Critique Groups – should you join one?

It can be very tough for new, unpublished writers, receiving rejection after rejection – or worse, no reply at all – and not knowing why this is.  This is where belonging to a critique group could prove to be invaluable.  Although most groups are highly unlikely to be made up of ideal members such as experienced editors, literary agents or published authors, this is no reason to bag the idea of joining one!  Other writers as inexperienced as yourself can still give incredibly helpful advice.

I found my way into a critique group completely by luck.  In the very early days of writing seriously, I had two rhyming picture book texts which I thought were fantastic.  I had tested them out on a couple of friends, who seemed to easily ‘get’ my rhythm, and who had assured me the stories really were great.  I submitted them confidently to the first publisher on my list – my number one preference of course, why aim low?  Several rejections later I began to wonder why no one was seeing what I saw.

One agent had suggested a manuscript assessment  – this wasn’t a personal reply by the way, just the bog-standard rejection letter.  I contacted one of the places they recommended, and in due course, received my assessment.  I remember being very surprised at the comments made – what did they mean my rhythm needed work?  And that those words didn’t actually rhyme?  Even more bewildering, was the one text the assessor liked and seemed to think had potential, was the one I considered to be the least strong!  Of course, in retrospect, everything this manuscript assessment said was completely true.  But I simply couldn’t see it!

The assessor suggested I join a writing critique group, which in turn led me to the now defunct online site, Authonomy.  Run by Harper Collins, it was a place where writers of all genres could post their work to be reviewed by other writers.  Any books you thought were worthy of publishing, you could put on your ‘bookshelf,’ and if your work made it to enough bookshelves, Harper Collins would read and assess it for you.

Although picture book writers were a minority on the site, I created a profile and began to review other authors work.  In return, people began to review my own stories.  Some people loved them!  Others pointed out that certain lines didn’t work rhythm wise, and that some of my words didn’t actually rhyme.  Hmmm….

I took all comments with a grain of salt, including the ones with high praise, as seeing other stories they’d given the thumbs up to sometimes made it clear they weren’t necessarily good judges of literary excellence!  And eventually one day I had a light-bulb moment – the reason these people were saying my rhythm didn’t work was because certain lines could be read in two different ways!  I began to understand the concept of stressed and unstressed syllables, I could now see that certain words could be read with 2 or 3 syllables depending on the reader and so on, and so on.  And my writing began to improve immensely…

When Authonomy was shut down, I struggled to find another place like it – there are many online writers sites but nothing I liked nearly as much, or that gave the same level of feedback. Luckily for me, a wonderful picture book author I’d befriended on Authonomy added me to her SCBWI originated online group.   Being a part of this group has enabled me to continue to improve my writing – my group members are there to double check my scansion and rhyming, they help fine tune my grammar, often point out plot holes that I would have missed otherwise, and have given lots of great suggestions that have ultimately improved my stories.  This group continues to be not only a wonderful help writing wise, but also a place of support and encouragement, and where I’ve made some amazing friends.  And I like to think that I help them out sometimes too….

Its never easy opening yourself up to criticism – I’ve seen many cases of people who were not ready to receive negative feedback, and who took it very badly.  Lets face it – we all want to be told our work is fabulous and doesn’t need a single word changing!  But that’s not the reality – even the best published authors have editors to help them improve their work.  And if you want to be published, you need a thick skin.

So join a group!  If you can’t find one, start one yourself!  Join SCBWI if you write for children and haven’t already – this is a great place to find other authors.  And try to remember these tips –

  1. When receiving critique it is important to remember this is only one person’s opinion, and they are not always going to be right.  But at the same time, keep in mind you probably aren’t perfect and there is always room to improve!
  2. When giving critique yourself, don’t forget to include the positive things – make sure you tell the author everything you did like, as well as where you think they can improve.  These positive comments can go an awfully long way for someone’s confidence!
  3. If you can, try to join a group of authors who write similar things.  I learned from my time on Authonomy that people who write science fiction or murder mysteries can’t always give helpful insights on things like rhythm and rhyme!  Plus, if you write short picture book texts and they are writing full length novels, it will take much longer for you to review their work than it will for them to review yours!

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Am I doing this right?

Am I doing this right? Who knows!  And will anyone read it?  Probably not!  But bear with me, I’m bound to get the hang of this sooner or later, and hopefully I will eventually have something interesting or amusing to say.

I’m starting this blog simply because it is my burning ambition to become a successful picture book author.  I always saw myself as a writer, I even wrote a novel in my early twenties (which was pretty rubbish), and it was around then that I discovered my passion for picture books.  I was working as a nanny, which meant reading picture books on an almost daily basis, and I remember reading ‘Room on the Broom’ and being absolutely blown away by what a masterpiece it was. It had everything -the story was sweet and funny, the illustrations delightful, the rhyming so clever and a joy to read.  I soon found myself deliberately searching the library book bins for other rhyming stories, and becoming incredibly picky over which books I was taking out.  I even felt unreasonably disappointed when a rhyming story lacked correct scansion!

But it’s been a process of trial and error get to the point with my writing that I’m at today.  My earlier stories, which I was convinced were fabulous, were anything but fabulous!  I had to teach myself about scansion and rhythm – things I could easily pick up as being not quite right in other people’s stories were so much harder to see in my own work.  When reading something to yourself over and over, it’s easy to get into the habit of reading lines in a certain way, placing stresses where it’s not then a natural way of saying the word. I even had lots of ‘rhymes’ that didn’t actually rhyme!  It was through allowing other writers to read and critique my work that I was able to start seeing where I was going wrong.

I feel like I’m now at a point where what I’m writing is good enough, it’s just a matter of finding the right agent or publisher.  It’s not so much a question of skill anymore, but a case of fitting into the market – and this is something I’m still trying to make happen!

Monday is usually my dedicated writing day  – it’s the one day of the week when both my children are away, and I try to keep it absolutely free so that I can focus solely on my writing.  The past seven weeks however, have been school holidays, so not ideal conditions for concentrating on my craft!  In saying that, I still managed to write a new rhyming text, fixed up some older, shoddier texts, and started work on another new story – so it was more productive than I had anticipated!  When inspiration strikes I have no choice but to run with it…

I will end this first blog by sharing with you a little poem I whipped up the other night. People were posting back to school poems on Facebook, inspired by that all time classic, ‘Twas the night before Christmas’.  I was bothered by the lack of scansion in these (!), and felt compelled to write one of my own.  This one isn’t for my usual target audience, but for all those parents who felt the holidays were a little too long…

 

‘Twas the night before school time, when all through the land,

All the mummies were smiling, with wine glass in hand.

The school bags were hung on the coat hooks with cheer,

With hope that the children would soon disappear.

The kiddies were nestled all snug in their beds,

While phonics and tricky sums danced in their heads.

And Ma with her bottle, and Pa with his beer,

Were toasting the fact that their freedom was near.

 

At last they could go to the toilet alone,

And drink all their tea without hearing a moan.

Their house would be tidy for some of the day,

Their kitchen a kitchen, and not a buffet.

Their eyes how they twinkled, their faces were merry,

While opening a beverage made out of a berry.

And how their tums shook as they giggled with glee,

With thoughts that the teacher was now referee.

 

And though the school break had caused more than one wrinkle,

They raised up their glass, downed their drinks in twinkle.

And I heard them exclaim that the future was bright.

Happy school night to all, and to all a good night!