Friday, July 27, 2018

Embrace your writing group. How-to advice for critiquing.

In June I attended the week-long writing conference affectionately known as wiffer, a.k.a., WIFYR (Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers). Throughout the week friendships developed, connections were made, and after it was over, attendees from the picture book writing class that I attended talked about forming a critique group in order to continue getting feedback. (Yes, I also doodled).

During this discussion a link to a blog article about the dangers of writing groups was shared among my fellow writers ( In the post 3 perceived dangers were addressed by Jane Friedman: 
1) not getting the truth  
2) getting advice from struggling writers 
3) failure.

Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to work with different critique groups and different writers, including Jim Fergus, author of Ten Thousand White Women, The Journals of May Dodd, who lured me into this whole writing game in the first place for a nonfiction project we never finished, and children's author Rick Walton whom we lost almost two years ago. While I always welcome good advice such as what was offered Friedman's article, I disagreed with some points that were shared. Because I felt the article would negatively affect our group as it was forming, I shared my perspective with them. Some of my colleagues suggested I share my perspective on my blog, so here we go. Feel free to share your own opinions after reading both posts. Or don't, and simply reflect on how you can be a better participant in your own group.

1) Telling the truth. According to the Dangers of Writing Groups blog post, this is rarely done because writers don't want to hurt the feelings of fellow colleagues. Thus, if a writer isn't receiving criticism and not hearing the truth, then writers groups simply continue to foster a bad manuscript as they critique it. Here, again, I disagree, not because it doesn't happen, but because receiving honest feedback is up to you as a writer. It's up to you to ask questions as feedback is offered in order for to learn the truth about the status of your manuscript. And Mrs. Friedman offers helpful questions to guide that process.

However, it's important to keep in mind that not everything offered in a writer's group is truth. Even if it sounds strong and direct and hurts to hear. Truth is personal and emotionally-based and everyone has their own experiences. In determining a manuscript's flaws, the writer needs to learn how to ask questions like, What is working? What is unlikeable? How is the character perceived? 

Questions provide guidance in  figuring out what is good and what is not so good. Again, it's your job as a writer to flesh that out as you get feedback from your readers. And if something hurts as you hear it, it is your job to push past those feelings, step back, and see where the kernel of truth in the criticism may lay.

Also, as far as truth goes, I don't ever expect to get it from family members because they all say my writing is wonderful, even when it's not, simply because they are wired to read it with those kind of eyes. (They seem to like my baking, so the admiration of the writing must be inexplicably linked.) So if your critique group is comprised of your mother and children, then find another group... although this kind of group probably works for Carol Lynch Williams, who has some daughters that are writers. But not all of us are blessed enough to birth our own writer's group. :)

2) Getting advice from struggling writers is not recommended, and on this I disagree. New writers may be unpublished, but provided they have a basic background in understanding the publishing industry and have attended workshops/conferences, then they can be an asset to a group because they are readers--particularly if they are readers of your genre and are now taking time to study it. Furthermore, readers who aren't writers ultimately respond to your work. Thus, it is up to you as a writer to learn the craft of writing and all the techniques that go into delivering your particular style. It is not up to the members of your writing group. And as Ms. Friedman's article states, it is up to you as a writer to address specific questions about your manuscript during the critiquing process that help address problems. Then, after hearing suggestions, it is up to you to decide how to make any modifications yourself. 

If you take a suggestion and it doesn't work, then it is also up to you to recognize that mistake after you step back and look at your manuscript with fresh eyes. It is also up to you to maintain your own voice as you incorporate suggestions from others. I don't really believe a writer can blame their critique group for poor revisions, if they find themselves with a manuscript they don't recognize or want to lay claim to. Writers are the captains of their own ship. (And since I'm sailor, I can say this is true - cliche and all).

As a writer who has been in different writing groups over the years, I believe the feedback I got from those that wanted to give it was useful and helped me achieve the successes I had. Whether I incorporated every suggestion wasn't important, because suggestions -- good and bad -- allowed me to see my work through another reader's eyes. 

Thus, while I wouldn't recommend welcoming every person into your group that walks off the street, I wouldn't steer clear of a writer simply because they are unpublished, particularly if they read your genre.

3. Failure to recognize failure with the big-picture of a story because critique groups only see one slice at a time. While this may be true, it doesn't mean the plot holes can't be fixed. Again, honing down the plot is a job that needs to be worked out by the writer in whatever way they see fit to do it. But this doesn't mean that a well-crafted scene can't be celebrated within a critique group meeting. Reading great writing is what keeps us all striving to create more.

All in all, if you find a critique group that works for you, you need to love and nurture it like a pet. Writing is a hard, frustrating, and lonesome process that is met mostly with failure until things start working, so be sure to let your fellow writers know what you love about them, their stories, and their characters all the time. 

Give good feedback right alongside with difficult feedback, otherwise, you'll just push them away.  After all, we are not working for PIXAR and getting a paycheck to help massage the hard days when we are told everything we have created sucks, unlike the employees in Creativity, Inc. I suspect there is a big difference in the emotional journey between a Pixar artist and writers who work on their own, so be sure to take care of yourself and your fellows, no matter where you are at.

Be patient. 

Be kind. 

Be persistent.

Be professional.

Eat Chocolate. And fill the page.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Meet Author/Illustrator Ginny Tilby -> You Should! You Should!

Ginny Tilby is the author and illustrator of the children's book YOU SHOULD! YOU SHOULD! (Familius 2017) which is an adorable picture book about finding the courage to be true to yourself. Readers will love the fun, bright illustrations and cast of cute characters who each try to convince Hippo to do a variety of activities THEIR way, when all Hippo wants to do is take a swim. I fell in love with Hippo on the first two pages as his expression changed - a subtle detail that impressed me, along with the text, and showed me that this author/illustrator knows what she's doing. I am so excited to share YOU SHOULD! YOU SHOULD! and Ginny's advice and insights below. And you should definitely get a copy of this picture book for the children in your life (You should! You should!).

So sit back with your favorite coffee, tea, smoothie, or chocolate-fix and enjoy!

What is your favorite book as a child?

Yikes--hard question.  I was fairly obsessed with Clifford the big red dog, and the Berenstein Bears.  Maybe if I HAD to choose one: Dr. Seuss's To Think That I Saw it on Mulburry Street.  That kid's imagination tickled me happy.

Do you illustrate and write at the same time? Or wait until the text is done?

I like to write the text first.  I can usually see illustration possibilities in my mind enough to write without actually making art.  Making the art and developing characters takes time, and the minute I decide to change a character from a mouse to a crocodile, all the time spent on mouse-making-art was a waste.  Plus having well-flushed characters in writing helps me know what type of personalities and visual characteristics with which to design my characters.

That being said, I still keep the text very flexible once the art process does begin.  Sometimes once I see things on paper, I realize that a stork actually needed to be a flamingo!

How would you describe your artwork? What is your favorite medium to create with?

Bright, colorful, whimsical, fun, expressive. 

I would rather draw than paint any day.  Pencil/pen on paper is my favorite medium forever.  I'm growing accustomed to the Apple Pencil on iPad Pro; however, I don't think the real thing can ever be replaced.  

When I do paint, I always prefer digital over the real stuff.  I don't miss the color mixing or the mess, and I LOVE the "undo" command!

Do you have some favorite contemporary authors or illustrators or author/illustrators?

Will Terry, Scott Gustafson, Jean Baptise-Monge, Justin Gerard, Jon Klassen, David Litchfield, Pamela Zagarenski, and also Mo Willems is a genius.

Any advice for first-time or aspiring authors and illustrators?

YES.  The biggest tip I would offer is to please please please AVOID keeping your stories and your art to yourself before you send it to a publisher or before you self-publish.  Your closest friends and your mom do NOT count.  Let other professional artists and writers take a look and ask them for honest feedback.  Be open to suggestions.  Be as open as open as open can be.  If they aren't giving you real feedback, keep looking until you find someone who will.

Remember, children's books are meant to be read aloud - ask someone to read your story aloud to you.  Then ask someone else.  Tweak it when you find areas to fix (you will find them).  Then ask someone to read it again.  Then ask someone to read it to children in front of you.  Are they reacting the way you hope?  Is the reader tripping over words or sentences or do they flow easily and seem fun to say/hear?  Is the audience laughing appropriately?  Do they seem confused anywhere?  Remember, every word counts in children's books.

Do these things, and the only outcome possible is a wonderfully polished, primed and primped, perfect children's book.  You and your story deserve it. 

Last, use Julie Olson's blog for how-to's, tips, templates, and more on how to write a children's book:

What is it like to work with a publisher as an illustrator? Have you had to make revisions to your storyboard or illustrations based on their feedback or vision of the book?

It's very helpful!  I SO appreciated the feedback I received from my publisher as I made the art.  I was working with professionals who have been in the field for years, who were able to tell me that my giraffe was too scary for kids, so I tamed her down to the perfect amount of intimidating and fun.  Little tweaks like that.  But the best part of working with my publisher (and maybe not all publishers are like this) was the emotional support when I went through times feeling very inadequate and unsure my work as any good.  They readily boosted my confidence, assured me that my story and art are not just good, but great, and encouraged me to keep working.

What types of foods or activities help keep your creative process going while you work on a book or manuscript?

I have no idea, haha!  If you find out, will you PLEASE tell me?  When I worked on You Should, You Should!, I worked alongside other artist friends in their home.  We kept each other motivated and accountable.  We chatted and made art, we ate and made art, we jammed to music and made art.  I even slept over a few times, going to bed painting and waking up to more painting.  Now I'm working alone and the Struggle. Is. REAL.

Do you have any upcoming releases?

Give me a year or two, and watch for a book about Jeeps, and another story about a Catastrophizing Coyote.  (Nothing is signed or contracted yet.)

You can learn more about Ginny at the links below. 

Thank you so much, Ginny! I'm inspired! I am! I am!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Jane Eyre's Raspberry Tarts

Today I picked about 6 quarts of raspberries from along my garden wall. While I considered choices of what I could make with the harvest, I remembered one of my favorite recipes for Raspberry Tarts from The Book Lover's Cookbook, Recipes from Celebrated Works of Literature and the Passages That Feature Them (Ballantine Books)which I co-authored with Janet Kay Jensen.

The recipe for Privileged Tart was paired with a passage from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre when Jane was brought a tart by Bessie, presumably out of guilt and compassion, after Jane fainted in the red room following a frightening experience. Photos of the tarts and other prepared recipes from the cookbook can be seen on Pinterest at Janet's board and mine.

Rather than load a photo of the tarts here, I am giving you something better, a couple photos of the recipe from the cookbook so that you can check it out.

Do you have favorite recipes for fresh raspberries? Share them here!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Raising Bees (A.K.A., Thanks for the Honey), Bee Books, and a Recipe for Honey Chocolate Chip Coconut Cookies

July 10 is DON'T STEP ON A BEE day!

Since I'm guessing that the likelihood of stepping on a bee is slim to none on any given day, I assume today's special nod allows us to pause and take notice of the little things around us, like bees.  Without them, we wouldn't have most of the produce we seek for our meals or the honey for our bread. 

Beekeeping is a hobby of mine that I started with three of my neighbors a couple years ago. Thank goodness one of us is a Bee Master (and it's not me), because otherwise I surely wouldn't know how to get from Point A to Point B to the most rewarding Point HONEY. 

I truly am grateful for the learning journey we are all on. It helps make the disappointments more bearable. For example, I had 2 other people to scratch heads with when ALL my bees and the Queen decided to abandon ship last fall for no good reason. Thank goodness it occurred after the honey-harvest. Yet, we couldn't figure it out.  And to this day, it remains a mystery. My hive had held the most productive and efficient Queen Bee of all. We wanted to produce other queens from her. But alas, that did not happen. I figure my Queen Bee must have decided it was time to fly south for the winter. After all, the thought certainly has crossed my mind on numerous occasions. I might have just quit the whole beekeeping hobby after that, but it's fun to keep going when you have collaboration and camaraderie. 

My hive is the middle one in the photo.  The tall one belongs to the BeeMaster, of course. His bees stuck around.

On my visit to the local library, I found two books that are worth checking out with your kids as a nod to this special and irreplaceable insect.

Bee and Me is a beautifully illustrated picture book by Alison Jay that brings the reader through the plight of the honeybee with an underlying message of hope.

A Beekeeper's Year by Sylvia Johnson chronicles the different activities that a beekeeper tends to throughout the year while also sharing interesting facts about bees.

For example, ancient Egyptian beekeepers had tube hives made of clay, as can be seen here. These gave way to the use of woven skeps by others in the Middle Ages.

Lastly, since I love food, especially new recipes, I have a recipe below from A Beekeeper's Year worth checking out.  Although I have made chocolate chip cookies with coconut on many occasions in the past, but just never with honey.

But before I get to the recipe I have a pet-peeve to point out. IF you are a science teacher like me,  and want to do a density layer lab, go ahead and SKIP THE HONEY!!! Yes, it is dense. Yes, it is somewhat clear. BUT, using honey for the purpose of teaching about density is simply a waste of GOOD Honey, in my opinion. Other substitutes are available, like Molasses or Corn Syrup. Keep the honey for the eating. Or the baking, like in the recipe below.

Honey Chocolate Chip Coconut Cookies

1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup honey
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1 cup (6 oz.) semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Cream together the honey and margarine. Mix in the egg and vanilla.  Mix in the dry ingredients at the top of the list. Stir in the nuts, coconut, and chips. Drop teaspoon-sized amounts of batter (evenly spaced apart) on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Remove cookies to a cooling rack. Store whatever isn't immediately eaten in an airtight container. 

Note: The honey is a substitute for refined sugar. But because honey is liquid, it is not a 1:1 substitution. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy Fourth of July with Two Summer Salads

It's that time of summer when we find ourselves outside with friends and family celebrating being together. I'm sharing two recipes for pasta salads that are sure to please the crowd. I love that I can make them in the morning, let them sit in the fridge to blend the flavors, and then grab and go to whatever potluck event is waiting. These salads are two of my favorites.

Broccoli Pasta Salad

8 oz of pasta spirals, cooked al dente, rinsed with cold water to cool quickly, and drained
a handful or two of broccoli florets, blanched for 3 min, rinsed with cold water to cool, and drained
1/2 red onion, diced
1/2 cup of dried cranberries
6 strips of cooked bacon, cut in pieces ( I put it in the oven at 400 degrees for 20 min)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, or grated Italian blend
1/4 cup mozzarella cheese

1 cup Mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 Tablespoons sugar
salt/pepper to taste

Combine the salad ingredients in a large serving bowl. Prepare the dressing by combining ingredients in separate bowl, then mix lightly into the salad to coat. Let sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour to blend flavors and cool. Serve.

Creamy Avocado Fiesta Salad

I got the idea for this salad from Natasha's Kitchen website, where I found Creamy Avocado Salad, The dressing really intrigued me, because it was made with avocados and spinach, and I have lots of spinach coming out of my garden right now. Because Natasha's recipe calls for corn and avocado, I decided to combine this recipe with another family favorite -- corn salsa salad, which they love to eat with tortilla chips or as a side dish to anything BBQ'd. I ended up cutting Natasha's dressing in half, and I still had about a 1/2 cup left over to use as a dip for crackers and chips. I also used black beans instead of peas, and canned tomatoes instead of fresh grape tomatoes (it's what I had on hand), and added a bit of lime juice to the dressing, instead of straight lemon. So you have wiggle room to have fun with this one, and it will still taste great! (And for this recipe, you will need 3 avocados to prepare both the salad portion and the dressing).

6 oz of pasta rigatoni, cooked al dente, rinsed with cold water to cool quickly, and drained
1 can black beans rinsed
6 oz frozen corn, blanched and rinsed with cold water to cool, and drained
1 can diced tomatoes, drained and rinsed
1/4 tsp or more, ground black pepper to taste
1/4 tsp salt, to taste
1 1/2 avocado, cubed/chopped

Dressing: Combine the following ingredients in a food processor and mix to combine until smooth
2 cups fresh spinach leaves, not packed
1 1/2 fresh avocado, pit and skin removed - you probably know this
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoon lime juice
1 fresh garlic clove, pressed or diced

Combine the salad ingredients in a large serving bowl. Prepare the dressing separately in a food processor, then mix lightly into the salad to coat. Let sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour to blend flavors and cool. Serve.