Guest Blog: The Secret Power of Critique Groups (Helen MacKenzie)

Our second guest blog reveals the secret behind the success of three of last year’s finalists. Helen MacKenzie (UV2020), whose extract was Hagstone, illuminates the power of giving and receiving feedback to improve a writer’s chances of success. 

The Secret Power of Critique Groups

I used to be scared of critique groups. The thought of showing people my work, let alone getting feedback, was terrifying. I couldn’t do it. So I didn’t. I scribbled alone, telling myself that I was a good writer, that I didn’t need anyone’s help, and that I would make it on my own.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Maybe I would have. I’ll never know. But what I do know is that it wasn’t until I joined a critique group that my writing began to improve – and I started to do well in competitions such as Undiscovered Voices.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this was. It’s because a critique group gives you a circle of people willing to commit time and attention to your writing, your story and your characters. For free.

Ideas to tighten your plot, advice about your voice, reassurance that you’re on the right track: a critique group can give you all of this and more. And yes, they might sometimes tell you things you don’t want to hear – but after a little reflection, you’ll be grateful for it. And your chances of gaining an agent or winning a competition will dramatically improve.

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Much of the magic of a critique group also comes from having to critique other people’s work. It’s time consuming but I’ve learnt a huge amount about my own writing from critiquing someone else’s. The number of times I’ve commented on something and then thought, ‘Oh! I do that too…’

And that’s the key. Because most folk in a critique group are just like you: willing to try; scared of criticism; but not afraid to work at becoming a better writer. You learn together. Laugh together. You become friends.

SCBWI has a lot of critiques groups, but I was nervous at first to join one. But the first group I approached was happy for me to come along and observe, and I saw for myself the trust and respect that the members of the group had for one another. It was very reassuring. It taught me that a good critique group will encourage as well as critique. It will give feedback in a positive but useful way, and your confidence and your writing will improve as a result. If it doesn’t, it’s probably not the right critique group for you – try another.

I had no qualms after that initial meeting and joined in properly the next month. In fact, I’m such a convert that I’m now a member of three critique groups, one of which I run. It makes for a lot of reading – and writing – but this is actually another plus. I try to submit different chapters to each group and they’ve been a great way of getting my word count up.

So, if you’re thinking of entering Undiscovered Voices, why not polish up your writing with a critique group first? It won’t hurt. Will definitely help. Because when I entered UV2020, two members of my critique group also entered. We worked together, polishing our submissions and synopses. And guess what?

We all got in.


Helen MacKenzie writes YA, middle grade and the odd picture book. She was included in Undiscovered Voices 2020, received a Scottish Book Trust New Writers’ Award in 2017 and has been shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize, the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition and longlisted in the Bath Children’s Novel Award. She is a member of SCBWI and runs a SCBWI Scotland YA critique group.

Helen lives near Edinburgh and when she’s not working as a copywriter or entering writing competitions, she’s annoying her family on Zoom.

You can find Helen on Twitter @W1shfulth1nker

Getting Ready for UV2018 – Guest Blog with Georgia Bowers

In the second of a series of guest blog by past finalists, Georgia Bowers, an author featured in the UV2016 anthology, talks about her UV experience.

The 7th of December 2015 was a big day for me. I was leaving work early for the  twelve week scan of my first baby and as I was packing up, I noticed I’d had a missed call on my mobile. I listened to the voicemail and it was a message about my other baby – my novel, Clopwyck River.

I’d tried not to think about making the Undiscovered Voices longlist since I’d had the email a couple of weeks before, but hearing Sara Grant’s voice asking me to call her back, hope and a little bit of doubt came flooding over me. Sara wasn’t calling people to tell them they hadn’t made it, was she?

She wasn’t. Clopwyck River had been chosen for the UV anthology!

At this point I had queried thirty-seven agents, with only one requesting the full manuscript. In the fortnight after the shortlist was announced I had four requests for the full manuscript, including one from an agent in the US, and met with an agent to talk about the possibility of representation. I submitted to a few more agents following the launch and received four requests for the full MS almost immediately. Being part of the anthology also meant that I attended the launch party where I met agents and publishing representatives, and I spoke to a few of the UV judges who said lovely things about my writing, one of them asking me to send him my WIP. I may not have an agent, but being a finalist has got me within touching distance of my dream.

Write what’s in your heart.

My advice for anyone thinking about entering UV would be:

  • Get your 4000 words up to scratch, have a break from them, get them up to scratch for a second time, hold your breath….and enter!
  • Give the rest of your novel the same attention. If there are scenes that you’re not keen on, re-write them or get rid, don’t leave them in and hope that an agent won’t notice them.
  • Write what’s in your heart. An agent asked me to write a version of Clopwyck River without the paranormal storyline. I did it, but the agent didn’t go for it, probably because it wasn’t really what I wanted to write so it had lost my voice and my heart.
  • Learn from every rejection. My re-written version may not have had my heart, but it had my blood, sweat, and tears as I managed to finish writing when I was eight months pregnant! Although the agent didn’t go for it, they did say that it was much more streamlined and successful as a novel. I now know that I’m capable of producing good work if I put a little pressure on myself.
  • Finally, if you make the anthology, network your ass off at the launch party, even if you’re considering signing with an agent already. Keep the momentum going, be proactive and don’t wait for people to come to you; go to them and shout from the rooftops because being included in the UV anthology is an amazing thing.

It’s been a year since the UV launch, and I’ve gained so much.

It’s been a year since the UV launch, and I’ve gained so much. I’m part of a network of writers and illustrators who I feel so proud of when I read about their successes. I have feedback on the first three chapters of Clopwyck River from people with so much experience and insight into the publishing world, I could have only dreamt of it before. I’ve learned that when agents say that the publishing industry is subjective they really do mean it, and it’s not just something they say to fob you off. I have a handful of agents who, although they didn’t go for Clopwyck River, have asked to see anything I write in the future. I’ve had a taste of what it could be like to be a published author and I’m even more driven to achieve it.

 

Oh, and I have a beautiful baby girl, who thinks that every story I tell her is a best seller.

 


Georgia is a librarian by day and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan by night. She has written a number of articles for Hodderscape including Stranger Things vs. The OA, What Would Buffy Do, and Films To Watch at Halloween if You’re a Big Scaredy-cat. She is currently working on a new YA project, a mix of The Breakfast Club and Lost, where six teenagers take a journey with a bus driving dog and a cross-dressing conductor. Her spirit book character is Mildred Hubble.
Twitter: @georgia_bowers
Tumbler: bookbewitched.tumblr.com
Hodderscape: www.hodderscape.co.uk