Thursday, August 16, 2007

I Need a Little Help From My Friends

Several months ago, I registered for a conference and one of the sessions I signed up to audit is with a prominent literary agent. The actual registrants are allowed to submit pages to the agent and during the workshop; she will provide feedback to the writers. According to the package I received in the mail today, the writers may even be asked (or allowed – it’s not too clear) to read from their work.

Although I don’t have a finished manuscript and therefore, won’t be submitting pages, I thought it would be an interesting experience to see how the other writers fare and to observe candid feedback from an agent, up close and personal.

What wasn’t clear when I registered for this session was that the attendees (including those of us just auditing), would be provided the same excerpts that the agent will receive and we’d be asked to critique them.

I got my package today and there are eight synopses with ten page excerpts each. While I feel fairly comfortable offering critique and noting things that I think the writers have done well as well as noting things that could be stronger, I have one excerpt that has me a little stumped.

These are all people I don’t know – that’s actually helpful. I have the feeling that one of the submissions may have been written by an adolescent. There are problems. There are significant problems, up to and including very poor grammar and many, many misspelled words. I’m not sure what to do with this. To make note of every mistake feels cruel, but this person has paid to attend this conference and paid an additional fee for this critique from a New York agent. I’m inclined to make some general notes and mention grammar and spelling as an issue to work on, instead of marking up the manuscript completely.





Kristy said...

I completely support your instinct. Someone at this level isn't ready for that deep and detailed a critique. They're at a level where they are likely going to be so shell-shocked by the numer and magnitude of their mistakes that they will freeze and not get the kind of education from it a more seasoned writer would from a detailed crit.

Instead, concentrate on their ideas, the flow and pace of the piece, and maybe steer them toward some books to help them at this stage.

There's a big difference between nudging someone with more experience to the next level with a tough crit and shattering a beginner's self-esteem.

And this comes from a tough critiquer!

Kristy said...

Feel free to point out that I typed "numer" instead of "number." I can handle it.

reality said...

I would support what Kristy has just said. make a critique of structure, story, characters; whatever you feel is the missing link.
Of course point out that bad grammar and mis spellings need to be ironed out.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, since this is a critique and luckily you aren't being asked to edit--although yes, I'd point out that "grammar and spelling should be doublechecked before submitting anywhere." Along with your notations on improvements, a "Very nice!" or "Good imagery!" here and there will uplift and open the writer up to the more critical areas of comment.

susan @ spinning

The Writers' Group said...

Yes, what Kristy said. Brains and beauty, sheesh.

Starting out, the most important critique is one that includes a lot of encouragement. Grammar can be fixed, easy, what's most important at this stage is voice. A command of craft is not the determining factor, voice can be learned. Voice is innate and sometimes takes years to discover.

You already knew what to do, Lisa. Your kindness would have gone on autpilot once the others in that room devoured the poor soul. Sadly, there will be people there who will be cruel. Temper that.


kristen said...

Ditto to all of it. Kristy is a wise one, indeed. Good luck!

Charles Gramlich said...

I have little to add to Kristy's comments. The agent is in a better position to offer detailed feedback on errors if they want. I think you're thoughts about how to proceed for yourself are right on.

Lisa said...

Everyone, I really appreciate your comments on this. I was pretty surprised when I read the synopsis and the excerpt and needed some validation about the best way to approach this critique. The ideas about finding the positives, making some recommendations and leaving it to the agent to decide how detailed to get about the problems helps quite a bit. The fact that this writer has taken the time and the effort to attend this conference and submit work for critique says a lot to me and I want to be as supportive and constructive as I can be. You are all the best. Thanks for the support.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm going to disagree with everyone else.

No matter how wonderful this person's ideas and story are, no agent she submits to will look past the first couple sentences of the cover letter if there are multiple spelling and grammar errors.

Also, without good grammar, one cannot express one's thoughts in the best possible way. It's like a person who wants to be a composer but doesn't know how to notate music--one can't transfer great ideas to someone else until you learn the basics. How frustrating for the writer if something as basic as poor spelling is holding them back.

You do the writer no favors by not pointing out the extreme importance of correct spelling and grammar. She may assume that the editor will fix such problems.

I'm not suggesting that you take the time to correct them all. Rather, take a yellow highlighter and highlight all the wrong words, wrong spellings, and wrong grammar choices, and tell the writer that the yellow means a mistake.

You can soften the blow by pointing out that correct spelling and grammar are usually the easiest parts to learn in the process of becoming a good writer because it's mostly memorization.

You could give her several suggestions of books that can help her get up to speed. Also suggest that she find a friend with good English skills to read her work before she submits it who can look for such problems.

One book I often recommend is Claire Kehrwald Cook's book, which goes by various names, depending on the version (the one I have is called The MLA's Line By Line: How to Editor Your Own Writing). It's not a complete grammar book, but does review in easy-to-read English common grammar and usage mistakes. It's not intimidating, and one can actually sit and read it with enjoyment.

I have a tough hide, so it's hard for me to judge what might hurt someone else's feelings. But it seems to me that if one says something in a kind way, provides suggestions for remedying the problem, and points out what the writer has done well, the writer should be grateful for the help.

Lisa said...

Shauna, you make a very valid point and it's given me pause and maybe a new approach. To be honest, the problem with this person's writing is so big that I literally can't understand what's happening through most of it; however, since everyone does seem to agree that spelling and grammar are the easiest things to address, the best advice I might be able to give this person may be to focus on cleaning that up first, because it virtually rules out the possibility that anyone will be able to assess whether there is an interesting story possibility underneath it. When I initially posted this problem, I specifically mentioned the spelling and grammar problems because on the surface, they are the most obvious. Unfortunately, there are a lot of other problems with everything else too. At the core of it all, I think there's a concept that could develop into a good story. Again, I do suspect this is a kid and if so, I give her a great deal of credit for making this effort and would want to be as helpful as possible. You've all given me some great food for thought and I think I can write something up that's both honest and encouraging.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf