We started by laying out the ground rules for what makes a good critique:
And yes, it's an acronym:
Terrific (share what worked)
Talent (encourage the author to revise)
The idea is that you want a critique to be like a sandwich:
You want to start with good stuff and end with encouragement, let the author ask their questions, and couch your critique points in a way that expresses your subjective opinions tactfully. For example, if something is unclear, you might say "I was confused here" rather than "this was stupid and made no sense at all."
We reminded everyone that ultimately the author gets to make the decisions about their story, and that the best thing to do when receiving a critique is to listen and take notes rather than explain or argue or justify.
We shared some areas of craft to consider when thinking of constructive comments, a punch-list of sorts from this wonderful article by Linda Sue Park, "The Give and Take of Critique" (copyright 2000). Some of the items mentioned included:
· Page turnability: Is the story interesting? Does it make you want to read on? Do you ever feel impatient and wish things would 'get going'?
· Problem: Does the main character have a clearly delineated problem confronting him/her? Does each scene develop either impediments to a solution or progress toward a solution?
· Logic: Do the scenes connect in a logical manner? Is there something happening in the middle or at the end of the piece that simply doesn't make sense given the set-up?
· Ending: "Unexpected inevitability"--has the writer laid the groundwork for the ending, even if it's a twist or surprise?
· Believability: Do the characters seem real? Do they talk and act like people you might know--even if they're hedgehogs? Do they have flaws, or are they too perfect? Do they have characteristics, quirks, idiosyncrasies that increase their individuality, or are they 'generic' ?
· Empathy: Do you care about the character(s)? Do you feel anxious for them as they face their problem? Do you feel like cheering wildly or at least smiling if/when they finally solve it?
· Growth: Has the character grown or changed in some way by the end of the story?
We broke into 5 smaller groups, each group with 5 manuscripts to share and 3 or more authors who came to the evening without a manuscript of their own, but willing and able to share their insights and learn from the collective experience of critiquing.
The time flew by as each table read and laughed and shared and critiqued with TACT.
At the end of the evening, a great exercise we shared was to take a picture book you love or that you feel was really successful and type out the words, so you can see what it looks like and reads like as a manuscript.
The sample texts we shared were "All The World," written by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee, which won a Caldecott Honor Medal this year; and "A Visitor For Bear," written by Bonnie Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton, which was last year's Golden Kite Award winner for picture book text. We encourage you to try this on your own at home! It's a great learning experience.
Resources Mentioned During the Schmooze:
Learn more about upcoming local SCBWI events at http://www.scbwisocal.org/
For SCBWI members looking to join or start a critique group, SCBWI offers a listserv called Critique Connections Online. Email email@example.com to receive easy instructions on how to sign up!
For those with questions on proper manuscript formatting, we provided copies of this handout from SCBWI: From Keyboard To Printed Page. (Find this and other great articles like it at the SCBWI main page, under the heading "Just Getting Started.")
A few more resources we wanted to share, but ran out of time before we could:
Local author Ann Whitford Paul, author of numerous picture books and "Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication" is teaching a series of picture book writing workshops (the next one is April 3rd, "Priming Your Inspiration Pump")
Picture book author and teacher Anastasia Suen has a "Picture Book Of The Day" blog where she uses different picture books to illustrate the 6 principles of writing that she teaches.
And two helpful articles by award-winning picture book author Mem Fox:
"So You Want To Write A Picture Book"
"20 Do's and 20 Don'ts"
Overall, the evening was a "no tears" event, where we acknowledged that bringing in your work for others to pass judgment on is a brave endeavor. Each table finished their critiquing with a round of applause, and the environment was supportive and encouraging.
And for the first time ever, we ate all the cookies.
We hope to see you at our next schmooze, which will be our Middle Grade and Young Adult Manuscript Critique Night on April 14, 2010, at 7 PM!
For this meeting, you are invited to bring six (6) copies of up to four (4) typed, double-spaced pages (or, for those who write in verse, a recommended 800-word limit) max of your Middle Grade or Young Adult manuscript on April 14.
Manuscripts are NOT required to attend. Critiquing and hearing others critique are some of the best way to learn how stories come together; the more the merrier!
For this special critique night Schmooze, we request that you please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org and mention whether you will be bringing a manuscript or not.
We hope to see you there! Cheers,
Rita and Lee