Wednesday, August 15, 2012

TOUGH LOVE - Chester County Children's Writers Group

Look, new LOGOS!  Thank you to the wonderfully talented DANA ATNIP.  Shower her with praise.

But that's not all, folks.  Today we've got an awesome guest post for anyone who is in (or wants to be in) a critique group, and it's written by

...not one...

...not two...

...not three...

...but FOUR amazing authors!

Buck up and get ready for some tough love with:

The Chester County Children's Writers Group!

Linda Brewster, Ellen Ramsey, Jane Resides, and Shannon Wiersbitzky 

TOUGH LOVE: THE ART OF CRITIQUING: PART 1 (yes, that means more next week)

By The Chester County Children's Writers Group:
 Linda Brewster, Ellen Ramsey, Jane Resides, and Shannon Wiersbitzky

Tough love? We writers need both love ("this is great! keep going!") and toughness ("too much—cut and trim to keep the story moving"). Our critique group has been critiquing together for many years. When we began, none of us had been published in the children's market. Now among us we have two published books and many stories, articles, and poems in magazines and anthologies. In two posts, we'll share what we've learned through hundreds of meetings, thousands of emails, and countless drafts and revisions.

Here's what CRITIQUE means to us--

C: Cheerleading

When you're feeling discouraged by writer's block, depressed by rejection letters, baffled by a recalcitrant hero or a villain too evil to be true, who do you call? Critique group cheerleaders! Critique group cheerleaders help counteract writer's block and writer's blahs, provide motivation, identify writing strengths, and celebrate successes!

To provide motivation, we issue challenges--write a back to school story, enter the Highlights fiction contest. One year we awarded a prize for the most rejection letters in a 6-month period. The critique group member who won also had the most acceptances, which was an impetus to polish our manuscripts and submit them.

And the happy ending--when stories and books are published, critique group cheerleaders spread the word via email, Facebook, Twitter!

R: Regularly scheduled meetings...which means regularly scheduled writing!

Critique group meetings are like writing—if you do it regularly, the group becomes stronger and the quality of the critiquing and the writing soars. Whatever decisions you make about meeting structure, times, and submitting materials, keep the focus on critiquing, not socializing.

In critiquing, focus on the big stuff—Does the story work? Do the characters change and grow during the course of the story? Is the conflict clearly defined and resolved? 

Establish rules for your meetings, but be flexible in adjusting the rules when needed—sometimes brainstorming and building on each other's ideas may help an author resolve a story problem. Remember the "constructive" in constructive criticism—ask questions, be specific about what didn't work for you, suggest alternatives. And remember, critique meetings don’t take vacations!

I: Information and brainstorming

There is a great quote by Owen Arthur, “Often, we are too slow to recognize how much and in what ways we can assist each other through sharing such expertise and knowledge.”

Sharing is critical to a group--it enables us to be more efficient and productive. We don’t all attend the same conferences, but whenever we do go to one, we share what we’ve learned, tips to make our craft better, information about editors and their likes/dislikes.

This requires a great deal of trust. We’ve met authors who wouldn’t share the name of an editor or an agent with their own mother. Our group isn't like that.

And we run a 24-7 advice service. Say one of us has reached a difficult point in a story and is looking for a way for a gerbil to disarm a nuclear weapon. The critique group can be counted on to supply intriguing suggestions!

T: Tough love and honest opinions

Writers need honest opinions. Because what is in our minds is not always what is on the paper. Sometimes we say more than we needed. Sometimes we leave out important information.
As writers, we need to learn that critiques aren't personal. A creative writing professor once said, “Don’t see your words as golden.” When we forget that, responding to critique group comments is almost impossible. Be wary of the reader who loves everything you write. Good critiquers know how to say "cut/delete/not needed" to help keep stories moving along and readers interested.

In the movie The Christmas Story, Ralphie is sure he's written a masterpiece and his teacher will rave about it! Turns out it was just a dream. Ralphie's story needed to be critiqued. 

Tough love may be hard to take, but "running criticism" is essential to ensure that our goal of writing splendid children's stories is more than a dream. 

Check back next Wednesday for Part 2 of Tough Love. And please comment and share your best ideas about critiquing.

Linda Brewster, an author/illustrator and photographer, published her first book, Rose O’Neill: The Girl Who Loved to Draw, in 2009. This book, a biography of America’s first woman cartoonist and Kewpie Doll creator, won two USA National Best Book finalist awards.

Ellen L. Ramsey writes fantasies, mysteries, and humorous stories. Her work has been published in magazines like Highlights and Hopscotch, and one of her poems is included in And the Crowd Goes Wild!: A Global Gathering of Sports Poems (published in August 2012). She won the SCBWI 2012 Magazine Merit Award for Poetry for "Hippity Zippity," published in Highlights High Five.

Jane Resides writes poetry, picture books, and historical fiction. She has published stories, articles, and poetry in Highlights, Once Upon a Time, Penn & Ink, and When I Can’t Get to Sleep, a West Chester Library poetry book. Her husband and grandson are beekeepers, and her article “Emme Loves Bees” was published in Highlights.

Shannon Wiersbitzky was born in North Dakota, but grew up all over the place. Her first middle-grade novel, The Summer of Hammers and Angels, was published by namelos in July 2011. It is the story of an amazing summer in a girl's life, a summer of surprises and challenges, discoveries and friendship, and loneliness and community.


  1. What a wonderful group! Can't wait for the rest of your acrostic tips! And Dana, love the logo!

  2. Thanks, Tina--glad you liked the post! We had fun doing the presentation and compiling the tips.

  3. Love it! Great tips. Can't wait to read the rest of it.

    1. Thanks, Eileen. Hope that "I," "Q," "U," and "E" will meet your expectations too.

  4. Thank you Tina for the kudos!
    I was honored to do the logo for Rate Your Story! Thank you Miranda for the opportunity! It was a lot of fun! :-)

    1. Dana--Love the logo. Now I need to find a quill pen for writing drafts!

  5. What wonderful suggestions from a wonderful group! I once had the extreme good fortune to be a participant with these fine writers - my heart is with you still! Thanks for all the inspiration, cheerleading, and tough-love over the years.


    1. Thanks, Cheri. Happy writing and photographing to you!

  6. Thanks, Miranda, for giving us the opportunity to be the "fly on the wall" in this awesome critique group.
    Ladies, great advice! I can't wait for "I", "Q", "U" and "E". :)
    And the new logo rocks! Great work, Dana!

    1. Thanks, Vivian--glad you enjoyed the post. "I," "Q," "U," and "E" are waiting in the wings and rehearsing for their appearance next week.

    2. Thank you Vivian for the compliment on the logo! :-)

  7. Great post! I love critique groups and I belong to two of them. One is for PBs and the other covers all sorts of writing. Your group sounds great. That is a good idea of spreading info, tips and brainstorming with each other.

    1. Janet - Thanks for the note! Glad you've found a home with your critique groups. Hope to see you back next week!

  8. Already shared both parts with my local crit group. Terrific!


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