I do not possess an MFA. I can count on one hand the number of formal writing workshops or classes I’ve attended as a student. I’m sometimes confused on the more complex parts of speech and still can’t easily spout the definition of “second person.” I’m a voracious reader of children’s literature who was lucky enough (and OK, disciplined enough) to become a self-taught children’s picture book author. I will confess that my lack of formal education resulted in big gaps in my writing knowledge. Character “arcs”? Story “structure”? Scene “pacing”? Those editorial and literary terms were not familiar to me, even after I had books published. I owe most of what I’ve learned so far to the efforts of three super-talented children’s PB/MG/YA authors: Penny Blubaugh, Candace Fleming, and Stephanie Hemphill.
Every month (or so) the four of us get together to critique work, usually eat something delicious, laugh (or cry) over agents, editors, publishers, and family members. These “critique group” colleagues have truly been my most important writing teachers. As the “newest” member, (at close to 4 years now!) I’ve asked them to tell Picture Book Builders about the risks and rewards of writing critique groups.
Have you been in other critique groups before? Why did or didn’t they work for you?
Penny: I have a few friends who I exchange work with on a case-by-case basis; which is what I did for my novels, Serendipity Market and Blood & Flowers. But this is the first formal one for me.
Steph: I have been in lots of critique groups starting in undergraduate writing workshops where everyone thought they were brilliant and couldn’t take criticism. Later, I was in a few poetry groups where everyone wanted to be there and was kind. One group member took me to a SCBWI national conference, I met my agent and sold my first book, Things Left Unsaid. We were a mix of published and unpublished writers, but that group disbanded. I joined another and wrote Your Own, Sylvia then. We wrote different genres: poetry, picture books, novels, nonfiction, but it wasn’t a problem. I think it matters what stage of a writing career you are in. Also, it helps if the level of writing is fairly equal. The more balanced, the better. But you don’t all need to write the same thing. In fact, I think it helps to all not write the same thing. You learn from other genres and people are less likely to inadvertently borrow from one another.
Candy: I’ve been in one other group and that was at the start of my writing career. It worked really
well for a while. We were all in about the same place in terms of publishing and had the same goals.
The others had been attending SCBWI events and studying the market for years. I was still a total newbie. Not only did they ask questions about my work that I never considered (questions I STILL ask myself) but just the act of meeting with them every month compelled me to bring my best. My earliest work—Gabriella’s Song, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!And Boxes for Katje—sprang from that group. Sadly, we didn’t last. We added another writer and the dynamics changed. I can’t explain why. Maybe we were just ready to fly on our own.
What are the most important qualities you look for in critique group partners?
Candy: Honesty is key, I think. The last thing I want is a group that goes, “Oh, this is good.” That isn’t helpful. Every piece can be improved. I want the big stuff, but I also want the nitty-gritty. That’s why I’m there. Additional qualities? A sense of humor (one can’t do this job without it!) compassion, a deep commitment to creating great books for kids…um…what am I missing…a love of wine, chocolate and cheese? What I love about our group is that everyone truly cares about each other’s work. We’re invested in each other. We hold each other up. And we trust each other. That last one’s a biggie. I value all your opinions. I know they stem not only from your desire to make my book the best it can be, but also from your expertise and knowledge. Yours are the opinions I always listen to even—especially—when it’s something I don’t want to hear.
Penny: I think you have to trust each other. You have to value their work to know that they have the ability to give feedback that makes sense. You also have to feel comfortable enough that you can disagree. And they have to believe that your work is first and foremost yours, and you may not take all suggestions.
Steph: Honesty mixed with kindness. People whose work and character you respect. Others you can trust. A critique member who loves everything and never has any constructive criticism is not helpful; but likewise, someone who is not gentle with a first draft is not a good fit for me either. I will sometimes abandon a piece of writing that I should not because of early harsh criticism. Kind of the same qualities I want in a therapist, I want in a writing group.
What is the biggest challenge you face as part of a critique group?
Steph: I never want to hurt someone’s feelings. And SCHEDULING!
Candy: Finding the time. With work, travel, family, it’s tough to carve out a morning. Once a month, that’s it. And yet, it’s a struggle.
Penny: Wanting to give intelligent feedback that’s thoughtful as well as precise and focused. Oh wait, that might be a desire instead of a challenge, or maybe it’s both…
Can you give a specific instance when your critique partners made your work better in a way you might not have accomplished alone?
Penny: In the last run through of my work in progress before it went to an agent, Candy really helped me hone the first section down with some beautiful cuts. By the way, this was the bit where Ozark (main character) burns down the barn in a sort of flashback, which was an idea suggested by all of you that really was a huge improvement.
Candy: I was working on Fatal Throne (co-authored by the talented Stephanie Hemphill, among others!), writing about a grown-up queen for teenagers, and I sent the first…oh, I don’t know…twenty pages to the group and you (Barb) said something like, “I don’t get her and I don’t really like her. This is for teenagers, right? Will they care?” And I went home and thought, “She’s right, dammit!” I’d been so busy with the historical details that I’d forgotten about making connections to the lives of my teen readers. That wasn’t a great thing to be told, considering how much work I’d put into that draft (and honestly, I thought it was pretty good). Lucky for me, you felt you could say it. And I grudgingly heard it, thought about it, saw the truth of it, pulled my hair out, drank some vodka, and rewrote.
Steph: This happens literally all the time with everything I write. Lots of times I don’t start my novels in the right place or I can’t see holes in the plot or where my character is unsympathetic or speaking anachronistically or I want to abandon a project altogether. Without my writing group I would give up or continue on a bad path.
To plop myself right back here into the end of this interview, I’m going to let you in on these critique partner’s latest contributions to my own work. It was Candy who suggested repeating words toward the end of Otis & Will Discover the Deep that made the end wholly satisfying. Penny who suggested I get rid of the hokey language in the first draft of Blue Grass Boy but try harder to make it sound like music. And Stephanie who singlehandedly, genius-like, in about two sentences, taught me how to begin my first verse novel that is now (painfully, fruitfully, seriously) in progress.
I hope the insights and suggestions of these three amazing authors inspire you to find your own group of colleagues to support your creative life. Bring lots of wine, chocolate, and cheese to the meetings…trust us (or better yet, invite us!)