The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide

I think I’ve talked here before about how I used to be a one-idea person. I had one idea for many years, and I wrote on it and wrote on it and wrote on it and sort of revised, and–honestly–it never went anywhere.

So I was really glad when another idea came along. And that idea turned into a story I write and learned-about-revising on, and that I hope–someday–someone will love as much as I did.

But when I was done, then I was sort of staring out into nothing. No more ideas. And this, as you can imagine, was pretty scary. I’d sort of known this possibility was lurking there all along, especially as I wrote and wrote and wrote on that first book and didn’t have any story characters poking at me, asking for my attention. But I had something I was working on, and so I didn’t let myself worry too much about that something maybe not being enough. Until…it wasn’t.

What changed? A couple of things. Caro called to me from the pages of a history book, demanding a place in a real-life moment. I got the contract to write The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, and, in the course of that project, I had to come up with many passages from “fake” stories. I used these passages to show my readers what to look for as they critiqued. When I went to think of a picture book idea, I got one–and it turned out to be one that I didn’t want to be fake. It was a story I wanted to write, for real. That idea turned into the picture book I’ve been working on this year. Which, if not done, is at least well on its way to that point.

Somehow, having two projects to work on seemed to loosen the latch on my idea door–I’m now at the point where I have several I’d love to dig into, when I have time. A friend of mine talks about “princess problems,” and I think having too many ideas fits under that umbrella-so no complaints here!

But…I’ve never been in the position of having to actually think of an idea. (I know, another one of those problems!) And I’ve decided that–guess what? I want to write another picture book. There are a few reasons behind this want:

  • I have figured out that I like writing in this genre.
  • I’ve heard recently that some (all?!) agents want a writer to have several picture books in the done pile before they’ll consider signing that writer. (No, I’m not letting this scare me, but I’m accepting it as a possible market reality.)
  • I like having not just more than one idea, but having more than one project I can actually work on at–basically–the same time. I like switching between the two. The thought of doing that with two novel projects pretty much blows my mind, but I do feel like I’ve been able to make steady progress on this picture book and my YA in the past few months. Which is good.

So…the other night, as I was heading into sleep, I let my brain drift. I don’t even know where I was sending it, just…out there. Maybe I was hoping for a visit from the muse, maybe just reassurance that I hadn’t turned back into a one-idea writer (or at least a one-picture-book-idea writer). I went to sleep without the visit or the reassurance, but I’m learning not to let that stress me out too much.

The  next day, I didn’t worry at it, but…sometime in the afternoon, I opened up a new Scrivener file and popped down the basic idea for, yes…another picture book.

Is it magic? Is it just being open to possibilities? I’ve heard this is the most frequent and challenging question authors hear–where do you get your ideas?

As of today, I have no clue. But I’ll tell you one thing–not knowing is definitely a princess problem.

First, thank you to everybody who came and celebrated with me. What a party! (Come on, you know we all love the ones where you don’t have to get dressed up or leave your own home.) So many people wished me good thoughts & entered the contest, it was like having ice cream every day–with extra sprinkles. And chocolate sauce. And two cherries. And…Well, you get the picture.

So last night, I managed to drag my son away from the couch, the cat, and his book (A. Lee Martinez’ In the Company of Ogres, in case you’re wondering), and get him to draw the names. Yes, TWO names. Because you guys went so crazy with your comments.

Here’s the prize package again:

  • A signed copy of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide
  • A set of the critique goodies I put into my raffle bags, including…

  • A first-chapter critique of your manuscript, or a full picture-book critique.
  • One other writing-craft book of my choice, yes, STILL to be decided!

 Impatient yet?

The winners are…


Ladies, please send me an email at beckylevine at ymail dot com, so I can say “Yay” in person, get your snail mail address, and get organized about the critiques! Congratulations and THANKS to you both!

Six months ago, my book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, officially hit the shelves. It was one of those days of excitement and nerves and a lot of disbelief. I did the launch day thing, and a few weeks later, had my party. It was all MORE than good, and the last six months have been quite a ride. A wonderful ride. Busy, busy, busy!

But not to busy to celebrate some more. I’m a big believer in marking milestones, and I didn’t want this one to just slip by quietly, without paying it a bit of attention. Or without saying thank you to everybody who has supported me, cheered me on, read this blog, spread the word, and just made me happy to be out here talking with you all.

Sounds like a contest to me!

Here are the details. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment here, at this post, between now and next Wednesday night, July 21. If you’d like to leave a happy critique story along with your basic entry, that will be the frosting. (On the cake. The anniversary cake. Get it?) I’ll pull the name of the winner and announce it on Thursday, the 22nd. PLEASE come back and check if you won! I’ll inflate some virtual balloons for you and toss imaginary confetti in your hair.

You probably want more than that, though. And I don’t blame you! Well, here’s what I’ll be handing you, on that big, gold, sparkly platter (okay, in the mail), when you win.

  • A signed copy of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide
  • A set of the critique goodies I put into my raffle bags, which does, indeed, include chocolate
  • A first-chapter critique of your manuscript. (If you’re a picture book writer, I’ll totally count that as a chapter.)
  • One other writing-craft book, still-to-be-decided-and-you-won’t-know-what-it-is-until-your-prize-arrives-because-it’s-a-surprise!

What do you think?

Drop into that comments section and leave your name. If things go crazy and I get GOBS of entries, I may have to put together more than one prize. Just to keep you all happy.

And to celebrate!

Oh, for pete’s sake, what am I going to do in another six months?

So…my launch party is in 24 days. Me, counting?

There will be cupcakes. There will be Dove bars. Perhaps cookies. There will be a wonderful bookstore location where, before and after the launch, you can browse to your heart’s content. See what I’m offering?

There will also be a raffle.

I’m having a lot of fun putting together the package. No, I’m not telling you all what’s in it, but just think about the tools of critiquing, and you’ll be able to imagine. (Use your little grey cells, mon cher Hastings!)

I’ll tell you one thing, though. The raffle package will, of course, contain some chocolate-one of life’s, and critiquing’s, necessities.

So here’s today’s fun. The chocolate is the one part of the raffle package I have not yet bought. Why? Well, because–as I mentioned–the launch party is 24 days away, and by that time, the chocolate would get…eaten! And I haven’t yet decided what kind of chocolate to buy. My new favorite is Lindt’s Excellence Intense Pear Bar. One square of that and I’m writing (or critiquing!) productively for the next hour!

But I want to hear what you think. What’s the best chocolate bar you’ve ever tasted? What’s your regular fix? Let’s skip anything with peanuts, because I’m not risking an allergic reaction to my raffle goodies! It should go well with tea and the smell of ink, and it should contain the capacity to inspire brilliance.

Leave your “vote” in the comments. I’ll tell you what! Everybody else is running contests for me this month (check out Solvang Sherrie’s that ends today and PJ Hoover’s that just went up). Let’s get one started here. This contest is now officially open until Launch Day, January 15th. I will pull one voter’s name from a hat (or I might just ask Solvang Sherrie how she does that cool, random-name-generator thing), and I will send the winner a copy of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide (print or PDF) AND a bar of the Lindt’s Pear Bar. How can you pass that up?

Ready, set…think chocolate!

Before I get down to business today, I want to show you a few of my favorite books.

Wait, what’s that one out in front? Is it…? It is! Yes, two copies of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide showed up at my house this weekend. Did I mind the rain and gray skies? Not after that delivery, I didn’t!

Okay, so if the book is here, this means I should get back to my marketing to-do list and get some things checked off. The book is due out January 15th, but I’ll have some copies before then that I can, and want to, use for marketing. I’d like to set up a blog tour for January…with giveaways! I’m keeping this simple, just hoping to visit a few blogs and let people know about my book, share some thoughts about critiquing and critique groups. If you’d like your blog to be a stop on the tour, I’d love to come by. I think interviews are fun, because I can talk about what you and your blog readers want to hear, but I can also do a guest post if that’s easier for you.

If you’d like to host me at your blog, please send me an email at

The other thing I’m looking to do is add a new, probably monthly, feature to my blog in 2010. I’d like to host you, if you’ve got a story about a critique group or experience to share. (Obviously, I don’t want posts that are just rants or vents, but I’m definitely open to learning-experience stories as well as the more positive kind!) And if you’ve got a book out or coming out that you’d like to promote, I’ll include pictures and links to let people know about it. You can also donate a copy of an ARC or published book, if you’d like me to run a contest.

Again, if you’d like to guest blog here with your critique story, please email me at

Next post, back to our regular, random programming.

Last week, I interviewed Martha Engber about her book The Wind Thief and ran a contest for an ARC of the novel. Today, while my son lay on the couch with another book in hand and a cat on lap, he reached into the bowl for me and drew the winner’s name.

Tara Lazar, Come on Down! Email me at beckylevine at ymail dot com, and send me your snail mail address. I’ll pop the book in an envelope and send it on its way!

I admit it, I do like Google Alerts. I like think that I’m not too obsessive about it, but it’s fun when one of the alerts shows up in your email, even if some of those links do seem to end somewhere in never-never land with no real source. Ah, the magic of the Internet. Sometimes, though, they take you a fun place.

Like finding out your book is available for pre-order at the Writer’s Digest online shop! In print and PDF version.

One more cool thing, and I’ll leave you to get back to work. Don’t you all have a novel to write or 30 picture book ideas to come up with?! :)

This morning, I got an email from Jane Friedman, at Writer’s Digest, telling me about a promotion they’re doing for the book. Every now and then I get these notes, and usually it’s just pretty exciting to think about a company like Writer’s Digest out there working to market my book. This idea, though, was particularly fun to hear about, because it comes with a freebie.

Which is always good.

Anyway, Writer’s Digest is setting up a critique-group registry, and any group that completes their form will get a free digital copy of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.


You can read about it here and, if you want, sign up your group.

I made a discovery this weekend. Or, rather, a re-discovery, because this little piece of knowledge is something I’ve learned before, utilized many times, and–of course–forgotten until I had a need for it again.

Sometimes, its easier to write backward.

When I was in college, I did try and come up with that all-important thesis statement that drives an essay. After that, though, I would often write in this order:

  1. Conclusion
  2. Body paragraphs
  3. Intro paragraph
  4. Revision of that thesis statement that wasn’t quite right after all.

Why backward? Because sometimes you just can’t know how you’re getting somewhere, until you’ve been.

This last week, between dodging raindrops, staying afoot in huge winds, and lighting LOTS of candles, I got the outline and marketing/course information written for an online critique class that Writer’s Digest will be offering in December. This weekend, I started on the lessons. They’ll build on what I’ve written in The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, teaching critique tools and skills by having students critique first chapters or scenes from their classmates.

It took me a bit to focus in, but then I remember the backward writing. Which, in this case, took the form of developing–first–the bulleted list of questions the reader should ask themselves as they critique, and–second–writing the introductory text to set up those bullets. MUCH better.

As I worked, though, I was thinking about the other ways & times that backward writing is the form of choice. And here’s what I came up with:

  • Getting your hero to their scene goal and then figuring out the path they took.
  • Writing the fight scene between two (or three) characters, and then working out the scenes that will build in tension to that moment
  • Working out the climax of your novel first, so you know what’s the most important choice your hero will have to make
  • Developing exercises for your how-to book, to focus on your reader’s practical goal, before writing the guide’s main content
  • Writing the conclusion to your magazine article, to hone in on the one thing your should take away from the piece
  • Playing with the resolution to your memoir, to get closer to the theme of your personal story

Obviously, writing this way will not work every time. The opposite tact is to write through an entire draft–from start to finish, or skipping through the middle–to grow your own understanding of your project. I find that this backward style works best when I’m stuck, when I’m staring at the lead-in or some place in that vast middle of a project and not knowing what to write. Jumping ahead–flipping the coin over–gives me a jump-start, a different angle from which to see things.

And then, I find, I’m writing.

What about you? What did I miss? When do you decide to step off the linear, straightforward path and take a look at what the end can tell you about the beginning?

I am by nature an extremely cautious person. I’m also not so good with change. 38 years later, I’m still not so sure my family needed to sell our smallish tract home and move to the much bigger house, on the top of a hill, with an ocean view and a bedroom for each kid, that my parents had designed and built just for us. Really.

‘Cause you know, why swap out the old for a new? Why take the chance, when where you’re headed might be worse than where you are?

Well, obviously, because it also might be a lot better. Or just really, really good and mesh in beautifully with the happy life you already have.

The last few years, I’ve taken more risks. Nothing huge, from a lot of people’s perspectives, but from Little Miss “Okay, Mom, I’ll get nine books I’ve already read from the library and one new one,” some of the choices I’ve made have been a big deal. And they’ve gotten me to some very good places, including the writing and soon-to-happen publication of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.

So, this week, with school starting, more time to focus, and a year ahead in which I want things to be different, I’m putting myself out there. I’m digging deeper into my WIP, reminding myself how important this story—and my fiction—are to me. I’m working on a couple of basic pitches for two nonfiction projects, to send to my agent. I sent an email off for some consulting work. I’ve got a list o children’s nonfiction-book publishers that I’m going to contact.

You can see where the risk comes in. These are all projects I’m qualified to do, and they’re all things I really love doing. But, yes, it’s a lot. The old me would say I was insane, diving head first into all these options, instead of maybe sticking a toe (or just the tip of a toe) into that water. The new me takes a look at the possibility of insanity and does some reassuring. Here’s what I tell myself:

  • You can do these.  You can. [Sigh.] Yes, honestly.
  • None of these are sure bets. To be realistic, some—if not many—are longshots. The odds of you getting to do all of them—get real. You’re not that good. (Yes, sometimes, a big of ego-deflation is actually necessary these days. When did that happen?!)
  • They won’t all happen at the same time. Projects take weeks, months, even years to come to fruition. You’ll probably be bored, waiting for anything to do.
  • A full, exciting life is better than a quiet, dull one.
  • “Yes,” is better than “No,” much of the time. And for your writing path, just about all of the time.

Do I still get nervous? Of course. Do I let that stop me, as it would have when I was young, from reaching out, from stretching myself for the things I really want. Not any more. I may not race ahead and grab it at full-speed just yet. I do, however, hold out my hand and say, “Please.”

What about you? What risks have you taken, or are you facing, that can add to your writing path, bring you more of the happiness that it already gives you?

In The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, I talk about ways to find a critique group and ways to start your own. There are lots of reasons why you might build your own group–from not finding an existing group that works for you to wanting just a little bit more control over how your group is run.

If you’re setting out to grow a critique group, I really recommend starting small–with one critique partner. Why? Well, I’ll tell you.

  • It’s often easier (and faster) to find one other writer who’s looking to critique, than it is to find several all at once.
  • Building a critique group is a little bit like cooking. if you throw all the spices into the pot at once, it’s hard to tell–if the recipe doesn’t taste right–which spice might be the problem. If you get together with three or four other writers/critiquers at the same time, and the group is having some problems, it may be tricky to figure out which critiquers you fit with and which you don’t.
  • To carry on the cooking metaphor, once you’ve tossed in all those spices, it’s a little tricky to pull out the one that makes the recipe too bitter, or even too sweet. :) Ditto with a critique group, if you invite several writers all at once, and one doesn’t click with another, you have some not easy choices to make and actions to take. If you and a critique partner aren’t a match, it’s simpler to back up and both start over on your hunts.
  • With one critique partner, you can test things out. You can more easily see what works for the both of you, from things as basic as what time to meet to deciding what to do when you don’t have anything to critique (Hint: You could always write!). You can set the group up so that the two of you are happy, then add another member.
  • You get a chance to find that one, at least, critique partner who is your dream. From then on, you have a core group. My “rule” is that, once you have a core group that works–whether that core is two critiquers, or three, or four–that core is what matters. If you interview a new writer and one of the core members isn’t comfortable with them, the new writer isn’t invited to join. If you add someone to the group, and one of the core members has a (consistently bad) problem with their critiques, the group talks to the new member about troubleshooting and, if necessary, asks them to leave. Again, starting with one good critique partner lets you establish this core.

Of course, the next question is, where do you find this critique partner. Well, the same places you look for a group–in writing clubs, at conferences, by posting on craigslist or at the bookstore, and online. I’m not saying it’ll be an easy search, but I do believe your writing is worth it.

Yes, Spring is here. I know, it was official a few weeks ago, and some of you are still dealing with cold rain and snow, but the green things are trying. And out here, they’re growing and blooming.

My son’s spring break was this last week, and we took off for a couple of days of camping here and hiking here and here. It was perfect. Well, maybe not absolutely perfect for my son, who doesn’t really fitto sleep on the floor of the Vanagon anymore, but he didn’t complain, and we didn’t step on his head getting in and out, so, really, it all worked fine.

Tomorrow, school starts up again, and we head into the end of April. I hadn’t realized how much I needed a break of pretty much nothingness. Even with the sore muscles, I’m feeling seriously rested and refreshed. And ready to look at Spring with welcome. Ready to face my writing projects and say, “Bring it on!”

What will I be doing, with the sunshine bouncing off the greenery into my office window?

  • Revisions on The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. I’ll be getting feedback from my Writer’s Digest editor and digging back into the book. After this weekend, I feel ready.
  • Getting ready to write the first draft of my historical YA (feeble “working” title: Caro’s Story). Several writing friends are sort of getting to that place where we need to write, and we’re talking about pulling out all the stops in June and blasting through our first drafts. On one of our hikes this week, my husband and son helped me brainstorm some story problems (hey, you NEED something to talk about when you’re trying to climb 3,000 feet in 3 miles!), and, boy, their help was HUGE! I had several recordings on my cellphone with ideas about the ending AND the middle. So I’ll be more than ready to go in June. (I know, that’s officially summer, but prep will happen in May!).
  • Going back to the picture book I started this month. I did some basic plotting of the beginning and end, and wrote a few hundred words of early ideas. Next step: figure out some problems my heroes can face across the middle.
  • Start getting organized for my RESEARCH TRIP to Chicago this summer. My YA is set there in 1913. My sister lives a couple of hours south, and the plan is to take a couple of days in Chicago to hit museums, visit neighborhoods, talk to historians. We think we’re even going to go by the apartment where our grandmother lived as a little girl. I am so excited about this–it’s going to be better than the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland. And, you know, that’s the best.

It’s been a tough, long winter. Not for us, thank goodness, but for so many people all across the country, and the world. I want to face this Spring with optimism. I want to stay open to whatever new things may come along.

What about you? What projects–writing or otherwise–are you gearing up for this Spring? What’s calling to you?

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