Thursday, April 21, 2011

Through the Lens of a Conference, and Critique

"Seeing is a gift that comes with practice." --Stephanie Mills

Last Saturday's Central OH SCBWI conference opened my eyes to some fantastic tips. At one level, many were a review for me, but at another level something clicked. As in, Oh, now I get it!

First of all there are always too many *good* workshop sessions at a conference to choose from. But you sign up for as many as you can, glean what you can, and come home realizing you were in the right place at the right time. Not to mention the great people you meet, talk shop with, and spill water on (whoops, true story, filed under E for "embarrassing"!).

Anyway, from my notes...

Keynote speaker Mandy Hubbard, author of Prada & Prejudice, You Wish, and four other to-be-released novels for teens--and agent with D4EO Literary--shared her sometimes frustrating and nail-biting journey toward publication herself, and stressed that determination and hard work is key. "Believe in your work, no matter the numbers of revisions and/or rejections it takes."

Susan Hawk, literary agent with The Bent Agency, spoke on "Children's Books: Overview of the Marketplace," and emphasized communication and connections. "Communicate with your agent or editor. Focus on working together...And think of any connections you have that can help in promoting your book. What do you like? What can you do? Tailor your market plan to what works for you."

Mandy, again, in "Such a Pretty Flower--Catching an Agent's Attention from the First Page," read samples of first pages, noting things that worked and things that didn't. Her advice: "You need tension from the get go. Hook your reader. Open with some kind of conflict and tension."

Krista Marino, editor at Delacorte Press, titled her talk, "What an Editor Looks for in the 1st Five Pages." Among the gems she offered: "The first sentence makes or breaks your novel. The first sentence is what the book is all about. It should also pull the reader in, and should contain a person, place or problem." She also said, "Entertain your reader, that's what your book is for. Make it good."

Next came my critique session on my book's first ten pages, submitted in advance. If you ever get a chance to do this, I highly recommend doing so. I loved the face-to-face time with my critiquer, the dialogue, the opportunity to ask questions, the feedback! And I came away encouraged-- i.e. "good tension in the opening," but also challenged--"but you lose the tension after the other characters show up." Yep, a bit more work yet to be done. 

But I'm getting closer to my destination. Each time I connect with people in the business, I see things a little clearer. It's like putting on a new pair of glasses...or maybe just clearing the smears off the old. Like so many things, it's just going to take a little more practice.

What tips have you gleaned from critiques of your work? How did they help you "see" better?

"Composing is like driving down a foggy road toward a house. Slowly you see more details--the color of the slates and bricks, the shape of the windows." --Benjamin Britten


  1. Sounds like a fabulous experience! I'm excited for you that you got to go. Thanks for sharing it! :)

  2. Sounds like you had a good time and came home with some take-aways. I just registered for a conference in September and signed up for a ten-page critique session too. It's a group session with an agent, and I'm not sure if we're all getting everyone else's pages or not (so that we can get something out of everyone else's critiques too). I'm pretty nervous--it's my first time doing something like this, but I have plenty of time to work on those pages. Your post just got me really excited for September!

  3. Thanks for the detailed account, Kenda. It sounds like you learned a ton! :)

  4. Whenever I hear that piece of advice about the importance of the first line, I think of Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea" - the first line absolutely captures the book, it's so amazing! But I also heard he worked on that book for years and years and re-wrote it like 200 times or something.

  5. Every critique shows me something new. Interesting bit about the importance of first lines. I always thought it was the first page/250 words.
    Keeping up tension is crucial, but there are times when you need to let the reader breathe.
    Thanks for sharing what you learned, Kenda!

  6. Thanks, all, for dropping in :-)

    Jess--we'll be cheering you on at the conference this October, and as you go through your critique. Don't be too nervous--it's a great opportunity and I'm sure everyone there will give you great support. Writers are good at that:-)

    Margo--Great tidbit on Hemmingway. Learning about his long journey to publication gives one hope for our own I think. I need to go back and check out that first line of his, it's been a long time since I've read that book.

    And Kathryn--appreciate your comment. Yes, there is a balance that needs to be reached between tension and breathing time. Only hope I'm coming closer to finding it!

  7. HI! It sounds like you had a wonderful time at your conference. I'd forgotten Mandy was going to be there, and was wondering why she wasn't at our conference, as she lives in the area. And you got to hear Krista, who said the same thing that all editors must be saying these days about the first sentence. I'm happy that you got a good critique. Writing is such a challenge.

  8. Sounds like you had a fabulous time at the conference. I had a workshop with Krista Marino at the FL SCBWI in January and she was sooo good.

    The best thing that I learned from one of my conference critiques was that my story was starting in the wrong place. You really have to get that first chapter right. It's a do or die thing.

    Good luck on your revisions.

  9. Thanks for sharing, sounds like you had a great time at the conference.