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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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  1. Wendy Tokunaga’s avatar

    Excellent post! I was always waiting for someone to discover me as a model, singer or whatever–LOL. It *is* such a common human fantasy. I find that most writers I deal with regarding critiques want honest, informing feedback so they can improve their writing. Most all of us want that and it’s a real gift when you receive it.

  2. MaryZ’s avatar

    I always ask my critiquers to channel their inner Simon Cowell–I want honest, blunt, enlightening criticism to help me learn. I had a crit with you, and out of 15 pages, there was only one paragraph that you liked. But I learned SO much from you. I have 4 crits coming up in June and I can’t wait to take my work to the next level. Thanks, Mary

  3. Bonnie McCarthy’s avatar

    Great post! The part about dressing up for the mall made me laugh out loud! Thanks for the wonderful insight.

  4. LK’s avatar

    Thank you for saying it all! Worked in entertainment for yeas on the backend. So true. I write because I am addicted to it, critiques & all. I think we have to be as writers. Or why bother? Even JK Rowlings didn’t get that much money initially, it took time to get there and from what I’ve seen much criticism.

  5. PK Hrezo’s avatar

    Such a great reminder. Those insta-success stories can totally derail a writer’s objective, and that’s to craft the best story possible. The longer I write, the more I realize how unfulfilling publishing will be if I’m not a maturely developed writer. At that point, I’ve earned the mega success, but it’s so easy to get discouraged up until then.

  6. Emil’s avatar

    I agree with most of your post, but early in the post you say a critique is “given to you to be used as a tool” and this comes shortly after the thought “Did you even read my story?” But the truth is critiques at conferences usually aren’t given. We pay for them. I bought the tool, so if I walk away feeling like my story wasn’t read, or that the critiquer had to be paying more attention to something else while reading it, or that it’s just completely off and cannot possibly be used, of course I’m going to be upset. I paid for it!

  7. Courtney K’s avatar

    Well said. Writing fiction is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most satisfying. I hone my craft, take workshops, read craft books–I even work one-on-one with a local bestselling author–but the most important thing I do is write. Every single day. I’ve made a whole lot of sacrifices, but I look at it as an investment. It’ll pay off in the end. Thanks for another great post :)

  8. Adriana Gomes’s avatar

    Great post! Oops, I used an exclamation mark. I heard recently I should only use up to three exclamations in an entire manuscript. If I’m submitting my work for a critique it’s because I need it, so I like it thorough, and I appreciate the time it takes to read and comment somebody’s work in depth. I believe to be a writer is to embark on a long journey, so we better enjoy the entire process.

  9. Mary’s avatar

    Emil — Professional critiques are paid for by writers, and the critiquers usually get some of that money, so they tend to be of higher quality. But if you read about the types of critiques I mentioned, you’ll see that I also lump critiques by critique groups and fellow writers into my discussion. How I grouped them all together was unclear. Also, the emotional response I was addressing in this post wasn’t really about paying for something and not getting one’s money worth. I was talking more along the lines of “This critique is destroying my creative soul” types of reactions.

  10. Carol Riggs’s avatar

    Ah, yes! I love that American Idol fantasy too, and always dreamed of it (should I be admitting that?). :D But you are so right–most often a lot of hard work improving one’s skills from many previous critiques precede those success stories. I met my agent/Kelly Sonnack at an SCBWI retreat, but prior to that I’d spent 11 years working away–writing 15 novels, attending conferences, and receiving/implementing critiques. :)

  11. Erin Hershey’s avatar

    I’ve learned a lot about critique from my day job as a graphic designer… you pour your energy into a project and your client (or reader) rips it to shreds. It’s so hard to take… but SO IMPORTANT! Critique is what gets you to the next level – and what helps you to understand where you’re not connecting with your audience. We just need to learn how to better accept it.

    I think the more critiques you get, the quicker you’re able to move past the emotional sting. I also find (as you suggested) that putting the project away for a few days helps the sad-face feelings to fade a bit.

  12. Jennifer Malone’s avatar

    Hmm… I can’t help but wonder if my dream comment on your earlier post this week inspired this topic, but perhaps I’m giving myself too much credit and need a good hard critique to knock me into place. In all seriousness, I am headed to a SCBWI conference this weekend and getting my first professional critiques and therefore needed to hear every last message contained in this post. I don’t know how you always manage to hit on the exact topic I most need on any given day. I’m going to make sure I concentrate on the fun of being with like-minded people, meeting my online critique group members for the first time, and soaking up every morsel of information I can. I might also have to put on a touch of makeup though- I heard the hotel is also hosting a beauty pageant and you just never know…

  13. Mary’s avatar

    Jennifer — Here’s a critique for you (you don’t have to read the entire post, just the first few paragraphs, hehe):

    http://kidlit.com/2010/05/21/you-probably-think-this-post-is-about-you/

    This post was actually inspired by my WD critiques over the last few weeks. Good luck at the SCBWI!

  14. Jennifer Malone’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary!!

  15. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Jennifer, if it’s any consolation I always feel as though somehow Mary has read my mind with her posts. I’m sure others do too. She has an uncanny knack for making me blush with embarrassment at times, even though there’s no way she could know that what she’s describing is exactly me. Obviously she doesn’t really know what I’m thinking (er, I hope), but it really feels like it sometimes! I’ve been working hard on writing for years but I still read about myself in this blog post.

  16. Mary’s avatar

    Siski and Jennifer — I’m basically a mind-reading robot from the planet I’m Always Watching. GET USED TO IT, PEOPLE!

  17. Julie Hedlund’s avatar

    I really feel for you editors and agents who have to hold a writer’s heart in your hands when giving critiques. Yet, I agree that constructive criticism and honesty is going to serve that writer best. Writers who come to conferences expecting to be discovered vs. to learn are probably new ones who haven’t been fully initiated to the pain and suffering of being a writer. :-)

    I’ve gotten a couple of critiques from you and both have been immensely helpful not just with the one manuscript, but with my writing in general. It’s the only way we can improve, and living with your head stuck in the sand isn’t going to get you published any sooner.

    Great post! I think this is worth re-posting whenever a big conference is coming up, so people can line their expectations up with reality.

  18. christine tripp’s avatar

    I suppose most of us attend our first conference and critique with, “being discovered”, in mind:)
    I remember a conference where an Author came, with her Illustrator, carrying their fully illustrated book. When the critique did not go the way they hoped (a contract offer) they left the conference right afterwards, none too happy!
    I once agreed to do portfolio critiques at one of our conferences. Never again! I was woefully unprepared for just how hard a job it is, to offer constructive criticism. Being an Illustrator has nothing to do with offering a critique, just as being an Illustrator doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach an Art class effectively. I already HAD great respect for the Agents (like Mary), Art Directors and Editors who did the one on one’s, but man, it went up 1000 fold that day:)

  19. SR’s avatar

    Valuable information…in fact, throughout this blog site! Thank You.

  20. Carolyn’s avatar

    This touches on a big pet peeve of mine. Whenever I get a critique, my non-writing friends will say, “Did you get good notes?” And what they mean by that is, “Did the person doing the critique say it was perfect and amazing?” And I feel the need to parse my response by saying, “Yes, they were very good in that they were very useful.” It just goes to show how deep the “A Star is Born” mentality goes. My friends want that dream for me. Which is sweet. But also kind of irritating, because I am a big fan of reality land.

  21. Genissa’s avatar

    So this post came at a perfect time for me. I was at a SCBWI conference over the weekend, the first conference I have ever attended, and had signed up for a critique. I was excited to see what the editor had to say, hoping for some really helpful feedback. But I ended up with about 2 comments :-/ Now this is my first critique, so maybe I was expecting too much, but two small comments throughout 5 pages seemed like a lack of effort. It makes me hesitant to purchase a consultation next time.

  22. Gwen’s avatar

    Writing is a labor of love, not a get rich quick idea.

    I had a lot of fun with the feedback I got from Big Sur. It was a fresh look that helped me realize why part of a manuscript wasn’t working. The feedback gave me some new ideas and re-writing was fun.

  23. melanie hope greenberg’s avatar

    Not a beach party?? Dang, back to the sea. Splash!

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