Step-by-Step Guide to Setting up a Writing Critique Group or a Manuscript Swap

A little birdie told me what to write about this week.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But recently, quite a few people have either asked me how to advance their writing skills (answer: join a critique group) or how to arrange a critique group or what they should do if they cannot attend a critique group. And while I’ve discussed critique groups on the blog before, I think it’s worth a new blog post dedicated to this topic, because I’ve been helping run critique groups for nearly five (or is it six?) years now, and I’ve learned a lot.

Why Join a Critique Group?

You only will grow as a writer if you write regularly. But motivating yourself to write regularly, with no deadlines, is challenging. Getting useful feedback can also be challenging. For instance, you might have a close friend or relative read it, but will they be objective? And you could take a class, but that might involve spending money. (Note: I think it can be worthwhile to take writing classes – but I don’t have much spare change and won’t assume you have it either.) You can remedy all these problems with a single solution: the critique group.

How to create a critique group:

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Have you seen my review of Miriam Kosman’s new book about Jewish feminism in this week’s Jewish Home L.A.?

This week’s Jewish Home L.A. contains my review of Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaismrecently published by Mekor Press and distributed by Menucha Publishers. 

Jewish book on feminism

Miriam Kosman’s outstanding new book about gender within Judaism

Miriam Kosman‘s new book appears at a pivotal point in Jewish history. The role of women in Judaism has dominated the headlines of Jewish media outlets in recent years. Usually, Hareidim are made out to be the bad guys: according to most writers, Hareidi men bully women, look down on us, and short change us in any way humanly possible.

For someone like me — a feminist who willingly joined the ranks of those observant Jews who lean to the right — this kind of “news” makes us want to bang our heads into the wall in frustration. Not only do we perceive the Jewish world differently, many of us chose Orthodoxy in some part because mainstream feminism had failed us. Frankly, we felt more supported and appreciated as human beings, as Jews, and as women within our new community than we did in in our former, non-Orthodox world. We feel respected by the vast majority of Hareidi men, including by our husbands, sons, and rabbis. And while we do see plenty of areas in which our community can and should improve, many of the issues targeted by reporters and crusaders hold completely different meanings for us than for secular people.

Many of the recent books about Judaism written by Modern Orthodox authors have compounded the problem. They report on our world as outsiders (sometimes trumpeting all along how because they are, loosely-speaking, “Orthodox” they therefore have an insider view), and often articulate outrage while playing fast and loose with facts. Yet, until now, few books for the English speaking world have expressed the genuine insider perspective as to why Orthodox women don’t participate in many time-bound positive commandments, are excluded from certain communal rules, and so on. 

Miriam Kosman‘s new book remedies that. Continue reading

Analysis: My first writing workshop for adults

Along with writing and editing, I’ve coached writers one-on-one off-and-on for the last couple years. I’ve presented writing workshops and made author visits to groups even longer than that, but those groups always consisted of school children. Yesterday, for the first time, I combined the two and taught a writing workshop for fledgling writers aged 15 and up. Actual grown-ups attended!

The Crash Course

Since my greatest area of expertise is writing for tots, tweens, and teens, I decided to offer a three-hour crash course in writing for those groups. My husband agreed to whisk away the kids who weren’t in school (some Jewish day school kids attend on Sunday mornings), and I prepared materials and advertised.

Overtime

I thought three hours would be enough, I really did. Continue reading

The Rejection Letter that’s Good for You

Yesterday, I got a rejection letter.

Yes, it happens a lot.

I’ve argued in the past that rejection letters are good for you, and I’ve gotten better at taking them in stride, but this one went even further. Its timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

You see, last night was my monthly writers’ workshop. All morning, I’d been trying to decide on a piece to bring and share. When that rejection letter appeared in my inbox around noon, I decided it was a sign.

No, not that kind of sign.

Not just a sign, but a Sign — “This is the piece you should bring to your writers’ workshop tonight.”

So, I did.

And it was magical.

Our group was smaller than usual, consisting of just three of us (usually, we’re four or five). But the two other ladies present gave me so much insight about what worked in my story and what did not, feedback that I might have been less open to, had I not just received the rejection letter. I spent a good chunk of this morning working on revisions, and plan to wrap them up tomorrow in between baking my challah and roasting my chicken.

I’m still hoping that the next time I hear from an editor, they send an acceptance letter. (To say that I pray for acceptance letters is no exaggeration.) But this experience is definitely going to help me embrace the next rejection letter.

Because another will surely come.

Different strokes for different folks: How one book can inspire so many others

A while back, someone my husband respects very much encouraged him to read this book:

Stop Surviving Start Living Shafier

Rabbi Shafier’s book, based largely on Mesillas Yesharim

The first time I read Rabbi Shafier’s book, Stop Surviving, Start Living, I just didn’t get it. Not the content of the book — the content was clear as day, written lucidly by Rabbi Shafier, with nice anecdotes and everything. What I didn’t get was that it was based on a book my husband had already read. This one: Mesillas Yesharim, known in English as The Path of the Just, one of the most foundational texts in the Mussar world.

Mesillas Yesharim by the RAMCHAL

The original. So inspirational…and a bit scary for the uninitiated.

Why, I asked my husband, write a book based on another one, a book that you actually want people to read (because you’re such a fan yourself)? Continue reading

Who’s talking? POV, Voice, and Narrator as explained in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

book cover

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

There are few books that come up with my writer friends more often than Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. In the same way that I feel like I’m not quite smart enough because I’ve never taken Calculus, I’ve felt like a slacker because I never got around to reading it.

And I should have felt guilty–because it’s great.

Okay, so it has a lot of rather vulgar language, but Lamott’s writing is so funny, and yet so useful, that I’m pretty much in love with the book.

One of the interesting bits of advice that Lamott gives writers is a gem she attributes to the author Ethan Canin. The most important way to improve your writing, he says, is to employ a likeable narrator.

Here’s the thing that struck me about this advice: for many, many years, I always wrote in third person. Continue reading