I planned to blog about the Dying to Write conference held yesterday by the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Mystery Writers of America--a conference that included two Femmes, me and Elaine Viets, as presenters. I had a great time--here's hoping everyone did. But to explain why I enjoyed it so much, I have to digress. (I have a black belt in digression.)
Not long ago, I was talking to someone about critique groups and writing conferences and the like. Some writers love 'em; some can't see what all the fuss is about. Me, I'm in the first category. Though I recognize that not all groups and conferences are created equal. And if you ask me the most important thing to look for when deciding if a critique group is right for you or whether a conference was worth going to, I have an easy answer.
Do you walk out fired up to write?
If you walk out feeling condescending about the group or conference and oh, so pleased with yourself--convinced that your work in progress is perfect and the editors who have rejected you are cretins--maybe you just wasted your time. Either you picked the wrong group or conference--in which case, chalk it up as a frog-kissing experience and try again--or you went in with the wrong attitude, and I'm not sure there's an easy fix for that. Seasoned writers and teachers of writing learn to spot almost instantly the writer who has grown a shell like an armadillo and curls up defensively in a tight little ball at the slightest suggestion that all is not perfect in his or her work. And yet, strange to say, you find many armadillos at critique groups and conferences.
Or maybe not so strange. Writers run into a lot of rejection, not just on their way to publication but throughout their careers. A strong, resilient sense of self-confidence can be a welcome kind of armor. But when we curl up so tightly that we keep out even the very suggestions that will help us grow as writers and make our work better, we turn that armor into a prison and risk falling short of where our talent can take us.
On the other hand, if you leave a conference with your head so low your chin scrapes the sidewalk, convinced you're a miserable writer and the publishing industry is a deck hopelessly stacked against you, then maybe you're in the wrong scene. Maybe you've found one of those groups that takes a perverse pride in its own savagery, and snarls at newcomers that they'd better learn to have a thick skin in this business. If that's the case, run like hell. Or play possum; they won't keep attacking if they think you're dead.
Though it could be that you're just new to critiquing. It's not always fun. In fact, sometimes it hurts like hell to find out that what you've been slaving over for months still has a long way to go. But that's one of the essential skills we need as writers--not just the ability to string words into sentence and build paragraphs and chapters out of them, but also the ability to stop and listen to that voice--inner or outer--that says, "Yes, but you need to take another pass at it. You need to fix this, and this, and this." Maybe some writers come to this naturally, but for me, at least, it's a learned skill--one I'm still learning. I think most of us will always feel a little defensive when someone tells us our work isn't perfect. And as long as we're saying, "Why don't they love it?" we're not hearing what we need to hear--so the trick is to work on getting past that defensiveness as quickly as possible. If we can get it down to a moment--just a beat before saying, "Okay. What do you think it needs?"--we will have mastered one of the most important skills for a professional writer.
So yeah, there are a lot of times when a group or a conference doesn't work, or takes time to work out. But when a conference or a critique group works, it's a lovely thing to experience. I heard a lot of good information at the conference, and I saw a lot of engaged, receptive faces. I can't think of anything more exhilarating than seeing someone's face light up with excitement and hearing him say, "Oh, my God! That's exactly it! That's what I need to do!" Or even. "You could have a point there. I'll play around with it." Seeing someone impatient to go home, because now she knows how to take her work to the next level.
Okay, maybe there's one thing a teensy bit better, and that's going home feeling that way yourself. Feeling that you've gained a new perspective on your art or learned a new tool that can help you take your writing where it needs to go. Or maybe just spending time with other writers, talking about your craft and recapturing the joyous side of what we do.
It's what I get out of my monthly critique group. I got a hit of it from yesterday's Dying to Write conference. And I'm hoping that a fair number of attendees feel the same way. I'm optimistic--the feedback we've heard has been good, and I saw signs myself--the pencils flying as people took notes. The faces lighting up with understanding and excitement. The little knots of people in the halls and in corners of the rooms, still talking about what they'd heard in the sessions.
A lot of us talk--sometimes rather loftily--about teaching and doing workshops as a way of giving back to the community. Paying it forward. Well, it is. But if it's working well, we're getting as much as we're giving. Recharging our own batteries. With luck, when we leave a critique group or a writing conference, we really do feel that we're dying to write.
I could go on, but there's this short story I need to finish, and one of yesterday's sessions gave me some really good ideas . . . .