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!
Although I signed my book contract in 2020, 2019 was the "it" year. The events of 2019 propelled forward the culminating years of writing. If you've ever had that feeling of flying in a dream. That year felt like the moment of liftoff. There were some false starts - several of them, but momentum was gaining with the near misses of that year.
With time permitting, I immersed myself in webinars, conferences, contests, and submissions. There was Julie Hedland's 12 Days of Christmas, a Picture Book Hook webinar by Emma Watson Hamilton, Picture Book Palooza, Vivian Kirkfield's 50 Precious Words contest, Making Room for Rhyme contest, PBChat, PBParty, and submissions to twenty agents that year. A few requested more work. I won one of those contests and was a runner up and a finalist in two others. But it didn't matter if I had won or not. The activity gave me the energy to keep moving forward. More importantly, the year felt like a dream come true. I was not published or agented, but I was able to spend every day doing what I wanted to be doing –writing stories!
There were a couple of big moments in 2019, the summer SCBWI conference, and a class I took with the Children's Book Academy. The summer conference was overwhelming, as I knew it would be, but the benefits far outweighed the exhaustion I felt afterward. My "aha" moment occurred after seeing editor, Alynn Johnston, speak. LAYERS! She talked about weaving the layers in a story, and she read stories with such enthusiasm! I thought about my manuscripts. How could I reach kids on many levels with such minimal text?
The idea of LAYERS pestered me because I did not know how to make it work in the story I was writing. I then signed up for The Craft and Business of Writing Picture Books course. It was a six-week intensive. This course was key. It offered instruction and critiques, some of which I had heard before, but excuses aside, I buckled down and did the work. A guest editor's advice was to add a bit more plot to my concept book. She also wanted me to specify the festival. In my mind, "a festival was a festival." But I took her advice and began digging. As I researched the many Japanese festivals I had attended as a child, the layers of my story emerged. With the help of my critique partners and groups, the manuscript developed from a 200-word concept book called BABY UNDERSTANDS, to A 500-word picture book, then titled KAI AND OBA, later changed to KAI'S BRIDGE, and finally to a 700-word picture book called THE STAR FESTIVAL.
The class also offered exposure to agents and editors. My pitch caught the attention of an agent that I did not sign with (near-miss), and the editor from Albert Whitman & Company. My foot was in the door … "IT" was happening!
Immerse yourself in your passion.
Live life as if you ARE the person you want to be!