Posts Tagged Critique

Finding 40: How to Discover Critique Partners and Elevate Your Writing

A few weeks ago my wife and I had a parent-teacher conference for our son in kindergarten. Overall it was a lovely meeting — he’s reading and writing and learning how to take care of worms. But when we got on the subject of math, the teacher’s bright expression faltered just briefly as she said, “There is one area where we’re still having some trouble.” She then explained that when our son counts, he has a habit of reaching the number 39, then jumping back to 20.

My wife and I digested this new revelation, both of us trying to remember when we’d ever asked him to count to 40 (I’m all for the functional application of kindergarten math, but I don’t think we have 40 of anything in our house). To prove her point, the teacher called to him on the other side of the room, and sure enough, he shouted back, “37…38…39…20…21…”

“There you go,” she said to us with a slight shrug. But then she did the teacher thing and helped him on the spot, talking him through the numbers until he broke through the invisible wall between 39 and 40. If she hadn’t intervened, I wonder if we might still be in that conference listening to him count.

We all get stuck sometimes, and I’m especially prone to this tendency in my writing. My plot hits a snag or I can’t get a character motivation quite right, and it’s like getting caught in a loop. I’m missing something, but since I don’t know what it is, I’m stuck repeating the same mistakes and landing in the same place I started. I need someone like my son’s kindergarten teacher to shout the numbers from across the room so I can figure out where I’ve gone wrong. For most writers, this takes the form of a critique partner or a critique group. They’re the people in our lives who listen to us count and tell us when we’ve accidentally skipped back to 20. 

But getting connected with critique partners can be a daunting task. It’s not as simple as  walking into a parent-teacher conference and knowing that the person on the other side of the desk is uniquely equipped to help you solve your problems. And what’s worse — these aren’t just meaningless numbers. They’re words…your words. Words you probably spent months or even years poring over and fine-tuning. I’ve been there. I know it’s scary. But it’s not as scary as being stuck at the number 39 and never even realizing it, so take the leap with me and consider these options to help you break out of the loop and find the number 40.


SCBWI Local Critique Groups

If you’re a member of SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), you may not have realized that it’s one of the best places to get involved in a critique group. Start by reaching out to your local chapter, since every region does things slightly differently. There’s also the SCBWI blueboard, which can be a little challenging to navigate, but does provide a forum for getting connected with other authors. I actually found two or three long-time critique partners through the Blueboard, one of whom eventually connected me with my literary agent!


Facebook Groups

Even with all the other social media options out there, Facebook remains one of the best ways for writers to connect, get advice, and collaborate with fellow creators. There are even a few groups that exist almost entirely for the purpose of exchanging manuscripts and critiques. My favorite for this purpose is Kidlit411 manuscript swap but there is also Middle Grade Fictions Writers, where authors often post looking for critique swaps or beta readers. 


The Writer’s Match

This highly organized system developed by Megan Taraszkiewicz was created with the purpose of connecting like-minded writers. It’s completely free and could be a great way to establish some new critique partnerships that are tailored to your specific interests and needs.


Critique Circle

Critique Circle is one of the most equitable ways to give and receive feedback. Writers earn credits by critiquing others’ work, which can then be applied to posting work and receiving feedback. When using the system, I always found that reading the work of others was just as valuable as the credits, since giving critiques can often be just as insightful as getting them!


Additional Lists and Resources

I’m hardly the first author to compile this information, and there are plenty of other blogs and articles that cover the topic. A few of my favorites include Carrie Finison‘s very helpful (and much more comprehensive) list of critique resources, as well as Jane Friedman’s article on how to find the right critique group. 


I hope this list has helped you find some motivation to get others in front of your work. It’s been a revelation for me, and I know I’m not the only one who found a jolt of new energy and progress after summoning the courage to let someone else take a peek at that beloved but oh-so-flawed manuscript. You can do it! In fact, let’s practice together right now:


Alyssa Eisner Henkin Giveaway Winners

Thanks for all the wonderful comments on my interview of agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin! And a huge thank you to Alyssa for sharing such great info about the changing market and for offering such amazing giveaways.

First up, is the winner of Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

And the winner is…

Patricia J. Murphy


The winner of up to a 20 page critique of a middle grade novel is…

Pam Beres

Congrats, winners!  I’ll send each of you an e-mail soon.  For those of you who entered the second critique giveaway through the link at the bottom of the interview, the winner will be announced this weekend as a comment on the original post for that giveaway.

Agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin Interview and Giveaway

I’m thrilled to welcome agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin to the Mixed-Up Files.  Alyssa is a 1998 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. Before joining Trident Media Group in December of 2006, she spent seven years at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, where she edited the New York Times bestselling LITTLE QUACK, as well as the popular THE MOTHER DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB, and THE WEDDING PLANNER’S DAUGHTER. Alyssa is currently seeking commercial middle grade and young adult novels, as well as projects with crossover appeal in women’s fiction.


Thank you for visiting us!  Between all your editorial and agenting experience, how has the market changed, how did you adapt to it, and what new changes do you think agents might make in the future? 

While we’re in a climate of great change, I think publishers are choosier now more than ever. I’ve heard a refrain lately of people looking for books that have a very unique and lyrical voice, but at the same time are “not so different” that they can’t comp to other popular books.

Additionally, authors now have the ability to publish their own books through Amazon and other etailers without a major publisher backing them. While it’s still often a long road between independently publishing one’s book and getting a publisher to notice it and pick the book up in a big deal, it’s definitely a strategy that I’ve seen already, and one that I suspect we’ll see more and more of in the months ahead. Editors and agents are often “trolling” the highest ranked books on Amazon and B& and figuring out if there is a way to expand those brands beyond just the ebook arena by publishing them in hardcover, paperback in foreign markets, selling film rights.


It’s amazing to see how many middle-grade books are being self-published now.  What do you think about the quality of those books, and when do you believe it’s okay for a writer to consider that route?

I love the fact that self-publishing no longer has the stigma associated with it that it did at earlier times. Not only are the John Lockes and the Amanda Hockings of the world making money by selling their ebooks online, but plenty of mid list authors as well as newbies are making considerable cash as well.

While self-publishing ebooks might not be the right strategy for every book, and particularly not for every MG book, considering that a lot of the readers in that age group are not yet reading on e-readers, nor are they on Facebook in the same way that teens are, it is definitely the right strategy for some.

My own wonderful client, Adam Glendon Sidwell made a huge foray by independently publishing his MG book EVERTASTER, which hit #52 overall in books on and #1 in children’s mystery books on his first day of publication. A veteran of the special effects film industry, Adam decided to take this route after I could not sell his fun, funny, clever, and page-turningly delicious book EVERTASTER to a major publisher. I had gotten close to selling the book to 2 different major publishers, but while the editors championed the book, sales came back and said it was too quirky. And yet these rejection letters we were receiving sounded more like sell sheets for the book! One editor said “this was like GOONIES meets RATATOUILLE meets THE DA VINCI CODE, and kids would literally eat this up.”

While EVERTASTER is certainly a quirky story. It’s also a very commercial one. It’s both a mystery and adventure in which the worlds pickiest eater goes in search of The Gastronomy of Peace, a recipe so delicious, that one who finds it will never want to eat anything else. And it’s a battle to the finish, since evil forces are in search of this rare delicacy, too. And securing its ingredients takes Guster and his brainy sister across the globe from jungles to icy peaks to medieval castles.

Shortly after the submission rounds concluded, my agency, Trident Media Group, launched its own ebook publishing platform. We serve as advisors to our clients who wish to publish their own books and consult on marketing and price strategies, covers, copyediting, and every other facet of eBook making. Adam and I agreed that EVERTASTER seemed like the perfect first MG with which to launch Trident’s impressive roster of original eBooks. The fact that he and I had been editing and revising it for the better part of two years definitely spoke to the quality of the work as well.


What are some great ways for authors to promote themselves and their books?

I think the more authors can do to utilize online resources, the better. In the case of EVERTASTER, Adam and his brand team (i.e. family members) spent two months prior to publication building up a huge fan-base for the book on Facebook and Twitter. He also created a blog and a trailer, sought out quotes from other authors and interviews on influential blogs. And he kept his growing fan base in the loop every step of the way, by tweeting and posting on FB every time something new happened with the book. He also sponsored contests on Goodreads, did cross-promotion with a pie company, and even put up the first chapter page-by-page on Facebook.

While the ebook is launching with a splashy and fabulous trailer, the paperback version of EVERTASTER already made huge waves on Amazon on June 14th. Adam specifically created a trade paperback so he could have something to take to schools, as opposed to just creating an ebook. Thanks to Adam’s great story AND his ability to strategically use social networking, EVERTASTER was successful right out of the gate. Picking the right meta-data categories to put one’s book in when selling it online is essential, too. Otherwise, it might not be found in a search.


What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen authors make? 

I think authors should utilize editors and copyeditors to make sure their book is in great shape before they put it up online. I also personally think that authors should take advantage of as much free online publicity as they can, and not outlay a lot of cash for banner ads or other expensive advertising until they at least are in the black and have some revenue from their first phase of sale to invest.


I’d love to know the titles of some of your favorite middle-grade novels, and why you love them so much.

NUMBER THE STARS and THE WILLOUGHBYS by Lois Lowry both top my charts. Both so beautifully-written and astute, yet each so different.

I’m also a huge fan of THE LEMONADE WARS by Jaqueline Davies. It teaches math in a very subtle way, while also telling a very compelling and heartfelt story.

I also greatly enjoyed THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE: The Shadows by Jacqueline West and found it a great balance between spooky adventure and a very relatable character.


Do you have a manuscript wish list?   

I definitely am on the watch for more MG then ever, since I feel the industry is skewing to YA for its own good and that there’s a lot of room to grow in the MG cannon. I often find submissions in MG often tend to skew either very voice-driven or very plot-driven, and so I’m looking, like so many agents are, for a very fresh voice that grabs hold of the reader, but one in which high-stakes develop organically throughout the story, and don’t feel tacked on. I’m a huge fan of THE ORIGAMI YODA branding strategy, and would also like to figure out what the next “Yoda” is…J


Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?  

When you get positive feedback on a book, even if it’s by way of a rejection letter, don’t dismiss it. Had Adam not listened to the kind praise he was securing as well as thought about ways to sell his book in an outside the box manner, he’d never be among the top-selling MG mystery books on the market.


A lucky winner will receive a copy of WONDER written by R. J. PALACIO, one of Alyssa Eisner Henkin’s clients.  Indiebound says: In a world where bullying among young people is an epidemic, this is a refreshing new narrative full of heart and hope.  R.J. Palacio has called her debut novel “a meditation on kindness” —indeed, every reader will come away with a greater appreciation for the simple courage of friendship. Auggie is a hero to root for, a diamond in the rough who proves that you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out. This wonderful book has made the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, UK, and Indie bestseller lists, and inspired the Choose Kind anti-bullying campaign.  Leave a comment below and our random generator will choose a winner on Saturday, June 30. 

Alyssa Eisner Henkin is also offering a second giveaway…a critique of up to 20 pages of a middle grade novel manuscript!  Please let us know in your comment if you want to be included in this extremely generous giveaway.

***For both giveaways, you’ll receive extra entries for sharing a link on your blog, Facebook, an online forum, or Twitter.  Please mention each link in a new comment so the generator will add your extra entries.  The WONDER winner must live in the US or Canada.  Good luck!

In addition to these awesome giveaways, Alyssa Eisner Henkin is also offering one more chance for writers to win a critique from her (and this giveaway is open for one picture book manuscript or up to 20 pages of an MG or YA).  Click here for more information! 

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and quirky picture books.  She’s constantly inspired by her eleven and fourteen year-old daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer pup who was recently rescued from the Everglades.  Visit Mindy’s blog or Twitter to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.