Meet My Writing Critique Group!

(from left to right) Me, Priya Mahadevan, Marc Boston, Jane Jackson

If you’d like to get to know my writing critique group, read on! This interview appeared in the spring issue of Highlighter, the newsletter for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). (Wow, that’s a mouthful!)

The interview is reprinted below with permission from Highlighter. Thank you to author Dionna Mann, Highlighter’s Content Editor, for interviewing us!

Photos credits go to Delaney Boston, Marley Boston, and Liana Tai.

Critique Group Spotlight: ImagineInk

Members

Amy Lee-Tai, Jane Jackson, Marc Boston, and Priya Mahadevan

How It Formed

In May 2014, Amy, Jane, and Marc met at a writing workshop led by Kathy Erskine at WriterHouse. Two months later, Amy contacted the others about forming a children’s critique group that nurtures diverse voices. ImagineInk was born! Priya joined in May 2017 after Amy learned of her through a local magazine. All members are committed to helping each other transform ideas from imagination to ink.

What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions.” — Priya Mahadevan

How It Functions

Each member sends a manuscript four to seven days before each meeting, with the understanding that sooner means more consideration. Every three weeks, usually on a Tuesday, they gather at a coffee shop downtown. While they remain flexible with the day of week, they meet during the school day since they all have young children. Meetings last about three hours. After some chitchat, they begin critiques. The person receiving a critique remains quiet (or is supposed to!) and takes notes. They share business news as time allows. Since they get along so well, their biggest challenge is not going off on tangents about their personal lives or politics. Amy, the former school teacher, is usually the one to keep them all on track.

What They Love About Their Critique Group

AMY: I feel lucky to be part of a diverse group filled with kind-hearted deep thinkers who are passionate about kids’ books and social justice. All of this shines through in their stories, critiques, and interactions. While meetings are meaty, the camaraderie and humor keep things fun; I leave feeling reenergized to do the hard work of writing and revising.

JANE: The shared experience, incredible support, humor, understanding, and fun combine to make this group shine. I have so enjoyed their wit and wisdom as I continue to grow as a writer. Also, these are three of the most thoughtful, kind, patient, and interesting people I know in Charlottesville.

MARC: I’m blessed to be able to commune with a fantastic group of creative, intelligent, and spiritual souls. It’s the personal connection I feel with each of them, which has grown over the years, that I hold dear. I trust their opinions, relish their support, and am energized by their open-minded objectivity, genuine hearts, and authentic spirits.

PRIYA: When I was invited to be part of this group, it seemed like I had already known the others for a long time. What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions. I am constantly amazed at the subject matter that inspires their writing and at the presentation of those ideas. This allows my own creativity to expand.

How They Have Grown as Writers

AMY: The group has served as a reality check regarding my characters. Do my young characters ring true? Their emotions and thoughts? Their motivations and choices? Their actions and reactions? Given their parental experiences and open hearts, these writers help me keep it real! Their rich use of language has also been instructive: Marc’s playfulness, Jane’s wit, Priya’s poetry. I learn more from seeing them shape their words over drafts than I would from merely reading a final draft.

JANE: The critiques have informed and improved, dramatically, my understanding of plot points, structure, and flow. I have learned to manage the action sequences, and do so with humor and fun phrasing, making my work more readable and enjoyable. I absolutely credit the group’s positive attitude and expertise in delivering such helpful critiques!

MARC: Our group is truly interested in seeing each of us flourish as writers. They hold me accountable! I write much more than I otherwise would, and they make great suggestions for each manuscript. They’re not afraid to be honest—always sending me back to the drawing board if a piece appears to be missing something. We’re a beautifully diverse group, which inspires me to be very mindful of seeing life and the world from a broader perspective.

PRIYA: In a word, accountability. This group has instilled in me a discipline to write, no matter what. We help each other tweak our pieces to a point that we feel confident enough to submit them. We each have a special something we bring to the table, and each of our perspectives ends up helping us grow not just individually but also as a collective.

Member Bios:

Amy is the picture book author of A PLACE WHERE SUNFLOWERS GROW, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Connect with her at amyleetai.com and on Instagram.

Jane writes middle-grade fiction along with some short stories and the occasional essay. While she plans to seek publication one day, for now, she’s simply enjoying the writing process. Jane can be found on Instagram and Twitter.

Marc is a freelance writer and the author of two picture books: THE GIRL WHO CARRIED TOO MUCH STUFF and WHAT ABOUT ME?. Find Marc at marcboston.com and follow him on Instagram.

Priya is the author of two picture books: PRINCESSES ONLY WEAR PUTTA PUTTAS and FEY FEY SAYS NO. Find more details at priyamahadevan.com and follow her on Facebook.

Interview with Writer Sue O’Connor

Settling in for some cozy reading

Sue O’Connor and I met on the first day of our first teaching jobs, way back in 1994. Since that day, we’ve supported each other through teaching, motherhood, and writing. Sue stayed in the Boston area while I moved to Brooklyn and then to Charlottesville.

Celebrating at Sue’s wedding in 11/2001

Several years ago I read one particularly colorful email from Sue and thought, “This woman could write a book.” I emailed that thought to her, and guess what? She ran with it. She started writing novels and hasn’t stopped.

It takes a circle of individuals who believe in you, critique partners who are honest with you, and friends who sulk with you in rejection and rejoice with you in success. No one accomplishes anything alone.”

Amy: Thanks for stopping by, Sue. You heard about my plans to blog before I’d taken any concrete steps. And now you’re here!

Sue: My pleasure. It’s always fun talking about my favorite things, books, with one of my most favorite people.

Amy: You’ve worked hard on your craft for years, and now you have big news to share. Do tell!

Sue: I do, and I’m very excited. Ann Rose from Prospect Literary Agency is now my literary agent, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Ann and I met a few years ago via an online novel writing workshop where we partnered up to critique each other’s work-in-progress. I loved Ann’s writing style from the beginning and she gave amazing feedback. After a while we decide to expand our online critique group and scouted out some fabulous talent from all over the country to join us.

During this time, Ann had interned at a different literary agency and fallen in love with the business side. After two of her own books were sold, she decided to become a full-time agent while continuing to write on the side. I was honored that she asked me to be her first client.

Sue snapped this pic of Ann winning a writing award at the NJRWA Conference in 10/2016.

Amy: That’s an amazing turn of events, and I couldn’t be happier for you! How does it feel to be represented by your former critique partner?

Sue: It’s been so positive. I know Ann’s work ethic and she knows mine, and there’s no awkward getting-to-know-you phase. There’s a level of trust there that has built up over the years and a sense of camaraderie that I cherish. We’ve supported each other through the ups and downs of the writing process and shared so much of what we learned about writing with each other.

Ann is good at pushing me to delve deeper into character motivations, feelings, and character arch. If it were up to me, I’d compose my book entirely of dialogue. She challenges me to expand on my descriptions, characters’ physical reactions, and to set the scene for the reader.

Plus, I already know Ann’s weakness— salty, crunchy chips with a side of dark chocolate.

Amy: It seems like you two can hit the ground running. You’ve been working on multiple projects over the years. Which novel will Ann be submitting to editors first? What’s it about?

Sue: The first one is Trebled Times of CeCe Sims. It’s a YA realistic fiction novel that follows a sixteen-year-old aspiring singer, CeCe, as she encounters an eccentric performer who reveals a devastating family secret. CeCe wrestles with the enormity of this new information, wondering if her whole life has been built on lies.

Faced with betrayal, CeCe enlists the help of her best friend and crush to orchestrate an out-of-state journey to find answers, piece together the puzzle of her past, and confront her fears. All the while she grapples with body image issues (many of which I’ve experienced myself), the intensity of first love, the power of friendship, and the importance of cultivating your passion.

Amy: It sounds like a page-turner. What inspired you to write Trebled Times of CeCe Sims?

Sue: It’s really a culmination and mishmash of all the stories I’ve heard over the years as a middle and high school teacher. Kids are so willing to share their struggles, their triumphs, and their fears if you listen and open your heart to them. I’ve worked in all kinds of districts and it’s the same everywhere. The thread that unites each tween/teen is a desire to be seen, to be of worth, and to have hope for the future.

Amy: Agreed. Do your students know that you write? If so, what kinds of reactions have you received?

Sue: When I worked in the school district that the book is based on, my principal knew and was so supportive that he agreed to let a portion of the students beta-read my work to be sure it was authentic to their neighborhood experience. The kids were excited that someone sought their input so their community would be portrayed in a credible way.

Having fun with her target audience

Amy: That’s awesome that your students served as authenticity readers. Music is a big part in the life of your teen protagonist CeCe. What part has music played in your own life?

Sue: Music can never mean to me what it did in high school when soundtracks punctuated every milestone. The Smiths, The Rolling Stones, U2, and The Cranberries were the backdrop to every significant event of my youth. Their music allowed me to express the intensity of my teen emotions and cultivated feelings of identity and cohesion among my friends. Music was our voice — to console, to affirm, to protest — when we couldn’t find our own words.

This is the experience I need CeCe to have with music in the book. She needs that outlet because she hasn’t yet learned to speak her own truth without it.

Amy: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?

Sue: That is such a loaded question because there are still days I don’t consider myself a “real” writer, even after having finished several manuscripts and securing representation. Then there are other days when I say to myself, “You’ve written today. You’re a writer.” On those days I feel pretty darn good.

Amy: I get that. What occupies your time when you’re not writing or teaching?

Sue: The most important times in my life are spent with my husband, Brian, and our twelve-year-old son Liam. We have a blast playing old-school board game like Clue, Monopoly, and Risk. Inevitably, Liam always leaves our games of Texas Holdem a little richer. And there are certain television shows that are a must watch. Currently we’re on a Hawaii Five O kick.

If the boys are otherwise occupied, I relax in my little sunroom with a cup of steaming hibiscus tea, snuggling with our Morkie, Emmi, and our attack-cat Shamrock.

Vacationing with her family

Amy: How do you manage to write given your full plate?

Sue: Like anything else, if you’re passionate enough about something and dedicate yourself fully, you find the time — whether it’s getting up early, writing on your lunch break, missing social engagements, or using vacations to write. If you’re called to do it, you do it.

In all honesty, there are phases when I don’t do any writing. I allow myself time to relax, observe, and read for fun so I can fill up my well in order to be a more creative and balanced writer.

Amy: What are some of your favorite books?

Sue: My standbys are always the works of Walter Dean Myers, Margarita Engle, and Katherine Paterson. And the books I wish I’d written myself are Emily Murdock’s If You Find Me and Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere.

Amy: Other than reading and hanging out with your family, what’s your idea of fun?

Sue: Besides copious amounts of sleep? Taking a good yoga or meditation class is high on the list, and I’d love to travel more. Being in new places really heightens the power of observation. I think that’s why I like to spend time in different hotel lobbies in and around Boston where I people watch, eavesdrop, and write. And walking has always been a stress reliever. Taking Emmi out for a stroll sets things right with the world, if only temporarily.

Setting aside her manuscript to skydive

Amy: If you could travel to any place, where would you go?

Sue: Since I was a child I’ve been wanting to visit Hawaii. I had a Hawaiian-themed coloring book that depicted beaches teeming with sea creatures, intricate flowers, exotic birds, and massive volcanoes. (Maybe that coloring book is why I’m obsessed with Hawaii Five O.) Since then I’ve been interested in Hawaiian culture but have yet to go. It’s on my bucket list!

Amy: I think I’ll be seeing some Facebook photos of you in Hawaii one day. Anything else you’d like to add?

Sue: Just that it takes a tribe to free up enough of yourself to accomplish any creative endeavor, not just spouses that pick up the slack around the house or friends that cart around your kid for you. It takes a circle of individuals who believe in you, critique partners who are honest with you, and friends who sulk with you in rejection and rejoice with you in success. No one accomplishes anything alone.

Meeting up at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference in 10/2017

Amy: Truth. Congratulations on moving forward with Ann by your side. I can’t wait to see what you accomplish together. Thanks again for stopping by!

Sue: Thank you so much for allowing me to share the news on your blog. And I need to ask that you carefully choose what you do next, because I will probably follow you. First, you were a Reading Teacher, so I switched from Speech and Language to become a Reading Teacher. Then, you became a writer and I pursued writing. Next, why don’t you become a taster-tested for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I could get on board with that!

Amy: I’ll get back to you on that. My favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor is Chocolate Therapy. What’s yours?

Sue: My favorite flavor is any one that’s in front of me!

To keep up with Sue, follow her Twitter and Facebook.

Until we meet again,

Amy