This past Saturday I was delighted to attend the Children’s Writers of the Hudson Valley June conference. This is the third writing conference I’ve attended which focuses exclusively on children’s writing. It was also the smallest writing conference I’ve yet to attend (my count is now at six; I forgot I attended Fall Philly Fest from the Eastern PA Chapter of the SCBWI in a previous conference count that I mentioned on my blog) and I have to say I learned A LOT.
One of the best parts of a small conference is that you don’t have too many options to choose from. This has been a problem for me not just in writing conferences, but when I attended academic conferences in my past life as a professor. I would always scour the conference schedule, circling the sessions that looked most intriguing to me, having to weigh options and presenters and then make some tough choices.
For this conference, there were only two options for the morning session: focus on middle grade novels or focus on picture books. Then, everyone came together for an afternoon session on revising work masterfully presented in a way that blew my mind. I suppose there is nothing truly earth shattering in learning that the picture book and the novel can both be revised using the same methods, but in my mind I had the two genres as incompatible in how story is presented and thus, would require different processes for the all-important revisions.
I consider it to be a valuable use of my time to learn not just one new process of writing, but several, and so I am itching to review my notes and see what I can do to some of my manuscripts in terms of improving them.
The day ended with another joint session; this time the day’s presenters came together on a panel and reviewed the first 100 words of manuscripts submitted by conference participants. I feel a tad guilty that I included four different manuscripts of mine (two picture-book and two middle-grade) because I am so eager for feedback, but not guilty enough not to have only submitted one manuscript.
I did rationalize to myself that because I didn’t find out about the conference until a few weeks before and I missed the deadline to schedule one-on-one critiques, I should be allowed to submit more than one first 100 words. I also didn’t keep it a secret from the conference hosts that I turned in four, so I guess in the end it was okay.
Well, the action was okay; the process brutal. Two of my first 100 words got selected and holy cow, it is hard to sit there with a straight face while four strangers perform what one of them called a “parlor game” in highlighting the weaknesses of your work.
To be fair, one of the other panelists gently explained that this process was not to focus on what people were doing well because that wouldn’t necessarily improve the weaker parts of their writing. The panelist also went on to say they probably wouldn’t be so harsh if they were to spend more time with more words of the manuscript.
The first 100 words of my picture book got torn to shreds. The first 100 words of my middle grade book first got accolades for an intriguing first paragraph, then fell completely flat upon reading of the second paragraph. It was a truly a humbling experience and I’m pretty sure no one could actually hear the pounding of my heart as they read and critiqued my writing.
The strange thing, though, is that after getting over the initial emotional response, I am nothing but grateful for the opportunity to hear from four different industry professionals on what can be objectively improved with my work. There was a time in my not so distant past that I might have been thoroughly demoralized, perhaps maybe even have cried, and probably would have said to myself that these people don’t know what they’re talking about and my work is brilliant.
I find it oddly refreshing to discover I have reached this point where I do believe industry professionals are experts in their field and not all my work is brilliant. This revelation has been in progress for a while as a few weeks ago, I opted not to submit two of my manuscripts to a contest because I truly didn’t believe they were my best work. In re-reading and revising them, I still felt like some spark was missing and I feel rather validated that my own professional judgement is becoming less biased as I become more familiar with the revision process.
That’s not to say I didn’t feel any sort of emotional wound or negative gut reaction to hearing the comments from the panelists. Hearing criticism/rejection is one of the hardest things we ever have to do in life and I can’t imagine it ever gets easier over time. But it is now easier for me to move on and I feel quite liberated by this knowledge. We’ll see how it goes once I receive feedback from the editor I’m in the process of hiring for one of my manuscripts. At the very least, it will be a good measure to see how far I’ve really come.