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Adjusting Expectations for Conferences and Critiques

I speak and provide critiques at many conferences every year, and I also offer Writer’s Digest webinars that include critique. I work very hard on these critiques. Teaching writing is a passion for me (hence the blog). Most of the writers who get critique (at conferences, in critique groups, through the webinars, as a result of contests, etc.) approach it with the right attitude. Critiques are a learning opportunity. You submit your work, you hear feedback on it, and, eventually, you either incorporate the feedback or cast it aside. Sometimes a critique will completely click and validate your own instincts. Sometimes you won’t like it at all.

Let’s start by saying that, yes, some critique is just bad. It’s either totally off the mark (“Did they even read my story?”) or it feels mean-spirited (there’s a personal attack or they say something along the lines of “you will never ever ever ever publish”). Keep in mind, though, that telling you that your writing still needs work is not personally mean. It’s most likely honest. All writers, even published ones, strive to improve their writing, so “needs work” is not a bad thing. Just because someone doesn’t heap praise on you or call you “the next J.K. Rowling” in critique doesn’t mean it’s a bad critique. No professional critique would say such a thing, so if that’s what you’re expecting, you’re in for disappointment. Most critique may be hard to take but, if it’s honest and comes from an expert source, it will have at least one or two nuggets of truth or action items that you can implement in your writing. If you leave your emotions out of it, you’ll most likely find this to be the case.

Critique is a tool. It is given to you and you must use it how you see fit. Maybe not right away. Maybe you’ll put it aside for a bit and then use it to look at your manuscript afresh. But it is extremely valuable–it is another set of eyes on your work, which is a very rare thing for writers to receive. Let’s now go into what critique isn’t. Something goes on in critiques and at conferences that I call American Idol Syndrome. There seems to be a mentality in the creative arts right now (not helped by all the competition shows that have sprung up over the last decade) that all you need is your one shot at greatness and then you’re a star. Instead of doing the hard labor for years and years, instead of working your butt off, all you need is to be in the right place at the right time in front of the right gatekeeper.

Believe me, I love this dream. I remember being 12 or 13 and reading in Seventeen magazine that some model got discovered when a scout saw her at the mall, offered her a contract on the spot, whisked her away to a life of luxury in NYC, and then it rained unicorns and puppies on her forever and ever, etc. I won’t lie to you–I was much more self-conscious going to the mall after that. I always chose my outfit carefully and maybe even put on a little make-up, which, for me, is a huge effort. This fantasy is very appealing to humans. Work is hard. That’s why they call it “work,” instead of, you know “beach party.” We would rather have success tap us on the shoulder while we’re browsing Hot Topic and offer us the key to our dreams. But this happens much more rarely than you’d think in real life (that’s why we know the exceptions…they’re news). Especially in publishing, which isn’t as TV-ready-glamorous as fashion design, being a TV chef, modeling, singing, etc.

I know that when writers sign up for a conference or critique, there’s this little part of them that thinks, “Maybe I will meet my dream agent and we’ll ride off into the sunset together!” Heck, I met one of my now-colleagues at a writer’s conference. Writers connect with agents, editors, and other writers at conferences all the time. But those meetings are a lot less about luck than they are about hard work. The writers that do find their agents and editors at these things are the ones who have done years of work on their craft, who are coming to the conference savvy and informed, who have bought a critique that brings them to the right person’s attention, and who have done as much as possible so that they’re ready to be fallen in love with.

Louis Pasteur said: “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” The people who win Idol have, most likely, years and years of voice lessons and musical theatre and practice behind them. They look like they’re just randomly being “discovered” on TV, but their entire creative life has brought them to that moment. It’s the sweaty, repetitive part that the cameras don’t show you. This goes for any creative endeavor.

Now. There is a small set of writers who do not react well to constructive feedback. They are the ones bitterly disappointed that they were not “discovered” as a result of a conference meeting or critique. All they wanted to hear was, “This is a diamond in the rough and I will publish it right this minute!” Anything else, no matter how sound the feedback, is crushing. If you are pinning all your hopes and expectations on one conference or critique, and you feel like “this is it, or else…,” I would save yourself the trouble and stay away for now. It is very likely that your unrealistic expectations will be dashed.

Publishing is a tough business, and writing is, by its very nature, emotional. Writers, especially those striving to publish, need thick skins and heaps of resilience. I’d encourage everyone to adjust their expectations of mega-stardom and insta-fame now rather than be disappointed in the future. That’s not to say I’m thinking small. I would love for all of my clients to be #1 bestsellers! But you can’t go in expecting that to happen, or the journey will be very angsty for you. Hope for great things (every conference or critique is an opportunity to grow), but don’t require them. Screw your determination to its sticking place, and get into this game to learn and grow as a writer. That’s the good stuff right there. If you happen to take off, it will be that much more satisfying, and you will have a very strong craft foundation to bolster your success.

Until that happens, if you still want to play the one-in-a-million odds at instant stardom, line up to audition for the next season of Idol. I guarantee that you won’t be alone in pursuing this favorite of human fantasies.

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