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
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.
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.
During the 2013-2014 school year, I started to dip my toes back into the children’s book world.
I had published one book in 2006. So, I had gone through the process of researching, writing, revising, promoting, and sharing a book. I had learned an awful lot and, to this day, I draw from that amazing experience.
But I’d been out of the kidlit world for several years. Plus, picture books and the industry, not to mention the online world, had changed a great deal during the intervening years.
I felt that I was starting all over again.
Or really, just starting.
In 2006, I didn’t see myself as part of the kidlit world. I’m not sure I even knew there was a kidlit world!
For me, it was all about that one project, a beloved family project: writing a story to the best of my ability and working with my publisher to put out the best book we could. It was still a substantial undertaking, but for me, it was a self-contained world.
I was completely oblivious to writing organizations, critique groups, online presence, networking, agents… even books lists and awards. All of these were the furthest things from my mind. And for my purposes back then, that worked just fine.
It was a blissful existence.
Fast-forward to the 2013-2014 school year. My kids were growing up. They were pretty much done with picture books, but I wasn’t. I kept borrowing them from the library; I kept reading them in bookstores.
Duh! I wanted to write more books. In fact, I had already started writing one the previous year.
I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), an international organization. I joined WriterHouse, a local organization. These were big steps — to identify myself as a writer, even though I didn’t completely believe it.
I subscribed to writing blogs, bought craft books, borrowed stacks of picture books. And I devoured them.
That March, I attended the VA Festival of the Book, right here in Charlottesville, as I had before. But that year I went with the lens of a writer.
That May, I took a workshop at WriterHouse with author Kathy Erskine – my first ever creative writing workshop.
Still, I hadn’t really committed to doing this. Writing. Trying to publish more books. And building a writing career.
Then that July, I attended a local SCBWI gathering led by author Anne Marie Pace. At one point, she asked attendees to share their goals. My goals had crystalized sometime between Kathy’s workshop and Anne Marie’s gathering. These goals had been hanging out in my head, gathering courage.
When it was my turn, I said, “Join or start a critique group, build a website, and then query agents.”
There! I said it. To the whole group. I was now officially accountable, at least to myself.
And guess what? I’ve been doing it…
I started that critique group the next month. And I’ve been writing regularly ever since.
I built that website. Or rather my awesome designer Ashley Parkin built it with input from me.
I started to query agents and editors last April. (More on this in a future post.)
I’ve attended writing gatherings, workshops, classes, and conferences.
I even joined social media and started blogging. Who, ME?
Each of these steps over the past few years has made me stretch in new directions. Some of that stretching has been exhilarating. And some of it has been painful. All of it has taken some combination of courage, patience, and commitment (and chocolate).
All of it has made me grow.
I still have only one book, but I’m a different writer now. And I’ll continue to grow. The growth is never-ending which, in my book, is a pretty cool thing.
So, writing one book, and building a writing career – these processes have been connected, of course. And they’ve both been incredible. But they’ve been different.
Perhaps the biggest difference, other than the obvious ones of scope and intention, has been the level of initiative and independence required of me.
While working on A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, I had the guidance of my wonderful editor, Dana Goldberg (and the support of the team at Children’s Book Press, now an imprint of Lee & Low). We had a plan and, together, we tackled it.
Now, I’m the captain of my own team-of-one. As it should be, it’s on me to build this career.
Thankfully, I can call on support from various sources: my critique group, individuals in the kidlit world, my family, my friends. The fabulous folks at Lee & Low continue to help promote my book. I value all of this greatly, and I couldn’t do it alone.
But, of course, I hope to work with an editor again one day (and dare I say, an agent). There’s nothing like two (or more) people working together closely to bring a book into the world.
So, I’m digging deep and doing what I need to do. It’s a different kind of proud than holding a published book, but I’m proud nonetheless.
Because I’m sending my heart out there into slush piles. And because I’m trying.
If you’re also following a dream, keep at it! I’ll be right there with you.
When I registered for a writing workshop with Kathy Erskine in May 2014, I knew I was in for a wonderful writing experience. I had also been hoping to find other children’s writers who might want to form a critique group. Lucky for me, Marc Boston was also in the workshop!
At one point, Kathy asked for volunteers to read aloud manuscripts. Marc volunteered. Based on the smiles and laughter in the room, I think it’s safe to say that everyone was delighted by his rhyming picture book manuscript.
Well, Marc and I formed that critique group (along with other writers). He’s been cranking out the manuscripts and has been a great support to me on my own writing journey.
And that picture book manuscript? Marc ended up self-publishing it as The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff in October 2015.
In June 2017 Marc self-published his second delightful picture book, What About Me?. Like his first book, this one is charmingly illustrated by Annie Wilkinson.
Amy: Hey, Marc! Congratulations on the publication of What About Me? Tell us a bit about it.
Marc: Hey there, Amy! Thank you, and thanks for inviting me to stop by to have this conversation with you. In the story, the nameless main character is vying for the attention of her two older sisters, who seem oblivious to her appeal for recognition. They aren’t being mean; they are just in their own little worlds.
As the story progresses, our lead character must come to understand that with a little creativity and imagination, she can learn to be her own best friend. She learns that she doesn’t need to seek validation outside of herself, and that it is ultimately up to her to make herself happy. This story is an attempt to explore the theme of self-empowerment, which is truly a universal theme that folks of all ages can embrace.
Amy: Will you share your inspiration for your books?
Marc: Many of the stories I’ve written are based on the interactions, antics, and shenanigans I witness my three elementary age daughters engaging in during their everyday lives. I notice their interesting or quirky behaviors such as my middle daughter Delaney’s old habit of needing to carry many of her possessions around the house and whenever we’d leave. This particularly priceless practice of hers sparked the idea for my first book, The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff.
I also enjoy listening to the funny things that they say, and I attempt to use that as writing material. I love to remain aware of what they are doing around me because I feel that there are so many treasures that can be mined from their unaffected, authentic way of being. I casually and surreptitiously observe all of this and spin those situations into fun tales. I’m basically a fly on the wall reporting on their day-to-day lives without their permission…hopefully they don’t sue me one day. 🙂
What About Me? is based on my youngest daughter, Journey, and her perceived interactions with her two older sisters. Perceived in that even though the stories are based on them, the stories are told through the lens of my perspective. All three of my girls get along splendidly, however there are those occasions when I notice that the older two are off engaging in some little household adventure, while Journey is off somewhere doing something solo.
Most of the time Journey seems content, but there are those times when I feel like she’s been purposely left behind because she’s just not old enough yet to keep up. After witnessing several of these instances, I began to wonder how she might feel about being treated like a third wheel. Maybe she doesn’t mind it at all, but I thought that this episode in their lives would make a great story. So I sat down and wrote What About Me?
Amy: How was the experience publishing your second picture book?
Marc: I am excited to have recently published my second book. I experienced a much easier time around publishing the new book than my first book, The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff. The first book was almost four years in the making. I wrote the story but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, because I didn’t know much about the publishing world in general.
Once I performed a bit of research, I decided that I wished to self-publish the book as opposed to seeking traditional publishing. I set out down the road to self-publish, but I had almost no idea what I was doing at first. I learned through trial and error with the help of some very supportive artists and professionals. This time around I didn’t feel like a rookie; I didn’t have to wonder about whether to self-publish as I had my personal publishing apparatus in place already, so to speak. So this time it felt like a rather painless process.
Amy: Why did you decide to self-publish your first book?
Marc: Probably because I’m a little crazy. 🙂 Mostly it’s because I’m a bit of a rebel. I’ve never fit completely in with many social standards. For example, I was one of the first stay-at-home dads that I’d ever known 11 years ago, and now we are more common place.
I chose to go into self-publishing because first of all, I didn’t want to wait to be picked. I chose to pick myself! I feel like I have something to say through the stories I tell, and I didn’t want to have to wait to tell them. When I was ready to follow my goal of becoming a children’s book writer, I knew it; and I didn’t want to wait any longer. I was ready to just go for it with a sort of against-all-odds attitude.
I worked through my initial fear and attempted to just focus on putting out my best work, allowing the chips to fall where they may. Today’s publishing world is so different than in the past that it afforded me the opportunity to do this. Not to mention, my first book was like my baby and I didn’t want to give her away to the traditional publishing world to raise. That’s the stay-at-home dad coming out in me.
…my first book was like my baby and I didn’t want to give her away to the traditional publishing world to raise. That’s the stay-at-home dad coming out in me.” — Marc Boston
Amy: Do you see yourself continuing to self-publish or do you see pursuing traditional publishing at some point?
Marc: This is a question I’ve wrestled with from the very beginning, before I made the informed decision to self-publish. Which way should I go? I certainly have nothing against pursuing traditional publishing. There is something to be said about having a team of professionals to help a relative newcomer like me with the process. Being new to the game, it would be nice to have an agent or publisher hold my hand as I continue to develop and grow in this industry. And I’m certain that the education I would receive from such a partnership would be invaluable. One of the biggest issues I’ve had with self-publishing has been the marketing, promotion, and distribution. So yes, I am truly open to the idea of receiving some assistance to further the career I’m working to firmly establish.
Amy: There are so many writers looking to publish picture books. What do you feel sets your writing apart?
Marc: There are so many reading choices out there, so what would make someone want to choose one of my stories to read? When a writer is striving to be heard, it’s easy to feel lost in the shuffle. During these times I try to remember that I have something to contribute as well. With my writing, I attempt to entertain, educate, and inspire. These attributes are common in all of my stories. Part of what I hope makes my writing entertaining is my rhyme style. It is definitely what gives my work its flavor. I also don’t shy away from using words that may be above a certain reader’s grade level, and after reading my stories I want you to feel something. I try to write thought-provoking pieces.
Amy: What threads all of your stories together?
Marc: The need to write stories that contain universal themes that all people can relate to. No matter how old or young you happen to be. And the strong desire to present people of color as the lead characters in my books.
Amy: Why is it important to you to send main characters of color out into the world?
Marc: Because there is a whole segment of people out there who feel left out, forgotten, invisible. Diverse books help to remind the world there is more than one story to be told, more than one perspective, more than one culture. And, diversity is normal! You don’t only see one race or one gender when we leave our homes. There are many different types of people, with various positions and points of view. Diversity is a beautiful thing; it should be embraced, and reflected in the books we read.
Diversity is a beautiful thing; it should be embraced, and reflected in the books we read.” — Marc Boston
Amy: What has surprised you about the writer’s life?
Marc: (1) How much better I feel when I’m writing. If I don’t write I don’t feel right. (2) How many other people wish to also write books and articles. I can’t tell you how many people have solicited adviceabout how to write and how to publish, and have asked if I would critique their work since they found out that I published a couple of books. And I’m thrilled to be of service in that way.
If I don’t write, I don’t feel right.” – Marc Boston
Amy: What has been the most rewarding part about the writer’s life?
Marc: One of the most rewarding things about the writer’s life is being able to write. To start with a blank page and have a story come together the way you wish is great. To publish a book and have it accepted to the VA Festival of the Book is an amazing feeling. To have an article published in a magazine is very rewarding. To have someone actually ask your advice about writing, because they believe that you may be an authority on the subject, is fantastic. For someone to say that they really love your work is worth all the effort.
Amy: What has been the most challenging part about the writer’s life?
Marc: Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Often I wonder if anyone cares about the work I put out. The vulnerable feeling of putting yourself out there to potentially be judged by others can be nerve-racking. Am I good enough to even call myself a writer? Sometimes it’s really hard to produce something you feel is worthy enough to present to the world, and after you do, the insecure feelings over the quality of your work are always there.
Some writers wish to be JK Rawlings or John Grisham or Walter Mosley, and if you aren’t that it feels as if you have to fight off the stigma of this being “just” a hobby. There are certain expectations you put on yourself as a writer and the perceived expectations of others that seem to be ever-present. The only thing I can do about that is to put out the best content I can, and let the work speak for itself. Because it isn’t about me, it’s about the work.
Amy: What other stories are you working on these days?
Marc: The beauty of being in a wonderful writing critique group like ImagineInk is that we usually submit new material to one another for review every three weeks. Without my writing crew, I probably wouldn’t write as much as I do. You all have been holding me accountable for the past three years. So I’m always working on something new. I have a picture book story I’m working on now that touches on childhood poverty, and I just wrapped up an article I wrote for a local magazine that explains how my daughters often provide fodder for my stories.
Amy: What other interests do you have besides writing? What else fills your days?
Marc: When I’m not writing, I’m usually reading. I’m an avid reader who loves the Easy Rawlins mysteries by Walter Mosley. I’m very much into spiritual books like those from Marianne Williamson and also Eckhart Tolle. I try to stay fit by running a mile a day, and I have a daily meditation practice. I also enjoy watching old movies, listening to classic hip-hop, taking walks, cooking, and spending time with my family traveling or just being silly with them around the house.
Amy: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
Marc: I just want to thank you, Amy, for giving me this opportunity to chat with you. I’d also like to encourage everyone to continue to support diverse books, and to always strive to live as fearlessly and authentically as possible. Peace & Blessings.
Amy: Thanks so much for stopping by, Marc. It’s been fun to learn more about what makes you tick. I look forward to your next writing group submission. See you soon!
If you’re local, Marc and I will both be at the Charlottesville Book Fair on Saturday, November 18 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. at CitySpace on the Downtown Mall. Please come say hey to over 40 local authors!