Pub Rants

Post Workshop Debrief

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STATUS: Slow but steady. Have two contracts to tackle tomorrow.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? PAPERBACK WRITER by The Beatles
(I’m not even kidding! Strange coincidences on what is actually playing when I’m writing up my blog entry.)

So how did it go last night? Well. I think. Somebody who attended might actually want to chime in here.

Here’s what we did:

1. We began the evening with our customary warning. That we are going to be bluntly honest but we will also try and be encouraging and helpful. Also, if anyone decided they didn’t want their piece read, they could opt out at any time. No one took us up on that offer. That always surprises me.

2. Once we did the disclaimer, we jumped right in to reading the pages. We had one of the workshop organizers, Denise, do the reading aloud of the entry. Kate and I followed along with the copy we had. I can’t just be read aloud to. I need to see it on paper or on screen and read along with it. As Denise read, if we would have stopped reading, Kate and I spoke up and said “stop.” Then explained why.

I actually don’t know how many 2-page entries we were able to get to in the 2-hour segment we allotted for the workshop. I think we did around 20. Here’s the general breakdown:

–out of the 20 we read, Kate and I would have asked for sample pages from just 1 of the projects read. That’s actually pretty good! I have done this workshop where I wouldn’t have asked for any. And what was really interesting is that everyone in the room knew it while it was being read. The audience’s attention was caught and engaged. You could tell by the reaction. People leaned forward in their chairs a little while listening. They reacted when it was funny. People just paid closer attention. So the workshop attendees sensed it just as we did. Fascinating. You folks know more than you think you do.

–of the 19 we would have passed on, I’d say that for at least 12 of those, we did not reach the second page before we would have stopped. For some of those 12, we knew by the second paragraph that the project wasn’t going to work for us. Reasons for that? Level of the writing wasn’t where it needed to be yet.

Some interesting things to note.

1. Kate and I had one entry that was read to the second page before we stopped the reader. But when we did say stop, it was at the same time. We both said that something was off about the entry and it was hard to put our finger on the why of it. It wasn’t because the writing was bad or anything like that. It was because we didn’t feel engaged in the story unfolding. Hard to give feedback on such a vague reaction but it’s often true. There is nothing technically wrong with the piece. It’s just not something that makes us read on.

2. Many of the NOs were because the writer started with one of the following:
–starting the story in the wrong place
–opening with a scene that was just too mundane (like a person waking up in the morning)
–action scenes that weren’t going to play a part later in the story. In other words, writers have been told to grab our attention right away but they weren’t given any other guidance on how to effectively do that. Starting with a huge action scene and then on page 2 having the reader realize that it was just a dream is not very effective. Also, the action scene has to be integral to the central conflict of the story. Otherwise, it doesn’t serve a purpose. A great action opening is only going to take you so far if it’s not connected to the plot.

So remember, action with a purpose….

After about 8 entries were read, I stopped the session and took the temperature of the room. How was everyone doing? Had we destroyed any dreams forever because that’s not what we wanted to do. Should we continue?

Everyone wanted us to push on so we did.

We also wanted the attendees to hear some openings that worked, so both Kate and I brought in the opening 2 pages from clients we had signed.

We thought that would be a nice change of pace from the carnage. Grin. Not to mention it might help demonstrate when writing works.

There it is in a nutshell.

37 Responses

  1. Natalie Aguirre said:

    Thanks for the great post. Even though you might have stopped on page one of my manuscript too, I wish I could have been there. It would have been so helpful. Your observation #2 on why you stopped reading is very helpful & interesting.

  2. twaddleoranything said:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m always eager to garner industry insights, as I’m sure the majority of writers are. It’s great to get a realistic viewpoint that’s presented so kindly!

  3. twaddleoranything said:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m always eager to garner industry insights, as I’m sure the majority of writers are. It’s great to get a realistic viewpoint that’s presented so kindly!

  4. Melissa said:

    This would actually be a good online “contest” for some enterprising blogger. The two pages could be e-mailed in (in plain text), and then the reader/agent(s) could post the entry with a big red STOP and their reasons.

  5. Anonymous said:

    Kristin, Congrats on Soulless winning an Alex Award as one of the ten best adult books that appeal to teen audiences!

  6. Kristi said:

    I thought it was an awesome experience and I appreciate the time that you and Kate took to do it. I’ll be blogging next week about all the helpful info I learned. Thanks!

  7. Anonymous said:

    “We both said that something was off about the entry and it was hard to put our finger on the why of it.” That happens to me in my own writing. Critters try and can’t put their fingers on it either. Very frustrating. I shelve it for a while, say a year or more. Inevitably, it turns out that it’s because it was just one little bit of a much bigger story which unfolds out of my imagination and wraps itself around the little bit. Then, it works.

    Very frustrating, but it generally means, for me, that the story needs to ‘cook’ a while longer before I start writing it down.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Hey! I’d love to attend one of your workshops. Have you ever done/will you ever do a workshop in Arizona?

  9. Jonathon Arntson said:

    Man, I love that song. I appreciate this post because you are so detailed! You do, however, seem to be surprised at the lengths to which desperate authors will go to find out what they need to do.
    Despite the surprise, you still deliver the goods. Thanks.

  10. Scott Free said:

    Thanks for this rundown, Kristin! Now I know, when my dreams are crushed, that the agents really didn’t mean anything by it.
    No, kidding. 😉 Very helpful. I’m now thinking I may have a chance with my opening…

  11. D. Antone said:

    I am a member of SCBWI, and I would have loved to be part of a session like this.

    One of the most frustrating things for me to deal with is getting a query back with a ‘no thank you’ and no specifics. I don’t blame the agent, I realize how busy they are. However, I find this kind of blunt feedback extremely helpful.

    And speaking of openings, I’ve been experimenting with this idea…I’ve written a very quirky story about a nonsensical character named Salt Shaker Claw Man. I thought, what would happen if I just told the reader that I knew they’d like SSCM? So I opened with: You’ll like Salt Shaker Claw Man, everybody does.

    The response I’ve gotten at readings has been tremendous. The children’s response is always “why?” And the story tells them.

    Reading to your target audience can give you very useful feedback.

  12. Moth said:

    I want to know which openings of your clients’ were picked. Just to see for myself what a good example of opening pages would be.

  13. Jill Edmondson said:


    Sounds like a good session, and a good learning experience. Cruel to be kind… necessary, whether we like it or not.

    I never attended a reading session like that, but I see the value in it and think it would be constructive and more than helpful. If I were in the room I would take notes on all that was said and on the physical reactions of the audience.

    Cheers, Jill
    “Blood and Groom” is now in stores!

  14. K. E. Carson said:

    Sounds likea productive day. No one got upset and some valuable tips were given. I would love to attend one of these workshops. Sounds very interesting.

    Thanks for the debriefing, Kristin.

  15. Jeff King said:

    “You folks know more than you think you do.”

    That’s the worst part about writing. You can tell what bad writing is with someone else’s work.

    Once you try and judge your own work, it always comes across great or at least good, because the story is inside you.
    I hate over looking mistakes and weaknesses in my own work that I would normally see in other writers work.

    Maybe that is the secret, learning to actually see what you write, not to see what you think you wrote…

    With a lot of work and effort, hopefully that will come in time.

  16. Anonymous said:

    This was a really cool post. I had the opportunity to participate in a similar workshop at a conference, and the most important lesson I came away with is that the opening sentences are the most crucial in the entire manuscript.

  17. Joyce Lansky said:

    We do something like this at the Midsouth SCBWI conference. It’s always fascinating and helpful. I would love to see the first couple of pages from your requested manuscript. Any chance of a post?

  18. Brandon said:


    This sounds like an utterly terrifying experience for the would-be writers. And yet, I hope to someday get that sort of brutally honest, yet well-intended feedback when my manuscript is ready for such a thrashing. Perhaps we’re all masochists, eh? 🙂

  19. Guinevere said:

    I’m glad it went well. Painful as it is, that seems like such a helpful event for writers who think they’re ready to query agents! I wish I could go.

  20. Karen said:

    I would have loved to participate in such an insightful workshop! But in the meantime you’ve given me hope in mentioning how well the inner person does at catching the mood. I had a trusted friend read through my opening paragraph and taking her comments to heart changed it dramatically. Now she loves it. Amazing how just a little bit of effort and understanding can change the whole feel of the story. Thank you for your wonderful insight and expertise you’re so willing to share!

  21. Kelly said:

    That is so interesting! I’m sure all attendees got something out of the workshop. (They are brave for sharing, but then again, they know what wonderful feedback they will get!)

  22. Anonymous said:

    I attended the workshop and found it a fascinating opportunity to be a fly on the wall of what it’s like in an agent’s world. Your candor and openness was appreciated, although that’s easy for me to say, as my pages weren’t read. 😉

    Thank you to you and Kate for sharing your time and feedback!

    Beth Christopher

  23. Dara S. said:

    Well it sounds like it was a good experience then for all those who attended. I’d love to take part in a workshop like that.

    Brutal honesty is generally the only thing that gets through to me in my writing. It does hurt sometimes but I always realize it’s for the best in the end.

  24. Jessica Strider said:

    Thanks for the post. From the other side of the table, I had a first page similarly critiqued at an writing event. The comments it received were invaluable and showed me how much I still need to learn. I read several books on the craft of writing (something I’d never considered doing before because I just ‘knew’ what I was doing). You can always learn more, and brutal as these panels can be, they’re a great way to discover specifics of what you need to work on.

  25. michael said:

    “Action with a purpose.” I would be willing to bet those who opened with an action scene that had nothing to do with the rest of the story are fans of the film adventures of James Bond and Indiana Jones.

  26. Melissa Pearl said:

    That sounds like such a great workshop! I don’t suppose you feel like a trip down to New Zealand for a repeat, do you 🙂
    Thanks for sharing the details. All these little pieces of information are so helpful in my writing journey.

  27. cynjay said:

    The fact that the entire audience knew what was good only shows how much writers need a wise and brutal critique group. While we all want to hear that our writing is stunning, we NEED to hear when it stinks.

    Forget the nice guys – go for brutal honesty.

  28. Debbie Maxwell Allen said:

    I’m posting quite late, but wanted to add that I attended this workshop, and learned so much. The biggest thing was that if an agent doesn’t like something, that doesn’t mean another agent won’t love it.

    Since Kristin and Kate both mentioned that they felt it was cliche to open a novel with a character who wakes up, I was really curious to see what they’d think of my first chapter. Yes, my character wakes up, but it’s after 100 years. Sadly, my 2 pages were the *next* in the pile, when the workshop ended.

    Thank you so much, Kristin, for the feedback for all of us!