Critiquing Tips – How to Start and Run Your Critique Group

Nicky A contacted me recently asking for tips about how to set up and run a critique group.
Thanks, Nicky.  Really happy to blog about this because critique groups are amazing. Mine have been so helpful to me in developing my craft. I love my critique groups. Shout out to The Secret Scribblers, The Snorkers and The Killer Rabbits.
A critique group should be a nurturing, secure and inspiring environment so here are my tips on how you can achieve this.

My Australian critique groups helped me get this book to publication.

My Tips on Running a Group

  1. Don’t have too many people. I personally think up to about four works best, although one of my groups is larger. Think about this. If there are ten people in the group and each one has a piece to critique, that’s a lot of time you spend reading other people’s work and not writing. Smaller groups can be more flexible because there are fewer people to please in terms of meeting times etc. Also, too much advice from too many people can get very confusing. Don’t be afraid to split a large group into smaller ones.
  2. If you’re looking for members to start a group … be specific about what you are looking for in terms of experience, genre, and commitment to their writing. You want sharers in your group. People who will share publishing opportunities they hear about, and who will be there for you during the highs and lows of your writing career.
  3. Generally, it’s helpful if your critique group comprises people of similar levels of experience. Otherwise, the more experienced writers become more like mentors/teachers and will eventually leave because they are not getting the feedback they want on their own work. The least experienced writers can become overwhelmed and daunted by the experienced writers. However, some groups of mixed experience work really well. It depends on the people and their commitment. And a critique group can be a great learning environment for everyone.
  4. You don’t all have to be writing the same genre (sometimes it helps to have fresh eyes look at your work), but it’s good to have at least one other person in the group writing the same genre as you. That way you have someone who can give you feedback on whether you have met the conventions of your genre. The main thing is that all members have the same level of enthusiasm and commitment to the group.
  5. Set guidelines for your group. For example, you might take it in turns with giving people the opportunity to submit their work to the group. That way nobody monopolises the critique time, and nobody is left out.
  6. Critiquing works best if the person asking for the critique knows what they are looking for and can be specific in the sort of feedback they are looking for. For example, “I’m not sure if my main character is believable’ or “Is my ending too predictable.” Thinking about the kind of feedback you are looking for, makes you think deeper about your work. It also means that nobody’s time is wasted on giving or receiving unnecessary feedback. For example, if this is your first draft and you just want to know if people can engage with your main character, then having people read your work for typos or setting description can waste everybody’s time.
  7. You can belong to more than one critique group. Different writers bring different things to the table.
  8. If you’re writing for an international market it can help to be in an international critique group.
  9. Establish at the start the times and methods of running the group. For example, one of my groups meets every fortnight. Another of my groups does most of our work online and we only meet about four times a year in person. It doesn’t matter if you never meet. With Skype, emails and other electronic means, it’s possible to do critiquing at a time and in a way that suits everyone’s lifestyle.
  10. Critique groups need to be flexible. For example, you might decide to meet once a month. But what if one of your members has just received a FULL manuscript request from an agent? You may want to call an impromptu meeting to celebrate this, show support and perhaps critique aspects of the manuscript before it goes to the agent.

Everyone has different reasons for wanting their work critiqued. As I mentioned before, if you are specific with the aspects you want the group to look at, you will receive higher quality feedback.

Above all … have fun! Your group can have outings, retreats, get togethers … whatever it takes to help and inspire each other.

My U.S. critique group helped me get this book to publication.

WORKSHOPPING AND CRITIQUING TIPS

  1. Be positive.
  2. Be constructive.
  3. Sandwich a negative in between two positives.
  4. If you see a problem try to suggest a solution – don’t just say, “I didn’t like this.”
  5. Don’t talk while your critiquer is having their say – if they didn’t ‘get’ what you are trying to say, you might need to get your message across more clearly and they might be giving you tips on how to do this.
  6. Constructive feedback is critical to becoming a better writer.

OPENING

  • Does it hook you in?
  • Does it make you want to keep reading?
  • Does it give indications of what is to come?

PLOT/STRUCTURE

  • Is plot believable?
  • Was there a clear conflict/focus?
  • Did story follow plot arc/structure?
  • Did story start at right place?
  • Were there any scenes, paragraphs, characters etc that didn’t need to be there?

SETTING

  • Could you picture it?
  • Too much/too little detail?
  • Did places seem real?
  • Was setting consistent?

CHARACTER

  • Were character’s believable?
  • Did characters have depth?
  • Could reader relate to/feel empathy with characters?
  • Were character’s motives and conflicts clear?
  • Did characters change and grow as story progressed?
  • Was there enough contrast to differentiate characters?

DIALOGUE

  • Did dialogue seem authentic?
  • Did dialogue have purpose in the story – eg, show character or move plot along?
  • Were there too many dialogue tags?

ENDING

  • Was the ending believable and satisfying (had the loose ends been tied up)?

POINT OF VIEW

  • Did it work?
  • Was it consistent?
  • Was tense consistent?
Some other information
If you’re looking for a writing/critque buddy, you may find one here.
Below are some links to articles on my blog that might help you in the editing/workshopping process. You can find other articles if you search for ‘editing’ on my blog.

https://deescribewriting.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/tuesday-writing-tips-fixing-the-holes/

Nicky, I hope you and your group find this helpful. Please let me know if you have questions or there’s anything else you need to know.

If you’re in a critique group and you have tips or experiences to share, feel free to include them in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

Happy writing 🙂

Dee

Sunday for Children’s Writers at the Sunshine Coast International Readers and Writer’s Festival

If you’re coming to the Sunshine Coast International Readers and Writer’s Festival, make sure you pop in and say, “Hi”.

I’ll be talking about writing for the international market, and the delightful Dimity Powell will be launching my new books, Reena’s Rainbow and K9 Heroes.

The festival has a great line up of speakers, launches and presentations – Sunday is especially for those who write children’s and YA books.

Bookings can be made through festival website.

Hope to see you there.

Dee

Can You Have Too Many Friends?

Too Many Friends is the beautiful new verse novel from Kathryn Apel, author of the acclaimed Bully on the Bus and On Track.

       

Having no friends is hard, but having a lot of friends can make life difficult too. By the end of  Kathryn’s book, you’ll have formed your own conclusions about whether you can have Too Many Friends.

And at the end of this post, Kathryn provides some fabulous tips on writing.

Kathryn Apel in Antarctica, the setting for her latest WIP.

Too Many Friends is a gentle book about friends, about making and breaking friends, about true friendship.

It’s for kids who find it difficult to juggle the needs of the people around them … to keep all the people they care about happy. (And that’s something that most adults find difficult too.)

It’s easy to warm to Kathryn Apel’s main character, Tahnee who wants to be friends with everyone, and who wants all her friends to be friends with each other. This causes tension and heartache, but Tahnee won’t budge from her goal.

I love Tahnee’s generous inclusive nature. Lucy is shy and a bit of an outcast, but Tahnee is determined to include her in their friendship group, even if it risks existing friendship.

And when Tahnee has a birthday, EVERYONE must be invited.

‘You can’t have that many friends!’
Mum gasps.

Tahnee has 23 on her list.

‘I don’t want anyone to feel
                                    left out,’ I say.

Soon Mum and Dad are involved in the excitement of the party plans.

Meanwhile, at school, Miss Darling has the children conducting a science experiment.

During Science
we start testing
the effects of force
on toys.

The push and pull of the experiment is symbolic of what’s happening with Tahnee and her friendships.

I love the way author Kathryn Apel adds depth and meaning to her work using these kinds of devices that young readers will easily relate to.

As well as introducing common dilemmas for kids, Too Many Friends introduces a whole range of fabulous classroom activities for teachers both within the book, and inspired by it.

Too Many Friends is lyrical and sensitive. A beautifully crafted story that will warm your heart.

Kathryn Apel uses words and shape, symbolism and rhythm to create this easy to read, but absorbing verse novel for younger readers, published by UQP.

Page 47

 

Below, Kathryn shares some fabulous tips on how she wrote Too Many Friends.

KATHRYN APEL’S WRITING TIPS

Kathryn Apel – Five Writing Tips for ‘Too Many Friends’

Listen: Life is made of experiences that can shape your writing. Sometimes a story needs to find you. Listen! I wrote a story-note on my phone after a conversation with a friend about her daughter; ‘a story about a girl with too many friends’.

Play: Throw words around. Juggle them. Try a new word for shape and size. Play with form.

Remember the big picture; whilst a word might be the best choice for that given situation, if that word is also the best choice in numerous other situations … you have a problem! (Related: Smile. Lots. In real life. But not too much in your writing. No matter how many friends your main character has – or how lovely your editor is – you can’t get away with too many ‘smiles’!)

Have a Joke: One poem (jokingly named ‘The BIG Smile-ing Thing’ – See Point 2) was written during final edits and became one of the heart-warming turning points of the book. You’ll probably never guess which poem it is (once it served its purpose, it was renamed) – but I’ll remember the laugh I had with my editor when she saw that title.

Prioritise: Unexpected circumstances meant ‘Too Many Friends’ had to be at typesetters a month earlier than planned. The pressure was on – and I couldn’t work with life and family continually disrupting. First time ever, I took time out and went away. By myself. For a week! (I won’t rhapsodise too much …) The tightly coiled spring inside me unravelled, the words stuttered … and flowed. I wrote – into the night, and halfway to sunrise. I slept late, wrote more then pottered along for a week at my night-owl-pace … and met the deadline. And my family coped.

Bounce Back: One of my favourite poems (and my editor’s) was a shape poem – and it was perfect! … Until it came back from typesetters and we made the awful discovery that we hadn’t considered line-spacing! My pièce de résistance was cut in half and spread over two pages – and completely unrecognisable! I will always love the original Duck, Dad – and share sneaky-peeks at author visits – but the revised version is even better suited to this book!

Writing With Love

Writing about what you love is such a joyous experience.

Not only that, your passion for your subject comes through in your writing, and makes it sparkle.

Recently, I realised that both my new books due to be released this year involve dogs. And I LOVE dogs.

In Reena’s Rainbow, to be published by EK Books, Reena meets a stray dog and it changes her life. (I love illustrator, Tracie Grimwood’s sensitive and beautiful interpretation of my Dog).

In K9 Heroes, to be published by Scholastic Australia, all four stories are about amazing dogs who have saved people’s lives.

Here are my tips for writing about what you love. I hope you find them helpful.

WRITING ABOUT WHAT YOU LOVE

  1. Remember that your reader might not know as much about your passion as you do … so some explanation might be required.
  2. Story comes first … so don’t let your love for your subject distract you from the art of good story telling.
  3. What you love is part of who you are, it’s part of your natural voice so allow it to filter through organically in your work. Don’t let it become contrived. For example, me bringing dogs into my story happened in my subconscious, and while I love writing about them, that doesn’t mean I should have a dog in every story.
  4. Enjoy the experience. It’s okay to love what you do … even if it’s not paying the bills … yet.
  5. Look for markets that publish pieces about your passion.

What do you love writing about? Do you find recurring themes or symbols in your writing. If so, we’d love you to share your experiences in the comments section of this post.

Happy writing 🙂

Dee

 

Football and Literacy – A Great Combination for Kids

Katrina Germein and Janine Dawson’s new book Great Goal, Marvellous Mark is a seamless creation that blends football with alphabet

This is a great book for teaching kids their ABC, especially active football loving readers who may be more focussed on sport than literacy.

What I love about Great Goal, Marvellous Mark is that the entire alphabet is encapsulated in this book without the reader realising.

It’s an ABC book with a difference … one that will teach kids the letters of the alphabet before they even realise they’ve learned them, and readers will be completely engrossed in the story.

Janine Dawson’s lively illustrations, full of action and warmth, also carry this tale along.

I love the expressions on the kid’s faces, and the mud and slush of a true football game in winter.

Kids will love the humor and movement of the illustrations and the fast paced text.
Great Goal, Marvellous Mark is a book that sport loving parents can read to their kids, or the kids can enjoy alone.

Text and illustrations work in perfect harmony to ensure that this book will appeal to both readers and sport enthusiasts.

KATRINA’S GREAT WRITING TIPS

We are so lucky that best-selling author, Katrina Germein has agreed to share her fabulous writing tips with us:

  1. Write about something new. 

Things that have been in our lives forever are often the hardest to write about well. That’s because we either take them for granted, or we’re too sentimental; we can’t easily identify the details that make the story interesting or entertaining. When we begin something new as an outsider, we’re observant and curious. That makes for good writing.

I didn’t grow up in a football family and yet one day I found myself the parent of two kids who played Aussie Rules. Junior footy became a big part of my life and it was all new to me. Hours on the sideline trying to make sense of it all resulted in this book.

Love this tip

  1. Be prepared to play with the structure.

Thorough editing is always the key to a good picture book manuscript. Sometimes you can get away with tightening up each paragraph, each sentence, word by word, but other times you need to find a whole new way of organising the story. I played around with junior footy stories for years before I managed to make Great Goal, Marvellous Mark really work. The first two ‘final’ manuscripts are quite different to the published story. I didn’t plan to write an alphabet book, but using an alphabetic structure for the narrative just worked in this case; it provided a wonderful way to showcase the game and celebrate footy lingo.

  1. Take a big deep breath and listen to the experts.

When you’ve rewritten your manuscript fifty million times, and it’s been accepted, and the contact is signed, and the illustrator has begun, it’s easy to feel like the hard work is done. I was lucky enough to have the fabulous Sue Whiting edit my contracted story but despite her expertise and diplomacy I may have had one small tantrum at some point and claimed to be ‘overwhelmed’. Luckily, I got over myself and listened to Sue because her suggestions were small but brilliant and the story is much better as a result.

This is really great advice

  1. Advocate for Diversity

I love the diversity of the engaging characters illustrated in the book. Janine Dawson’s lively illustrations are exactly what I was hoping for. The vibrant art adds layers of action and humour to the story and is inclusive of gender and a broad range of cultural backgrounds. It’s wonderful when author, publisher, designer and illustrator share the same vision. Authors are constantly told to stay out of the illustration process but if something is really important to you, mention it, because you might find that everyone shares the same vision.

I love the diversity in this book too.

  1. Dogs make everything better.

If you can find an authentic way to include a dog in your story then do it. Dogs bring joy (in life and books).

I so agree with this tip 🙂 Thanks for these great writing tips, Katrina.

Just by coincidence, I happen to have a dog book coming out later this year myself … and another book with a dog in it. Dogs Rule!

   

Hope you enjoyed Katrina’s great tips.

Happy writing 🙂

Dee

 

 

Why “How to Bee” is creating such a buzz – PLUS great writing tips

How to Bee, the new book for readers aged 8-12 by Bren MacDibble has been creating quite a buzz in bookstores, libraries and homes … and that’s no surprise.

Dealing with a contemporary concern, the extinction of bees, the main character, Peony has such a unique voice and fierce, determined personality that she quickly draws you into her story.

I’ll be telling you more about How to Bee and my thoughts on it later, but first, Bren MacDibble has some great writing tips based on how she created this wonderful book.

BREN’S TOP WRITING TIPS

1.  The setting for How to Bee was a future world that evolved over time via facts picked up from reading articles and attending cons and listening to people speak on food security. So my tip is pay attention to interesting things, and things that are important. Nothing is more important to us right now than climate change and food security, so why not set a book in a world that shows the effects of our current direction? Kids are not deaf and blind, they worry about things like this too. A book showing possible effects of bee loss can help them think about those fears in a non-threatening way.

2. How to Bee has a very direct plot line. It’s for 8 to 12 year olds and it is tightly focussed on what the main character wants, and she drives the plot like she’s got hold of a bulldozer and can’t reach the brake. The plot pretty much just goes forwards, with a couple of pauses to catch the reader up on how things got this way. So there’s a straight path through the story, keeping the reader following, even though it’s set in a complex world they’ve never seen before.

3. How to Bee is in first person so the voice of a 9 year old girl who’s never been to school a day in her life and only lived in an orchard, can never let up. She’s the narrator. It’s in her head. It’s in her dialogue, and it’s different to the dialogue of the people around her, except the other kids on the orchard. I can’t tell her story in my voice, I’m too old and have a different vocabulary. Her vocabulary is simple and full of slang, and shaped by the children around her. Find your protagonist’s real and honest voice and use it.

4.  Likewise, her point of view can never let up. Peony is determined and strong, but she is naive. There are things about her mother, or people she doesn’t know that she can’t hope to understand, and when she guesses, she’s often wrong, and that’s okay, because it’s honest. Don’t put adult thoughts in your protagonist’s head. Be honest.

5.  Thinking about everyone in a new world, and what they might value, can add surprising details that add colour to world-building. Like that all the orchard children are named after fruit and flowers because they are what’s precious in this new world. Likewise, for the very rich, life had not changed at all. They were able to insulate themselves and afford the rising food prices, whereas middle and low income people mortgaged their homes and quickly join the ranks of homeless poor. Of course neither of these things can be said from the point of view of a child narrator, but they are shown to a point and left to the observant reader to figure out. When Peony meets Esmeralda, one of the first things she says is, “What kind of name is that?” You or I might think Peony, Pomegranate, and Mangojoy are strange names but in this world, the name Peony thinks is strange is the old name of Esmeralda. There should be a logical flow-on to the whole world if values change.

WHY I LOVED “HOW TO BEE”

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. Real bees are extinct, and the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand.

Sometimes bees get too big to be up in the branches, sometimes they fall and break their bones. This week both happened and Foreman said, ‘Tomorrow we’ll find two new bees.’

Peony’s greatest wish is to be one of them … but nothing is ever certain in her world.

In How to Bee, author Bren MacDibble has taken us so deeply into this world of the future, that as readers we feel we are truly part of it.

We desperately want things to work out for Peony, but when her mother takes her off to the city, we know there’s going to be trouble ahead.

In spite of her fierce dislike of living in the ‘urbs’, Peony forms a friendship with rich city girl Esmeralda that transforms both their lives.

Peony’s voice is so strong and unique that you can hear her in your head and picture her as if she were standing in front of you..

“I wrap my body around it like I am the tree and the tree is me, and hang on.”

There’s plenty of action in How to Bee, but it also has vulnerable sensitive moments that allow the reader to reflect on Peony and her situation and empathise with her story.

How to Bee is sad and poignant and joyous and life affirming all at once.

Peony deals with some difficult realities in How to Bee, but many children have hardship in their lives. Some will relate, others will gain greater understanding by sharing Peony’s journey. All will admire her resilience.

How to Bee is a story of love and hope. It’s about the things you can’t choose in your life, and the choices you can make.

It’s impossible not to fall in love with Peony. With her grit and determination, her hard edges, her courage and her capacity to love.

How to Bee is a great read for anyone who likes strong, unique characters, an original plot and a story world that’s so real and fascinating that you want to stay in it.

How to Bee is published by Allen & Unwin.

Michelle Morgan’s Tips on Writing Historical YA

morgan-michelle-head-shotToday, I’m pleased to welcome Michelle Morgan. Michelle is sharing her writing tips on how she wrote her second historical YA novel, Flying through Clouds, released in April.

Michelle’s first novel Racing the Moon, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2014, and released in the UK and US in 2015. Four of her plays have been performed in Short Play festivals in Sydney, Newcastle and Armidale. She has also co-written several songs with her husband, Luke. You can find out more about Michelle and her writing on her website.

ABOUT FLYING THROUGH THE CLOUDS

It’s not easy being a teenage boy growing up in the tough neighbourhood of Glebe in the 1930s. It’s even harder when your dream is to become an aviator, your parents are dead against it, and your girlfriend’s father is the School Principal. But Joe has even bigger challenges he must face and obstacles to overcome if he wants to achieve his dream. He has a plan and won’t let anyone stand in his way.

ftc-front-cover

MICHELLE’S WRITING TIPS

5 tips for writing an historical YA novel – How Michelle wrote Flying through Clouds

  1. Inspiration is the starting point –  I was inspired to write Flying through Clouds by two historical events – the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in March 1932, and the landing and take-off of Southern Cross by Sir Charles Kingsford Smith on Seven Mile Beach in January 1933. Before writing a word, I immersed myself in research. I read books about aviators, the Depression and Australia in the 1930s, and watched videos, listened to podcasts, visited museums and searched for old photographs and newspaper articles.
  2. Develop a multi-dimensional main character and a support cast of interesting secondary characters – I often use dialogue to reveal character. My enthusiasm for dialogue springs from my love of theatre and playwriting. In Flying through CloudsI explore Joe’s journey through adolescence and his relationships with his family and friends. To do this, I had to develop secondary characters and themes that would resonate with readers today.
  3. Build tension and create conflict – I put obstacles in Joe’s way and explore his reactions. But Joe also has agency and his plan to become an aviator isn’t as easy as he first thought. He has to make choices, sometimes bad choices, which inevitably lead to conflict with other characters. And there’s no story without conflict. When writing for young adults, it’s important to have a strong narrative.
  4. Develop a distinctive voice –  I chose to write Flying through Clouds in the first person from Joe’s point of view. I wanted readers to be able to experience the world of the 1930s through Joe’s eyes, to be accomplices in all his well-intentioned but poor choices. But the first person also has its limitations because the narrator can’t possibly know everything that’s going on around them or inside the heads of other characters. It was challenging to develop the voice, behaviour and personality of a teenage boy growing up in the 1930s. I read widely but also observed significant males in my life, and dug deep to find the rebellious teenager within. Apart from developing Joe’s voice, I had to develop personalities and behaviours for all my characters.
  5. Thorough editing is critical – In the two years it took to edit Flying through Clouds, I evaluated and interrogated every scene. What impact it has? How credible is it? Will it drive the story forward and develop the characters? Each turning point in the novel had to come at just the right time and create tension, as well as propel the story towards the climax. Critical feedback from professional editors is crucial to developing a manuscript towards publication, and I was fortunate to work with two talented editors. A structural edit led to a much tighter plot and a reduced word count. The copy edit a year later picked up problems with grammar, style, voice, punctuation and minor inconsistencies in the text. The copy edit also inspired me to further develop the voice and characterisations.

Michelle hopes that Flying through Clouds engages readers with its compelling blend of humour, drama and historical detail.

Flying through Clouds is available now at bookshops, educational and library suppliers, and can be ordered on my website: www.michellejmorgan.com.au

 

AUTHOR: Michelle Morgan
TITLE: Flying through Clouds
ISBN: 978-0-9953865-0-1
CATEGORY: Young Adult
AGES: 12+
RRP: $18.99 Pbk
PUBLISHED: 2 April 2017

Teachers notes for Flying through Clouds are available here