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litdawg

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I recently had an absolutely wild experience during an online writers conference--and thank God it was online! I attended a seminar by an agent who I'd queried a year and a half ago. Agent requested my full and then rejected on the basis of not liking revisions I'd made since querying with the first three chapters. During the seminar, five minutes was given up to an anecdote about the query and rejection last summer. The agent made a very good point about how critique group feedback needs to be taken with a few ounces of salt and used my manuscript as an example of brilliance being turned into garbage. Agent had already given me this feedback last summer when rejecting, but hearing it again in the seminar lanced a wound that was, truth be told, still a little tender.

Thankfully, I gathered myself to tell the agent that I had been in the audience and still appreciated the feedback and links to craft articles agent had given me when rejecting. A flurry of positive emails were exchanged, and now that's one wound from the query trails that is likely to heal better. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at how the incident had stuck with the agent. It's a good lens on how hard it can be to have hopes raised by a query and still have to reject. Like, agents are people too, right?

Pretty crazy experience though. And I have the video from the conference that I can show to my students in my fiction writing class this fall when we get to the first weeks of workshopping. "Don't be like this sap," I can tell them. I can't decide if I should wait until the second workshop period to tell them the cautionary tale was about me or if I should spill the beans immediately. Students love seeing profs in a raw light, and we all need help being human online and making online education as engaging as life.
 

ChaseJxyz

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Wow, that's nuts! How I see it, your misfortune is being used to help others not suffer the same fate. Keeping others from being hurt the way you were is a noble thing to do (even if you're not aware it's happening!). I'm glad you were able to work through it and have it turn out to be a positive experience.
 

Maryn

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Geez, when is it ever a good idea to use a real person and their work as your bad example? I still sting from a high school art teacher doing that to me, holding aloft the print of a shy, insecure smart girl with terrible buck teeth, and announcing everything wrong with it when my name was written clearly in the corner--what, fifty years later? At least that woman is probably dead.

You showed some class, for the record. You probably knew that, but it's good to have that announced.

I'd tell the students after the fact, not right up front. I think it'll make a greater impact that way.

Maryn, whose print wasn't good, but still...
 

rocoroca

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I'm sorry that happened to you, litdawg! It sounds like you handled yourself with grace and dignity, though, so kudos on that.
 

mccardey

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During the seminar, five minutes was given up to an anecdote about the query and rejection last summer. The agent made a very good point about how critique group feedback needs to be taken with a few ounces of salt and used my manuscript as an example of brilliance being turned into garbage.

Are you sure it was you? Because that is a really common point that the agents make. If it was you *hugs* that sucks. Esp if they hadn't asked for permission. I'd smack them for that, because that's just rude.
 

litdawg

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Geez, when is it ever a good idea to use a real person and their work as your bad example? I still sting from a high school art teacher doing that to me, holding aloft the print of a shy, insecure smart girl with terrible buck teeth, and announcing everything wrong with it when my name was written clearly in the corner--what, fifty years later? At least that woman is probably dead.

You showed some class, for the record. You probably knew that, but it's good to have that announced.

I'd tell the students after the fact, not right up front. I think it'll make a greater impact that way.

Maryn, whose print wasn't good, but still...

Thanks, Maryn. Agent avoided names, and I'm certain I'm the only one who could have known who has being talked about. Agent did acknowledge in our email exchange after that in the future the story would be told with fewer specifics. I like your point about not using real people as a bad example. My way of dealing with that is--as you can guess--to use myself whenever a bad example is called for. When humor leads me to joke at the expense of a person, I prefer to be the butt of my own joke. People still laugh and get the point, and no one walks out hurt. So I think you're right that I should wait a bit before telling my class I'm the cautionary tale the agent used.

Are you sure it was you? Because that is a really common point that the agents make. If it was you *hugs* that sucks. Esp if they hadn't asked for permission. I'd smack them for that, because that's just rude.

Thanks! I know I was still hurting a bit from the rejection last year, else why would I have selected this agent's seminar to sit in on? There were too many details for me to have mistaken the exchange, and agent immediately acknowledged it in correspondence. Agent really is a good person despite how this looks and wanted to make the common point dramatically so that the writers in the room got it. I'm ok with that because it's important.

In the bigger picture, the judgment of the agent is just one more perspective from a critique that I have to decide how I'm going to respond to. While agents do stand in a gatekeeping location, they are first and foremost just readers . . . readers who want to find writing to sell, true, but readers nonetheless.

FWIW, I continued revising the opening chapters agent had liked so much for another nine months, and eventually found myself with a version much like the one I'd originally submitted. The agent I eventually signed with (obviously) thinks they work well. It's probably not unusual to take fifteen months to learn how best to take formative feedback from critiques. I made poor choices to integrate critique feedback and yet I learned a lot along the way. I think I've gone from idiot savant to a more in control journeyman who looks yearningly back at the savant and trusts he'll emerge even better as I grow in confidence in sentence-level craft.
 

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When I worked with college kids, they did really love a "don't be a dumbass, learn from my mistakes," story. And I had so many to choose from. :D Good on you, share so that others may learn.
 

lizmonster

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Yeah, I think I'm going to have to land on the side of Team That's Really Unprofessional. But I have some pretty hard lines about things like this.
 

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Litdawg--I'm curious if the agent shared a philosophy on critique group in general. Did 'agent' recommend against them full stop? Did agent recommend the way to approach them?

Congrats on being so memorable for agent, though--!!--that's a fantastic silver lining that the response to your natural writing was so strong-- for what I'm sure was an otherwise strange experience!!!!
 
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Liz_V

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Yeah, bad critique, or critique applied when/how it shouldn't be, can really mess you up. (Not speaking from experience there, oh no, not at all.) And it can niggle forever. Glad you got some closure on that, litdawg!

As for the agent using it, as long as they adequately filed off the serial numbers, I don't see a problem with it. I mean, rough on you hearing it without knowing it was coming, and agent would have done better to ask if you minded being a (suitably-anonymized) warning for others before using it. But how are agents, or anyone else, supposed to pass on the benefit of their experience if they don't use, y'know, their experiences?

If I were a teacher, I'd be tempted to wait until the next class to Reveal All, just to see if anyone figured it out in the meantime. But you wouldn't want any students to think that you'll put other's mistakes up for everyone to see, lest they drop out in fear that they'll be next, so you should probably tell them it's you right after showing the video. (Though not before. After will be funnier, which means it'll stick better.)
 

Liz_V

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Litdawg--I'm curious if the agent shared a philosophy on critique group in general. Did 'agent' recommend against them full stop? Did agent recommend the way to approach them?

I'd be curious to hear that, too. Or, litdawg, your own thoughts on the matter.
 

litdawg

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Liz_V
Quote Originally Posted by Woollybear View Post
Litdawg--I'm curious if the agent shared a philosophy on critique group in general. Did 'agent' recommend against them full stop? Did agent recommend the way to approach them?
I'd be curious to hear that, too. Or, litdawg, your own thoughts on the matter.

Agent suggested writers needed to develop a thick skin with feedback, not preserve thin skin by avoiding feedback. AWers circulate a lot of good advice like Neal Gaiman's about how feedback about what works or doesn't for a reader is almost always right whereas specific advice on what to change is almost always wrong. Of course, we're all probably familiar with members of critique groups who like to rewrite people's work as though they had the author's vision and could drive towards the right goal. It's an understandable temptation. I feel it too. Sometimes it's useful to give feedback with examples, but it can turn into a poison pill, causing us to focus on a style issue rather than our characters/story.

As for my own philosophy? It's hard to say. I have succeeded in two writing careers where the feedback of reviewers MUST be incorporated and is almost always "right" in the sense that it is authoritative (even when it's wrong, says the subversively smiling scholar/intel analyst). That gives me a ton of BAD instincts in creative writing and makes critique groups a dubious proposition. I'm probably best off with well-chosen beta readers who share some of my style and vision. But I think writers are drawn to critique groups because we are desperate for readers--any readers--even if they maul our words and ideas instead of reading them for the pleasure they can give.

I still have too much growth necessary as a fiction writer to abandon any avenue of feedback and growth, but I am now much more cautious about who I let speak into my writing process. One helpful place I got better at that was the Critters Online Workshop. Most of the feedback I got from that group was crap--idiosyncratic nitpicking and deeply ignorant prejudices/assumptions. And occasional I'd get feedback from someone who really cared about writing and who identified really substantive issues for revision. Over time, I got better at screening out the junk and prizing the treasures. There's a MUCH higher proportion of useful feedback on AW's SYW, but since it's only for the opening chapter, I don't do much here.
 

Fuchsia Groan

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There’s a craft book called Toxic Feedback that addresses that whole issue of not internalizing suggestions that are hostile or just unhelpful. It’s definitely a pro-critique group book overall. The author (who runs writing workshops) is simply cautioning against dysfunctional patterns they can develop.

I spent years (decades, really) with no CPs because no one I showed my writing to ever seemed to “get” it. Thing was, I had shown it to a very small number of friends who weren’t writers in my genre. Not until I came here did I find really helpful CPs, and not until my first book was published did I find a great in-person group—it evolved from a panel I organized. So now I’m an evangelist for CPs, but only if they’re carefully chosen and you really know them and what they like as readers.
 

Liz_V

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I am now much more cautious about who I let speak into my writing process.

That's an excellent way to put that. I'm all in favor of CPs/writing groups in theory, but I've had some lousy experiences with them in practice. And I find that I have a lot of trouble getting those voices out of my head -- the more "wrong" they are, the more they seem to stick, in fact -- so I've become extremely picky about who I get feedback from. Which leaves me very short on feedback, which is not a good situation either.
 

Chris P

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That's an excellent way to put that. I'm all in favor of CPs/writing groups in theory, but I've had some lousy experiences with them in practice. And I find that I have a lot of trouble getting those voices out of my head -- the more "wrong" they are, the more they seem to stick, in fact -- so I've become extremely picky about who I get feedback from. Which leaves me very short on feedback, which is not a good situation either.

This is my experience too. I've gotten so paranoid about "doing it wrong" I end up writing to please an imaginary committee that can't be pleased, or even knows what it's doing.
 

Woollybear

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I mentioned this to my sister a day or two ago, a retired medievalist, and she said it reminded her of a student whose thesis was destroyed by committee. The student tried to meet every committee member's critique...

She said there's a joke about it. What's the difference between a camel and a horse? A camel is a horse that was designed by committee.

Litdawg--I do apologize if any of my own past critique led you astray. :) :Hug2:

ETA: Sanderson also talks about the ills of writing by committee here.
 
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