Wednesday, April 27, 2011

7 Books in 7 Days!

National Picture Book Writing Week
May 1-7, 2011

7 Books in 7 Days!

Paula Yoo is once again sponsoring/hosting/corralling National Picture Book Writing Week.

Visit Paula’s blog/web site at for more information and to join the fun. Note: Paula’s web site is being redesigned. The old site (that is up as of this moment) seems slow and awkward to me. So be patient

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Coming This Spring

Interviews with:
·    Lisa Wheeler
·    Deborah Wiles
·    Tammi Sauer
·    Linda Arms White

Guests blogs from:
·    Joyce Sweeney
·    Jamie Morris

We’re going to be showered with information that will make our writing grow and flower.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Putting Critiques into Action

Week of April 17: The Power of Critiques
Friday, April 22—Putting Critiques into Action

I think I’ve written about the writer I met last year in the cab from the SCBWI/LA conference to the airport. She’s the woman who has been working on the same picture book manuscript for ten years. “My critique group has been helping me a lot,” she said. Then there’s the woman I met in a critique setting who began by saying, “I know you all told me to make changes in this. But I brought it back the way it was, just to see if you’d changed your mind.”

Makes you laugh, doesn’t it? It’s sad though how so often writers (that includes you and me) won’t listen to what they hear in critiques. I’ve been guilty of it.
I paid for an expensive critique and was told exactly what I was told in a totally free critique group! A real waste of time and money.

Everyone listens and hears differently. Here are some things that stand out to me when I’m hearing critiques. These are the first things I know I need to pay attention to:

1.  I hear several people saying the same thing;
2.  Someone addresses something I know is a problem, but didn’t know how to fix;
3.  When someone says something so true (or wonderful or creative), that I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier;
4.  When the group reads my manuscript aloud and I hear a voice other than my own reading it, stumbling over it, and trying to figure it out;
5.  Someone points out a silly mistake I should have caught on my own;
6.  Someone suggests something that makes me uncomfortable. (That is almost always a sign that I need to listen to what I’m being told.)

In her helpful article “The Give and Take of Critique” (© 2007, SCBWI, For use by SCBWI Members ONLY), Linda Sue Park describes the process she follows after receiving critiques.

First, I sort the comments. I suppose this could be done in your head, but I actually make a list. Three columns at the top of a page. Yes / Maybe / No No No! I put brief notes under each heading based on the comments I received. Then I start revising. I start with the Yes column—the comments I love. You know what I mean—when someone says something and you think, “Eureka! That’s perfect—why didn’t I think of that! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!” I make those changes first.

Then I stop and think. A lot. This phase takes the longest. I think about the other two columns—especially about the items under No No No! If enough time goes by, my wounded feelings about these negative comments subside and I’m able to be much more objective about them—rather than dismissing them emotionally.

Ok, can I confess a crazy thing I do? I take a clean copy of my own manuscript with me to critique group meetings. As the manuscript is read aloud (or as people talk about it), I make my own critique notes. I try to have an out-of-body experience, to not be the author of the piece for just a few minutes. I’ve made some important discoveries doing that. Despite how crazy it sounds, it might work for you, too.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Find those notes from your last critique. Pour over them. Maybe you want to make a Linda-Sue-Park list. Maybe you want to try an out-of-body experience and critique your own work. Maybe you can face those suggestions that were too difficult to face before. Go on, get to it!

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Our 50th follower has joined PICTURE THIS! Since January we have become a strong picture book writing community. Spread the news—there’s room for another 50 (or more)!

Receiving Feedback

Week of April 17: The Power of Critiques
Thursday, April 21—Receiving Critiques

Let’s face it, listening is difficult. And listening to someone critique the work you’ve been days and weeks perfecting is even more difficult. And actually hearing what they are saying is the most difficult thing of all. So exactly how does one go about listening to feedback (even the Sandwich-Method kind)? I can give you an example of how not to do it . . .

At the first SCBWI regional event I attended, the presenters were providing first-page critiques. If you’re not familiar with that process, writers turn in the first page of their manuscripts with no names or identifying information attached. The presenters pull out a few pieces at random from the stack and read them. Then they critique the pieces on the spot in front of everyone. Even if your piece isn’t chosen, you get to hear the process that editors and agents go through when they are reading the first page of anything they receive.

The presenters had probably completed two or three pieces and critiqued them when . . . they pulled out THE PIECE. As they read it, they stumbled over meter, there were obvious rhyme problems, they even noted spelling errors, there were questions about logic and the plot. The presenters were kind, but honest, and the audience members collectively said a prayer thanking God this was not their piece. Then a woman raised her hand, “I don’t think you get it,” she said. “The character is a dog. And if you’d read it again, you’d hear him say he wanted a home. And if you could see the rest of the . . . “

At that point, one of the presenters interrupted the woman (whom we all now knew was the author of the piece) and reminded her that the pieces were anonymously submitted and this was a time to listen and reflect on what you heard.

I tell you that horrifying story to reinforce that we LISTEN to critiques without responding, questioning, or interrupting. In “The Give and Take of Critique” by Linda Sue Park (© 2007, SCBWI—For use by SCBWI Members Only), we are told:

The writer does not speak during the comments phase of the critique session. Not once. Not a single word.

Why not? Because the work must stand or fall on its own. When the piece eventually gets submitted and is read by an editor, the writer won’t be there to says things like, “Well, what I meant there is . . .” or “That’s supposed to refer back to . . .” The writer should listen, take notes, and listen some more. Later, when all the commenters are finished, there can be discussion including the writer. But not at first.

Let’s assume that the commenters have finished the “sandwiches,” and the writer is now allowed to join in the discussion. Where possible, the writer should pose his/her responses as a question . . . The writer should avoid making statements . . . As a writer who presumably wants comments on your work, your job now is to receive responses and information—not to give them.

Wow. That’s tough to hear and even tougher to do. I have to admit this is an area my PB&J group needs to work on. We’re so excited to work on our pieces and make them better we tend to jump in with questions during the critique. But I can see how that interrupts the flow of the meeting and interrupts the writer’s listening.

Let me give you an example of how asking a question after critiques can help clarify and move you along in your writing. In our last PB&J critique session, the members said many positive things and several construction things about the piece I had submitted: “I didn’t get that the parents were angry until the end of the story . . . I didn’t understand that there was a problem . . . I didn’t know the motivation of the kids . . .”

I listened and made notes, than I asked, “Is it a verb problem? If I changed the words like said to complain, would that begin to address the problem?” The group thought that was worth trying. When I came home, I did just that, and the story was amped up two or three notches. (Thanks, group!)

As you and I get better at listening to constructive feedback (and even criticism) from our critique group members, we’ll be better prepared to handle what we hear from agents and editors. When we develop our listening skills in the safe confines of our critique group, we’ll be better listeners with industry professionals. When we learn to ask our critique group members questions after hearing feedback, then we’ll be ready to ask thoughtful questions of our editors following their feedback.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Reflect on how you receive feedback. Try a new approach or refine the one you are using now so you ensure that you are listening and hearing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Giving Critiques

Week of April 17: The Power of Critiques
Wednesday, April 20—Giving Critiques

Critiquing is an art, but it’s an art you can learn. When you receive a manuscript to critique:

1.  Read the entire manuscript aloud. Do not write on the manuscript at this stage. Just listen.
2.  Think and reflect.
3.  Read the manuscript aloud a second time.
4.  Write notes. Pay attention to big issues first: Did anything not make sense? Were you confused at any point? Was anything out of order? Was the rhyme or meter off? Did you stumble as you read? Note those concerns.
5.  Some groups make line edits on manuscripts—changing punctuation, word choice, etc. That is a group decision.
6.  Offer possible suggestions for changes.
7.  Note any other books of the same genre that have similar themes, similar characters, or that might provide insight into the development of the manuscript.

When sharing a critique aloud (and even in writing), most folks follow the Sandwich Method.

Here’s how we state our critiquing process in our PB&J Critique Group guidelines:

Because PB&J members seek to provide honest feedback in a positive, constructive manner,we use the sandwich method of critiquing. We begin with a positive comment/insight, provide constructive criticism, and end with a positive comment/insight.  

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offers the following suggestions:
Criticism should be constructive and not destructive. “I didn’t like the way you wrote that” is never a valid criticism. It always helps a fellow writer to know the strengths of a manuscript as well as the weaknesses. A compliment offered first softens a “constructive” negative to follow. Try to tell your fellow writer why something doesn’t work for you and offer possibilities for change. Always be encouraging.

In addition to writing on a manuscript, I sometimes type up my critique. Here is an example:

Rob’s Critique of Baxter by Alice Author

1.   Congrats on the word count! That is usually one of the hardest things for picture book writers.
2.   You have all the ingredients to make a great story—problem, growing tension, resolution.
3.   You can never go wrong with a dog!!! And one that tugs at your heartstrings is even better!

1.   Right now I think the story reads like a magazine article, not a picture book. That has to do with pacing I think.
2.   I really don’t get Baxter’s feelings and why people are treating him so badly (as stated in the first of the story). Is this strong emotional situation needed? What is his real problem?
3.   Does the title represent what the story is about?
4.   As I am often told about my writing, this is a very quiet story and those stories are a hard sell. If you can amp up the action it may be more marketable.

1.   To clearly get the problem/solution established, try completing this sentence:

Baxter was a dog who more than anything wanted ________________ but couldn’t because ___________________, until _________________ happened.

2.   It might be cool if Madison and Baxter’s problems were parallel. For instance:
Has no animal friends                        
Favorite food eaten by others            
Taken to shelter                                  

Picked last for team
Favorite lunch/spills
Sent to time out

It’s Your Turn!
1. When critiquing others, practice the Hamburger Method.
2. Read your comments aloud to yourself before reading them aloud in your group. Make sure your comments have the constructive tone you want them to have.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Beginning a Critique Group

Week of April 17: The Power of Critiques
Tuesday—Beginning a Critique Group

After working in a critique group with no picture book authors, I knew I needed to find people who had the same interest, industry struggles, and hopes that I did. I wanted to find a picture book critique group. I searched, and emailed, then I hunted, and emailed some more—nothing. One day, an idea struck. Why not start a picture book critique group myself?!

Well, I’ll tell you why not:
1.  I never had led a critique group before and had only been a member of a group for a short time.
2.  I didn’t consider myself an expert.
3.  I didn’t know how to lead a critique group.
4.  I didn’t know how to begin a critique group.
5.  Besides, what I really wanted was for people to help ME!

Then these answers came to me:
1.  There are many things you’ve not done before, you learned as you went along.
2.  Everyone in a critique group is an equal. There’s not a leader. (Maybe a facilitator to get things going and keep them moving, but not a leader.)
3.  I could learn.
4.  I could learn.
5.  People will help me, as I help them.

What it all came down to was one word: WILLINGNESS.

So I placed an ad in the Critique Group section of the SCBWI Discussion Boards:

Want to start a Picture Book Critique Group in the Tampa Bay area. Looking for serious writers of different experience levels who have the goal of being published.

Within 24 hours the critique group coordinator from our SCBWI region contacted me. She sent information from other critique groups to help me get started. Then she sent an email to members in our area who might be looking for a similar group. Soon I began receiving emails from potential members. I sent a survey to the prospective members asking their preferences about days and times to meet, frequency of meetings, etc. We soon had an organizational meeting and our group began. We developed these guidelines to guide our work:

picture books & java
Tampa Bay Critique Group

The members of PB&J meet monthly to critique manuscripts, learn together, and encourage one another in our writing journeys. Our ultimate goal is for all members to become published picture book authors with ongoing writing careers.

Meeting Time and Place:
We meet the third Wednesday of each month from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Borders at 909 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, FL 33609 (between I-275 and Kennedy Blvd.).

All PB&J members have the goal of meeting together monthly. New members will be added with the agreement of the group. The facilitator will gather names of prospective members and will ask each interested person to complete a questionnaire. The group members will overview the questionnaire before extending an invitation to join.

While we currently do not have a limit on the number of members in our group, we do want every member to receive a critique at each meeting. For that reason, we know that our group size will eventually need a limit. (NOTE: We have developed a form for prospective members to complete and we request sample writing when considering a new member.)

Meeting Guidelines:
To make the most of our short meeting time, we will stick closely to our agenda. We will begin meetings with up to fifteen minutes for sharing personal updates, writing resources, industry updates, and so on. The remaining time will be spent critiquing. The meeting time will be divided evenly among the number of critiques needed for that evening. The facilitator will determine the critique order and select a time keeper for each meeting.

Critique Submission Guidelines:
PB&J members critique manuscripts, query letters, and book pitches. An item to be critiqued must be emailed to all members of PB&J at least a week prior to the monthly meeting (or on or by the second Wednesday of the month). Members will print out each document, then read and critique each manuscript prior to the meeting. At the meeting, we will read the manuscript aloud (the author will not read his/her own writing) and then we will share critiques.

If a member submits more than one item to critique for a meeting (such as a picture book manuscript and a query letter), the member will prioritize which item needs to be critiqued first. If time allows, a member’s second submission will be critiqued after all other critiques are completed.

Critique Guidelines:
When being critiqued, listen to the complete critique of your work without interrupting. If there is time after all members have provided critiques, the author may ask clarifying questions or ask for more specific guidance. Since the time we have is divided among the number of critiques needed, a time keeper will ensure that a critique stays within its time limit.

Because PB&J members seek to provide honest feedback in a positive, constructive manner,
we use the sandwich method of critiquing. We begin with a positive comment/insight, provide constructive criticism, and end with a positive comment/insight.   

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offers the following suggestions:
Criticism should be constructive and not destructive. “I didn’t like the way you wrote that” is never a valid criticism. It always helps a fellow writer to know the strengths of a manuscript as well as the weaknesses. A compliment offered first softens a “constructive” negative to follow. Try to tell your fellow writer why something doesn’t work for you and offer possibilities for change. Always be encouraging. Not everyone will respond to a manuscript in the same way. Those receiving criticism should remember that any suggestion offered can be accepted or rejected. The author has the final word on what stays.
Remember that you are in a critique group to get feedback. Try not to be defensive when you are critiqued; be good-natured about it.

A critique group can remain strong only when the sanctity of that group is respected. Thus, it is never okay to use the ideas or the research done by another member, to impose upon their contacts in the publishing world, or to reveal to others outside of the critique group any work-in-progress without the author’s express permission.

PB&J currently has seven members—five were part of the original group. One member now has a publishing deal and others have had great feedback and positive nibbles. We are confident that it is only a matter of time before we are all published. We frequently email each other with info we gathered online or at a conference and also share what’s going on in our lives. We’re a great little group that's especting great big things to happen!

It’s Your Turn!
1.If you are looking for a critique group, I encourage you to consider starting one yourself.
2. If any of our PB&J for you and your group, you are welcome to use it!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Finding a Critique Group

Week of April 17: The Power of Critiques
Monday, April 18—Finding a Critique Group

Last Wednesday was the monthly meeting of my local picture book critique group, PB&J (Picture Books and Java). After the meeting, our newest member, Susan, sent me an email. Here’s an excerpt:

I've never had more fun at a critique group and learned at the same time. I'm truly grateful to be a PB&Jer.”

That is how I feel after each of our monthly meetings. I wish I had found a critique group much earlier in my writing life—for the camaraderie, the inspiration, the help, the friendship. I should have known the importance of critique groups long ago. In writing education we offer critiques, but we call them conferences. Conferences are when we talk writer-to-writer with a student author. That is also the time we find good things in the child’s writing and offer suggestions (usually one thing) to focus on and improve.

After attending several picture book and SCBWI regional events, I finally came to the point of realizing I needed to belong to a critique group. Since it took me awhile to find a critique group, let me share a few tips that might be helpful to others.

Note: This is not my critique group. We are all much younger and prettier! Besides, there's no pie on this table!

Face-to-face Groups
Even though I live in a metropolitan area and am a member of a very healthy SCBWI region, finding a face-to-face critique group was difficult. I began by going to my region’s web page (to find your region, go to From there, I went to the web page for the region and found a list of critique groups sorted by cities/counties/areas. (Note: Each region does this a bit differently.) There was a brief description about each group which included the type of manuscripts critiqued in the group, the number of members, frequency of meetings, and if the group was accepting members. On this page I also found the name and email address of the volunteer critique group coordinator for my region. (Note: You can also find critique groups through the Discussion Boards on the SCBWI web site.)

I emailed the three or four critique groups in my area that had openings and I wrote to our regional critique group coordinator. The coordinator got back with me right away and put me on her list of people searching for a group. After numerous emails, I finally found one group that was open to new members.

There were three picture book authors in that first group—everyone else wrote YA and MG. One of the picture book folks moved to NYC soon after I joined, and the author picture book author usually never brought any manuscripts for critique. The group was warm, accepting, and helpful. Though they freely admitted they knew little about picture books. They raved about my writing—which was flattering, but not all that helpful if you know what I mean.

I soon decided that the reason I was attending those meetings was to develop the discipline and routine of attending a group. I was also learning how to read others writing with a critical eye, and to give feedback and constructive criticism in a positive way. Though I have since left that group, those critiquers remain my friends and we connect at conferences and the like.

Online Groups
My critique group friend who moved to NYC recommended that I might want to join an online critique group called YBR (Yellow Brick Road), moderated by Lisa Michaels. I applied for the group and sent a writing sample. Lisa soon contacted me and invited me to join. The number of group members varies over time, but usually there are around 15 active members. We post a manuscript on our group blog between Friday at 5:00 p.m. and Monday at 5:00 p.m. We then have until 5:00 p.m. on the upcoming Friday to complete our critiques and email them to the entire group. Each member completes two critiques a week and that results in writers receiving three critiques for each manuscript submitted. (We have now gone to a bi-weekly posting schedule, but the critiquing process works the same.)

My one caution about critiquing online is to be careful what you type. When you are face-to-face, people understand your humor, see in your eye that you mean well, and you can explain when someone doesn’t understand—online feelings can easily be hurt and typed words can easily be misunderstood.

You can find online critique groups by searching the Discussion Boards on the SCBWI web site. Lisa Michaels recently wrote an article about online critique groups for the SCBWI Bulletin, April/May 2011. The link to the issue is:

Paid Critiques
Many people offer paid critique services (including me). I only use these services IF I know the person (through a conference, his/her writing, etc.). A paid-critique service is not for a first or second draft or even a third draft. That’s what your critique group is for. Use a paid-critique service ONLY when you have taken a manuscript as far as you can and don’t know how to take it to the next level.

Paid-critique services vary in cost from $25.00 to $125.00 or more. Usually the higher the price, the more extensive the critique. Some services are completed totally online, others via snail mail.

Paid Critiques at Conferences
When you attend a regional or national SCBWI conference you often have the opportunity to pay for a critique. The purpose of this critique is totally different than your on-going critique group or even other paid critiques. When you are paying for a critique (or consultation as they are sometimes called) at a conference, you will usually be assigned to an industry professional (a published author, editor, or agent). You want to wow that person with your manuscript. You want your manuscript as perfect as possible, because not only are you receiving a critique, you are also pitching your book. Yes, you will get constructive feedback, but you ultimately are hoping for more!

It’s Your Turn!
1. Do you have a critique group? If not, start your search today.
2. If you are a member of a critique group, thank your lucky stars (and maybe your fellow members).

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Coming This Week!

Week of April 17: The Power of Critiques
Quotes of the Week:
We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.
—Mak De Pree

Creative ideas reside in people’s minds but are trapped by fear and rejection. Create a judgment-free environment on the inside and you’ll unleash a torrent of creativity on the outside.
—Alex Osborne

Monday—Finding a Critique Group
Tuesday—Beginning a Critique Group
Wednesday—Giving Critiques
Thursday—Receiving Critiques
Friday—Putting Critiques Into Action

Friday, April 15, 2011


Did you accept the CUPCAKE WARS CREATIVE CHALLENGE? I’ll share if you will! Here’s one of my creations inspired by CUPCAKE WARS.

Recipe for a Picture Book Cupcake

1 teaspoon of ideation
Large scoop of inspiration
2 cups of dedication
1 ½ cups of perspiration
1 drop of frustration
1 handful of elation
Season with consultation

Mix the ingredients and allow ample time for gestation and cultivation. Make alterations until the taste is perfectionation. Then prepare for publication!

P.S. I did NOT make the cute cupcake book pictured--it's a google image. I did create the recipe!

He May Be Tacky, But He's Sweet!



Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Warm and Fuzzy Cupcakes

This week we ponder the age-old question: Which came first the book or the cupcakes?



Monday, April 11, 2011

Serving up Some Creativity

Creativity is the meat-n-taters of our work! How balanced is your creativity intake? Be sure to top off each day’s creative work with a treat for yourself . . . a cupcake perhaps! (Yes, those are cupcakes in the pic!)

Creative Challenge #3--Cupcakes Wars!

Week of April 10—Creative Challenge #3—Cupcake Wars!

Ok, you bakers, snackers, and wonderful picture book writers, it’s time for our latest creative challenge. I am a television food challenge junky. I just love seeing what people create when the creative gauntlet is thrown down and the clock starts ticking. One of my favorite shows is CUPCAKE WARS. Whoever dreamed you could make 1,000 cupcakes of four different varieties AND build a humongous display in one hour? Well any picture book writer can tell you that what we do every day seems just as daunting (if not quite as delicious). So let’s combine our world of writing with the culinary world’s cupcake wars.

THE CHALLENGE (choose from the list below)
1.     Write a description of the best cupcake in the world.
2.     Create a cupcake story.
3.     Make a cupcake menu with descriptions of all your favorites.
4.     Adapt a cupcake recipe to make it into a concept book for measuring, colors, tastes, number, etc.
5.     Scrapbook your favorite pictures and recipes of cupcakes.
6.     Write a poem on a cupcake wrapper.
7.     Bake a batch of cupcakes and ice them like there’s no tomorrow.
8.     Make a trip to your favorite bakery, buy a cupcake, and write about the experience in your writing journal.
9.     Draw, paint, or collage a cupcake.
10.  Use a cupcake tin to separate the supplies in your office desk.
11.  Or let cupcakes inspire you to create anything else you choose.

ENTER THE WAR AND SHARE (choose from the list below)
1.     Post on this site about your experience.
2.     Add a picture of your creations.
3.     Share that cupcake recipe.
4.     Or share in any other way you choose.

Check back to the blog each day for a cupcake-to-picture book photo. Guaranteed to provide a daily delicious laugh!