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 www.critters.org.

Another online suggestion I have:  Cyber-stalk evileditor.blogspot.com 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.

www.critters.org 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.


Stephanie said...

Great interview!! Lots of great tips!!!! Sarah seems so so great!!! Hoping to one day be one of her clients!! :)

Anonymous said...

Great timing for this interview! I recently won not just one, but three crits. I was expecting to cry a little and maybe have a pity party when I read the comments. I even pre-emptively ate a bowl of chocolate ice cream.
To my great surprise, even though my ten page sample was ripped to shreds, I was happy, giddy even! Finally, I had the kind of feedback that would let me take that next step in revising my draft.
Thanks for this interview!

Erin L. Schneider said...

I was lucky to attend Sara's webinar on Query Letters (via Writer's Digest) a couple of weeks ago. All participants were allowed to submit their query for critique - and I will tell you, her feedback was invaluable! I can only imagine what a critique of a manuscript would be like - think I'll be heading over to Kat's website now!

Great interview!

Lydia Sharp said...

This is simply fabulous. Thank you so much!

Sara said...

Thank you all for the kind comments! And thank you, Mary, for the wonderful interview!

school_of_tyrannus said...

These are such wise words! I really appreciate this interview, and it comes at such an opportune time as I am going through a major revision!
Without a doubt, the thing that's helped me grow most as a writer is editing unpublished MS. It's amazing how I'll never notice "problem area A" in my own writing until I see I clouding up my crit partner's work.
Thanks so much for this!
-Ellie Ann Soderstrom

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Fabulous interview! I'm mid-revision on a difficult project and needed this advice. Thanks so much!

Sarah said...

Fabulous advice--facing that blank page again after you've written the whole story (or thought you did) can be truly scary at first, but it feels so much better to make those improvements to the book. I'm waiting for feedback from my agent on my new project and she's already let me know I'm going to be rewriting the beginning (and I agree with her). I know she'll give me good guidance about how to do that, though, which makes it easier to face!

Anita said...

What an awesome twist; an AGENT giving criterly advice. You rock Mary! Good insights on revisions. They are a necessary evil in this biz.

Marybk said...

Lots of love in these comments! Thanks, all, for stopping by!

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