Guest Post: Constance Lombardo on Growing a Critique Group Over Time

I hear a lot about groups that didn’t make it–where meetings trickled away, or people weren’t submitting, or the group was just the wrong fit for too many members. That’s why, when Constance Lombardo sent me this guest post about her group that DID make it–with all the ups and downs and persistence it took to get there, I was thrilled. Read on to see the work that Constance and her critique partners put into keeping this group alive and, ultimately, a strong, supportive place.

THE SECRET GARDENERS

Four years ago, I moved to Asheville, joined SCBWI and decided to form a critique group. I found another writer/illustrator with the same goal. We scheduled and advertised our first meeting. Asheville is full of artists and writers, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the amount of people who showed up– ten, I think. A mix of picture book to YA writers and illustrators. Wow, I thought, this is going to be easy!

We worked out some logistics: we’d meet twice a month at our favorite local bookstore, Malaprops, we’d read our work and offer feedback at meetings, leaving the first 20 minutes for chatting (hopefully on book-related subjects!) And we would use the ‘sandwich’ rule – a positive statement about the writing first, then discuss what might need work, close with another positive statement.

Four years later, the last survivor from that first group to our current configuration is me.

People moved away. One of us had twins. Someone else had surgery. Others decided they didn’t have time for the group. Change is part of life, right?

Over the years, we’ve had people show up once, after being told that a commitment was required to share work for feedback, and then never return. (We now have a rule that you must attend at least one meeting before you can share.)

We’ve had people show up only when they wanted to share their own work. (New rule: you must attend at least one of our twice a month meetings regularly to remain in the group.)

We had one woman who left the group, saying we were all mean. (More conversation on keeping things positive.)

We’ve had some intense chatters. (I’ve been guilty of this at times. Reminders about staying on-topic.)

And we’ve had some serious personality clashes. New York personalities (myself and others) vs. Southern personalities. We’re still working on that one.

What have we done best over the years?

About a year ago, when our group hit nine committed writers and illustrators who attend and share regularly, we decided to close the group. Most of us are SCBWI members and it’s a requirement for any new members, when we do have an opening. We wrote down a list of Intentions and Rules, including some previously mentioned. We now post our work (especially longer YA or MG chapters) the week before we meet.

We’ve had local authors (Allan Wolf, Alan Gratz) and a local illustrator (Laura Bryant) speak to us about their journeys. A local editor (Joy Neaves) also spoke to our group. We’ve learned a lot from these meetings.

And we picked a name. That was interesting. As we threw out ideas, I realized that I am attached to my concept of the group and that some of the names were just not acceptable to me. (New rule: any major change had to be ok’d by all members.) We made a list of potential names:

  • Monkeys with Typewriters
  • Make Way for Madeline
  • Wonderlanders
  • The Inksters
  • The Secret Gardeners

We all voted and happily agreed. We are now The Secret Gardeners.

An illustrator from our group (Holly McGee) was pulled from the slush pile to illustrate her first picture book from Kane/Miller, Hush Little Beachcomber by Dianne Moritz. (Hooray!) Author/illustrator Kit Grady has a new book out, A Necklace for Jiggsy (Hooray!) Megan Shepherd’s articles have been in Faces, Calliope and Appleseeds magazines (You go, girl!) And we recently had another published author join us, Karen Miller (Monsters and Water Beasts: Creatures of Fact or Fiction?)

And the rest of us have made great strides in our writing and/or illustrating. We are:

We’ve been published in our Carolinas chapter newsletter, The Pen & Palette, and in the SCBWI Bulletin, cheering each other on all the way. We celebrate each other through our successes and commiserate over our (numerous!) rejection letters. We share knowledge (agent lists) and ask questions (how to write an effective query?) We attend conferences together and hang out in the hotel bar talking late into the night.

We’ve come to know each other, our work, our writing/illustrating styles, our strengths and weaknesses, and our dreams. We’ve come to appreciate each other, to understand what we’re each trying to accomplish, to be encouraging, and to offer the kind of feedback that makes us all work harder to deliver our best.

And we have fun! We went to see Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. And we’re planning to see HP and the Deathly Hallows together. This year, one of our scheduled meetings fell on my birthday, so I requested that we meet at The Chocolate Lounge (which is as wonderful as it sounds!) We ate chocolate, drank dessert wine, and talked about books. Then I knew, this isn’t just a great critique group, these are my friends.

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