Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Author Interview: Becky Levine


Becky Levine is one of those blogging authors that you just know is kind in real life. When I saw that she's just finished her draft of her latest book--and that book was about critique groups--I knew I wanted to pick her mind, and she very graciously agreed! Her book, The Writing Group Survival Guide will be out through Writer's Digest press in January of 2010.

Becky has been writing for many year, always with critique groups. Besides this nonfiction writing aid, Becky also writes nonfiction for children and young adults. Her most recent project is a YA historical novel about a young woman in 1913 Chicago just before the suffrage march on Washington, DC (I'm already interested, aren't you?). Additionally, she's working on a couple of picture books and a chapter book. Her website, located here, is where (in her words), "I try and share constructive ideas about critiquing and writing, and all steps on the writing path." Her personal writing blog, located here, is where she focuses on her own writing projects and dreams.

On to the interview!

Could you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
When I was doing the proposal for the book, I had to write a sample chapter, and the aquisitions editor wanted one of the chapters that would demonstrate how to critique a specific element of writing. So I wrote the chapter about how to critique plot and--during that process--developed the structure I'd use for that type of chapter throughout the book. After the proposal was accepted, I started on the rest of the fiction critiquing chapters, because I had that structure and it let me get on a roll (which helped to break throught that amazing, rather panicky feeling of OMG--I'm really doing this!) Then I spent some time on developing and writing the chapters about how to find, start, and maintain a strong writing group--those were fun, but challenging--I wanted to get an encouraging tone, but also really show writers that there are concrete tools and techniques that make this all doable. These last few weeks, I've been back to the how-to-critique chapters, with the set structure, in the sections for nonfiction and books for younger children. It's taken me about five months to get here, which feels a bit surrealistic.

I've sent every chapter through my writing group--the writers I've been critiquing with for years. They've been my reality check about whether I'm being constructive enough, whether I'm getting repetitive or managing to keep each chapter helpful, and--of course--the clarity and flow of the writing. They've been a huge support system as well, because they're almost as excited as I am, which reinforces my belief that this is an important book for me to be writing.


Why did you write your book?

When I talk about writing groups at conferences and workshops, I sometimes carry a little soapbox around with me. Twenty-five years ago (Yikes!) I took writing workshops at UC Irvine with Oakley Hall (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakley_Hall). He ran his classes like a writing group, and his premise was that a critiquer's job was to help an author make THEIR book or story the best they could. He was adamant that a critiquer's job was never to try and get that author to write a different book or to force a change on them. Since then I've always been part of a writing group, and they've been invaluable. I've also, though--as a writer and a freelance editor--listened to a lot of writers complain or worry about writing groups. People have had some pretty bad experiences, where they feel as though their writing got trashed and they left the meetings thinking they should never write again. This is just wrong. On the flip side, I've also met writers who don't really know what their role--when they're being critiqued--should be. They sometimes ignore any or all of the comments they're getting as irrelevant or unimportant, and they describe their critique partners as not "getting it." This reaction can be from fear or from inexperience with the critique process, but it doesn't make their critique partners feel very good--it tends to dismiss the work they've put into reading the manuscript and developing feedback. Critiquing, and receiving a critique, can be hard--and I'm hoping that the things I'm writing about in this book will make the process easier for people. I want to help writers build a group that gives them all the benefits I've had from mine.


Who would most benefit from it--I assume, obviously, writers, but writers at what stage in their writing or career?

I actually think that writing skills and critiquing skills are two different things. A writer can be very successful but not have spent much time critiquing. Or a writer can have critiqued for years, be very good at it, and still be working toward their first published book. So I tend to think in terms of critique stages, rather than writing stages. :) I think the book will have a big audience in new critiquers--those writers who have wanted to join a group, or work with a critique partner, but have been nervous or afraid about taking that first step. This kind of worry can be of two kinds--fear of getting negative feedback on your own writing and fear of not being qualified to critique someone else's manuscript. I think the book will help new critiquers get past both those fears, because it provides concrete steps for getting "out there" and getting started. Other critiquers who have been working with a group, but don't feel as though things are running smoothly or that they aren't making as much forward progress on their writing as they'd like--I'm hoping they'll be able to use the book as a tool for working through any problems and getting their group to be more productive. And then, of course, I'm hoping that writers in a successful group will like what I have to say, buy a book or two, and hand them out to any new members to bring them up to speed.


In your experience or research, what were some of the most surprising things you learned about writing groups?
I think the biggest surprise was the way different writers feel about in-person verus online groups. I had my own perceptions about the differences and about when/why you'd choose one type over the other. Those perceptions definitely got challenged. I had assumed a certain emotional distance would be part of an online group, and I talked with lots of writers who have established strong, intimate groups over the Internet. I also guessed that everybody would like the face-to-face element of in-person groups, but I talked to people who were frustrated by having to share critiquing time with what they considered over-personal chit-chat. The great thing is that we have a lot more options than we did ten, or even five, years ago.


What are a few characteristics of writing groups that work?
Groups where the members have similar goals work well--whether that goal is to work toward publication, learn more about the writing craft, or make the memoir you're writing for your grandchildren the best it can be. Group members should also have the same commitment level--a determination to make their writing time, and their critique time, a priority in their lives. Members should also keep critique time for critiquing (or if there aren't any submissions, something else related to writing--brainstorming, discussing a new writing book, or bringing out the laptops and actually writing together). It's easy, especially when there isn't something to critique, to spend a critique meeting just talking and catching up--and that's two hours out of your week that aren't helping your current writing projects along.


What are some things that writing groups should avoid?
I think writing groups should avoid too much playing around with meeting times and locations. It seems like a minor thing, but a set structure means members get to concentrate on writing and critiquing, rather than always trying to remember when and where. Also, members should not push problems under the rug. A problem can be anything from a meeting schedule that isn't working so great for one member, or a critiquer who's being consistently harsh in their feedback. If these things don't get talked out, they fester, and the meetings become frustrating and draining, instead of productive and energizing.


Do you believe that all writers can benefit from a writing group? Why/why not?
I know that there are writers who work best by themselves, or with perhaps one other trusted writer who gives them feedback. Overall, though, I think the benefits of a writing group cannot be overstated. If your goal is, eventually, to see your book in the hands of an agent or publisher, and on a bookstore shelf, you need--at the bottom line--to get used to somebody else reading your work. You need to see that what you have in your head is often different from what you managed to get on the page, and strong critique partners will be invaluable at helping you get those two versions to match up. Finally--and this is what a lot of people don't understand--you learn more about the craft of writing by being critiqued and BY CRITIQUING than you can ever imagine. The more you read other people's manuscripts closely, and dig deep into yourself for explanations of why something isn't working, the more you will learn about your own writing and how to improve it. I really believe that a good critique group is one of the best tools for making serious progress in our work.


You call your book a "Survival Guide." Is it more about how a writer can survive in a writing group, or about how writing groups themselves can survive--and thrive?
Well, Writer's Digest actually came up with the title, but I think it does reflect the fears that people have about writing groups--that their writing will be torn apart (in a bad way!) and that they'll come out of the experience feeling like they should stop writing. The title also reflects some of the bad experiences writers have had with groups. I think--hope--the book is going to help writing groups do more than survive--as you say, to thrive. I have a whole section in the book about how to maintain a group that evolves with its members. We go through so many stages on the writing path--from putting our first words on a page to seeing our projects in print to--yes--keeping a published writing career going. A group has to change and grow as its members go through these stages, and the stronger the foundation those members build at the beginning, the more support the group will give them along that path.


Any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?
When I first pitched the idea for the book, the editor I was talking to made it clear she did not want a book of anecdotes about writing groups. We agreed that the book, to be truly useful, would have to be a how-to book, with concrete tools and techniques that would let writers build a strong group. I've worked hard toward that goal, and I hope I've achieved it. I want this book to be something writers actually use, not just something they skim through once and set aside.

Just a reminder:
Becky's book is due out January 2010 from Writer's Digest. Be sure to order a copy!

And...THANK YOU BECKY for sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!
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