Pub Rants

The Toughest Workshop To Give

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STATUS: I know it’s hard to believe but I just forget to blog yesterday. It hit my mind around 4 pm. I told myself I needed to do 2 more things and then pop on to blog. I did my tasks, left for home, didn’t even think about it later as I often blog from home. I just totally forgot.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SOLITARY MAN by Chris Isaak

Tonight, along with Agent Kate Schafer Testerman, I’m speaking at the Smiley library for our local chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). The workshop is full so if you’re local, you won’t be able to just pop in.

Kate and I are going to do the two pages workshop. This is the class where participants bring the opening 2 pages of their manuscript. We pretend that we are sitting in our office reading the slush pile. If we would have stopped reading, we say “stop” and then we explain why.

I always do this workshop with much trepidation. You got to be ready for brutal honesty. It’s so not for the faint of heart. There’s a big difference between getting a rejection letter by email versus being told so at point blank—regardless of how nice or helpful we try to be when being so bluntly honest. And that is our goal tonight. Encouraging, helpful, but not pulling the punch.

A lot of what we’ll hear tonight will be from writers who aren’t quite ready for agent time. That’s not to say that these writers won’t ever be—just that they haven’t reached the spot yet. The only reason I continue to do this workshop is that I get tons of emails from participants afterwards that tell me how helpful it was. I’m always stunned. Really? I think it would just be painful but okay.

They say it was tough and it took time for them to process but in the end, they wanted to hear what wasn’t working rather than continue on without knowing why.

That’s valid. Still, I think I might be more nervous than the writers who will be there! Okay, maybe not but I’m going to run a close second.

And speaking of this workshop, I’ll be doing it at the Backspace Conference which is coming up at the end of may. There are two weeks left for the general public to register so if you are interested, you might want to check it out.

31 Responses

  1. Kylie Griffin said:

    Kristin did a similar workshop when she came DownUnder to the RWAustralia and New Zealand conferences. And the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

    Yes, a few were hit hard, embarrassed or overwhelmed by the shock – even for a more experienced writer it was hard hearing the honest appraisals, but everyone I spoke to later said they found it invaluable. A great tool to add to our craft box.

    Getting an insight into how agents work day to day as they go through their emails and slush piles overrode the fear of putting their work out there to be analysed.

    This sort of workshop is always worth attending and, if you have the courage – of putting your work in the pile to receive that appraisal. You won’t regret it.

    Thanks, Kristin, for doing this time and again. My hat goes off to you for being so open and honest – just the sort of person (& agent) I’d trust with my work.

  2. Jeff King said:

    I love when readers tell me what is wrong and why rather than what is right and good.

    It is easy for me to see the good but almost impossible to see the bad and horrible writing in my work.

    It is a blessing to have someone who gives a brutally honest opinion about your work, especially one who has knowledge and the expertise in the publishing field.

    Take solace in knowing you are doing many writers an invaluable service, keep it up…

  3. mary said:

    I’ve been stalking your blog for a while now and finally decided to just commit and join in on the fun. Interesting post. 🙂 Always like hearing perspective from the “other side” of the table (well…almost always). Thanks.

  4. Rebecca Knight said:

    EEK! I’d be more nervous giving feedback, too, if I were in your shoes. Good luck tonight!

    You are brave women to do this workshop, and I’m sure the writers appreciate it! 🙂

  5. AstonWest said:

    I’d much rather have the truth, even if it’s harsh, than something sugar-coated that isn’t helping me along toward my goals.

    Had a crit group meeting recently where someone gave some harsh truth to a piece of mine…I enjoyed receiving it. Others apparently didn’t… :-\

  6. veela-valoom said:

    I would love to participate in this workshop. I know it would be hard & a bit heart-wrenching. I’m a writer who is not ready to be published. Knowing that is one thing, knowing exactly why would be so constructive.

    I think as long as no one is made into a “joke” it’s a beneficial exercise.

  7. Karen Collum said:

    What an great workshop! As a writer I’d love to participate in something like this, but I know I’d be terrified as well. I hadn’t really thought of how terrified you might be, however 🙂 Hope it goes well for you.

  8. Anonymous said:

    “A lot of what we’ll hear tonight will be from writers who aren’t quite ready for agent time. That’s not to say that these writers won’t ever be—just that they haven’t reached the spot yet.”

    I’m so glad you realize this. I just hate it when aspiring authors are ridiculed. It’s like telling a newborn baby she’s stupid for not knowing how to walk yet!

    Anyone who ridicules an aspiring author is stupid, because that author may very well turn out to be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. You just never know while they’re still in the process of becoming.

    And who do you think she’s going to seek out when she’s needs representation to help rake in her millions?

  9. Sarah said:

    My SCBWI chapter has a similar workshop, and it struck me how quickly decisions were made! At first it was a bit disconcerting. Then I realized I do the same thing when I’m in a bookstore deciding whether to buy a book.

    It’s never easy to have professionals be that blunt, but it’s worth it if you want to write a book that readers can’t put down. Thanks for taking the time to participate in workshops like this!

  10. Jonathon Arntson said:

    Great choice of song! I liked this post, because it is interesting to hear about this type of workshop, in your words. Yes, we writers are odd, but occasionally, as in daily, we hit that point where we get desperate for an unconventional motivator and this is the way to go! At least, I think be more beneficial than alcohol.

  11. Dal Jeanis said:

    You might want to consider having one of these where you get waivers from the participants and then record the whole thing on CD for the thousands of us that would pay good money to hear it…

    Just a thought.

  12. Rachel said:

    Whoa. I don’t know if I could make my mouth say the words if a needy writer was looking at me with big, sad eyes. May the force be with you.

  13. Rebecca Lynn said:

    Having been on the receiving end of an experience like that at a novel workshop once, I can say it was the both the hardest and the most effective fifteen minutes I ever spent with someone in my writing career.

    It might have been brutal to hear, but it was exactly what I needed. It made me get serious about my craft.

    Hope there are plenty of authors who get that same chance tonight!

  14. sandysue said:

    I’d rather someone give me an honest opinion, even if it’s not exactly flattering, than give me some generic – oh, gee, that’s great – comment. My personal pet peeve. Tell me what you did or didn’t like about the heroine. Tell me why you thought you scene with the father didn’t work. Tell me something specific without being a jerk about it. That’s what I want to hear. I may not always take the advice. It is my story, but I’m always willing to listen.

  15. Rebekah said:

    Oh I love it! I’d love to know what an agent thought of my work, with real specifics.

    Sometimes I feel like getting in to the publishing world is a game and no one has told me the rules, or everyone is cheating except me….well, you get the idea.

  16. Kristen said:

    Thank you for being brave. That can’t be an easy thing to do, 🙂

    Also, a piece of advice from a chronic crybaby:
    Ignore any crying while it’s happening. The most acknowledgement you should make is to ask if they still want to hear the rest of your advice. Then AFTER they have a chance to pull themselves back together, ask if they’re okay and comfort them as you wish.

    It’s really, REALLY hard to stop crying and calm down when everyone is asking if you’re okay and fretting about your emotions. Then you cry even more because the whole thing is just flat out embarrassing!

    That’s been my experience anyway. Good luck!

  17. Suzan Harden said:

    If we’re serious about having a career then yes, we need to hear the bad and the ugly along with the good.

    I stumbled across an old manuscript of mine last week while cleaning my office. So old I couldn’t remember writing it. OMG, it was ba-a-a-d! It was years after I obviously wrote this piece before I gathered the courage to join RWA. But it was a nice reminder of how far I’ve come and encouragement to continue improving my craft.

    Kristen, please remind yourself you’re clicking on the lightbulb much sooner for these writers so they can improve.

  18. Ellen B said:

    Kristin, I’d love to do a workshop like that 🙂 You know, Ireland is lovely at this time of year ;)(that’s a blatant lie, actually, it’s wet and damp and miserable. Stay in Denver!)

  19. Guinevere said:

    That sounds like an interesting workshop… I’d want to do it. I imagine it’s hard to give, though — giving negative feedback can be as hard as hearing it!

    Of course, I’m 100% confident that my first two pages are brilliant. It’s the rest of the novel that I can be insecure about.

  20. Steven Till said:

    How do the workshops operate? Do you sit down one-on-one with each participant?

    Also, what particular things do you look for that would cause you to say “stop?”

  21. Dara said:

    I’d be so nervous at a workshop like that–I get jittery when my work is reviewed by my critique group and I don’t even have to read it aloud there.

    But the results would be worth it.

  22. Portia said:

    I agree with those who’ve said they want the honest truth. After all, better to hear it at a workshop than in the form of multiple rejection letters! A workshop also signals the writer is ready and willing to fix problems, which is always a good sign.

  23. Marianne said:

    I assume the writer’s name is not used?

    This process seems similar to what I do on the job when I’m hiring. I’ll have a stack of resumés to get through, and I read each one until something makes me stop. The ones that make me stop are not called for interviews. The ones that I can read straight through without objection get another look. It’s harsh, I suppose, but that’s the reality. You have to narrow down somehow.

  24. Anonymous said:

    I got a rejection less than a minute after sending a query letter this morning. I sent my query, hit refresh and there it was. There’s nothing more depressing than not knowing what you did wrong. I’m querying my second book right now and this one is wracking up form rejections as quickly as the last. I have no idea if any of the agents have gotten to the sample pages or even the bottom of my query. At this point I’m thinking of changing my dream from getting published to simply getting someone professional to read my book.
    You’re a saint for helping writers even though it makes you feel uncomfortable.

  25. Alex said:

    Y’know, you might just be tapping into a new form of agenting: sending video clips of your reaction along with rejection letters (or acceptances). That could be fun.

    And probably painful.

  26. Jolene said:


    I was there last night and you & Kate read some of my MS–you were both super helpful! I am so thankful to you both for your time and comments. I absolutely appreciate how difficult it must be for you to do these workshops, but please know that your thoughts are like gold to beginning writers because of your experience.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!