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Need a Picture Book Critique Group? September is Matchmaking Month!

Periodically I hear from former students who are wondering how to find critique partners. Often, they've tried SCBWI but found there's a long waiting list. Or they were in a critique group that formed out of one of my classes but it faded over time or never got off the ground. And so they're all alone.

"I remember you well talking about the need as a writer for connection with other writers," a former student wrote me recently. "I just don't have it, and have been discouraged enough to consider giving up altogether."

If you've taken one of my classes, you've heard me say it: a critique group is the single most important thing you can do for your career as a writer. In addition to the feedback you'll get on your work, a critique group gives you a community, helps you stay motivated, and provides you with deadlines and expectations.I myself am in three different critique groups, each of which is focused on a different genre. These groups both kick my butt and soothe my soul and I would be a much poorer -- not to mention lonelier -- writer without them. Critique groups don't need to be big -- even a single critique partner can do the trick. 

But how do you find them?

I've pondered the way to match people up for some time and in the end decided to borrow an idea from Maggie Stiefvater, who matchmakes critique groups for YA writers once a year. The method is simple. If you are interested in forming a critique partnership, post your Want Ad in the comment section below. Here's the information you should include:

  • A one sentence description of who you are and what you're working on.
  • A geographic location (because your online critique group could be an in-person critique group).
  • Three picture books that you love or that have influenced you as a writer.
  • A way for an interested critique partner to get in touch with you.

If you see someone who seems like a good match, contact them. If the interest is mutual, then you should each send the other a picture book manuscript to be critiqued. That is your trial run. If you're happy with how it went, you've got a partner. If anything about the exchange didn't work for you, then the trial period is over and you can simply thank your partner and walk away.

Oh, and make sure to check out my information about How To Form An Online Critique Group.

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
How To Form An Online Critique Group

I believe that a great critique group is the sum of all its parts. It’s the level of dedication that’s given to the group, by the group as a whole. I don’t mean that each person in the group must constantly be posting new manuscripts and critiques (although that would be nice). Dedication means that each member supports the others in every way possible, like providing the group with important information, passing along helpful URL addresses, or alerting the group to a publisher submission deadline, etc. It means understanding when a group member needs time off for personal or business reasons. It means celebrating together when one member achieves the success that we are all seeking.

                      nLISA J. MICHAELS, writing in the SCBWI Bulletin, March/April 2011
In the next few days, I'll be launching my September Picture Book Critique Group Matchmaking Extravaganza. In preparation, I thought I'd post a few words of wisdom about how to form an onine critique group. Originally written for my picture book writing students, these are a few simple guidelines to get you started. if you have other suggestions, please post them in the comments section.
1. Get everyone’s email addresses and form an email list. If you have more than four or five people, I recommend using Google groups, which also allows you to set up a web page and a calendar. You can also use Yahoo groups. Or create a circle through Google+, which allows you to schedule video meetings through Google Hangouts.

2. Decide what the ground rules are. How many manuscripts or drafts of a manuscript can one person submit per month? How many must they submit? Will you have a schedule for submitting, or just allow people to circulate manuscripts as they finish them?

Rachel Rodriguez, author of two wonderful picture book biographies, says that when she was in an online critique group it was structured like this: “Anyone could send a picture book manuscript or perhaps a chapter from a longer work around the start of the month. Then people had the month to respond. If someone had an additional piece they wanted seen, they could send it out with the caveat that others might not have time to respond.”

Whatever method you choose, I suggest setting up some kind of schedule or routine rather than having people just circulate manuscripts “as needed.” Too many submissions can be overwhelming, but too few often means that the group fades away. Also, deadlines help – if you know it’s your turn to give the group something to read and critique on May 1, you might actually finish that draft! You can use the Google Calendar function to set up regular deadlines with email reminders.

3. Decide how long people have to respond to new manuscripts and what the format will be for discussion. It’s nice to see what other people are saying so you can chime in – agree, disagree, take the thought a step further. If you want that to happen, you need to make sure people reply to the whole list, rather than just to the individual.

One writer, Beth Hull, told me her online critique group had its members upload their submissions to Google Drive, so that members could type notes directly on the manuscript and respond to other peoples' comments all on one document. “When we wrote on the google docs, we each adopted a specific color,” she explained. “I was blue, someone else used purple text, green, etc. That way you don't have to sign every comment you make, and it's easier for people to scroll through and find comments.”

4. Get in the habit of sending out news, thoughts, queries, and other chatter in addition to manuscripts. It’s fun to stay in touch and it keeps the online community alive. A critique group needs nurturing, but if you nurture it, it will most certainly nurture you.

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

The other night a friend invited me to a dance performance at ODC in San Francisco – a competition in which audience members decide which choreographers will receive a $10,000 grant to develop new work. I went in knowing nothing about the choreographers or the pieces and left feeling electric with inspiration -- nothing feeds the artistic impulse more than art itself. (“Her response to any performance, any work of art, was the desire to make another, to make her own,” A.S. Byatt says in The Children's Book, describing the “relentlessly busy inventiveness” of Olive, a writer of children’s books. That’s it, exactly.)

What struck me at this particular performance was that choreographers and writers share a certain way of thinking about the creative process. We both make art that unfolds sequentially, over time, and we both use a vocabulary of words or movements that we manipulate in similar ways – repeating and reversing them, placing them in conversations (duets) or interior monologues (solos), seeking to build tension and then resolve it. In a discussion with the audience after the performance two of the four choreographers whose works were performed said that their pieces were inspired by poetry – albeit in very different ways. Liss Fain (“Speak of Familiar Things”) was inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens called Debris of Life and Mind” from which the title of her piece was taken. Choreographer Katie Faulkner, whose piece “Until We Know For Sure” was both the evening’s winner and my personal favorite, came to poetry from a different angle. She was aiming, she said, for a “poetic economy.” 

As a poet and picture book writer I knew just what she meant – both forms are like a tincture of narrative, requiring the writer to distill paragraphs into a single potent line. It was this distillation that Faulkner was aiming for. “I kept throwing stuff out because I wanted to stay interested,” she said, adding that she had been feeling bored by her own “movement palette” – her artistic habits of mind.

All of us, when we’re cutting things out, worry that we’re cutting out the good stuf. But Faulkner’s piece felt neither minimalist nor abstract. In fact, it was the warmest, funniest, and most human of the four we saw that night. An exploration of a relationship between a man and a woman, it left me feeling as if I had just read an entire novel about the two people and their time together. By cutting out everything extraneous, she had allowed what remained to breathe, blossom, and expand, to achieve its full power. 

I scribbled down Faulkner’s comments about throwing stuff out because I’m in the midst of a series of picture book revisions right now and so I’ve been contemplating the alchemy of addition by subtraction. Creativity, for me, begins in a rush of generation – words, ideas, plots, jokes, descriptions, images, phrases – that “busy inventiveness” Byatt describes. To try to constrain or direct the flow would stanch it completely – I have to let it all spill on the page. But then, the process of subtraction begins. At first, I don’t want to cut. Sure a few things can go, but so much of it feels essential. But as I begin to subtract, I find that something happens to the words I’ve left behind. The pure lines of the story emerge from the unwieldy blob of words. The unencumbered sentences seem truer, more potent.

It’s hard to do – heartbreaking sometimes. All the same, scissors can be the most useful implement in the writer’s toolbox.

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