At the annual Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators New York Conference last weekend, I participated in two round-table critique sessions, not as the moderator--my usual role--but as a student participant. Like the other 8 writers at my table, I prepared a 500-word sample from a current work-in-progress, distributed copies to everyone at the table, and then read my sample aloud to be critiqued by my table mates. I didn't feel nervous at all...I thought.
Until the person beside me was reading, and I knew I was next.
I felt stunned by my racing heart, and by the questions ricocheting in my head: "Should I read the pages in an Irish accent?"; "Should I read in my normal voice?"; "Should I ask someone else to read my words aloud?"; and "Should I read THIS opener to this group, or the one from my YA novel instead?" I reprimanded myself inwardly for my anxiety; after all, I, a published author and experienced public speaker, shouldn't be as nervous as one of the kids who enters my workshop for the first time! Absurd!
Once I got started--reading in an Irish accent, by the way--I felt my anxiety ebb away with each laugh my words elicited. I was liking this now... Hearing the laughter out loud, in the expected places, sounded like an enriching soundtrack to my earnest author ears. It's one thing to hear and see evidence of readers' engagement with your words when you read aloud an already published work; it's quite another thing to hear enthusiasm for a work that has yet to see print. I realize that I never "workshopped" my previous books, and I will never NOT "workshop" my manuscripts again, because the feedback gained can actually speed up the submission-to-publication process by taking some of the guesswork out of the revision process. Plus, in my case, with the reading of my newest humorous novel for ages 10 and up, the critique session made me feel as if I had around me the beginnings of a fan base--especially when two fellow writers told me they'd love to buy the book someday, based on what they read.
Relating this experience to the workshops I lead for young writers, I must note that some students hesitate at first to share their works aloud, probably because the only "communication" that has occurred in their writing process before coming to my workshops is usually between themselves and their school teachers. But these kids get hooked on feedback once they hear their first round of applause and hear comments and questions that specifically address the word choices they made, often painstakingly, and the thoughts that they transcribed.
As I like to explain to my students: when we write, we connect the DVD players in our brains to the DVD players in our readers' brains via the electricity of vivid words, thus transferring memorable word pictures.
My experience "on the other side" has made me an even more enthusiastic advocate for the workshop method as the only meaningful way to teach writing.