Q&A with Book Author and Writing Critique Group Expert Becky Levine

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?

I have to cheat at the very start and list two things. The first is books. Yes, that’s reading, not writing, but the reading is why I write. Always having one or two (or three) books going feeds my energy and creativity. I’ve heard of writers who read less, or don’t read at all, when they’re writing, but that’s just not possible for me.

The other necessity is, honestly, my critique and writing circle. The actual act of writing is a solitary function, but my writing friends motivate and inspire me, and the discussions we have about our projects and the writing craft constantly give me new ideas to play with. I could, and would, still be writing without these people, but not as happily and not as productively.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

Find a good critique group. 🙂 Well, that and make the commitment to put the time and energy into seriously deep revisions. Revising is scary, and we all want so much to get to the publishing stage quickly, that it can be tempting to skim or skip rewrites. The fact is, though, we have to do the hard work to get there.

Would you mind sharing a success story from a writing critique group you’ve been a member of?

I love talking about this. Years ago, I was in a general-fiction critique group. I was working on a mystery, and I was looking for other mystery writers to critique with. Through the California Writers Club (http://www.calwriters.org/), I hooked up with Terri Thayer (www.territhayer.com), and we started critiquing together. Since then, Terri signed with agent Jessica Faust (http://www.bookends-inc.com/about_us.html) and sold two series. So far, she’s had five books come out. It has been so exciting to see her become a published author, and I’ve learned an incredible amount about publishing and marketing from watching her experiences.

As a side note, our group has made changes to our critique processes, to support Terri’s needing to write—yes—two books a year. And the changes have absolutely been worth it, not just by keeping Terri critiquing with us, but by teaching us all about critiquing full manuscripts and strengthening our brainstorming skills. This is one important thing to remember about growing a critique group—the more flexible everybody can be, the stronger the group will become.

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

Probably a mix of “A writer writes,” and “It’s the process.” In other words, yes, we have to sit in our chairs and put our fingers on the keyboards, or we’re not going to see that stack of pages on the desk. On the other hand, realistically, the words just not going to flow beautifully every single day. There are times when you need to take a break, back away from the computer and do some research, play with plot diagrams, or go for a long walk with a friend. We need to remember that these steps are all part of the writing process, all part of helping the ideas come.

What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?

I think it’s playing “ostrich,” tucking their heads in and just putting words on the page. Obviously, this is the biggest part of writing a book, but it’s the “just” in the sentence that can be the problem. Writers need to read in their genre, they need to share their work with strong critiquers, and they need to educate themselves about the publishing industry—about agents and editors. They need to turn themselves not just into writers, but into professional writers. This isn’t easy, with everything else most of us have to fit into our lives, but I think it’s a very important part of moving forward with our projects.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Typical? I’m still working on that. 🙂 This year, I’m juggling a lot of different things. I get up early and, as I ingest caffeine, answer emails, post at my blog and comment at others, and say “hello” out on the social-networking sites. Then I turn off the Internet and dedicate an hour, at least, to whatever fiction project I’m working on that day. The rest of the day will go to things like my nonfiction writing, prepping for workshops and writing conferences, and marketing this book. Plus hanging around during after-school hours for the occasional homework question from my son, pulling the house together, and other life “stuff.”

And did I mention critiquing? 🙂

If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

I would love if there were more money and time available for editing. Yes, it’s the writer’s job to get that manuscript as polished and clean as they possibly can, but I still see books released that would, in my opinion, have really benefited from another pass. I know editors are absolutely swamped, but it would be wonderful if, somehow, they had the “space” to fall in love with a book and help their authors revise that book to its full potential.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

I sold this book! Overall, my writing and publishing life has gotten more serious and time-consuming. Besides this book, I finished a novel—a mystery for kids. I co-wrote a nonfiction book for children, and I’m deep into researching and drafting a young-adult historical novel. Mostly, I would say, my commitment level has gone way up. I write, I’m a writer, and I’m constantly looking for ways to expand and build on that definition of myself.

Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering strong relationship with their writing group?

Put as much energy and commitment into your group as you put into your writing. Take each critique seriously, setting aside a quiet, dedicated session to read and make comments. Listen carefully and respectfully to the feedback you get from others. If you’re having trouble with another critiquer, talk about it. Don’t try and shut it away or pretend you’re not bothered—that just leads to anger and resentment.

Obviously, there are times when a group is just the wrong fit for a writer. We all, though, have fears and worries that can cause complications in a group, and these complications are usually worth trying to problem-solve. If the members of a group are willing to learn and change, to be flexible about and supportive of each others’ needs, then they have a great chance of growing a strong critique group together. And a strong group will more than pay back all the effort you put into it.

What about advice for writers seeking agents?

Educate yourself. Read blogs, check websites, go to conferences, and get on a social-networking site. Lots of agents (and editors) are active on Twitter and Facebook. Join a writing club. Share information with your critique partners. Find out what agents want, and learn how to write a great query letter to go with your book.

Get your manuscript into the best possible shape you can before you query. Finish your manuscript, always remembering that the definition of “finish” includes many, many revisions. Don’t waste your chances at getting an agent’s positive attention by sending them pages that aren’t ready, or—worse—not having anything to send when they ask.

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?

So far, this book. The path by which I got here, though, is so tied up with all the other writing I do, and have done, that I don’t think I could have sold (or written) this book without all that “backstory.” The biggest thing I did to get here was to say, “Yes!” whenever possible and take chances (opportunities!) that I was nervous or, frankly, terrified about doing. You never know where something will take you; the only thing you know is that if you don’t do it, it can’t take you anywhere.

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