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
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.
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.
I just found this “Top 20
Alternatives & Competitors to Zoom” which will give you more info.
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.
image courtesy of veggiegretz on morguefile.com
Stuck on your current WIP? Here are some things I do, plus exercises I’ve learned from other people.
If I’m not feeling my character for the current scene, I go back some pages and reread what I’ve already written to get the feel of his or her life.
I’m not an outliner, but I know my main character’s problem well and have an idea of how the problem might be solved. The stories don’t always end how I think they will–I believe that is true for outliners, too. In one work in progress…the kid thinks he is responsible for his mother’s death. At the end, he will realize he was not in control of whether she lived or died. He also will resolve (in his heart) the issue of having disappointed her the day she died. I don’t know exactly how it is all going to happen, but I keep putting him in situations where he has to face what he’s done, face his grief, his regrets.
Talk to your character. In a workshop at Oregon’s SCBWI conference in 2013, Agent Trish Lawrence (EMLA) shared about “nailing your teen in the corner” and finding out what’s going on under the surface. Ask questions on paper and record her answers. Ask “why” questions. Go to the dark places. Try to discover core truths and inner values.
Do research about your setting or your character’s hobby or interests, or problem. In a talk at the 2014 New York SCBWI Conference, author Elizabeth Wein said that uncovering details often provides inspiration. Read her guest post on Authority and Authenticity. Author/illustrator Judy Schachner shared something similar at the 2014 LA conference when she showed us how she uses a journal/scrapbook to paste in pictures and quotes and ideas for her picture book character. As an illustrator as well as a writer, she also draws sketches of her character and tries things out with him.
Go some place different (anywhere, e.g. a doctor’s office, a park, a store, a restaurant) and soak in the environs, then put your main character there and just start writing about him or her being there. Ask yourself, “What would he be thinking?” etc. Don’t worry about your plot, etc. Just see what comes out. Several of us got things that may go into WIPs out of this exercise from a talk by author Elizabeth C. Bunce at a Kansas SCBWI workshop.
Work on another project and let this one simmer until it is bubbling to come out of you… Since I usually have a number of projects I want to work on, this works well for me.
Keep showing up to write. “Good ideas come when we show up,” author Kate Messner said.* Kate has more writing tips on her blog.
Check for action in your story, especially if a middle grade novel. Editor Nancy Siscoe (Knopf) said, “Action is always better than inaction.”* She added that nothing is worse than characters who never do anything.
Be courageous. Keep trying new things. While speaking on courage to write great picture books, Editor Jeannette Larson* reminded us to “do things that might scare you” and to be flexible.
At the fall 2013 SCBWI Oregon retreat, Deb Lund challenged us to “Mine Your Memories“–especially those yucky ones! What hurt you? What scared you? What secrets did you have?
Sometimes writing the next scene just doesn’t seem possible. Write a later scene in the story and worry about how to connect them later.
Maybe you’re worried too much about length. Don’t worry about how long or short it is; just work on what happens next.
Ask yourself questions about your main character’s problem. What’s stopping him from reaching his goal? Or arriving at a solution? How can you make it worse before it gets better? How can you raise the stakes? Will she get what she wants? Once at a writer’s event, I heard someone say “push the main character off the cliff and see what she does.” 😉
What do YOU do when you are stuck?
*at the 2014 New York SCBWI Conference
The best thing I ever did for my writing was to get involved with a critique group. It happened because I attended my first ever writer’s conference, one put on by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Seattle. There, when the opportunity was offered, I signed up to be in a critique group. Not long afterwards, I got a call telling me where and when to go, and even an offer to carpool.
To this day, I remember how scared I was to read my piece out loud. I just knew those other writers–some published, some not–were going to tell me to give up and go home. But they didn’t. Yes, my picture book, or was it a short story?–I didn’t even know the difference then–needed work. The group members were kind to me and pointed out what I was doing right as well as what I was doing wrong. And, they invited me back. That was in the spring of 1990.
In 1992 my first short story came out in Jack and Jill magazine. No, it wasn’t that first piece I took to the critique group–it has never sold–but it definitely was one they critiqued. Since then I’ve sold over 130 magazine pieces and two books. The middle grade novel was inspired by my critique group. So many of the others were writing novels for children, I became interested in the process. I learned from what they did right. I learned from their critiques of my manuscript.
Groups change. People quit or move to a different group or to another town or state. My needs as a writer change. However, I think I’ll always need the feedback of a critique group.
SO HOW DO YOU FIND ONE?
Local Writing Groups
Of course, SCBWI is a good source for children’s writers. That organization has grown internationally since my first association with them. Go to www.scbwi.org and see what events might be near you by clicking on your state and following the links. If you join the organization, you can do manuscript exchanges with other members through the mail or online.
Look at other writer organizations in your area. They may not have many members focused on children’s writing per se, but you can still learn a lot from “adult” writers.
Sign up for a writing class at a community college or university. Even if they don’t offer in-class critiques, you may connect with several other students to form your own group, or the teacher may have recommendations.
Online Writing Groups
There are online writer’s groups that offer critique exchanges as well. Some are two-way list serves – designed as a place to chat, but you can ask for feedback on a manuscript. I belong to one of this type that is a Yahoo! Group. I’m sure there are others. Here’s a sampling of groups* that focus on critiquing:
Writing4Kids – Weekly Online Group: http://www.angelfire.com/ultra/writing4kids/weekly.html
Critique Circle – shows sample critiques, too: http://www.critiquecircle.com/default.asp
Articles on the Net
Join a Critique Group to Get Your Writing Moving
Starting Your Own Critique Group
Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s blog entry on: Online critique groups and MiG Writers
Do You Need a Critique Group?
And, of course, if you read that last title strictly as a question, my answer is “yes.” You won’t regret it when you find the right group. (more on that later)
*Know other online critique groups? Share about them in the comments.
Nothing is better than actually meeting an agent or editor in person. (Although long term following of someone on twitter is close.) By listening to an editor or agent talk at a conference, not only do I learn about their house, their agency, their tastes, and perhaps how they work with authors, I discover something of their personality. I’ve gone away with “Wow, I’d love to work with __________.” I’ve also experienced, “We just wouldn’t mesh.” They’ve also taught me about craft, given me insights into my own weaknesses in writing, made me think, inspired me, encouraged me, and challenged me. Whew!
This past year I was privileged to meet quite a number of editors and agents–all at SCBWI conferences. (If you’ve never gone to one, I really encourage you to do so.) Two agents that pop to mind with no reference to notes from the LA conference last August are: Marietta B. Zacker, Nancy Gault Literary Agency, and Sarah Davies (pronounced Davis), The Greenhouse Literary Agency.
I loved Marietta‘s straight forward, no nonsense approach–this was especially noticeable in the Q&A time. She’s passionate about what she does. She advised when writers are looking for an agent that they consider these questions: “Who will share your vision? Who will share your passion?” Marietta recommends writers find the passion that each has – whatever that may be.
At the beginning of her speech Sarah answered the questions on everyone’s minds. She also told her audience that writing is like being a violin player. “Would you expect to be on a world stage when you just learned to play scales?” she asked. Sarah finds it thrilling as an agent to have the opportunity to change someone’s life and help them reach their dreams.
At the Iowa and Illinois SCBWI Conferences I met Candlewick Editor, Yolanda Scott, who besides being a good editor is also a singer! Which reminds me, Ted Malawer at Upstart Crow Agency, used to sing opera (Kansas SCBWI conference.) Back to Yolanda who reminded us, she and other editors do what they do because they love it. She wants to know we’ve checked out her publishing house when we submit.
I’ve heard lots of agent talks, but in Kansas Ted gave some very practical advice about what we should be asking agents. He also advised, “Think about the query letter as the bait.” He believes comparisons–i.e. your manuscript to other books–are his job, not yours, which is different than what I’ve heard others say. (Again, why we should be out listening to these professionals speak!)
In Illinois I met Alisha Niehaus from Dial Books for Young Readers. She did a fantastic and fascinating workshop using Savvy by Ingrid Law. With permission of Ingrid she gave us insights into how the book changed–wow! When talking about middle grade readers in another session, Alisha said, “Though they wish they could make out with a vampire, they are still trying to figure out how to fasten their training bra.”
I met other editors and agents in 2009, but this post is growing too long to mention them all. Over the years my knowledge of the publishing world has grown by listening to agent and editor talks, panels, critiques. I’ve learned how dedicated these professionals are. Best yet, I’ve improved my odds of finding the right home for my manuscripts.