|Emily Kristin Anderson|
Continuing the trilogy of interviews with authors who participate in critique groups, I give you…
Emily Kristin Anderson, a young adult novelist and poet, is a resident of Austin, Texas, a long way from her native Maine. Her poetry has been published in national literary journals and she is currently querying her first completed YA novels. Most recently, she co-created the popular Dear Teen Me website, featuring letters from authors to their teen selves.
Lindsey Lane’s journey toward authorship followed a path that included a degree in theatre arts and careers as a journalist and award-winning playwright. Her picture book, SNUGGLE MOUNTAIN (Clarion, 2003) was listed among “Best Children’s Books of 2004” by Bank Street College of Education. Today, she continues to pen charming books for children while raising her daughter, a house full of pets, and her blog, The Meandering Lane.
What’s the secret to a successful critique group?
L.L. My first thought is: kindness, respect and honesty. Each of those is essential to a successful critique group. Except, well, touting the values of a critique group sounds a bit bland. Really, I think the secret to a successful critique group is being just a little bit in awe of the other writers. Like every time you go, you pinch yourself and say, “I can’t believe I get to be here.” When it comes time to put your work out in the world, it has to be the best it can possible be so if I’m with writers I am in awe of, I want to bring my A game. Not just in my writing. I bring it to the reading of their work. I think of my critique group as an assembly of dream editors: Candlewick, Knopf, Simon & Schuster. Does this mean I can’t show my dream editors first drafts and rough stuff? Of course I can. I dare myself with them first.
How has being part of a critique group helped your writing?
L.L. I think the biggest way critique groups have helped my writing is they help me deepen my commitment to a story. Recently, I brought in a first draft of a short story and I thought it might be a little over the top, a little schmaltzy. Well the ending was schmaltzy but the essential story was on point. My group helped me find the nugget of the story and bring if forward so it shined and wasn’t covered up by a schmaltzy ending.
Where does your critique group meet? Why did you choose that environment?
L.L. We are early birds. We meet around one of our dining room tables in the mornings. Coffee and tea are our substance of choice with a few nibbles on the side. One of us recently sold a manuscript. No champagne. We splurged on pie.
What are the biggest challenges of critiquing someone else’s manuscript?
L.L. Well of course, the biggest challenge would be not loving someone’s manuscript and not being able to comment on it because you just don’t like it or get it. That’s never happened to me. Even if I feel a little distant from a manuscript, I can still look at it as a craftsperson. I can still spot when the author is doing too much telling or a character’s voice goes a little too authorial. I can still be helpful. Challenges are opportunities. The saying’s been around for a while because it’s true.
What are the biggest challenges of having your own manuscript critiqued?
L.L. Well I think a big challenge is when your critique group looks at your ms. for the fifth time and tells you to put it in a drawer and move on. That is very hard. That’s happened to me in another group. They were right but it was hard to hear. I recently looked at that manuscript and I realized I am a different writer now. I have different tools in my tool box. Sometimes when you work on the same manuscript over and over again, you can’t grow as a writer. You have to put it away and work on something else because a new manuscript will ask different skills of you. You can always go back. When you do, you will be a different writer and who knows? You may have just the right tools to bring that story to life now. Or the wisdom to know that you won’t.
How do you handle situations when you, as the author, disagree with someone’s feedback on your manuscript?
L.L. Hmmm, I’m a pretty compliant sort. If someone says a character sounds too young or they were confused by a POV shift, I go take a look. Always. Part of how a critique group functions for me is that their comments help me deepen my commitment to the manuscript. You really have to love a story to stick with it through revision, submission, more revision, publication and then promotion. So I had better be working on a story that I love and believe in. Their comments test my mettle as well as the story’s mettle.
How do you handle critiquing a manuscript you’re not comfortable with? For example, if you don’t care for horror, or paranormal, or rhyming picture books.
L.L. I think critiquing genres I don’t write gives me an opportunity to be more objective on craft issues (point of view, setting) and story logic. Because I’m not swept up by the genre and loving the author’s dystopian world, for instance, I can be more objective and thoughtful about what’s working on the page. I remember once I was in a group where a member had submitted a rhyming manuscript about space. What I brought to the table was a naiveté about the subject matter so that I could honestly say what didn’t make sense or what wasn’t clear. I think it’s important to understand the world that the manuscript is trying to create but you don’t have to be an expert in that genre to bring value to the critique table.
Would you like to share a funny, sweet, or unusual anecdote about a critique group situation?
L.L. One of my critiquers writes in the margins of my manuscripts: ‘I’m holding my breath.’ or ‘Yuck!’ Or ‘Swoon.’ She notes her emotional response to the material. At first, I didn’t understand the comments. You know, I thought they had to be more cerebral and cognitive. But now I love to see if the emotional effect I want is coming through.
What advice would you give to a writer joining a critique group for the first time?
L.L. You will become a better writer by becoming a better critiquer. So often we think that we become better writers by all the feedback we receive on our manuscripts. Not so. In fact, sometimes I get flooded by a lot of feedback and it takes me some time to sift and mull about what to do next. What I notice is that by paying attention to craft and story in other people’s manuscripts, I am a lot sharper when I am crafting my own stories. When I see how one of my fellow critiquers handles a time shift in her ms., for instance, I tend to be braver in my own pages.
I’ve posted previously about how vital critique groups can be. A trustworthy critiquer is at once cheerleader, first-reader, editor, and therapist. But, don’t take my word for it. The next three blog posts feature the critique group expertise of seven prolific writers. If you’ve ever considered joining a group, you’ll want to read what these wonderfully talented writers have to say about the ups and downs of collaborative feedback.
Meet our first two featured authors…
Author P. J. Hoover first fell in love with Greek mythology in sixth grade thanks to the book Mythology by Edith Hamilton. After a fifteen year bout as an electrical engineer designing computer chips for a living, P. J. decided to take her own stab at mythology and started writing books for kids and teens. P. J. is also a member of Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels When not writing, P. J. spends time with her husband and two kids and enjoys practicing Kung Fu, solving Rubik’s cubes, and watching Star Trek.
Her first novel for teens, Solstice, takes place in a Global Warming future and explores the parallel world of mythology beside our own. Her middle grade fantasy novels, The Emerald Tablet, The Navel of the World, and The Necropolis, chronicle the adventures of a boy who discovers he’s part of two feuding worlds hidden beneath the sea.
Meredith Davis trades pictures books and middle grades with her critique partners. She recently earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College, and is busy putting the finishing touches on her most recent middle grade. She is happiest when immersed in a story, whether it’s someone else’s or her own, figment of imagination or backyard foible. She chronicles some of her life’s stories at www.storiesinthestreet.com.
What’s the secret to a successful critique group?
Check back for Part Two with Emily Kristin Anderson and Lindsey Lane