One of the most helpful things you can do for your career in children’s books is participate in a critique group, which is why this month’s interview is with the eight members of a Los Angeles-based group. The members are Ashlyn Anstee, Julia Collard (who organizes the group), Kimberly Gee, J.R. Krause, Maple Lam, Rodolfo Montalvo, Jennifer Olson, and Michelle Thies.
How and why did you start the group? Also, how often do you meet and where do you meet?
Julia Collard: I’ve been in writing-only critique groups, and I’ve been in illustration-only critique groups, and as a writer/illustrator, I noticed that when I made changes based on those separate groups’ feedback, my work would sometimes become disjointed in ways I couldn’t easily fix. For years, I’d wanted to be in a critique group of author/illustrators, and more and more, it sounded like other people were interested as well. After a few starts and stops (we originally had a critique group that met over Google Chat, but the time difference was hard to negotiate and there were too many glitches in the technology for us to continue,) finally I was able to organize a large enough group of SoCal author/illustrators that we could meet locally. We meet monthly at the newly remodeled Clifton’s Cafeteria in Downtown LA. It is a gigantic, multi-level eatery, so there is great people watching and plenty of seating. Plus, it’s easily accessible from the disparate areas of SoCal in which we all live. We eat, catch up, and then get to work.
How does being in a critique group help you?
Ashlyn Anstee: One of the most important aspects of being in a critique group has been purely emotional. Creating books can be such a solitary activity, so it's nice to have support of people who are going through similar emotional struggles, in addition to being able to look over books! It helps having another set of eyes to look at things and to tell you to not worry so much and just finish your book!
Julia Collard: As author/illustrators, we spend so much of our time alone, or with people who don’t necessarily understand how hard we are working, so it’s almost a mental health imperative to get together with people who are going through the same publishing trials and tribulations as we are experiencing. That, and of course, getting feedback from people who are current with the children’s book market helps me stay focused on the goal, rather than lapsing into self-indulgence.
Kimberly Gee: For me, most important is the perspective of my peers. When I’m at the desk working on a project, it can be so all-consuming and focused that I no longer have ‘the eyes’ to see it properly. For instance, I shared a dummy with our group and I could tell right away that there wasn’t a problem with the story. Everyone got it, without me doing too much explanation (this is good!) so then we move onto details like smoother transitions from page to page, suggestions about illustration, and etc. I should say that this particular dummy has been re-worked several times before I brought it (we’re a relatively new group) but I definitely had lost perspective about it. So I left with renewed energy and fresh eyes for the project, and the knowledge that the story WAS reading and that my ‘issue’ was in smaller details. Everyone throws out their comments/ ideas/ suggestions – I take it all in -and then digest, and use what I feel fits. This is invaluable because they KNOW the world! It would not be the same getting comments from creatives in other fields, I don’t think. Secondly, I get to leave my mole hole and visit with some very cool people who like to talk children’s books, in detail, and at length! One can burn out your audience with this kind of talk, unless they are kindred spirits!
J.R. Krause: Creating a book is a solitary process. It also requires a lot of work and self-motivation! A critique group is a great way to motivate oneself to generate the work. Writer's block and self-doubt are sometimes part of the creative process. A critique group can help overcome these obstacles and keep things on track. Seeing how other people create can also be helpful, especially amongst illustrators.
Maple Lam: Everyone in the critique group is extremely hardworking, creative and prolific. They are my best motivation.
Rodolfo Montalvo: The biggest help we get from the group is that we get to take our work out of our studios and "give it some fresh air." I know we all hold our work very dear and treat it with a lot of respect but sometimes this can make us go deeper into our art caves and can keep work from developing.
Jennifer Olson: For me, being involved in a critique group is vital to the success of my work process. I don't work well in a vacuum. I find that I'm able to problem solve and brainstorm much more effectively with others.
What do you like to bring to show the group? Sketches? Finished art? Thumbnails? Dummies? Thoughts?
Ashlyn Anstee: A bit of everything! Anything goes, though we try to make sure that everyone shows at least something. I tend to go with dummies & thoughts more than anything else.
Julia Collard: I have brought dummies, sketches, and even just plain manuscripts (though those don’t seem to be a favorite, if I had to guess). It all depends on what kind of feedback I’m looking for. The more general I need, the earlier in the process I will share. Sometimes it’s as simple as just needing a reality check on a project before I send it off to my agent, sometimes it’s nitty-gritty stuff that is so far into the weeds, they’re the only people who even understand what I’m saying.
Kimberly Gee: I’ve brought character sketches and dummies. But, among us, I’d say all of the above.
J.R. Krause: I have brought sketches, dummies and thumbnails. Since this critique group is comprised of author/illustrators, everyone typically presents story ideas with corresponding images.
Maple Lam: I usually bring a dummy or share a couple floating ideas. Sometimes they will elaborate on my ideas, and I find the process really helpful and inspirational as I continue to mold the stories.
Rodolfo Montalvo: I usually try to bring something from whatever project I might be working on at the time. We all have our own way of working and our own way of presenting our work. So, even if we all bring in thumbnails, they'll all look very different and interesting to see. Other times, I might be in a place in a project where it might be best to get more work done before seeking critique. In those cases, I just show up to keep up with what everyone is working on and to offer thoughts and suggestions when ideas are bouncing around. I don't like missing out on all the fun.
Jennifer Olson: I bring everything from final art to irrational scribbles. Pretty much anything that I would want feedback on.
Have you ever made significant changes to something you’re working on based on feedback from your group?
Ashlyn Anstee: One of the dummies I'm working on is VERY different from what I normally do. I like to say it's my secret pet project that I work on and don't tell anyone about and I've had a lot of fun batting ideas with the group. The latest revision came courtesy of an idea from the crit group. It's a bit of an odd idea but if it ever makes it to print, I'd dedicate it to our little group!
Julia Collard: I’ve certainly rewritten stories based on feedback. I am under no delusions that what I bring to the table is perfect – I need those voices of reason!
Kimberly Gee: I haven’t. But, I would, if the feedback resonated with me. I trust this little crucible of minds so I’d definitely take in their suggestions. Ultimately, though, it’s your work and it needs to resonate with you.
J.R. Krause: Yes! I am revising a picture book dummy that I presented at our last meeting. Half of the 32 pages have since been revised or completely reworked with new sketches and wording. Everyone in our group is very knowledgeable, articulate and insightful. I carefully consider everything that each person says.
Maple Lam: Yes. There was one time where I showed them a rough dummy, where my main character is very generic looking. As my critique group buddies were giving me feedback, I noticed some were referring to my main character as a "he", and others as a "she". These are things I took mental notes of, so that I could go back and revise things to make the dummy stronger.
Rodolfo Montalvo: Sometimes it can be difficult to make significant changes on projects when you are also working with an art director and an editor, but there are many opportunities in the process to make big changes. So far, the most significant changes do to feedback from the group have happened in my personal projects, in dummies, and individual illustrations. But feedback is always a good thing no matter what I might be working on.
Jennifer Olson: Absolutely! I would say that every project I've ever worked on has been affected and revised to some degree based on the feedback that I've received from my group.
What tips would you give other SCBWI members who are interested in forming a critique group?
Ashlyn Anstee: I think one thing that's been very helpful is how persistent Julia is in getting us all to meet! You need to really just set a date, and even if most people can't make it, stick to it. Trying to work with EVERYONE's schedules means it's never going to happen. Oh, and keep it small! That way you trust everyone's opinions, whether they're published or unpublished. Oh, and share book recommendations, though that's just for fun!
Julia Collard: Just keep trying to get together with people. If the first group is not a good fit for you, you don’t have to stay with them. Keep looking until you find people who share your vision. Otherwise, they might convince you to edit your work into something unrecognizable, and you don’t want to lose yourself in the process. Also, in my experience, critique groups seem to devolve into some sort of ad-hoc therapy session if you don’t stick to a schedule, so set your guidelines up well in advance!
J.R. Krause: Attending a SCBWI event or LitMingle is a great place to start. Hopefully you'll meet someone who shares your interest. If your region has a Yahoo or Facebook group, try posting to the message board.
Rodolfo Montavlo: For me, being a SCBWI member has been about two things: creating connections and getting feedback. All SCBWI events are perfect for making new friends and finding people with whom you can collaborate and create a critique group. Go out there and share your work and your passion for children's books. It's amazing how quickly you can find new friends when you share a similar path.
Jennifer Olson: I would absolutely encourage them to do so even if it's a little bit intimidating at first. I completely believe that what professional or creative success I've achieved wouldn't have been possible without participating in critique groups.
And here is where you can check out the work of these awesome illustrators!