Friday, January 28, 2011

The Writers Intensive - An Inside Look, part two - The Morning Critique

The editor at my morning table is Michelle Poploff, Vice President, Executive Editor at Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children's Books. She's edited a number of Newbery honor-winning books, including "Hattie Big Sky" by Kirby Larson, "You'll Like It Here, Everybody Does" by Ruth White and the just announced winner of this year's Newbery Award, "Moon Over Manifest" by Claire Vanderpool!

Aaron tells us it's 12 minutes for each of us.

Ready? Set? Go!!!

Our Critique Session:

writer #1 at the table shared a YA historical, and when Michelle asked for what her elevator pitch for the story would be, she struggled to come up with the words to describe her book, but ultimately did. We were all rooting for her.

writer #2 hadn't brought her manuscript to share, and wanted to pass, saying she was happy to just be here and learn from everyone else. We urged her to take her turn at the end, and then she could at least talk about her book. She didn't seem sure about that, but we went on.

writer #3 was myself. I shared the first 500 words of my MG, and many of my fellow writers said kind things. There was a discussion about their not being sure where the book was going, and again Michelle asked me to pitch it, thinking that perhaps the manuscript was all about my main character's Bar Mitzvah - which left her wondering what made it special. That was very thought-provoking, and makes me want to look again at my opening paragraph.

writer #4 shared a MG historical, and again had to share with us where the story was going. Michelle shared the tip that if you write a particular genre, check out the other books in that same genre currently being published, and look in the acknowledgements to find out which editors are loving that time period. (She, for instance, is a big fan of historical books encompassing the American South.)

writer #5 shared a YA contemporary. She was also asked to quick pitch it, and what we discovered from her pitch was that the main character (who she said the story was about) wasn't really featured in her opening two pages. That's something she sounded like she wanted to address in a re-write.

writer #6 shared an upper MG contemporary, and got lots of compliments (from Michelle and the table at large) about her very nice opening and writing in general. At this point, we were all eager to hear her pitch because it contextualized the first 500 words and gave us a sense of the whole story and where it was going.

writer #7 shared a picture book manuscript, and discovered that her story started about 300 words in! She was excited to work on it again, revising it to reveal the gem that it can be. Also Michelle shared with us the thought that from a parent's perspective, picture books are an expensive investment, and to buy one it has to be a story they and their kid are going to want to read again and again. She challenged all of us to consider what was the sense of "specialness" about our books.

writer #8 shared an historical MG, and there was a mistake in her printing, so we only had the first page and the third (with a single paragraph on it) so we were missing the second page on all our copies. She bravely apologized and forged on with her reading, and got a lot of praise from Michelle et al., about her very nice beginning and her skill at conveying time and place. And props for handling it so professionally.

We came back to writer #2 and, emboldened to claim her twelve minutes by Michelle's kind encouragement, she gave us her pitch for her MG historical. She made it rich and layered and interesting, and as her book had a regional interest, it lead to Michelle's advice about not discounting regional publishers in the search for publication. We were all delighted she seized the opportunity to get feedback on her pitch and the concept of her manuscript.

The session ended and our table thanked Michelle with a round of applause, which became a wave of applause as Aaron Hartzler asked all the agents and editors to stand to be thanked and acknowledged for sharing their expertise with us.

It was time for our table's de-brief!

Among our group was one author who had been previously published, and when I asked what the experience was like for her, she said that she "gained a lot." She was impressed with the ability around the table and thought Michelle's critiques were "on the money." When I pointed out that so many of the writers attending were here hoping to be published and she already was, she wisely said, "I feel personally I always have to work on my craft."

One writer wished there had been more time for a further in-depth critique of her writing, yet still felt it had been a really positive experience.

Another admitted that she had been more nervous than she had thought she would be.

One very shy writer admitted that at first she was horrified when she realized she'd have to read her work out loud to 8 other people in a room of 250, but she ultimately liked the experience and thought it worked well.

Another felt that her objective hadn't been to "wow" Michelle but rather to get objective feedback on what to do to make her work better. "I got a different perspective so now I can go back and revise."

Someone even mentioned they wished they'd brought their laptop so they could go to their room and revise their pages during our lunch break!

And me? While my work didn't seem to be the "gold" that Michelle might have been looking for, that's okay. I got some good feedback and some points to think about, and I enjoyed learning from the critique of everyone else's work as well.

Stay tuned for a report from the afternoon session!



  1. Oh, I would like to be there! Critiques --of all kinds, but especially from people of Michelle's stature--are how we learn.