The Benefits of a Writers Roundtable: #NY15SCBWI

Have you registered yet for the SCBWI mid-winter conference in New York City? It's coming right up (Feb. 6-8), and one thing that sets this conference apart is the rare opportunity for you to participate in a writers' roundtable, receiving feedback on your work from an agent or editor.

I'll be moderating this event, and I've also participated as an attendee, so I thought I'd tell you what these are like—both so you can feel more relaxed going into it, but also so you can be ready to get the most possible benefit.

As the name implies, you'll be sitting at a round table with a group of other writers and a faculty member (typically an editor or an agent). There will be two sessions that day, so everyone can either read the same manuscript excerpt twice, or can get feedback on two pieces.

What should you bring?

Your best opening, ideally to a completed work. And do make sure you've read it out loud to yourself for practice. You'll catch hidden typos and hear awkward word repetitions.

What's it like?

Because so many people are reading out loud at once, the room gets noisy. So, be prepared for that. Once you've read your work, the faculty member will give you feedback. The point of this is to help you take your writing to the next level. So, listen and take notes. Then thank everyone for their thoughts. It can be tempting to explain what you were trying to do when you feel your work has been misunderstood. Resist the urge! You don't want to waste time that could be spent absorbing wisdom this way. And the hard truth is, if you have to explain something about your writing, what you did isn't working.

How will this help me?

This is the primary benefit of these round tables: hearing a professional reaction to your writing. Only in rare cases does the agent or editor request the work.

This can happen; it happened to me, and the novel I brought to New York three or four years ago, THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH, will be published by Scholastic next spring. But guess what? It's not being published by the editor who requested it. She's not even an editor any more, so even if I'd thought the roundtable was my big break, it wasn't.

Coming May 1, 2016 from Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic.

Coming May 1, 2016 from Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic.

So, if you let go of the hope that this will be your big break, and think of it as an important investment in your education as a writer, you'll be in great shape.

The second key benefit of these writers' roundtables: You'll also get to hear feedback about other people's writing, and in the same way, learn how it strikes people who really know what they're doing. So, pay close attention and you'll learn a great deal.

This, by the way, is why it's important to bring your best work, and not something you just dashed off the day before (people do this, believe it or not). When you've put everything you can on the page, you've done your best work. When someone shows you how it can become better, and you take that advice to heart, you will rise to a new level of skill. And this is how you get published—you just keep breaking through your old plateaus until your work is as good or better than what's already on the shelves.

The third benefit of these experiences might be the most important: the relationships you make with other writers at your table. It's not at all unusual to form lasting friendships this way, or to find people willing to swap pages with. This is a hugely important aspect to becoming a writer: cultivating a mutually supportive community.

As I was finishing a major revision of THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH, I received an unexpected email from someone who'd been at that writer's roundtable. She'd heard me read my second work-in-progress and asked me what happened to it. I explained that I'd chosen to focus on GAME. She offered to help me with that last revision, and I was so grateful for the second set of eyes—it made a difference when I was feeling pretty tired and bleary. (Her name is Denise Hart Alfeld and she does this sort of thing for a living, as it turns out.)

What's more, I'm working again on the book she asked about, and I know I can count on her for meaningful feedback when I'm ready. Even though she lives on the East Coast and I live on the West Coast, we can support each other in our work, a relationship that never would have happened had we not both taken the big step of our first roundtable critique session.

I hope to see you in New York in the next couple of months!