Critique Carousel: Do You Ride?

Recently I asked Jen Garrett, our Critique Carousel Coordinator, to explain a bit about Critique Carousel—namely, what it is and how it can help YOU. (Hint: If you need a critique group, or just want new eyes on your latest manuscript, check out a meeting.) She did all that, and included a brief history from previous CCCs, in their own words. Enjoy!


CritiqueCarouselBanner750x273First, Critique Carousels have three purposes:

1) To let nonmembers have a peek into what SCBWI is all about.
2) To provide opportunities for peer critiques and feedback.
3) For members to connect with other writers and find or form critique groups.

That said, the idea of the Critique Carousel has evolved and changed hands (and names), but its mission has always been the same—to provide a place for children’s writers to meet and get in-person feedback on their work.

It all started when…

Lou Ann Barnett, March 2015-September 2015

The idea actually came from listening to the members of North Central SCBWI. We put together a survey asking people what they needed in terms of critiques, and it was clear in their responses that people wanted to connect with others to make their writing better. I personally had felt the benefit of small private critique groups, but how to match people up was the problem. Writers are generally more introverted in nature, and some found value in online connection, but joining private groups was more challenging for people.  Placing your baby in someone else’s hands for solicited critique can be scary. So thinking that a monthly meeting, where people can meet in a safe space, exchange their work, and have a facilitated critique session might organically grow into private critique groups for our members.

As a very geographically diverse region, I knew I couldn’t manage reaching all the geographical cities initially, but even around Sacramento is a huge area. I had experience organizing a Meet-up writers group and knew of some places that would work, Raley’s, libraries, places like that all around the city. I knew that where you met determined if some people could make it. So I didn’t want to pick one place, but choose many around Natomas, Rancho Cordova, Folsom, Roseville, Davis. All around. I didn’t come up with the name of ‘Critique Carousel’, but I love it and it really nails that vision to move the location around.

The first Critique Carousel (even though it wasn’t called that yet) was a group of around ten people, some who were members of SCBWI, but had never been to a meeting before! That was so exciting to me, that we are able to meet some of our members through this meeting. Many had never exchanged work and others were more experienced. I helped to facilitate by giving people examples of how to critique, handouts on what makes a good critique group, and encouraged people to exchange names and create their own groups to better their work. It was very encouraging.

As we started gathering steam, we got some interest in other members to help out and I thought that having a speaker begin the session would be great. Jessica Taylor was at the start of her published phase of writing, and she shared her experience with critique partners. She was not part of a critique group, but had a number of different partners that besotted her in different ways, like a critique partner support network. I loved hearing her process. And the last meeting I organized was a very well established group, “That’s why we have us”, my friends Patti, Jerri, Connie and Linda who have a very successful writing group that is almost run like a business, with a lot of heat.

I organized about six meetings before I stepped down as ARA.  I had just started a job with a mega-commute, so I handed off to the very valuable hands of Nikki.

Nikki Shannon Smith, September 2015-September 2016:

Our region has always had the goal of bringing members together to critique each other’s work, but it’s taken different forms over the years. In 2015, our then-ARA, Lou Ann Barnett, began holding regular critique meetings at local libraries. When I came on as Co-ARA the summer of 2015, I continued what Lou Ann had started and set a goal of using libraries in different local towns to provide access to as many members as possible. I named it ‘Critique Carousel.’ Critique for obvious reasons. Carousel for the cyclical/rotating meetings, and the flexibility to “ride” when it worked for you. (Changing/rotating attendance for “passengers).

Once I named it Critique Carousel I wanted to have a symbolic logo for the website. We ran a contest for our illustrators, but it didn’t yield a logo. I reached out to a member whose art work I’d recently seen and fallen in love with. Her name is Andi Burnett. She agreed and within a couple of weeks we had our beautiful logo!

The first one I organized myself made me anxious! I’m a perfectionist, and also wanted it to be valuable for the attendees. I fretted over all of the details (location, time, best way to receive and distribute manuscripts…). I made door signs, sign-in sheets, an information sheet on how to give and receive critiques, created an outline for my mini-presentation at the beginning. I got there at least an hour early to set up and I was nervous! The first group was full of fantastic people who seemed happy to be there. I met new people, saw familiar faces, and made friends.

I served as coordinator for a year. I hosted the last one Lou Ann organized as my first meeting. It was “That’s Why We Have Us” in August of 2015. I hosted one meeting a month, skipping only April (Spring Spirit month) and December (Holiday Mixer time). I guess that adds up to ten!Acorn Critique Carousel Slide Graphic.001 (3)

One of the most memorable meetings was the January 2016 Critique Carousel. I called it Rejuvenate Your Resolve, and each member of the regional team presented 5-10 minutes of inspiring or encouraging advice. I loved having Bethany Telles (CoARA) and Rose Cooper (former Illustrator Coordinator) there with me. Bitsy Kemper (Regional Advisor) had to cancel for health reasons, but she sent in a hilarious video she recorded in her pajamas. We also had more “first timers” than usual at that meeting. We had a blast.

Jen Garrett, September 2016-present:

It was a serendipitous bunch of circumstances that led me to become Critique Carousel Coordinator. I was the facilitator of a very similar group called the Writers Bloc—a monthly drop-in critique group open to writers of all genres—that met at the Placerville Library. Sometimes in lieu of regular critique meetings we had authors, publishers, and book buyers speak to us with their tips about the industry. Many of the speakers were SCBWI members.

After a year or so, I realized the Writers Bloc needed to be retired. The attendance had dwindled, and the feedback wasn’t really helpful. I would bring my picture book manuscripts to a group of novelists and memoir writers, who didn’t feel familiar enough with kidlit to give me constructive criticism. Luckily, I also had my own picture book critique group (shout out to the Bookstormers!), so I emailed the individuals on the Writers Bloc list and suggested other groups that might better benefit their writing.

I have a sneaky suspicion that I was on RA Bitsy Kemper’s radar to be Critique Carousel Coordinator, because soon after I announced that the Writers Bloc would be retiring, I got an email from Nikki. Critique Carousels had everything I loved about the Writers Bloc, and it was in kidlit so the feedback would be pertinent to my writing. It was a perfect match!

To help me transition into the role of Critique Carousel Coordinator, my first meeting was combined with September’s Quarterly Meeting in El Dorado Hills. I messed up on the time and was not-so-fashionably late, but Bitsy smoothed the whole thing over and proved to be the gem she is in guiding me through my part of the event.

For October’s meeting, I received a little ‘on the job’ training from Nikki, but it was my first “I’m the offical host” event. Nikki has continued to be on hand to be a mentor and liaison for me, especially if anything comes up I don’t know how to handle.

November was my first speaker Critique Carousel event. We had the fabulous Margaret O’Hair give tips on “Never Give Up on Your Writing.” Her speech was originally scheduled as a Writers Bloc event, but because she is a published SCBWI member it converted very nicely to a Critique Carousel.

In January, we did a reprise of “That’s Why We Have Us” as a kickoff to Critique Carousels this year. I enjoyed it immensely and learned something new about formatting my manuscript. At February’s Critique Carousel, I witnessed a brand new picture book critique group form when participants exchanged contact info. I was so excited!

One thing I always strive to do as Critique Carousel Coordinator is help more writers connect and hone their craft. We’re working on scheduling events in the coming months, including (we hope) a few speakers. While Critique Carousels are by and large free events, some of our speakers will be offering a unique opportunity to get a professional critique from them for a fee. Stay tuned for details!

Acorn Critique Carousel Slide Graphic.002


Stay up to date on Critique Carousel meetings by checking the SCBWI North/Central home page under ‘Critique Groups‘ (found on the purple sidebar). For questions, suggestions, or concerns, email Jen Garrett.

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