Guest Blogger


When I spoke at the Tri-Valley chapter of the California Writer’s Club, I heard about this great base critique group the club had, one that helped the club’s writers get started with critiquing, and then went even further–to help them form their own, smaller break-out groups. I loved this idea then, and I still do. So when Lani Longshore offered to guest-post about the club and her history with its critique groups, I jumped at the idea.

Read Lani’s bio and post below, and don’t forget to enter a comment. I’m doing another giveaway with this post: one commenter will win a copy of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. I’ll draw a name sometime late Sunday and will post the winner on Monday, April 23rd. If your log-in doesn’t link to an email, make sure to leave that email in the comment, so I can find you!

Here’s Lani!

Lani Longshore is a charter member of the California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch. She and her friend Ann Anastasio created a new literary genre – quilting science fiction – with their novella Death By Chenille (available on Smashwords.com). As well as writing the sequel (When Chenille is Not Enough), she teaches quilting and makes art quilts. Her weekly blog follows her adventures in the sewing room.

The Tri-Valley Writers’ Way to Critique

I am pathetic without a deadline. Writing may be in my blood, but the stories collect like plaque on the arteries unless I have a date circled on the calendar. Years ago I joined a writing circle – a critique group by any other name – but it disbanded when two of the women got full-time jobs and one went back to school.

Eventually, I joined the California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch. One of the first things the Tri-Valley Branch did was start a critique group. Hector Timourian volunteered to run it. He arranged for us to meet monthly at a Barnes and Noble. The group started with five regulars and a few drop-ins.

Then the group grew. In one year, membership went from five to fifteen. It was becoming unwieldy to discuss so many pages on one night. We posted our work ahead of time, so that the entire meeting could be devoted to commentary rather than reading, but there were still too many people in the group.

As sad as it was to split, we decided that was the only solution. This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to critiquing at our branch. The first group to spin off was comprised of those of us working on novels.

I joined that first novel group.  We made very few changes to the system that had worked so well in the original group for the first few months. We already had a strong working relationship, so we felt confident we could adapt to changing circumstances. This is exactly what happened, and after two years we are still a productive, committed group.

The original critique group has also adapted. A year after the first spin-off, another novel group was established. The branch recognized the value of training new members to be good critiquers. Now anyone interested in joining a critique group starts with Hector’s. New groups spin off from it when they are ready. Members learn how to give constructive, useful comments under the guidance of experienced critiquers. More important, they learn to accept constructive, useful comments to become better writers.

Carol Baldwin is the first in my monthly series of guest bloggers talking about critiquing. Carol’s most recent book is Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8 (Maupin House, 2008). She has coordinated an SCBWI critique group for over 15 years, blogs at www.carolbaldwinblog.blogspot.com, and is writing her first young adult novel. The three Gs in her life are gardening, grandchildren, and learning how to golf.

Read through Carol’s great post to see all the steps critiques can take you along. Take the time to leave a comment on the post. As with all the posts in this series, I’ll be picking one commenter to win a copy of my book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. Enter by Monday for a chance to win. Make sure you leave contact info in the comment, so I can get hold of you!

And…here’s Carol!

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When someone asks why I decided to write about two girls in Charlotte in 1950—one white and another light-skinned black—I tell them it’s a long story. A story full of critiques, re-vision, and rewriting.

Half-Truths started as a picture book. About 15 years ago, I visited Wing Haven, a bird sanctuary in Myers Park, NC.  The garden’s history is full of stories about animals which the founder, Mrs. Clarkson, rehabilitated. When I visited I thought, Someone should write a picture book about this place! I tried, but there were too many stories to fit into (what was then the acceptable) 2000 word limit.

Elizabeth Clarkson with one of the birds she nursed back to health

Since the market wouldn’t support my original idea, I re-visioned the story.  The new book would be a fictionalized account of Mrs. Clarkson rehabilitating a baby robin. I created a young boy protagonist to make it a “boy book.” When I shared the idea with my son-in-law he scoffed, “Boys aren’t going to read a story about a bird! They want blood and guts!”

His off-the-cuff “critique” made me consider my audience. Maybe this was a girl story? I started playing with different ideas.

At that time, I met Joyce Hostetter and read BLUE. She repeated the advice that Carolyn Yoder gave her: “Look for the story in your own backyard.” Although I had moved to Charlotte, N.C. 22 years earlier, I began observing many instances of the same last name belonging to both blacks and whites. What was the connection?

As I looked at pictures of light-skinned African Americans and listened to local stories the seed of my story started to root.

Thad Tate was a prominent African American businessman from the 1890’s-1940’s. Picture courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. I heard stories of his granddaughter passing.

Since I’m a transplanted Yankee writing a Southern story, I surfed the Internet hoping to figure out how my characters spoke “Southern.” The result was a disaster. A member of my SCBWI critique group, Miriam Franklin, read one of those first attempts and said, “No character in Myers Park talked like that!” Her critique was another wake-up call.  I didn’t know who my characters were or where they came from. Their diction should flow from characterization, not vice-versa.

My next significant critique intervention came from Harold Underdown, my critiquer  at the 2009 Highlights Writer’s Workshop. His most helpful question was simple, yet pivotal: “What does your character want?” I have repeatedly wrestled with that question, and have actually found not one–but layers of answers as I continued to write.

Carol Baldwin and Harold Underdown in Chautauqua, NY

I joyfully marked New Year 2011 by finishing my first draft. I read the entire manuscript and then buckled down to what I naively thought, was a chapter-by-chapter revision. I participated in Kidlit4Japan and won a critique from Ann Manheimer.  Among other helpful recommendations, she suggested that I didn’t open my story close enough to the inciting event. As a result, I revised the first five chapters.

Fast forward to September, 2011 and the SCBWI Carolinas conference. Mary Kate Castellani, an associate editor with Walker Books, read 10 pages and offered the biggest book-changing critique of all: since my story featured two main characters–one white and one black–I should write it from both girls’ points-of-view.

Total shock. Rewrite my entire book? Write as much from the black girl’s POV as the white girl’s? How could I, a white author, do that?

That is when I learned how a good critique enables you to re-vision your work.

I laid out my book using different colored note cards representing the alternating chapters. I suppose that means I’m a plotter; I had to visually see how to make the story work from both girls’ point-of-views. (picture of my dining room table)

The result? I’m thrilled that the finished product will be more accessible to a wider audience and am enjoying the new places my manuscript is taking me. But, my critiquing and re-vision hasn’t stopped.

My local SCBWI group reads each new chapter and provides helpful feedback.  I love their thoughts about my characters. “Kate wouldn’t act like that,” or, “Do you really think Lillie would say that?” Their comments make me see my characters through new eyes and help ensure that my characters are both consistent and original.

Revision happens on the small, microscopic level, as well as on the “big picture” level. Recently, to prepare an application for the SCBWI WIP grant, Joyce Hostetter went through my first ten pages and showed me how I could cut 400 words. Meanwhile, Rebecca Petruck looked at the big picture of these same pages and gave a cogent argument for opening the book with a different scene.  Re-vision time again!

Many years ago I created this graphic organizer “The Writing-Revising Cycle” for my book, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8. Feel free to print out a copy and hang it near your workspace; it’s still a good reminder to me of the work I have ahead of me.

When Teralyn Rose Pilgrim sent me an email offering to contribute a post here about the evil editor and her techniques for hushing that irritating, sometimes, debilitating voice, I was happy to say, “Yes.” I think this is a problem many, if not all, writers face, and it’s always helpful to hear how someone else handles it.

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim is the author of the unpublished novel Sacred Fire, a historical fiction about the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome. She blogs at http://teralynpilgrim.blogspot.com/.

Silencing Your Inner Editor

Your inner critic is the cruel voice in your head that points out all your flaws and makes it difficult for you to write. I became intimately familiar with my inner critic during NaNoWriMo when I had to write 2,000 words a day whether I wanted to or not.

Many writers think of their inner critic as a shark. It ruthlessly tears everything they do to shreds. My inner critic is the chick in Mean Girls. You ever meet one of those bullies in high school who criticize everything you do just because it’s fun?

When my inner critic is at the top of her game, I can’t even write a word without hearing her comments. She’ll say, “Seriously? You’re going with that word? A good writer would have phrased it better. OMG, don’t even get me started on how cliché that metaphor is. Ew! What makes you think anyone’s going to like this character?”

How to Silence the Evil Inside

  1. Be mean back. I like to blow raspberries at my inner editor. Sometimes she’ll criticize me and I’ll say, “What do you know? You’re shallow and no one likes you because you’re mean. Go away.”
  2. Be flexible. Writing is as temporary as you want it to be. During the first draft of my book, I never imagined I would delete and add whole chapters, but I did, because writing is infinitely changeable.
  3. Suspend judgment. My inner critic is a lot louder while I’m writing than she is when I’m reading. If you don’t like what you’ve written, wait a good 24 hours and reread it before you decide whether to keep, toss, or change it. Writing is like stew; it’s always better the next day.
  4. Practice writing poorly. I took a writing class where a teacher asked us to write something truly awful, read it out loud to the class, and throw it away. I wrote something bad, and the world didn’t come crashing down. This gave me an elated sense of freedom. I can write whatever I want; good, bad, ugly, whatever.
  5. Recover from reader paranoia. I often imagine someone reading over my shoulder and wondering what on earth I just wrote (especially when I write at work). When I tuck notebooks in a drawer, I worry about people finding them and reading them. I realize now how unlikely that would be. Most writers practically have to beg people to read their work.
  6. Choose good conditions. A friend of mine always said your inner editor goes to bed at 11:00 pm. Playing silly music also helps, because if the singers can make themselves look like idiots, why can’t I?
  7. Ignore. You might think, “If it’s that simple, why doesn’t everybody do it?” It takes a good deal of practice, but sometimes, it really is that simple.

Please welcome Ruth Spiro to my blog! Ruth writes for children, but critiques with writers of various genres. When I heard that, I asked her if she’d do a guest post about how that works for her and her critique partners. She said, “Sure!”  Thanks, Ruth. :) Check out her guest post below (especially my favorite line: “I think it’s this flexibility that has helped us remain together through the ebb, flow, and evolution of our individual writing.”) And anyone else feel like we need to ask Bev for her lemon-squares recipe?

 

Ruth Spiro is the author of the picture book, Lester Fizz, Bubble-Gum Artist (Dutton).

Before it was published, the manuscript was a winner in the Writer’s Digest 72nd Annual Writing Competition, and also won the Liam Callen Award for Best Overall Contest Entry in the Kay Snow Writing Contest, sponsored by the Willamette Writers in Oregon.

 Ruth’s articles and essays have appeared in FamilyFun, CHILD, Woman’s World, and The Writer. She’s a contributor to The Right Words at the Right Time: Your Turn, edited by Marlo Thomas, as well as Chicken Soup for the Child’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Beach Lover’s Soul, and Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas Collection.

 A frequent speaker at schools and conferences, Ruth lives with her family in suburban Chicago, IL. Her website is www.ruthspiro.com. This summer, she plans to lose fifteen pounds and start her own blog.

I found my critique group through a lucky turn of events. I’d just completed a writing class with author Carolyn Crimi, and she connected me with the group because she knew they had an opening. I’ve been with them for ten years now, though the original members have been together since the early 1990’s. I remember bringing my poem “Into the Rain” to the first meeting I attended. They suggested I add more of a story arc, which I did, and it later won the “Bedtime Stories” contest sponsored by Half-Price Books.

Our eight members are: 

 We meet in person once a month at a member’s home.  I know many critique groups work online, but this face-to-face interaction invites discussion, brainstorming and camaraderie – to me, a welcome balance to the solitude of writing.  We email our manuscripts to the group about a week before our meeting, giving us time to read each piece and note our comments. That way, we can get down to business and make the most of our time together. At any given meeting we’ll have 4-5 manuscripts to review; I can only remember one or two occasions when we had eight. Most importantly, we’ve found that Bev’s lemon squares, microwave popcorn, and vast quantities of chocolate are absolutely essential to the process.

Our group is unique in that we write in a variety of genres:  picture books, middle grade novels, YA, non-fiction, poetry… a little bit of everything.  I also write for publication outside the children’s market, and my critique group has willingly read my articles and essays for The Writer magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and the SCBWI Bulletin, among others. They’ve reviewed my website text, school visit brochure… everything but my grocery list. (Which I’m sure they’d comment on, if I asked them to!) I think it’s this flexibility that has helped us remain together through the ebb, flow, and evolution of our individual writing.

I believe we all benefit from reading and critiquing work in a variety of genres. After all, the elements of story apply across the board, regardless of the length or intended audience. Characters, setting, voice… they all need to make sense and ring true. Even the attention to language and rhythm that’s so essential to a picture book can also be applied to a young adult novel. And poetry? It’s everywhere.

The main challenge our diversity presents is in the scheduling. We try to divide our meeting time equally for each manuscript submitted, but when one member brings a 500-word picture book and another has a 15-page novel chapter, it’s hard to do.

Still, I don’t think anyone ever feels that her manuscript hasn’t been given the attention it needed. On a few occasions, we’ve actually devoted an entire session to critiquing a complete novel; although we’d previously critiqued the individual chapters, a complete read-through can reveal issues with plot, continuity, character development, etc.  Plus, it’s great fun to see the finished result of a friend’s months, or years, of hard work!

 Which brings me to the reason why being a member of this group is a joy, and a privilege: I truly consider them my friends. While our main goal is to work together and make our writing the best it can be, we always take time at the beginning of our meetings to ask, “What’s new?” We share good news and not-so-good news about our writing and our personal lives. We’ve celebrated the births of books and babies, and given moral support during difficult times. When I told my group I’d be missing a few sessions because of an upcoming surgery, a few days later I opened my mailbox to find a gift certificate for a restaurant take-out service, so my family could order dinner during my recovery!

While we share the common interest of writing for children, we’re about as different as a group of eight women can be. Luckily, these differences work to our mutual advantage, as well.  The unique perspectives of a high school English teacher, website editor, writing instructor, social worker, zoology expert and fine artist contribute to the knowledge base from which we read and critique manuscripts. Best of all, we respect one another as writers, there’s no air of competition, and we feel comfortable being honest with each other, without repercussion. Discussions may get lively and sometimes we disagree, but at the end of the evening there are always hugs as we walk out the door. 

When I asked around for anyone interested in guest posting here about critique groups, Peg Finley sent me a note. And when she told me she belonged to three critique groups, I told her to “come on down!” I wanted to hear her talk about the benefits and the challenges, and she was nice enough to do just that. Read Peg’s guest post for a detailed look at the pros and cons she sees in belonging to more than one group.

 

Peg Finley: Picture-Book Writer, Children’s Stories (Fiction & Nonfiction),
Writers and Inspirational Articles
SCBWI Member/Institute of Children’s Literature Graduate/CBI Clubhouse Member

At the start of this blog entry I should say that being in multiple critique groups is a lot like being on a rollercoaster without being buckled in. You soar to the highest point squealing all the way to the top, and then you close your eyes tightly and hold on all the way down. It is balancing act to do your best for yourself and for others in your groups so that everyone grows as a writer.

I’m a Dreamwriter. I’m a Rainbowwriter and a Flux Member. Being in one critique group might be enough for some but not for me. Here are some pros and cons I’ve discovered during my time in multiple critique groups.

Pro: Being in three critique groups makes me more aware of the trends in the industry. When someone hears a publisher is open for unsolicited submissions or other things industry related, they are quick to share that info. Being in three different groups with at least four members in each means multiple sources of information. (I copy articles off to read while I’m waiting for the kids to get out of school so I don’t take up valuable writing time.)

Con: For some it can be too much information to process. Reading everything you get might leave you with no time to write.

Pro: Being disciplined is crucial when in multiple critique groups. You learn to prioritize. You do critiques as they come in and return them in a timely manner. You submit submissions by the deadline so that they are on time. There is no option to procrastinate. It helps a writer learn to work with revision requests from editor. You learn the value of meeting deadlines. It adds to your professionalism.

Con: The pace can be too fast for some writers. If a writer’s style is very relaxed or they are not seriously committed, it is very easy to get behind.

Pro: By reading and critiquing writings from multiple writers with multiple personalities, you can experience growth. Most writers take and pull from what they know. If there are talented members in your critique groups they can be role models.

In my one group, there’s someone who was a teacher who helps me with my grammar issues. Thanks goodness. Another member notices when transitions in my submissions aren’t smooth. Another has a lovely voice for the very young child that I try to imitate in my work.

Con: For a writer just starting it can be difficult to develop your style of writing, especially if some members have been published multiple times. It can be intimidating.

Pro: More eyes to find mistakes or make suggestions for improvement in a writer’s writing is another reason to be involved with more than one critique group. This is especially true when struggling with a section of a submission. Getting the same type of comments in the manuscript at the same place is a sure-fire way to know that there is a problem.

Con: Knowing what to take away from a critique can be a challenge as a writer.A writer might not be able to accept the need for changes, or it might hurt for a writer to hear that their “baby” needs some more work.

Pro: Another positive aspect of being in multiple groups is if you really need to, you can send the same submission to more than one group. (I try not to do that but sometimes it does happen.)

Con: It takes time and effort to be a “good critique group member.”

Pro: One unexpected benefit from being in multiple groups was that while I was researching articles to share with my groups, I found topics for my blog.If group members found an article helpful, so will writers who come to my blog.

Con: For some this could be considered a waste of time.

Pro: Being in more than one critique group means you get more than the average amount of opportunities to sub. Most members in a critique group submit once a month or less.For people who write a lot, it motivates them. (For instance, Dreamwriters’ has two original submission dates per month with two dates for revised submission. I try to submit every time an opportunity comes up. In total, I have four chances to submit an original manuscript, and two chances for rewrites.)

Con: It is a little crazy at times trying to keep up, but is doable. Some groups offer options to do a second submission a month, with at least one mandatory submission.

Pro: Some writers get lazy/bored easily. ( I am one of those writers.) The two chances to submit a rewrite to the group keeps me on my toes. I have to get my revisions done as the suggestions I take from the critiques have to be incorporated in time for the next rewrite submission date.

I am not the biggest fan of revising. I know it’s necessary. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Lol. Knowing that there is a deadline makes me write it now.

Pro: Choosing to participate in multiple critique groups can be time-consuming. Some writers use the chance to become the best writer they can be.

Con: If a writer’s personal or writing life is complicated, a writer should seriously consider how much time they can offer to their groups.How often can you write is a question you need to ask yourself.

Pro: The biggest benefit from being in multiple critique groups is the support offered. A good critique group is worth its weight in gold and being in more than one group doubles or triples the value. Groups share their hopes and dreams. Group members pick each other up when someone is down, and they do the happy dance when one or more of the group members get the recognition they have worked so hard to achieve.

Con: Picking the wrong critique group to participate in can leave a writer with a bad feeling about sharing their work. Selecting your groups carefully is so important. Make sure they fit you as a writer.

Would I recommend joining more than one critique group? Not always. Each writer needs to find what works for them. For me, three work just fine.

Wendy Martin is the author of several children’s books, An Ordinary Girl, A Magical Child (2005, 2008), Aidan’s First Full Moon Circle (2008), and Watchers (2008). She is the illustrator of those three books as well as Rabbit’s Song (2009) by S.J. Tucker and Trudy Herring, and Smoky and the Feast of Mabon (2010) by Catherynne M. Valente.


     
Wendy has a deep commitment to children. Walking her talk, she applied for and completed training to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children of the St. Louis Children’s Division Court foster care system. She was officially sworn into this volunteer position on Sept 11, 2008.

Wendy currently resides with her husband and daughter in eastern Missouri when she isn’t on the road giving workshops at festivals or visiting schools. She claims the dubious title of Perpetual Project Lady and does her best to keep the house clean and the cats fed.

Read on for an interview with Wendy, in which she discusses critiquing for writing and art.

BL: Can you give us a brief description of your critique group (online or in person, how many members, what they’re writing, how you found the group, how long you’ve been together)?

WM: I belong to two crit groups, one for writing and one for illustration. Both are on-line. The illustration group is very informal and is more of a support group than for aiming for publication, although we can ask for specific project feedback. It is a public Blogger site where members post solutions to weekly prompts. The group is morphing in terms of membership all the time since it is so informal but there are about a half dozen “regulars.” I think the goal is 25 active members. I received an invitation via email when the group was being formed about 3 years ago.

The other group is very structured. There are 5 members and we are about 6 months old. It is online and crits are submitted via email. Every sixth week we “meet” in a chat room to just talk about whatever catches our fancy and any changes we’d like to see in the crits. The group is genre specific to MG although our subject matter is all over the place. I believe I also received an email invite for this one, but I don’t remember.

BL: What do you think are the benefits of your groups?

WM: With the illustration group, the benefit is to meet a deadline on an ongoing basis and illustrating a topic or theme we hadn’t selected ourselves. All members are supposed to be working in water media, although some of the newer members are submitting computer-generated art. I’ve been meaning to question the mod about that.

In the writing group, for me, the biggest benefit is finding the flaws in my WIP and having suggestions on how to fix them to make a stronger story. The entire group is serious about finding a publisher for their manuscripts, so this is helpful since we all have a similar goal in mind.

BL: What’s the hardest part of being in a critique group, for you? What makes that part worthwhile?

WM: The hardest part for both groups is meeting the deadlines. I am better at it with the writing group since it is so structured and I know I will be getting as much feedback as I give. In the art group, it is sometimes discouraging not to receive any useful feedback because either no one comments or all the comments are along the lines of “That’s nice, I like it.”

BL: If a writer’s goal is publication, do you think participating in a critique group can help the writer toward that goal? How?

WM: To achieve publication one must perfect one’s craft. Whether that is writing or illustrating is irrelevant. There are certain things that separate the hobbyist from the professional and being in a crit group can push anyone past their comfort zones if they let it. Once a creator has left their comfort zone is when true creation comes. And that’s when publication becomes possible. The work you are submitting to publish has to be strong enough and unique enough to stand out from the crowd. Plus, the creator has to have a thick skin because rejection is a normal part of this business. There’s a lot of rejection, even for the people who achieve publication. Crit groups help to prepare people for the tougher aspects of the business by familiarizing writers and artists with criticism. Even a successful book will garner negative reviews. Everyone has an opinion and not all of them will be positive!

BL: What was the biggest surprise for you, about critique groups or the critique process, when you first started participating in a group?

WM: How often the groups didn’t work out or survive. Most groups I have joined or been invited to join petered out in less than six months. I often found that groups formed by newcomers rarely gave me any useful feedback. I have found that in order for a group to function fully, the members must be all at about the same place on their quest for publication.

Please answer the next questions quickly, without too much thinking time. :)

BL: Do you critique with: Red pen or NOT-red pen?

WM: Both.

BL: Favorite critiquing drink: Tea, coffee, or diet soda?

WM: Water.

BL: Do you prefer: Critiquing or being critiqued?

WM: Being critiqued. Love feedback.

BL: Who would you rather have run the house while you write/critique? Jeeves or Alice from The Brady Bunch?

WM: Alice

BL: Name one book that has blown you away in the last year.

WM: Wondrous Strange by Leslie Livingston.

PJ Hoover is the author of The Forgotten Worlds Trilogy, a fun fantasy that takes its characters and readers into the world of Lemuria and Atlantis. The series includes The Emerald Tablet, The Navel of the World, and The Necropolis. (The last book will be released Fall, 2010.)          

PJ is also a wonderful blogger, with a positive energy that always warms and cheers me when I read her posts.

 

I asked PJ a few questions about her experience critiquing and how her critique group works. Read on for some great information. 

BL: Can you give us a brief description of your critique group (online or in person, how many members, what they’re writing, how you found the group, how long you’ve been together)?

PJH: Sure! My current critique group is more a group of online on-demand beta readers. I was previously part of a more formal critique group (20 pages each once a month, 8 members), but a few of us formed a side group to critique extra stuff like full manuscripts. I also contacted a few bloggers whose book reviews I was terribly impressed with to see if they would want to join. They did, and we soon found a nice solid group. Eventually, I dropped from the formal group to focus on the side group. So as for how long we’ve been together, it feels like forever, but in actuality it’s only been a year or so.

BL: Is your group genre-specific or do the members write in various genres? What do you think are the benefits of the kind of group you’re in?

PJH: Our group focuses on MG and YA novels. That’s not to say we wouldn’t read something in a different genre, but thus far the request hasn’t come. The novels are all sorts from fantasy to sci-fi to romantic comedy to historical. The benefits of sticking with MG and YA novels are that we are critiquing the genre we’re all writing in and thus get the added expertise of being familiar with the market while still seeing a variety of work.

BL: What’s the hardest part of being in a critique group, for you? What makes that part worthwhile?

PJH: There’s nothing hard about my current group J I’d say the hardest things in the past groups I’ve been in have ranged from personality conflicts to how long it takes to get through a manuscript. I’m not sure there is anything worthwhile about personality conflicts. I want to have my critique partners for the long haul, so making sure I’m working with people I respect and enjoy talking with is an enormous requirement for me.

BL: If a writer’s goal is publication, do you think participating in a critique group can help the writer toward that goal? How?

PJH: Yes! First off, getting work critiqued really helps us see our work more objectively. It’s so much easier for other people to see what needs to be improved in our work, and their critiques help us see this, too. In addition, critique groups are a fabulous source for networking and support. I consider my critique partners my friends and feel I could count on them for most anything.

BL: What was the biggest surprise for you, about critique groups or the critique process, when you first started participating in a group?

PJH: The biggest surprise to me has been how everyone sees things differently and how getting a variety of opinions can really give us a nice rounded picture of what needs to be improved in our work. Some critiquers may focus on plot while others may focus on character. And seeing as how both are important, getting that variety of opinions becomes essential.

Please answer the next questions quickly, without too much thinking time. :)

BL: Do you critique with: Red pen or NOT-red pen?

PJH: Highlighter

BL: Favorite critiquing drink: Tea, coffee, or diet soda?

PJH: COFFEE

BL: Do you prefer: Critiquing or being critiqued?

PJH: Being Critiqued

BL: Who would you rather have run the house while you write/critique? Jeeves or Alice from The Brady Bunch?

PJH: Alice—she did everything,

BL: Name one book that has blown you away in the last year.

PJH: Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

PJH: Thanks so much, Becky!

BL: Thanks to you, PJ!

This month, I’m starting a new feature at my blog. I’m invited writers to come and post about their critique stories. When I happened to see Dawn Simon mention at her blog, Plotting and Scheming, that she wanted to post sometime about evolving with her critique group, I quickly sent her a note, asking if she’d like to do that here. She very nicely agreed to do so, and to be my first guest poster about critiquing. (If you’d like to share your critique experiences at my blog, or be interviewed about your critique group, send me a note at beckylevine at ymail dot com!)

Read down for Dawn’s post, including a wonderful photo of her critique group! And don’t miss her wonderful reference to a writer’s “bunny trails.”

Dawn Simon swears that no more than five percent of her writing energy comes from the caffeine in Frappuccinos. She is a member of SCBWI and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and she has also been actively involved with Field’s End, a local writers’ community. Her manuscript PERFECT VISION was a finalist in the young adult category of the 2009 PNWA Literary Contest. She thinks kids are some of the coolest people, which explains her elementary teaching degree and her undying quest to write for teens. In addition to writing YA, she loves reading it, and she dreams of seeing her own books published someday. Soon.

Becky invited me to do a guest post here because of something I’d said at my blog when I’d touched on my own evolution in my critique group. The idea interested her so she flew me out first class so I could be here with you guys today! Okay, that’s a total lie—everything was done via email. This is my first time doing a guest post, so I’m all excited and acting immature about the whole thing. I’ll settle down now and get to my topic: My Evolution in Critique Group.

I’m fortunate to be in an author-led critique group with author Sheila Roberts at the helm. When we first came together, most of us had recently taken a class taught by Sheila. In the class, she’d given us weekly lessons as well as critiques on the first three chapters of our works in progress. Knowing we had a good thing going, we asked Sheila to take us beyond the first three chapters and lead us in a critique group. Lucky us—she agreed!

(Below–Dawn’s Group. Front Row, L to R: Sheila Roberts, Sarah Shepard. Back Row, L to R: Bev Young, Martha Schoemaker, and Dawn Simon.)

Since I knew everyone from one writing class or another, sharing my work for the first time wasn’t as scary as it could have been. I already had a completed manuscript, and I’d bring one chapter a week. In my mind, this was the “right” way for me to be in a critique group. I knew it might not be the right way for everyone, but it was for me.

When I read Stephen King’s ON WRITING, I totally related to his philosophy about writing the first draft with the door closed. Besides, I needed to know the first draft was all me. I imagined I’d see the novel as less of an accomplishment or that it somehow wouldn’t be as true to what was in my own mind and heart if I received input before I had a completed draft. I was open to revision. I just first needed this draft to exist.

Once I received feedback from Sheila, my other critique group members, and faculty members at conference manuscript consultations, my manuscript became better and tighter. Having Sheila was my biggest asset because she helped me apply what I’d learned in classes to my own work. The continuity was priceless.

It was a little more frightening when I started turning in chapters for a book that wasn’t already written. The other three ladies had been writing this way all along, but it was so new to me. By this point, we’d been together a while, our editing skills had improved, and critique group already felt like the safe place it was. But turning in chapters as I wrote them was different. It made me feel a little more vulnerable, like I was leading people I respected down an unknown path rather than walking them home the safe way.

Once things got rolling, I saw the benefits. I used to be prone to bunny trails: taking off in another direction, getting sidetracked with things I, as a novice writer, thought might be interesting to a reader or add color to my work. Turning in work as I went meant Sheila and the other ladies could cut me off before I wandered. This saved me time and, I think, trained me to focus.

An even bigger benefit was having the opportunity to discuss my ideas on a weekly basis, ideas that were on pages being handed in that week or that maybe hadn’t even been written yet. Another time saver. Plus, I felt less married to my original ideas. My new method was making me a better, more efficient writer.

* * *

Nowadays, I no longer think twice about turning in pages as I go. And since I’ve grown so much as a writer, my weekly chapters are way better than they used to be, even when I handed in pages from a completed manuscript. Trust makes this possible, and I think it’s an essential ingredient for a successful critique group. Also, there’s a comfort that comes with being together so long. It’s kind of like family that way. Knowing that the other people in my critique group are fully aware of my abilities (and vice versa) allows me to take chances. I can stretch myself, attempting to create something better or crash and burn trying without the fear of being judged.

There isn’t one right way to be in a critique group. Different things work for different people. I doubt Stephen King would disagree. I think the goal is to find the best way each of us works and to keep our minds open to ideas that can help us improve individually as writers.

Shrinking Violet Promotions is one of my favorite blogs. I discovered it soon after I started blogging, and I’ve been a regular reader since. Mary & Robin are encouraging, enthusiastic, and seriously GET how tough it can be for writers to get out there and market themselves and their books. So, obviously, I was very happy when they accepted my invitation to guest blog here.

Ladies and Gentlemen, pull up a chair, get out your notebooks, and listen up!

PRE-Marketing: Seven Important Things You Can Do Before You Sell Your Book, by the Shrinking Violets, Robin LaFevers & Mary Hershey.

Is it ever too early to start marketing? We’re betting the answer to this question depends on who you ask. Editors, agents, and authors will likely all have different perspectives. And, of those groups, it is likely that it depends on whether you ask an introvert or extrovert.

Robin and I have thought long and hard about this question as it has pertained to our own writing path, and the path of our readers at Shrinking Violets. As a generalization, introverts are more likely to want to remain in the wings until show-time. (Some of us would prefer to stay in the wings beyond that!) :)

One of the things to remember about marketing is that it’s really about connecting; connecting to a community of readers or writers or booksellers. As a pre-published author, one of the best things you can do is to begin to build those community relationships. The cool thing about starting before publication is that you will comfortably know these people by the time your first book sale is made, and it won’t feel stiff and in-your-face to mention it to them, it will make sense. The good news is, it’s never been easier. Between blogging and all the social network sites, it’s easy to begin tapping into those communities and building connections.

If it feels more comfortable, start off in those communities identifying yourself as a reader; most writers are avid readers first and foremost, and that can feel like a safer place to start from. Follow librarians’ blogs, “friend” indie bookstores and your favorite authors on MySpace, join book discussions with others about your favorite books. Follow your favorite authors’ blogs and comment, fer gawd’s sake. (They will not know you are there if you don’t comment!) Begin your own blog. At first, you can simply talk about your writing struggles or what you read or the authors and librarians you meet, however, at some point, it can be really smart to create a blogging niche for yourself. Something that guarantees a source of topics for you to talk about and get people coming back to your site.

Cyber Niches can be based on so many different things: Genres, Plotting, Marketing, The Industry, Gossip, Situational (ie: SAHM, writers who are actual teens, etc.), Personal Quirks, “The Call” stories, Rejection Letters, Interviews. Yes, there are lots of blogs with author interviews, but how about one that showcases booksellers or librarians. How about Reporting New Deals, or Six Degrees of Separation in publishing. (For example, did you know that Betty Groban of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is related to Josh Groban? Or that Jake and Maggie Gyllenthal’s aunt has just published a book?)

The point is to find something that interests you and begin building a community or connections around that. But don’t rely on that alone, be a good community member by participating in other communities as well. Again, the internet makes this easier than ever–and you’ll learn tons while doing it. Promise.

As a community of writing introverts, we also want to be smart and savvy about our work. We want to make sure that we take advantage of every possible opportunity, and we also want to conserve our energy for those activities that give us the biggest bang. We want to make sure that the major proportion of our personal resources goes directly to the work–to creating the best possible book we can. I believe strongly that this in itself is the most powerful marketing activity of all…writing a kick-ass book. Once that has been done, then absolutely–do whatever you can to create buzz–that enigmatic and intangible magic that gets your book into all the right hands and right places.

In the last five years, we’ve all born witness, or heard the tales of unpublished writers that have sold their work based on their mega-blogebrity status. Agents and editors have shopped them from their blog or website and offered contracts. Exciting stuff, for sure, but rare, in our opinion. The bottom line is that agents and editors are not going to come find you. You need to write a book that will find them, and grab them by their editorial lapels.

All right, all right! We promised a list–and here it is! :) :)

THE OFFICIAL SHRINKING VIOLETS PRE-MARKETING ACTIVITY LIST

  1. Meet your tribe. Get out there and start connecting with other writers. You can find them on-line and at conferences, critiques, schmoozes–follow the trail of writer bread crumbs!
  2. Join a professional writing organization like the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Romance Writers of America (RWA), or the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). Let the world know that you are serious.
  3. Start doing some karmic networking NOW. Become a volunteer in some reading/writing arena. DO something besides focus on getting yourself published.
  4. Dive into the classics. Read the Newbery, Caldecott, Cybil, Indie Bound award winners. Taste and savor the cream. Know exactly what you are up against. Know what the market buys. Then ignore it and go deep into your own  secret, crazy, unique place and write from there–that’s where YOUR best stuff hides.
  5. Write a fan letter to an author, or editor, or librarian or teacher or bookseller. For no purpose than to celebrate their work and thank them for their contribution to children’s literature. This is not a pitch, but an expression of appreciation with NO hook.
  6. Start designing a website or a blog if you haven’t already. Before you’ve sold something? Yep! Step into the frame of your future. Try it on for size. What would you like it to look like? Have some fun! Use this as a vision for your future. It will draw you there.
  7. Choose one thing slightly outside your comfort zone in the writing field and move toward it. Examples: finding opportunities for public speaking, doing a storytime with children, introducing yourself to the local booksellers, etc.

No matter how many dozens upon dozens of books an author or illustrator may have out–don’t ever forget that we ALL start unpublished. Remember to enjoy the whole of your journey. It’s all rich!

I’ll be blogging for real on Thursday or Friday, but I wanted to throw out a quick note that we’ll have seriously cool guest bloggers here next week. If you haven’t read the Shrinking Violet Promotions blog yet, you’re missing out big time.

And the authors behind the blog, Mary Hershey and Robin LaFevers have generously agreed to share some of their knowledge and experience here. They’ll be blogging about PRE-Marketing: Seven Important Things You Can Do Before You Sell Your Book.

Be there or be SO square! (And meanwhile, scootch over to SVP and catch up on all their other great tips and ideas!)

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