Pub Rants

How Honest Do You Want Us To Be?

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STATUS: I spent the day working on a contract, tracking down one that hadn’t shown up, starting negotiations on some deals, and following up on submissions. And just to show you the randomness that sometimes occurs in the day-of-the-life of an agent, I ended up having this whole long conversation with an editor about baby names. We both agreed that we liked strong names for baby girls. She called me about a project and since we know each other well, we just go off on this side conversation.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? GOODBYE AGAIN by John Denver

This is an interesting question I think. Just recently, I participated in a conference workshop called 2-pages, 2-minutes. The premise of the class was that participants could submit the first two pages of their novel anonymously (and there were various workshops that tackled different genres). Then the workshop moderator would simply read aloud the two pages while 2 agents (and the participants who submitted) listened and read along with him. If we, as agents, would have stopped reading the submission, we were supposed to say so and then discuss why we wouldn’t read on. Or if by the end of the two pages, we would have read on, then we would explain are thinking for that as well.

A simple premise, right? Execution was incredibly difficult. Why? Because I have to say I felt a little uncomfortable being that brutally honest. There were some instances where the other agent and I wouldn’t have finished reading the first paragraph of one of the entries but how harsh would it be to say “stop” after reading only a sentence or two? I have to say we fudged a bit and waited until the conclusion of the next paragraph so as not to seem too harsh.

Now, being me, I tried to be honest about why I would have stopped while also offering constructive criticism on what could be changed or if there was an interesting premise or whatever but I have to wonder: how valuable is that? Did we crush any writer spirits? I hope not. I did emphasize that the writers there shouldn’t think this is the end-all, be-all moment of their writing career and that our response simply means that this manuscript isn’t quite ready to take them where they want to be. Still, it’s tough to hear that an agent couldn’t get beyond the first two paragraphs. My question is whether it’s important for participants to hear that.

Do aspiring writers really want us to be that honest?

I’m asking because I have to decide if I want to participate in a workshop like that in the future. Now, the conference organizers did poll the participants and the good majority of them said they did find it enormously helpful. Hum… were they just saying that?

Also, we only had one participant argue with us. When that person did, I just said, “okay, I’m just one opinion” and left it at that.

70 Responses

  1. Kim said:

    Personally, I’d want as honest a critique as possible. How else am I supposed to learn? I’d probably be thinking some rotten things 🙂 but I’d come away with some very useful info.

    If someone can’t take the criticism, they need to seriously rethink whether or not writing is for them. Coating the truth might make them feel better, but it won’t help in the long run.


  2. Beth said:

    These kinds of workshops can be incredibly valuable. Now, occasionally some agents or editors get a little carried away (I remember one saying “stop” after one word had been read. Not kidding.) and start playing to the crowd, but all in all, it’s very informative to see why agents like something and why they don’t. And after enough of these submissions are read out loud, patterns in the agents’ responses start to become apparent. Certain types of openings get rejected every time. And that’s really helpful.

  3. Merry Jelinek said:

    I’m going to agree; yes, it’s dead helpful to get honest criticism. A serious writer will take the ego blow (possibly with a shot of tequila) and then move on to improve.

    You can’t improve your writing skills in a vacuum – this type of critique is both helpful and welcomed by most writers.

  4. Terry Stone said:

    Honestly, I would love this type of critiscm, while being a nervous wreck. I think any time a writer can get a brutally honest opinion from an agent is worth any amount of momentary discomfort.

    I also cannot see getting mad enough over it to argue with the agent, it’s not like you aren’t busy and doing this for the writer’s benefit ;0) That kind of reaction would tell me the writer isn’t ready to be published and take the critiscm from an editor, which would probably be alot harsher, or so I’ve heard.

  5. Anonymous said:

    Yes, a serious writer will want honest feedback, however, this format isn’t the best way in which to garner that. The sensory-overloaded conference isn’t the ideal setting to processing good writing.

    Reading is intimate, conducted in silence, just the book and its reader alone. There’s a completely different effect when one reads aloud a passage versus when reading it to one’s self.

    I like literary fiction read aloud, but commercial and genre just don’t come off as well for me. That said, it’s very easy to identify bad writing quickly.

  6. Reid said:

    Most people don’t want criticism, they want validation. That’s the kind of panel I wouldn’t sit on unless I was behind bullet-proof, spittle-proof glass.

  7. LadyBronco said:


    I am torn on this one. (which is abnormal; fence-leaning is just not me)

    On one hand, I think I would welcome the brtal honesty. If my pages don’t work, of course I want to know why!

    On the other hand, I really would be crushed if my pages were the ones an agent couldn’t get into after the first paragraph, so do I really want to hear that?

    Interesting question.

  8. Susan said:

    Please, please, honesty. If more people were brave enough to give honest feedback about any number of things then there wouldn’t be so many people in the world who think that someone’s being cruel for pointing out a misspelled word, much less an awful plot.

    I think a certain amount of bravery is called for. Myself, I’d rather it was honesty, even if the honest truth is that what I’m writing is horrible, because how can I ever write something that isn’t if people won’t tell me that it’s awful? I know more than a few writers who could really stand to be told that their work is not yet publishable, but they’ve been fed platitudes by so many people that if someone said it now they wouldn’t even believe it.

    You’re a professional. I think if someone asks for your professional opinion, you should give it. Honestly. If someone collapses based on that, that’s their problem, not yours. They’ll recover, more than likely, and those of us who are serious about it can’t get better if everybody lies and says what we’ve written is already terrific but just “not for them”.

  9. thenovicewriter said:

    I don’t think this kind of workshop should be available to beginning writers – for the maintenance of their morale mostly and also to avoid wasting the time of agents, etc. So, I think a workshop like this should be screened to make sure that the writers who are allowed are serious (they have a completed several stories; a manuscript; being published is not necessary). I think this mainly because beginning writers should just be practicing and save the editing for later.

    Having said that, I think honesty is important, as long as it’s coupled with constructive criticism (like you said you offered). That is, telling a writer “This is really boring” without explaining how it could be made interesting is just wrong – it wouldn’t be acceptable in a crit circle and this is what this workshop seems to mimic. For example, if the agent really couldn’t read after the first two sentences, I think the agent should say this explicitly in order to help the writer understand what aspects of the writing turned them off as a reader. (Though I still think the agent should be polite enough to finish the first paragraph before saying the first two sentences turned them off. This way agents can also point out what the writer is doing well and how they should apply that more.)

  10. Julie Rowe said:

    Writing a compelling opening is increadibly tough. I would far rather have you tell me mine sucks at an anonymous workshop than get a generic rejection.

    In fact, sign me up for the next one!

  11. Anonymous said:

    i like what the first anon said. Yes, honest feedback is wanted (very much) by writers struggling in this business. However, spoken out loud, while reading in front of a crowd doesn’t seem to be the most constructive enviromnent.

    For one, the writer being critiqued isn’t going to remember anything you say that’s constructive — only the cruel part. If the comments were written down, even, by the critiquers before hand and given to participants and the ones who didn’t mind could volunteer to read theirs allowed, that might work.

    Other than that — participants should be able to read for say, three minutes (timed) and then comments by agents/editors given — without someone having to be humiliated by not being able to read past one paragraph.

    Of course, I got a big rejection today by a house I really wanted to take my book, so maybe I’m being too sensitive.

  12. The Grump said:

    Personally, I have problems understanding people who can’t accept criticism. They go to conferences, paying good money to be critiqued in one form or other by an agent or editor. Why are they insulted when someone tells them their prose has problems? They WASTE their money if they don’t take the advice and rewrite.

    PS: I assume agents and editors expect to be wasting their time when they agree to such no-win situations.

    PPS: I’m saying this before I attend a conference where I hope to learn if my 90,000 word manuscript should begin where it currently does (female preference) or 2 1/2 pages later (male preference). The worse thing I can imagine happening is NOT getting some constructive criticism.

  13. 2readornot said:

    I think when you offer the ‘why’, then it’s helpful. I like the first pages read and crits better, though, because then everyone has the same opportunity. Sometimes I hear agents say, ‘I wouldn’t have read past the first para, to be honest’ for some writers — but there are times when I, as a listener, agree with that! And it’s amazing how often I could see that the first page was either fascinating/promising — or not. It helped me read my own first pages with more awareness, I think.

  14. The Anti-Wife said:

    I participated in those 2 pages, 2 minutes workshops – not the one Kristin did – and they were brutal, but that’s not a complaint. It isn’t easy to hear that something you’ve worked so diligently on for so long still needs a lot of improvement before it’s ready to submit, but it’s so much better to hear it in that format than to receive dozens of rejection letters with no feedback. And, the agents were willing to provide additional feedback in person after the session if people wanted it.

    My only suggestion is that there be fewer people in each session. Ours was really rushed because our agents tried to give each person useful hints.

  15. Bump in the Night said:

    Yes. Definitely be honest. You’re giving one informed opinion. Writers need informed opinions. We know there are other opinions, but knowing we receive an honest one is important. And honest opinions can be tough to come by if everyone’s trying too hard to be nice.

  16. Lynne Simpson said:

    I think these workshops can be very helpful if done humanely and constructively. If you really would stop reading at a certain point, by all means stop and tell the author why. This is valuable information, and an author with a reasonable level of maturity should be able to hear it without freaking out.

    A previous commenter mentioned something about editors and agents playing to the crowd, and that’s where I think the trouble starts. RWA Idol last year turned into a bad knockoff of MST3K, and I felt it reflected badly on the panel.

  17. Anonymous said:

    I have mixed feelings. Honest feedback from professionals is invaluable, but receiving tough criticism in front of an audience seems potentially demoralizing. Bottomline: any writer who signs up for it better not be fragile.

  18. Kiki said:

    We had a session like that at a conference I attended last year, and it was the one panel everybody had an opinion on. For the remainder of the weekend conference, it seemed that every conversation opened with “Were you in the agent read?”
    As far as I could tell, the opinion of the people present in the room was pretty much 50/50 between negative and positive, but everybody I spoke to who hadn’t been in the room said they heard it was “horrible” and would never submit to that agent.

    One of the participants who had her partial read (and shot down) had to leave the room crying and almost quit the writing business.

    I prefer brutal honesty. I’m a big girl, I can take people disliking what I write. I’d much rather hear honest, harsh feedback than something sugarcoated.

    It doesn’t matter how much you warn participants. Like deadly illnesses, everyone will want to assume that the harsh comments and quick shoot-downs won’t apply to them.

  19. Angelle said:

    I would venture to say that honest feedback is one of the hardest things for a writer to come by – you may not be able to get it from anyone you know, you can’t do it for yourself beyond a certain point, and you certainly can’t buy it.

    It’s the kindest thing you can do, even if it doesn’t feel like it for you.

  20. Katherine E. Hazen said:

    I can see why you wouldn’t want to be too harsh, or put yourself in the situation where the author might argue with you. That said, if you chose to do it again and I was a participant, I would want to know *exactly* where you stopped reading, not a paragraph later to spare my feelings.
    I want to polish the entire thing, but if there’s something in particular that would make you stop reading, I’d really want to know what it is. I may go drink myself into a small stupor for the rest of the night, but hey, it would be worth knowing if it helped my writing, right?

  21. dancinghorse said:

    No writer honestly wants honesty. We all want, “This is brilliant! We’ll buy it right now!”

    But writers need honesty. It’s a tough world out there, and sooner or later, that precious snowflake is going to melt in the glare of rejection. If a writer is so delicate that her spirit can be crushed by the reality of the job, then maybe she should just write for herself and her friends, and not try to get published.

    My agent is brutal when I’m running new projects by him. I want that and I need it, because if I can get a proposal past him, I know for sure it will sell. My editors are much kinder and gentler, and much less difficult to please.

    All that being said, Agent Kristin, it’s your comfort zone that’s the real issue here. If you’re not comfortable with the format, I don’t think you should feel pressured to do it. You do so much else at conferences and elsewhere (including here) that I think you can say, quite honestly, “I gave at the office.”

  22. Anonymous said:

    I was at the conference you are citing- not in your session. It was hard because I thought they would read the whole two pages and give feedback. Not a critique, but the whole two pages and then give feedback. I understand in the slushpile you might only get two sentences. But I thought it was a workshop, the purpose of which would be constructive criticism for writers, not just, ‘No, this doesn’t work.’ None, not only mine did not work in the session I attended by the way. Perhaps, I misunderstood the purpose of the “workshop.”

  23. Kristin said:

    I’d probably go to the workshop, but be unable to submit my own example because it is one thing to receive criticism in private, but another to receive it in a public forum.

    I can see how I could learn a lot in such a workshop…but I don’t think I would necessarily need to use my own writing. Just hearing why an agent would stop reading any number of different queries/pages would be a learning experience in and of itself.

    Is there some way to run such a workshop without using the audience’s writing as the samples? That would be best. Then, you *could* be brutally honest because none of the writers are in the room, and all the people in attendance could learn something valuable.

  24. Imelda said:

    I was at the same conference as Kiki, and I think the short answer to ‘do you want to hear it?’ is no.

    None of us want to hear that our stuff is crap and we especially don’t want to hear it in front of an audience of our peers and from a representative of the industry we are hoping will love us.

    Is it good for us to hear it? Probably, but only if we can take it. Beginning writers, or the sensitive should avoid these sessions.

    They probably won’t though (as Kiki said) so a nice agent like Kristin, who doesn’t like to see people bleed, for her own sake, should avoid these sessions too.

    For the sake of the writers, I would like to see more nice agents, who were willing to give constructive feedback, as well as a yes/no decision in this sort of session.

    So Kristin, to answer your question, the tough among us find these sessions useful, so your decision comes down to whether you can handle handing out the pain!

    Cheers, Imelda

  25. cynjay said:

    This kind of critique would send me flailing for the Ben and Jerry’s New York Superfudge Chunk and day-long marathon session of reruns of What Not to Wear. I would never survive a session like this. But the key here is that I would never sign up for a session like this.

    These authors presumably knew what was coming when they signed up. Only you know if you’re comfortable doing it, and only they know if they’re comfortable receiving it.

  26. An Aspiring Writer said:

    A few years ago I entered a contest which ultimately offered a wonderful learning experience for me. The person who judged my piece was a friend of a friend and she had asked me through her if I wanted feedback. It was my first contest submission, so YES!

    She was honest, brutally honest (without using the word suck), particularly in how she disliked my heroine within the first two paragraphs! WHAT? She was a great heroine, what was she talking about? She explained, first thing she does is move over seas and gives her beloved cat to the old woman next door. The judge was a cat person and she said no cat lover would just give away their cat and from that moment she disliked my heroine. Holy cow! Not good.

    I was stunned (and devastated) … and it was some of the most valuable criticism I could have possibly gotten. Can you imagine setting off half the readers (the cat lovers) in your genre with something so simple as that and not being aware?

    So … yes … honesty, BRUTAL honesty (one can be brutal without being insulting). It’s why we’re there at those workshops, because otherwise, we give away the cat!

  27. Anonymous said:

    I suspect the vast majority of the people who found the session ‘helpful’ were people who watched other people’s work get critiqued. Personally I do want honest, constructive feedback but I would prefer to have it privately. I know it’s anonymous but still…

  28. BuffySquirrel said:

    Heh, I’m always glad the authors aren’t present when I’m reading slush. They don’t need to hear my comments or see me reject their precious writing one paragraph in (or, on one famous occasion, halfway through the first sentence).

    This workshop sounds like one of those undertakings that I would find useful in theory, but could never stand in practice. But if people sign up for it, I guess they should know what to expect. Judging by what I’ve seen, they don’t, but there you go….

    Not that I’m still wondering why you didn’t like my partial :). I’ve moved on. Oh yes.

  29. kitty said:

    Do aspiring writers really want us to be that honest?

    YES! Why do you think Miss Snark’s blog was so popular with aspiring writers? Because she was honest when she critiqued our writing.

  30. Jude said:

    I’d like to think honesty doesn’t have to be brutal. I think where these events sometimes go offcourse is when the panel thinks they need to use sarcasm and mockery to be “entertaining.” Then you get the situation where the audience, or those who enjoy sarcasm, are laughing at the author. Granted, there will always be an audience for that kind of event, but they aren’t the same audience looking for insightful feedback about how to improve their storytelling.

    I think there is nothing wrong by stopping at the first line or two and saying, “I’d stop reading here because the voice isn’t what I am looking for/the voice is similar to a lot of what is on the market already/the use of the passive voice doesn’t make for a dynamic read, etc.

    I think specificity grounded by knowledge and experience is always valuable. It’s harder to extract value from the panel when the editor/agent says, “Stop,” then giggles and says something like, “I don’t like heroes who burp” instead of something like “When you give details about the bodily functions of a hero so early in the story, be aware that your choice to make the hero less attractive sets up a greater challenge (and possible payoff) later when you need to the reader to root for him.”

    Or something. 🙂

  31. bran fan said:

    Two things. First, this session was voluntary. Only those who wanted to be there were there. Second, the manuscripts were submitted anonymously. So, the writers have two-layer protection going into this thing. How dare they whine?

    I would LOVE to go to a session like this, but not only for my own manuscript. I would love to hear what the agents said about other people’s manuscripts as well. Like a good critique group, you learn as much from the crits of other people’s work as you do from the crits of your own.

    I would like to see if my own opinion meshes with the agents’. That would tell me if I was in tune with what is selling now and what is expected of the genre.

    I’m wondering if other people were allowed to attend? That is, if you were too chicken to submit your own manuscript, can you attend the session as a listener? That way, the timid could get the benefits without the criticism.

  32. JDuncan said:

    Kristen, I think there are enough writers out there with thick enough skins who really do like this kind of format to keep doing them…if you like doing them that is. Are you willing to deal with the occasional nitwits at those things who can’t fathom that you didn’t love their two pages? Do you get anything out of doing them? If it’s just a stress test for you, it’s not worth the effort. You do enough other stuff at/for conferences.

    Personally, I would find agent critique of my writing in almost any format valuable. This format was anon anyway, so unless the author was clueless enough to groan aloud or start crying or bolt from the room when you or the other agent said stop after the first three lines, nobody is going to know it was their writing.

    Openings are one of the more difficult parts of the book to nail down well, and obviously you have to be able to do it to grab an agent/editor’s attention and make them want to read more. Feedback on this from you is really, really helpful.


  33. Beth said:

    Anon 7:40 said: For one, the writer being critiqued isn’t going to remember anything you say that’s constructive — only the cruel part.

    Based on my own experience with this kind of workshop, I’d say that’s not necessarily true. I remember–boy, do I remember–what they didn’t like, but I’ll also never forget that they all agreed the actual writing was good.

    Other than that — participants should be able to read for say, three minutes (timed) and then comments by agents/editors given — without someone having to be humiliated by not being able to read past one paragraph.

    In the two Idol-style workshops I’ve attended, a neutral reader* read the submissions anonymously and the agents listened. They stopped the reader when they’d heard enough, and then made comments.

    And you know–this is done on a voluntary basis. Some writers won’t be ready for this, but no one’s forcing them to participate. And for those who are ready, this is, as I said above, an invaluable experience. It’s one thing to get kindly phrased and possibly misguided suggestions from your critique group; it’s quite another to hear what the actual gatekeepers have to say. Eye-opening? You bet. Painful? It can be. But it’s also a look into the realities of publishing, and for some could make the difference between finding an agent and never getting out of the slushpile.

    (*In our case, the reader was Jack Whyte, and honestly, it was worth any amount of soul-shredding to hear our work read in that delicious Scottish baritone)

  34. JanW said:

    I did a pitch session once and was not a happy camper by the time it was over. We paid for the ‘privilege’ as well. The panel was made up of a book publisher, a magazine editor, and a non-fiction publisher. The book publisher didn’t represent a wide range, so if yours wasn’t in their mix, it was highly unlikely your work would pass muster. I felt humiliated in spite of knowing all that.

    So honesty needs to be in context and all of the parameters exposed up front. I just went outside and said a few blue words and kept writing. Other might not be so thick-skinned.

  35. Anonymous said:

    Honesty is the best policy and for me I would want the agent to be honest. Even if you said stop after one word (as somebody mentioned in the comments) I would accept that as long as you can back up your reasoning and explain why.

    Paul Phillips

  36. Janny said:

    We had a similar session at a workshop years ago–it was one editor, reading entries anonymously as they were projected on an overhead screen so literally, the whole room could read along. I found it priceless.

    Some people in the room thought it completely unreasonable that an editor could say “yea” or “nay” within sentences, let alone pages–but the fact is, within the first few seconds, you know if something grabs you or not. And with the caveat that all of this is subjective, yes, please be honest.

    For people who quail at the very thought of having their stuff read out loud, in public, face to face…hey, that’s how my crit group always did it. You read your own stuff, out loud, in the present, to a room full of people who then had at it. We had rules, principles, and guidelines for critiquing–you needed to avoid saying words like “sucks”(!). But many of us are now published who would have had a lot longer row to hoe if all we’d had was silent reading and occasional feedback, or guessing at why something was rejected. Was it tough at times? Sure. Was it scary? Sure. Was it helpful? Undeniably.

    This is a voluntary exercise, and as such, you pays your money and you takes your chances. But how much better to hear why something’s not working right on the spot than to wait a year or more for an editor to get around to saying the same thing in a form letter!

    My take,

  37. Karen said:

    What is the point of going through the exercise unless the critique is honest? It doesn’t have to be brutal, but it should be honest. If a writer submits pages knowing what the rules are, he or she should be prepared to hear the truth–and deserves to hear the truth.

  38. takoda said:

    If I ever have the opportunity to attend one of these sessions, I would want complete honesty. Otherwise, I would feel it’s a waste of my time and money. (but hopefully, simon cowell won’t be on the panel!)


  39. Kimber An said:

    I value honest criticism delivered with good manners, but I prefer to receive it in private. I need time to digest it, mentally and emotionally. There’s no way I can do that face-to-face, in front of a group, and within two minutes!

    There’s got to be a more efficient way to receive critical feedback from agents and editors at a conference.

    I would much rather attend workshops on-

    1) the preferred structuring of novels for the currant market by genre and subgenre,

    2) navigating the myriad of subgenres,

    3) how many novels should an author put out in one year based on a variety of factors,

    4) and how quickly are authors expected to take a novel from rough draft to submission-ready manuscript.

    Actually, these could probably be lumped together in one or two workshops.

  40. Anonymous said:

    I just paid $35 for a manuscript eval at a conference (first 10 pages plus synopsis) and I felt it was a waste of money. Why?

    The agent beat around the bush. Wouldn’t come out and say what he didn’t like. I wound up interrogating him. I expected (and wanted) him to be critical. That’s how we writers improve. Sure, I would have been crushed if he had said something harsh, but better at the conference stage than at the querying stage, when you think you are submitting your best.

  41. Anonymous said:

    I value honest criticism delivered with good manners, but I prefer to receive it in private. I need time to digest it, mentally and emotionally. There’s no way I can do that face-to-face, in front of a group

    Well, in essence you are private, because the submissions are anonymous and nobody knows it’s yours being critiqued, unless they happen to be personally familiar with your work.

    Be that as it may, these workshops aren’t for everyone. But even those not submitting something can learn from them.

  42. Rob said:

    I for one know that my writing skill is probably my weakness. I don’t think I’m terrible, but I certainly would expect re-write recommendations. I think that self-acknowledgement is a strength because I am not married to my specific words. I want honest feedback and am prepared to make word-smith changes and other changes.

    I find reading about wannabe non-published writers arguing with agents, publishers, and others instructing these workshops amusing. As writers (and wannabes) we are trying to sell a product (book) to a customer (agent/publisher). How many salespeople are successful arguing with a customer, especially when the customer knows more about competing products than the seller?

  43. Stuart said:

    If a writer is really at the stage to be submitting to agents, then yes. He/she needs that brutal honesty.

    If a writer is not really ready but is throwing their work to the wolves in the lottery bid for gratification, then no. He/she needs a pat on the back and to be shown the right direction, not brutal honesty.

    The problem with that format is, you (the agent) don’t know which place the writer is in.

    Personally, I would’ve thrown my pages in and left with comments to work on (assuming the feedback was negative), but I’ve developed a thick skin these past few years. Back in 2000, a public grilling coud’ve ended any writing career before it began.

    But knowing you KN (through the blog), your comments were probably framed well enough to not cursh any wilted spirit. 🙂

  44. Jim Stewart said:

    Just speaking for myself:


    If I was in that circumstance I would like you to be that honest. I am currently really struggling with beginnings. I am confident with my current project that if somebody gets to page twenty or thirty of my current project, they will not want to put it down.

    But I am sure I am not at the point yet where a person in the bookstore who reads the first two or three pages would say “I have to buy this!” (or, more to the point right now, an agent reading it would say “I have to represent this guy.”)

    On the other hand, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to do this. Most claim to want brutal honesty, but really don’t. When people learn their manuscripts aren’t ready, they want to shoot the messenger.

    By telling people the truth, you are doing them a real favor. And don’t forget that no good deed goes unpunished.!

  45. Jellybean said:

    Be honest. Brutally honest.

    For my part, if a project isn’t working at sentence one, I want to know before I start shopping the manuscript around. Yes, it hurts, but the pile of rejection slips in my future would hurt more.

    As long as participants are duly warned about exactly what the session is going to be like, I think raw (but not unkind) honesty is the way to go.

  46. Loreth Anne White said:

    The best workshop I ever attended was a casual, late-night (and long) session by Natasha Kern held at the Victoria RWA chapters conference in Victoria some years ago. I didn’t have any work ready to submit for the workshop at that stage — I was still in that ‘unconscious-incompetence’ stage of the learning-to-write-fiction curve — but I believe that workshop set me on the road to getting published.

    It showed me how an agent or editor thinks when she/he has a submission (synop and chapters in hand.) The author would start to read into a mic from the chapters, and Natasha would raise her hand at some point, and tell the author to stop, and switch to reading from the synop. Then she’d tell them to stop again, and return to reading from the chapters at whatever point she would have done so herself. She’d tell them to stop, again, at whatever point she would have stopped reading the submission. And all the while she explained what she was thinking — and why– and asked further questions of the author.

    They were brave souls who got up there, and Natasha was brutally honest, but always incredibly respectfully so. If anyone might have taken offence, it would have been their loss. Interestingly, some of those who did get up to read are well along into award winning careers now.

    Personally, I went home armed with valuable insight — sat down, ‘ripped up’ what I had written so far, and crafted a romance that sold. And I do believe that one agent’s workshop went a long way towards helping me do it.

    I haven’t started an agent search, yet, but I know that Natasha will be one of the top on my list when I do :). I like the way she thinks — her workshop showed me that. And her ‘critiques’ also showed her clear appreciation and passion for the written word.

    So yes, I think this kind of workshop, when done well, really can help a writer, as long as the writer approaches with a the ‘right’ attitude. It also showcases the agent — if that’s any consideration.

    I do however think some of these kinds of workshops can veer into ‘entertainment’, perhaps at the expense of authors feelings. The tone of the workshop — and an honest businesslike approach is key in my mind.

  47. Marsupialis said:

    I think the evalutation you describe is very useful. But let’s be clear on a few things. This is not a workshop whose purpose generally finds writers sitting around discussing the work of another writer with the aim of helping the writer under consideration realize their vision and intent. This evaulation is an insight into the real-world processes of a working agent. Anyone who submits to it should be prepared for rejection and plenty of it. That Kristin and the other panelists actually offer some concrete reasons for their evaluation and suggestions for change is a bonus. Most rejection letters simply say variations on “Not for us” with no explanation — leaving us dangling.

  48. Patricia W. said:

    Yes. With restrictions.

    I agree with novicewriter. Should be restricted to those who have finished a manuscript, indicating some degree of seriousness/experience. That would knock me out right now but I’m well on my way to being ready next year. And with what I’m learning about writing craft and the industry, I’d be mentally ready too.

  49. Laura Kramarsky said:

    Honestly, I prefer honesty. Having read your blog for ages, I know you wouldn’t be hard-hearted and say something like “well, this person clearly doesn’t have English as her first language,” as one of my professors once said about a colleague’s writing.

    I actually posted on the topic of hearing things you don’t want to hear from agents/editors when I got back from Sleuthfest.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing this in a public forum because the information is often useful for everyone, but I do think it’s better, in that kind of forum, to stick to comments that are more general — “I need to know what genre you are writing within the first couple pages”, “There’s too much backstory in the beginning”, that kind of thing, rather than “your grammar is the pits.”

  50. writtenwyrdd said:

    I’d want to know the honest truth. If I am going to bomb, I want to know so I can improve. And I won’t like it one bit, either. But my stinky writing isn’t the agent’s problem.

  51. Anonymous said:

    I think that knowing where an agent would stop reading my pages would be very helpful. Having a very honest critique could be painful, but no one should be participating in those types of panels for a feel good session. They should be there to increase their chances of being published.

    I do wonder how you can tell after a sentence or two that you would not like a book. Is this a matter of those sentences containing very bad grammar? Or were they simply not interesting enough? I am a very picky reader, yet I’ve never set down a book based on the first line, or even paragraph. If the opening doesn’t hook me, I at least skim the first page or two. The opening lines of many of my favorite books wouldn’t pass that test.

  52. V said:

    Of course you should be honest. Constructive criticism is nice, but not really necessary. Go ahead, be brutal. Even if you stop after the first sentence.

    If the writer can’t handle criticsm and negative statements, then they shouldn’t be submitting their stories. I’ve gotten lots of negative and brutal (and even insulting) feedback. It’s never stopped me.

  53. Abby Gaines said:

    Be honest, please, even blunt, but not rude. I’ve attended these events at several conferences both in my unpubbed days and as a pubbed author (and I’ll be the one you’re doing in New Zealand in August!). I’m happy with extreme bluntness, a la Kate Duffy, even when it’s directed at my own work. But I’ve also seen out-and-out insulting rudeness (not from Ms. Duffy, whose candor I admire even if I could never hope to emulate it), and I think that goes too far.

    I do think these sessions are incredibly valuable, and not just for your input – the first one I attended, the most useful thing was seeing just how similar all the pages were that people were submitting. A real lesson in cliche, freshness, etc.

    So, please continue to do these, they are great learning experiences on more than one level.
    See you in NZ!

  54. Eika said:

    It’s why I love(d) Miss Snark: Sometimes, we just need the truth. If we want to write, we have to deal with all this; most of us (including me) find it better to KNOW what to fix.

    We just allow ourselves a few minutes to be indignant and mad first.

  55. Cab Sav said:

    Be honest. It’s a workshop, and people are there to learn. It hurts, yes, but it’s invaluable not just for the feedback on how to improve that particular piece, but also to make us more professional. If we want to become published we have to become used to how they feel about our work. Not everyone will like our books.

  56. Bernie said:

    Ms. Nelson,

    Your honesty is what first caught my attention. And it is the reason I continue to read Pub Rants regularly. Keep being honest.

    As far as the first two pages goes, you might want to emphasize before starting just how strong the first sentence/paragraph/etc. ABSOLUTELY MUST be.

    Thank you.

  57. Anonymous said:

    I’d want the honest critique, even it’s brutal. Otherwise, what is the use of the workshop, and why am I even there?

    So your writerly vanity gets a few dents. It all falls back to that old cliche of “no pain, no gain”. I’d leap at the chance to attend one of these workshops.

  58. Travis Erwin said:

    As a one time high shool football ref, in the state of Texas no less where football is king, there is nothign that any agent or editor could say about me or my work to hurt my feelings.

    I prefer honesty and candor so I can fix the problems in my writing.

  59. Tabitha said:

    I’m not published yet, but I’m determined to be a career author one day. In order to do this, I need to know where my writing and story are weak, and what I need to learn in order to make them stronger. So, yes, I want complete honesty with as many suggestions as possible.

    That said, I’ve been honing my craft and learning the publishing field for the past six years. Had I attended a workshop like this at the beginning of those six years, I might have taken it a pretty hard. But I also would have found a way to shake it off, take the valuable information I’d attained, and gotten to work. After all, how often do you get feedback like this from an editor or agent?

    I think any writer with the intent to be an author would do the same, whether she’s a beginner or seasoned.


  60. Ciar Cullen said:

    I think anything beyond the rejection letter with on a full that’s more than “I just didn’t love it enough” would be invaluable. But if that’s all the feedback you can honestly hand out (I can imagine sometimes it’s simply that–you cannot put your finger on it; it’s the voice, or some intangible), then it would be woefully frustrating. Specifics are really helpful. “I don’t like it” publicly is not much better or worse than “I don’t like it” via email or letter.

    Of course, sometimes all I can say about a book I’ve read is “meh” without really knowing why.

  61. Allison Brennan said:

    FWIW, I would rather know something I wrote was crap and why before I submitted it to agents. Sometimes, you really only get one shot. Getting that kind of feedback is invaluable because it’s rare from someone in the business. It IS subjective and I had agents reject the manuscript I ultimately sold, but at the same time, I did find value in learning why agents rejected my manuscript. (Usually when they request the full they give you more than one sentence about what they didn’t love about it.)

    Writers have to develop a thick skin, both published and unpublished. It’s hard to hear criticism, but necessary.

  62. Termagant 2 said:

    Janny, I vividly remember the panel discussion to which you refer. If I recall, after a while you and I stood along the back wall whispering, “Let’s stop right here” after the editor read the first two words…

    That said, how many times have you heard, “But you need to read the whole thing (submission, contest entry, book) in order to get it!” The obvious answer, brutal but true, is no, you don’t. As an average, how much of our submissions are the agents & editors reading? A paragraph? A page? A sentence? Ten per cent?

    I’d rather have the honest appraisal, but I’m glad I didn’t submit an excerpt to the panel I remember so well.

    It’s only funny if it’s not your work up there being dissed so concisely.


  63. Kanani said:

    Well, there are different kinds of critiques.

    One is in a workshop, where you’re trying to refine your prose, sharpen the pace, define the plot, make the character resonate in some way with the reader.

    It’s a slightly different type of feedback that’s needed, just so that the writer gains the skills tofinish the book.

    Later on, in the final draft, it’s yet another type of feedback needed, that answers the questions…
    Is this making sense? Is this going to pique the reader’s interest? Should I consider starting it at another spot in the novel?

    And then of course, there is yours, the agents. And you’re looking at it from yet another vantage point, which is equally valid: “Can I sell this? Will I be able to make a profit?”

    Hopefully, the writer has gotten great feedback from the prior 2 rounds before they reach you, so that your answer is yes!

    But here’s the other truth, and I’ve seen it all too often.

    There’s a chance the writer has been told everything you’re telling him or her before in the prior 2 rounds. Only they discounted it because it came from peers, not from an agent.

    So if anything, you need to be very honest because maybe they’ll listen to you.

    And in answer to the question how much does a person need to read to know whether or not a writer has the chops… well… I think Evil Editor’s 300 word limit tells a lot, though frankly, you can tell by the first few sentences.

  64. Clive said:

    Since getting a genuinely wonderful novel published is similar to winning a state lottery, you may as well spit it out like it is. The ones that go away and never write again will at least be spared years of continuing rejection…

  65. Carradee said:

    Honesty, please!

    Yeah, it can hurt when a friend points out a short story has a MAJOR plot hole, or when a friend thinks your tentative title for a work is positively stupid, or if a friend grimaces and says a chapter flopped. (Particularly when you’re a new writer at 14 and your toughest critic is age 8.)

    But if it weren’t for all my wonderfully brutal friends, and one in particular with a writing style that’s almost opposite mine, I wouldn’t have learned nearly so much in the past 6 years. I also realize, though, that many writers don’t have such honest friends, and therefore lack the skin that steady critique brings.

    I remember being sensitive at first, and argued my points sometimes at first, but I was nonetheless considering what they said. Sometimes, I realized it was a stylistic issue. Sometimes, I realized the reader complaints was actually a symptom of a worse problem. And for some critiques I just have to shake my head and sigh, since I’ve noticed that passive readers tend to hate my work since I don’t hand all the details on a copper platter.

    I actually ask for first-line critique, sometimes, stating a line and asking others what they think. And the responses to that one line can tell a lot. “Tammy had failed by one question” seems to be an interesting opening line for a lot of females, but a guy’s response is “So?” One little word, and it says so much.

    Responses to another one even helped me notice a problem in my writing style. I use language a bit oddly, and I now know I have to keep an eye out for using it too oddly. (The line was “People started realizing I lacked my marbles when I announced I was ready for field work.” The response I received? “Say what?” or a blank look.)

    If people had not been honest with me, I doubt I’d be able to write half as well as I can today. The Lord has blessed me with honest friends, and I’m very grateful for that.

    P.S. If I’m getting annoying with all my chatter, please let me know. I do accept being told to shut up.

  66. Wayne Barber said:

    I attended the Back Space Conference in NYC last year, the very one Kristin mentioned and i was in the session where feelings were bruised.The feedback was honest ,electric and very very useful.She stopped in midsentence in the middle of my third paragragh.”Iwould stop here,this writer has committed a classic beginner’s mistake.”
    I fell into a bit of backstory trying to pump up my hero in the middle of an action scene. A year later I absolutely understand the gravity of my mistake.The long flight back to San Francisco gave me time to ‘respawn’and pushed to rewrite and rewrite.Yes the work is stronger and some am I.

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