Critiques

Nine Reasons to Join a Critique Group (plus one warning* and one caveat**)

GIF by Isabella Kung

GIF by Isabella Kung

We think our critiquing skills are pretty great here at the Soaring ’20s Picture Book Debuts blog, but one critique probably won’t take the winners of the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY, or their stories, all the way to the finish line. That’s where critique groups come in. If you’re already in a critique group, you know what we’re talking about. If you’re not, what are you waiting for?!

 

Critique groups have helped our members:

 

1. Become part of a team.

“I see critiques as a team effort. The author’s hard work and vision is passed to another set of eyes, in order to set the story up for the best possible chance of success. I’m grateful each time I get to be a member of that team, whether as an author or a critiquer!”

Elisa Boxer, author
THE VOICE THAT WON THE VOTE: How One Woman’s Words Made History (Sleeping Bear Press, spring 2020)

 

2. Stay in the game.

“I’ve had the same critique group for six years and would not be here without them. Period. Not only have they made me a better writer and better critique partner, but they have kept me from giving up when things get really hard. I am super indebted to them and also, I am super invested in their journey. When they sign with an agent, or tweak a manuscript to near perfection, or sell a manuscript, I am beside myself with joy!”

Anna Crowley Redding, author
RESCUING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (HarperCollins, spring 2020)

 

3. Grow.

“Critiquing other writer’s manuscripts has been the next-best thing to improve my own writing, after reading picture books and writing!”

Julie Rowan-Zoch, illustrator
LOUIS (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, fall 2020)

 

4. Go deeper.

“Critiques have definitely helped me become a published author. My book, SATURDAYS ARE FOR STELLA, started with only two of its current main three characters. My critique group partners challenged me to deepen my story and guided me toward the third character who made all the difference in my story.”

Candy Wellins, author
SATURDAYS ARE FOR STELLA (Page Street Kids, summer 2020)

 

5. Reimagine stories.

“For me, critiquing others’ stories has been essential. I’ve gained an ability to reimagine stories, and through these countless exercises, I have become better at editing my own stories.” 

Hope Lim, author
I AM A BIRD (Candlewick, fall 2020)

 

6. Build community.

“Critique partners can provide insight into what’s working or not in your story. They can give you new ideas. And best of all they can become your closest writing buddies.” 

Darshana Khiani, author
HOW TO WEAR A SARI (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spring 2021)

 

7. Gain objectivity.

“When you’re in the trenches, neck-deep in your writing or illustrating, it can be incredibly difficult to be objective about your work. That’s where critique comes in: Fresh eyes surveying the battlefield with the sole intent of making your work better.”

John Herzog, illustrator
CLARINET AND TRUMPET (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, summer 2020)

 

8. Honor diversity.

“For me sensitivity reads are invaluable. I’m an #ownvoices writer when it comes to main characters, but the world my characters live in must be diverse. Tha’'s where the critique group comes in to make sure I’m honoring and respecting that diversity.”

NoNieqa Ramos, author
BEAUTY WOKE (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spring 2021)

 

9. Boost analytical skills.

“Critiquing other people’s work has sharpened my brain to become better at analyzing my own work. Not only that, I have become better at giving and receiving feedback. This skill is tremendously useful in the publishing industry where you have to go through many revisions with your agents, editors and/or art directors.”

Isabella Kung, illustrator/author
No Fuzzball!, (Scholastic, summer 2020)

 

*One warning—because not every person is the right person to critique your work:

“Allow someone else to give you an objective opinion, but choose your critiquers wisely. Not everyone is experienced in giving critiques or in the craft of writing for children. It does make a difference. Any member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) would most likely be capable and experienced enough to be helpful—but, generally, avoid asking friends, family and children for their feedback.”

Mary Wagley Copp, author
WHEREVER I GO (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, spring 2020)

 

**One caveat—because there are many paths to a successful career:

“I was too shy to join a critique group early on, but I’ve been supremely lucky to experience that creative process with my agent, Stephen Barr, instead. The work I’ve produced in collaboration is a direct result of him seeing more in my work than I’m able to see myself. His feedback has let me know when my art’s accidentally hit its sweet spot, helped me loosen my writing back up when I’m trying too hard, and pinpointed my best ideas hiding in plain sight (and upside down!).”

Shelley Johannes, author/illustrator
MORE THAN SUNNY (Abrams, spring 2021) 

 

 

Enter the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY to win a picture book manuscript, dummy, or portfolio critique with one of these (and other) Soaring ’20s members. The contest runs through 11:59 p.m. September 15, 2019. Winners will be announced September 17!

 


Five (Plus Four) Tips for Making the Most of Your Critique

GIF by Isabella Kung

GIF by Isabella Kung

The ability to receive a critique with an open mind and the willingness to change course when needed is one of the hallmarks of a professional writer or illustrator. But no matter how “pro” you go, sometimes feedback stings. With that in mind, here’s some advice for the 20+6 big winners of the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY. (Follow the link to enter by the end of the day September 15 and you could be a winner, too!)

 

1. Don’t take it personally.

“The best way to receive a critique is to decide ahead of time that you are not going to take it personally, that you are going to listen and use the bits that are helpful, that resonate with you, and graciously let the rest go.”

Anna Crowley Redding, author
RESCUING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (HarperCollins, spring 2020)

 

2. Stay open.

“I try to stay open when receiving a critique, knowing that it’s one of the best ways to improve my craft and improve the experience for the reader. It’s all in the spirit of making the work the best that it can be.”

Angela Burke Kunkel, author
DIGGING FOR WORDS: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built (Random House/Schwartz & Wade, fall 2020)

 

3. Aim for improvement.

“Most people tend to lean a little too far toward wanting validation on the one hand, or needing perfection on the other. If you find yourself struggling with a critique, try ditching these as goals and aim for improvement instead.”

Kjersten Anna Hayes, author
THE ELEPHANTS’ GUIDE TO HIDE-AND-SEEK (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, spring 2020)

 

4. Pause.

“The best thing you can do when you receive feedback on a manuscript is to pause and consider. Don’t whip out the red pen and immediately take action, but don’t whip out a sword and stab the critiquer either!”

Kelly Carey, author
HOW LONG IS FOREVER (Charlesbridge, spring 2020)

 

5. Get back to work.

“You received a critique! Now what? Read through, and savor the praise. Take note of what is working. Then focus on those comments that ask questions and/or suggest changes—even if, at first, they seem to make no sense. Let the feedback simmer for a few days so that you can decide what aligns with your vision for the story. Then get back to work and make that story shine!”

Joana Pastro, author
LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS (Boyds Mills & Kane, fall 2020)

 

Some winners will receive their critiques over the phone or via video chat. Illustrator/author Isabella Kung (NO FUZZBALL!, Scholastic, Summer 2020) has some tips for taking advantage of real-time critiques:

1. Take notes.

It might be difficult to digest all the feedback given to you in the moment. It might even provoke an emotional response. Jot down all the important points and review them the next day when you can examine everything objectively.

2. Ask questions.

The critique is useless if you don’t understand it, so ask your critiquer to elaborate if something seems vague.

3. Resist the urge to defend your work.

Responding defensively or giving excuses sends a signal that you are not receptive to feedback. Even if you don’t agree with the feedback or advice, simply nod, take notes, and move on to the next point.

4. Pay attention to the WHY.

It is okay to not apply every piece of advice offered—it’s your story and tastes can be subjective—but do pay attention to why the reviewer thinks a certain element needs improvement.

 

There are just a few days left to enter the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY to win a picture book manuscript, dummy, or portfolio critique with one of these (and other) Soaring ’20s members. The contest runs through 11:59 p.m. September 15, 2019. Winners will be announced on September 17!

Eight Steps to a Thorough Critique

GIF by Isabella Kung

GIF by Isabella Kung

If you read our last blog post, you know the Soaring ’20s Picture Book Debut crew loves critiques so much, we’re giving them away. Today, we offer tips on how to critique a picture book manuscript or dummy for a glimpse into what the 20+6 winners of our MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY can expect (and for some advice on how to help your own writing buddies take their manuscripts and dummies from good to great).

 

1. Get some background information.

“I usually like to find out first if there is something specific the author or illustrator is looking for in the critique—story, voice, pacing, etc. or the whole enchilada. I also like to know a little bit about their background (how long have they been writing?) and the MS or dummy background (how many versions have there been?).”

Gregory Barrington, author/illustrator
COW BOY IS NOT A COWBOY (HarperCollins, Fall 2020)

 

2. Read once.

“For me, the first read is always about the high-level things: the concept, and the emotion or ‘heart’ of the manuscript. Is the concept unique and fresh enough to stand out in the market? What do I feel when I read the story?”

Carrie Finison, author
DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Summer 2020)

 

3. Read twice (out loud this time).

“Picture books are meant to be read out loud, and it’s crucial to get the music of the words right.”

Rajani LaRocca, author
SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS (Lee & Low, Summer 2020)

 

4. Ask questions.

“Some questions I might ask are: Do I know the protagonist enough to root for her? Does she solve her own problem? Does she have agency? Does the story have focus? And, perhaps most importantly, does it have heart—am I connecting to it in a deeper way than just the storyline?”

Mary Wagley Copp, author
WHEREVER I GO (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, Spring 2020)

 

5. Read it again.

“Look for opportunities to strengthen characters, tighten the plot, and power up the word play.”  

Candy Wellins, author
SATURDAYS ARE FOR STELLA (Page Street Kids, Summer 2020)

 

6. GO BIG! And go small.

“I like to look at both the macro and micro level. I’ll check for big-picture issues like a strong theme and story arc and character development, as well as smaller (but still very important!) issues like sentence structure and word choice.”

Melanie Ellsworth, author
CLARINET AND TRUMPET (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, summer 2020)
HIP, HIP…BERET! (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020)

 

7. Allow the artist to find answers.

“I try to direct people back to their characters or other strong places to find answers to questions I might raise, instead of supplying the answers myself. I believe each artist has the answers in them already and within the work.” 

Sam Wedelich, author/illustrator
CHICKEN LITTLE: The Real and Totally True* Tale (Scholastic Press, spring 2020)

 

8. Make a sandwich.

“I like to use the not-so-secret recipe for a critique sandwich. It’s one even the most sensitive artists can stomach. Start with the bread—that’s the good stuff. What’s working? Where did you laugh or cry? Which characters did you fall in love with? Next, add protein. This is the part that makes the story stronger. Make suggestions. Ask questions. But don’t get carried away—a person’s mouth is only so big. Top the sandwich off with one more slice of bread. Serve.”

Colleen Paeff, author
THE GREAT STINK: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, Summer 2020)

Go here to enter the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY to win a picture book manuscript, dummy, or portfolio critique with one of these (and other) Soaring ’20s members. The contest runs through 11:59 p.m. September 15, 2019. Winners will be announced September 17!

 

Nine Reasons to Have Your Writing and/or Illustrations Critiqued

GIF by Isabella Kung

GIF by Isabella Kung

We love a good critique here on the Soaring ’20s Picture Book Debut Blog. In fact, it’s safe to say that without thoughtful, consistent critique of our work, we wouldn’t be awaiting our book releases at all.

That’s why we’re giving away 20+6 free critiques to 20+6 lucky winners!

What’s so great about hearing what’s wrong with our work?

Good critiques . . . 

1. Reveal what’s missing.

“I often liken writing to fitting a jigsaw puzzle together. In writing, as in puzzling, the value of ‘fresh eyes’ is enormous. After you’ve stared at a draft or a puzzle for days and weeks, it’s easy to get stuck. But bring in a new person who’s never seen the puzzle before, and something magical happens. They can find that missing edge piece that shapes the work. They can help you see how sections of the story should fit together.”

Kirsten W. Larson, author
WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane (Calkins Creek, spring 2020)

2. Boost creativity.

“The best critiques ask questions that unlock the creativity gates when I’m stuck. They might identify weak spots that I subconsciously knew were there but hadn’t admitted to myself. After a really inspiring critique, I want to dig in, tear up my manuscript, and make it better.” 

Lindsay H. Metcalf, author
TRACTORS ON PARADE: Planting a Movement, from the Heartland’s Farms to the Nation’s Capital (Calkins Creek, fall 2020)
NO VOICE TOO SMALL: Fourteen Young Americans Making History (Charlesbridge, fall 2020)

 

3. Provide a window into one reader’s experience.

“Unlike journaling or other types of private writing, published writing is not about the writer. It’s really about what happens in the reader’s mind while they read. It’s difficult for a writer to know what that experience is without asking someone! A good critiquer will articulate what she experienced while reading your story, and can recognize what aspects of the writing created that experience.”

Carrie Finison, author
DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, summer 2020)

 

4. Keep your story on track.

“A good critique can help identify where a manuscript is heading off in the wrong direction and can make a good manuscript great.”

Rajani LaRocca, author
SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS (Lee & Low, summer 2020)

 

5. Offer a fresh perspective.

“A critique from someone who hasn't read previous versions of your story gives you the advantage of a fresh perspective from a first-time reader. They can often catch things that are confusing that you can fix before an agent, editor or reader sees it.” 

Susan Kusel, author
THE PASSOVER GUEST (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, spring 2021)

6. Improve visual storytelling.

“The most helpful illustration critiques I've received point out things that look awkward, give suggestions of alternate layouts that may improve the storytelling, or offer ideas of small details that could strengthen the illustration further (eg: a puff of smoke to emphasize the squealing of the brakes, a bush in the foreground to add visual interest and a pop of color, etc.).”

Abi Cushman, author/illustrator
SOAKED! (Viking Children’s Books, summer 2020)

 

7. Identify strengths.

“Understanding what’s working in a story or illustration is just as important as knowing what isn’t. Bask in the glow of comments that identify the strengths of your work and then build on those strengths.”

Colleen Paeff, author
THE GREAT STINK: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, summer 2020)

 

8. Make you a better writer and artist.

“At a tactical level, critiques can help you fix broken arcs, come up with new ideas, and tweak details. Best of all, a great critique may give you an insight that carries through your work as a writer or artist, making you stronger and better at your craft.”

Vicky Fang, author
INVENT-A-PET (Sterling, spring 2020)

9. Lead to new discoveries.

Receiving good feedback gets me unstuck, lights new pathways in my brain, raises the bar, and renews my enthusiasm for my work. Over and over again, it helps me create things I could never discover alone. Nothing has helped me grow more.

Shelley Johannes, author/illustrator
MORE THAN SUNNY (Abrams, Spring 2021)

Go here to enter the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY to win a picture book manuscript, dummy, or portfolio critique with one of these (and other) Soaring ’20s members. The contest runs through 11:59 p.m. Sept. 15, 2019. Winners will be announced September 17!