Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My First Critique. Also known as "I'm a daydreaming doofball"

My first writing conference I was a weird mix of anxiety and arrogance.

I'd been writing for a long time. Pretty much since I could hold a pencil. I'd majored in Creative Writing in college. I'd worked on an MFA and had a masters degree in literature. I'd had a couple of stories published. 

What I'm saying is I knew I was a good writer. (See arrogance, above)

The conference was put on by SCBWI  (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). The anxiety came into it because I had to drive four hours to get to the conference, and I don't like driving long distances by myself. 

How these conferences work is editors, agents, and writers speak about writing and the children's book industry. They teach smaller sessions on craft and marketing. There's lots of networking and inspirational pep talks. For an extra fee, you can submit a few pages of a manuscript and cross your fingers that an editor or agent will be the one it's assigned to. 

I submitted the first few chapters of one of my manuscripts. For the record, it was the third book I'd completed. The first was totally a practice book. It was me--the poet and short story writer--figuring out how to write a novel. I had no hopes for the book, but I could see the value in having written it. The second book was autobiographical. I did have some hope for that one but I also knew from the bazillion writing classes I'd taken that sometimes we've got to get all that personal angsty true stuff out of us and out of the way before we begin to tackle fiction. 

But the third book, this new manuscript--this was the one. I could feel it--when I came up with the idea, as I struggled and sweated over the various beginnings, when I read bits of it aloud at a writing retreat. And when I finished the draft and read it through. 

I submitted the first ten pages and I knew it would be given to an editor. (It was.) I knew she would read it and love it and ask for the rest. 

I knew this so surely that I printed off a copy of the entire manuscript and brought it with me to the conference. I tucked it in a bag and carried it to the morning opening session, where What a Coincidence! that very editor would be giving the keynote speech.

I loved her as soon as she started speaking. We were the same age. She talked about her favorite books when she was a kid and why she loved being an editor, and I gazed at her as if she was already my mentor and best friend.  

The future scrolled out so clearly I could see the Newbery Award sticker on the book cover. The editor would greet me for my critique session. Before I could even sit down, she'd be gushing about how much she loved the first ten pages, saying how original the idea was and how exquisite the language. She'd laughed while reading. And sobbed, when it was appropriate. Oh how grateful she was to have signed up for this conference! What luck that she'd been the one to get my book!

Of course she wanted it.  

If the first ten pages were any indication, she knew she would love the entire book and wanted to sign me now, on the spot. It was an award winner, for sure. And a best seller. On the plane ride down to the conference, she'd begun to cast the characters. "Oh, Jody!" she'd say with a smile, "I know it's silly, but I already feel we're going to be best friends."


Do I need to write how this critique actually went down? 

Weirdly, things started out almost as I'd envisioned...

The editor spoke. When her session was over and everyone else filed out of the room, I hung back and introduced myself (thinking that I may as well get the whole dream ball rolling). She smiled when I said my name. 

"Oh, Jody!" she said. "You're one of my critiques!"  

At lunch we ate together and talked about our similar taste in books. I fought the urge to give her the manuscript that was practically burning a hole in my bag. But I played it cool. No need to rush things. 

Time for the critique. More smiles. We were already well on our way to being friends, so no surprises there. Then she whipped out my pages, suddenly all business-like.

I have no idea what she said. Because of what she didn't say --the beautifully clear vision of gushy praise and book deals on the spot did not seem to be happening. In a flash the fifteen minutes were up and she smiled. 

Apparently, the critique was over? 

Stunned at the stark contrast between dream and reality, I gave the dream one last shot. "Um, I've got my full manuscript" --I lamely patted my bag-- "right here with me. Do you want to--"

She cut me off with a tight smile. "No. That's okay. I don't take manuscripts at conferences." Smile smile. "But why don't you try some of my suggestions, and you can submit in a few months?" 

The rest of the conference is a blur. Probably because I was blinking back tears and everything was literally blurry. I drove home, alternating between crying and arguing in my head with the stupid editor. She didn't know what the HELL she was talking about. She was wrong about my book. She didn't UNDERSTAND it. Blah blah. 

Hour three, I was grudgingly admitting that she might have been right about a couple of things and why not play around with them, just to see if it worked better.

Hour four, I was excited. How had I not seen the obvious? Those suggestions would make the book stronger, better. What an idiot I'd been not to realize! 

I would do everything the editor said and I would revise the entire book and I would send it to her in a few months and she would gush about what a great sport I was at taking criticism. She'd buy the manuscript and it would win the Newbery and soon we'd be on the way to being best friends.

Yeah. So, none of THAT happened either.

It took 6 more years and 3 more completed manuscripts before I got my book deal. I am not best friends with my editor, although she is a very nice lady. The book did not win a big award or sell a million copies. 

This weekend I'm off to an SCBWI conference where I'm teaching a few sessions. I'm also critiquing the first ten pages of several manuscripts. 

Dear lovely writers who are just beginning this journey, would you believe it when I tell you that I might understand how you feel? 

(A sample of rejections for the manuscript that was THE ONE)


  1. This definitely made me smile! I've taken on a new approach of not expecting anything and then being pleasantly surprised if the critique goes better than expected. :) Looking forward to seeing you this weekend.

    1. Thanks, Kristy. I always try that low expectations thing, but somehow my crazed, day dreamy mind goes off on another wild tangent. Looking forward to seeing you too!

  2. So funny, but yeah, I know how it is. I always expect the worst, while secretly hoping for a little praise -- just a few breadcrumbs to keep me going.