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What Parenting Books Can Teach Us About Critiquing

 When we critique, we are often faced with a dilemma. We need to provide the person with honest feedback, but it has to be done in such a way that the author does not feel threatened as a person and is able to stay in a mind space that can accept the critique. In other words we need to provide honesty with manners.

This can be a real dilemma for parents as well. You want to teach your children to be honest and sincere, yet at the same time, you don’t want them to hurt other people with unkindness. Children have to learn the delicate balancing act between polite behavior and insincerity.

As critiquers, we walk that tightrope as well. Although it’s certainly nicer to tell the person with the struggling manuscript that everything is fine, it’s not doing the author any good. You need to deliver the bad news (the plot is struggling, the characters are stereotypes, the voice is off putting) no matter how painful. The key is to do this in such a way that you don’t inadvertently hurt the author in the process.

Here are a few things to try:
  •  Find some good stuff – there’s always some there. You may have to dig, but no manuscript is irredeemable.
  • Avoid extreme language – words like hate, detest, unbearable
  • Use qualifiers
  • Remember that you are only offering the author suggestions. Word your ideas as suggestions instead of commands.
    Ex. “Perhaps you might want to consider” instead of “You need to”
There's no reason to sugar coat a manuscript's problems, but there's also no need to be rude. Keeping these tips in mind, there's no reason why someone can't be a thoughtful critiquer.

And to get my critique checklist so you never forget what to look for when reading a manuscript, like my Facebook page and download a free copy. You can also get a free copy of the Manuscript Submissions Workbook at the same time.


Guest Post: Ella Kennen

Today's post is a guest post from author Ella Kennen. Since CBAY is running what is essentially at this point a query contest, and since Ella initially contacted me through a query, I asked her to write about her experience.

Ella Kennen is the author of two bedtime stories through CBAY Books, Boyd, Who Cried Wolf and Out of Thin Air, which just released this week.

You’ve written your story, revised it, critiqued it (and do get it critiqued!), and revised some more. Now it’s time to start slogging through market research and write that do-or-die query letter, right? Well, maybe. Here’s the other way to think about it:

You know you want to get published, so you’re on the prowl for a good fit. You stumble on an open call, contest, submission request, whatever. Aha! You poke around the publisher’s website, get a feel for their books (Maybe you’ve already read some—fantastic! If not, snag some from the library, or at least read free excerpts online.)

You sense possibility. Now it’s time to turn that into something more. You sift through your repertoire of ideas (because as a savagely writerly writer, you always have more ideas than you know what to do with) and you strike upon a match. Maybe, if you’ve binged on market research (and you’ve got to go through the motion sooner or later, so why not sooner?), you’ve got a list of several publishers that would make a good fit with your manuscript.

You plot your arc. You draft. You revise. You let any external deadlines propel you into a most un-you-like level of efficiency (or maybe you’re efficient, and that’s just me).  And when you’ve got your finished product, something strange happens. Instead of meeting the next stage with dread, you find you’re looking forward to it. You’ve already done your homework and you know your project is a good fit. Instead of becoming a fearful chore, writing the query letter feels more like the exciting culmination. (Butterflies-in-the-stomach still allowed.)

I’ve found that writing this way gets me significantly better results. Not every submission leads to acceptance—though a lot do—and the rest usually result in some feedback. And that type of rejection is infinitely better and more hopeful than a canned letter or no response at all.

On to that whole wooing Ms. Smoot business. Some moons ago, CBAY had an open call for fantasy and sci-fi picture books. I knew I wanted in. So I sat and I thought … and I read the picture books I knew the editor was looking for (Thank you, internet! And people, do your homework—it’s a treasure trove out there)… and I thought some more. And finally, I had an idea. Looking back, I honestly don’t remember when I wrote my first draft of the query, but it very well could have been before the story was finished… or even started.

I won’t get into the mechanics of queries, which have been covered extensively by savvier people than I (like the Buried Editor herself). Do read up on the process and follow the rules. Stand out by delivering a great product, not by deviating from the guidelines.

I will, however, give you a looksee at my query:

I was thrilled to hear about your call for sci-fi picture book
submissions. I have enclosed my gender-bender sci-fi retelling of the
classic Cinderella story below for your review.

[Paragraph of synopsis]

I see CinderAdam as the beginning of a series of sci-fi picture books
inspired by classic tales. The next two stories in the series, for
instance, would be (1) about an alien Rumpelstiltskin literally
spinning oxygen out of thin air at a space colony, and (2) about a
robot scientist who creates a human (“It’s alive!”) only to discover
he doesn’t know what to do with his Franken-baby.
[Paragraph about me]

Nothing magical there—boilerplate stuff.  But it was enough to do the job…. even though the manuscript I sent was more storybook than picture book. When an idea is a great fit, the query has an easy task. It doesn’t have to convince, cajole, or hard-sell. (As a side-note, Cinders became ClinkerAdam, and the Franken-baby story never came to be, but three stories I hadn’t thought of at the time did!)

Matchmaking before you write won’t teach you the mechanics of query letters and it won’t make writing a synopsis magically easier… but it might give you a level of confidence you’ve not had before… and it will make the submission stage of the process a lot faster and less painful than going at things the traditional way. It’s not the only way to do things, and in some cases, it might not be a feasible way to do things, but it’s definitely worth trying. Who knows, it might even land you a book contract… and a guest post on your editor’s blog. ;)

Buried Editor's Note: The Rumpelstiltskin story that she mentions above is the story that just released yesterday, Out of Thin Air. It's my favorite of the bunch, and frankly the story that sold me on the whole concept!


Contest & Free Stuff

Fun stuff is happening at CBAY Books this week/month. First, we're running a contest over there. The winners in both the middle grade and teen categories will receive publishing contracts for their entries. Intrigued? Then head over to the CBAY Books Facebook page and like it to get the details.

Also this week, the second in our Amazing Tales Bedtime eStories releases tomorrow. Called Out of Thin Air, it's a very imaginative retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale.

So, to celebrate the release of this new Tale, we're going to offer a very special Halloween Treat today. From noon to one this afternoon (CST) we are going to have a free download available of our first Amazing Tale, Boyd Who Cried Wolf. Just go to the same CBAY Books Facebook page link and if you haven't already liked it, do so to get your free copy.

These Tales are the perfect little stories for snuggling up with just before bed, and on a spooky night like Halloween, they are just the thing for those kids who are a little too scared of witches and ghosts. Be sure to grab this Halloween treat, and have a great candy-filled evening.


Congratulations to Our Winner

Congratulations to the author of Feasy for winning the first page contest. I'll be contacting both finalists today about getting them their prizes.

I had tried a new polling option for this contest, and I would love to hear some feedback on it. I know my opinion, but I'd love to hear yours.