What’s so good about a writer’s critique group?

A writer’s critique group meets on a regular basis to share information about the writer’s craft and the writing business. Members share resources, marketing information, sales and rejections, editor, agent, and business info, as well as their precious manuscripts.

At its best, a critique group “feeds” its writers. A writer’s group offers support and encouragement. In a critique group, writers listen to each other’s manuscripts with respect and consideration, making sure all members get a chance to share. Some groups read manuscripts aloud during the meetings, offering immediate feedback; others read manuscripts ahead and share written critiques at the meeting.

Writers present thoughtful evaluations of each manuscript, giving helpful, kind and honest feedback without being overwhelming; offering suggestions for improvement without trying to rewrite the manuscript. What might an evaluation include?: A report on places where one wants to know more; feelings that occur inside as the manuscript is read; images and phrases that stick.

I have been a member of a children’s writer’s group for over 10 years. Members of my group write picture books, children’s poetry, middle grade fiction and nonfiction, YA fiction and nonfiction. Consistently, our group is generous with its idea-sharing and support. Everyone offers heartfelt suggestions and everyone wishes success for all members.  Because each member has a unique perspective to offer and a special area of interest/expertise, my writing has become stronger. I have learned to trust and evaluate the feedback—when to use it and when not.

On our way to the cabin!

Sharing our writing means we have also shared some of the deepest places of our inner lives. We have forged a special bond. Magically, my writer’s critique group recently spent five days together on a “writer’s retreat”, clicking computer keys from dawn till dusk (see previous post “Writer’s Group Retreat”).

Tragically, one of our members suffered a massive brain stem stroke two weeks following our retreat. She is now on life support with a slim chance of recovery. We are grieving the loss of our group-mate and friend—Elaine Marie Alphin, writer and “critiquer” extraordinaire.

Elaine Marie Alphin

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Writer’s Group Retreat

I am sitting on the front porch of a rustic log house (a rental “cabin”) at the top of a mountain in Big Sky, Montana. The altitude is 8400 feet. The sun beams, the breeze stirs the trees and mountain bluebirds flit across the meadow. The bluebird call and the soft gurgle of a creek are the only sounds I hear. My mind is clear. Which is a good thing for a writer.  An uncluttered mind invites the subconscious to open its valves and share its priceless contents.

Can you guess? I’m on a writer’s group retreat.

My five fellow writer’s group members (all children’s writers) are deep into their novels inside the cabin–laptops spread across tables and benches, keyboards softly thunking. Most of us have day jobs. We don’t have the luxury of an 8-10 hour writing day. So this annual getaway devoted to writing and critiquing manuscripts is  productive, creative, and a bonding time for our group. We write–morn till night.

And writing isn’t the only creative activity we share. Everyone brings a cooler stuffed with ingredients for the common good–Let me tell you about the food! Oh, yeah.

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What’s so good about a poem?

What’s so good about a poem?

A poem is something fun to hear. It delights the ear.

It delights the eye, with its use of space, its arrangement of words and lines on the page.

A poem is felt—it touches our emotions, catches our hearts. A poem can express and provoke our most important thoughts and feelings.

A poem is a condensed form of writing. Words do more than one job at the same time–think imagery, symbolism. A poem is enchanting, as it often takes the reader awhile to unpack everything.

A poem surprises us, with its vocabulary, its images, its shape, or the very idea it expresses.

Poems can tell what its like to be alive! They often speak to the unanswerable questions, the essential mysterious aspects of life: Who am I? Why am I here? What makes a good life! If you read a lot of poetry, it’s hard to feel alone in the world.

I love this statement by Annie Dillard: “The way to a reader’s emotions is through the senses. Give hardback fiction and poetry as gifts to everyone you know. No shirt or sweater ever changed a life.”

 What else do poems do?  Ask X. J. and Dorothy Kennedy. In their book, Knock at a Star: a child’s introduction to poetry, they show how poems can …“Make You Smile, Tell Stories, Send Messages, Share Feelings, Help You Understand People, and Start You Wondering.”

This book is worth the read—especially for its choice of delectable poems! Included is this “Send a Message” poem by Sarah N. Cleghorn, printed in 1917, before laws prevented children from working in factories.


The golf links lie so near the mill

That almost every day

The laboring children can look out

And see the men at play.

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Red Fox Literary

My talented agent, Karen Grencik, formerly of Karen Grencik Literary, has teamed up with children’s editor, Abigail Samoun, to form Red Fox Literary, a new literary agency for children’s writers and illustrators, located in Shell Beach. California.

Red Fox Agency has launched a splendid new website and it’s worth taking a look. The design is fresh, easy to navigate and features a studio tour of one of the agency’s artists, Stephanie Roth Sisson. The blog component features an interview with one of the agency’s authors, Tom Llewellyn.

The website is somewhat unique in highlighting portfolios of illustrators, illustrator artwork for sale, as well as author profiles, and of course Karen and Abigail profiles. It’s informative, it’s fun, and … I love the fox!  Check out www.redfoxliterary.com

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4th Annual Children’s Festival of the Book

Save the date!   Saturday, November 5, 2011

Plans are underway for the 4th Annual Children’s Festival of the Book at Bozeman Public Library in Bozeman, Montana.

Our guest children’s authors will be:

David Shannon, author/illustrator of No, David! series, Duck on a Bike, The Rain Came Down;

Liz Scanlon, author of Noodle & Lou (new release)All the World, A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toe;

Marla Frazee, author/illustrator of A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, The Boss Baby, Roller Coaster; and illustrator of All the World, Seven Silly Eaters and the Clementine series.

It will be awesome. I know, because our first three Festivals were  wonder-filled and sprinkled with surprises. CE credits will be available for teachers and librarians.

Headliners of past Festivals:

2008–Paul Zelinsky

2009–Chris Raschka and Paul Janeczko

2010–Lois Lowry and Karma Wilson.

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Montana Poet Laureate

Did you know that Montana has its own poet laureate? Created by the state legislature in 2005, the Montana Poet Laureate position honors a citizen poet of exceptional talent and accomplishment, and encourages appreciation of poetry and literary life in Montana.

The primary duty of the Poet Laureate is to promote the art of poetry among the people–each laureate in his/her own way, by undertaking projects and programs that promote the art of poetry and make poetry more accessible to people in their everyday lives. The position is honorary and each laureate serves for two years.

In 2005, Sandra Alcosser became our first Montana Poet Laureate. Sandra is an acclaimed poet, teacher and “a gentle warrior for nature and conservation efforts.” She is committed to creating a model for how cultural institutions such as libraries and zoos can collaborate to promote empathic thinking in society. “Poetry calls into question what it means to be human,” says Alcosser. As poet laureate, she inspired her audiences to become engaged with the natural world. 

Greg Pape was selected as the second Poet Laureate in 2007. Greg, a creative writing professor at University of Montana, Missoula, traveled the state (often the most rural areas) reading and ‘demystifying’ poetry. Pape says about poetry:”It’s simply a sustained use of language as art–nothing more. Art and poetry helps us live our lives, and everybody is a potential poet, anybody can do art.”

Henry Real Bird was selected in 2009 and will serve into the summer of 2011. Henry Real Bird is a rancher and educator, a cowboy, and member of the True Crow Nation. He still speaks Crow as his primary language and often speaks Crow when he visits school children. As Poet Laureate, Henry Real Bird took a 415-mile horseback trip halfway across the state, handing out books of poetry along the way.

The Bozeman community has welcomed all three Poets Laureate to the Bozeman Public Library where they shared their poetry, their ideas about poetry, and conducted poetry writing workshops.

April is National Poetry Month. If you are a Montana resident, it’s a good time to nominate our next Poet Laureate. The deadline is April 29, 2011. The process is outlined on this Montana Arts Council website. http://art.mt.gov/resources/resources_plposition.asp

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One of my heroes

I grew up without a voice. I was shushed. “Don’t say that, it’s not nice.” “Don’t speak unless spoken to.” “Don’t rock the boat.” In my family, survival meant going underground.

When I first discovered my writing voice, years of unsaid things rushed up the pipe. Poems blew out of me. At first, the poems expressed things I had seen, heard and felt in my childhood. Things I had protected, waiting …

Lee Bennett Hopkins is one of my heroes. When I first discovered my voice, he heard it and encouraged me. He supported my voice by publishing my poems. I became one of his “takeout” poets.

Lee commissions poets to write original poems specifically for his collections. He sends out a theme to his “take out” poets. They, in turn, create poems and send them back. Lee chooses good work, and the ones which best fit his evolving collections.

One of the joyful-est assignments for me culminated in “The Tale of Fig Newton,” a poem published in Incredible Inventions ( Greenwillow Books, 2009 ). Lee asked me if I liked Fig Newtons?  So happens, I love ’em. I had so much fun creating this poem. It starts: “Charles M. Roser/ an Ohio baker/back in 1891:/a mover, a shaker/a fine cookie maker—/whipped up a cookie/with cake and fig jam.”        

Greenwillow Books, 2009

Another assignment was to write about a “worst moment.” I sent him “My Brand New Bathing Suit,” which was published in Oh! No! Where Are My Pants? and other disasters (HarperCollins, 2005 )See “My Publications” on this blog to view the poem.

Lee Bennett Hopkins is a generous man, a kind man, and a friend. His contributions to the world have been huge—as a teacher, reading specialist and mentor, writer, anthologist–He has delivered gifts of poetry to countless children by publishing over 100 children’s poetry collections. He has changed lives. He did mine.  http://www.leebennetthopkins.com/

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