Input from Others Can Improve Your Output as an Author
by Barbara Renner
I wrote my first two picture books while living in a small town in northwest Minnesota for the summer. Enthralled with the state bird, the Common Loon, my mind conjured what I thought would be cute stories about Lonnie the Loon. I found an illustrator, researched loons, and added interesting facts to almost every page.
Determined to be a published author, I pursued my dream with the help of Google. Armed with Writing Children’s Books for Dummies, an English degree, several years of teaching grammar, writing newsletters, and raising two children on Mercer Mayer, I figured I was qualified to author children’s books.
I knew the importance of having another set of eyes read my manuscript, but the only people I could rely on at the time were my husband, a friend, and my next door neighbor who writes young adult novels. My husband critiqued, “The story just gets going and then it ends.” My friend stated, “It’s cute, Barb. I’ll buy one for my grandchildren.” My neighbor wanted me to add more description, and we had a discussion about past perfect tenses.
As a novice at this self-publishing game, however, my Lonnie the Loon books have sold very well. I’ve sold over 200 copies of each book. I’ve learned a lot since Lonnie flew onto the scene and have more stories floating around in my head.
Then I met Joanne at a Kid Lit Mingle, an event hosted by SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). She told me she was writing a picture book and was part of a critique group. I knew one other lady in the group, Rita. I asked if there was room for one more – there was, and I’ve been meeting with them once a month ever since. There are only four of us, and we each bring our own style and interpretations to the group. Rita is an author/illustrator, so she can give tips on our manuscripts from an illustrator’s viewpoint. Joanne has a unique way of writing lyrical text and gives great tips on how to restructure our sentences. Jill read and outlined Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul for us and keeps us in line with story arc and conflict. I insert my grammatical expertise.
Basically, we use Writing Picture Books to guide us with our critiques, particularly Chapter 7 (Diving Into Story), Chapter 9 (Three-Act Structure: Basic Plotting), Chapter 12 (Two S’s of Strong Writing), and Chapter 18 (Sharing Your Story). I highly recommend purchasing this book as a great resource for authors of picture books.
Not an author of picture books? Here are some tips for critique groups of all genres:
- Keep the number of members small and manageable, perhaps four to six.
- Establish a regular meeting time and place. Limit the time of the meeting. For example, 30 minutes per writer. Also limit the number of pages or word count that is manageable per meeting for the size of the group.
- Agree on rules for the group to avoid misunderstandings and hard feelings.
- Email your writing selection to all members at least one week before the meeting.
- Share news (conferences, good books, publishing updates, agents, etc.) related to your genre.
- When critiquing, don’t just focus on grammar. A critique should also focus on characterization, plot logic, conflict, consistency in point of view, scene structure, pacing, telling vs. showing, dialogue, and reaching an audience.
- Use the “sandwich” technique when critiquing. Begin by saying something positive about the selection, then point out areas for improvement, and end with another positive comment.
- Critique the writing, never the author.
- Don’t just identify deficiencies. Give helpful suggestions or ideas.
- As a writer, listen and consider the critiques. Avoid becoming defensive. Consider all the comments, but accept only what works for you and your work, then go home and revise.
Joining a critique group gives you an opportunity to have other writers offer constructive criticism about your manuscript. In addition, analyzing others’ works can help you become more objective about your own writing. I’ve read comments that authors are introverts and the process of writing is lonely. Authors lock themselves in a room, alone with their muse, and don’t emerge until they type the words “The End.” Networking with other authors and joining a critique group will not only improve your writing, it will also educate you about what’s happening in your industry.
Now, excuse me while I climb the stairs to my room, lock the door, open my laptop, and listen to the calls of the loons. Oh yes, and I need to write my critique of Jill’s story.
Please leave comments about your experiences with critique groups.
Barbara Renner and her husband have lived in Phoenix for more than 40 years – almost natives – but not quite. As “Sun Birds,” they fly away to Minnesota to escape the summer heat – and fish. While in Minnesota, Barbara became fascinated with its state bird, the Common Loon. This prompted her to write four picture books about Lonnie the Loon, because everyone should know about loons. Since books about loons don’t sell very well in the desert, she is writing a series of picture books about Quincy the Quail. Barbara visits elementary schools as a guest author to read her books and share interesting facts about loons and quails. Barbara is working on other children’s books and a special book about her yellow lab, Larry, called Larry’s Words of Wisdom. Find out more about Barbara on her website, RennerWrites.com, twitter, Facebook, and GoodReads.