For the first time since I joined my critique group the Skyway Writers, we took a summer hiatus. Most of us are traveling, restoring body and spirit, feeding the muse with new sights and experiences. We keep in touch through email and social media. Writing is never far from our thoughts and if there's a need, we're available for input on book projects.
Although I didn't leave town, I did honor my muse with a summer conference, a mini workshop and trips to art shows and bookstores. And I wrote.
Still, July felt like a creative desert. It stretched long and hot, and I squinted to see the end.
I missed my group. I guess I'm slightly addicted. We're a seasoned, serious group. There are five of us, three with books published and two with agents working to sell first books. We aim to publish books until the day we die. And we want them to be good books, so we hire freelance editors to review our work. But before agents, editors or readers see our pages, we look for a thumbs up from each other.
We meet every two weeks. If we have pages we want reviewed, we offer our best effort. When we give input, it's presented with love and sensitivity, but fully loaded with honest critical feedback. Every book is a journey and we travel that path together, sharing triumphs and failures that weave into our bond. Twice a year, we retreat to a quiet rural spot where we write, brainstorm and gather around food. For three days we share a guest house on a lake and our muses run free. As the sun goes down and the stars appear, we come together to discuss, celebrate and laugh.
Having good writing partners is a blessing I'll never take for granted. Not all groups are alike. It can be a challenge to find the right fit. But a tight knit, productive group doesn't happen overnight, so if you're in a group you're not satisfied with, it might be worth the effort to help it grow. In my next post, I'll talk about what I've learned in a decade of critique groups: what makes them work, what pitfalls to avoid and how to make them flourish.
Next week, the Skyway Writers will reunite. Energy will pass between us, and when I leave, I'll be refueled. It will feel like walking out of the desert and into the sea.
It's been two months since I've blogged. To tell the truth, the blog slipped to some dusty corner of my mind while I typed a thousand words a day, finishing the first draft of a novel. When the book loosened its grip on my mind for a sec, I remembered I had a blog! Now, I'm deep into revising and obsessed with making the story the best it can be. But I thought I'd take a minute to update this site.
Since my last post in April, my critique partners have been all kinds of busy. Sandra Markle's picture book Waiting for Ice made Bank Street's Best Children's Books of the Year list, Janet McLaughlin released Psyched Out, the second in her Get Psyched series and Augusta Scattergood's debut novel, Glory Be has won multiple awards, including the prestigious Crystal Kite Award. That's a photo of us above, celebrating Augusta's win last week with other Tampa Bay children's writers. I'm honored to be part of this talented, dedicated group.
They deserve credit for my productivity and the growth of my writing. I come away from each critique energized and eager to get home so I can write more story and improve on what they've read. This week, they'll review my synopsis and find the weak points in my plot so I can shore up those places as I revise. In the weeks ahead when this book is ready to submit to agents, they'll be there to keep me sane while I wait for responses. They know the cost of rejection and the value of even the slightest encouragement from an agent or editor.
I was motivated recently to join Goodreads so I can review books, including those of my new writer friends. It's a rewarding way to support authors and good books. The more published authors I meet, the more I realize how important these connections are to success. And it isn't all about money or selling our books. It's about sharing our love for children's literature and our desire to create books worthy of a child's bookshelf.
Besides polishing my manuscript, another summer goal is to revamp my blog and website. When I created it, I was studying picture books, thinking my art background would translate into that genre. But I learned after two years, that I don't have a picture book voice. I'm not sorry for the experience. Learning is never wasted and I met the most wonderful, talented people. Now, my writing travels a young adult path and I'd like the website to reflect that.
I wish you happy writing and encourage you to connect with other writers. If physical connections aren't possible, meet writers online. It will enrich your life and your craft.
New Learning in a New Year
I'm feeling pretty positive about this new year. Good things are afoot, starting this weekend with my second Writer's in Paradise conference at Eckerd College. The campus is nestled at the southern tip of Pinellas County, surrounded by beautiful, gulf waters. My best friend from high school is attending from New Mexico and we hope to channel some energy from our past. Novelist, David Yoo is leading the young adult workshops which will take up my mornings for the next eight days. During lunch breaks, my friend (who is doing the nonfiction track) and I plan to find a sunny spot near the water, picnic and compare notes. In the afternoons, we'll attend presentations by the illustrious: Dennis Lehanne, Ann Patchett, Andre Dubus and more. I can't wait!
In the fall, I was thrilled to be accepted into a fantatsic, critique group of middle grade and young adult novelists. At first, I fretted over the drive and time commitment. The group is based in the county south of mine with two members living in the county south of that. They alternate meetings between the two counties, one every other week. Critique days, I'm on the road for almost three hours. Add that to four hours of critique and the day is almost gone. But after two meetings, I knew the time and drive were justified by the rewards. These talented authors have encouraged my efforts and offered superior, critical feedback. On top of that, I get to read and learn from their stellar chapters! I'm still pinching myself. For the last three years, I've hoped to find a group of this caliber and had almost given up. When I did find it, I worried about fitting in. I'm the least experienced writer by far. They not only make me feel welcome but have graciously shown respect for my feedback and work.
Three of my new critique partners are attending the SCBWI conference in Miami this weekend. I'm looking forward to hearing about their experience and sharing my notes from Eckerd at our next meeting. If you aren't a member of a critique group, the new year is a good time to look for one. Writers need support and agents and editors will thank you for work screened by your peers. If you've been searching for a group and haven't found the right fit, don't give up! Keep perfecting your craft and gather where other writers gather. Speaking of gathering, January is a good time to check out the year's writers' conferences and workshops. Our skills are never too sharp and they're great places to network. Many critique groups started from conference friendships.
For the next few months, maybe longer, I'll be posting once a month and I celebrate the freedom to do this because . . . I don't have a book to promote! That's right. There are some positives to not having a book deal. At a local SCBWI event, writing coach, Joyce Sweeney, encouraged us nonpubs to embrace this time. Published authors in the room shared knowing glances and smirked. They remember their prebook days with fondness: no agent and publisher prodding you to do backflips and handstands to sell your book; no full calender of signings and school visits; no mad scramble to lure readers on blog, Facebook and Twitter.
Joyce offered many sage morsels that day. I sat in a back corner, womanning the sign-in table, and though Joyce couldn't see me, twice her words struck like a bullet. First, she talked of focusing on your sweet spot as a writer. She said often new childrens' writers explore every avenue from picture book to young adult and that's helpful if you use it to find your strengths. Then, it's time to concentrate. If it's PBs, start cranking out stories like a factory. If it's middle grade or YA, write short stories and work your way up to novels.
I've been writing for four and a half years and I've juggled PBs, MG and YA for almost the entire journey. I've always felt that my voice is better suited to MG and YA but the artist inside urged me to try PBs. I've been blessed to belong to the best PB group (in my biased opinion) in Florida, Rob Sanders' PB&J, Picture Books and Java. They are my writing family. Perhaps my attachment clouded my reasoning because from the beginning, I've heard: "Your voice is too old for PBs" (my words not there's. They were always much kinder.) So, Joyce's advice hit the target. I needed to quit struggling with PBs and focus on my novels for older children. A small part of me rejoiced, the sensible writer who fought the artist for my attention. A large part of me silently wailed at my inevitable resignation from PB&J.
As I recovered from that shock, Joyce addressed branding and how not focusing on one genre can affect new writers. She cited a writer who had a pending deal on a MG novel. The interested agent (or editor, I can't remember which) Googled the writer and up pops a website featuring the author's self-illustrated PBs. The agent wasn't interested in representing PBs so she turned the novel down. Joyce continued, saying agents and publishers want to see an author committed to building devoted readership by producing consistent books. OUCH! I slunk down in my chair, feeling as if a path had cleared from Joyce to my seat and all eyes targeted me. My website is all over the place. I tried to focus it on writing but . . . well, look at it; there's a giant, clothed rabbit hosting the home page! And even though there's only one portfolio page, the art is what viewers notice. No one ever comments on the writing. So, guess who will be revamping their website? One day, I hope to have agents and publishers Googling my name and when they do, I want to be ready. Until then, I'm enjoying my freedom. Today, I don't have to worry about branding or book promoting. The Bible says there's a time for every season. Rejoice fellow nonpubs! This is our season of learning to write the best book we can.
Since, I'm only posting once a month, I'm throwing everything I've got here. If you're in Florida, Tennessee or Missouri, please watch for events promoting Rob Sanders' debut PB, Cowboy Christmas. The launch party is Saturday, Nov. 3 at Inkwood Books in Tampa and you don't want to miss it. Rob's hired cowboy strummers and there's sure to be tasty refreshments.
Happy Halloween everyone. Wishing you treats, no naughty tricks!
Writers Need Writers
We writers spend so much time alone with our story characters, we feel awkward in the presence of humans. Despite our insecurities, we attend conferences and critique groups, partly to ease our craving for social contact. I believe most writers benefit from peer support, especially when they're submitting and facing those confidence-crippling rejections.
I have several friends who are submitting manuscripts to various venues, some without the support of critique groups. I feel for them and it makes me even more grateful for my group. For me, nothing beats a physical group, the sincere advice, sympathetic coos and enthusiastic cheers offered in person. But when I submit, my insecurity rises to atomic level and I need additional support. Two children's writer's venues I've found extremely useful are the Verla Kay and Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators' discussion boards. On Verla Kay, members can post questions in threads covering topics like genre, marketing, and craft. VKers helped me shape an agent-worthy query and while I waited, I researched query response time on their agent list. Some VK members are published authors who generously share their experience. Once, I was thrilled when Maggie Stiefvater answered my question and that was after she'd became a YA fantasy star.
SCBWI offers a similar discussion venue but you must be a paid member to participate. Most serious children's writers join the organization which has been the hub of my writing community, supporting regional critique groups and conferences. SCBWI's website provides helpful resources for beginning writers and grant opportunities. Writers use the discussion board to form physical and online critique groups, network, inform and learn. When I sold my first story, I sought clarification on contract terms and received a helpful response from a legal expert on SCBWI.
I'm sure there are other valuable websites dedicated to the children's writing community. The best thing about virtual venues is showing up just as you are and not worrying about bed hair or that coffee stain on your shirt. I've found the online writing community kind and encouraging, so no excuses, come out of your cave, turn on the computer and click!
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor