I challenge you to give that question some thought. The answer may surprise you. The answer may change. My own answers may help you attack the question.
I have gone to a paid manuscript critique hoping to be acquired. I was new at this business. I’d worked hard on my story (a picture book manuscript that has yet to see the light of day). I was psyched when Big New York Agent (aka BNYA) was assigned my piece. I sat down and the first thing he said was that no one wanted any more ugly duckling stories and it was poorly written (as far as he could tell from skimming it in the two minute interval between the previous victim and myself) and that I should toss that thing in the trash. I rallied with some questions about nonfiction (my other genre at the time) and our little tete-a-tete finished up with BNYA saying something like, “Well that’s a cool idea assuming you could write it, but judging from this manuscript, you can’t.” Ouch! (P.S. Now I have a Nice New York Agent known as NNYA, who pulled me out of the slush pile. I’ll keep him!)
I have gone to a paid manuscript critique to get ten-minute access to the brain of a publishing professional. I survived the horror of BNYA and figured out that the beauty of the conference critique with agents and editors is the opportunity to get their unique perspective. It’s not the place to get in-depth critique on a manuscript. Instead, you get to see your manuscript filtered through a brain that has been through the slush piles. She’s seen what’s being acquired and what’s not. She knows what’s trending, what’s unique, and where your book might (or might not) fit. You should believe that editors and agents really can tell a LOT about your entire 90K word novel from the first ten pages. Pay attention to the off-hand comment. I had one editor tell me that she was keen my idea of a updated version of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Huh? My novel didn’t go that way at all, but I realized that I had used the word “knight” meaning that my MC would become a champion in his new world, but there was nothing medieval about the universe. I changed “knight” to “archer” and that change of word and mindset altered the entire novel for the better.
I have asked someone to read a manuscript hoping to be praised and encouraged. There is nothing wrong with this. Sometimes we need a pep talk and a high five. When new writers ask me to read something I try to sense the vibe behind the question. Are they wavering with this piece? Do they wonder if it is worth the effort of finishing? Sometimes what we need to hear is YES! Finish the thing! Are there things to work on? Sure. But right now, believe in it. Finish it.
I have hoped for insight into problems I couldn’t figure out how to solve. I often have very specific directions for the Scrivas when I hand over a manuscript. Most recently, I was struggling with the POV in the Angel Punk novel. I asked for them to focus on that piece of the puzzle. Good critique partners can offer multiple solutions to manuscript issues. Often that will help you focus in on the right one for you.
I have sent manuscripts hoping for the toughest of tough love. Just today, I got back comments on the first 2/3 of Angel Punk from the other writers on the team. (Hence the inspiration for this post.) I have to admit that I wish they’d been a little harder on me. Seriously. I’m glad that they are feeling good about the way the novel is shaping up, but I know how much work it needs, and I was ready for a lot more meat. I’m new to the team so they might be being careful not to scare me off, but I told them they were pussycats (those big guys) compared to the Scrivas. The thing about the in-depth and gloves-off critiques of the Scrivas is that when they do praise something – and they always do – I feel like I’ve won a marathon. When the Scrivas say I’ve done well then, dammit, I’ve nailed it!
What do you want from a critique?