Friday, September 18, 2009

SCBWI-L.A.’s Working Writer’s Retreat Aftermath

The Working Writer’s Retreat is my favorite event of the year. It’s an opportunity to read to, and get critiqued by the editors and authors facilitating the critique groups. It’s an intense creative weekend. And a group of us usually have a chocolate and karaoke party in there somewhere. For me, it means very little sleep, writing until 1 or 2 am, and sometimes getting an editor or agent request for the full manuscript (but not this year).

A good friend and fellow SCBWI’er, Chris asked if I could share critique examples from the retreat. So here goes.

Thirteen Black Cats Under A Ladder
I read the first chapter to Arthur Levine.
On the minus side – it was purposely disorienting which was not to his personal taste. The overall tone was upsetting which meant he wasn’t in the mood to laugh when he got to the funny lines. And there was only one brief mention of the curse which was confusing. He wasn’t sure this should be the first chapter. He’d like to meet the main character in a slightly more neutral way – with a little more clarity for who she is. The line: Just because Marcus broke his leg – in thirteen places – when he turned thirteen… is an ‘as you know, Bob’ statement. This chapter comes across as dark and violent and the overall tone of the book is tongue-in-cheek.

On the plus side – the writing was Gertrude Stein-esque. It effectively conveyed the insanity.

Moving on from here (includes notes from other sources during the weekend): Fixes for this chapter include: lightening it up, making the curse more prominent, rounding out the MC more with letting us get to know who she is, building on the relationship between her and her brother through more dialogue – show that things have changed between them and a hint of what it used to be like.

I read the first two chapters to Martha Mihalick
On the minus side – The zit popping might be a little too gross. There are other spices than garlic. The second chapter needs more setting/atmosphere to ground the reader in where they are. The last line: What else did Mother not tell me? is confusing – why wouldn’t his mother tell him?

On the plus side – The characters are well rounded. The zit popping is probably spot on for the targeted reader. The garlic allergy is an interesting twist.

Moving on from here: I woke up the next morning and realized I could fix two issues. The transition from chapter one to two, and the sparse description of setting in chapter two. If I added a paragraph at the top of chapter two that showed him leaving home and how he got to the school, then I could describe what he sees and the transition from home to school is in the book rather than implied. The zits are staying as is, for now. And the last line fix came from another writer in my group who suggested What else did Mother forget to tell me?.

I’ve since gotten feedback that I need to show even more of what he’s thinking. Oy! The transition from 3rd person to 1st person fixed a lot of that, but apparently not quite enough yet.

Of course, now I think I should have switched what I read to which editor. Ah well.


  1. Sarah-- thank you very much for sharing this with us. You've gone above and beyond. This gives me a glimpse into the one-on-one critique world, and squelches some of my fear surrounding the process.

  2. Hi Heather,

    They really are there to help us become better writers. Helps them when the quality level in their submissions improves. Helps us get our foot in the door in more places.

    I've had critiques that I didn't agree with, but the words stayed in the back of my mind. One of them was on Garlic and the transition from chapter one to chapter two. At the time, I didn't understand what she was talking about when she wrote that it was "jarring" being at home in chapter one and at school in two, but now I do understand what she was trying to say (I think).

  3. Cool, Sarah!

    And the zit popping is vile, disgusting, repulsive, and stayed with me for two days after I read that sample.

    It's perfect.

    It's a genius little detail that humanizes the MC and definitely makes him MG relateable. (is that a word? Just woke up from a nap with a squirmy, sick 5 year old.)

    I haven't read anything from the other but the snippets I've read by you have always left me wanting more. If I read the part of Garlic that you sampled while I was browsing in the bookstore, I would buy it. And I am sort of your target market...I love the MGs and really enjoy the ones that seem to resonate.

    So, there you have it. My opinion. That and four bucks will get you a cup of coffee at Starbuck's.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Sarah. It's brave enough to read your stuff to the editors, let alone posting it online! :-)

  5. Thank you for posting your critiques. It's always interesting and helpful to read about what catches a reader's attention.

  6. Always wondered what happened at these critiques, and you've given me a glimpse. Many thanks!

  7. Thanks for posting this!!!! I'm doing a blog drive by, but want to come back again and read.

    Can't wait!!

  8. Wow, that was really insightful and makes me want to run and check my manuscript over with new eyes! This is especially great because we have sampled the bit of Garlic you shared, so thank you again for that, too!! :D

    Thank you, Sarah! :D

  9. Had time to read this now, and want to thank you again for posting a round up!
    Sounds like you got solid advice you can work with, but also that you have a very strong foundation!!! Don't forget, this editor is at the top of the industry, so these are the standards he's measuring your story by!!!! You should feel very happy and proud!!!!
    You go, girl!!!! WOOOHOOO!!!

  10. Hi Sarah,
    I have meant to send you a note of appreciation for so long. The work you offer to SCBWI is invaluable. I know that there are many besides me who see your regular posts and feel so grateful for your generous contributions. This last, opening the door to a ctritique By Arthur A. Levine, is very brave! And generous doesn't cover it. Just for the record, I'm often drawn to books that start off leaving the reader disoriented for a time. However, that's probably a very risky approach. You were so fortunate to have that critique. Im happy for you and look forward to seeing your book in print.
    Thanks again!

  11. This sounds good, Sarah. Genuine, excellent, professional feedback that you can take, mull over, and decide how to use. And I'm still reeling over Arthur Levine. Wow. I'm impressed!