Monday, September 20, 2010

First Page Critique - My Achilles Heel

This weekend I’ll be attending my first SCBWI writer’s conference since I moved to North Carolina. It’s been far too long and I’m really looking forward to some serious writer chat, attending workshops and snagging something sweet to counter the inevitable three o’clock downslide in between breakout sessions. What I’m not looking forward to, what I’m really quite indecisive about is if I’m going to plunk down a first page for critique.

I might schedule a Brazilian bikini wax for that time frame instead.

I know what you’re thinking…Critique WUSS!


Let me tell you a little something about myself…I don’t have a p-p-p-poker face. More like heart on my sleeve. I break out in welts. Bite my lip. Do that toe tapping/knee jumping thing that can make objects near me shake uncontrollably. In short, I’m a mess – and this is while I’m waiting! All of that worry just in case my page gets picked to be read, and then oh, the horror – if it does? It is not a learning experience for me it’s more like taking a shot of espresso with a Red Bull chaser and then sprinting around the block three times. Yes, seriously folks, it’s that much of a physical discomfort for me. And I stay flushed for hours.

Not pretty.

Which is why I don’t do them – even though, yes, I know it’s the coward’s way out. And yes, once upon a time when I was a fresh faced noob – I did participate.

When I first joined SCBWI at the turn of the century, I aspired to write picture books. I had quite a few manuscripts and one pretty close to my heart – about the Man in the Moon. (I bet you’re shaking your head and getting that “oh, ick! I see where this is going” feeling right about now)

There were no talking moon animals. I did not try to tackle this in rhyme. I thought I was completely clever. Fresh. Original. Enter the firing squad of the first page critique session. Dun, dun, DUUUUN. After it was read out loud, the editors sat there stony faced for a very, long, uncomfortable second. The editor who was unlucky enough to be holding the microphone had the expression of someone who was left holding the hot potato as the music stopped. No one wanted to take this one. Murmurs and quiet laughter through the crowd ensued. It was awful – even though it was anonymous. I think someone finally did take the mike, made a comment that was mercifully tactful and the next first page was read.

The few people from my writer’s group who did know the page was mine, rallied around me and said nasty things about the naysayers as any good friends would but the damage had been done. The Man in the Moon and I parted ways, never to see each other again. And yes, the world is probably a better place for it. But still…

A writer’s conference should be a place where we leave inspired not defeated. That first page session happened to be at the end of the day, and wow, I wanted to quit. Truth is the editor was right in her comment. The story, at least at that point, was plot less but after that not so warm reception – I had no desire to see it through and went on to work on something new. So maybe I did learn something, albeit the hard, humiliating way – not all ideas are going to fly and sometimes you just have to move on.

Years later, I’m concentrating on longer fiction. My heart feels right in YA and I keep looking at the first page of my new WIP and wondering…should I? Or am I just once bitten, twice shy? What would you do? And how do you feel about infamous “first page sessions”?


  1. Robin,

    I COMPLETELY sympathize. I once experienced an editor reading my first page in a small group of about ten, and tearing it apart. I turned crimson as soon as she started reading - I've always blushed whenever I'm singled out and have avoided attending a few events in my life because of it.

    I'd say do it. You're now an experienced writer with an agent, not a newbie. You have every right to be self confident!

  2. Robin,

    I have had that same awful experience you are talking about that left me in tears and ready to pack it in.

    I just got back from our regional SCBWI conference, and, being a glutton for punishment, once again put a first page in. Guess what? It got a very nice response from the editor who read it - boosting my confidence at a time when I really needed it.

    The whole business is so subjective, and yet I know how hard it is to not take things personally. However, I do think one of the big values in those conferences is to get professional feedback on your work. Just remember it's only ONE PERSON.

    Whatever you decide to do, have a great conference! If you do first pages, I'll be rooting for you.

  3. I've done a few first pages--but I remember one way more than any other. And it was for -- guess what -- a picture book. Which I don't write. And which the editors graciously pointed out. That is, in fact, exactly what they said. That it read like a middle grade. Hum. Imagine that.

  4. Robin,

    I'll be at the SCBWI-Carolinas Conference too. I'll submit a first page if you will. How about that? I'll even try a picture book one!

    I'd look for you at the conference, but I don't know if I can recognize your feet. Will you be barefoot? LOL!

    Linda A.

  5. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE first page sessions. I always/usually submit a page. I get a thrill while waiting, Will mine be read? Will mine be read? I learn a lot from these sessions, not just about my work, but others.

    The last first page session I went to was a NJSCBWI event. I had recently submitted something to our group and the consensus was I was starting in the middle of action. I didn't understand that - of course I was starting in the middle of action, isn't that what we're supposed to do? Start with action? I couldn't see the comment in my own work, but when someone's first page was read and I had no idea what was going on and felt as if I'd walked into a movie half-way through and the editor said, oh, this first page is starting in the middle of action, I finally understood what the group was telling me.

    I say, go for it, Robin!

  6. Okay, so I'm not alone! I would like to add, that while I AM terrified of them, I do absolutely see their merit. The physical clenching of my jaw is what I can't stand.

    Gale - Ah, a fellow blusher! Isn't it the worst? It takes rosy glow to a whole new level, but I can't imagine you being that way since in my mind you are confident and cool!

    Julie - I totally agree that the business is subjective, so it definitely helps to keep that in persepctive! (and that was a natural rhyme, go figure)

    J.A. - You've got an incredible MG voice, not surprised that was pointed out!

    Linda - I'll probably be in flip flops, lol. I'm taking the Alan Gratz workshop at 4:00PM on Friday if that helps. Would love to meet some new writer pals! Still undecided about that first page though...maybe ;)

    Meg - Well of course you would love first pages since the concnesus from your first page was pretty much "wow, I'd read more of this!" (and rightfully so.) I do enjoy the sessions and have learned a lot - I just don't like the angst! Maybe if I look at it the way you do...

  7. They are nervewracking and I have yet to have one go well. However, I think that in order to make the most of your conference you must first participate. 1st pages is an interesting insight at the editors desk and worth it. Besides, I've read your stuff & you have nothing to worry about! Go for it!

  8. Robin,

    Go for it. We can sit together, twitching and palpatating loud enough to drown out any negative comments. Your writing is awesome. Remember, it's not a statement about you or your career, but a look at how your first page could be better.

  9. Greetings from a fellow member of the first page sweaty palms club. The worst part is when the reader mangles part of your page, and it takes everything in you not to shout out, "Read it right, you __________ (insert adjective of choice)!"

    That said, I know you've come a long way since that first page/pregnant pause/shoot me now session. I agree that you should go for it. Maybe this time, you'll taste nothin' but sweet revenge.

  10. Hey Niki and Laura! Thanks for stopping by :)

    JL - OMG I completely forgot how important the actual reader is! Great, another thing to worry about, hehe.

    Seriously, I think I may just go for it.

    Or not...

  11. J.L. - COULDN'T AGREE WITH YOU MORE! A bad reader can ruin a first page session.

  12. Robin,

    I'm so glad I was able to meet you at the conference and put a face with the posted photo of your feet.

    I'm proud of you for submitting a first page even though it wasn't selected. Go Robin!

    Linda Andersen

  13. Thanks Linda! Great meeting you too. They were pretty democratic with the first pages, although I think there were defnitely some that didn't stick to the 200 word limit we were supposed to - i fear they would have read mine and said...well, that's not a very satisfying end of a first page!

    It was a great conference!!