Guest Post: Ruth Spiro on Multiple-Genre Critique Groups
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:
- Sarah Shacter
- Bev Patt
- Jude Mandell
- Sarah Roggio
- Beverly Spooner
- Marlene Hill Donnelly
- Mary Ann Bumbera
- and me, Ruth Spiro
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.
Multi-genre writing groups are the best. The cross-fertilization of narrative arc, theme, characters, plot, story etc. (even in poetry) can be so productive. I teach writing in fall, winter, spring sessions and we have in my group a screenplay writer, fiction writers and poets.
How we achieve our goals in any form of writing is essential to making our writing clear encouraging the reader to spend time with us. We are, after all, entertainers in one form or another. We have to have emotion on the page, hooks to bring readers in to our story, conflict, roadblocks and in poetry and literary lit metaphores and rhythm.
Being honest with each other can be done without ripping each other up. Talking about what works first, then where one might stumble is essential with guidelines about how things are reviewed. First draft work by peers is just their opinion – it may be applicable and may not.
In the end, keep on writing, it is good for your health, good for the readers and above all we want to hear your stories.
Sue,thanks for stopping by & adding your two cents! 🙂
Thanks for reading my post, Sue! Your comments are insightful, as always!
My lemon-square recipe goes with me to the grave!
Which reminds me: we laugh. A LOT.
It’s the best night of the month!
Curses, foiled again! And you’re right, laughter is a necessity for critique groups. 🙂
Laughter and lemon squares… doesn’t get much better than that!