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1. Six Rules that Keep Critique Partnerships Golden

A long time ago, two enthusiastic yet green writers met on an online critiquing site called The Critique Circle. They wrote stories riddled with hollow characters and cliched plots, but that didn’t stop them from becoming fast friends. Through practice, critiquing literally thousands of submissions, and spending untold hours reading and responding to forum conversations on writing, these two eventually learned a thing or three about the craft. Eventually, they even penned a few books with the word “thesaurus” in the title. Who knows, maybe you’ve seen one hanging out on a writer’s desk somewhere.

Here’s one of the BIG lessons these two scruff-and-tumble writers learned: having a critique partner can really shorten your learning curve. The eyes, knowledge and experience of another writerly human being can give the insight and distance an author lacks. Of course, it’s all about finding the right critique partners who are a perfect fit, and understanding how to best work together. Becca and I still are going strong well over 10 years after we first met, and there’s no one I’d rather hand my work over to than her. So please help me welcome author Dee Romito who has a few “rules” to make sure our critique partner relationships stay healthy and function as they should.

Six Rules that Keep Critique Partnerships Golden

Dee RomitoGood critique partners (affectionately known as CPs) are invaluable on your publishing journey.  They will be your go-to sources for questions, support along the way, and much-needed feedback.

I checked in with a few of my most trusted writing friends to get their thoughts on what makes a great critique partner. Here are six things you can do to be a helpful critiquer and what you might be looking for in a critique partner.

  1. Offer suggestions. Blunt comments are not the same thing as constructive feedback.

There’s a line between being honest and being helpful. Try to explain why you think a change should be made or make a suggestion as to how to improve it.

“Something I make sure I don’t do (or at least try not to) is to simply say I don’t like something. That is never helpful information. If there is something that I think is off, I try to explain why I think that. For example, ‘This sentence felt repetitive because you gave the same information above.’” – Janet Sumner Johnson, author of THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURE OF THE PB&J SOCIETY

“I once had a reader who crossed out whole pages of my manuscript and rewrote sections and, knowing how that made me feel, I will never change anything in anyone else’s document. I won’t even add a comma or correct spelling in the ms itself- I drop a note in the ‘insert comments’ instead.” – Jen Malone, author of MG and YA novels, including THE SLEEPOVER and YOU’RE INVITED

  1. Ask questions

If there’s something you don’t understand or you feel like something’s missing or unclear, ask about it. Writers are sometimes too close to their own work to see it.

“I really love receiving critiques where the CP has asked questions instead of making comments (example: ‘Do you think she’d be feeling this right here?’ instead of ‘I don’t like the way she’s feeling sad here- she should be mad!’)” – Jen Malone

“I like critique partners who ask a lot of questions. This always helps me think about different paths I can take a manuscript.” – Jen Maschari, author of THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF CHARLIE PRICE

  1. Point out what works, as well as what doesn’t work

This might sound like a no-brainer, but you need to make a conscious effort to point out both the weaknesses and the strengths of a piece.

 “My go-to critique partners aren’t afraid to tell me what I need to fix . . . even when they know I won’t be happy to hear it, but at the same time, they are nice. They point out the things they liked, too, and somehow this makes the hard stuff much, much, much easier to swallow.” – Janet

“I always try to point out things I love or that made me laugh, in addition to the things I didn’t connect with quite as much- I have one CP who highlights lines or sections she loves in green highlighter. For me, it definitely keeps my spirits up amid digesting all the things I need to address in revisions.” – Jen Malone

“Many times, writing can feel like pushing a boulder up a hill, so those hearts or ‘I love this’ comments or even a smiley face can go a long way to cheering me on as I tackle the bigger stuff.” – Jen Maschari

  1. Know what the author is looking for. Overall, line edits, voice, consistency, something specific.

At various points in the process, writers need different kinds of critiques. Know what the goal is.

“I make sure I know what the person is looking for. Did they want a big picture critique? Did they want me to fix grammar mistakes? That can make a big difference in how I read.” – Janet

“I always make sure I get a sense of what my critique partner wants first. What big questions do they have? Do they want me to look at the larger picture or do they want a sentence level look?” – Jen Maschari

  1. Offer to clarify, answer more questions, talk it through, brainstorm.

A CP is meant to be a sounding board and someone who can help you work through the sticking points.

“Now that I’ve worked on some co-writing projects and realized how much more quickly a plot/outline comes together with joint brainstorming sessions, I’ve recently begun asking my CPs if they would be up for helping at the earliest stages of something new.” – Jen Malone

“Sometimes I’ll send a few scenes out to get a first reaction or a sense of what’s working and what’s not early on.” – Jen Maschari

  1. CPs will go to you for your strengths. Know what they are.

Okay, so you might not know them yet. But you will. Do you notice every punctuation mistake? Do you find inconsistencies in manuscripts? Are you a plotting wizard?

 “I definitely choose my beta readers based on what type of critique I’m looking for. For example, when I send a second draft out (I never send a 1st draft, just fyi), I look for someone who is good at plotting and seeing holes and how to improve that. When I’m further in the process and need someone who is good at making smooth prose or catching detail errors, I choose someone who is good at that. I have found that they each have their strengths. And it always makes sense to play to someone’s strengths.” – Janet

“I have a CP whose strengths are my weaknesses- I tend to focus on dialogue and plot more than the interior character arc and she’s always making notes that say “But what is she feeeeeeeling here?”– I really need that push!” – Jen Malone

Final Thoughts

These ladies have definitely helped me along the way and were essential in fine-tuning my middle grade debut, THE BFF BUCKET LIST. I trust their feedback and value their opinions. Without a doubt, having critique partners has been one of the most important pieces in my path to becoming a published author.

Whether you’re just starting out and are in the midst of searching for critique partners or you’re a seasoned veteran, these simple reminders help make critique partner relationships ones that will last through many manuscripts, all the ups and downs, and hopefully, lots of publishing deals.

BFF Bucket ListDee has a new book out, a terrific middle grade called the BFF Bucket List, and a killer blurb:

Two best friends. Twelve challenges.

Can the BFF Bucket List save their friendship or will that get crossed off too?

(Love it? I do!)

If you like, follow this link for a closer look, or add it to your Goodreads list!

And do hook up with Dee online–visit her blog or website, hang out on Facebook or throw tweets her way on Twitter. She’s super friendly, is always around chatting it up, and would love to hear from you.

Do you have a great critique partner? What rules would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments!

The post Six Rules that Keep Critique Partnerships Golden appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS™.

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2. 3 Ways To Inspire a Poem--Oops!

Howdy Campers!

I'm wildly inspired by the postings of my fellows at Poetry Friday today--see the link below.

Bobbi begins our What-Inspires-You series with Inspirations and Geniuses; Jo Ann is up next with the help of her camera: Zooming in on Inspiration; Esther offers An Inspiring Weekly Digest You Need to Know About; Carla opens our eyes to Inspiration From the Library of Congress; and Mary Ann touches us with tales about family members in Inspiration is a Blast From the Past.

So what are the top three things that inspire my daily poems?

1) Um...deadlines. 

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” ~ Douglas Adams

I was inspired to write this post today when I was putting an appointment in my calendar...and saw that I was supposed to have posted this morning.  Oops!

"My sole inspiration is a telephone call from a director." ~ Cole Porter, composer and songwriter

Deadlines and assignments mean that I cannot take all day cleaning my proverbial closet. I write and rewrite...and bam!--even if it's not the world's most perfect piece, I post it or send it off--done!

2) Life. Especially the sad parts. 

"I've had an unhappy life, thank God." ~ Russell Baker, author, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist

The difficult and/or unhappy times of my life are rich grounds for writing.  I can create this richness, though, even when my life is humming along, if I listen to what's happening in my chest cavity. If I walk into the world looking for my poem, all senses open.

The last time my mom and I took a nature walk.  She's the shorter one.

3) Someone who believes in me.  Two or three someones is even better. 

"Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher

My husband came with me on a quick trip to meet with my agent and two of my editors this week.  I wanted him to meet these significant people in my work life. New York can be exhilarating...and it can scare the pants off me, too.  It always takes me a day to remember how to use the subways and navigate the city.  His presence on the subway and in those meetings meant the world to me.

My sailing-around-the-world friend, Bruce, is a daily supporter of my work, even when he says the poem doesn't work (which of course I know he's just not reading correctly--he's clearly tired from working on the boat all day).

Every writer in my critique groups past and present and everyone in the Kidlitosphere community: we cheer each other on; that cheering echoes and echoes and echoes inside all of us.
my team

And so? Here's today's (raw) poem written 1) for a deadline, 2) based on life, and with the support of--well, all of you.

by April Halprin Wayland

bald little god
sits on the pond’s rim, 
his feet all in

his head turning side to side
toward fluttering leaves
toward ebbing tide 

below impatient clouds
that mumble, 
This is going too slow

so they snap out 
a spiky lighting streak 
and Man—does little god go!

He jumps right up and does he run!
He’s going, going, getting things

poem and drawings (c) April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

Get inspired by the bounty at Buffy's Blog today--thanks for hosting, Buffy!

posted by April Halprin Wayland, Monkey, and our always inspired dog, Eli

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3. Barbara Bottner's Feet, Go to Sleep blog tour--and Poetry Friday!

Howdy, Campers! What's store for you at TeachingAuthors today? A new picture book, its blog tour, a guest author and poet, two original poems, and a reminder to enter our latest book giveaway . Whew!

In honor of Poetry Friday, (link at the bottom of this post) my teacher and friend, New York Times bestselling author, Barbara Bottner has opened her notebook to share a poem with us from a work-in-progress (W.I.P.). And I've added my poem about being in her writing group.

But first: TeachingAuthors is proud to be part of Barbara's blog tour (see tour schedule below) celebrating her brand-new book, Feet, Go to Sleep (Penguin Random House), illustrated by Maggie Smith.

From the book flap:Fiona is not ready for bed. But after a long day at the beach, her mom knows she must be tired from her head to her toes. So together they send each part of her off to sleep.  As Fiona relaxes her body, she remembers a day when feet were for splashing in the waves, legs were for running after cousins, tummy was for holding strawberries, and arms were for throwing beach balls. And bit by bit, memory by memory, Fiona slips from a  great day into a good night.

Trust me, Campers, it's a perfect-for-summer bedtime book, weaving in a relaxation technique we can use to help kids go to sleep after an exciting day.

And when I asked Barbara if she would share a poem from her W.I.P. verse novel, I See Thunder, she said, "Sure!"

by Barbara Bottner

I’m not Davy’s mother
but Mother demands
that I do things she should do

like take him with me, everywhere I go.
And Davy walks really slowly.
Sometimes I wonder if he does it
just to annoy me.

Today, I’m going to the Grand Concourse
to buy fresh salty pretzels.

Just as I'm leaving, Mother says:
“take David with you.”
Her shrill voice
says do not dare object.

She has no idea how that makes
going to the Grand Concourse
nothing like what I had in mind.
“C’mon,” I say.
“Put your jacket on already!”
He's so easy going.
I'm so hard going.

“Where are your glasses, Davy?”
Now my voice
is shrill.

He looks at me with his big browns,
mumbles:  “It’s hard to be me
when you’re angry at me.”

That’s when I get a grip on my nasty self.

(c) Barbara Bottner from her work-in-progress, I SEE THUNDER. All rights reserved.

Thank you, Barbara.  I especially love these lines: He's so easy going./I'm so hard going....“It’s hard to be me/when you’re angry at me.”...and that last line. One poem can say so much.

When asked "Where do you get your ideas?" here are some pearls from Barbara:...the ‘material’ we use in the beginning is often our own.  So I wrote books about being the worst dancer in the class, being messy, being rebellious. It’s not the events themselves, it’s what they stir up in me…We are the clay and we are the potter and I believe you have to be both if you want to be an author…work authentically…follow where the story wants to go.

There's too much to tell you about what a fine teacher Barbara is...

...how intuitive she is, how she challenges us to dig deeper and deeper still...

by April Halprin Wayland

It's magic, you know
the tinkling of her full moon necklace
impossible feats of metaphor.
Six of us around her rosewood table
savoring tea

spilling over our pages
foreshadowing, fortune telling
drawing stories
out of the shadows
of her drapes.

The illusion of allusion.
A prophecy of sorcery.
She's a shaman jingling bracelets
on her sleight of hand.

It's wizardry, you know.
She's clairvoyant,

(c) April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

Thanks for including us on your blog tour, Barbara!  Jump on board her tour and you may win a copy of Feet, Go to Sleep! Here's the schedule:

5/21 Shelf-employed

And...you have until midnight, May 15, 2015 to enter TeachingAuthors' latest book giveaway for Stephanie Lyons' new book, Dating Down--don't miss out!

And thank you, Diane of Random Noodling for hosting Poetry Friday!

posted by April Halprin Wayland while sharing sips of Pellegrino with Barbara's new pup

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4. Mastering Words: Ways to Evolve as a Writer

Each day, we seek to put our best foot forward. We shower, dress for the day’s activities, style our hair. We plan, organize, gather our things, and check the mirror before leaving, making sure to pluck stray fluff off our sweaters and straighten our sleeves.


  • To enhance our strengths.
  • To appear confident.
  • To show the people who interact with us that we are collected and ready for whatever comes our way.

It’s human nature to minimize our weaknesses. We hide zits, disguise thinning hair and avoid talking about our embarrassing mistakes. But in writing, covering up flaws can keep us from success.

Writing weaknesses are normal. We all have them. But it’s okay, because each of us is on the same journey, and there is no finish line–no point we reach where we’re “good enough.” Regardless of how adept we become at writing, there will always be room to grow.

Let’s look at some of the key elements that will help you evolve as a writer.


fearAll writers shares a common epiphany on the writing path. I call it Staring Into The Abyss. This experience happens when our writing has strengthened to the point where blissful ignorance rubs away and we begin to realize just how much we don’t know.

It’s a dark moment, a bleak moment. We feel shock. Frustration. Despair. Some stop right there on the path, their writing spirits broken. Others take a micro-step forward, progressing toward the most important stages leading to growth: acceptance and determination.

Once we come to terms with what we don’t know, we can set out to learn. Taking on the attitude of a Learner is what separates an amateur from a PRO.

Asking for help

Writers can strengthen their skills on their own, but it’s a lot of hard work. Reaching out to other writers will shorten the learning curve considerably. Critique partners can help identify your weak areas and offer strategies to improve. They also will know of resources which might help.

There are MANY great sites for writers to find a critique partner or two. I highly recommend The Critique Circle (free & safe to post work–this is where Becca and I met!) There are also sites like Critters Workshop and Agent Query’s Critique Partner Wanted board. Or, let Ladies Who Critique  play matchmaker for you.

The no-brainer: READ

book stackNo matter what areas need to be worked on, books can help. Find inspiration through your favorite fiction authors and in ‘how to’ books (here’s a great list to start on). Pick up a few and take notes. If you can, pair up with another writer to read the same book and then discuss it. Learning together gives you a better chance to fully understand any topic. This is what Becca and I did for an entire year, and our understanding of writing craft soared. It was time well spent.

Resources, resources, resources

There are thousands of articles on writing that can teach strong writing technique. Plotting, Story Structure, Voice, Description, Showing vs Telling, Style, Dialogue, Characters…whatever areas you want to develop, there is content out there to help you. Click HERE & check out out Writing Heroes for starters!)

The trick is finding the best nuggets of information without losing your whole day online. Try this Search Engine for Writers. You will find excellent articles on any aspect of writing imaginable. Pay attention to great article round ups like Maureen Crisp’s excellent one every Thursday, as well as Yesenia Vargas’ Monday Must Reads. And don’t forget to check our categories in the sidebar!

Think outside the monitor

Many of us are introverts, and it’s easy to get caught up on the keyboard and screen. There’s nothing wrong with this, unless your rectangular life preserver is holding you back. Writing Groups, Conferences, Work Shops and Retreats are all excellent opportunities to hone writing skills and meet mentors. Writing events need not be expensive–get involved in a local writing group and see what events have a low or no cost for members.

When you’re looking for opportunities to learn, don’t forget the movies. So much can be gleaned by watching films to see what makes them work. In fact, some of our biggest epiphanies as writers will come from studying screenwriting. I highly recommend reading Save the Cat & Writing Screenplays that Sell. These books are pure gold. Trust me, your writing will thank you!

ideaWrite and rewrite

Transforming writing weaknesses into strengths will take time. Choose learning strategies that work best for you and never stop writing. Each step of the way, apply new-found knowledge to the page. We learn most of all by doing, so always make time to write.

Chances are, you have more than one area where you know you can grow. Sometimes the easiest thing is to look at one facet at a time, and hone your skills in that area.Then when you feel like your writing is on sturdier ground, shift your focus to another facet of craft. Bit by bit, you will elevate your writing and feel proud at how far you have come.

Happy Writing!

Image 1: Geralt @ Pixabay
Image 3: jamoluk @ Pixabay

The post Mastering Words: Ways to Evolve as a Writer appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS™.

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5. The Weekend Writer: At Some Point, You Might Be Interested In Joining A Writers' Group

When you've been writing for a while, studying for a while, attending workshops and/or classes for a while, you may start thinking about finding a writers' group to become part of. If for no other reason, you're going to be hearing about how wonderful they are. You're going to read author notes in which writers are filled with gratitude for members of their writers' groups.

Well, I've been a member of three writers' groups, and I can tell you there are writers' groups, and there are writers' groups.

The first one I was part of was small and made up of published children's writers who met in the writers' homes. It was terrific for networking, but I can't say I got a lot out of  it in terms of my writing. It dissolved after only four months. Unless...it continues to meet and no one told me. I have wondered.

The second writers' group I joined was a mixed bag as far as genre is concerned and met at a chain bookstore. I was the only published writer. One member was a very active SCBWI member who went on to publish a  well received children's book and is quite successful. Another member attended a day program at a local writers' conference one summer. This group met twice a month and required a lot of time outside the meeting for reading and preparing feedback. There was little helpful critiquing. Because of the time commitment and the lack of benefit, I left and that is how things stood for six to eight years.

As part of my interest in the benefits of community for writers, I decided to take a shot at joining another group. I stumbled upon one nearby that's connected with the NESCBWI and have been to two meetings.

What a difference. All the members I've met to date are "trained" even though they aren't published. They attend NESCBWI and SCBWI programs and know how to critique. They bring back info from programs they attend, talk about writing books they've read. The quality of the story ideas they're dealing with is far beyond what I recall at other groups I've attended, as is the quality of the writing.

So far, this is a stimulating experience. But it took me three shots to find this. Like me, you may find that
you have to keep trying.

You can always consider starting your own writers' group. How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community by Nathaniel Kressen at Jane Friedman can offer some help with that.

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6. Critique Groups

If I could give only one piece of advice to those who want to write for children and teens, it would be to find a good critique group and make a commitment to it. I value my critique group more than you can imagine. Some of us have been in it for more than 10 years, while others are fairly new. They are all amazing writers, and as we have evolved, we have learned what works for us. Most importantly, we have learned how to offer really useful and necessary critiques, which is definitely a skill that can be learned and perfected and which doesn't necessarily just happen.

How to find or form a critique group:

One easy way is to check out the SCBWI walk-in critique groups via the web site. These are walk-in groups, so you can simply arrive and check it out. You might find others with whom you'd like to start a regular group.

While on the web site, you can also contact one of our region's critique group coordinators to get their help in finding others near you.

Attend local writing events, including SCBWI meetings and conferences, where you might meet others to form a group or others who are looking for a new group member.

Post on the SCBWI Utah/southern Idaho Facebook page and see if others want to form a group with you.

How do critique groups work?

There are several logistical choices available to a group.

PLACE and FREQUENCY: Some groups meet weekly, others monthly. Some are online groups. The group might have to try different meeting options to find what works best for that unique group of people. My critique group meets in one another's homes. I've been in other groups that meet in a public place or the home of just one group member or a mentor.

MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSION: I've seen this issue handled dozens of ways. In one group we brought several copies of our submissions to the meeting, where each person would receive a copy to read along as the author read out loud. This was fun for me, as I love being read to, but it had some limitations as far as critiques. Reading aloud took up much of our meeting time, and the critiques usually weren't very in-depth, as the readers never had time to ponder or reread the piece. My current critique group sends in 1-2 chapters (we are all working on novels, so this works for us) about a week before the group meets. It is up to each group member to read all the submissions before coming to the meeting. Then we use our meeting time more efficiently, as we jump right into critiques. Some groups do only a few pages of each manuscript each time, while others will do large chunks. How you handle this depends on a lot of factors, such as how many people are in the group, how much each person is writing between meetings, and how much time you have during a meeting. My group meets on Saturday evenings, so we can take more or less time if we feel like it. A group I used to be in met on Wednesday evenings and had only two hours to get through about eight manuscripts, so we were very focused and limited.

NUMBER OF PEOPLE: I think the ideal size of a critique group is somewhere between 3-8 people. More than that is just unwieldy in terms of having enough time to give each person a useful critique. You want at least three people so you have a diversity of opinions. I value the varied opinions of my critique group members, because if they ALL agree, I am pretty certain what needs to be revised. And if they don't all agree, I can pick and choose which approach I might take.

HOW TO CRITIQUE: This is the crucial piece. Some people like to focus on commas and spelling. That's not critique. I suggest focusing on questions. If something brings up a question for a reader, that is useful information for the author. If you're writing a mystery, those questions may be exactly what you're going for. On the other hand, maybe you thought you were being really clear, but the critiquers' questions indicate you need to do some revising to get at the clarity you want. Another way to look at the big picture is to think about the main elements like character, setting, plot, world building, etc. Sometimes it's fun to bring some useful exercises or information from any conference or workshop you've attended and focus on that element in all the manuscripts. The "sandwich" critique is always a nice way to approach a work: say the things you like in the manuscript, then concentrate on problem areas, then end with more nice things.

CHOOSING/ADDING MEMBERS: Our critique group is straightforward and sometimes ruthless. We are all veteran critiquers who are used to the give and take of brutal critique (not mean or harsh, but just absolutely honest), and not everyone is up for that. Some people have less thick skins and require a softer approach. We screen any potential new members to make sure they are up for our kind of blunt critique. If everyone can be honest about what they are ready for, it helps. I find it's also helpful if all the members of the group are writing in the same genre--such as picture books or YA. One magazine writer in a group I used to be in felt like her two pages each month versus everyone else's full chapter was just not a fair give and take. She was not the best fit for the group.

My best advice is to find a group of fellow children's writers and jump in. Be patient with each other and with the process as you find your way as a unit. If you feel like you don't know what you're doing, maybe occasionally bring in a more experienced author for some mentoring, or do some research. There are plenty of books on starting critique groups. Attending conferences and workshops will also teach you skills that will help you improve your critiquing skills.

by Neysa CM Jensen
in Boise, Idaho

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7. Passionate or Practical? Writing To Market Children's Books {and Poetry Friday!}

Howdy, Campers!

Woo-woo!  The winner of Joan Bransfield Graham's new book, The Poem that Will Not End is Rosi Hollenbeck, who happens to be the SCBWI critique group coordinator for Northern and Central California. Congratulations, Rosi!  You'll find Joan's Wednesday Writing Workout here and my interview with her here.

Today we conclude our series on Writing What We Want to Write versus Writing What is Marketable (or, as I like to call it, WWWWWWWM). Each of us is taking turns thinking aloud about Marion Dane Bauer's terrific post, The Creative Mind, in which she writes convincingly about WWWWWWWM.

It's also Poetry Friday at Buffy's AND it's the start of TeachingAuthors' Summer Blogging Break--woo-woo!

Thanks, for hosting PF, Buffy!

First, let's review what TeachingAuthors have been saying so far this round:

JoAnn began the conversation by sharing her monarch haiku project and the new direction in which she's taking it; Carmela talked about how hard it is to work so long on beloved projects that don't sell...but finds redemption; Laura writes that it's a matter of prioritizing, e-publishing, sharing poetry love and more: and writing coach/writers' booster Esther sees the light, rewrites, submits like the devil, and stays optimistic. Her post has helped me stay optimistic, too.  In fact each of these posts has.

So...wow. I've been mulling over how to talk to you about this one.  It's potent. And personal.

Just like each of my blogmates, I've sent out countless manuscripts that have bounced back again and again and again and again.  *Sigh.*  I'd be a great boomerang maker.

For example, Girl Coming in for a Landing--a Novel in Poems (Knopf) took me ten years to sell. Then it won two major awards. Editors who rejected it said, "Teens don't read.  And if they do read, they don't read poetry."  As Esther reminds us: "Times change; markets change; publishers' needs change; editorial staffs change." Oy--is that ever true.

More recently, I finally found a way to fictionalize the story of the flood which destroyed my family's farm and how we rebuilt afterwards.  I'd been taking this picture book manuscript out, rewriting it, and putting it back in my bottom drawer for years.  Last year I was invited to join a dynamite critique group; I took a risk and showed them my story. At this Magic Table I learned what my story was missing and how to strengthen it.
This is what happens at our Magic Table. Sort of.
I was elated.  I sent it to my fabulous agent.  She told me that picture books these days must be short. VERY short.  Picture books used to be for ages 3-8 and could be as long as 1500 words.  These days, editors want picture books for ages 3-5.  After 650 words, editors roll their eyes, my agent told me.

I told the Magic Table this.  They helped me shorten it.  I sent it flying out my door again.

Editors said that it was too regional. I went back to the Magic Table. They said, What about all the floods around the country? What about your themes of resilience, problem solving, weather, storms, climate change and life cycles for heaven's sake? You've just got to help them see this.  You'd got to help your agent sell it.

SO...I hired a curriculum specialist...and resubmitted the story complete with Supplementary Materials including Themes, Common Core-related English Language Arts activities, Science-related activities, and a Glossary.

(Huh! Take That, I say with all those Capital Letters!)

And it's still not selling.

And yet...I believe in the Power of the Table. I do. I love this writing biz. I do. And I love my gang around that table. So what else can I do but believe? I keep on keeping on.

I wrote a poem recently to our group, to our leader, to the Magic Table. It was reverent, in awe of the smarts and wizardry at the Table.

But today I changed the poem. Maybe it's not a Magic Table after all. Here's the revised version:

by April Halprin Wayland

It's magic, you know.
Impossible feats of metaphor.
Six of us around this rosewood table,
savoring tea.

Spilling over our pages,
foreshadowing, fortune telling,
drawing stories
out of the shadows of these drapes.

The illusion of allusion.
A prophecy of sorcery.
The tinkling of full moon necklaces.
Shamans jingling bracelets
dangling from our sleight of hands.

But…are we clairvoyant?
Are we soothsayers, 
sorceresses, sorcerers?
Maybe it's all just make believe.


poem copyright © 2014 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.
I am boldly stealing the following EXACT WORDING (and formatting) from today's Poetry Friday host, Buffy Silverman because it's 12:15 am here in California...and because it applies to Buffy, to me, and to many other poets in the kidlitosphere you may know (thank you, Buffy!):
In other poetry news, I recently submitted a poem to a children’s poetry anthology being prepared by Carol-Ann Hoyte on food and agriculture, and was happy to learn this week that the poem was accepted.  I’m in good company with many other Poetry Friday folks–look for the anthology in October of this year.

TeachingAuthors will be taking our annual blogging break--we'll be back Monday, July 13th.  See you then!
Four TeachingAuthors on summer break.

Written by April Halprin Wayland who thanks you for reading all the way to the end.

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8. Many Children’s Writers – and Even Published Children’s Writers – Find Critique Groups to Be Helpful

critiqueThrough the years I’ve belonged to several critique groups myself.

Quite often though, I’ve seen writers get discouraged from the feedback they received through critique groups and a few of these writers even gave up trying to write for children.

That should never happen!

Here are some tips for helping everyone make the most of a critique group:

1. Be sure to join or start a critique group that includes at least a few published children’s writers. If no one in your group has been published, it is a case of “the blind leading the blind.” Writers in the group might not know what to look for in a manuscript. As a result, comments and suggestions will be based more on personal tastes rather than any real knowledge of what makes a children’s manuscript marketable.

2. Make sure the comments and suggestions given to each writer are positive and constructive. Too often, manuscript critiques turn into attacks on a manuscript rather than any positive and constructive criticism of the work itself. Also, beginning writers tend to nit-pick over small details (the color of a character’s hair or the word used to describe something) rather than the elements that will make or break a story – elements such as conflict, rising action, point-of-view, etc.

3. Start by critiquing short pieces rather than novels-in-progress. I recommend this for a couple of reasons.

First, critiquing short pieces will allow time for everyone in the group to submit work for critique at each and every session. You want each person to feel he/she received something of value at each session. With shorter manuscripts there is less of a tendency to get bogged down with a single manuscript and spend too much time on it, leaving little or no time for critiquing all the other manuscripts presented for critique.

Second, shorter pieces are easier to critique, especially if everyone is checking to see if these short works include all the key elements of a marketable story. It’s often difficult (particularly for beginning children’s writers) to identify just what needs to be changed or revised in the chapter of a novel, for example. But generally, the problems in a short work, like a picture book manuscript or a short-story, can be easily identified if writers know what these are.

4. Give yourself time to get to know and trust each member in the group. Your critique partners can become valued friends and associates over the years. But it takes a while to really get to know and trust someone new.

When you join or start a critique group, before each and every meeting, remind yourself to be positive, helpful, and constructive in your criticism.

Try to never leave the session knowing that you’ve made a writer feel hopeless about his or her work. Do everything you can to make each writer in the group feel comfortable, even if you are not the leader of the group.

Over time, members will begin to trust each other and be willing to share more and more of their work with the group.

5. Celebrate each member’s publishing successes.


Happy writing!

Suzanne Lieurance

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9. Friday Speak Out!: Take Your Clothes Off and Other Critique Group Advice, Guest Post by Donna Volkenannt

Take Your Clothes Off and Other Critique Group Advice

by Donna Volkenannt

For more than fifteen years I’ve belonged to critique groups. Over the years I’ve learned to discern good advice from feel-good advice and constructive critique from destructive criticism.

I’ve also received some sweet—and strange—advice.

My first experience was in a feel-good group. Feedback consisted of “I like it,” “I really like it,” or “I really, really like it.”

The leader encouraged us to call ourselves writers, yet he referred to publishing “the P word.” According to him, writers shouldn’t be concerned with publication; probably because he’d written several books—all of them unpublished.

The benefit from that group was I became confident enough to call myself a writer. I also made several friends who, like me, wanted to learn about the business of writing. One friend and I both had grown children and husbands who supported our writing dreams. She and I traveled to conferences, met agents and editors, and used “the P word” freely. Oh, and we both got published.

Eventually we helped form a group which was focused on publishing. Some in that group were were overly critical and not open to new writers. After much soul searching, my friend and I started a group of our own, which welcomed writers of all experience levels.

For the past several years, our critique group has met each Tuesday morning. Some mornings as many as 15 writers join us. We are serious about writing and publishing but don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our motto is: "Be candid, but kind."

The following are words of advice I’ve learned over the years:

1. Check your ego at the door. Your work is being critiqued, not you.

2. Everyone’s opinion counts. Sometimes the best suggestions come from surprising sources.

3. Don’t monopolize reading or critique time. Join the discussion, but don’t interrupt.

4. Follow the rule of three. If one person makes a suggestion, consider it. If two people point out the same problem, take a careful look. If three or more make the same suggestion--take a serious look.

5. In the end, the work is yours. Use what helps and ignore the rest.

6. Don’t argue, explain, or defend during critique. It wastes time and energy.

7. Be gracious. Being critiqued is a gift. Smile and say thanks, even when you don’t agree with what's said.

8. Never quit. Be persistent. If one group doesn’t work, find another or start one yourself.

9. Write legibly. After I read a personal essay, one critiquer told me I needed to be more open. When I got home I read his comment on my first page. “Take your clothes off.” I was shocked. Then I re-read, “Take your gloves off.” Whew! Since then I’ve reminded our members to please write their comments clearly.

10. Have fun. Write because you love to—oh, and keep your clothes on.

* * *
Donna Volkenannt is a Pushcart Prize and Spur Award nominated fiction writer, a book reviewer, and an essayist who was recently awarded First Place in the 2012 Humor – Global Category of the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. Her works have appeared in more than 100 publications. She lives and writes in St. Peters, Missouri, with her husband, two grandchildren, and one knuckleheaded, but lovable, black Lab. When not carpooling, running to the pet store, or trying to meet deadlines, she blogs about books, writing, and the mysteries of lif

24 Comments on Friday Speak Out!: Take Your Clothes Off and Other Critique Group Advice, Guest Post by Donna Volkenannt, last added: 3/12/2012
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10. Margie Lawson Extravaganza (Part 2!)

When I found out the awesome and talented Melinda Collins was headed off to Colorado to attend  Margie Lawson's Immersion Master Class, I absolutely had to convince her to swing by and tell us about the experience afterward. Of course, Writing Superhero Jami Gold had the same idea, so rather than stage an EPIC, lightning-sword-and-killer-unicorn BATTLE TO THE DEATH as to who got Melinda, we decided to share her. Isn't that nice? *beams*

As someone who purchased a Margie Lawson Lesson Packet on Body Language (thanks for the heads up, Stina Lindenblatt!) in the past, I can only imagine the value of a ML Intensive. So please, read on dear Musers. It's a long-ish post, but oh-so-worth it. AND, the talented Margie Lawson is going to award a lucky commenter with a FREE Lecture Packet! Trust me, YOU WANT THIS.

Immersion Master Class with Margie Lawson: The Experience, The Takeaways, The Lessons – Part Two

Thank you, Angela, for inviting me over today to talk about my recent experience in Colorado with the wonderful, talented, writerly genius, Margie Lawson, and her Immersion Master Class!
Because I have so much to share, this is actually a two-part blog post. Which means I’m also over at Jami Gold’s blog today as well with part one! *grin* And, as an added bonus, Margie Lawson will be over at my blog today, Muse, Rant, Rave, sharing even more writing technique goodies! *booty dance* Okay, enough dancin’ and let’s get to learnin’, shall we?

The Experience

Over on Jami’s blog I talked about the kinship and sisterhood that developed in our group. Here I’d like to share with you two additional elements of the class that made this a one-of-a-kind experience.
The first would be location, location, location! We were about two miles above sea level, and being that high meant cell service was practically nonexistent, which in turn meant we got to enjoy the peace and quiet tranquility of the Rocky Mountains. What more inspiration do you need if you look outside the window, or go on a short hike and see this?

The view from our 1st hiking trip

Pretty unreal, right? But this is exactly what every day was like for us. It wasn’t all work and no play. In fact, we went hiking twice during our time on the mountain. The first short hike gave us the beautiful view in the picture above, and the second, longer hike, gave us this gorgeous view:

The view from our 2nd hiking trip

So the experience was deeper than just learning more about yourself and your writing craft. It was about taking the time to enjoy your surroundings and find inspiration in nature.

The view from Margie's writing loft

The second element I wanted to share about the experience is the one on one time each of us got to spend with Margie. Every day, with pages in hand, we walked into a quiet, cozy room and worked one on one with Margie – an experience that will stay with me forever. By sitting down with her, one on one, you gain a certain understanding and perspective of your writing. You learn how to channel the genius editing that is her mind, and you see your writing in a whole new light. Every sentence, every word is purposefully chosen to pack a maximum punch for your reader, and during your one on one time, you learn more about how you choose those words and how you organize your sentences.
I can’t begin to imagine how I was editing before this class because now I feel as though I’m walking away with a particular sense of how to attack edits, how to look for the minor nuances, how to portray action scenes in a new and exciting way for the reader, and how to make my prose sing a beautifully cadenced tune.

The Takeaways

In part one I talk about what I learned about my style and where I want to be a year from now. Here I’d like to talk about group settings: why it’s important to work within a group where each person has the same purpose in their writing, and why it’s important to encourage and help other writers make their writing the best it can possibly be.

It's always important to take a break when editing to hike! ;)

When you’re in a group setting and everyone has the same purpose of making their MS NYT Bestselling-worthy, you’re sitting in a gold mine. This is why it’s so incredibly important to join a writing group where everyone is dedicated and everyone pushes you to strive, work, and think harder. Sure, writing’s a singular experience (unless you’re co-writing), but without that group of writers who share your struggles, your doubts, and your triumphs, you may not get too far. This particular experience brought that fact home for me. When I struggled in making a phrase powerful and pitch-perfect, there were four other writers there tossing ideas back and forth until we got it. I’m sure without them there I might’ve gotten 85% of what I wanted in the phrase, but that’s not enough. I want 100%. I want it to pack a punch. And I want the help of other writers who fill in the gaps of my weaknesses.

This is another reason why it’s important to not only be in a group setting with a common purpose, but also to encourage other writers and their craft. We thrive on the encouragement and the kudos we get from others like us. We hear of another writer who’s just finaled

Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.  -- Ryunosuke Satoro

I got the honor of silly-stringing Amanda! Sooo much fun!!! :)

Quick note: While we were there, one of our Immersion Sisters, Amanda, actually did find out that she finaled in a writing contest with three scores of 99 out of 100!!!!! WOO HOO! How AWESOME is that?!? So what did we do to celebrate when we found out? We silly-stringed her of course!!!

The Lessons

Without giving away too much, here’s the back half of the top ten lessons I learned while in Colorado (as I said in the first post, there are many, many, many more):
1. Description: Description shouldn’t be on the page simply just to be there. Description should be on the page as it affects the character. When you’re writing description, think of how it affects your character in terms of their attitude and thoughts. If you had a character pull up to their childhood home, don’t just describe it as having paint-chipped shutters and a bright red door. Attach that description to your character. What does she remember about those shutters and that red door? Does she recall the many summers she spent helping her mother repaint the shutters? Does she recall being caught kissing a boy in front of the bright red door? If so, then why don’t you attach that description to those memories and make it a stronger, more powerful read?

Example from my MS:

I took a breath and walked out to the edge of the street. This house would represent the beginning of the rest of my life. I hadn’t seen the midnight blue, oceanfront home in so long, and it was now my home.

Because a home is a sense of trust, safety and love for my MC, I attached those feelings to the description of a place that is now her home. There’s more description of the house that follows this, but this is the one place where I purposefully showed how arriving to this setting affected my character.

2. Breaking Tension: Margie has an EDITS system that uses different colored highlighters to track story elements. One is tension. When you’re tracking tension and you notice a small – or big – area where you’ve broken the tension, you’d better go back to check the following:

     a. Check to ensure you intended to break the tension.
     b. Check to ensure the break in tension is not only needed, but that it works
     c. Check to ensure it doesn’t entice the reader to skim

I’m willing to bet there may be several areas where you didn’t intend to break the tension, you didn’t intend to invite the reader to skim, you didn’t intend to put a humor hit in the middle of a serious scene that shouldn’t be broken.

So if you break tension, make sure it’s intentional, it works, it flows, and it doesn’t bore the reader in skipping ahead to where the tension picks back up.

3. NO ‘ITs’ or ‘THATs’: I now have yet another new item to add to my editing toolbox/checklist: NO ‘ITs’ or ‘THATs’!! Okay, so obviously I don’t mean you can’t have ‘it’ or ‘that’ in your MS as at all. But what I do mean is don’t end a sentence with ‘it’ or ‘that.’


Oh yeah, I’d considered that.

See what I mean? When I take this sentence out of context, you have absolutely no clue what the character meant by ‘that.’

Example without ‘that’:

Oh yeah, I’d considered Nick to be nothing more than an ant.

A-ha! So when I removed ‘that,’ I made the sentence stronger and more powerful! So the lesson here is: do a find for ‘IT’ and ‘THAT’ and restructure/reword each sentence/phrase that just so happens to end with one of those UNLESS having one of those two words 100%, unequivocally works!

4. Throw-Away Words (Tightening): Another important item to add to your editing checklist: throw-away words. This goes beyond the usual crutch words such as saw, felt, was, etc. Once of the techniques Margie teaches is taking a printed copy of your MS and reading through, line by line, and checking each line off to ensure it has a strong cadence. This ensures you don’t have any words in there that might trip the reader or the flow of the passage. As we all know, there are many other types of throw-away words that can tongue-tie the reader – which is another reason why it’s incredibly important that we get used to the sound of our voice, read everything aloud, and tighten, tighten, tighten.

Examples with Throw-Away Words:

After all, it wasn’t my fault their stories weren’t being told anymore.
I looked back at where he stood and touched my cheek.

Did I really need all those words? Nope.

Examples without Throw-Away Words:

It wasn’t my fault their stories weren’t being told anymore.
I touched my cheek.

See? I didn’t need after all and looked. Those were just two sentences! And between the two, I cut a total of nine words! By reading through my MS, line by line by line, and checking each one off once I’ve determined it’s a TEN, I will have a MS that’s tight, tight, tight! *booty dance*

5. Backloading: Ah… this is a fun one! But because there’s so much I could say about it and so little space in today’s post, I’m going to make it short and sweet. Backloading is where you take the most powerful word in a sentence, and you rework the phrase to pack that power at the end of the sentence so it resonates with the reader.

Example before Backloading:

And when we did see him, we never took a moment for granted, but that was before he abandoned us.

The most powerful word in this particular phrase is abandoned. When you hear it, you instantly feel for the character because you may know what it’s like to feel abandoned. So why not make it the last word the reader processes before they move to the next paragraph?

Example after Backloading:

And when we did see him, we never took a moment for granted. But that was before we were abandoned.

Not only did I ensure my power word was there to backload the phrase, I also split that large phrase into one semi-big sentence then followed it up with a shorter, powerful sentence.

Backloading forces you to look at the structure of your sentences and paragraph breaks. By examining each sentence with a finely-tuned, analytical eye, you’ll not only catch the instances where backloading will pack a punch, but you’ll also catch the areas where one larger sentence can be broken into two, shorter, more powerful sentences. Ha! I got two lessons into one on that one! *giggle*

Once again, I really, really, really want to encourage everyone to visit Margie’s site, purchase and read and absorb the lecture packets and/or enroll in an online course. After you’ve done that, I really recommend attending an Immersion Master Class yourself to fully learn not only these techniques/lessons, but waaaaay more! In all her courses, you’ll learn ways to add psychological power to your writing and how to write a page-turner that will keep your readers up until their spouse finally says, “Pleeeease come to bed!”  *giggle*

Before I go, I just want to say thank you again to Angela for having me over today and allowing me to share a small percentage of what I learned!

If this was your first stop, then before you pop over to either Jami’s site for more on the experience, the takeaways and the lessons, or stop by my blog for a quick lesson from Margie, think about the following: Do you have a place you can get away to? One that’s quiet, calm and inspiring? What about a writing group – do you have a group of writers that you can learn from, give kudos to, and share your triumphs with? Do you have areas in your MS that could benefit from tying description to emotion? Or what about areas where you’ve broken the tension unintentionally? Do you run through each of your lines and ensure they work 100% before moving onto the next?

Wow! Thank you Melinda for being so generous and sharing your amazing experience with Margie! I am a life-long learner, and I absolutely love to absorb as much as I can about the writing craft. Margie's lecture packets are packed with great information and I am thrilled to be able to give one away. So, if you would like to win, just comment below and leave some contact information. THEN, visit Jami for another chance to win a lecture packet and Melinda's for a crack at an online course with Margie! This is the BERMUDA TRIANGLE OF WIN, people!

Good luck & happy writing!

66 Comments on Margie Lawson Extravaganza (Part 2!), last added: 9/20/2012
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11. My group

My critique group is fantastic.

We’ve only been meeting for sixth months or so but we clicked at the outset. Our schedule is ideal – often enough though, not overwhelming. We deal with something regularly, sending 2000 words one week, meeting live to discuss them the next. It keeps us on task and with only four of us, time is very manageable.

It’s a drive for all of us, arriving from Brigham City to Salt Lake and points in between. But they’re worth the trip. We’re dedicated writers, committed to craft. We all attended WIFYR this summer. We view the world from differing time frames, with one each in our 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s (until one of us messed that up by advancing to the next decade). We vary in culture and lifestyle as well. Each brings to the table a unique perspective. And they are sharp.

After WIFYR, we dispersed. Summer family plans made critiquing hard to arrange. We’re back now and these people are just as good as they were last June. I was ready for a beta read to which they readily agreed. Explicit instructions were for them to take their time, a full MS more than our 2000 word limit. That would give me time to spend on a new endeavor.

Those little over-achievers didn’t listen. They returned it the next session. And they’ve forced me back into the old project. I’m really tired of that timeworn thing, but their counsel is amazing, advancing it toward completion.

Yet, at times their guidance is discomforting. They tell me things I disagree with or don’t want to hear, things that chip away at the story’s foundation. A few days later I come around to see they are right. Or I figure out a way to ignore them or work around their ideas. But mostly they’re right.

I’m revising now, as per their suggestions. The rougher edges are being smoothed out, the wholes getting plugged. I’m free to disregard their suggestions or be impressed by their insight. I hope I contribute as much as I take.

Thanks, people.

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12. Let's Talk Crit Groups

Writing is a solitary art.

                                          Paul Hoecker, 1888

But if you're writing for submission, fresh eyes are invaluable. Critical readers who aren't as close to (or  as invested in) a work often have an easier time spotting its weaknesses. This is a GOOD thing. But take care; nobody likes to have her work ripped apart. If you're new to critiquing, here are a few tips on giving feedback to other writers.

Let it simmer. Read a manuscript soon after receiving it. Make a few notes, then, if time allows, put it away for a few days. When you give it another look, you'll notice things you missed in the first go-round and have a better understanding of it as a whole.

Take note of:  characterization, setting details, dialogue (realistic?) & dialogue beats, sensory images, consistent point of view, voice, showing vs. telling, overall story arc, openings & endings.

Give as good as you get. Spend the same time and energy on others' manuscripts as you expect them to give yours.

The Critique Sandwich. Always begin and end a critique on a positive note. It's awfully easy, after a period of time together, for group members to jump right to the "this isn't working" part of the process. That's a dangerous practice. Members feel ganged up on, resentments build, and your ship's sunk before anybody has even sighted the iceberg.

Avoid putting a writer on the defensive. Never begin a crit with anything like "You shouldn't have..." or "You didn't..." or "Why didn't you..." Not everybody's skin is rhino tough, and those phrases feel like personal attacks. Instead, talk about the piece itself, using non-threatening language like:

          "I wondered why the main character chose to_______"
          "I wasn't sure of__________"
          "A reader might need a bit more___________"

When in doubt, channel Aretha:  R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

May all of your critiques leave you feeling challenged and inspired, and have you dancing off to revisionland.

                                                           Antoine Pesne, 1745

Or at least put a little spring in your step.

Jill Esbaum

Remember to enter our book giveaway to win a copy of the 2013 Children's Writers & Illustrator's Market (Writer's Digest)!

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13. Navigating a Debut Year: Protecting the Creative Heart

I spent fourteen years as an author in training, and while I learned many things in that time, I'm finding there are a slew of different lessons on the other side of publication. This spring, I examined the public, private, and writing life I want to cultivate. Right now, I'm trying to learn just how to protect my creativity -- how to let it grow and expand with a new project, how to feed it, how to keep it from being destroyed during the fragile moments a story is unfolding and finding its way. I've yet to figure this out, but here are a few things I'm pondering:
  • It's not the mind but the emotional self that gives us confidence or causes doubt. We are directly and indirectly taught the mind is a truer compass than the heart. And this is right oftentimes, especially for highly emotional people like me (and I would suspect most other writers, who tend to connect deeply and passionately with people, ideas, stories, and universal truths). The thing is, we writers know in our heads plenty of things that never penetrate our hearts. Whether we realize it or not, the emotional "truths" that occupy our lives influence our creative selves far more than we realize. How can we protect the vulnerable place stories spring from?
  • Surround yourself with supportive people. Obvious, right? Find a friend or group of people who support and understand you. While non-writing friends and family are wonderful, they don't always understand the writing world. Form a critique group. Become a part of a professional organization like SCBWI. Find people in the same phase of the journey you can encourage and commiserate with. Find people farther along who can show you the way.
  • Step away from the constant noise of the Internet. Never before have authors been asked to live the writing life so publicly. As soon as a book sells, the solitary falls away. We've got to find ways to protect our creativity in the midst of it all. There are too many ways to lose confidence -- reviews written by professional organizations as well as book bloggers or Goodreads account holders, articles in accessible publications like Publisher's Weekly or GalleyCat that praise our peers or their books and leave us feeling left out, or publications that praise us but leave us feeling like we'll never measure up again. 
What are ways authors can protect their creativity? 

2 Comments on Navigating a Debut Year: Protecting the Creative Heart, last added: 11/5/2012
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14. Global Critiquing

I have used this space many times to lament the fact that I am a writer on an island -- critique group-less, feedback-less, buddy-less.  But as I'm sure most of us know, one thing worse than having no input is having input that sends us astray.

We've all been there, right? We've seen critique groups whose members are too intense, too lax, too hoggish; they are too vague; they are too nitpicky; they don't "get" your stuff, or you don't get theirs.  They have more time to devote to their writing than you do, or perhaps they have less.  They live too far away; they meet too frequently or infrequently.

Even worse is the damning critique experience: the editor at a conference who treats you like a clueless newbie; the teacher who gives you a bad grade for trying something a little different.  My friend, an actress, says at least when someone is critiquing your writing, he or she is not critiquing YOU.  But still, when we write, we are exposing our souls to the world.  And our writer psyches must be treated with care.  (The cardinal rule of critiquing -- always start and end with something specific and positive to say!)

With my community college students, I introduce a vocabulary word in each class.  The first word we discuss is "subjective."  I want them to understand that as a teacher, the worst thing I could ever do would be to crush their creativity or confidence.  In a required class, many students do not come to learn, and they do not care to revise.  For those who do, individual feedback is the most important component of our coursework.  But students must learn that I am not the final authority; they have to be the chief arbiters of what is right for their work and what is not. 

When it comes to peer review, some student writers are terrific critiquers.  On the other hand, some do not take the job seriously.  Some are just dead wrong.  As a teacher, I may often myself be dead wrong.  Thus I try to approach first draft revision on a mostly global level.  I find myself constantly asking my students, "Why did you choose to write about this topic?"  The answer is often the key to a successful essay.

In TV writing, we are advised to distill our pitch into a one-sentence "log line."  Fiction writers should be able to do the same.  In expository writing, of course, this summary is called the thesis statement. 

My classes are currently working on research essays and developing working theses for an essay that is supposed to propose a solution to a societal problem.  One of my students, a Navy veteran, read his to the class this week: "Military body armor is responsible for a vast number of injuries to personnel."  I found this quite a startling statement.  In search of more detail and a proposed solution, I probed further. HOW was military body armor inadequate?  My student stated that in fact, it was overly adequate; that many soldiers who would have died in previous wars were surviving attacks with grievous, lifelong injuries.  "So," I asked, "Are you saying it would be better if they died?"  He looked me in the eye and said, "Sometimes."  It was easier to talk about body armor, of course, than it was to talk about traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

I asked him what he proposed as the solution, and he said more drone strikes and less hand-to-hand combat.  In short, his essay was not really about body armor at all.  What he really wanted to say was, "Please send fewer men and women into harm's way." 

As writers, we often lose sight of the main thread of our story; as critiquers, we often get hung up on details that should be dealt with later.  A good first draft critique is about distilling a story to its essence -- nothing more, nothing less. --Jeanne Marie

1 Comments on Global Critiquing, last added: 11/7/2012
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15. The Problem of Conflicting Feedback

A big "thank you" to all who entered our latest giveaway. We enjoyed learning about your favorite chocolate treats. :-) The winner of the 2013 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market is:
Sandy Brehl
Sandy blogs at Unpacking the POWER of Picture Books. Congratulations, Sandy! And thanks again to Mary Kole for her guest interview.
And now to wrap-up our current TeachingAuthors' topic: critique groups, and critiquing in general. Last Friday, Jill opened the discussion with some excellent tips for when you're critiquing a manuscript in a group setting. Mary Ann focused on advice for one-on-one critiquing. Jeanne Marie emphasized the importance of looking at first drafts at the "global level," instead of nitpicking them. And both Mary Ann and Jeanne Marie talked about the value of asking a writer: What made you decide to write this particular story?/Why did you choose to write about this topic?  Today I'd like to share a bit about what to do when you receive conflicting feedback.

In the facilitated critique workshops that I teach, we follow the critiquing model I learned at Vermont College. The format is described in this guest post by Lyn Miller-Lachmann. There are two unique aspects to this format that are specifically designed to help keep the writer from getting defensive:

1) The author remains silent while others discuss his or her work. When you think about it, this makes sense. When you submit a manuscript to an editor or agent, you're not there to explain the choices you made. The manuscript must succeed on its own. Also, an author who remains silent is more likely to really hear the feedback because he or she isn't sitting there thinking about how to respond to what's being said. 

2) After a round of sharing positive feedback regarding what's working well, instead of telling an author what's "wrong" with the piece or what needs "fixing," critiquers share questions about the manuscript.  I've found it takes some practice for my students to learn how to express their comments in question form, but here are a few examples:
      “Is the narrator a boy or a girl?”
      “What time of day is it? What season?”
      “What happened to the dog?”
      “How did the narrator feel when that happened?”
      “Why did the mother react so strongly to such a minor accident?”
      “Why didn’t the mother react more strongly?  

I do allow my students to preface their questions with an “I” statement to indicate points in the story where they were confused or found something unclear. For example:
      I was confused here. I thought the narrator was a boy. Is the narrator a boy or a girl?
      I couldn’t picture this scene. Is the main character sitting or standing here?
      I didn’t understand exactly what this sentence means. Could you clarify?

However, not all questions are appropriate. I discourage critiquers from trying to tell the author how to "fix" the story via their questions. As critiquers, we may not see or understand the author's goals. Therefore, I believe questions like "Why don't you get rid of the mother character?" aren't as helpful as "What purpose does the mother character serve?" The first question puts the author on the defensive. The second question leads the author to think more deeply about the story. It may be that the mother is important, but the author hasn't shown why clearly enough yet.

When I facilitate critique workshops, I remind students that all feedback is subjective, including mine. Just because I'm the "teacher," that doesn't necessarily mean my comments are "better" or more valuable than anyone else's. I also encourage students to share their opinions even if they disagree with me and/or with their fellow students--it's important for a writer to know different readers may react differently to the manuscript.

So, when you're the author, how should you handle contradictory feedback? My advice is to latch on to the feedback that feels "right" or "true" first. For example, let's say that while drafting your piece you wonder if a section of dialogue sounds too mature for the character's age, but you leave it as is. Then, when you bring the piece to critique group someone asks: "How old is this character? I think his dialogue sounds old for a 9-year-old." Even if another critiquer responds, "I disagree. His dialogue sounds just right to me," I'd go back and revise the dialogue.

On the other hand, if you're not sure which feedback feels "right," you can go one of several ways. You may decide to go with "majority rules"--what do most critiquers agree on?  OR, if there's someone in the group whose opinion you particularly respect or tend to agree with, then you might go with that one individual's response, even it it's the minority opinion. In the above example, if the person saying the dialogue sounds "just right" is a third-grade teacher who works with 9-year-olds on a daily basis, I wouldn't revise. OR, you may decide that the contradictory feedback is a symptom of a deeper problem that requires you to go back and revise something earlier in the story. Perhaps your character is precocious, and mature dialogue is part of his personality. In that case, you may want to go back and check whether his dialogue has been mature for his age from the very beginning. If his precociousness is important to the story, you might want to include other signs of it, besides his dialogue.   

Keep in mind that the more critiquers you have, the more likely you are to get contradictory feedback. Sometimes, that's a good thing, but not always. I've seen writers revise over and over again thinking they will eventually satisfy all their critiquers. The problem is: You can't please all your readers all the time.  If you don't believe me, go to Goodreads and look at the reviews for The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Alongside this bestseller's many 4- and 5-star ratings, you'll see reviews with only 1-3 stars.

As I said earlier, reading is subjective. While critique feedback can be invaluable, in the end it's your story, and yours alone.

Happy writing, and Happy Poetry Friday! Today's Poetry Friday round-up is at hosted by Ed DeCaria at ThinkKidThink.

2 Comments on The Problem of Conflicting Feedback, last added: 11/12/2012
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16. New Year! New Book!!

Happy New Year, Paper Waiters! I am so excited to be starting off the new year with some good news... some VERY good news! My picture book, Mystery at the Miss Dinosaur Pageant has been... acquired by Caroline Abbey of Bloomsbury Children's Books!! Yay!!!!

I am so excited I finally get to share my good news. This fun and wacky picture book is near and dear to my heart and I would like to extend a huge thank my awesome Paper Wait critique group for guiding me through revisions (and for believing in it when they first saw an early draft!). And a huge thank you to my awesome agent, Teresa Kietlinski, for believing in this story and helping it to find the right editor!

So please help me celebrate! Take a piece of cake, a scoop of ice cream and join the party!

Can't wait to celebrate lots more good news for all the wonderful Paper Waiters in 2013!

25 Comments on New Year! New Book!!, last added: 1/10/2013
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17. Celebrate 5 Years With Us & WIN!

Every time January hits, I am shocked to know that it's been another year of blogging for Becca and I. The same thoughts scroll through my brain: what did I do before this blog? How did I manage to function before realizing I needed to reach out to the blogging community? 

I had ties in a few forums of course, and made some wonderful friendships. Heck, Becca and I met at The Critique Circle, an online critiquing community for writers (thank you Universe for making that happen!) But really, for both of us, our world grew bigger and brighter when we met all of you! :)

Crazily enough, we've been at this now for 5 years! FIVE! And in a bizarre twist of fate, we hit two other incredible milestones this month as well:

The Emotion Thesaurus sold over 20,000 copies


 The blog had its 2,000,000th Hit!

~~ * ~~

CLEARLY a celebration is in order, yes? We think so too, so we're giving away a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 10 ebooks (winner's choice) from the selection below: 

MG & YA Reads:

Janet Gurtler's Who I Kissed
Susan Quinn's Open Minds
P.J. Hoover's The Emerald Tablet
Alex Cavanaugh's CassaStar
Heather Atkins's The Temple
Angela Townsend's Amarok
Kait Nolan's Red
Cheyrl Rainfield's Parallel Visions
C. Lee McKenzie's Alligators Overhead
Marilee Brother's Moonstone

Adult Reads: 

C.S. Lakin's Intended For Harm
Amber West's Ruth Valley Missing
K. M. Weiland's Dreamlander
Joanna Penn's Pentecost
Steena Holmes' Finding Emma
Liana Brook's Even Villains Fall In Love


SO MANY AMAZING BOOKS, am I right? I am sure the winner will be very happy, no matter which 10 they pick. And hey, that could be YOU, so let's talk about how to get into the draw, shall we?


Becca and I are not big on hoop jumping, and this is about CELEBRATING ALL OF YOU, not us. So while of course we would love your TWEETS, LINKS & SHARES, it's not a condition to win. Just simply leave us a comment. Maybe tell us about someone who has helped you recently, and if they have one, leave a link to their blog so that people can visit them.:)

Yep, that simple. :)

Contest closes on January 31st! Good luck everyone, and thank you for all your support!

251 Comments on Celebrate 5 Years With Us & WIN!, last added: 2/9/2013
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18. What Every Writer Needs

Writers write.  Its what we do.  Unfortunately, we don’t always judge our own writing accurately even when its good. 

Does that surprise you?  We are used to being told that we need help identifying the weaknesses in our writing.  Sometimes we need just as much help identifying the strengths.

For about two months, I’ve been playing around with a rewrite.  I’ll work on it a bit and then set it aside because it hasn’t jelled. Every now and again, I figure out a problem and get some writing done, but after two months I have 10 pages.  Ten.  Can you say discouraged

Fortunately, I had a critique group meeting last weekend.  This was the perfect chance to trot out my problem manuscript.  These writing friends would be able to point out a few more problems for me to fix, but they would also commiserate.  Or so I thought.  

They refused.

That’s right.  Refused.  

They actually had the nerve to tell me that the voice was good.  And they love the premise.  They are even cool with the fact that my fantasy world is much like ours, but skewed just a bit.  And my all new antagonist?  They adore her, but in a bad way of course.  Not that it was all good news; they pointed out plenty of places that need repair and I expected that.  What I didn’t expect was the good news.  Apparently, I’d done something right even though I was too frustrated to see it.

Every writer needs a critique group. 

A critique group doesn’t just tell you what you’ve done wrong.  They also point out what you’ve done right.  They bring the perspective that you lack when you are too close to your work.  And they keep you going through the hard work.  I mean the actual writing part; my initial ideas have a tendency to be brilliant.  Its getting it down on paper that proves frustrating. 

I’d like to give you a nudge.  If you don’t have a critique group, now is a good time to find one.  I connected with the writers in my critique group at a variety of writers conferences and workshops.  I’ve also been in groups that were strictly online.  These worked well when I was a grad student and later when I was the mother of a toddler.  

Finding a compatible group can take some work, but it is well worth the effort. Not only will you have a group of writers to help you fix your mistakes, they’ll point out what you did right.  And that’s something you need in your writing life – fellow writers who will pat you on the back, hand you a good cup of coffee, and nudge you back toward your desk.  

Speaking of which, I had better get going.  I have a story to write. 


Find out more about Sue's writing on her blog, One Writer's Journey

11 Comments on What Every Writer Needs, last added: 2/27/2013
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19. How to Find a Critique Group

Some groups provide lots of written comments!
It’s one thing to know that you should probably belong to a critique group.  It’s another thing to find one. Start out by looking wherever you find other writers.

Writers’ organizations.  If you belong to a writers guild or other writers’ organization, they may have ongoing critique groups or a system in place to help writers create new groups.  I belong to such a group sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Missouri Region.  It was my first face-to-face critique group.

Meetings or Conferences.  People don’t always talk up their own groups at events like these, but they are great opportunities to meet other writers that you can invite to start a group.  This is how I connected with my second group, the Ladies of the Gordian Knot.

Online.  Many of us “meet” our fellow writers online in discussion groups, on blogs, or on Facebook.  Interact with your fellow writers then approach them about creating a group.  A group doesn’t have to meet face to face; as a grad student, my only critique group was via e-mail.

As you try out various groups or work to create your own, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Look at what people write. Picture books are different novels.  If you are the only novelist, you might not get the help you need from a group of picture book writers.
  • Ask why they write. People who write to publish often have different goals than people who write just for the fun of creating a story.
  • Look at their publishing choices. If your focus is traditional publishing, a group focused on self-publishing may not meet your needs.  Variety can be good, but if you are the only one providing that variety, you might need to look elsewhere.
  • Learn the ropes.  Every group works differently.  Some read their work aloud.  Others pass it out ahead of time and return it with comments but also discuss it.
  • Be ready to give.  A critique group is different from a critique service.  If you only want feedback but don’t want to critique for others, find a freelance editor.  This attitude isn’t fair to the other writers.

Not every group will be right for you.  You may even like everyone in a group, but still not get what you need.  It’s a lot like dating that way.  Sometimes you have chemistry and sometimes you don’t. If the first or second group you try lacks this chemistry, don’t give up.  A good critique group is worth the wait and the effort.


Find out more about Sue's writing on her blog, One Writer's Journey

8 Comments on How to Find a Critique Group, last added: 2/26/2013
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20. Kate Bassett's WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS sells to Flux!

I'm so excited to share my critique partner and dear friend's debut young adult novel, WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS, has sold to Flux.

Congratulations, Kate!

Kate Bassett's WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS, about a talented young writer who, one year after her beloved uncle's death, discovers the shocking truth about him, her family, and the importance of finding new words, a new love story, for her own life, to Brian Farrey-Latz at Flux, for publication in Summer 2014, by Sarah Davies at the Greenhouse Literary Agency (NA). Foreign:

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21. Recipe for Writing Success

We all have our tried-and-true recipes that we return to time after time for potlucks, dinner parties, or family meals. But what is your recipe for writing success?

In the latest SCBWI Bulletin, I read about Laura Murray’s writing tips that led to the publishing of her first book, The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School. Some of her simple but true writing tips are:
  •       If an idea excites you, go with it.
  •       Be open to revision, and then be courageous and submit!
  •       Reach out, make friends, and support other writers. 
What are the ingredients that led to your writing success? (Whether your success is writing your first draft, conquering revisions, submitting a manuscript, or celebrating your published book!)

I’ll start the recipe and you can each list your choice ingredients….

Recipe for Writing Success

-             1 clever idea
-          10 lbs. of elbow grease
-             5 cups of constructive critiques

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22. Solving Critique Group Snafus

I have a great writers’ critique group!

Unfortunately, we have fallen into some not-so-great habits.

Our meetings have gone from not-to-be-missed—to missed more often than attended. It’s totally understandable; we lead busy lives. We have kids and jobs and mountains of responsibilities. Life throws its share of curveballs, and sometimes, you just have to drop everything and catch ‘em as best you can.

But when we first started our critique group, we made our meetings a priority. Even if we were juggling those balls and unable to physically meet, we sent our work online. And that accountability—knowing our critique partners were expecting our work—made us work a little bit harder.

Our critiques have gone from detailed notes—to a few lines of simple fixes. And I understand how this sort of critique can creep its way into the group. After all, we know each other well; our partners get what we mean. Why bother to write everything out?

But during the first year of critiquing, our writing seemed to grow exponentially with our detailed and thoughtful notes. So now, we’ve quit overusing adverbs. Our tenses rarely change. We understand “head-hopping” and third person limited. Basically, we’ve moved beyond writing craft mistakes. But for our writing to get to the next level, we need to tackle deeper problems. And that means our critiques need to move to the next level, too.

Our discussions have gone from two hours of writing—to an hour or more of personal rambles. And of course, I understand how that happens. We’ve grown close over the years; we care about each other outside our writing lives. Often, the only time we catch up is during our critique group meetings.

But when we were new to each other, the focus of the group was writing. We met for two hours, spending the majority of our time on critiques. Now, we rush to get the writing business completed. And so the critiques feel rushed and disjointed, with no time for members to clear up questions. Our focus has morphed into frustration.

Fortunately, August was designated as a special meeting. We discussed making changes; we hashed out new guidelines. We decided that we would meet on the assigned critique day, no matter how many of us could attend (and those who couldn’t attend would send an online critique). We created a critique template (I’ll try to get to critique templates in the next post!). And finally, we’re alternating writers/critiques per session so that we’re each allotted a generous amount of discussion.

I’m like a kid starting a new school year! I’m ready to bust those bad habits, and I’m looking forward to what we’ll accomplish. And I’d like to hear from you about your critique group. What works for you? Or do you have other suggestions to solve our problems?

Because, honestly, I have a great critique group. And if at first, we don’t succeed, I’m willing to try, try again!

~Cathy C. Hall

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23. Time Management Tuesday: How Does A Retreat Impact Time?

  1. Last week I covered my concerns about committing an entire weekend to a writers' retreat. Would it be worth the use of that time? I think it's pretty clear from my last two posts that I think Falling Leaves was a valuable experience and well worth the two days I spent there. Specifically, I did meet my three goals. 
  1. Weekend Writing. All of Saturday afternoon was committed to free time for writing with one twenty-five minute critique with an editor, and there were plenty of other ways to snatch twenty or thirty minutes here or there to work.
  2. Escape. I most definitely got away from Gail Universe.
  3. Community Building. I did meet a number of people I'd be happy to stay in touch with, but I suspect that community building is one of those things you have to wait a while to assess how things went. Will we become part of a writers' community? I can't make that judgement at this point.

An Impact On My Time Now

What I didn't expect was that the retreat would have an impact on my time after it was over.
  • I'm struggling with re-entry, in large part because I keep a pretty tight schedule working in units of time and planning my week. I broke training for 3 days and have been wandering around with a cold for 2 more. I am definitely having trouble getting up to speed. If I went to more retreats, I'd probably know about re-entry problems and be able to plan some way to deal with this time issue. Live and learn, as they say.
  • I brought two manuscripts to Falling Leaves with me. One was critiqued by the editor, one was critiqued by a critique group. Now I feel a need to work on both of them. As an organic writer, that could be a problem. No, it most certainly is going to be a problem. One of the ways organic writers generate material and plot is by immersing ourselves in the world we're working on. I have a plan for flipping back and forth between both my worlds, with most of my time going to one rather than the other, but this is another thing I didn't foresee. Bringing two manuscripts to a retreat is probably a mistake. Again, live and learn.
  • The big post-retreat time impact, however, is that as a result of my weekend experience I'm now interested in finding a critique group because Saturday morning's went so well. To be truthful, I have been thinking about this a bit since the NESCBWI event in May, when a workshop leader gave us some critique time. I haven't been in a critique group for 6 or 7 years, finally quitting the one I was in because it was an enormous time drain. We prepared our critiques on our own time, meaning that in addition to the two evenings a month we met, we could end up using 4 or 5 hours of our work time each month on reading and critiquing other members' work. It was also an open group at a bookstore, so we weren't necessarily working with experienced writers or writers who had writing training through workshops or course work, even if they hadn't been published themselves, as happened with both the one-stop critique groups I was part of at SCBWI events this year. Just finding a critique group could be time consuming, and then working with one on a regular basis could cost me a lot of time.This is a big risk that I wasn't that keen on taking before this past weekend.

A Retreat  Should Have An Impact On Your Post-Retreat Time 

If any kind of short, intensive learning experience (as we used to call retreat-type events back when I worked for consultants) is worthwhile, it  should have an impact on what you do after you're back at work. That's the point of going, to improve yourself in some way. I forgot about that because I was so fixated on what was going to happen during the retreat, itself. Once again, live and learn.

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24. Your team, your corner, or in other words, your critique group

I'm a lucky person.
At the beginning of my writing journey, a friend of mine with more experience than me raved about her critique group. I so wanted to be part of it, or one similar to it. So four years ago, I sent a request on the Utah Children's Writers Yahoo group, to see who'd like to start a new critique group.

Five people replied, and then, another friend, who had just started on her writing journey, expressed her interest in joining too. Two people dropped out because of personal reasons, but the remainder ones are the same. There are five of us, and we meet (or try to) once a month. Once a month we also post a chapter on Google Drive, which has worked perfectly for us. There are times during the year when it's very hard to arrange to meet. So we post on Google Drive and leave our comments online. Sometimes we post 10 pages, others a little more. I've been trying to finish my current work in progress, and my group has been super supportive as I post more than 10 pages. Also, when I need emergency help with my query letter or my pages for a contest, they always agree to give me a hand.

What I have loved the most about having a writing group is the encouragement. Even though they've read a lot of my stories, some of them of dismal first-draft quality, this is the first time they've actually critiqued a book of mine from idea to NaNo wreck to final draft. They give me encouragement when my spirits are low, and when I'm doing better, they encourage me to do my best.

I love my Sharks and Pebbles.

As an introvert I love working solo, but writing doesn't have to be solitary. In fact, it can't be. I need my team behind me; my corner telling me I can do this.

What about you?

Leave a comment to tell us about your critique group. Does is have a name? Do you meet in person? Online? Do you want to find a critique group?

Maybe if you're looking for your writerly BFFs, you can find your match here.

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25. When Nostalgia Gets in The Way of Your Writing Career

by wharman www.flickr.com
I remember fondly sitting at the dentist's office with my mom and flipping through the latest Highlights for Children magazine. I loved the Hidden Pictures and the comic strip stories. I loved the poems and arts and crafts. I also remember getting my Jack and Jill magazines in the mail and sending in my own poems and drawings. These were some exciting days as a child.

When I decided to write for children, I wanted to publish a book, of course. But all the advice I read and heard at writing conferences was that while I was working on my book, I needed to build a publishing history. I needed to submit to magazines. This was one way I could work on my craft and learn the business at the same time.

So, I started on fiction stories, as most writers do. I thought back to those doctor's office waiting rooms and reading stories with my mom and dad. I remembered using my Jack and Jill magazines to play school, and reading with great expression the stories out loud to my stuffed animals.

This nostalgia got me rejection after rejection--and only one acceptance to a small, independent magazine because I placed in their fiction contest.

What I soon learned was that I needed a critique group. I needed to try my hand at nonfiction, too. I needed to learn about fillers and editors and query letters and more. So, through my correspondence classes at the Institute of Children's Literature and the wonderful members of my critique group (as well as all the conferences they dragged me to), I soon realized there was no place for nostalgia if I wanted a career as a writer. I needed to put away those memories of Highlights and Jack and Jill and face reality.

I see this SO OFTEN with new writers and/or people who have been trying to get a children's book published for years. They want to write a book like they remember from their childhood. They don't want to hear about e-zines or Walter, the Farting Dog or picture book apps. They don't want to hear that nonfiction sells easier than fiction, and that magazine editors are dying for boy stories with humor. They don't want to hear that they have to go study the market and figure out how it is always changing.

As the saying goes, "This is not your grandma's" publishing business any more. If you find yourself receiving rejection after rejection on your picture book or middle grade novel manuscript, take some time t

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