Running a conference is a funny thing. I feel directly responsible for the workshops we pick, the ones we reject, the people we invite, and the quality of the programming.
My co-chair Natasha and I with volunteer coordinator Hayley Barrett and ARA Stacy Mozer
at #nescbwi15 orientation.
Friends Wendy McDonald and Julia Young (Julia is designing our logo for #nescbwi16)
And I can try my hardest to create the best hodge-podge of workshops and speakers I can mash together in one weekend. But what matters just as much (or more) (as Brené Brown will tell us below in her #TEDtalk) is where the conference goer is coming from.
Are they coming from a place of vulnerability?
Let me get personal for a moment. (Gasp.)
One of my favorite people to get personal with, my friend and mentor, Erica Orloff.
The first time I did this, years ago, I squirmed while an agent explained what wasn't working in my first pages (made worse by the fact that I'd already revised them, but didn't mention that because I felt it would disrespect the time the agent took on the critique). The agent's truth hurt because I wasn't sure that I had fully addressed the issues in my revision, and I was left with the question: was I good enough to take the manuscript where it needed to go?
I heard the truth from that critique. Took it home with me, mourned my am-I-good-enough question for three days (my magic time frame) and then set out to do the work.
Several years, agent critiques, and manuscripts later, a particular agent didn't connect AT ALL with my newest premise, but she didn't really have any solid advice on what to change in my query letter. She just wasn't a fan of what I was selling. It was an important lesson of sometimes it's not me, sometimes it's the agent's taste.
By now in my career, when I meet with an agent, my query generally gets a request for a full. I know how to write a compelling query, and I want to see if I connect with the agent, and if they connect with me.
This year at #nescbwi15, I had the opportunity to sit with an agent I'd never met before.
I swept into the critique room for the second time of the day, (earlier I had stocked the room with chocolates and checked if the agents and editors needed anything) sat down across from the agent, and watched as she read my query. She laughed, said the query was funny, and underlined one line she thought I could change. Good feedback.
Then she started to talk about my manuscript. It wasn't in front of us--she extrapolated from the query. She started asking me to change things in the manuscript--she didn't like the setting and didn't like one of the plot threads. Okay, that's totally great information--she wasn't connecting with the content of the manuscript. That's good to know. This wouldn't be a project for her.
But I got defensive at this point--to be honest, it irks me when agents pick apart a manuscript that isn't in front of them. Because when they do that to someone who is just starting out, sometimes writers go home and change those aspects. Just because one agent doesn't like books with a bullying thread, or books set in space. I want critiquers to stick to what is in front of them. If a plot thread is confusing in the query letter, say that. Don't say that space isn't a compelling setting. (Yeah, and defensive is never a good place for me! Don't go there, Heather, don't! But I did. Le Sigh.)
(Also, the one exception to this rule is if an agent doesn't think they can sell something because of the type of ms. I'll always be really thankful to the agent who told me he couldn't sell anything remotely dystopian.)
She asked if I had critique partners, and I got flustered--I run a writing community and have many, many critique partners. Some of whom are published many times over. She was asking me basic questions that would have fit ten years ago, when I was starting out. (Look at me, all defensive again.)
I mention all this to you, because I wasn't expecting the critique to become a question of whether I was good enough. And here it was again. Was I good enough?
I admitted to the agent that I was still revising the book--that because I was running the conference, I had put it aside for a few months.
I very truthfully said I wasn't sure it was working as it was. I was honest and vulnerable. I didn't get to say the next words--that I have full faith in my ability to shore up the issues--make the structure work, develop some secondary characters more fully, and I didn't get a chance to tell her about the strengths in the manuscript--it's super funny and the voice rocks! That I have full faith in myself and in the manuscript.
She was quick to use my vulnerability as a springboard.
She told me that my bio makes me un-agentable. That there is no way that I have time to do my stories justice if I am such a "giver." That I need to stop being myself if I want to be successful as a writer.
That running a writing community, bringing in experts to talk on writing craft, coaching other writers on their careers, running the conference, talking with Newbery winners and industry professionals, all this was detracting from my pursuing a writing career. Actually, it was pretty clear that she was saying that all this made my writing career impossible.
Which is ironic. Because it wasn't until I started the writing community and starting doing professional things within the kidlit community at large that I started to feel worthy of writing the books I was trying to write. I felt confident about my writing at the same time that I decided to support others in a meaningful way.
Why am I telling you this? Because getting critiqued is universal in writing. Because getting rejected is universal too. Because we need to be vulnerable and come to our writing from a place of belief. The belief that we are worthy of the book we are writing and that if something isn't working in it, we will figure it out.
Because, as Jo Knowles says, we ask ourselves if our story is true yet. If it isn't, we'll work at it. Until it is true.
We also need to ask what is true of critiques we receive. True for the story and true for ourselves. We need to know the truth so we can make our work (and ourselves) stronger.
Because of this critique, I took a good look at my commitments and pledged that I wouldn't ever lose the threads of of my own writing--because I don't believe that helping others keeps me from helping myself.
My #nescbwi16 co-chair, Josh Funk and I leaving to start planning for next year!
If my experience about strength from vulnerability wasn't universal enough, here's Brené Brown's compelling research and personal experience with the Power of Vulnerability. It's amazing!
Can't see the Ted Talk? Click here.
Do you have critique or rejection stories? How do you discover what is true about the critiques? Do you come to critiques from the power of vulnerability?