Conference Critique Workshop #4: Surviving your first critique and conference tips!

True story.

October 21, 2000. My first SCBWI conference put on by our neighboring Mid-Atlantic region.

After checking in, I could hardly eat, even though they had bagels and I adore bagels. During the first two sessions, I could hardly concentrate on anything the presenters were saying and taking notes? Forget it. There was one thing and one thing only on my mind:

Getting my very first critique.

(Well, I was also anxious over being there by myself and not having someone to eat lunch with. ;))

Anyway, about the critique. My palms were sweaty all morning. My stomach was in knots. When it came time to walk to my appointment, I almost lost what little bagel I could get down because that critique was going to determine something big:

Whether or not I was a fool to ever think I could be a writer.

But to my utmost relief, my reviewer, the lovely Mary Quattlebaum, instantly put me at ease with her sincere charm. She offered constructive, but gentle advice on how to improve my picture book and for the first time ever … I felt like a professional! I’ve since abandoned that story and picture books in general, (not my forte,) but I accomplished something big that day.

I survived my first critique.

(And I found someone to eat lunch with, the also-lovely Pam Smallcomb who asked if I’d like to join her and has been my friend/mentor/therapist ever since.)

So for those of you experiencing the same sweaty palms/knotty stomach syndrome over your first critique or first conference, here’s a repeat of the tips I sent out last year and more: 

RELAX.
Yeah, I know—like I’m one to talk, right? But, seriously. Now that I’m on the other side, I realize that editors/agents/authors are people, too, and there’s a chance that they are just as nervous as you are. Especially if you’re critiqued by me. I’ll be terrified. Feel better? Good.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK.
Our lovely critique coordinator sends out all critique assignments and times before the conference, giving you a chance to research your reviewer. If you’re assigned to an editor, find out what kind of books they acquire. For agents, go to their website and take a look at their clients.  For authors, check out their book descriptions so you can get a feel for their style.

KEEP AN OPEN MIND.
I know—it’s disappointing if you’re not assigned to your dream reviewer. But sometimes, disappointments end up being blessings in disguise.

At another conference, I was bummed about having my fiction novel critiqued by a nonfiction editor. However, she was incredibly insightful and she even offered to read my entire manuscript when it was done! So keep an open mind about your assignment, and view it as another opportunity in your path to publication.

[ETA:  Here’s some more great tips on this topic from Regional Advisor Edie Hemingway:]

    Don’t be disappointed if you are assigned to an author instead of an editor or agent. Often the authors end up giving the most detailed and helpful feedback. And–if it turns out your manuscript isn’t quite polished enough for submission–you haven’t used up that one chance to impress a specific editor or agent. Remember, even if you don’t have a manuscript critiqued by an editor or agent, you can still submit appropriate manuscripts to them after the conference!

COME PREPARED.

  1. Bring a copy of your manuscript so you can follow along without having to crane your neck to read your reviewer’s copy.
  2. Make a list of specific questions about your manuscript or publishing in general so you’ll be ready if there’s any spare time and you’ll get the most for your money!
  3. Memorize a short, intriguing pitch for the manuscript you’re having reviewed and any others. That way, if an editor or agent asks, “Tell me about your story,” or “What else are you working on,” you won’t become all deer in headlights, and mumble, “Um … it’s, ah … you know … about a girl.” Been there, done that. (If you need help with this, check out Workshop #5: Perfecting your book pitch.

DRESS FOR SUCCESS.
Ignore this one if it’s not your style, because it has nothing to do with writing, okay?

But for myself, when I dress professional, I feel professional, and when I feel professional, I act professional—even when I’m freaking out on the inside. If you’re the same, then dress in a way that will help make you feel powerful and confident.

TAKE NOTES.
Do I have to explain that one? Nah, didn’t think so.

LISTEN.
Tick, tick, tick, those fifteen minutes are going to speed by, so if you find yourself getting defensive, don’t waste time debating with your reviewer or saying things like, “Oh, but I explain that in the next chapter,” or “What I meant to say is blah, blah, blah.” Sure, it’s okay to ask questions if you don’t understand something, but otherwise—Listen. Learn. Soak it in.

TAKE IT WITH A GRAIN OF SALT.
Not all spaghetti noodles stick to the wall. (Yes, that’s how I check to see if my pasta is cooked. Gross, I know.) And sure, your reviewer is a professional, but if some of their advice doesn’t feel right, don’t be quick to make a change just because they said so. (For that matter, don’t take everything I say as gospel, either!) But do give their advice heavy consideration, and if you find yourself repeatedly getting the same feedback from different people … maybe it’s time to reconsider.

FOR THOSE WHO GET THE GOLDEN TICKET:
If an editor or agent requests to see your entire manuscript, then let me be the first to say CONGRATULATIONS!! The blood, sweat, and tears have paid off. Here’s some advice I have for you:

  1. After the conference, send the editor/agent a brief email thanking them for their time, and for requesting to see [insert your manuscript’s title.] If you plan on doing further edits using their advice before submitting, let them know.
  2. Consider using the editor/agent’s specific revision advice so you won’t appear inflexible.
  3. Do not—I repeat—DO NOT be in a super-huge rush to ship it out! Make the manuscript the very best it can be, whether it takes a month, three months, or what-have-you. The editor is not going to be sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for your submission, so don’t feel pressured to send it right away.
  4. Consider giving them an exclusive, and be upfront if the manuscript is already submitted to other publishers.
  5. After submitting your manuscript, congratulate yourself and then start working on something else! 🙂

CONFERENCE ADVICE IN GENERAL:

Planning committee member Sue Poduska suggests that first-time conference goers:

Relax and enjoy the day.
Make as many contacts as you can. There are a lot of valuable resources in the room.

Committee member Naomi Milliner adds:

I suggest reading at least one work by our guest authors, especially the age group/genre you’re most interested in writing for. For example, if you’re writing middle grade, you might want to check out Katy Kelly’s LUCY ROSE and MELONHEAD series, to get the most out of her breakout session.

Here’s some more tidbits:

  1. Bring business cards to give to new contacts. Nothing fancy—the kind you print from the computer are fine, with your name, phone number, email address and website, if you have one.
  2. If you’re like me and freeze if the temperature dips below 70, then don’t forget your sweater!
  3. If you’re paranoid about spilling coffee or tea all over the place, (like me!) then bring a travel mug to refill throughout the day.
  4. Speaking of coffee, breath mints might be a good idea, too. 😉
  5. If you want a book by a certain author, be sure to buy it in the morning before their presentation or they may sell out.
  6. Pack a camera if you plan on blogging about the event!
  7. Take notes!  Lots and lots and lots of notes!
  8. Arrive at the start of registration so you have plenty of time to sign-up, get a snack, mingle, and meet new people before the conference starts. 
  9. HAVE FUN!!

One last thing.

If you’ve been to a conference and heard an editor or agent speak, then you’ve probably noticed how conference goers will cluster around them afterwards like a bunch of tweens at a Justin Beiber sighting, right? Maybe you’ve even thought to yourself, “Oh, how rude! That poor editor. I would never do that!”

Well, here’s the thing.  You should.

See, editors expect to be approached, (in appropriate circumstances, of course.) They know there’s going to be a line. They might even hold business cards, ready to pass them out. And … they want to discover the next big debut author.

Maybe it’s you.

So don’t be shy. If you’re ready to start submitting and your manuscript is a good fit with the editor or agent, get in line. Shake their hand. Tell them your name, the title of your book, and a brief, one-sentence pitch. (No one likes a line hog.) And most of all, BE BRAVE!  BE CONFIDENT! And then go throw up afterwards, if necessary.

Good luck, everyone, with your critiques and I hope to see you at the Spring into Action Conference in March!

Workshop #1:  Opening Lines

Workshop #2:  Amazing Manuscript First Pages

Workshop #3:  Formatting

Workshop #4:  Surviving Your First Critique

Workshop #5:  Perfecting Your Book Pitch

Laura Bowers

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About Laura Bowers

Laura is a writer, runner, reader, runDisney addict, blogger/vlogger at Write, Run, Rejoice and Joyful Miles, mom of two college boys, excellent chili maker, and obsessive list keeper. She clearly likes run-on sentences and adverbs. She also still thinks Spice World was an awesome movie and feels no shame about that.
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27 Responses to Conference Critique Workshop #4: Surviving your first critique and conference tips!

  1. ediehemingway says:

    Laura,
    This is such good advice! We should repost this before every conference.

    Another point to add: Don’t be disappointed if you are assigned to an author instead of an editor or agent. Often the authors end up giving the most detailed and helpful feedback. And–if it turns out your manuscript isn’t quite polished enough for submission–you haven’t used up that one chance to impress a specific editor or agent. Remember, even if you don’t have a manuscript critiqued by an editor or agent, you can still submit appropriate manuscripts to them after the conference!

  2. Newbie says:

    Can you submit short pieces for critique, or are only books appropriate?

    • ediehemingway says:

      Yes, you can submit up to 15 double-spaced pages of nonfiction magazine articles for children, poems, short stories, or picture book texts, as well as MG or YA novels.

  3. Laura,
    I couldn’t think of a thing to add. Your advice is gold, and BTW, I love your writing style. It feels like we are sitting in a room and you are sharing all this amazing advice, personally. Thanks for the gold!
    Lois

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