You’ve written something—a poem, a short story, a chapter, a piece of creative nonfiction. Way to go!
You’ve read and reread it countless times and you’re sure it’s as good as it can be. Yes!
But now what? What’s the next step? For many people, it’s sharing the work with others. Choose your others wisely—you want people who:
understand the writing process
produce work you respect
have empathy with your frustrations
can rejoice in your triumphs
can offer helpful suggestions
support and encourage
Good writing groups fulfill all those qualities. After being so close to your work, of knowing and understanding everything you’re saying, you can easily miss things that other readers pick up straight away. Perhaps you’ve changed tenses unknowingly or tend to use the same phrase over and over or have similar descriptions too close to one another. Maybe you have little variation in your sentence length. Or your characters all talk the same. Whatever it is, you can be sure a good writing group will notice and set you on the right path without making you feel like a fool.
The Thunder Bay Writers Guild is one such group. It’s been around for decades and consists of twelve members who meet monthly to critique each other’s work. As members critique the work of others, so they learn to hone their own editing skills. But more than anything else, a group such as the Guild keeps its writers writing. Members are expected to submit at least three stories a year; in fact the ability to regularly produce good quality writing is a prerequisite for becoming a member.
If you’re curious about how the Guild works or about their critiquing process or you’re interested in joining or forming a writing group yourself, come out to the next NOWW workshop on Tuesday 14th March at 7pm at Waverley Library. Four long time Guild members will be there to demonstrate their critiquing process and to answer any questions you may have. Perhaps it’s time to take your writing to another level.
Sue Blott has been an active NOWW member almost since its conception. She also belongs to the Thunder Bay Writers Guild (since 1999), LUNA (Lakehead Unfinished Novel Association) and ParaTactics poetry group. Her writing is greatly improved by the support and critiques from these groups.
One of the most difficult challenges of writing is revision and editing. We tend not to see our own mistakes. As well, there is so much to look at that even an experienced writer can feel overwhelmed trying to remember all the important points to assess. I have found it very helpful to use a checklist. While most people have an assessment method for novels and short stories, methods for critiquing a picture book are not as plentiful. I devised a list using a combination of other lists, writing books, classes, and personal experience.
This checklist can be useful for critiquing group when only a few are experienced with reading large numbers of picture books. In fact, whenever someone submits a picture book to my blog (https://bferrante.wordpress.com/) for a review or for a critique in progress, I first record my initial reactions and then I bring out my checklist. I'm sure there are some things I've missed, but if you evaluate all of these you will have an excellent understanding of the suitability of the material for publication as a picture book.
1. Does the book have an intriguing or inviting beginning? Does the author get immediately to the point of the story or does she/he waste time on background information? Does the first page set up the entire story? 2. Is the book easy to read aloud? Does the vocabulary make you stumble? Is the language flat? 3. Is there a main character children can connect with or find interesting? Is that character dynamic and active? Does this character show change or growth? 4. Is the story direct and focused? Can you summarize it in one or two sentences? (This is valuable for the author to see how others have interpreted his/her work.) 5. Does the vocabulary and sentence structure suit the situation, mood, and theme? Is it interesting? Is it enriching? 6. Does the vocabulary suit the age level? Some challenging vocabulary in books that are not “I Can Read” style is encouraged. (There are differing opinions about authors using made up words. Personally, I think it only confuses the issue when children are trying to learn to read. I suppose after 33 years of teaching, I see children's books as a teacher first, a reader second, and a writer third.) 7. Is the book well paced? Are there slow parts? Are there parts that jump and feel missed? 8. Does the author show and not tell? Is there too much explaining? 9. Is the book diverse? Could there be children from different races? Are girls featured as well as boys? Are there stereotypes? 10. Is every word crucial? Are the nouns and verbs strong? Has the author avoided explaining things that can be shown in the illustrations? 11. Does the author ignite the reader’s senses? 12. Does the passage of time suit the story? Is it conveyed clearly? 13. Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is the ending satisfying and logical? Would it make a child say: “Read it again”? 14. Does the story activate your imagination or thoughts? Does it stimulate visualization? Do you find yourself predicting or thinking about the situation? Do you continue to think about the book after you are finished? 15. If this story is written in rhyme, is it necessary? Is the story better without rhyme? In order to maintain the rhyming, did the author write unnatural or awkward sentences? Is the beat maintained throughout? Does the rhyming structure change for no reason? Is the rhyming innovative or is it predictable? 16. If there is a moral, does the text sound preachy? Does the author allow the child to use insight to glean the message? Is the tone upbeat and hopeful? 17. Does the child gain something from reading this book? Emotionally? Intellectually? Socially? Does the book provide something new to the child? Information? Viewpoint? Interpretation? Awareness? 18. Is the book within the recommended word count for picture books? (0 to 800 is acceptable, 500 to 600 is recommended, 1000 is rare.) Nonfiction books, especially those with text boxes, may be longer.
If illustrations are included, answer the following questions: 1. Does the illustrator vary the point of view? Do they choose a point of view suitable to the accompanying text? 2. Is there a unifying link in the pictures or do they seem disconnected? 3. Is the style of illustration consistent throughout? Does it suit the story line? 4. Does the choice of colours suit the story mood, action, character or setting? Do they enrich the story? 5. Is the page size suitable for the age group in the story and for the illustrations? 6. Do the text and illustrations flow together well? Does the type font suit the story? 7. Is the composition satisfying? Does the page show enough to the reader? Does the page appear cluttered and confusing? 8. Do the pictures add to the story or are they redundant? (Some pictures should echo what is in the text but some pictures should further the story.) 9. Are the characters illustrated in a way that reflects what is written in the text? (Watch out for the dreaded brown-eyed girl who is drawn with blue eyes, for example.) 10. If the book is set in a certain time period, country, or culture, have the illustrations captured that correctly? 11. Do you enjoy looking at the pictures? Do they draw your attention? Are they satisfying? 12. Are the illustrations diverse? Are there children from different races, cultures, and abilities? Are girls featured as capable as boys? Are there stereotypes?
Bio Bonnie Ferrante is a hybrid writer (published traditionally and self-published). Her work has appeared in various children’s and adult magazines and anthologies. She was a grade school teacher for thirty-three years, ten as teacher-librarian. Her focus is on YA novels and children's picture books. She loves reading at regional libraries, clubs, and schools.
When I was six years old I found an old high school copy of Macbeth that mother hadn’t returned when she dropped out at age 16. We had so few books in the apartment that I was immediately struck by it. When I began to read it I had never experienced language being used in that way (iambic pentameter). Even though I did not understand many of the words I could follow the story (I was transfixed by the image of a king being stabbed with daggers, a mad Queen Macbeth sleepwalking through a Scottish Castle, the three Weird Sisters chanting out their witches’ brew) and the rhythm of the language became inscribed, entrained in me somehow. I found my thoughts assuming the rhythms I had read in Shakespeare and I began to write them down. I suppose a poetic practice evolved from there.
2. Who are your biggest influences?
Margaret Christakos, Lisa Robertson, Erin Moure, Ken Babstock, Dionne Brand, Marie Annharte Baker, Karen Solie, Aisha Sasha John, Shannon Maguire, Mat Laporte, Ariana Reines, Ben Lerner, Eileen Myles, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Gloria Anzaldua, Kathy Acker, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, Rilke others I am no doubt forgetting.
3. You have a distinctive voice and you pay particular attention to line length, even though length can change dramatically from one poem to the next. Did you consciously develop this style? What prompts your choice of line length in each poem?
I like to experiment with line length during the editing process. It is often a cue for me when reading how fast to jump from line to line, whether there will be a breath in between or there will be a breathless cascade of utterance. Sometimes its tied to the content of some poems (my more narrative poems often have short lines to stagger the listener/reader in an attempt to subvert the automatic immersion into story without a more nuances appreciation of language/line compression, etc.). I will decide on line length after trying out differing lengths and then reading each aloud, sometimes recording myself and listening back to confirm which sounds/”works” the “best.”
4. Your poem “Thinktent” harkens to the poets of the Romantic period when Wordsworth, Keats, and others explored themes of science vs. nature. You seem to be of two minds as well, a scientific lab researcher in your “day job” and a poet informed by your Anishnaabe heritage. How do you personally reconcile science, with all its good and bad, versus Nature? Is the world too much with us?
I suppose I would say that I do not believe in Nature, the so-called Natural which is apart from and supposedly diametrically opposed in its “goals” in comparison to humans. Humanity and her worlds and fundamentally enmeshed with all other constituent beings in the dynamic ecology which is this known universe. Science is a way of interpreting the world as are the Anishinaabe traditions of reading the land, learning respectfully from plants and animals, and imploring the other-than-human world for guidance. I believe there are many ways that each of us can make sense of our worlds. I trained in Western science and still have a great respect for it but I have also tried to incorporate Anishinaabe views into my thinking and life practice. This is the basis, I think, of my poetics.
5. You mention in an interview with the Globe and Mail that you never thought of becoming a poet per se, and that you literally had an editor call you up with a book offer – every writer’s fantasy. How did it feel then to win the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize?
As if I were simultaneously being pulled up into stratosphere and down into the earth’s molten core.
LIZ HOWARD’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, the first time the prize has been awarded to a debut collection. It was also a finalist for the 2015 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, was longlisted for the 2015 Type Book Award, and received an honourable mention for the Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize. Her chapbook Skullambient (Ferno House, 2011) was shortlisted for the bp Nichol Chapbook Award. Born and raised in northern Ontario, Howard received an Honours Bachelor of Science with High Distinction from the University of Toronto, and an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of Guelph. She now lives in Toronto where she works as a neurocognitive aging research assistant.
Every year I saw the question on the writing e-groups I’m a member of asking, “who is doing NaNoWriMo this year?" I thought: Not me, 50,000 words in 30 days—I couldn't do that!
In 2010 I discovered that I could. I was trying to write a novel about civilians during World War II. I already had half a dozen false starts. NaNoWriMo was about to begin, and I thought why not try it? I've never been a disciplined every day writer. When an idea grabs me I sit down and run with it, leaving the editing for later. First, I get the whole gory mess on the computer. So NaNoWriMo was perfect: it provided incentive in the form of the daily word count. I was also hoping NaNoWriMo would provide the kick I needed to start writing every day throughout the year. I signed up, filled out my author profile, and registered my vaguely formed idea of a novel. On November 1st I put fingers to keyboard and got on with it. Twenty-five days later, what I ended up with was raw, cliché-ridden, full of spelling and grammatical errors and plot holes you could drive a tank through. But I had done it—50,000 plus words and the seed of a story. This year, after much editing, the first chapter of that story won first prize for novels in the NOWW Writing Contest. My 2014 NaNoWriMo first chapter placed third in the same contest. I've taken part every year since.
Why do it? NaNoWriMo makes me write. Have I become the disciplined writer I'd like to be? No, not yet, but perhaps this year. It provides me with first drafts to struggle over throughout the rest of the year. The online word counter lets me track my progress to see how I'm doing compared to others who are taking the challenge. It's not about having the highest word count; it's about having one and adding to it.
In September I start getting excited: what will I write about this year? I brainstorm, running plots and characters through my head. In October I begin tearing my hair out trying to come up with an idea that will sustain over 50,000 words. On November 1st I sit down with my keyboard, and with luck the words will be there. One then two then three, and suddenly I've got 1000 words. I sign in and put my first word count into the counter. I've begun: I'm a participant once again. Now the challenge is to keep up the momentum.
In November I admit I am slightly distracted. Every waking thought and some sleeping thoughts are about my novel. What will happen next? Last year I agonized for days whether to murder my main character. It would play hell with the tentative ending, but it was an option. I decided against homicide. A wounded and suffering heroine would make a much longer tale than one suddenly dead, with only details of who what when and why to tidy up. Besides, I liked her. I had already done terrible things to her and I felt that murder was going too far. I know, some of you are wondering about my sanity. In November my characters kind of take over the place. So the October question is: “Who am I going to meet this year and what am I going to do to those poor souls?”
The point is to focus on character and plot. Ignore your inner editor completely. Misspellings—you can fix them in December. Write “I am” instead of “I'm” because it's two words and every word counts. I love watching my word count grow from five thousand to the half way mark and then fifty thousand. I validate my word count, and get my winner certificate.
I also enjoy the online contact with local writers. It's nice to see what other writers in the region are doing, thinking, and writing about. We have write-ins—get-togethers to meet, write, and share encouragement.
NaNoWriMo is my excuse to sit down and write. The first draft may be awful, but I've got the whole year to edit it.
Bio, I hate bios. I write novels and have been doing so since high school. I have about a dozen rough drafts covering subjects from time travel, nuclear war, and historical fiction. I am working on my 2010 and 2014 NaNoWriMo novels trying to get them edited for publication.