Conference Critiques: What They’re Like

Paved Road
In May, I attended the SCBWI-OR conference. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is the largest organization for the support, education, and networking of – you guessed it – children’s writers and illustrators. It is an international organization with over 24,000 published and pre-published members, and more than 100 regions (or chapters) worldwide.

The weekend was packed with encouraging and knowledgeable speakers, experts in the children’s publishing field. There were also abundant opportunities to meet agents, editors, and other writers.

Short version: I learned more than I thought possible in short time span. Every speaker I heard was inspirational.

The big events for me were two personal critique sessions. These were for my middle grade fantasy novel that has about 24,000 words so far. The first critique was a 15-minute one-on-one consultation with a traditionally published middle grade author (she has two books out). The second was a first pages reading with two editors and nine other writer/readers.

I was excited about the one-on-one consultation. I hoped for feedback about whether the book fit in my chosen genre and if it was a concept that had a chance in the marketplace. Of course, I wanted feedback on the writing itself, but that’s something that can be honed over time.

The critique answered those questions and more. I’m aiming for the right age group and there is a market for this type of book (animal fantasy). The author gave me direction on what’s working (good characterization) and what’s not (plot needs thickening). She even suggested comparative titles for me to see what’s been published recently. I had searched this but come up pretty empty. My search had been too specific; I need to cast my comp title net wider. This experience was completely worth the money and effort for me.

Jumping off cliff

The first pages (spoken in a growly Darth Vader voice: Firrrsst breathe breathe breathe Paaageeesss) was terrifying for me. Not because of any mean person. The stress of putting myself out there in front of an unknown group – and Big Five editors at that — is “not for the faint of heart” as the registration site stated.

At first pages, each writer stood – on a platform, at a podium, with a mic — and read our first page. Then the editors took five minutes to provide feedback. Mine was essentially “good start, possibly too quiet for a first page”. They were very kind to all of us. Even if the editors said “the voice isn’t right for the time period”, or “maybe your protagonist is not the right age for this genre”, or “that might be too shocking of a way to start a middle grade novel” – I think all of us walked out thinking we weren’t too dumb and our writing had a chance. The writing, overall, impressed me. Each piece showed evidence of skill and polish. I hope mine fit in with that group.

At the end of the session, the editors said that it’s virtually impossible to tell if a story is going to work by reading the first page. Sometimes the real story doesn’t begin until page 5, or maybe even page 50. That’s why editors exist. And that’s what critique groups, beta readers, and agents are for – to help us cut the crap and throat-clearing and get to the meat of the story. Of course, a skilled reader can tell if the writer has decent chops by reading a first page. But once you know the writer has been practicing her craft for a while you still don’t know if there’s a story there.

After the session, I asked another writer. “If they can’t tell how good the story is from the first page why bother doing these first pages sessions?”

One person said, “You have to read between the lines.” That made sense. What did they not say? None of us got a “send this to me when you’re done”.

Another person said, “It’s still a good thing. You can get a sense of the reader’s initial reaction. Is it what you’re shooting for? Do they respond from a cold read the way you want your reader to respond? It gives you a sense of whether the story is worth going for. Whether you’re on the right track or you need to start over or reset something.”

I agree with her. First pages, regardless of how scary it seems are a good idea. It helps us get feedback quickly from several cold readers. People who’ve never seen our story and never heard our premise. It gives us practice and experience reading our work in front of strangers. All writers hope to read their published work in front of groups at some point. We’d better start practicing now.

So, writer if you’ve considered getting a professional critique on a piece that you’ve worked on, believe in, and have polished, just do it. The only time I’d say hold off is when it’s a new idea that’s just beginning to take form and shape. You’re not sure where it’s going or even what it is. Then I wouldn’t hold it up to the harsh critical lights of reality just yet. Give it time to mature and strengthen. But if you’ve slaved and polished and your critique group is tired of reading it one more time – you need light and air from the outside. Go for it. I believe you’ll be glad you did, whatever the outcome.

If you’ve had a critique at a conference, what were the positive and negative aspects? If you have any questions about my critique experience I am happy to give more specifics.

Thanks for reading. Happy writing and reading!

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