08 September 2010

Writing Critique Group Survival Guide Author: An Interview with Becky Levine

Becky Levine is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide (Writer’s Digest, 2010). Becky also writes reviews and magazine articles, and she is a freelance editor as well. The “aspiring” part of her writing is focused on her fiction for children and teens. Her current project, set in 1913 Chicago, is a historical YA about a young woman who must find her own place in the world—outside the constricting circle of fear her mother has built for her. Learn more about Becky at her blog & website: www.beckylevine.com

PPM: Are you an aspiring author?
Aspiring Author: Becky Levine

Definitely. I’ve been aspiring since I was 10 or 12, but I’ve watched my actual commitment to doing the work for those aspirations grow much stronger in the last five years or so.

PPM: Have you talked with many people at Writer’s Digest? Are they nice or scary or judgmental?

Everybody at Writer’s Digest has been incredibly nice and helpful to me. Seriously. I feel like I walked into the surprise party that’s actually fun to be at.

PPM:  I’ve often heard that peer review is the single best way to develop your skills as a writer.  Are the people who say this completely full of it and just afraid of the bully in their group?

Well, I say it, and I’m pretty sure I’m not a bully. :) It may or may not be the best way, but supportive and strong critiques are an incredible gift to any writer, especially when they happen on a consistent basis with people who also write (and read!) and take the time to know your writing and your story. And the act of critiquing someone else’s book is an incredible tool for actually analyzing and expressing what does and doesn’t work—and then you get to apply that understanding to your own writing. It’s a win-win, when it’s done well.

PPM:  How long have you been participating in writing and critique groups and what can you say about that, which will give us insight into critique groups without eliminating all reason for us to buy your book and possibly, in fact, instead provide a teaser?

Yikes!  Okay, I’ve been in critique groups for about 15 years now, after first doing some critiquing in college workshops. And I guess what I can say, honestly AND teasingly, is that if I hadn’t been doing that, I wouldn’t have written 1/10 of the words I have and might never have made it through a single complete revision. I’d have written, because I’ve always done that & I pretty much can’t not write, but I wouldn’t have moved forward with my stories or felt confident enough to make the deep kinds of changes I’ve made in them. I’d probably have just kept writing in circles.

The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Make Revisions, Self-Edit, and Give and Receive Feedback

PPM:  Should we buy your book?

Yes? Honestly, if you’re thinking about starting a group and are at all worried about getting or giving a critique, or if you’re in a group but not sure how it’s all going, then I do believe the book will be helpful and make you feel better about the whole process. If you’re in a fantastic group, and it’s all good, well...any writers on your xmas list? :)

PPM:  So if you’re still aspiring as an author, when you feel that you will have “arrived?”

Okay, dream goals: I want to 1) be a guest on Sesame Street, 2) be a guest on Terri Gross’ Fresh Air, and 3) have someone turn one of my books into a movie that wins an Oscar, just so I have an excuse to buy a really cool dress that, magically, looks incredible on me.

Realistically? I want an agent to fall in as much love with one of my kids/teen books as I  am, and I want an editor to feel the same way, and I want them to care enough to work with me to make that book really awesome, and I want to hold a published copy in my hand. I’ve been incredibly lucky to get all that with my critique book, and I’ll tell you—it does feel as good as you think it will. After that? When I get that far, I’ll let you know what’s still on the list.

PPM:  How does it feel to have your first book “out there” looking so beautiful and professional with all the gold review stars on Amazon and praise from your fans like me?  Have you always believed it would happen or does it seem somehow unreal?

See above “incredible.” I had no clue I would ever write a book for other writers. I’ve been spouting off from my critiquing soap box for years, and a door opened out of the blue with a chance to write about it, and I took it. In terms of writing fiction, I have always believed this is what I should be doing. (I really don’t have any other talents, other than the ability to hold a cat for x-rays, and that’s not nearly as much fun.) Whether or not I know that I’ll get my books published...I guess what I believe is that if I stop working, there’s no way it’ll happen.

PPM:  On your blog you seem to deliver advice fearlessly and with great candor.  Would you describe yourself as a confident writer?  Have you always been that way?

I think I’m confident in that I know writing bad stuff, then making it a little bit better and a little bit more better is the process. I was writing stories when I was 10, and I’m sure I’m a better author than I was then. I think finishing my first kids’ book and taking it through at least a half-dozen revisions with my critique group, then getting some very positive rejections (sigh) from agents and editors helps—it tells me I’m not wrong that I can write. Oh, and then, a few years ago, my mom, who’s always read my writing, stopped saying, “This is really good...for your age.” :) She read a few chapters of my WIP recently, and she said, “I’d buy this.” Which pretty much rocks.

PPM:  So, should a writing group be feel good ego stroking session among close friends or a cut-throat claw your way into the limelight competitive activity?

No. :) I talk a lot about respect in my workshops, which does mean—yes—thinking about how you deliver your critique, how you actually say the feedback—trying to do that kindly. Respect also means, though, giving the author and their project your full attention, digging deeply into the writing to discover and explain what isn’t working yet (and what is!), and helping the author with suggestions and brainstorming.

PPM:  Are the people who attend writing groups mostly women?

You know, I don’t know. My group is all women, but I definitely know men who critique as well.

PPM:  If you could have your “dream book” written and stocked on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and every bookcase sold at Ikea today without the effort of actually writing it, what would that book be?

Do I have to pick? I don’t stick with a story for long if I don’t love it, so can’t I just have them all up on the shelves?

PPM:  Is it one of the books for children you have written already?

Well, that would make me totally happy, obviously!

PPM:  Who in your life has supported you most in your writing career and how would you like to thank them?

My  husband says it’s “cool” being married to a writer, which feels great, and my son is probably my biggest fan. But—and, yes, it’s trite—my critique partners give me the motivation and support and ideas to keep writing. And I guess I thank them by critiquing back. And, you know, sabotaging any ideas they might have about ever moving away.

PPM:  Are you sure you wouldn’t like to nominate them for a Peevish Penman Peevbody Award?

They all deserve it.

PPM:  What has been the biggest mistake you’ve made so far in writing or promoting your writing career and how did you over it?

Thank goodness, I don’t think I’ve made any huge ones, or if I have, they haven’t come back to bite me yet. I guess...when I graduated from college, I made the decision that I wasn’t good enough, at that point, to get into an MFA program. And I think I was probably right. But, for some reason, I let that decision channel me away from writing for too long. To be as gentle with myself as possible, I’m sure there were lots of reasons I wasn’t ready to really focus, but I do think sometimes about how much further along I might be, in terms of craft and aspirations, if I hadn’t taken that time off.  I kept playing with writing, and I did work on one book for way too long (that writing in circles thing), but I wasn’t really going anywhere. Then—it was probably a combination of staying home with my young son, and him being old enough that I was getting my brain back, and getting the idea for my first kids’ book... the commitment just clicked. Thank goodness.

If there are any interesting questions you think I should have asked or silly information you’d like to provide, just feel free to add it.  Thanks for doing this interview.  My aim is to provide insights for aspiring authors to learn from each other online delivered in as entertaining of a format as possible.

It’s definitely tough to keep going when you don’t know if you’ll ever “get there,” but I don’t see the point in stopping—that would be harder than anything. People always ask that question: “If you knew for a fact you’d never get published, would you keep writing?” Oh, yeah. And I’d just decide I didn’t believe that fact. Denial is a lot easier than most people think.

Interview conducted for Peevish Penman Writer's Magazine by Carrie Bailey as part of the Writer Wednesday Interview Series  Next week: S.S. Michaels aka. @Slushilehero


  1. This post is very timely for me considering my critique group will be meeting for the first time in one week. Thanks!

  2. I still need to find a critique group myself. I have so many wonderful people helping me online, but it would be nice to be able to read some people's expressions, you know?

  3. I run a writer's group in Baltimore and we have very good luck with the depth and gentleness of our critiquing - we've been going pretty strong since January. All the same, I've just bought the book and am hoping to make our meetings even more productive! Thanks!

  4. I live in Sri Lanka. Is there a writer critique group on line that I can join? appreciate a quick response.

  5. It depends on what type of writing that you do. Give me an idea and I'll have a few recommendations for you.

    Thanks for commenting. Glad to meet you here!