By Ara Hone With Author Serena Jayne
Many of us plug into the creative writing trust of a critique group. But if lately you’ve scratched your head and searched the stars for a fresh approach to peer critiquing, this article shares insights from author Serena Jayne about the benefits of continuous learning. Keep reading to discover her insights about writing conferences and workshops that don’t just increase craft skills but banish ho-hum critiquing too.
Ara Hone: Thank you, Serena. You’re an author of horror, romance in all of its forms, noir, urban fantasy, and poetry, and you publish both traditionally and through indie publishing. Your latest release with Switchblade Magazine titled “The Nature of Nurture” led author C. W. Blackwell to call you “inimitable” for the story’s sleek noir. In addition to fiction, you intern with a well-known publisher; you review novels and nonfiction works, and you’re a research scientist. In January 2018 you earned a Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. If that’s not enough, you’ve involved with critique groups you’ve said make a difference in the quality of your work.
You work with two critique groups, and you share pages with individuals one-off. With so much variety, is it possible to become ho-hum, or stale, in the critique process?
Serena Jayne: Absolutely. Critiquing can get stale if the group doesn’t continue to evolve or if the members want positive feedback only rather than a mix of positive and constructive comments. This can also happen if trust isn’t established or if there’s a feeling of imbalance. Communication and trust are key, as is being open to feedback, meeting group expectations, and working to improve craft.
When I submit a piece for critique, I try to point out areas that need special attention. For example, mentioning being concerned about the strength of an ending can evolve into a brainstorming session.
AH: With so many writers in your circle, how do you choose who’ll critique your work?
SJ: Over time, I’ve discovered my group members’ special talents, such as having a talent in eliciting emotion, which forces me to dig deeper with wordsmithing, plotting, the big picture, and creating robust characters. I can distribute my work to the people who are the experts in that area. For example, I want Adam’s eyes on every poem I write, and Andrea is phenomenal at emotion, so I like having her feedback on my romance stories.
A collaborative process is rewarding, but keeping things fresh takes effort. That’s why I like the outside learning that creative writing conferences and workshops provide.
AH: I’ve known you since our Seton Hill days, and you’re still going strong with conferences and workshops. Why expend funds and travel—often far from home—to attend an event with writers you may not even know?
SJ: I’m definitely a lifelong learner. Publishing is ever-changing, and having one’s books be discoverable is becoming harder. There are a few ways to approach the problem: I can focus on creating a better book by pursuing mastery of craft, or I can learn how to navigate publishing better. Conferences provide the opportunity to do both, and to expand my network.
I like taking workshops on similar topics because each time, I gain a new perspective and can apply the knowledge to my current works in progress. Also, being around other writers never fails to ignite my creativity.
AH: You recently attended the Romance Writers of America’s (RWA) National Conference in New York City. Tell me about it.
SJ: The conference opened with the choice of a masterclass on marketing with Skye Warren or on Crafting a Better Scene with Lisa Cron. I was torn because I needed the marketing course, but I am fascinated with Lisa’s Story Genius techniques. Some of my other favorites included a workshop by Darynda Jones on humor, Roni Loren on taking an artisanal approach to writing, and a panel on the need for romance with older protagonists.
The conference had multiple tracks: career, research, writer’s life, and a special track where attendees could pose questions to bestselling authors like Brenda Jackson, J.R. Ward, Madeline Hunter, and Julia Quinn.
There was also an Industry Market Place event where attendees met editors and agents to learn more about their companies.
AH: And how will RWA and other writer’s events give you a boost in peer critiquing?
SJ: Improving my craft makes me a better critiquer. Attending conferences and falling back in love with writing helps me approach each story with a fresh perspective. For example, several of my critique partners regularly incorporate humor in their works, and my notes from Darynda Jones’s workshop can come in handy to help them make the funny bits a little crisper.
Another example is my attendance at Seton Hill University’s In Your Write Mind conference where Lucy A. Snyder gave an excellent workshop on the topic of writing riveting descriptions. I can use her great insights for almost every piece I critique.
Recently, I’ve focused on darker genres such as crime, noir, and horror, and I realized how much I missed writing romance. RWA reminded me to honor all my interests. From a craft perspective, it helped me realize once again how so much of making a scene work goes back to goal, motivation, and conflict. Making sure the protagonist has agency, and that her actions continue to drive the story forward, is important.
I constantly need to remind myself to look at the big picture of writing—the macro issues like structure, for instance—as well as the micro issues like word choices. If I’m thinking about these things, I can help my critique partners too.
AH: I know what you mean! I attended Comic-Con in San Diego in July. Author Maxwell Alexander Drake gave a fantastic discussion on “show and tell.” Not only did I learn something new, but a day later, I paid it forward in peer critiquing.
SJ: Absolutely! And conferences can be pricey, so I am always looking for venues I can drive to or online opportunities. Many writing organizations have local chapters that host in-person and online workshops. Don’t be afraid to attend one in an unfamiliar genre. For example, this past February in Chicago, Windy City Romance Writers hosted James Scott Bell, a writer of thrillers, for a conference titled “Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.” Good writing—and great instruction—transcends genre.
Conferences rejuvenate my drive to write and make me feel proactive and positive, which is something I can pay forward during the critiquing process. We need constructive criticism, but it’s also important to point out the parts in a peer’s work I adore—the things I admire and make me strive to be a better writer. I like to call these “fangirling” moments, and they are frequent.
I love sharing resources on craft, marketing, and publishing. Plenty of agents and editors attend conferences. Whenever I find a publisher, agent, or a call for submission I think will be a good fit with a critique member’s work, I make sure to pass that information along.
AH: You’ve done that for me multiple times! Thank you, always.
SJ: Of course! Leveling up on writing skills provides benefits beyond writing a better book. It makes for a great writing community.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR GROUP’S GOALS?
Consider how your group might tackle writing conferences and workshops. Some groups might encourage individuals to attend events and bring back notes, tips, and teachings to share within the group or apply to a process. It might even be fun to attend an event together one time a year.
If you already do that, I’d love hearing about it! Please share the event, your top take-aways, and how you applied the learnings to your critique process.
author Serena Jayne for your expert insights about attending conferences and workshops. You have shown us how continuous learning helps individuals grow craft skills with the added benefit of banishing “ho-hum” from critiquing for good.
Until next time, remember: Write, Publish, Enjoy, and Repeat!