You can read all the writing manuals you want, physician but there’s nothing like a knowledgeable and impartial publishing professional giving you feedback*. I’m talking about paid critiques at writing conferences, case or First Page sessions.
I love writing conferences. And I hate them. It’s like going to a wonderful party with interesting new people—but knowing that for one terrible ten minute stretch, here you’ll have to strut around naked in front of them, while paying for the privilege, even as a personal trainer loudly points out your various bodily flaws, and states they would never date you.
Think I’m exaggerating? I suspect most writers would either agree with me, or have become so successful that they’ve forgotten the feeling–and possibly become that loud personal trainer themselves.
BUT the most valuable part of a writing conference is EXACTLY that. The five or ten minutes ‘naked’, hearing criticism that is tailored to where you are in your writing journey. Because guess what. Writing flaws can be fixed. Even more, they’re expected. Everyone has them (or almost everyone) and they should be expected. Writing craft takes time to develop. But one of the most frustrating situations to be in, and the most stunting to actually getting published, is not knowing what you’re doing wrong. And that can easily happen, in a world where agents are too busy to give personalized rejections. Paid critiques are usually a rare chance for professional feedback.
Let’s give a real life example. Back when I first started writing Black Diamonds, when I was still brainstorming the concept, I signed up for a SCBWI conference, and an opportunity to get a paid critique from an author and freelance editor was offered. I accepted, paid my $40 or whatever it was, quickly drafted three opening pages for Black Diamonds, and submitted it.
Two months later, I arrived at the conference, got lots of wonderful speeches and casual chats with other writers, then had to face my one on one critique session. I sat down across a table from a stern-faced lady who proceeded to list all the things I was doing wrong. She didn’t like my descriptions, they didn’t have specific detail; she didn’t like my writing style, too simplistic, closer to middle grade than young adult; and she really didn’t like my opening scene, she thought that I’d started in the wrong place**.
If I hadn’t had some time in the writing trenches, I probably would have been squashed at that point. Horrified. Mortified. And admittedly, it still wasn’t a super fun moment, because you’re never expecting any of the things that are said. Because, if you’d have known what was wrong, you’d have fixed it, right? Or at least I would have done.
But, as I’ve been trained to do, I thanked her politely. She then frowned and apologized for her comment on my prose. I think she expected that one to be devastating. But I just shrugged. I was confident it could be fixed. I’ve written both prose plain and lyrical (see the post on poetry in writing), simple and complex. To me, that’s just editing, and style choice. Honestly, I was more interested in her comment on plot.
Because she was right. I saw it immediately. I’d missed something. Despite her comment meshing with things I’d clearly read it in writing books, I just hadn’t seen it. I was too close to my own work and ended up with a blind spot, that took an unbiased view to point out.
That conversation, for all its negatives, was some of the best money I’ve spent on my writing. Way more valuable than any of the speeches that preceded it.
So I deleted those three pages, found a place to start that I was happier with (stumbling down a mountainside with a wounded brother, which plays more heavily to a reader’s curiosity) and have had positive reader reactions to those pages ever since.
I have had this or similar experiences several times, which is usually beyond what I can achieve in a critique group, where the bluntness, level of knowledge, and impartiality is almost by definition lower. No offence to my critique partners, they’re great and talented writers, especially now, but when we first started out we were all aspiring authors, with similar flaws and blind spots. We’ve improved together, but early on, none of us could have offered the same quality of feedback that a publishing professional could.
It’s up to you what you do with this information, but I would encourage you to keep reading craft books, polish your craft by writing as often as you can, and join a critique group if that’s your thing (people tend to be really hot or cold on this). But every once in a while, if you can afford or beg it, find an industry professional to give you feedback on YOUR work.
A dart in the ass hurts. But it sure does get you to the finish line faster.
* I’m assuming that the person giving you feedback is a reputable professional, with reasonable knowledge of craft. I would guess that for most SCBWI events near major population centers this should be true, but obviously, do your due diligence, as best you can. Bad advice is worse than no advice at all.
** For those curious, I opened the first three pages with the main character’s mother’s death, in a fairly busy action scene. The critiquer noted that it fell flat because there was no empathy and little tension, despite the violence, because the reader didn’t know the characters yet. So, it was theoretically horrible, but didn’t really strike the reader in a significant emotional way.
The featured illustration is the one I started earlier, and showed with this post. Watercolor. Enjoy! And you know why I had time to finish it? You guessed it. Edits are done! Whoot, whoot! Now I’m writing a synopsis, getting ready for a twitter pitch party, and otherwise celebrating my sudden abundance of free time.