me, I might be back at the coffee shop radically revising my book.

 

As I reflected on the last critique, I realized I had learned some important lessons that I wanted to share. If they resonate with you, I’d appreciate if you would share this post with your friends and other writers who would benefit from it.

 

Lessons:

  • This is a subjective business. Taste matters. Far more than we give credit. Not every book is for every person.

 

  • The corollary of this is when you are searching for an agent or an editor, you only need one person to fall in love with your book, which is why all that annoying rejection: “This just isn’t for me” is actually fair. You don’t have to write the book that will please every agent. You have to find the agent who wants yours.

 

  • The agent in critique #4 wasn’t being malicious. He was giving me his best professional judgment. And while I’m not going to dramatically revise my character, or include details using all five senses, (do we really want to know how that girdle smells?), he did provide other useful suggestions.

 

  • Different things matter to different readers. Each agent has a different style and focused their critique on different aspects of my story, yet they both pointed out areas of improvement.

 

  • Seek feedback, but always be aware that it is one reader’s opinion. Don’t ignore it, but don’t be too quick to discount your writing either. And finally,

 

  • If you liked this article, please join my mailing list. One day, hopefully, I’ll send you an email about where to buy my book.  Click on “contact me.”

11 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this post.
    Coming from industry the whole “subjective” thing about publishing has taken a while to grasp.
    Sorting out the true things that should be fixed versus personal preference of the reader is a challenge to separate sometimes.
    Congratulations on signing with an agent.

  2. This is so helpful to read, thank you for sharing. I am in a similar situation where I’m getting critiques from agents through webinars. One of my stories an agent loved and requested to see more week. But then this week — the same exact PB — another agent said there wasn’t enough tension and my story resolved too quickly. I was devastated! This article really helped me put things in perspective — thank you!

  3. Nicely done, Larry. I’m still revising my MS from a quite enjoyable agent critique from our MD/DE/WV SCBWI conference. I came back from there ALL. FIRED. UP! I carefully revised about a third of the book and, meh. I’m slumping. I’ve been down the “not for me” road, and even though my agent from the conference critique really did seem to like the MS, I haven’t gotten requests for any partials yet. So… you got through. Cool. Any day now, I know I will get my inspiration back and I’ll be back in the game.

  4. Great post Larry. I especially appreciate you posting the pages. It’s nice to have a look under the hood. If only we could truly understand agents! Good luck with the book though it sounds as if you are well on your way to success.

  5. Hope Grietzer

    Fantastic post, Larry! It’s nice to see this hard proof of just how much agents’ opinions can vary. I’m sharing this with my critique group as well.

  6. Thanks for sharing this important information. Writers have to remember that one person’s feedback is just one person’s feedback. It’s all a matter of opinion and taste. The important thing is to be open to it and then use what resonates with you.

  7. Samuel Friedman

    Thanks for the post. I too submitted to Rachel for my MG story. I agree with you about subjectivity- it’s very frustrating, especially when you keep getting rejections!

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