Life as I know It

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San Luis Obispo, California, and South Bristol, Maine, United States
Author ~ Illustrator ~ Lecturer

Sunday, January 31, 2010

So You Want to be a Writer?

Come on in!

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


Marcie said...

Looks fun and wonderful! I'm glad you've had such a great nurturing circle around you. :)

Mozart's Girl said...

Dearest Sharon, how pertinent this post was for me - almost as if you read my thoughts! I'm currently writing my first novel, and a cookbook at the same time & it's SO much harder than anyone imagines! I keep going, believing that that is part of the secret! I've just enrolled on a course in July, with 2 of my favourite authors as tutors (which I am SO excited about) but your group is something I dream of. The joy of truthful (but kind!) & constructive critique is something I'm not sure I'll be able to find in my current surroundings....but one day, some day and I have you and your girls as my inspiration. Thank you, thank you for your love and generous encouragement for new's like nectar! Much love, Rachel xoxo

Gabriella said...

Congratulation Sharon from my all heart. This story is beautiful. Really help me! Thank you so much!

Sharon Lovejoy said...

Oh, and I should have mentioned that the Society of Children's Bookwriters and Illustrators has branches in many countries.

Good luck!


Cindy (Applestone Cottage) said...

What an awesome group to be part on Sharon! I hope you get to LaCrosse, so I can hear you speak. My Mom is a published writer and I know she would enjoy going too! Cindy

Dawn said...

Dearest Sharon,
Congratulations on winning the iParenting Media award! This is so exciting! (And that husband of yours, my goodness, he deserves some kind of award too, doesn't he?!)
This sounds like an amazing group of inspiring and creative women.
It's funny because yesterday I was pondering my fear of critisism which has followed me all my life. I am so afraid of disapproval and rejection that I often stop before I start anything, just because I am afraid of failure.
I am dedicating myself to creating without fear.
Thank you for sharing this post. I know one day soon I will be courageous enough to 'put myself out there.'
Love, Dawn
p.s. I think of you often and hope someday we will sit and talk and laugh with only a table between us instead of an ocean. xo

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

What a wonderful writers group you have! Makes me want to pack my bags and come out and join!

Thanks for the post on critiques. I'm struggling with this now to find a group that is like yours. I'm working for the first time, online, with another writer to see if we fit as critiquers and your comments helped.

Janna Leadbetter said...

What an esteemed group you rub elbows with, Sharon!

Writing groups are something I've given thought to. I've checked my (small) area, and there are no groups... I don't know that I have it in me to start one. The good news is, I have a virtual group in my online support, and that's better than nothing.

Claudia said...

Dear Sharon,

Thanks so much for leaving a comment on my blog! I was thrilled to hear from you. I have added your blog to my favorites. I loved this post about writing and the support of other writers. I am going to explore your other posts.

Your life in Maine and San Luis Obispo sounds like heaven to me - the best of both worlds.

Were we separated at birth? Our To Kill a Mockingbird connection makes me smile.


Claudia said...

Oh, and Mary Oliver is my favorite poet. I have several volumes of her gorgeous poetry.


Linda Hoye said...

Lovely and inspiring post, and beautiful pictures. Thank you, Sharon!

rebecca Sweet said...

I'm so touched you shared with everyone the winding road you took from your beginning days as the 'shy writer' - and I particularly feel the enthusiasm of your early days as I'm in that process as we speak. Not necessarily with writing clubs, per se, but with the huge online gardening community which has completely embraced me, my gardens, my ideas and my blog (YOU being one of them!). Every day I'm honored and amazed at how generous gardeners are - whether they're publishers, writers, photographers, or just regular 'ol people with their hands in the dirt...I feel so blessed to be part of this world!

I'm so glad you stressed the importance of surrounding yourself with others that inspire and teach, not only because it's personally fulfilling but because it's absolutely necessary in order to GROW. And GROW you did! Congratulations again on yet another new, fabulous book!

Courtney at SL's No Ennui said...

Congrats on your award!

I have been thinking for ahile that I need to:
a.) Be disciplined and make time everyday for writing
b.) join a critique group

I am just an unproductive combination of insecure/shy (when it comes to my writing)and distracted.

This post helped a little! Thank you for all the insight, suggestions, and personal experience you offered through it :)

Fun Mama - Deanna said...

What timing! I am trying to find and/or start a writing group. I've been in other writing groups before but they were discussion/freewriting groups, and were complete disasters for me. I hope to find a good critiquing group soon. Thank you for all your inspiration and kind words!

Stephanie Roth Sisson said...

Poop! Now I miss you all even more. Glad I get to catch up with you soon...could we toast your new book again? *grin* Yes, I think that's a great idea...

Helen K. Davie said...

Such a wonderful afternoon! Even though several writers and illustrators in the group could not attend (like you Steph) we knew you were there in spirit(s). Yes, there will always be more champagne!
Thank you Sharon for sharing your lovely home, baking the delish lemoncake, and reading from your spell-binding new "work-in-progress". Congratulations on your new book and award!


Zuzana said...

What a lovely story. I guess many aspire to write and many do not believe they can. You are proof of the fact that anything is possible, if we really have passion and persuasion.
Lovely pictures.;)

Michela said...

Hello Sharon!
Thank you so much for your lovely and very kind comment, it made me smile! :)

Anonymous said...

Sharon, that is really wonderful advice. What a talented and hard working group you have. I was once part of a writer's group in Oklahoma City, but had to quit when my mother fell ill. I like how you tell the truth that writing is hard work. I often have my daughter, Diva, read my writing. She is a one tough critic.~~Dee

Patti said...

Hi Sharon,
I agree with country girl on more than one point.Thank you so much for sharing this post!
Have a wonderful day,

Terra said...

It was fun to read this post, and be there with you, vicariously.
I co-authored my first book with 5 other writers, and that is now my writer's group. Three live in Ohio, 2 in Texas and me here in California.
I bought 2 of your books and love 'em!

the wild magnolia said...

You have surrounded yourself with wonder women. Great idea, beneficial, and timely fun.

Happy Valentine's

~Lavender Dreamer~ said...

How interesting! We watched the movie Finding Forrester starring Sean Connery tonight and now I'm here on your blog reading about how you got started in your writing career! Blogs open up the world to us and bring so many wonderful people into our lives. It's so nice to meet you and learn more about you and your career. I'm going to enjoy your blog! ♥

Unknown said...

What a warm and encouraging post this is, Sharon. You're fortunate to live in a place where you can make gathering with a group of like-minded writers a regular reality. Such groups don't work for everyone, but they are a true blessing to a writer when they have positive dynamics like this. And your 'Be Kind' words work at so many levels. Thank you for sharing this piece of your life.

Thea said...

Dear Sharon, Somehow I keep meandering through life and miraculously end up with your words reaching out to me. For many years I enjoyed your wonderful column in Country Living Magazine. I used to have my garden girlfriends over for special luncheons and we would entertain each other with special poems and essays that touched our garden hearts. Ah, I still have the edition with your column that I read aloud about bees. And I still remember the one where you described your adventures with the foxes who'd decided to live near your house. I recently ordered some stationary from Susan Branch online and saw that she was on FB. So I joined her there. Tonight someone posted a sight about a blog "May all seasons be sweet to thee". It sounded loverly so I clicked on and noticed a link to your blog and here I am. I, too, am an aspiring writer and your words of encouragement must have been meant for me this evening. Thank you for your writerly advice. So many creative women bloggers (as I noted by your sidebar links)are out there following their hearts, dreams, bliss and I have a feeling you are a powerful inspiration to us all. Thank you, dear lady, and by the way, I love Maine (have holidayed around Ogunquit/Portland many times, and last year went to Santa Barbara for my very first visit to California. What two very lovely places to live! Have a lovely day. Thea McGinnis