Friday, October 3, 2014

When to go one-on-one

At a writers' conference, while waiting for a panel on memoir writing to start, I chatted with the woman sitting next to me. What she really wanted to know, she said, was, "How do you get published?"

This question is so general, and its answer so long and complicated, that I assumed she was in the same place as most of the people who ask it: they've just finished writing a book and are wondering what's next. They know books get published, but they don't know how the process works, nor where to start. Usually, they need the name of a good basic text or a writer's organization that can help them start their education.

Since the woman said she wrote children's books, I gave her the name of SCBWI, which is an excellent place for new children's writers to learn about publishing (since the organization provides new members with a bundle of resource material including how to query agents and editors, sends out a regular news magazine in the field, and hosts conferences that are also an excellent place to learn). But when I gave her the name, her face fell. I could tell she'd been expecting something more, or something else, but I couldn't follow up with her just then as the panel was starting.

During the Q&A she asked the panelists the same question she'd asked me. Upon hearing that she writes for children, they also recommended SCBWI. And then she said that she knew about querying, that she had been doing it for five years and getting nowhere.

She received several suggestions then. One of them--the one I would recommend in this situation--was to get a professional critique. At SCBWI and many other writers' conferences, you can pay a little extra to get a one-on-one session with an agent, editor or published author who goes over your work and gives you personalized feedback. I believe she said she had not had such a critique before, that only friends and family had seen her work. And it's possible that her work is marvelous and it's just a matter of time; a good writer can easily spend five years or more trying to break into this extremely competitive field. On the other hand, after querying for five years without a nibble, I think it's worth consulting with someone in the field just to see if one is on the right track. Is the work of professional caliber? If not, what does the writer need to work on to bring it to that level? Is the work of good caliber but just in a genre or topic that is tough to sell?

A single critique is not necessarily definitive, but it can provide clues, and after two or three a writer will usually see a pattern emerge. If certain suggestions are offered over and over, they're worth paying attention to.

It's very difficult to navigate this field without feedback. The rejection rate is so high, even for high-quality work, that one can rarely tell if rejected work missed by an inch, a foot, or a mile. (Well, if it missed by an inch, the agent or editor will often provide some complimentary feedback; but if it missed by only a foot, the resulting form rejection makes it indistinguishable from a no-way-nohow-go-back-to-school rejection.) I took night classes, workshops, went to writing conferences. I entered contests, attended pitch sessions, joined critique groups, paid for professional critiques. Occasionally I got feedback that was wildly off. But most of what I got was useful in some way. And overall, I could gauge, in a general way, the progress of my work. It was when I started attending SCBWI conferences and hearing working editors talk about what they needed in a manuscript and how deep a revision should go that I finally produced a publishable book.

A one-on-one critique isn't magic. But it provides an opportunity that so many writers wish for: the chance to read beyond the lines of a polite rejection letter, the chance to find out specifically what needs work and what's already working. The chance to ask questions and get personalized answers.


  1. I often like to get at least two professional critiques for one thing I'm working on, just so I could see the similarities and differences between two people's feedback.

  2. This was a great post, Jenn. I've been thinking of trying out the paid critique route, but was worried about the cost-benefit (more of the "cost" really). I'm still not brave enough to do a one-on-one pitch at a conference.

    1. I wouldn't pay hundreds of dollars (unless you're doing an intensive workshop or getting a full manuscript edit), but usually the critiques at conferences aren't that expensive. I thought it would be especially useful in this case where the person didn't seem to have any beta reader within the profession who could help her understand why she wasn't getting any responses. I found it useful myself when I wanted to know if a ms. was really ready for prime time.