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For years I wrote alone. I was shy about my writing and shared it only with my husband Jeff, who is one of my most valued critics. He never went easy on me because he didn't want to hurt my feelings. In fact, he was tough, and there were many times I argued with him about the intent of my words and the fact that he "just didn't understand."
Lori Peelen brought me two fresh eggs from her hens...
...and a beautiful bouquet of daphne, which scented the entire dining room
Then someone invited me to an established writer's group in my hometown of Cambria, and all my preconceived notions and shyness were hung out on a line of intense observation and straight-to-the-heart critique. I wasn't a member of the Cambria Writer's Workshop; I was a guest and allowed to read only once a month. Until I proved myself as a writer and added good, constructive critiques for others, I couldn't become a member.
Lois, Cindy, and Cynthia peruse new books, including When You Can Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, winner of the prestigious Newbery Award
After a few months of mostly silently observing the process, I began to understand how, by deconstructing bits of someone's writing, you can help the author reconstruct it into a whole, fluid, gripping, and moving piece.
Our group allows 10 minutes of reading of a manuscript and about 10 minutes of critique from the group. Unspoken critiques are written and passed to the author. As critiques are happening, the writer is not allowed to defend or respond (the way I always had with Jeff). If you're intent on defending, or if you have to explain your writing, you're not paying attention to the constructive criticisms of other writers. Mute. You have to glue your lips closed, listen, and make salient notes.
I felt my writing slowly morph into something more understandable and simple. Simple is good. Straightforward. Not depthless, but simple to read, digest, and absorb.
I was asked to become a member of the Cambria group about 17 years ago. Those men and women have heard my most personal thoughts, laughed with me, celebrated successes (and humiliations), and learned from my critiques as much as I have learned from theirs.
I treasure everyone in the group, although I often disagree with them. We all work for the good of the writer who always strives to be the best.
About 10 years ago, my dear friend and adopted mother-author Elizabeth Spurr (Long Long Letter, Surfer Dog, Pumpkin Hill, Halloween Sky Ride, and more) invited me to attend a Kiddie Writers meeting at her home. I was excited!
I can't remember all the details of the day because it was over a decade ago, but the afternoon readings, critiques, viewing of artist's portfolios, and oh, let's not forget tea, coffee, and dessert, streamed past. The meeting was declared over and I felt euphoric.
Elizabeth Van Steenwyk (in blue) passes around some of her favorites; Roni, Helen, and Lori contribute their comments and evaluations
Here was a dedicated group of authors and illustrators who had shared their expertise in the most giving way possible, and I had grown and progressed in a matter of four hours.
Since that day in my beloved Elizabeth's living room, the group of Kiddie Writers has grown to include some of my favorite women in the world. They've gone through all my ups and downs. They've listened to my entire first novel for middle graders, and through a year of writing and rewriting. Now they're ushering me through my newest children's novel and picking out small inconsistencies or changes of viewpoint. They're sharpening my perspective and keeping me going-no matter the obstacles.
Last Thursday was my day to host the workshop. Some of my favorite people couldn't attend. Elizabeth was at the San Diego Writer's Conference, Sherry Shahan (Frozen Stiff, Fiesta!, Spicy Hot Colors, and more) was teaching writing classes, Juddi Morris (Route 66: Main St. of America, The Harvey Girls, Tending the Fire and more), and Stephanie Roth Sisson (Two Christmas Mice, Block Party Today!, Dear Whiskers, Meow Means Mischief, and more) was at a parent teacher conference-FAMILY FIRST!
Lois Sellers, Cynthia Bates (she recently won a SCBWI honor), Cindy Rankin (her dump cake recipe is in Toad Cottages), Lori Peelen, Roni Decoster (winner of the Corey Rubbo Scholarship), illustrator Helen K. Davie (Animals in Winter, He Wakes Me, Dolphin Talk, Ducks Don't Get Wet, and more), and Elizabeth Van Steenwyk (First Dog Fala, Prairie Christmas, My Name is York, and more) all attended the meeting-celebration on Thursday.
All you writers and those of you who want to pursue your dream of writing can see the exalted group of women who keep me going. I appreciate them and after they left our meeting on Thursday, I told Jeff, "Those incredible women make me feel like the luckiest person in the world."
I urge you to form or join a writing group in your area. If you want to be writers of children's books, you devote yourself to your dream, and you MUST join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Their newsletter, conferences, and regional meetings are one of the best connections you will ever have to the art and craft of writing.
Oh, and it pays to have a spousal critic too. Just remember to, as Jeff always says, "BE KIND."
A toast to Toad Cottages & Shooting Stars by some of my biggest supporters