The Magic & Power of Critique

Last summer, I took over the challenge of the Kansas/Missouri SCBWI regional volunteer critique coordinator position. One of my first tasks was to find ways for creators in our region to make connections and feel part of the SCBWI community even though our region covers a large geographical area. I had an idea for a virtual event we call Critique & Meet. 

The Critique & Meet idea is a monthly virtual gathering that’s part social, part critique, and 100% the KSMO SCBWI community coming together to help each other create. It’s like an open-mic night combined with a speed-dating version of critiquing. 

The goal is to provide a forum to meet other creators (perhaps even form outside critique groups), improve existing stories, and bounce story ideas off each other. Even if participants don’t create the specific category for a particular event, all are welcome to attend and participate in the critiques. The underlying philosophy is that we are all in this grand adventure together!

The basic setup for each virtual event gives four creators ten minutes to read and screen share their PB text, the first 500 words of a middle-grade/young adult project, or an illustration. After the presentation, a link is shared to a short critique questionnaire in a poll form for everyone to fill out. The results of each presenter’s critique poll are sent or shared with them upon event completion. 

The virtual session is open to any regional SCBWI members interested in helping others improve their manuscripts or illustrations. At the end of every session, we have a social block where we can hang out and talk kidlit, life, how dirty my office is, etc. Here are the Critique & Meet goals and rules:

The goals are to:

  1. Improve our work and learn by helping others.
  2. Make connections.
  3. Find critique partners and form critique relationships. The connections you make are worth their weight in gold.
  4. Discover/Remind yourself that you are not alone.

The Critique & Meet Ground Rules

  1. Help not hurt. A critique is not a debate. Respect the creator and respect the people providing their critique thoughts. It’s all about helping each other create the best version of our work. When in doubt, choose nice!
  2. Learn from both sides of the table. The creator learns ways to improve their work. The audience learns how to read and listen analytically.  
  3. Don’t share the work presented.
  4. Make connections. 

We’ve done two of these monthly Critique & Meet events and I’ve been happy with the results. There were around 20 participants for each event and the creators presenting their work report they’ve received good information from the quick critique polls. We’ve even had participants interested in forming a few local critique groups.

The moral of the story is no matter where you are in your creative journey, having fellow creative travelers along with you is a great benefit. If you are interested in creating or hosting something similar to our region’s Critique & Meet or have ideas to help establish/maintain critique relationships, please comment below. 


Adolphe Henri Laissement, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Magic of Writing Middle Grade: It’s All About Remembering the Child’s Perspective

Middle grade is without a doubt magical.

And by magical, I don’t mean that it’s all witches, elixirs, and pixies. But there’s certainly plenty of that. You’ll find gobs of delicious magic in lauded books such as The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill and The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton.

However, middle grade encompasses so many kinds of books, from contemporary realistic fiction to science fantasy from biography to adventure.

What I mean by magic—is the magic of childhood itself. After all, middle grade focuses on kids ages 8 until twelve—the very center of childhood. This is when you’re old enough to have hours of independent time away from your parents and yet not ready for the individuation shuffle away from parents and caregivers. At this age, while friendships and peers rule the day, children seek the guidance of kind and wise mentors. This might be parents, teachers, coaches, club advisors or yes, a witch, wizard or conjurer.

However, you don’t need to write about mystical creatures like, say, unicorns in order to find magic. You just need to remember what it is like to be a child.

When I was writing one of my middle grades, Queen of Likes, I momentarily forget what it was like to be a kid. In that book, 12-year-old Karma Cooper gets her phone taken away. At first, I got right to this punishment and had Karma communicating her regret.

Wrong! I had forgotten what it felt like to be a seventh grader. Instead, I was writing the text like—gulp–a mom. At the time, I hated how my kids and their friends were on the phone in the car and didn’t talk to each other. I didn’t allow phones at the kitchen table. I constantly made them put their phones away. But a kid might feel different. She might feel as though Mom is patently unfair. In revision, I had to remember how Karma felt about her phone, not me, the Mom. When I had Karma name her phone Floyd, I got back into a child head space.

One of my favorite authors is Beverly Clearly because she remembered what it was like to be a child.

For example, Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8, focuses on tension over a beloved eraser. As an adult, it is too easy to forget the attachment that children have to small inanimate objects. Sometimes as grown-ups, we see things merely as tools whereas to a child an eraser is an entire sensory experience and imbued with magic. When Ramona first receives her eraser, this is how her new treasure is described: “smooth, pearly pink, smelling softly of rubber, and just right for erasing pencil lines.”

Unfortunately, this treasure is taken away from her on the bus by some boys. To an adult, losing an eraser may seem trivial, but to Ramona, it’s a catastrophe. From an eight-year-old perspective, it is not just a common school supply, but a “beautiful pink eraser.”

It’s so easy to forget what it’s like to be truly young. In order not to forget, my kids’ preschool teacher, Mz. Lori, would have us adults do this exercise.

  1. Lift up your hands over your head.
  2. Hold them there for 3-5 minutes (it’s not easy) and march in place.

That is what is feels like to be a young child out on a walk and holding an adult’s hand.

What do you do to get back into the child mindset?

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). And her nonfiction picture book, If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders From Around the World is a look at historical and current princesses from many diverse lands who have made their mark (Simon & Schuster, August 2022). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University. In the summer, she teaches in the graduate program in children’s literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy.

She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on Instagram, her Facebook page as well as on Twitter

How To Write A Novel Without Feeling Lost

It’s a commonly held statistic that 97% of people who set out to write a novel never finish it. 97%! I don’t know where the statistic comes from, but as someone who has finished novels (11 of them) and has struggled with every single one, I don’t doubt this statistic at all. Writing a novel isn’t for the faint of heart. Novels, even middle-grade novels, are big unwieldy things that can feel like putty running through your fingers. It’s very easy to get lost.

Take it from Lisa Simpson:


Recently I taught a new class specifically to help with this problem. The class proved so popular, I ended up teaching it twice: once at the Austin SCBWI annual conference and once for the Writers League of Texas. The class was called “How To Write a Novel Without Getting Intimidated” and it got great reviews, with attendees saying they felt more like they could tackle their project. I was excited it helped. When I first started writing middle-grade, I felt VERY intimidated and got lost often. Here are some of the tips I passed on:


I used to read books and think, “How can I do this? This whole thing?” Well, the truth is, you don’t have to do create the whole thing, not immediately. All you need to start is an idea, even the smallest idea of an idea. When I wrote THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, all I started with was a question: What if a boy woke on a deserted beach with no memory of who he was or how he had gotten there? Big trees are grown from a tiny seed, and your book will start with a small idea. You don’t have to know everything when you begin. Discovery is a big part of the fun of writing.


Many writers start writing as soon as they have their idea. They get excited and want to jump right in. And that’s wonderful! It’s good to be excited. But not knowing much about your story can make you get lost quickly and feel like giving up. I mean, imagine if you got the idea to make pancakes because you read about them in a book. You don’t have a picture or a recipe or anything, you just know they’re going to be great. So you go into your kitchen and… Just like in cooking, a little planning for your novel goes a long way. You don’t have to know everything about your character, your world, or your plot, but the more you do know, the less likely you’re going to get lost.

Some good things to figure out up front are:

  • basic info about your character (age, name, home)
  • basic info about your setting (rural, city, another planet)
  • your main character’s problem/goal (what they’ll solve over the course of the story)
  • and the main obstacle (another person, aliens, nature, or the character themself)

There are plenty of other things you can brainstorm before you begin, but if you have at least these ingredients, you’ll be much less likely to get lost and give up.


I started out as a pantser (writing solely by the seat of my pants and following the story wherever it went), but I quickly learned there are more efficient ways. Now, I can hear some of you saying, “I don’t want to outline. It stifles my creative freedom.” But done right, outlining can help to build your creative freedom! (I wrote about my outlining journey on my blog.)

To keep me from getting lost when I’m writing, I find it useful to have a map, even if I venture away from it. An outline for a novel can be as simple as just a few story highlights or as in-depth as a plan for every scene of the book. I like to think of mine as a GPS. I know where I’m heading, and if I veer off course, I can take a different route. Outlines don’t have to stay the same as you write. Mine change constantly. But having one, even a really basic one, helps me stay the course.


Even if you’re not into outlining, there are still tools you can use to keep you focused as you write your whole novel. Your story is about your character trying to achieve their goal, so as you write, keep that goal handy. One way is to write a one-sentence pitch. A one-sentence pitch has your character, their problem, and what they need to do about it. So for my novel ARROW, the one-sentence pitch would be: A boy who grew up in a magically hidden rainforest must figure out how to fix the magic before outsiders from the dry, arid world exploit his home.

Write a one-sentence for your book, then keep it available as you pants through your story. When you get stuck, pull it out and see what you can do to get your character back on track. If a one-sentence pitch is too hard to write right now, this also works with jacket copy. Write the copy that will be on the back or inside flap of your book when it’s published (because it will be if you finish and revise) and use that to keep yourself motivated.


I used to compare my first drafts with the already published books I was reading, and I’d get frustrated because I knew mine wasn’t as good. But I was forgetting that all the books on my shelves were revised over and over and over again. First drafts are just that: Firsts. Knowing that I’m allowed as many other drafts as I need freed me up from thinking my first draft had to be perfect.


I get it. You’ve got dreams of walking into your local bookstore and seeing your book on their shelves. You want that day to be tomorrow, even today! But publishing journeys are loooooooooooong, and the best way to get an agent or editor interested in your work is to create great work. So don’t stress. Take your time. Even if you spend five minutes on your novel every day, you will one day end up with a full novel. Then you’ll be like Kermit and beat 97% of other writers.


Happy writing!