Thursday, June 30, 2011

Critique Until It's Automatic

(Or, Time for a Workout)

One of my lovely Crits for Water guests, Brigid Kemmerer, suggested if a writer wants to hone their critiquerly skills, they need to critique until it's automatic.

And I have the perfect place for practice today. Visit Krista's blog, where she's hosting An Agent's Inbox contest. There are 20 entries, each with a query letter and an excerpt. See which entries catch your eye and leave a few comments for the writers. It looks like fun.

If you need a few suggestions on what to watch for, see this post about dialogue, emotional reactions, and getting pulled out of the story. Or this post about characters and sensory details. And don't forget to be honest, thoughtful, and show some personality.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

3 Feedback Traits I Adore

(Or, There’s no Faking a Critique)

Sometimes my critique group is demanding. There’s almost always something posted to be critiqued. But then again, sometimes? I simply don’t have it in me. Or I’m not in the mood. That’s right. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to do a critique. And if I force myself to do a crit, the time it takes drags on. I can’t get into the story, can’t feel the characters, and I end up making notes about simple, surfacy things.

I can usually detect the warning signs when I’m not in a critiquerly mood, such as:
·         Taking multiple breaks while reading to check twitter
·         Coming up with ideas for blog posts
·         Re-reading a passage several times and feeling like giving up

Although I’ve critiqued through some of these situations, I try not to ignore these warning signs. If I’m not in a place where I can provide the best critique possible, it’s best to step away. Because If I’m going to take the time to provide feedback, I’d like to make sure it’s helpful and worthwhile to the writer.

And how does a person provide helpful, worthwhile comments? We’ve already discussed a few things that a critiquer can comment on when providing feedback here and here, but we haven’t discussed how to comment. When I look at the critiques that I have received, the ones that make the most difference to me and my writing have some comment elements. Three particular elements are common among my most worthy CPs, who bring these traits to the table almost every time.


Honesty. Writer/critiquer groups maintain Circles of Trust held together by complete honesty. When someone points out a flaw, most writers are grateful for the comment (okay—maybe it stings just a little, but then gratefulness takes over). Why? Because we want to polish our work, and do a better job than we could have done all ourself. Of course, it’s most helpful when critiquers phrase feedback in positive ways so that instead of arguing with the comment we get, we can hear their message and correct the issue.

A short “this is perfect as is,” rarely comes off as genuine, and instead might come off as, “I really don’t have time for in-depth commentary, but from what I’ve skimmed, you’re doing just fine.” However, there are times when a critiquer cannot find any significant flaws to point out but they still comment on some positive aspects, or talk about how they appreciate the themes or imagery, such as “I loved how you began and ended the chapter with the same imagery.” These pointed comments help the writer know that the critiquer has taken their time to look for issues, didn’t find anything to improve, but wanted to make sure the writer knows that they appreciated the artistic devices used.

Thoughtful Reflection. There is nothing more endearing to a writer when they can see that their critiquer has taken time to think through different aspects of my writing.
·         “I thought about this chapter while walking on the treadmill”
·         “When I re-read this chapter, I was able to catch so much more than I did the first time around”
·         “This passage is comparable to the writing in (some published work) that I think you should read”
·         Any commentary on plot, character development, or moral message

These comments help the writer to know that the critiquer is invested in their work.

When my critiquer thoughtfully reflects on my work, I tend to fall in writerly love with them and want nothing more than to return the favor.

Personality. A critique partner might be across the country, or may reside on a completely different continent. But the CPs with whom a writer feels closest share a bit of their personality within the critique comments. Whether they are humorous, share personal trials and tribulations, or their energy bubbles through, when they reveal a little bit of themselves within the critique it does a few things.

First, the ability to know the critiquer better makes critical analysis just a little easier to take, because then it’s not just a lot of words summarizing weaknesses (ouch!)—it’s a dynamic, breathing person who responded to a writer and who wants that writer to succeed. Just like we need voice in our writing, we need personality in our critiques.

Second, it makes reading the critique a lot of fun. What’s the next comment going to be? Will it make me laugh? Will a cleverly worded compliment make me blush? It's like opening a present each and every time.


Getting to the point that each and every critique comes together with these three traits take work, patience, and practice. But it’s worth it.

What elements/traits do you find most helpful within a critique?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Simple Post

(Or, So Much to Say in so Few Words) 

I've done so many interviews lately, I hardly know how to stop. So for my sake, as I head back into regular posts for a while, pretend that I'm interviewing you. You don't even have to answer the questions. Unless you want to.

NAE: Do you have a critique group or a few good critique partners? Because if you don't, then you should read all the interviews we've had on this blog one more time. And then get yourself one, or maybe a few. Here's a few ideas on how to find one.

Because? They pull you up when you're down. They point out the flaws you don't see. They push you to your next level. They yank you higher than the highest point you've ever imagined. 

Even when you suck and don't know it, they teach you how not to suck so bad. And then one day, you don't suck anymore. It's true.

That's all for now. Oh, except this: hearts to all my critique partners/mentors/betas. I owe youse guys so much.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with YA Author Sarah J. Maas

(Or, Be the Critiquer who Opens Doors)

Sarah J. Maas, a young adult writer whose debut comes out next fall, is (pull out your Kleenex) my final Crits for Water interview (*sniff*). She's got a 50-page critique up for auction starting Tuesday, June 21st. And thanks to everyone who has already donated, the Crits for Water campaign has raised over $6,000. What does that mean? 300 people (including kids) now have access to clean water. Wow.

Sarah is also working together with Susan Dennard next month in offering a free YA aspiring writers workshop. You can read about it on Sarah's blog here or on Susan's blog. I love, love how fantastic these two are in giving to Crits for Water, and how dedicated they are in giving back to the to-be-discovered writers. It's like whip cream with chocolate fudge atop a scoop of ice cream—a beautiful thing.

Sarah is another author represented by Tamar Rydzinski at the Laura Dail Literary Agency (we met her agency sister, Brigid Kemmerer here). And Sarah? Knows how to lend much needed support to her critique partners. She opens doors.


Sarah J. Maas is the author of QUEEN OF GLASS, a YA re-imagining of Cinderella, in which Cinderella
is an infamous assassin forced by a corrupt empire to fight for her freedom. It will be published
by Bloomsbury in Fall 2012. She lives in Southern California, and over the years, she has developed
an unhealthy appreciation for Disney movies and bad pop music. She adores fairy tales  and ballet,
drinks too much coffee, and watches absolutely rubbish TV shows. When she's not busy writing
YA fantasy novels, she can be found exploring the wonders of Southern California.
(She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog.)

NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

The first thing I'd advise a writer to do is to Do Nothing. Well, they should first thank their CP for sending them an in-depth critique, because whether or not you liked what they said about your book, they DID put in a lot of time towards critiquing. But then I'd let the critique sit for a day or two. Mull things over. If you dislike what your CP suggested, are your gut reactions actually logical, or are they done out of a resistance to change?

Really try to take a step back from your manuscript and see things through the eyes of your critiquer. Be brave and fearless and brutal--if you're against a certain suggestion, try to figure out WHY. Is it for the good of the book or because you don't want to murder your darlings? If you have questions, ask your CP. Don't be afraid to get a dialogue going--brainstorm together, and discuss the issues your CP had with the manuscript.

One of my critique partners, Susan Dennard, sent me a FIVE-page critique for my debut novel, QUEEN OF GLASS. She outlined what she thought worked well and the spots that could use some improvement/cutting/expansion. After I'd had some time to process her critique, we scheduled a skype chat and wound up talking for well over two hours about how I could revise the book. Once I spoke with her, I not only felt GREAT about the revisions I was going to do, but also felt like I had someone that I could bounce ideas off of in case I got stuck again. In the end, Susan's suggestions about the manuscript really took it to the next level.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

Always make sure you and your CP are on the same page in terms of the level of feedback that you want. Some people don't want line edits--others do. The best kind of CP relationships start out with both of you understanding what you want to get out of the exchange--and the level of critique you'd like.

Also: be sensitive. That doesn't mean go easy on your CP, but if you're making a particularly major suggestion, phrase it nicely. No one wants to have their work ripped to shreds, and no one appreciates snarky comments. Remember that while you're both here to improve your work, you're also there to bolster each other's spirits. Be someone who opens doors--not closes them.

NAE: When you critique someone's work, what is your general process?

I first ask my CP what level of critique they want: line edits, general feedback, focus on specific sections, etc., and then go into reading with that in mind. If I'm doing line edits, then I'll usually read the ms twice: once to get a good sense of the book's voice, meaning, and pacing, and the second time to do line edits (so that my cutting is in-tune with the feel of the book). If a CP needs the ms back from me ASAP, then I'll just do one super-round (which requires a ton of coffee/focus, lol). I take notes as I go along--both in the manuscript (via track changes) and in a larger word doc/email. When I'm finished, I'll expand more on my larger comments and fully explain the reasoning behind my suggestions. And then I always make sure my CPs know I'm available to chat about the revision suggestions/help them in any way!

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

Even if my CPs ask me not to line-edit, I have a hard time turning off the part of my brain that always looks out for run-on sentences, inconsistencies, and typos. But usually I'm drawn to pacing--do things happen too quickly or too slowly, do vital bits of character info happen too soon or too late, should X-scene be moved to Y-section, etc.. I feel like pacing feeds into other essential parts of the book (characterization, plot, world-building).

Question added by SM: How did you find your critique partners?

SM: Most of mine were online friends before we became CPs--though some were acquaintances who just wanted to swap (and later became good friends). I gravitate towards CPs who write similar stuff to my own--YA fantasy, sci-fi, or paranormal. Mostly just because they're usually really well-versed in the genres and understand where I'm coming from with my writing and what I hope to accomplish.


Thank you, Sarah. I love that you skype with your CPs. Great idea! (Dear CPs: Hint, hint?)

Again, you can find Sarah's critique up for auction Tuesday, June 21st.

And thanks to all the NAE readers for coming along on my Crits for Water journey, for reading and commenting on all the interviews, and for donating to the campaign. I heart you guys for it.

If you didn't get a chance to donate to Kat Brauer's campaign but you'd like to help provide clean water to someone you'll never meet but who will owe you the world, here's the charity: water information again.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with Author Miranda Kenneally

(Or, Lose to Grow)

By now, you probably know that I heart (<~not a verb, but it should be) my Crits for Water interviews. If you don't know about Crits for Water, read the blog post that started it all. And this week? I have a semi-surprise interview guest, because she was not on the original schedule. And when I say schedule, I think of the word in British dialect, "shed-dual." Just because.

But I digress. Miranda Kenneally, yet another one of Sara Megibow's clients, saw the Crits for Water campaign last week and decided to throw in (not one, but) two 25-page critiques. These critiques are up for drawing on June 16th, and everyone who enters the drawing contributes to saving the lives of people (including small, tiny children) who currently do not have clean water. It's awesomeness waiting in the sidelines (my football reference—duly noted—just for Miranda).

Miranda Kenneally is the author of CATCHING JORDAN, a contemporary YA novel about football,
femininity, and hot boys, coming from Sourcebooks Fire in late 2011. She enjoys reading and writing
young adult literature,and loves Star Trek, music, sports, Mexican food, Twitter, coffee, and her
husband. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook. Miranda is represented by Sara Megibow at
Nelson Literary Agency.

NAE: Who, as one of your critiquers/beta-readers, have you learned the most from, and what did you learn from him/her?

MK: I've learned a ton from Jennifer Shaw Wolf and Sarah Skilton, who are my agency mates at Nelson Literary Agency! Jennifer taught me that you must always know what your main character wants most. That will help you focus your plot. Sarah taught me that subtlety is key. Give your readers credit: they are smart. Don't write out everything they need to know. Make them think a bit. Also, my friend Trish Doller taught me that every story needs some sort of sacrifice, because that's what happens in life. It can be big or small, but the character needs to lose something in order to grow and become a better person.

B. After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

MK: The first thing to remember is that this is YOUR book. You must decide which comments should be implemented and which to disregard. A big mistake I made at first was taking everyone's suggestions. I ended up with bipolar characters and a weirdo all-over-the-place plot. When you first get comments back, take some time to really think over them. If you hate them, you hate them, and that's fine. Just forget about the critique and move on. Always wait a couple days before moving forward with edits. If you have a real hankering to write, work on some other project, or free-write in your main character's voice.

Always remember to say thank you to anyone who gives you a critique! Nothing hurts worse than when I give my time to critique someone's work, or give them advice, and then I never hear from them again.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

MK: Read, read, read. Figure out what works in published books and what doesn't. Then apply those lessons to your own writing, as well as to your critiquing process.

NAE: When you critique someone's work, what is your general process?

MK: I usually line edit as I go along. I generally know how plots should look and how they should develop, and I keep a watch out for certain things as I go along. When I'm done, I usually think about the book for a day or two before responding to the author.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

MK: Generally I look at plot structure and specificity in the writing. Those are the most important parts of a book!


Thank you, Miranda, for your insights. I love your suggestion of free-writing in your character's voice. I might just try that. Maybe even right now.

Remember to spike (Okay, okay. You caught me: 2nd football reference.) on over to the Crits for Water site and enter for a chance to win one of the two 25-page critiques by Miranda. And watch for Miranda's CATCHING JORDAN debut later this year.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with Author Kendra Highley

(Or, Giving the Manuscript a Rest)

You may have been waiting for this Crits for Water auction, the one where YA author Kendra Highley has donated a full YA/MG manuscript (ADDED 6/15: or Adult Fantasy/Paranormal/Soft Sci Fi). Yes. You read that correctly. A full. Bid on it starting Tuesday, June 14th

Kendra is represented by Shana Cohen at Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency, Inc., and she’s got a lot of critiquerly spirit. Read on to see her methods of critiquing genius.


Kendra Highley--a mom, cookie-baker-extraordinaire and hopeful romantic--is a
YA writer with a penchant for fantastic tales.
You can visit her website at , or look for her on Twitter.


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

KH: After getting back a critique, particularly a somewhat tough one, I always suggest time.  Meaning, take a few days to think about the review before you do anything with it.  My own kneejerk reaction is to start fixing too quickly.  I’ve found that giving the manuscript a rest helps me be more objective about the things that need real work, places that need smoothing, and places my gut tells me to leave alone.  After a few days, I roll up my sleeves and go through the critique at a high level, then chapter-to-chapter to see if there are any themes I need to fix throughout.  Once I’m done with the big stuff, I focus on sentence level issues.  I find if I break it down, piece-by-piece, the revisions aren’t as overwhelming.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

KH: Don’t get lost in the weeds.  It’s tempting to fix small things, like punctuation errors and sentence structure.  Sure, those things need called out, but…Not. Every. Single. One.  Instead, point out recurring issues once (or twice) then focus on characterization, voice, plot, world-building and general story-telling.  Lots of published books break well-known writing/craft rules but what the best have in common is that they tell compelling stories.

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your general process? 

KH: I do two things– I do line edit to an extent as I read.  If the writer has some basic problems with grammar and structure, I put some focus to it.  But I also try to comment on the big things as I go along as well (i.e. “This character isn’t in voice.” Or  “That plot point seems out of place.”).  Finally, I write a summary commentary about the overall manuscript.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

KH: I do love my grammar (I actually have a t-shirt that says “Grammar Punk” on it), but I’m really big on character.  Do they sound right? Do they ever do things that make me raise an eyebrow and ask “would they really do that?” Are they unique enough?  Is the voice strong?  That’s what makes a manuscript stand out to me.

Question added by KH: How many critiques/betas do I need? 

KH: Honestly, that’s a question everyone asks and the answer varies for all of us.  I think once you develop a strong crit-partner group, you’ll know who’s going to help with what and at what point you can call the manuscript “reviewed enough.”  Until then, just use your gut.  If something still seems to be missing/not working, one more pair of eyes might help.


Thanks, Kendra. Um. I want that Grammar Punk t-shirt. Or maybe we could get t-shirts made more specifically for Not an Editor. Critiquer Punk. What do you think?

Alright, folks. Lots of reasons to take a look at Kendra’s FULL YA MS (ADDED 6/15 OR MG OR Adult fantasy/paranormal or soft sci fi) auction on June 14th, not the least of which is that clean water saves lives.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with Author Sherry Thomas

(Or, If the Old Doesn’t Go, the New Doesn’t Come)

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned how thrilled I am to play a small part in the Crits for Water campaign, where authors and agents donate critiques to raise money for people who don’t have clean water. My tiny role is to interview some of these generous agents and authors—people dedicated to saving lives. And let me say, thrilled doesn't cover it. Honored. Humbled. Yep.

And today, we’ll meet historical romance author Sherry Thomas who has donated a three-chapter critique that is up for auction on Monday, June 13th. She’s witty, she’s wise, and she’s classy.


Lisa Kleypas calls Sherry Thomas “the most powerfully original historical romance author working
today.” Her books have been on best-of-the-year lists of both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.
In 2010, RWA honored her work Not Quite a Husband with a prestigious RITAÒ award.

Her story is all the more interesting given that English is Sherry's second language--she has come a
long way from the days when she made her laborious way through Rosemary Roger's Sweet Savage
Love with an English-Chinese dictionary. She enjoys creating stories. And when she is not
writing, she thinks about the zen and zaniness of her profession, plays computer games with
her sons, and reads as many fabulous books as she can find.
You can find out more about her on her website, her blog, or Twitter.


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

ST: Everyone’s process is different, so I can’t recommend, but can only describe my own process.

I read through all the major issue comments first, sometimes several times. And if necessary, I speak to the critiquer (agent, editor, partner, etc.) so as to better gauge how strongly they feel about certain issues.

For example, recently, my agent read a manuscript of mine, which she loved, but then she pointed out that there is a “potential plot flaw” in the third act. I am rather dense, so “potential plot flaw” reads to me as “we might have a issue, we might not.” But in talking to her, I realized that “potential plot flaw” means “Houston, we have a problem.”

After I have understood all the major issues, I sit on it for a bit, if I have the luxury of time. And even if I don’t, I still do the same. The subconscious is a writer’s greatest friend. But the intricacies of a story needs time to percolate through the subconscious, to come out the other end as ideas and fixes.

In the above example, I rewrote, from scratch, about 2/3 of the third act. (I am a huge fan of revising from scratch. Don’t hold on to the already done if the already done isn’t working. Room for improvement is infinite, but you have to be willing to chuck stuff to make that room. The Chinese say, “If the old doesn’t go, the new doesn’t come.”)

Once I have the structural problems fixed, then its on to interior decoration, i.e., the prose, the details, and all the little things that elevate the story to the next level of reading experience.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

ST: Develop the ability to see what the writer’s strengths and objectives are. In other words, I wouldn’t worry so much about romantic connection early on if the book is intended as a mystery. And I wouldn’t insist someone begin a book in media res if it is clear that s/he has a voice that can carry a more leisurely narrative.

When I critique, my goal is to help the writer get where s/he wants to go, rather than leave my imprint on the story. That’s what my own stories are for.

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your general process?

ST: I read it once. And then, I’ll sit on it for a few days, just like with my own work. After that I’ll read it again and this time comment as I go.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

ST: Grab-me-ness. I don’t want to read a book. I want a book to carry me away. Plot, characters, emotions, prose—any one of the above done particularly well will suck me in, although all of them done well together will ensure that I stay there.

So during the time I sit on it after the first read, it’s usually for my subconscious to give to me, in words, where the book needs improvement in pulling me in and making me stay. Is it pacing? Is it something wonky with the set-up? Are characters acting in a way that makes me scratch my head? I will address everything that gets in the way of my reading experience.

As for grammar, unless the mistakes are egregious, I leave it to the copyeditors.

Question added by ST: Which critical advice do you take and which don’t you?

ST: The short answer is that I am willing to make almost all the small changes and almost all the big changes.

Because my critique partner is so much better at grammar than I am—she’d worked as a copyeditor at one time—I always take all the grammatical corrections she gives. And because her prose is a thing of beauty, I follow her advice on sentence structure. And if she says this paragraph needs to have more impact, I see what I can do to give it that additional impact.

Or, for example, when my editor wants me to add a few sentences here and there for the sake of clarity.

So those are the small changes.

Big changes are when someone says flat out that this story is not working for her. Usually it is editors/agents who will tell you this, because their reputation depends on your work and because they are in a position to tell you so.

At this point you will need to ask yourself whether you trust this person. I trust my editor and my agent completely. I know they have loved my work in the past. I know they want to love this one just as much. And if given all that, they say, nope, it’s majorly not working, then I am willing to dig deep and make the big changes.

It is on the medium-size, scene-level changes that I very much use my discretion. If I like the advice, I’ll use it. If I think it doesn’t accord with my vision for the story or my taste, then I feel free to ignore it.


Thanks, Sherry for the spectacular interview. Love the “grab-me-ness” aspect that you look for when you critique—to be carried away. It’s what I hope for in any novel I read.

Don’t forget to check out Sherry’s Crits for Water auction on June 13th, where a lucky bidder will win a three-chapter critique. And for those of us dying to read some of Sherry’s work, HIS AT NIGHT looks amazing:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with Author Brigid Kemmerer

(Or, Critique ‘til it’s Automatic)   

With only a few more Crits for Water interviews left, I’m excited that Brigid Kemmerer is able to visit us today with an interview. These authors and agents generously donatetheir critique time for a fantastic cause: saving lives through Charity: Water

Brigid has a fantastic debut novel coming out in 2012, and she’s offering a 5,000-word critique (all YA genres except for historical or SF) up for a drawing on Thursday, June 10th. How terrific can she be? She’s been through the pre-discovery trenches, landed wonderful Tamar Rydzinski as her agent, and made her first sale. From the sounds of her novel, it's right up my alley.

And I think she does a great job explaining how critiquing helps.


Brigid Kemmerer is the author of ELEMENTAL, a story in which a girl becomes entangled with four
brothers who control the elements, and their battle with those who want them dead, coming in
June 2012 from K Teen, a new imprint of Kensington Books. Brigid lives in a suburb of Baltimore with
her very tolerant family. You can find more about her on her blog and on Twitter.


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

BK: I think the first thing any writer needs to do upon receiving a critique is sit back and let it sink in. Let the knee-jerk wear off. Writing is personal. Seeing someone's criticisms all over your manuscript is like watching someone smack your child for mouthing off in public. Yeah, you know your kid shouldn't be doing that, but how dare someone else pick up on it and correct it?

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

BK: Keep doing it. Seriously. Keep swapping crits. Learn what pisses you off -- so you can avoid pissing off other people. Learn how to pick out the good things and emphasize them. (Sometimes we're so focused on what doesn't work that we forget to heap on praise for what does.) Keep critiquing work until you start critiquing things automatically. (In your head, people.) Published books. Magazine articles. Whatever. Personally, I can't watch bad television anymore, because I find myself wanting to tear the scriptwriters a new you-know-what.

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your general process?

BK: I generally prefer to do critiques piece-meal, meaning chapter by chapter, until someone proves they've got the chops. As a writer, nothing is worse than sending your work out there and hearing nothing but crickets -- forever. So I try to avoid taking on an entire manuscript blind. Especially if you're just starting out, save yourself the hassle. Don't commit to a full manuscript -- which is seriously going to take at least 8 hours of your time -- when there's a chance you might read the first chapter and want to hang yourself. (And it doesn't have to be bad writing. One guy asked me to beta his work. He said it was a YA paranormal romance, and he had an agent, so I said sure. I get the MS, and it's hardcore sci-fi. So not for me. So far outside my wheel house that I wouldn't even be a good critique partner for it.) Commit to one chapter, give honest feedback, and go from there. 

NAE:  Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

BK: I always line edit, because I just can't help myself. If something is a glaring repetitive error (like putting punctuation outside the quotes), I'll mark up the first few pages and then put a comment for the writer to fix it. I carefully watch for pacing and plot issues. I write YA, and I think it's a demanding genre because you can't cut corners. Teenagers can smell BS a mile away. If your character acts in a way that doesn't make sense, everyone is going to see right through it. So I'm tough on character motivation, too. Over the last year, I've started thinking about bigger scale things, like series potential and character depth and intertwining plot arcs, because brainstorming those things with other people is a great way to get my own creativity flowing.

Question added by BK: How do you go about finding a good critique partner?

BK: Finding a good critique partner is like finding a husband. (Or wife.) You've got to put yourself out there. You need to be honest, and reveal your true self. You're going to get your heart stomped, a ton of times. You're going to hate some of them. You're going to feel lukewarm about others. You're going to hurt when you have to let them down. But then -- one day lightning will strike. You'll read something that feels like it's a match to your own writing. You'll both be mature, stable adults. You'll decide you can live with the minor irritants ("How many times can I tell her to STOP USING TWENTY-WORD DIALOGUE TAGS?!") because the writing makes it worth it. Her feedback on your own stuff makes it worth it. And when you succeed together, it makes it worth it.


Brigid, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with critiques. I have some wonderful crit partners, as well, and they are so worth it.

Remember to stop by the Crits for Water website on Thursday to get in on Brigid’s 5,000-word drawing. Good luck!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with Agent Sara Megibow

(Or, Bringing out More OOMPH) 

With all these Crits for Water interviews I’ve been doing, you may have noticed a pattern among some of the donating authors, beside the fact that they are a heap of stellarness clicking behind their keyboards. Not surprisingly, many of them have a common denominator: Sara Megibow serves as their literary agent, who I’ve come to realize is one of the sweetest people. Ever. 

And? She’s got a 1,250-word critique up for auction Wednesday, June 8th, open to writers of any genre that she represents (see her bio below). *cue the jaw drop*

ADDED 6/9: In addition to the 1,250-word crit, Sara has added a 30-minute phone consult! Bidding ends tonight at midnight EST.

Oh, wait. One more thing: she’s here for an interview today (I know, not much suspense there because of the title of this post. Put on your pretend face).


Sara has worked at the Nelson Literary Agency since 2006. As the Associate Literary Agent,
Sara is actively acquiring new clients! The Nelson Literary Agency specializes in representing
young adult fiction, romance (all genres except category and inspirational), science fiction and
fantasy, commercial and women’s fiction (including chick lit) and high concept literary fiction.
Nelson Literary Agency is a member of AAR, RWA,SFWA and SCBWI. Please visit the agency’s
website for submission guidelines, feel free to visit Sara’s Publisher’s Marketplace site to
learn more about her personal tastes and recent sales, find her on FaceBook, and on Twitter.


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

SM: There is an element in the revision process of "trust your gut". My suggestion is to read revision notes carefully whether they come from a critique partner, an agent or an editor. Then, identify what makes you (as the artist) say "YES! This is exactly what I want this novel to say" vs. "No, this doesn't quite speak to me." Any time I offer editorial advice to my clients, they know upfront that whatever I suggest is open for discussion. It's their art after all.

Once the writer has a clear idea of which notes to pursue, there are a couple of options. One is to take a blank document and simply rewrite. Rewrite the opening (often the biggest problem area of a manuscript), rewrite a chapter, rewrite a scene, rewrite the ending. Pick one and simply rewrite. Then, compare the two documents side by side and feel out which tells the story most authentically. A writer can rewrite one time, two times or 50 times - this is a really helpful tool in identifying what works and what doesn't work for a story.

Another suggestion would be - re-read your entire book and work on it element by element. Read once for characterization - make sure the characters develop intelligently and that their character motivation is strong. Then, read once for plotting - are the plots big enough and do they grow and resolve in an engaging manner. Then, read once for world building - does the 9 foot alien on page 23 have to duck every time s/he enters a room? This is another way to tackle revisions. It's time consuming, but thorough. Incidentally, I use a process similar to this second method when I write critique notes for my clients.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

SM: Interestingly, my critique skills come from reading the slush pile. I learn as much about objectivity from reading new writers as I do from reading published authors. Most people don't have access to an agent's slush pile though (nor should they for proprietary reasons). But, reading work from other writers will always be helpful. Volunteer to read 10-15 partials from a local writing group, network with your local RWA, SCBWI or SFWA chapter, meet writesr at a local library or investigate

Another online suggestion I have:  Cyber-stalk to learn how agents and editors review a submission!!!! Wonderful stuff, that!

NEA: When you critique someone’s work, what is your general process?

SM: Personally I read a novel 2-3 times before attacking it with an eye toward revisions. This is one reason why I have to love love love love a novel in order to offer representation to the author. A ton of work goes in to getting something ready for submission and I have to love what I am reading the 500th time as much as I do the first time.

After getting a really good sense of the novel, I make general notes in a word doc. These might be along the lines of "make the character motivation for the heroine clearer" or "make sure the secondary plot is stronger in the middle." These would be overall ideas that are associated with big themes.

Then, I usually do a line edit. Not always, but usually. In a line edit, I read carefully for consistency and impact. These notes will be "make this moment bigger" or "make sure the fantasy element is clear to the reader at this point." Sometimes I pick out mistakes like "the school was called something else in chapter one - make sure it's consistent." And sometimes I point out errors in the narrative voice - "don't tell the reader what the hero is thinking right here. Show us instead - what does a nervous hero DO?" 

The combination of general notes and line edit notes are my whole process.  Even after all this work, I likely go back and forth with a client a few times before we're ready to press "ok."


NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing (e.g., plot, grammar, characters, emotions, etc.)?

SM: I tend to focus a lot on impact. There are several rounds to most critiques, as I outline above. But, at the point that I am doing my final read of a manuscript, it's likely to be about 95% ready for submission (not always, but usually). So, plot is probably solid, character motivation is probably powerful, world building is probably organic and engaging.

Polishing, to me, is about impact. If the author has done his/her job then I am looking for places in the novel to bring out more OOOMPH. I look for pivotal moments and see if I am crying or laughing or holding my breath while reading. I also look for overall message to gauge whether it's breathtaking. Impact - that's my motto.

Question added by SM: "If my relationship with my crit partner isn't working well, how long should I stay with them?"

SM: My answer? Not one more day.

Stay friends, but politely move along to find a crit partner that DOES work for you. It's such an intimate and important relationship. Not all authors have crit partners, but if YOU work better with one then by all means find someone who is right for YOU. is a great place to find the right critique partner.

Or your local RWA, SCBWI or SFWA chapter.


A gadzillion thank yous to Sara for stopping by. I love Sara’s "polishing the OOMPH" tactic, which I've used in critiques. I like to call it pumping up the volume. Ah yea.

Please head over to KatBrauer’s Crits for Water Auction website to bid on Sara’s critique before it’s too late. Or feel free to donate in general. Because, clean water?

Saves lives.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with Author Kat Zhang

(Or, Feeling a Spark)

Kat Zhang is another lovely Crits for Water auctioning author, giving a 5,000-word YA critique, up for auction here on June 6th. I love finding out about the newest authors out there, covering their critiquing style even before their books hit the shelves, and Kat has this intrigue-y-ness about her that draws me in. You’ll see. Check out her blog. 

 An English major, Kat is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen of Judith Ehrlich Literary Management.
Her book HYBRID--about a girl with two souls--has recently sold to Harper Children's in a 3-book deal.
She also performs as a Spoken Word poet, contributes to Let The Words Flow--a site where aspiring
writers may learn more about story craft and the publishing process, and blogs privately at the The Katacomb.


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

KZ: I'd recommend waiting a day before starting the revising process, or at least spending that day planning/making a list of changes to make and such instead of actually diving into the manuscript. Often, sleeping on a critique letter helps me figure things out better. Of course, sometimes you get a spark of inspiration right after reading the suggestions, and it would be a pity to waste that ;) Other times, though, what I *thought* was a marvelous idea 5 minutes after reading the critique turns out to be not so great the next day, after I've pondered it a bit more!

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

KZ: Don't get so bogged down in the little things (grammar mistakes, etc) that you don't get the big picture. Often, it's the big things like character arcs, plot threads, pacing, etc, that really count.

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your general process (e.g., line edit as you go along, read once before editing, read several times, etc.)?

KZ: I don't always line edit. Usually only if there's some egregious mistake or if there are almost no mistakes. Opposite ends of the spectrum, I know, lol. I usually only read the manuscript once before sending a critique, though if my CP revises and wants me to read the manuscript again, I'm open to it :) I usually use the "comments" function to do very specific comments and otherwise note my reactions. Sometimes I take notes in another document, though, especially more broad suggestions. That's what I do for notes I give as an intern.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing (e.g., plot, grammar, characters, emotions, etc.)?

KZ: I think I cover all of it, really. I'm a total grammar nut, so if someone asks me specifically to check their grammar, I'm happy to. Some don't care as much about those things, though, so I don't bother too much with it unless, again, there's some relatively big mistake that they keep making. I definitely concentrate a lot on character and emotion--I love character driven stories. I think I'm pretty good at judging pacing, too. Unfortunately, I seem better at noticing pacing problems in other people's stories than in my own!


Thanks, Kat! I love “getting that spark of inspiration” after reading a critique of one of my projects. It truly keeps me going.

Remember to bid on Kat’s 5,000-word critique here. Or, just donate a few dollaristas to Crits for Water and win a critique from the glorious Kat Brauer. For serious. *snicker*