"Editors and Critique Groups: How to Take Feedback" with Colleen McKenna

Thursday, April 19, 2001

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books and over 150 articles. Kristi also taught writing for fifteen years.

Colleen is Coleen McKenna, popular author of l7 published books (with three more due out soon in her Third Grade Stinks series.)

Names color coded in blue are viewers who asked questions.

Interviews take place on Thursday nights: 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! Welcome to tonight's interview with Colleen McKenna on the subject of "Editors and Critique Groups: How to Take Feedback." I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator and the web editor for this site. Colleen is the author of l7 books, with three more due out very soon. Welcome, Colleen!

Colleen: I am so pleased to be here.

Moderator: How did you get started writing, Colleen?

Colleen: In the 8th grade I fell in love with Little Joe from Bonanza. I wrote 34 scripts for the show, and I sent three to Hollywood. They didn't buy them but I sure learned the value of dialogue. Years later, I was asked to write two books for Dr. Quinn.

Moderator: Neat story! How is your typical writing day structured? Do you still juggle children or a day job with your writing?

Colleen: I wrote the Murphy books, based on my 4 children, with all four racing around the kitchen table. So structure has never been a big part of my writing life. I don't write every day, but I read, or think about it every day.

Moderator: Moving right to one of the topics of the evening, why is feedback from a critique group and/or editor so important for a writer?

Colleen: A group or editor is important because you are writing for an audience. You are not writing in a diary or journal for later reflection. So feedback is crucial.

Moderator: In your opinion, what is the optimum number of members for a critique group?

Colleen: I have been in groups of twelve....too large. And two...kinda small. I think three or more, but less than seven is best. If you know you will get a chance to read, you write.

Moderator: Should critique groups be focused on a specific genre, or can they be mixed? (adult, children's, mystery, horror, etc.)

Colleen: There are so many genres within each group that you have to focus. If you want to write for children, stick to writers who value children. Children and adults are apples and oranges.

Moderator: Should there be a critique group leader?

Colleen: Well, someone with a strong personality may try to take charge. If so, squash him or her. It is so important that the group remain a group of equals. It doesn't matter how many are published.

Kevin: If you can't find enough people in your genre, how could you best handle a mixed group?

Colleen: If you are starting a group, then a mixed group is better than none. But I think guidelines must be set. For example, in children's lit. there is one main character with a problem and they solve it. But, in adult lit. I think that problems are solved by others in some cases, and this is okay. But editors of children's stories will want the hero to be the problem solver and your group should be aware of that.

Medic554: How do you feel about online review groups where you can post your text on a message-board style site and get feedback from other users?

Colleen: I would want to know more about the online review groups first. Ideas are so private. If you are talking about a college setting, okay. I wouldn't send my text out to total strangers who may not be trustworthy. (Not to sound paranoid.) But certain slants and ideas are so fresh because of your life. I wouldn't share mine with just anyone.

Moderator: What happens when a member of a critique group demands too much of the group's time?

Colleen: That happens a lot. You do need a group agreement that if there are ten people and you want to meet for two hours, then do the math. If a certain person reads thirteen pages at a time, then says, "Oh, gosh, I knew this would have to be two chapters," then call them on it. They know what they are doing. I would say, ten or less pages. Period. "Okay, we have 15 minutes per person. If you read 12 minutes, you get 3 minutes of feedback."

Moderator: Do you think rotation of mss. readers is important?

Colleen: Yes. And this is why someone has to be in charge of a group. Especially if it is a new group. Otherwise a strong personality will take over. Gosh, I hope I am not sounding like this is so ruthless. But based on my group involvement since 1982, I am speaking from experience. And my groups have been so good. It's just nice to set things up so everyone knows that we are a group: all on the same level, regardless of publication. It's a matter of respect.

Kevin: Does each person read his/her own ms.? Is that important?

Colleen: Great question, Kevin. In our group we laugh sometimes when an author reads a piece with their sweetness or passion. It sounds so good that we want a new reader so we can concentrate on the text alone. Some authors need a reader to read for them to keep all that expression out of the reading.

AnneKelly: Should everyone on the group be on the same level, i.e., unpublished, published magazine articles, or published books?

Colleen: No. The stimulation between the groups is wonderful, Anne. It is a reminder to those unpublished that it is so very possible. It is also a reminder to the published that new authors are out there with good stuff, waiting to be published.

AnneKelly: Does your group get together physically or over e-mail?

Colleen: We are so physical. I love my group. In Pittsburgh there are so many authors that a group of six is easy. But we were part of a group of 17 in the basement bookstore back when none of us was published. We still loved meeting and learning.

Moderator: In a critique group, should the ms. be read aloud with comments following, or should copies be passed out and comments placed right on the ms.? Pros and cons of each method?

Colleen: I like immediate response. I think my group agrees. As a person reads, we mark things on a paper. Then, after the reading, we take turns with comments.

Kevin: Do you ever get the mss. ahead of time to read?

Colleen: Kevin, we only do that in certain situations. For example, since we are all now published, an agent or editor may want a quick rewrite, or another slant sent along. So, we call our group and ask for quick feedback. But, generally, we take our turn around the table.

AnneKelly: Has your group ever had the experience of having to critique an awful ms? How do you handle that?

Colleen: Of course. Sometimes the silence after the reading says it all. But since we like each other so much we then try to respond. We all know that we are here for publication and good writing, not hugs for a story that says nothing new.

Moderator: Can critique groups as small as 2 or 3 people still work?

Colleen: Yes. Sally Alexander and I did a spin off from the bookstore group since she needed to hear her stories and I wanted her feedback. (Sally is a much published author of books, some of which deal with her blindness at the age of 26.) From that group, our standing group now stands. Two good people is great. Three is even better. The key is people with the same interest as yours. A critical ear is better than a published person who only wants to be patted on the back.

Moderator: In a critique group, should you have another person read your ms. aloud to get a clean reading?

Colleen: A clean reading would be one where the text is emphasized or highlighted, not the animated person reading it. Some people are so good they can read a recipe and it makes you laugh. You want a "clean" reading where the text alone is exposed.

Moderator: How do you handle suggestions and comments that seem to be of a personal nature?

Colleen: Oh, my gosh. Personal nature comments can crush an author. I have had a few in my career. Being Catholic doesn't help. Okay, in the beginning, I was so crushed that I believed the person and thought not only was my writing bad, but I was also inferior. Well, it wasn't that serious, but you get my point. Then, a friend told me to consider the source. Then, after selling a million books, I began to think that maybe this person and I just didn't agree. As long as a third grader thought me funny, then I was okay. In other words, you have to have faith in your critics, but also yourself.

Moderator: Is there ever a fee charged for an editor and/or critique group to read a ms.?

Colleen: Never. Unless you are dealing with a vanity press. You shouldn't be dealing with these people. They don't call themselves "vanity," but if they ask for money, they are.

Moderator: How should a writer clear the air when a comment has been viewed as an insult?

Colleen: In a critique group, I think it is important to clear the air. For example, if I read a chapter and a person said, "Geeze, I don't think your main character would have said that. I mean, who would be so stupid to say something like that?" Then, I may use humor and say, "No, tell me what you really think." But, if it is a reoccurring situation, then you can either say, "Okay, I note that and disagree," or hope that another member will say, "I don't agree at all." But you don't want to get into a debate. So our group will now say, "That's your opinion, thank you and I'll think about it." If someone really says something totally rude, then there is silence, and we move on.

Moderator: In a critique group, is there a page limit when reading? Chapter? Word count?

Colleen: Yes. I think 10 pages is really pushing it. You have to allow time for comments and suggestions, which takes longer. In our group, five or six pages is average. Some readings are so good that we have few suggestions. Some chapters are good and just need a better slant. We take longer with material that needs work.

Moderator: In a critique group, how honest should you be when a ms. doesn't work at all? (Especially when you're the only one who apparently thinks this or is willing to be honest?)

Colleen: Honestly is what makes a group work. You are not meeting to make friends and eat coffee cake. You are meeting to read and ask for help so that your work is better. I am so blunt at this point. Our whole group is. We can give our story to our mothers and have them clap. We want to know how we can make what we want to say clearer, stronger and more appealing to our readers.

AnneKelly: There must be times when a member of a critique group isn't working out. How can you politely let them know?

Colleen: We all move out of state with no forwarding address. (Just kidding.) It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. The first step is to let them know that their comments are offensive. This can be done by one member phoning the other, saying there seems to be a personality clash. But sometimes this doesn't work. Then you may decide not to meet on a regular basis, and take some time to regroup. You never want to hurt someone, but sometimes a person with a different agenda creates a huge writer's block for all.

seabeewife: What would be your recommendation for online critique groups?

Colleen: I have never been on an online group so I don't want to make a strong comment. If you don't have a group in your area, then online would be okay. Would you put your text online? You'd need to be comfortable with sharing your text with strangers.

Moderator: Why do published authors still belong to critique groups?

Colleen: Our group of six has published many times over. But, after enjoying the joy of publication, we have also been rejected. We need an audience because we are writing for an audience. We need to go into schools and see if kids like our works. If you write only for yourself, you are not giving your best to a young reader.

Moderator: Do you recommend belonging to more than one critique group? Does it depend on how often they meet?

Colleen: My group meets once a week. I am lucky if I get there twice a month. But my group will tell you that I have never relied as heavily on a group as others. So it must be personal. I had four kids racing around. Also, I was lucky to get three novels published at one time and was afforded the opportunity to work with editors right away. Some authors, no matter how often published, want a weekly feedback to keep writing.

AnneKelly: How do you go about finding the right critique group? (Or starting one, if there is none?)

Colleen: I would put a notice up in the library stating that there was going to be a writing group informational meeting. From that group, find out who is going to be someone that will work. Not everyone interested in writing is going to be someone helpful. You want to find the right people so you won't be trying to get rid of the wrong people. Some people view writing for children as a mere stepping stone into adult lit. That is not correct. I hope I am not scaring anyone from starting a group. Just go into it knowing that this group may be part of your life for the next ten years.

Moderator: Colleen, thank you for that helpful advice. Let's make a switch now to editors and feedback. First, what is the same (or different) about critique group feedback versus editorial feedback?

Colleen: I was part of the bookstore group. That taught us all. Marilyn Hollinshead launched many, many careers. Her best advice was to read Lee Wyndham's book. Editorial feedback is what you listen to with a keen ear. If my editor tells me to do something and my group says, "Oh, she is wrong," I listen to my editor. She's is in charge of the booklist, the list of books they choose to print for each season.

Moderator: What happens when an editor is replaced during the editing process of a ms.?

Colleen: That happened to me with the 18th book for Scholastic. My editor left and the new editor said that she didn't love my book as much as she wanted to love it. So, I kept the advance and the book is in my files. She later left Scholastic. But, in hindsight, she was probably right. The book wasn't that timely. When an editor leaves, you have a new relationship to create.

Moderator: What happens when your editor tries to rewrite too much of the ms.?

Colleen: When an editor tries to rewrite too much, you have to decide if the shape of your book is going to be altered. If their comments are good, then the shape is for the better. That's why the house you are with is so important. If the house is good, then the editors are giving sound advice. I have known of two people who were first time authors and they had their own battle to fight and they fought themselves right out of a contract. My daughter worked for Scholastic one summer and she came home to say, "Mom, don't ever call. They hate authors who call to complain."

Kevin: Do editors need your permission to rewrite your manuscript?

Colleen: No. It's in the contract. Don't get involved with an ego thing. They are buying your text because they think they can make money. They will give suggestions to make the book better. For the most part, you are on the same team. They aren't the bad guys. Wait for the book to come out and then deal with the reviewers.

Moderator: Should an editor have the right to change your title and/or names of your characters?

Colleen: Yes. I just got my galleys this morning for my next book. They wanted a new nickname and I suggested five. They took one. At this point, I go with the flow. The heart of my books has never been altered.

Moderator: Is it a good or bad thing to establish a social relationship with your editor and/or your critique group?

Colleen: It's hard for me not to. With my weekly group, I am closer to some than others. Generally, I am close to all of them. We have a little chit chat, then we get down to work. But, our lives seep into our writing.

Kevin: Does the editor set the pace for how informal you get?

Colleen: Yes, but with an editor, I try to be more professional. My husband, the attorney, keeps telling me this. Yes, an editor sets the pace. If they are very busy, they want some distance. Plus, the longer they are on the job, the more tired they are of nurturing. But, when you write a best seller, or they see such a talent, they will respond.

Moderator: How many revisions will an editor usually ask a writer to do?

Colleen: In the beginning, an editor will test you. They may ask for a revision, just to see if you can do one. Trust me, some writers cannot. They keep dusting off the same text but nothing is tossed out or brought in. That is not good. A writer has to be willing to toss out three or four chapters or more and start at a new angle. Do as Truman Capote did. He said, "I do my best writing with scissors." Cut! Revision suggestions are quite common for new writers. With my last book, my editor told me to do my own revision, bumping it up a grade level and adding another layer. I thought it to be a wonderful compliment.

Moderator: Do editors ever decide not to work with a writer when their personalities clash?

Colleen: Personalities do clash! You have to keep in mind that editing books and getting lists out is very tense. So why work with people who drive you crazier?

Moderator: Do you need to agree with every change your editor wants so that you don't run the danger of her not wanting to work with you anymore? Where's the balance between being cooperative and staying true to your work?

Colleen: Great question. I wouldn't change the heart of my story to get it published. I am cooperative, but I wouldn't have my character do something that was not part of who they are. I have turned down opportunities to write certain series where the character was not someone I could ever imagine liking or being. I write a sliver of myself into my characters. It's the seed I need to plant to write realistically.

Moderator: If you really disagree with your editor's suggestions, what's the best way to get this point across and still maintain a good relationship?

Colleen: I think honesty is the best approach. Let them know that they have the final say, but your reason for slightly disagreeing is . . . I cannot stress how important it is to realize that editors are overworked, underpaid professionals who are responsible for getting books into the hands of eager readers. They are working with us. They fight for books during meetings when only 25 books are picked. There may be 60 books up for bidding. If they pick a good author and book, their voice is heard stronger the second time.

Moderator: Is networking worth the price of a conference? And what IS networking?

Colleen: Yes, the conference is worth every penny. Networking is when you meet someone who is part of the publishing industry. Especially in children's writing, the people are so kind. They usually get paid very, very little to give a speech at a conference. They like local people who come out to learn. Even if a house is closed to unsolicited mss., if the editor or staff person is speaking at a conference, you are allowed to submit to them. A little bonus. Just state that you met them at such and such a conference. I have known of 5 people who have gotten into NY this way. Plus, at a conference you meet people like yourself who want to write. It's so great. It really inspires. And you may meet people nearby to form a group with.

Moderator: Should you call an editor once you have signed the contract, or continue to write?

Colleen: As my daughter said, "Never call." I would write or contact their assistant. Never think you are buddy buddy. They have enough buddies. Respect their busy schedule. If they call you, you can return their call. Don't call them on your own though.

Moderator: Even if you have an agent to handle your book, can a writer call an editor to ask questions or submit mss.?

Colleen: It depends on the relationship and how many books you have sold. I got an agent after 18 books. Actually, my editor told me to get one so that was fine. Agents are hard to get because they only want you if they are sure you can make money for them. But, that's their job.

Moderator: Should you keep sending SASE's when sending revisions back and forth?

Colleen: Once the revision is under contract, you don't have to send a SASE. They will send it back. The big problem is, when they send it overnight and want it back overnight, who pays the bill? It is okay at this point to ask if they have a credit line with Fed. Ex. They don't mind. But, truthfully, even after all these years, I still feel funny about asking that.

Moderator: Is it an editor's job to help remove an author's writer's block?

Colleen: No, it is not an editor's job. They only deal with your next book, not your mind. But, if you were writing a series with them, then you could pick their brain. They may suggest a coming of age book, or perhaps a general situation, like a new kid in the class who is a bully, etc. Sometimes, it is as simple as, "You'll think of something. You always do." Which is nice.

Kevin: What do you think really causes writer's block?

Colleen: I think it means you have nothing to say. Or, if you are in the middle of a story when it occurs, it means you are not saying it properly. Take time out, reflect and start all over again. It is not serious.

AnneKelly: Do you have any new books/projects coming out?

Colleen: I have a new series, Third Grade Stinks. The first book comes out in June. It's been awhile since the last book so I am excited.

Moderator: I'm sorry to have to interrupt here, but we're out of time. Thank you so much, Colleen, for coming tonight and sharing such valuable information with our chatters. We appreciate it!

Colleen: I have enjoyed it so much. It was nice chatting with everyone. A special hi to Anne.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks for our next interview. The topic and guest speaker will be announced shortly in your weekly newsletter updates. And now, good night, everyone!

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