How to Open Your Work to Critique & Land Your Dream Agent

Author Gillian French explains how being willing to send manuscripts out for feedback opened up the publishing door—leading to an agent and eventual publication.
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How many times has this happened to you? A friend or acquaintance discovers you’re a writer in search of representation and that elusive first book deal. They offer to read one of your pieces and give you feedback.

Did you take them up on it, or shy away, cringing at the thought of exposing your passionate, creative side to someone who, well, actually knows you? For seventeen years, I wrote young adult novels and short horror fiction, letting virtually no one but my parents and, later, my husband—people who I trusted to be honest, yet also sensitive to my feelings—read my drafts before I submitted to editors. I could take a rejection from a stranger without flinching because I knew it wasn’t personal, but the thought of sharing my work with someone I knew and having them think less of me afterward was terrifying.

This guest post is by Gillian French . French is the author of three novels for teens: GRIT (HarperTeen), THE DOOR TO JANUARY (Islandport Press, 9/5/2017), and THE SUMMER BOYS (HarperTeen, 5/2/2018). Her short fiction has placed in Writer’s Digest and Zoetrope: All Story contests, as well as appearing in Odd Tree Press Quarterly, Creepy Campfire Stories (for Grownups): Tales of Extreme Horror, Sanitarium Magazine, and The Realm Beyond. She holds a BA in English from the University of Maine, and lives in her native state of Maine with her husband and sons, where she’s perpetually at work on her next novel.

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Then, about five years ago, a published author of middle-grade fiction became a patron at the library where I worked. After learning second-hand that I was a struggling writer, the author offered to read one of my manuscripts. With my stomach in knots, I emailed her my latest book, convinced that I was making a huge mistake. I had read her stuff—she was good. A successful, legitimate author like her could blow my fragile ego out of the water.

Instead, what she did was send back helpful, encouraging feedback. We became friends; as time went on, she read three of my books, and enjoyed the last one enough to pass it along to her agent, Alice Tasman of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. That book was Grit, my debut YA novel released in April, the first in a two-book deal with HarperCollins. After nearly two decades, I’ve finally realized my dream of becoming a published author.

Now, good fortune and timing obviously come into play here, but the key is that we built a relationship based on the trust implicit in allowing another person access to your creative soul. Trust that your work is worthy of being read, and trust in your reader not to cut you to the bone. Chances are, if I’d gone with my first impulse and turned down the offer of a critique, Grit would still be sitting in some agent’s digital slush pile right now. But how can you know if you’re letting the right person in? Not just someone with connections; someone who knows how to give constructive criticism, who appreciates all the hard work and hope invested in every piece of writing.

[Want to Write Better? Here Are 10 Habits of Highly Effective Writers]

First, ask yourself what you’re hoping to gain from sharing your work. If the answer is praise and a pat on the back, staying in your tortoise shell might be the best thing; who wants a totally one-sided relationship? But if you’re looking for a different perspective on your work, or a sense of direction with your next round of edits, a critique partner or writer’s group might be worth a try. Here’s a shortlist of places to look when you’re ready to get your feet wet, ranging from kiddie pool to the deep end.

  • Online Writing Communities: Arguably one of the most painless way of sharing your work with others, online writing communities can provide lively, inviting boards for artists to connect, encourage, and share pearls of wisdom—without necessarily having to FaceTime. A Google search yields myriad “best of” lists; when I did my own digging, Absolute Write Water Cooler, NaNoWriMo, and Critique Circle were mentioned again and again as popular, enthusiastic boards where you may just find your tribe. And if you end up in a demoralizing exchange, all you have to do is close out.
  • Family and Friends: How often have you considered asking someone close to you to read your manuscript, then changed your mind, thinking they’re too busy or I don’t want to put them on the spot or they don’t read my genre? Chances are, a friend or family member will be flattered that you asked, and eager to help. Think about it: These people care about you. They want you to succeed. Assuming they’ll only tell you what you want to hear, or lack the emotional depth to grasp the subtle nuances of your prose, is doing your relationship a large disservice. Take a closer look at your inner circle; who do you regard as thoughtful, respectful, and well-read? You probably already have a gut feeling about who might make a good sounding board. Start small by asking one of these chosen few if they’d be willing to look at a couple chapters and give you their honest opinion. Again, a display of trust in another person can go a long way towards deepening your connection, and gaining you some much-needed reader response.
  • Writers Groups: I know. Every time you hear of one meeting in your area, you imagine yourself sitting in some community center conference room, white-knuckled, while a tableful of people rips your baby to shreds over coffee and cookies.

It’s important to do your research first. Shop around and see what groups exist near you. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with the contact person and ask for the group’s mission statement. Are they all about fostering creative growth with an eye toward publication, or is it more of a casual weekly/monthly get-together for artists to mingle and bounce ideas around? It’s up to you to decide what would benefit your writing and build your confidence. These groups are not for everyone, and that’s okay, but it does give you the opportunity to be the change you want to see in the world: Offer another writer the kind of positive, constructive feedback you’ve always dreamed of receiving.

Whatever avenue you take, exposing your work to new readers is the best way to keep your writing fresh, fit, and on the upward climb to publication. Open up, and trust in the validity of your work. You never know which new connection might be the one that changes everything.

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