In order to create your best work possible, I strongly recommend finding a circle of people to help you critique your manuscript. These people can point out things that we as writers become blind to in our own work. Our story is in our head so we understand it, but a new set of eyes may have some questions. A critique allows us to answer those questions and create a more concise story.
There are three different critiques and I would suggest finding 2-3 people who are willing to offer a critique in each category. This translates into having 6-9 people looking at your manuscript before you begin to query. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Critique Partner: Stage 1
A critique partner is a person who is a writer. They understand an unfinished manuscript. They know there will be spelling and punctuation errors and they will overlook them (unless something keeps standing out). They know your work won’t be perfect, but that you are coming to them for help to make your story better. They know the lingo, they know what to look for and they know how hard it is to put work out there for critique.
Beta Reader: Stage 2
A beta reader is someone who will most likely buy your book. These people are readers. Only send a manuscript to a beta reader AFTER you have made revisions based on critiques received. You want this to be good work you are sending out, beta readers are not writers, they area aware your manuscript is a new work but they will also expect a story. This is your first test to see if you story is marketable.
Line Editor: Stage 3
Once your story is in place then it’s time to focus on grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, etc. This is called a line edit. It’s the nuts and bolts of writing. It’s the final clean up before you send you work into the literary world. This is the edit that will make you look professional.
This is by far the scariest critique. We are in essence giving our work to people who can easily spot our errors, but this is also one of the most effective reviews you can have done.
Who is a Critique Partner? A person practicing the writing craft.
Why use a Critique Partner: They know the craft and can use the lingo.
How many Critique Partners should I have: 2-3 per manuscript
How long should I give my Critique Partner to critique my work: About 1 month
How should I give my Critique Partner my manuscript: Ask them what they prefer (paper, Word Doc, Google Doc, both a paper and electronic copy). I like to send paper copies along with a few fun office supplies like highlighter, sticky notes, and gel pens.
How can I thank my Critique Partner: Offer to do a critique for them, send a thank you card, maybe a gift card (Starbucks/Amazon/Writer’s Digest) or something sentimental to show your appreciation.
What should a Critique Partner Not Address:
- Spelling/Punctuation (unless they see a glaring error…lie/lay/laid/lain)
- Avoid line editing because most likely the entire manuscript will change after the critique
What should I do when I get my manuscript back from my Critique Partner?
- Wait until all critiques are back before opening them. (Give your Critique Partner’s a gentle nudge a week before the deadline. We are all busy. If you sent a paper manuscript maybe send a self-addressed stamped envelope SASE to them.)
- Go through your manuscript page by page with the critiques in hand. Make notes but don’t make edits.
- Walk away for a week and think about their suggestions. Remember, it is your work so don’t make changes you aren’t comfortable with, but if all of your critiques address similar issues, those may be things that need attention.
- Send out your thank-you’s and edit your manuscript.
What should a Critique Partner Address:
- Is tension created at the outset of the book? What is the conflict?
- Is there an overarching conflict that grows to the climax and is addressed in the resolution?
- Do the conflicts increase, making the character work harder as the story progresses? Does the reader care about if the character succeeds?
- Is there too little or too much conflict, and is that conflict relevant to the overall story?
- Are there any scenes left adeptly hanging?
- What elements/clues/details propel the story forward and invoke tension?
- Does the overall plot come across clearly?
- Is the plot interesting and engaging?
- Does the plot resolve?
- Do the subplots work well with the overall plot and are these plots all resolved?
- Is it easy to follow the passage of time from scene to scene?
- Are there any spots that drag?
- How is the writing? Is it over-wordy, vague, sentences too long, too short?
- Are there scenes that could use trimming?
- Does the pace in the different scenes either speed up or slow down accordingly?
- Is the setting believable? Is it described well, under-described or overly described?
- Does the setting fit the mood and serve the plot?
- Are there too many or not enough settings?
- Are there boring settings?
- How is the setting presented? From the character’s POV or is it in a flat narrative?
Point of View (POV)
- Is the overall POV consistent?
- Is there only one POV character in each scene?
- Are there some places where a different POV might be better?
- How well does the author get into the head of the character? Does that character sound authentic?
- Are the readers able to feel what the character is feeling or is the author telling the reader how to feel?
- Is the writing fresh and original?
- How well does the overall tone work for the story?
- Does the writing have too many cliches?
- Are there words or sentences that seem out of place, too complex or simple for the story?
- Is the protagonist (main character) clearly presented?
- Does the protagonist behave and speak consistent with their backgrounds & upbringing? Do they have depth?
- Does the protagonist have a clear arc that shows growth/change/decision/resolution?
- Do the secondary characters enhance and enrich the protagonist’s story?
- Is there too much or not enough description of the characters?
- Are there too many characters or too much time spent on a secondary character?
- Does each character speak differently?
- Is there too much, not enough?
- Is the dialogue stiff, uninteresting, too wordy?
- Does the dialogue sound natural?
- Are there places where dialogue could be added or removed? Is there an info dump happening?
- Does the book work? Does it hold together? Does it make sense and hold the reader?
- Is the idea original enough?
- Does the book feel too long or too short? Are there missing scenes?
- Is the overall theme well delivered?
- Is the theme brought out well in the title and opening and closing chapters?
- Is there a sense of completion or resolution?
- Is the writing clear as to what audience the author is attempting to reach? (i.e. YA with thoughts overly sophisticated, too much sex or violence that might be inappropriate)
Talent Always Jumps off the Page
“I have found a strong consistency between the pitch letter and the completed manuscript.” -Ethan Ellenberg
Fiction Pitches (make sure you have a synopsis completed before you begin pitching)
- single, attention-grabbing sentence
- second paragraph to develop the story
- single, short paragraph about why you are qualified to write this book (it’s OK if you don’t have writing credentials)
- Don’t Include:
- Marital Status
- Number of Children or Pets
- single, attention-grabbing sentence
- second paragraph about the theme
- third to prove why you are qualified
- fourth paragraph to demonstrate knowledge of the audience and competing books
“Pitch letters need to reflect the talent and professionalism of the writer. They should be straight forward, intelligent, and reflect a good understanding of the genre and marketplace.”
Agent: Ethan Ellenberg with the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency
Note: I noticed on his web-page that he is now offering “Agent Sponsored Publishing,” for those looking at the indie route.
Setting, Protagonist, Problem
This chapter was an interview between Katharine Sands & Donald Mass. Below you will find a few excerpts that stood out to me.
Address only the Manuscript–Not the following things:
- Author’s Ambitions
- Author’s Long-Term Plans
- How Many Years You’ve Been Writing
- How Excited You Are
- How Dedicated You Are
Identify Your Genre “What section of the bookstore would I find my book?”
“If you can’t figure that out, simply call it a novel. I can figure out its category for myself as I read it.” -Donald Maass
What Sets Your Work Apart?
Donald received a book about ordinary divorced people who attended a support group. That was set up in the first line of the pitch, the second line told how this book was different. The support group is for little people. Give the gist then give the twist.
1 in 100
“The number of short, businesslike query letters we get is maybe one in a hundred.” -Donald Maass
The Last 6 Words
“In the last line of your summary, use one of six words…If you can work in one…it helps close the presentation of the plot with a word that’s poetic and evocative.” -Donald Maass
“You need to distill your brilliance, your wisdom, and your expertise into one potent page-long brew that will leave a reader reeling from its power.” -Sheree Bykofsky
- “The writing you do about writing is as important as the writing itself.” -Katharine Sands
- “For fiction I’m really just looking for good writing, I think the letter should really pique my interest in some way.” -Anna Ghosh
- Reduce your novel to one paragraph…Show Don’t Tell
- Problem He/She Faces
- Build Your Platform: How are you already promoting your book?
- Interview Yourself-Create Your Pitch
- Practice Your Pitch in the Form of a Soundbite
- “Pick a set of complementary descriptive words that work well together.” -Katharine Sands
- Identify Your Hooks
- “The most exciting elements to compel your reader and propel your story.” -Katharine Sands
- “The best query letters have a strong hook in the first two lines.” -Sheree Bykofsky
- Think of Your Pitch as a Movie Trailer
- “Your argument for your book’s life…” -Katharine Sands
- “Do the descriptive words, tone, and intention match?” -Katharine Sands
- Communicate the Excitement
Agent: Katharine Sands with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency
Notes to the New Writer
- Have Spirit
- “An effective query letter is a distillation of the work’s spirit or essence. It is not the place to impress with the minutiae of your research or to encapsulate all the twists in your novel.” -Anna Ghosh
- “Find that magical phrase or two that expresses its core idea, the key element that sets it apart.” -Anna Ghosh
- “A query letter must inform, but it must also enchant.” -Anna Ghosh
- Know Your Reader: This is a business.
- “An agent has to sell the writer’s project to a publisher. A publisher has to sell the finished books to booksellers. And finally a reader has to put down 25-odd dollars for their copy.” -Anna Ghosh
- Prove That You’re a Writer, Not a Dilettante
- I had to look that word up: Dilettante-a person whose interest in an art or in an area of knowledge is not very deep or serious
Agent: Anna Ghosh with Ghosh Literary
I Am Willing to Be Seduced, Amazed, Charmed, or Moved
Share your enthusiasm with beautiful writing.
- Write, don’t call.
- Do a little research first.
- No gimmicks.
- Be confident, not boastful. Be Personable
- Seek the wonderful one-liner.
- Crafting Your Novel’s Pitch Line
- Pitch Please
- Be authentic.
- Be honest.
“You can be as provocative, outrageous, sentimental, cynical, vulnerable, or humorous as you choose–whatever reflects who you are and what you have to say.” -Sarah Jane Freymann
Agent: Sarah Jane Freymann with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency
Five Questions to Ask Before Sending Your Query Letter
- Is it polished, error-free, & professional?
- Does the tone of your query letter reflect the tone of your book?
- Are you sure that the agent you’re pitching works on this type of project?
- Do you know your market?
- Are you emphasizing the best aspects of your project?
Agent: Kristen Auclair (I am unable to find current information on Kristen)
A Morning in the Life of a Literary Agent
Your agent has received 100 queries in her inbox, she has 1 hour and will only consider 2 pitches.
What to Do:
- First Sentence: establish main character & central conflict
- Next sentences: reveal complications & plot
- Entice your agent to contact you for more…
What Not to Do:
- Please Don’t Be Sardonic
- Avoid Irrelevant Personal Revelations
- No Pictures
Agent: James C. Vines (no longer a literary agent)
I am currently reading “Making the Perfect Pitch” written by Katharine Sands. Each chapter is written by a different literary agent and provides a great overall feel about what agents are looking for in your query.
I will spend the next few weeks posting notes from things I learn in each chapter.
Katherine Sands is a literary agent with Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency.
Disclaimer: This book was published in 2004 so some agents may no longer be practicing, but the information provided is still pertinent to today’s market.