I was attending a two-day writers’ conference. I didn’t know a soul. I hadn’t heard of any of the speakers, the writers, the agents or the editors attending. I hadn’t heard of the books by attending authors for sale on the display tables. I had nothing to make small talk about.
High anxiety time for an introvert like me.
I’d signed up for an editor’s critique of my work in progress, the prologue of what became my first novel Dancing Priest. I’d also signed up for a pitch session with an agent and a group reading-and-critique session.
The editor was encouraging, perhaps even more than encouraging. She wanted to know what happened to the characters. She liked the story. She was positive.
The agent was not. He was looking for the next Twilight manuscript and touting the merits of a novel about a late-night radio host who happened to be a werewolf on the side. I am not making this up.
But it was the group reading and critique session that was worth the price of the conference, at least for me. And it was something I inadvertently taught myself.
Twelve of us, all unpublished writers, gathered around a large circular table. The session was led by a gravelly-voiced woman from New York City who scheduled two smoking breaks (for herself) and who talked like a jaded agent suffering in the book business for 150 years.
We had to bring two copies of our writing with us, one for the agent and one presumably for each of us to read. That turned out to be half right.
The agent received one copy, and the person sitting to our right received the other copy. We were going to read our neighbor’s manuscript. When the agent explained that, with a mischievous smile, 12 faces around the table looked suddenly terrified. Someone else was going to read my words. Aaagh!
Of course, if we were published, someone else would always be reading our words.
That didn’t lessen the terror. It’s one thing to read your own words aloud. It’s quite another when a total stranger is going to read your words aloud, the words of your work in progress that you were, of course, still working on and weren’t quite ready to have someone else read and what am I doing here I feel sick and I better leave before it’s too late.
We passed our manuscripts to our neighbors on the right. I quickly looked over what my neighbor had given me to read. My heart sank; it was bad. Poor sentence construction. Grammar mistakes. Misspelled words. An earnest look on her face said this was the most important thing in her life. She hugged the manuscript to herself before she reluctantly gave it to me to read.
The story started with a gargoyle atop a local cultural institution’s building. The gargoyle decided to come alive by throwing pieces of itself on the sidewalk below. (I thought the manuscript might be a great fit for that agent and his werewolf.)
The readings were rather perfunctory. We were all somewhat unnerved at the idea of reading each other’s words aloud. Eleven of us played it safe and read in mostly monotone voices. I didn’t. I knew I had to do something to save the writing sitting in front of me.
I read it like poetry. I used a mildly dramatic voice, with inflection and emphasis and emotion.
When I finished and looked up, I saw the agent staring at me. She knew exactly what I had done; she had followed along in her copy of the text as I read the words aloud. She knew I had taken Charlie Brown’s pitiful Christmas tree with its needles almost gone and turned it into something his sister Lucy would be proud of. The author sitting on my left was wide-eyed at how her words sounded aloud. “I think he read it better than I wrote it,” she announced to the group.
I realized what I had done – I had taught myself a lesson. And the lesson was about voice and emphasis, about how reading aloud was a very different proposition than reading silently, even with the same words. I taught myself something about point-of-view, and that a manuscript might benefit both by adding poetic elements and by being read aloud.
“At some point, we can make room in the world, and in our lives, for the presence of other writers,” says Charity Craig in On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, co-authored with Ann Kroeker. “Why not? We will sit next to them at conferences, see their names on Facebook, find their comments on our blogs. We’ll recognize their work in the publications that rejected ours. We will buy their books. And find ourselves in their words.”
Craig is right. I found myself in the badly written words about a gargoyle coming to life atop a building.