Five Fundamentals (or an excuse to write about my fabulous critique group and the Cubs)


When you watched arguably the best baseball  game in recent history and held your breath during the ninth inning after the Cubs didn’t get any runner in, waiting to see what the Indians would do, then to go to a rain delay, and the incredible tenth inning, I bet you didn’t notice the fundamentals. Watching how the players gripped the ball before they threw it, or how the hitter aligned his knuckles, or the outfielders using 2 hands to catch the ball probably escaped you. The strike outs, the homerun, and that throw from Bryant to Rizzo! Holy cow! The big plays. That’s what gets us. But we don’t get the big plays without endlessly practicing those fundamentals.

Think about young Bryant and Rizzo playing little league, practicing catching the hit to third, throwing to first, catching, tagging the runner and the base.  Day after day. Year after year. Messing up many times along the way.

Well, my dear writing friend, we have our own set of fundamentals that will hopefully lead to your own big play.

1. Write, everyday possible.

2.  Read, read, read. Read what’s in your genre. Read what’s not in your genre. Read craft books to help you critique and edit your own work.

3. Join or form a critique group. Not sure what to do with one? Here’s a suggestion.  The most important thing to bring to group is a willingness to hear your weaknesses. The best thing to offer at group is your reaction to the piece.  You have an opinion, yes. But it’s one opinion. The author ultimately must decide what to do with the feedback.


This is my critique group, the Six Pens. (One is not pictured.) We are picture book, chapter book, middle grade novel, non-fiction, memoir, education, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, fantasy, humor, action/adventure, heart-rending writers. There’s lots of opinions to go around. Two are published, with one more story on the horizon.(Whoop! Whoop!) We are all hopeful. And we need each other to keep applying butt to chair and writing when the motivation is running low.

4. Go to conferences. And watch your local writer’s society for smaller craft nights. My critique group attended the recent Prairie Writers & Illustrators Day that the Illinois SCBWI chapter holds every November. It sharpened and inspired. And we can pool together the different things each of us learned from it to edify our group as a whole.


I bet you can’t tell, but this is my critique group again. We are now the Super Six Pens, tackling troublesome stories in a single bound (or many revisions.) Another bonus of attending conferences is open door access to editors at otherwise closed houses. If you don’t have an agent already, this is golden!

5. Never, ever, ever give up. I once heard it said, that many successful writers started with 10% talent and 90% dedication. I’m six years in, I’m receiving incredible feedback from agents and authors who critique my work. I’m not published yet. YET.

Never. Ever. Ever give up!

Top Ten Pearls from the Prairie

My brain is full and my head is spinning. I had been hitting it against a wall feeling like I had taken my MS as far as I could, knowing that it could still be better but not having an inkling how to do it. NOT ANY MORE!


About a week ago I attended the annual Prairie Writer’s and Illustrator’s Day hosted by the Illinois network of SCBWI. This was my third time participating and well worth the repeat attendance.  I’ve taken this week to process, marinate, and sort through the keynote address, three break out sessions, two expert panels, and a dozen conversations.

Of course they have rules about blogging, so I won’t go into tremendous details, but I will share some pearls that I am adding to my treasure box.  With that in mind, here are my

Top Ten Pearls from the Prairie

10.  It pays to push yourself out of your happy little shell and meet new people.  As a result I met some wonderful fellow writers, some of whom offered to read for me.

9.  Editors and agents are approachable!  Pull up those big girl pants and talk to them!  When else will you have an opportunity like this?  SO I did.  I talked to three editors and one agent and got answers to specific questions that I had about writing in general and my story in particular.  This will also give me personal sentiments to include in that darn query I will have to write to submit to them.

8. An online course you should know about: Rachel Orr, an agent at Prospect Agency, is teaching a course on middle grade novel writing that starts in January on

7. Keynote speaker, Author and Illustrator, Eliza Wheeler – (she also makes a soundtrack for her WIP, love it when I hear someone share something that I do too!) – Focus on what you like about your story, not what you don’t. It’s so easy to be critical isn’t it? But that kind of energy can drain the life and enjoyment out of a project.

I have found that when I watch my two and a half minute book trailer before working on my revision I get pumped up.  The trailer encapsulates the essence that I want my book to have.  After watching it I am in the right mindset and mood to attack my WIP.  Same is true for reading passages or chapters that work.  My confidence lifts.  I can write and I can even write well.

6. Jordan Brown, Senior Editor Walden Pond Press & Balzer + Bray, said the ultimate rule of writing is . . . drum roll . . .

You can do whatever you want as long as it works!

Do you feel liberated now?

5. Noa Wheeler, editor Henry Holt Books for Young Readers gave me the assurance that editors are on your side.  They love books and the people who write them.  Why be intimidated?  A common theme I heard throughout the day was about relationship and collaboration between writers and editors.

4.  During the mix-n-mingle session I asked Rachel Orr about platform building and the usefulness of having a book trailer for a pre-published book.  The gist of her answer, focus on writing well.  Gotcha!

3. Attended a break out session on voice by Brett Duquette, editor at Sterling Children’s Books.  Up until this point, voice has been a very abstract thing for me.  It’s becoming more clear now.  I am attacking my MS with highlighters.  Does each character sound consistent throughout?  How about my narrator?  Who is my narrator?  Does my characters’ mood influence how they see their world?  This session was filled to the brim with applicable bits of knowledge, delivered with incredible humor.  Best break out of the day award!

2.  Got a critique on my first pages from Caroline Abbey, senior editor at Penguin Random House!  It was NOT a last minute thing where she wrote a few thoughts on the airplane ride here.  It WAS on letter head!  But more importantly her fresh eyes on my stale words gave me new perspective on these opening pages.  As helpful as it was to know the areas that I can improve, it was equally beneficial to know which parts are working.  There’s nothing like seeing “Nice!” next to a sentence!  Whoop! Whoop! I don’t have to only read others’ work to see good writing.  I have it in my work too.  Now I have to work at making all words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters equally strong.

1.  I followed up with Caroline Abbey about some questions I had from her critique.  (I wrote them down before I talked to her because I knew I’d forget! And I did, I was so glad I wrote them down!)  I asked her about strategies for thinking of a title,  how to pinpoint a tell,  and questions to ask myself to figure out how to tighten my work.

She related to how I dreaded the thought of coming up a new title.  I’ve been reading scripture and 19th century poetry about fire, playing in the thesaurus, and checking my ideas on Goodreads.  Brainstorming with writing friends and my husband.  This really is torture! I’ve been trying to zoom in on sentences that are vague or generic.  Is it a tell?  Do I need to show it or scrap it?

This week I’ve reduced by first 5 chapters by 10% and modified a whole bunch of sentences and scenes that weren’t pulling their weight.  Not a bad start.  So much more to do!