Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Accidental Critique

If you’ve ever had the same manuscript critiqued by multiple agents and editors at conferences and received wildly different feedback from each one, raise your hand. (Wow. I see lots of virtual hands going up.)

Now, if you’ve ever had the same manuscript accidentally critiqued twice by the same agent or editor and received wildly different feedback from him or her, raise your hand. (Mine just went up.)

Here’s the gist of what happened:

Critique session 1: I sat down with Editor X for my conference critique. Editor X first apologized. She got sidetracked and wasn’t able to read my manuscript before we met. Would I mind if she read it now? Um, no. After some deft speed reading, she gave the manuscript a mixed review. She had problems with the plot. The characters could be stronger. Maybe it would work better as two books instead of one. Oh brother.

Critique session 2: A few conferences later, I was accidentally paired with Editor X again for a critique of the exact same manuscript (with a few minor changes). Of all the dirty, rotten luck. I braced for round 2.

To my surprise, Editor X gave the same manuscript--she’d read it in advance this time—a completely different critique. A glowing critique. Heck, one of the best darn critiques I ever got. This time, Editor X said the plot was intriguing. The characters were strong. The book worked. If I cut 50 manuscript pages, it would probably get published. Yahoo!

Why was Editor X’s second critique so different from the first? Was it because she was better prepared? Less rushed? Had she just downed a triple latte?

Who knows? But it reminded me of something I tend to forget. Editors and agents are people too. They have good days and bad days. Rushed days and slow days. Sometimes, the difference between a good critique and a bad one is beyond your control. All you can do is keep believing in yourself and keep writing.

And it probably wouldn’t hurt to bring an extra cup of Starbucks to your next critique either.


  1. Hmmm.

    Interesting. Did she remember you from the first go around?

  2. that is a GREAT story - and I think I've even done this to myself and others - reading a story once with one idea of it then a reread having a different impact

  3. Although critiques can be and are important. We must remember, critiques are like opinions and opinions are like (I'll be nice) belly buttons, everybody has at least one.

  4. I like Bish's analogy...
    Question is, which is better an "inny" or an "outy"?

  5. Critiques are risky to a writer's ego. You can be paired with an editor who just doesn't like the voice, or the plot, or the style, when the editor down the hall might have loved the whole shebang.

    That said, even if you don't quite connect with the critiquer, there is usually some great truth revealed about the writing. Some wonderful writing nugget that sticks with you forever.

  6. this is hilarious. i agree, agents and editors are people, but in my opinion, two wildly divergent critiques of the same manuscript suggests to me that this editor is a sloppy reader who doesn't pay attention.

  7. I don't know if this makes me feel better or worse. Interesting story, Janice. How many pages did she read in front of you?

    I once had to read my work in front of an audience at a retreat. The editor I was paired with thought my manuscript was a bit, um, cheesy when she read it, but didn't feel that way when I read it out loud. I mean...WTF?

    Does that mean I should have taken up acting?

  8. I agree with Martha. Doesn't this story have a relationship to how writers change their opinions?

    How about admiring what you've written on Tuesday and on Thursday you know it's mostly crap?

  9. S.L.: If she remembered me from round 1, she didn't let on. I attribute it to her frazzled state.

    Martha: I agree. If I read a manuscript when I'm in a crabby mood, my critique shows it.

    Bish: The protagonist in Song of Solomon didn't have a belly button. Does a fictional character count? :-)

    Meg: An inny is better, unless you're an extrovert.

    J.A.: I hope I get the editor down the hall.

    Val: I agree

    Robin: I don't remember how many pages she read in front of me...Maybe you should also take a stab at screenwriting.

    Gale: I'd give it another read on Friday and hope for the best.

    Thanks for your great comments, everyone.

  10. Well, I think you handled the situation like a pro. It must have been tremendously hard not to scream, "DON'T YOU REMEMBER ME? YOU'VE SEEN THIS BEFORE!!!"

    Yeah, I wouldn't do that either...

  11. But what if you're from ONYC? Then you're an outy.

  12. Wow! What a story! I've heard the same is true for professors grading papers. Did she grade yours before or after the glass of wine? :)

  13. Corey: That professor story cracked me up. By the way, I had a glass of wine after these two critiques. The first was to console myself. The second, to celebrate. ;-)

  14. Hey, wait a minute! My father was a professor....

    Oh, wait - his filing system was zip-lock biggies thumb tacked to the wall!

  15. Meg: My mom still is a professor, so I know it's true. (Hi mom: If you happen to be reading this. I'm kidding!)

  16. Have you ever started a book, hated it, put it down and then picked it up again, only to love it? Sometimes I think it's just the phases of the moon. So it makes sense that editors and agents can feel the same way.

  17. Hey Toni: Yes, it's the phases of the moon...and the alignment of the stars.