Highlights Foundation Workshop: Novel Beginnings

In March 2017, I returned to the Highlights Foundation for my second workshop, Novel Beginnings. Our amazing instructors were Clara Gillow Clark and Kelly Going (who writes as K.L. Going). This year I was in the Lodge, which I enjoyed just as much as the cabin. Another difference from my October 2015 visit: snow.

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Calkins Creek

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The scary bridge I made myself cross

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Snow!

 

There were about a dozen of us there for four days. Workshops like this are great because they are small enough to get to know the people but large enough to meet a diverse group of writers. And one of my favorite parts of Highlights Foundation workshops are that I don’t have to cook anything.

Each participant was able to submit the first 50 pages of their manuscript and received an in-depth one on one critique on their work. I found Clara and Kelly to be really open and honest about our stories and our writing. I know they offered sound guidance, because one of our attendees re-wrote her first few pages while at the workshop and when she shared them with us…WOW.

Group Critique

In addition to our one on one critiques, we also did a group critique session of our first three pages, hosted by Susan Bartoletti. Susan suggested we structure our critique feedback using the five points below, and I really loved the results.

highlights foundation critique

One thing that pleased me a lot was after only hearing my first three pages, a person in the critique group was able to lay out the overall plot of my story. If a writer can put that in front of readers and still make it funny and interesting, there is something good happening there.

Kelly shared a lot about the business of publishing. The time away from daily life helped me hone in on what I really wanted to do with my story. I received solid, positive feedback on my story from Clara and felt very motivated to keep working.

I haven’t yet told Clara that the week after I returned from the workshop I wrote every single day and made big progress through my manuscript…but was still really unhappy with the arc. I called up a friend, he’s 10, and talked it through with him. He brainstormed so honestly with me and I can’t ever thank him enough. After my conversation with him, I revamped the stakes in my story completely and now have a much better source of conflict that will interest kid readers. I hope.

Highlights Memories

But the Highlights Foundation Workshop isn’t all writing. Aside from working on my own story, I did a lot of running in the snow. And I spent some time traveling down memory lane and looking through Highlights from 1985 and 1986. I recognized covers and stories that I had read, re-read, and re-re-read as a kid, much the same way my son reads Match.

Word play and word history! I would love to write something like this for Highlights today.

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When I saw this story about the marathon, I wondered if it had influenced me, in a subtle way, to try running.

This is probably the first place I read about silkies. They are a favorite mythological creature of mine.

This story stuck with me forever. It could be one of the first science-fiction stories I ever read. It blended ordinary life elements with a strange idea and was also effortlessly entertaining.

This one made me laugh out loud. Reading this made me want to make my own butter so much and now that I’m the grown-up, we do!

Here’s a story about a young woman who played a role in shaping historical events. Could this be any more up my alley?

Find a Writing Critique Group

find a writing critique group

Power of the red pen

If you want to be a writer, for children or otherwise, it’s really important to find a writing critique group. Right now, I’m a member of three different writing critique groups and each one has it’s own flavor, pros and cons.

SCBWI

There are lots of ways to find writing critique groups online, but if you’re interested in writing for children I suggest starting with the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. My chapter, the Western PA chapter, has a decent list of groups listed on their website.

Pennwriters

For writers in and out of Pennsylvania, there are lots of ways to find writing critique groups through Pennwriters. I’m in Area 3, and there are six different groups available to members.

Create One

If you can find a writing critique group in your area, you can create a critique group yourself. Ann Whitford Paul has useful suggestions on building one in her book Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication. She outlines rules about timing, reading stories aloud, and not speaking while others are critiquing! It’s really useful stuff.

While an in-person group is by far the most valuable, in my opinion, it’s also possible to get useful critiques online. If you can’t find a writing critique group in your town or can’t build one, you can go online and join Scribophile and get some really useful feedback. The only requirement, just like belonging to an in-person group, is that you also give critiques to others.

No group is going to be perfect, without it’s strong personalities and hurt feelings. It’s unavoidable when we’re sharing things as personal as our stories! But it’s worth it. The feedback I’ve gotten from groups has been invaluable.

How did you find a writing critique group?

What are things that work best in a critique group, in your experience?

Too Many Critique Groups?

critique groups

Drafts & Revisions

Are you a in a critique group? I am – actually three critique groups! I think critique groups are truly invaluable to any serious writer and not just for works of fiction.

I meet regularly with a friend I met through NaNoWriMo (coming very soon!) to discuss non-fiction queries, article ideas and fiction ideas. We also discuss whether certain writing contests are worth the effort. Having a writer friend as a sounding board is a great asset, and it helps when the writing friend has a different approach than you.

In addition to meeting with my friend, I also meet regularly with two formal critique groups but both have different vibes.

Last summer I learned about the Society for Children’s Books Writers and Editors and attended their summer “critique-nic.” This picnic plus critique group combined my love of food and writing perfectly and following that event I joined an SCWBI critique group in Cranberry. This has been my most successful, continual critique group ever. We have a great chemistry and really work hard to help each other produce our best work.

Joining this SCWBI group has kept me on task and provided good moral support. This group was especially helpful after I had a negative experience at a writing retreat and was accused of being a rude, harsh, inexperienced critiquer. (I’ll have to share more about this story later.) After the retreat, I returned to my familiar group and shared my unhappy story. They reassured me it was probably a misunderstanding or a just a really negative person. This group is a great mix of writers with diverse experience, too. I definitely want to be in this group.

After attending – and loving – my first Penn Writers conference, I learned about a critique group very convenient to my neighborhood and requested to join. I was pretty surprised to learn I had to audition to join this group! I sent off my writing sample and felt very lucky to be accepted. They keep a strict six-person membership limit and while the group meets for an epic 5 hours once a month, they work very hard to give detailed feedback and stay on topic.

I’ve had one meeting with this group and found it to be really engaging and informative. I’m excited to bring my MG novel “Dare Club” and work on revisions with the help of this group. Each person is writing something so different, I also feel like I will learn a lot from each of their works. I definitely want to be in this group, too!

There’s a third critique group that’s still in the growing stages trying to meet every other Wednesday at  Coffee Buddha, a coffee shop also in my neighborhood. Growing a critique group can be pretty hard when people haven’t made the commitment to clear the space on their calendar and prioritize being there. New critique groups are always working out who the leader is, how many people are needed to meet, how often to meet and working to build a comfort level with each other. This is probably the hardest one for me to commit to, since it’s still growing. But I feel responsible for it some reason!

I think two critique groups plus a writing mentor is enough, but three is too many. But I can’t let go of the guilt of abandoning a group of writers looking for support in their community!

Do you belong to one or more critique groups? What’s the best part? What’s the worst?