Today, I’m going to talk about how finding the right critique partners can lead to an offer from an agent. But first, for background, I recommend that you watch my conversation with Arree Chung about my experience with Storyteller Academy. If you can’t watch the video, I wrote a short blog post on my blog after finishing Arree's 12-week class last year, as well as a longer post that describes some of the milestones on both of our journeys.

Around the beginning of last year, I learned that Arree offered a mentored critique group option as part of his Making Picture Book Stories and Dummies class. It cost more, but I figured it would be worth it to have a mentor for 12 weeks.

Forming Our Critique Group

It was SO worth it. Arree put me in a group with four illustrators and another writer and encouraged all of us to work toward becoming author-illustrators. I had a writing/editing background, but I liked to draw. (He knew that and had told me not to limit myself.) I just didn’t like to SHOW people my drawings. As part of the class, we made picture book dummies and shared them with each other every other week. I felt anxious about sharing every single time, even though I always came away from those meetings with feedback that gave me more confidence and could help me improve my dummy.

Staying Together

When the class ended, our group stayed together. Arree had given me the green light to query agents with the manuscript I’d been working on for his class. So, I shared other manuscripts with my critique group, some old, some new. I started dummies. I killed my darlings. My stories improved.

Attending a Conference Together

Half of our critique group attended the big SCBWI conference in Los Angeles and hung out with Arree. Two of us roomed with another student from our term (a new term had started by then, so there were new faces during workshops) to save money, and the three of us had a blast. I picked up more illustrators for critique partners, including our roommate. Debra, the critique partner who didn’t room with us, introduced us to Maral Sassouni, a new student of Arree’s whose debut picture book, THE GREEN UMBRELLA, had just been published by NorthSouth Books. Flipping through her new book and listening to Maral and Debra talk about making their own paper for texture made me all kinds of happy.

Casey, Mirka, and me (conference roommates)

A side note: If you ever attend a conference with Arree, and he thinks you should be querying a manuscript that he’s read, make sure you have a pitch ready. He will introduce you to editors and agents in a way that will have them asking you to pitch your book. At least, that was my experience. I had what Arthur Levine called a “succinct pitch” by the end of the first day. And make sure you take business cards.

Subtracting and Adding a Member

Our critique group’s number dwindled to five when the other writer in our group left. Sometimes life gets too busy for someone to commit to a critique group. Five was fine for a while, but we added Maral to our group at the beginning of the year. Once again, six was better.

The Offer of Representation

Near the end of January, the RA for our SCBWI region forwarded a picture book critique from Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary. She’d had a conflict and couldn’t attend the conference but had agreed to critique some manuscripts. She’d researched me online and said some lovely things about my writing and the story she’d critiqued. She knew from researching me that our tastes in projects were different enough that we weren’t a good long-term fit, but we loved the same things about my story. She offered to represent just the one story, and the editors she suggested made me want to happy dance. We weren’t signing a contract, but I knew some of her clients well enough that that didn’t worry me as much as it might have with a different agent. Arree agreed that it was a good move, so Karen started submitting my story.

Can I just say how lovely she is to work with? Karen doesn't seem to procrastinate anything, which means she answers emails right away, and she's positive without being controlling. Even if the manuscript doesn't sell, I'm glad that I got to work with her.

Doing the Work

The manuscript we have on submission was a story that I’d written three years previously. Earlier critique partners had given me encouragement and nudged me in the right direction, for which I’m grateful, but I hadn’t been able to get it quite right. Breaking it into a dummy and getting feedback from illustrators took it to another level.

If you’re writing picture books, and you don’t have any critique partners who are illustrators, you’re missing out. A picture book is a visual experience. And if you’re an illustrator, having a writer for a critique partner can also be handy. Or so I’ve been told.

Whether you’re a writer, an illustrator, or both, the most important thing you can do to help your critique group click is to show up. Do the work and share. Share your work, your hopes, your experience. Listen to your critique partners, and help each other build stories. Nobody starts out an expert. If everyone wants to learn and help each other, you’re going to improve and find success together.

Instead of sharing where you can find me on the Internet, I’m going to share my Storyteller Academy critique partners with you. Two of them have traditionally published picture books. It’s only a matter of time for the rest of us.

Some of My Favorite People

Casey Girard     Shirley Ng-Benitez     Heather Soodak     Debra Pehrson Haun     Maral Sassouni

Happy Critiquing!