Critique Groups: Good and Bad Things

by Christine Stewart

This is a four? five? part series (we’ll see how it goes!)

Let’s talk about two of the big factors in a workshop group. One good, one bad. One you want, one you don’t.


It’s chemistry. This is fairly self-explanatory if you’re dating, but maybe not so clear when it comes to a workshop or critique group. You don’t want to be nervous and sweaty or want to have a quickie in the closet with anyone in the group. (No, you really don’t.) What to look for:

Longevity: if it’s an established group you’re joining, how long have they been meeting? A year or more shows they’re solid. If you're starting a group, ask for at least a 6 month commitment, where the group meets every 2-3 weeks and agree to reevaluate at the end of the 6 months.

Training: not to be snotty, but ideally everyone in the group has either taken workshops that included discussions and applications of craft, or has a degree of some kind in writing. The best writers know what the tools of writing are and when and how to use them, and experiment regularly with various elements of craft to keep stretching their skill set.

Humor and a Thick Skin: in general - don’t be a sourpuss. You cannot take critiquing personally. You must be able to distance yourself enough to hear that your poem or story doesn’t work and why. Even if only one person tells you that, there is always a grain of truth in what’s said. Be objective enough to find and consider that grain. Bake it into the rewrite even. Don’t be the one that brings the group down because you can’t take it. People will begin to censor themselves when critiquing you and that compromises the integrity of the group and just plain sucks. If the group already has one of these and it looks like he or she isn't going anywhere because no one has the nerve to bump them out, don't join that group. If you find a group that laughs a lot when critiquing, hang on for dear life.

Integrity: as just mentioned, this means that nobody pulls punches. Because of their training (see above), each member knows how to critique using the terminology of whatever form is being discussed, and gives examples and makes suggestions for how to strengthen the work and, this is crucial, they do so based on the voice and style of the writer, and what they perceive the writer is trying to accomplish, not what they personally want the writer to do or what they would do. You can certainly say, ‘as a reader, I would wish/hope/look for…’ but that’s it. Let them be themselves.

Comfort and Challenge: when you’re with this group, do you feel comfortable? Great. But do you also respect and admire the work of the other writers? Do they challenge you to write at your highest and best level because of that respect and admiration? Or are you so green with envy that you have to slather lots of that color correcting makeup before you meet up with them? Comfort without challenge is a no-go.

When it comes to chemistry (and this is similar to dating) size matters (sorry guys). I was recently invited to join a group that has 9, sometimes 10 members. Though it’s a good group, I declined, not because I already belong to a group - it’s fine to belong to more than one group, but maybe a maximum of 2, or you will spend more time preparing for meeting with them than you do on other worthy endeavors like, um, writing – but because the group only workshops 3 pieces, which means members are critiqued only 4 times a year (they meet monthly), which, to me, is not worth the time. My current group meets every 3 weeks and everyone gets critiqued each time (there are 3 of us - shout out to Evan and Frank; we just had our one year anniversary!)

So think in terms of crowd control. I think odd numbers are best; there's something about the balance and symmetry of even numbers that creates too much agreement and not enough discussion. So I would suggest 3 or 5. A smaller odd-numbered group is a more intimate, truthful group; it has a little edge, which keeps you on your toes. You’ll spend more time on each other’s work, get to know each other’s style better, everyone can be critiqued at each meeting, and there will be less chit chat at the beginning of each session, which brings me to the:


Therapy and gossip. This is not what workshops are for. As mentioned above, there is always some chit chat when people get together, but comparing Brazilian wax horror stories, fantasies about your boss, complaining about the kids, or plotting how to impeach the current president has no place in the workshop (unless your piece is about one of these things).

If you just caught your husband in bed with the 18 year old boy next door you had your eye on, keep it to yourself and share it with friends at another time. Better yet, write about it!

If the members of your group would like to spend time discussing/brainstorming about practical things like: finding time to write, health insurance for freelancers, query letters, or which conferences to go to, add an extra half hour to your meeting time (do not cut regular time short in favor of doing this, that’s a bad habit to start), or meet on another day for lunch or dinner and do it then.

Too much talk and before you know it forty five minutes have gone by or one or more members of the group are asleep or have left altogether.

In future posts: Besides chemistry, what else makes a good workshop? How to run the group (including where), how to critique (how to say more than, “I like…., I don’t like…), and how to know when it’s over, or when to break up with your group and more!

Chris Stewart is the founding director of the Write Here, Write Now workshops in Baltimore and a program director for literature with the Maryland State Arts Council. Her website is

Are Literary Agents Friends or Rivals?

Are literary agents friendly with each other? Are they
mutually suspicious or hostile? Do they steal authors from each other at every opportunity, or do they cooperate with one another? Do they have a code of behavior? Are they too competitive to act collectively?

To the extent that the book publishing business is a pie to be sliced into just so many pieces, and the number of profitable authors is a finite one, I suppose it can be argued that agents are rivals. Yet I don't think most agents feel that way. Unlike some other businesses we can think of, where the survival of one firm is achieved only at the expense of another, there appears to be enough business in the publishing field to enable all literary agents who stay in the game long enough and run their businesses prudently to earn a living and to be gracious toward each other while doing so.

Though we have seen bad times in our industry, they have never been so bad that no publisher was buying books. Nor has the pool of potential clients ever shrunk to the degree that a resourceful agent could not find authors to make money with. In short, I don't believe agents lose too much sleep worrying that the supply of or the demand for their products and services is going to dry up.

What agents do worry about is maximizing the earning power of their clients, helping their authors realize the full measure of their talents, and exploiting every bit of financial potential in their work: to put it plainly, making them rich and famous. Obviously, the agent whose clients become rich and famous will become rich and famous too. And, just as obviously, a dissatisfied author will eventually seek new representation.

And it is here that agents sometimes start throwing elbows.

Antagonism between agents flares up over the interpretation of just how loudly, sweetly, and aggressively an agent sings his firm's praises to an author represented by another agent. You might think of it as the Smoking Gun theory of client-stealing: if the author walks in the door of another agency in a state of uncertainty but walks out clutching a signed agreement with his new agent, it can be inferred that something considerably more than a soft-sell occurred behind that door. At least, most of the time such an inference is justified. But not always.

Many an author not comfortable with his agent has visited another agency and, with little persuasion, realized from a brief chat and a look around and a sniff of the atmosphere that he has actually been quite miserable with his old agent, but could not admit it until that moment.

However that may be so, the author's old agent is going to strongly suspect that the other agent gave a snow job to his former client. Because I treasure the friendships of (most of) my colleagues, I call them when I become the beneficiary of a former client of theirs to reassure them that I did not actively solicit that client, and to pave the way for cooperation on old business concerning that author. And I have always appreciated it when my colleagues did the same for me. In some cases, when the parting is friendly and by mutual consent, agents will refer authors to other agents.

Most agents have had the experience of having their colleagues refer clients to them. In point of fact, agents work with each other to a much greater degree than they work against each other. I know of a few suspicious, curmudgeonly types who jealously guard their flocks as if their colleagues were wolves poised to pounce on helpless clients and carry them off to their lairs. On the whole, though, agents enjoy each other's company, help each other, are anxious to remain on one another's good side, and to a degree act cooperatively on matters that affect the author community.

The Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR), an amalgamation of two earlier literary agents' guilds, was formed in 1991 to better serve that community. I particularly commend to your attention the organization's Canon of Ethics.

Agents call each other frequently seeking advice on all manner of problems: Who do you know at Random House? How do you phrase your option clause? Who's buying westerns? How did you conduct that auction? How did you get that terrific price? What should I do about this problem client?

On occasion, agents cooperate on deals. For instance, if an author leaving Agent A wishes Agent B to handle subsidiary rights to his old books—a situation fraught with the potential for mean-spirited behavior - the two agents might work things out so that they split a commission. Agent A will be satisfied because he doesn't have to do all that much work to earn his share of the commission, and Agent B will be satisfied because he didn't have to sell the books originally.

In other cases, such as collaborations, there may be two agents for two authors and the agents work out the division of labor and commissions. I may have a client with a fantastic story to tell who can't write, but I don't represent quite the right author to team up with him. And my buddy Agent X may have just the right author. After exploring the questions of our clients' compatibility and the division of work and money, Agent X and I discuss just how we're going to cooperate. Am I going to be the principal agent in making a deal with the publisher? If so, am I to take my commission off the top - off the total advance, that is - or do I take my commission only on that portion of the advance allocated to my client? Who is going to handle the subsidiary rights, Agent X or my agency? You can see that unless there is a solid friendship and abundant good will between agents, there is going to be friction, and in potentially fatal doses. Many a lucrative deal has gone down the tubes because two agents couldn't reach agreement on such matters.

An editor once told me about a meeting in her office of two agent heavyweights, one whose client possessed the essential source material for a book, the other representing a star author whose byline and talent guaranteed a bestseller. The discussions went swimmingly until the question of commissions was raised. "Since I brought this project to the publisher and made the deal," said the first agent, "I expect to get my commission off the top. You can take your commission out of your client's share, net after I have taken my commission."

"Uh-uh," said the second agent. "My client is critical to the success of this book. I want a commission off the top too."

The first agent glared at him for a moment, then rose and went to the phone on the editor's desk.

"Who are you calling?" the editor asked.

"My driver," said the agent. And that was the end of that

Richard Curtis is president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., a leading New York literary agency and founder of E-Reads, a leading e-book publisher dedicated to bringing out-of-print books back into electronic and printed forms as well as publishing new titles. He is an author, as well as an author advocate and writes a blog on the future of publishing, Richard Curtis on Publishing in the 21st Century.

Photo by Anthony S. Policastro - a Kenyan wood carving of two giraffes scratching each other's necks.

Algonkian Conferences Presents The Fisherman's Wharf Writers Conference - Stop by and Say Hello

In May and June 2009 Algonkian Writer Conferences will be holding writer events in San Francisco. We've selected a great venue in SF--the Fort Mason Center. It's close to everything and with a great view of the Bay. Faculty include the team of Larsen-Pomada as well as agents from Sandra Djikstra. We plan on including book publicity pros also. If you're in the SF area, stop by and say hello!
Fort Mason Bldg. C,
Room 210 Marina Blvd. and Buchanan - San Francisco

All Agencies Great and Small: Part 2

By Richard Curtis

In the first installment of this piece we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of sole practitioner literary agencies.

With the introduction of a second person into the agency - even a secretary with no discretionary power - the dynamics of the firm usually alter sharply. The agent can if he chooses make himself less accessible, a state that is often tactically desirable. He at last has somebody to blame, perhaps not for negotiating and other serious mistakes, but at least for some of the clerical screwups that bedevil all business enterprises. On the other hand, the operation of the business should become more efficient, a fair tradeoff for the agent's withdrawal from the firing line. If the employee is anything more than a warm body occupying a desk, he or she can create some important opportunities for strategic games, can serve as a reader, rendering a second viewpoint on the salability of manuscripts, or as a sounding board for marketing, negotiating, and other decisions. And if that person is interested in and good at certain specialized tasks—handling movie, television, magazine, or foreign rights, for example—or has a good grasp of certain markets that the boss has no interest in or feel for, or if he or she is good at handling certain clients, then you have the makings of a potent team and the foundation for a successful agency.

From that point on it becomes a matter of adding new staff members and deploying them according to the organization that best suits the agent's style - a style that may transmute as the agent gains experience. As a rule, the smaller the agency the less specialized are the tasks performed by its staff: in other words, everybody handles everything. As the firm grows, a structure usually emerges along lines of staff specialization. One structure might be described as vertical, with the agent at the pinnacle handling the clients, supported by a staff that services the clients' properties but does not necessarily have contact with the clients themselves. One staff member might handle foreign rights, another movie, another serial, another bookkeeping, another filing, and so on.

The advantage of a vertical system, generally, is excellent service, for every aspect of the client's needs; every facet of the property will be taken care of by a specialist. The disadvantage is that the client list must be kept relatively small- no larger than the capacity of the head of the company to handle his clients' work and needs comfortably. Another disadvantage is the vulnerability of the agency in the event of the death or disability of its owner, for there will be no one with deep experience at handling clients to take his or her place. If the agent should go out of town for an extended trip or vacation, the agency may be reduced to a maintenance capacity and not be capable of dealing forcefully with the sorts of emergencies that always seem to attack writers the moment their agents board an airplane.

As an agent becomes successful, he or she will be solicited by many authors seeking representation. Many are excellent writers with good track records who need the guidance and assistance of a good agency. A combination of profit motive and compassion will compel the agent to offer representation to them. But how can agents fit them into their stables without curtailing the time, attention, and service he is now able to lavish on the rest of his clients?

Some agents resist this temptation, harden their hearts, and shut their doors to newcomers. Others resort to hiring employees to handle the overflow of clients. An agency engaging a roster of agents might be described as horizontal, and obviously there is no limit to the number of clients such a firm can take on, for, as soon as it reaches capacity, it can always add a new agent to take on the excess. The boss will still be the boss, and there will still be a staff of specialists to handle subsidiary rights and clerical and administrative functions. But on the middle level will be those other agents, replicating what their boss does. They may be generalists, handling the gamut of literature from genre to mainstream, or they may deal in such specialties as juveniles, nonfiction, or science fiction. I would say that most middle-sized and large agencies fit this horizontal pattern; in fact, it's hard to imagine how an agency can become large unless it does expand horizontally.

From the writer's viewpoint, an agency of this type is attractive for several reasons. First, it enables him to locate within the organization the individual agent best suited to his work and style. Second, if the organization is well run, he will enjoy the benefit of a team approach under the supervision of the principal agent. And third, if one's agent is out of town or on vacation, or is so thoughtless as to die, there is a good likelihood that he will find a replacement in the ranks of the other agents at the same firm. In other words, the bumpy ups and downs you often experience with a one-person agency will be absorbed by a larger organization, and that is a secure feeling. But there's also a catch.

Most clients of middle-sized and large agencies are content to be represented by an agent who is not the head man or woman, as long as there is a sense that the chief is at least overseeing the work of the subordinate agents and making sure that all of the agency's authors are being properly serviced. Inherent in the very nature of large organizations, however, is a degree of insulation between the head of the company and the activities of those clients he or she does not directly represent. If an author begins to feel that the agent handling his work is not doing an adequate job, he may conclude that the head of the company has more important concerns than the scribblings of a fifteen-thousand-dollar-a-year midlist writer. Thus is created what might be described as the "A-List/B-List Syndrome," meaning that the agency has two client lists: the Grade A clients handled by the boss, and the Grade B ones handled by the secondary agents. When that sort of suspicion begins to gnaw at a client, he may eventually decide he must either move up or move out and seek an agency where he will receive more personal attention from the top agent.

It is therefore incumbent on the heads of agencies to make sure that the subordinate agents keep in very close touch with him and with each other. At many agencies, that is precisely what happens. In others, the boss has administrative and client demands that make supervision of the other agents' activities difficult. Now, it can certainly be assumed that some of those agents are ambitious, and so an atmosphere is created in which a subordinate agent, operating with little supervision, begins to wonder just what he needs a boss for anyway. He may be making a good salary and even collecting commissions, but as so much of the revenue he generates must go to paying overhead and a profit to the firm he works for, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow the idea will occur to him that he could do better on his own. For many of his clients, the notion of joining this agent when he starts his own agency is extremely appealing, for in a stroke those clients will be transformed from B-Listers to A-Listers. Things don't always turn out to be as satisfying as that fantasy, though, for the agent may discover that he does not, on his own, enjoy the same success he did when he was a member of a large and influential organization. It is extremely hard and perhaps impossible for the client of a larger agency to sort out just what is the true source of his agent's power and success. Does the person handling you consult with the head of the company or is he handling your account strictly on his own? Is his effectiveness due in good measure to the influence, reputation, and support of his organization, or are these incidental to his performance? Some authors discover the answers to these questions by leaving; others, by staying on.

At the summit are the giant agencies, representing many illustrious authors, extremely well connected in the movie and television area, and moving tremendous amounts of properties, rights, and money. These firms are often broken down into departments, and you the author will be handled by someone in the literary department. These departments usually have senior and junior staff members and operate as potent fiefdoms in a great bicoastal kingdom. Because the overhead of these firms is stupendous, the clients they take on must be pretty heavy hitters and often are authors whose work is highly adaptable to film and television. The disadvantage is the intimidating vastness of such organizations.

Somewhere in all this is a place for you, and in few businesses is it truer that what's great for one person may be awful for another. I doubt if many authors retain one agent for the span of their entire career. Indeed, for the sake of an author's personal growth, having the same agent from cradle to grave may be a very poor idea.

At least, that's what I tell myself whenever I lose a client.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in
Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

Richard Curtis is president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., a leading New York literary agency and founder of E-Reads, a leading e-book publisher dedicated to bringing out-of-print books back into electronic and printed forms as well as publishing new titles. He is an author, as well as an author advocate and writes a blog on the future of publishing, Richard Curtis on Publishing in the 21st Century.

All Agencies Great and Small: Part 1

By Richard Curtis

I'm not sure that authors understand the structures of literary agencies much better than they understand those of publishing companies. For those of you who are shopping for an agent or thinking of switching agencies, or who are simply interested in organizational dynamics, it might be interesting to compare agencies of different sizes and structures and to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each type.

First, but not least, is the one-man or one-woman agency. And when I say one man or woman I don't mean one man or woman plus a secretary, for, as we shall soon see, the presence of a second person can radically alter an agent's style, service, and clout. Most such agents start out either as editors of publishing companies or as staff members of large agencies; a few join our profession from the legal and other related fields. To agenting they bring their special knowledge and experience, and those are always big pluses for prospective clients. They can also be handicaps, however. The lawyer who becomes a literary agent will soon discover that publishing law is so vastly different in theory and practice from any other kind of law as to render his training and experience virtually useless. Agents who leave big agencies to set up their own don't always make good agents, as they may be unused to operating outside the context of a supporting organization. Editors who become agents may know a great deal about publishing procedures, but that knowledge doesn't necessarily make them good deal-makers.

The sole practitioner must do everything by and for himself, and from an author's viewpoint there are many desirable aspects of such a setup. Chief among them is accessibility. Phone answering machines or services notwithstanding, you know that when you call your agent, you will get him or her. That means you can maximize your input, communications, and control, which is great unless your input, communications, and control happen to be lousy. Remember that you hired an agent in the first place because you need someone who understands the publishing business better than you, someone who is more experienced and skillful in negotiations, is more objective, and remains calm when push comes to shove. If you take advantage of your agent's accessibility, then all you are doing is manipulating him like a puppet, programming into him the very same emotional shortcomings that you most desperately need to be defended from.

For the sole practitioner, the credit for success belongs exclusively to him or her, and deservedly so. But so, deservedly, does the blame for mistakes. Because there is no insulation between author and agent, both positive and negative emotions tend to run stronger than they might if the author were not so intimate with everything having to do with the handling of his business. Indeed, the author represented by a sole practitioner is all too often quite intimate with the business of his agent's other clients, too, and among the emotions that run strongly in these cases, therefore, is jealousy.

In short, you cannot ask for more personalized service than you get when you engage a one-man or one-woman agency, and if the relationship is solid and harmonious it can be like owning a custom-made automobile. But custom-made automobiles tend to react oversensitively to every bump in the road. And their owners tend to tinker with them.

From the viewpoint of one who has been a sole practitioner, the biggest disadvantage is that the one-person company cannot utilize what businesspeople refer to as a "devil," someone to blame.
It is essential for the new agent to cultivate and ingratiate himself with the influential editors in the business. Needless to say, this agent will be loath to alienate those editors by being overly tough and demanding in negotiations. If an agent starting out in business gets a reputation for being unreasonable, he may lose business. He can of course blame his intransigence on his clients, but in most cases the editors will know it's not the author who's the troublemaker, but his agent. Besides, one of the things authors hire agents for is to take the fire for hard decisions in order to allow their clients to maintain pleasant working relationships with editors. If only there were someone working for your agent with whom he could play Good Guy-Bad Guy, he could have some leeway when it comes to playing hardball. His associate might sometimes serve as the devil, taking tough positions in negotiations. Then, just when it looked as if a deal were going to fall through, his boss would intervene and offer a compromise that mitigated his employee's inflexibility. In other cases the assistant could be the good guy who wishes he could be more lenient but, well, his boss is a tough bird who simply will not yield.

This may be the commonest game played by businessmen and women, but it requires two to each side, and the sole practitioner is one shy of that minimum. Exposed as he or she is, the one-man or one-woman agent must, almost by definition, be a courageous individual.

With the introduction of a second person into the agency - even a secretary with no discretionary power - the dynamics of the firm usually alter sharply. In my next installment I'll explain how.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

Richard Curtis is president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., a leading New York literary agency and founder of E-Reads, a leading e-book publisher dedicated to bringing out-of-print books back into electronic and printed forms as well as publishing new titles. He is an author, as well as an author advocate and writes a blog on the future of publishing, Richard Curtis on Publishing in the 21st Century.