A friend of a friend was a published kid lit writer. Her first suggestion was to join the SCBWI (Society of Children's' Books Writer's and Illustrators). So I did. My first real critique group came together after a couple of failed attempts, which is important to mention because finding the right critique group is like fitting into the right pair of jeans or bathing suit. Personalities, dependability, commitment, flexibility, and proximity all factored in.
Di and I found each other through the SCBWI online forum in 2007. A fledgling group of eight met in Pasadena in attempts to flesh out something permanent. A wide variety of manuscripts made this attempt a struggle, but we all sat together at a crowded table, reading and critiquing each other's pages. I wrote in a minimalistic fashion even in the early days, and it was passed around with very few comments. I didn't know how to interpret that! Good, bad, lukewarm? The last person to speak was Di. She had a LOT to say, and it was then and there that I knew I wanted to work with her.
Craving constructive feedback on my stories, we decided to meet on our own. My home being close in proximity to hers might have been the catalyst for her reaching out to me. (Those were the days before online critique groups exploded) She was a far experienced writer, but that didn't stop me. In one of our first meetings, I recall advising her to cut out the entire beginning of a manuscript and begin at another spot. I wasn't confident about my critiquing abilities so early on, but when we attended a conference in Santa Ana and the professional critiquer suggested the same, I felt I was faking it a little less.
At the end of the conference, we were approached by Ben, an aspiring YA (young adult) author. At a later date, Steve, a screenwriter friend working on picture books, joined us. And so it went, every two weeks, the four of us, two picture book writers, and two YA writers met at the Coffee Table for breakfast and writerly babblings.
Di was an English professor, and I learned more about writing from her than from any of my high school or college classes. I'm not saying that those classes and teachers were terrible. It was more about my willingness to learn the craft, which didn't ignite until I was well into my forties.
In this group, we didn't sugar coat anything. We told it how we saw it. We probably used a variation of the sandwich method of critiquing, the outer layers of bread, suggesting the positives about the manuscript, held the middle goodness, the hard critiques. Ours was more like an open-faced sandwich. One layer of what we liked about the story and a pile of hard critiques. We usually spent our time defended our writings and asking questions about why segments of our manuscripts didn't work. We debated, went home, mulled it over, and usually returned to the next meeting agreeing that the group was right. I'm still guilty of using the open-faced sandwich method sometimes, something I'm trying to improve in my critiques, but we sure did learn a lot, and this group propelled me forward in so many ways.
That year offered another first, acceptance of a piece in Highlights Magazine. Cool! I read that magazine as a kid. That was the encouragement I needed at the time. I wrote almost a dozen stories that year, none of which became anything except a notch on my learning ladder. But I am grateful to this group for getting me to show up, making me accountable, and giving me a foundation in which to grow as a writer.
We did eventually split up, each of us following new directions. It took some searching to find groups after this one that felt right, and life definitely intervened at times. Luckily, I had another friend that kept pulling me back in.
Challenge yourself to improve!