Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools, You Are Not Alone

Critiquing Via Zoom

The Covid pandemic forced us to look at other ways of communicating. Now we commonly use Zoom for webinars, meetings, family get-togethers, and, yes, critique groups. (Kinda wish I’d owned Zoom stock before Covid…)

My critique group started Zooming in March of 2020. And we are still meeting that way–partially as several of us are not within close driving distance.

Here’s what we learned along the way:

First, sending manuscripts ahead of time saves time. In face-to-face meetings we brought manuscripts to the meeting and read aloud. Critiquers physically wrote on the paper. Now each manuscript is sent via email two-three days ahead of our Zoom meeting. Each person reads the manuscripts at their leisure and uses a combination of commenting, and track changes on their copy. We often type in global comments at the beginning as well. E.g. “Loved this chapter. Could add more sensory details.” The file is saved with a new name identifying who critiqued it, e.g. Beauty Chap 8 – Sue.

Second, not everyone can share a manuscript every week. There are seven of us in our group and we want to have time to discuss each manuscript in depth. We’ve found three to be a good number for everyone to have time to comment. That means we schedule who “presents” each week so everyone usually gets to share several times a month. We meet from 9 am to 12 pm.* Sometimes we end early. Often, we take a bit of time to talk about our lives or share ups and downs in the publishing world.

Third, someone moderates each meeting. We rotate who moderates and that person keeps everyone on track. E.g. “We’ll start with C’s manuscript, and we’ll go in this order of commenting: S, G, J, B, K, and myself.” The moderator also reminds the one being critiqued not to explain or tell what’s going to happen next. The writing needs to stand alone. Having a moderator has reduced frustrations.

Fourth, verbal comments at our Zoom meeting, may prompt other thoughts. We add these to our own electronic copy of the manuscript. E.g. “E had a great suggestion on…” or “This didn’t bother me.” or “What if you did…here?”

Fifth, don’t verbally repeat what someone else has already said, nor go over every typo. The writer gets all the manuscripts with comments returned and can see punctuation suggestions and where critiquers agreed about an issue.

Sixth, after everyone has commented, there’s a short time for questions or additional comments. This is where the writer can ask for clarification. Or a critiquer can add a last minute thought.

The finished manuscript copies are emailed back to the writer.

I like that we don’t spend time stuck in traffic going to and from meetings. But I love how much regular time I get to spend with my critique group, even if it isn’t in person.

*Several of us have paid Zoom accounts so can host meetings of any length.

Posted in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Writing Life, You Are Not Alone

Feeling Isolated from Other Writers?

With stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders and the wisdom of social distancing, many of us are feeling isolated. I’m finding myself on Facebook more than usual just for socializing. What I’m personally not missing is my weekly critique group.

About four weeks ago we decided to try virtual meetings because I had moved away. Our first meeting, the others met up at a house and we Skyped with them all sitting around one computer. I was the only remote person. The next week we decided to try Zoom with each in one at home. It worked great and we’ve been using it ever since and have even added two others to our group. It’s great seeing everyone’s faces at once. We just have to be careful not to talk over each other.  (I’m paying for Zoom since free is limited to 40 minutes at a time. It’s well-worth the $16 something a month. Zoom lets me set up a recurring meeting which means the meeting starts automatically. Another member also signed up as a backup host.)

We are submitting our manuscripts on Monday and we “meet” on Thursday. After we share our comments on a manuscript, members return the notated copy to the author. Some of us do so via email as we’re using Word’s commenting. Others prefer making handwritten notes on a printed copy and mailing. It’s working well. And no one is having to drive anywhere. 

Most of us had participated in Zoom meetings (or webinars) which made us aware of the program/app. But there are other similar options. Here’s what I’ve discovered:

Whereby: the free option allows up to four people to meet at one time. For $9.99/month (probably plus tax), you can have up to 12 participants.

GoToMeeting: You can test it free for 14 days. Plans start at $12/month.

StartMeeting: Also has a free trial—theirs is 30 days. Plans start at $9.95/month.

Google has a G Suite Hangouts Meet: I found it difficult to find pricing and stopped looking.

JoinMe: There’s a free trial. For 5 participants it is $13/month. Prices go up from there. Appears that scheduling is only an option for a higher fee.

The point is, you don’t have to survive this virus without other writers. If you aren’t in a critique group, maybe now is the time to find one. SCBWI members should check their local regions and the Blueboard. If you’re on Facebook, you can find critique partners or do swaps through Kidlit 411 Manuscript Swap (For illustrators there’s Kidlit 411 Illustrator Critique Swap) or Sub It Club Critique Partner Matchup.

Happy meetings!

Posted in Business Side of Writing, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, The Publication Process, You Are Not Alone


no-1532838_1920.jpegRejections are subjective. I know that. I only have to think about books I loved that a friend didn’t like or one they loved that I didn’t like. We all have our own tastes and even moods. But when our manuscript is rejected it often doesn’t feel subjective. We often feel as if we’ve failed.
When those feelings strike me, I have to remember how many published books I read where the story didn’t grab me. Or something turned me off. And these books were loved by an editor willing to spend a lot of time with the manuscript. They’ve been supported by a publishing company as a whole. So if published books can fail an individual, why I am I surprised when my own unpublished manuscript does?
At first page and roundtable critique sessions, I’ve seen how editors and agents just haven’t connected with the writing of a specific piece. One person might “get it” and the others not. Or the panel is split on whether they’d read on.
Ever had rejections that said, “I just didn’t love it enough.”? I have. Some agents/editors have told me things to work on; others haven’t. They are a reminder that I need to keep trying. If you’re getting personal rejections, keep on.
But what if you aren’t getting any personal rejections? That means it’s time to step back and look at your writing.
Many years ago at the SCBWI LA Conference–2009 to be exact–Editor Wendy Loggia shared “seven 7 reasons why your manuscript is declined.” They included:

  • nice writing, but no story
  • too similar to something else she’d edited or in the market place
  • unclear who the audience would be
  • can’t connect to the voice
  • book submitted too early before it was ready
  • project would not stand out on the house list
  • the author is difficult to deal with (Yes, many editors and agents check your social media.)

What she concluded with was “If I can’t give a book my heart and soul, I won’t acquire it.” But note how many of the reasons above are something we have control over: a good story, a clear audience, a professional manuscript, a good attitude.
Here are some tips garnered from a variety of agents and editors that deal with what we control:

  • put your best foot forward – fix those typos and grammar errors
  • have a good hook
  • show, don’t tell
  • Editor Nick Thomas says, “Don’t make the first chapter too long.”
  • have an intimacy with your characters
  • remember cliffhangers make good chapter endings
  • don’t write to trends
  • be passionate about your project
  • got voice? “Always it’s the voice that gets me… The way it makes me feel,” says Editor Christy Ottaviano.
  • make sure your plot is solid
  • share big truths
  • provide opportunity for emotional engagement

And for the querying itself:

  • research the agent(s) you are querying
  • follow submission instructions
  • get the agent or editor’s name right
  • write a good query/cover letter
  • provide good comp titles – this is one of my weaknesses
  • keep your letter to one page

Also, don’t forget that you aren’t alone in getting rejections.
“At times the rejections did get to me, but the will to write always triumphed over the disappointment of rejection.” – Karen Hesse
Shannon Hale said, “I’ve published 20+ books, the last 10 or so of which have all been best sellers, and I still get rejections. All the time.”
“Rejection isn’t a sign of failure. Rejection is a reminder that there’s always room for improvement.” – Ana Hart
Kathryn Stockett said, “I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected.”
Let’s not be ashamed. Let’s press on.

Posted in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools, You Are Not Alone



Recently, I visited Kansas and Missouri friends for a writing retreat where we each worked on our own projects. Four of us were writing and one illustrating. Because this group used to write together once or twice a week, it was easy to fall into a comfortable rhythm. During meal times and evenings we chatted, played games, and chatted some more. Of course, we took breaks for bird watching, stretching our legs, seeing the fish in the pond get fed, etc.
One of the advantages of a retreat like this is limited cell service and limited household chores (only cooking and cleaning up after meals). That meant dedicated time to focus on work. I caught up on a bunch of rewrites I wanted/needed to do and moved forward in my WIP. I saw others doing research, writing, planning a future book, editing, drawing and painting. Work!
Another advantage of a retreat is the shared information. One gal is working on a low residency MFA in children’s writing through Vermont College of Fine Arts. She shared tidbits from lectures. We urged her to get her submission in for an award. We all encouraged another gal not to give up writing. And, of course, we exchanged information about good books–now my “to be read” list is even longer. ☺
A task I was doing was comp titles for a picture book I’d written. One friend asked me how I found them. “I just used Amazon,” I said. I showed her there was a lot of nonfiction on my topic, but only one fiction picture book and it was from the 1980s.
The same gal asked a question about her new Mac (she’s switched from PC) and the result was I and another made changes to our word doc default, too.
So, work, exchanging information, good friends, fun, food, all equaled a great time! The others enjoyed it too and we unanimously decided to repeat the retreat. THANK YOU, Heather Trent Beers, Kate Barsotti, Jenn Bailey and Lisha Cauthen. It was so much fun being with you all.
Recommendations for planning and enjoying YOUR personal creative retreat:

  1. 1. Choose people you trust and respect. Everyone at our retreat paid her agreed upon share. I love that my friends were considerate and said to the two of us with knee problems, “take the downstairs bedrooms.”
  2. 2. Don’t invite people who do drama. No one fussed about where she sat, slept, what she ate, sharing bathrooms, etc. People drank, or didn’t drink, alcohol as desired, but no one got drunk. A peaceful atmosphere goes a long way to make a productive retreat.
  3. 3. Plan at least two full days for work not counting arrival time and departure time. We arrived on a Friday afternoon and settled in and didn’t worry about serious work that day, although we talked about writing and the publishing business. (Of course!) This let everyone unwind. We left Monday morning at check out time–again since we were packing up, no creative work was done. Loved having two solid days of accomplishments.
  4. 4. If you’re not used to working with these people, agree on an informal schedule.
  5. 5. Bring some fun games or relaxing activities. But if someone wants to continue working when everyone else is recreating, no nagging.
  6. 6. Keep your group small enough that you can share a bed and breakfast or retreat cabin/vacation house and be the only guests.
  7. 7. Someone needs to be the point person to find and book a venue. We started planning two plus months in advance.
  8. 8. Decide whether wi-fi at your location is important to the group or not. We wanted it.
  9. 9. Share the food expense, meal planning, preparation and cleanup. The only problem we had was too much food. For example, ladies kept adding items to bring that weren’t on the agreed list, so we had duplicate snack foods, which returned home. (Or choose a venue that provides food, although you’ll still probably want snacks.)
  10. 10. Arrange carpooling because it’s a lot of fun to talk while driving, too.

My local writing group and I have been talking about a retreat. I think we need to quit talking and plan!

Posted in Business Side of Writing, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, You Are Not Alone

Are Listserves a Service or a Waste of Time?

It depends on you and on the listserve.
cat clockThere are usually several types of people on a listserve: posters and lurkers. Posters are the ones that keep a listserve alive. They ask questions. They share information of interest to the group. They answer other people’s questions. They encourage others. They share ideas. Lurkers are the people who are reading, but not participating in the conversation. They don’t comment, nor start new topics, nor share good and bad news. Does this mean they can’t get anything out of the posts? Of course not. They can glean lots of information from what others are saying. But…if they have a question and don’t ask it on the listserve, how will they get it answered?
One of my friends had been lurking on a listserve and because I “out”ed that she was there (she had invited me to it), she decided she’d better introduce herself. Nervously, she wrote a post of intro and commented on a topic that the group had been discussing. She asked me to look over her post before she sent it. “Is it okay?” she asked. “Definitely,” I told her. “Go ahead and post.” She did, and guess who commented?! Andy Boyles of Highlights. Just by making an intelligent comment on a listserve she had a short conversation with an editor.
By chatting with others, I’ve also made friends on listserves. This Saturday I get to meet one friend face-to-face for the first time. Is that cool or what?
Listserves come in a variety of kinds: regional, topic or genre, general writing, organizational. What’s the right group for me, may not be the right one for you. I like trying out a listserve. It’s like going to a club meeting. If you enjoy the people you meet and the topics of conversation, you’ll come back. If not, you won’t. If your focus changes, you may need a new listserve and may let an old one go.
They can become timewasters if you are involved either in ones that are very busy with many many conversations, or if you’re involved in too many listserves. I like getting my listserves in digest format versus individual emails. I can scan the topic headers and skip any that aren’t of interest to me. It also helps me limit the time spent.
So how do you find listserves? Most of the ones I participate in were by invitation or through a writing organization. But you can also find them by searching yahoo or google groups. Here are some I found that way:
childrensbookandarticlecritiquing – the title says it all
Childrens-FandSF-Writers – the F stands for fantasy and obviously SF is Science Fiction
childrens-writers – a discussion group
childrenswriterstoday – a forum for writers, poets, illustrators, editors and publishers of all genres in the juvenile to teen market to announce their latest news, reviews, columns, books and publication works
fantasyweavers – an online critique group for writers of middle-grade and young-adult fantasy and science fiction
internetchildrensstories – this is a club devoted to writers of children’s stories and their readers
Northwest Independent Writers Association – for writers of any kind
When searching make sure you check the statistics (latest activity; members; and if it is important to you, whether the group is moderated or not). Some groups will be open and others closed. Some groups may want to know something about you before adding you; others have no vetting process.
If you’ve never tried one, ask other writers or illustrators what listserves they like. Then join one or two. Lurking at first is okay, but remember you’ll get more out of it, if you post, too.

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