Welcome to the Bookshelf Detective, a site packed with tricks and tips for readers and writers of children's literature. Thank you for visiting!
Kim Tomsic

Friday, March 31, 2023

Creating a Critiquing Group: Part Two

A healthy critiquing group establishes agreed upon guidelines.

Workshop Guidelines:

Here are some guidelines you might consider: First, understand the author's goal(s). From there, your goal should be to provide useful, specific, and authentic feedback in a kind and respectful manner. During the critique session, I urge you to employ the sandwich method: 

  • discuss the specific positive aspects of a person’s work
  • discuss the specific questions you have for the author or the opportunities for clarity or improvement within that work
  • use craft language whenever possible
  • don't spend a lot of time polishing the turds (fixing commas, etc.), focus on the content
  • answer the questions the author might have included with their piece


On reading and implicit bias: 
In a workshop I attended in 2018 lead by executive editor Tiff Liao, she explained that most readers (including PB-YA) assume they are reading a white, straight, cisgender, able character, and she challenged that we need to de-center the norms in publishing. Think R.O.A.R.S., she said, which stands for race, orientation, ability, religion, sexual identity. 

According to Jennifer Eberhardt, MacArthur, psychology professor at Stanford University, “…you don’t have to have a moral failing to act on an implicit bias.”(Time Magazine, March 2019). Please pause and notice any implicit bias you might have when you read. According to AAWW’s interview with Virginia Poet Laureate, Luisa A. Igloria, she was “…someone who didn’t cut her teeth in the North American writing workshop model, [and] feels ‘liberated by the idea that I have seen other ways of doing things, other models from global literary traditions that we can draw from.”



  1. The writer will present the work with a brief description of their intent. What was the goal of the piece? What questions does the writer have about the piece?
  2. The readers will answer these questions about the piece:
    1. What do you think this piece is trying to do?
    2. What specific elements of the piece surprised you or excited you and what did the author do well?
    3. How did the writer deliver a scene or use a specific craft elements well?
    4. What questions do you have for this piece?
    5. Where specifically did you find opportunities to strengthen this piece and why?
    6. Provide responses to the writer's questions.
  3. During the critique, the writer can engage with feedback and ask questions or the writer can choose to be silent/invisible until the end. This can be the writer's choice.

I suggest you work in a paradox! That means that you work in an atmosphere where you don’t interrupt one another, but you also leave space for engagement.

Note to the receiver: The person receiving does not have to take anyone’s advice, nor do they have to agree. Let the feedback marinate and decide what to do with it when you are ready—you might toss out the ideas; you might incorporate some of the notes, none of the notes, or all of the notes. That is up to you! You might even use the ideas to unlock a door that neither you nor the critique members considered. Embrace the possibility of being surprised!


EXAMPLE of giving positive feedback

Unhelpful positive feedback might sound like, “Your story sounded nice. I really liked it.” You can absolutely tell someone that you liked their manuscript, but please follow up with something useful and specific. Please note that we authors often question ourselves, so it’s nice to know what specifically works, otherwise if nobody comments on it, we might second guess ourselves and delete it!

😊Effective/Helpful positive feedback includes something specific that identifies what the author did well in their craft, for example if I had been in Traci N. Todd’s critiquing group and had given her feedback on her beautiful book Nina, I would have told her that I enjoyed her various uses of poetry, like her use of consonance and alliteration in this line, “…it was deep in the woods and a world away.” Why? Because that line has a lovely read-aloud quality, it is delightfully lyrical, and it enhances the showing of how far the character walked.  I’d also use this moment to mention other places that her poetry made my heart soar.

EXAMPLE of discussing an opportunity for an author to improve their manuscript:

Discussing opportunities might feel uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to. Once you understand how to talk about craft, you remove the pressure of discussing work in a way that might feel like a personal insult. Discussing questions in terms of craft choices treats the author and their work with professionalism and respect.

 Unhelpful feedback regarding a writer’s work and an opportunity for improvement within their manuscript might sound like, “I don’t like this. Nothing happens.” If I heard that feedback, I wouldn’t know where to begin, and it comes across as mean. Providing quality feedback is hard work. It requires combining your knowledge and instinct—instinct for noticing that something sounds off and then knowledge of craft skills to understand why something doesn’t seem to work. This takes time, care, and effort. 

😊Effective/Helpful feedback is centered on an opportunity the author could consider. It might sound like, “Although battling the dragon and dueling with the pirate were both fun beats, they both felt like the same beat/same note. To me that means the plot didn’t move forward by repeating this beat. Is there a way to raise the tension in one beat or the other to differentiate the beats and elevate the pace and plot experience for the reader?” Please notice that this feedback is specific, it is not prescriptive, and it even poses a question that gives the author something to think about.


Friday, March 24, 2023

Creating a Critiquing Group with Healthy Rules and Boundaries: Part One

Healthy and successful critiquing groups aren't made up of people who just want to be kind to one another. Your goal is to critically address the glows and grows in your groups' manuscripts, and you want to do that in an environment that promotes encouragement, growth, honesty, and productivity.  Hopefully, your critique group feels invigorating. But it won't if someone's deliver gets under your skin. Creating healthy boundaries is a great way to plan for a group's success.   

Establish a set of rules:

I don't know about you, but I love clear boundaries. Last summer, Lysa TerKeurst came to Scottsdale, and I attended her lecture on how good boundaries help establish healthy relationships. The principle of healthy boundaries can be applied to working with and establishing rules for critiquing groups. Perhaps you establish rules for a critique, noting what might be useful to help your group members stretch their skills.

Sticky situations that can show up during in-person critique groups: I've walked into a new critiquing group where one person hijacked the entire meeting by doing all the talking. I've been in a group where a person recentered the discussion on their work rather than on the manuscript in hand. I've been in a group where an individual waxed on about the proper use of commas (also eloquently called polishing the turds), when the author was really hoping to discuss her protagonist's motives. Through these uncomfortable experiences, I've learned to manage expectations and outcomes by discussing and designing the rules in advance with my groups. 

Remember, without having clear and established boundaries, a critiquing group can get hijacked, dominated, or weave left when you were hoping to turn right. Setting yourself up for success is a matter of agreeing in advance to a few (or many) rules.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

An Inside Look at a Debut Deal


When I first entered the publishing world, I was surprised to discover that editors are regular human beings 😊. They eat, they sleep, they have personalized likes and dislikes. I know. I know. I was excited and intimidated, but I learned a lot with my debut sale. By the way, the above photo is a picture of me (wearing the orange scarf), my editor (next to me and in the center), and the HarperCollins marketing team all wearing the cat ears (a gift I brought to the office). 

My debut novel was sold on pre-empt, and no, I didn’t know what that meant when it was happening. I like this definition from Poets & Writers  magazine, “When a publisher wants to preempt [it means] they are choosing to make an offer that will persuade the author’s agent to take a project off the table early. The publisher is grabbing a project they love and avoiding having to compete with other publishers."

Book spinesIn my situation, my agent submitted my novel to a handful of editors, including Maria Barbo of Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins. When Maria said she wanted to make an offer, my agent invited her to sweeten the deal in a pre-empt to avoid an auction (an auction is when more than one house bids to buy a manuscript). But before anything was agreed upon, my agent asked me to get on the phone with Maria to see if I thought she would be someone with whom I’d like to work.

 As you can imagine, my head was spinning. I was suddenly in the driver’s seat. Long story short, this was a wise move. Making sure an author and editor have good communication chemistry is key to producing a great book. I asked Maria to tell me about her vision for the manuscript's edits, and since Maria is a genius, I was intrigued and excited about her ideas. As the cliché goes, it was match made in heaven, and we moved forward with the deal.

That's my perspective as the author. But did you notice that Maria's job as the editor was to communicate a clear vision for her editorial direction of my manuscript? If you take a job as an editor with a publisher, you'll have times when you have to compete with other publishing houses in order to acquire a manuscript. Sure, money will play a role in the bidding process but so will your editorial skills and the ability to communicate your vision. Honing these skills now will benefit you as a writer, book doctor, critiquing partner, coach, and as an editor. Even if you decide a career in editing is not for you, as an author you will have a clear understanding of the editor's role which will make you an ideal client to work with. 

Happy writing and editing!



 P.S.   Writer Beware is a fantastic website. It's sponsored by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Here you will find a wealth of information including insights on editors and editing, writer’s services, how to avoid schmagents (fake literary agents), and more.

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