Saturday, May 11, 2013

Critiques: The Parent/Teacher Conference of Writers

The dreaded parent-teacher conference. Is there anything quite as nerve-wracking and intimidating as sitting before a group of professionals, who take turns telling you how your child, though full of promise, is not working to his potential?

If you are a writer, your answer is probably yes. As with our children, we, writers, hold our stories close to our hearts, and it is hard not to take criticisms of our babies personally. The natural instinct in both cases is to unleash our inner Mama Bear and protect our cubs. 

How dare they insinuate that my baby is anything short of perfect?

How can these so-called “professionals” not see what I see? 

They must have it out for my child; why else would they be attacking him this way?

My mothers’ group told me he was destined for greatness, so the problem is not my child, it is obviously them.

Some of these teachers don’t even have children of their own. What do they know about raising a child?

The problem is when we unleash Mama Bear, we lose sight of the fact that everyone in the room shares a common goal: to help our child reach his potential. As a teacher it is sad to see because we know the parents will leave the meeting and nothing will be changed to help their child. As educators, we only spend a fraction of the time with a child that their parents spend. We do what we can to help the child in the small amount of time we have with them and make suggestions to the parents on what we believe will help at home. 

Unfortunately more often than not, the suggestions are ignored. 

This refusal to sideline emotions and listen to advice is the same mistake many writers make when they offer their manuscripts to agents, editors, and critique group members for evaluation. Six years ago I began attending writing conferences and was amazed at how many writers let their inner Mama Bears stand between them and the advice they were seeking. I’ve witnessed denial, anger, arguments, tears, and one writer, who stood up and stormed out of the building in the middle of a critique. 

Keep in mind these writers were not forced to be there. They spent time and money to attend the conferences in hopes of having a professional, who was well acquainted with the publishing business, tell them what was holding back their manuscripts. Unfortunately when the agents or editors did just that, the writers refused to listen.

Now I am not saying it is easy to take constructive criticism; it's not, but I am saying to take it. 

Take it. 

Think about it.

And try it.

The suggestions may work, or they may not, but you won’t know unless you try.

In 2010, when I sat down for my second one-on-one critique with editor Stephen Roxburgh, my mentor at the Highlights Writers Workshop at Chautauqua, I received some good news and some bad news. The good news was he thought my story was “delicious.” The bad news was it needed a lot of work…I’m talking truckloads.

At one point as he read my first chapter aloud, he took off his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose and stated, “Keely, that was the worst line of writing I have read in my 39 years in publishing.”

Now such a criticism could have brought forth a torrent of tears, colorful vulgarities, and a dramatic storm off, but the truth was Stephen was right. It was an abysmal line of writing.

But I did cut the offending line and many more of its ilk. And then because I knew Stephen and I shared a similar appreciation for sarcasm, I framed the line and gave it to him as a memento. It remains in his office today, and he occasionally reminds me of it, so that I don’t slide back into my bad habits.

As writers, it is important to remember agents, editors, and even critique group members, who take the time to read our work and explain what is not working for them, are doing so to help us improve our writing and our manuscript. 

So the next time you attend a writing conference or workshop, do yourself and your manuscript a favor: Restrain Mama Bear…at least until you are in your car. 

Then as you drive home, you can cry and scream and curse and growl. But at that point you will have heard the professionals’ advice and may realize that they are right, your baby is not perfect, but it has potential.

And with their advice and your willingness to listen, someday it may just reach that potential.