Critique Group Interview: Kathi Appelt, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Jeanette Ingold, Kimberly Willis Holt, Lola Schaefer

CLS: Thank you for inviting us to peek in on your group! Who are the members?

All (from left to right): Lola Schaefer, Kimberly Willis Holt, Kathi Appelt, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Jeanette Ingold.

CLS: How did you all come together?

JI: Kathi’s the force behind us—and the hard-working glue.

I remember sitting at a wet table with her in the authors’ tent on a rainy day in Nashville, trying to cram both our writing and personal-life catch-up with each other into one more too-brief visit. We dreamed a bit about how nice it would be to get together for more than the occasional meeting at a festival or conference.

KA (pictured): Not long after that, I met up with Kimberly at an IRA conference in Orlando over donuts and coffee and we started a conversation that got cut off by our individual schedules. Frustrating. It really was these quick moments, in which we caught up just long enough to wish that we had more time together that made it all happen. I’d say we all dreamed hard. There’s a lot to be said for that.

The thing is, my husband’s family has a working cattle ranch outside of La Grange, Texas, that’s about an hour from Austin. The house is roomy and comfortable, perfect for a retreat.

So, one day I asked myself, “why not?” Then I asked Jeanette, and she said, “why not?” Kimberly agreed to come.

LS: In the meantime, Kathi invited both Rebecca and I to join her with Kimberly and Jeanette. We accepted her generous offer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

KWH: I remember being excited by the chance to meet with other writers, but also a bit apprehensive. I’d met Kathi in ’96 and was fortunate enough to cross her path several times. Jeanette and I spoke on a panel at the Texas Book Festival the year my first book, My Louisiana Sky (Holt, 1998), came out. I remembered her as a soft spoken, gentle soul. I’d never met Rebecca or Lola, but I had a hunch I’d like them, too.

My apprehension was over the amount of time our group would be spending together. Four days is a long time to spend with anyone, much less folks you don’t know that well. What if we ended up not liking each other? What if they didn’t like me?

I decided to build in some insurance. I told Kathi I’d be renting my own car at the airport because I may have to leave early. An hour into the retreat, I knew I wouldn’t be. These were women who lived my life–balancing family with writing.

A couple of years ago I confessed my back-up plan. Of course to this day they call it, “Kimberly’s Escape Plan.” Thank goodness they laughed about it instead of being offended.

KA: Well, heck, how often have we all wished that we had an “Escape Plan,” but weren’t as smart as Kimberly?

CLS: How do you structure your schedule, meetings, menus (if applicable)?

RKD (pictured): The mornings start with coffee. Always coffee. By the way, I have learned to like strong coffee. These are cowgirls, after all.

I love the fact That no matter when I get up (and it’s usually early, like 6 a.m. or so) someone else has been up and put the coffee on. Love that. Ready to pour, knowing someone is up and writing already. (I do sometimes get it ready the night before, so hey…)

LS: Breakfast is a wake-up time. We chat, we eat, and sometimes share our goal for the day. Many mornings, Kimberly and I take a vigorous walk from the house down to the highway and back – about two miles round trip.

KA: Yes, Lola and Kimberly used to do this, but at our most recent retreat, I had to go rescue Kimberly from the mad cows.

LS: For the rest of the morning, we all find our little spot to sit and think and write. Around noon, we gather when we hear the clink of silverware. It’s another time to chat and eat. One by one we leave the kitchen and again find a place to call our own for the afternoon.

RKD: During the day Jeanette and Kimberly both are usually propped up in their beds, writing away, Jeanette on her laptop, Kimberly on her yellow pad. It takes me longer to get going.

I futz around for a bit, maybe go in and sit on Jeanette’s bed, ask her how the writing is going, and we might talk over a certain passage or place in her manuscript.

When Lola is there, she takes off to a quiet place and gets working. I like to interrupt her and ask her opinion on where I am on a story. Kidding. Kind of.

KA: We’re all guilty of interrupting each other. I’ve discovered that if I put on a fresh pot of coffee, and stand next to it, the smell will eventually lure someone toward me. It’s sneaky, but it works. (Shh…don’t tell the others that I do this).

RKD: That’s the thing…no one is ever too busy to stop and look up and offer ideas or advice or a listening ear. Kathi walks back and forth quietly, goes out onto the porch, into the back bedroom, and works.

Sometimes we’ll have breakfast together, but at times each of us will go in alone and pour a bowl of cereal or toast a bagel. More coffee.

KA: See how sneaky I am? Rebecca thought I just walked back and forth aimlessly, when really, I wanted someone to notice. Coffee has so many uses.

LS: (Don’t look too closely. You might catch someone napping for a few minutes!)

JI (pictured): Each retreat is different, shaped by the needs we bring to them.

Our days shape themselves. We’re all morning workers. Usually Kimberly or I am up first, switching on the coffee pot.

Sometimes there’s quiet visiting, but pretty soon we’re all in our spaces. Writing. Reading one of the manuscripts left out on the table for critique, or having a quiet talk about it.

Afternoons are more varied—more reading and writing. A trip to town to check email or buy groceries.

Evenings are for gathering in the pit—the living room sofa area where we talk shop and recount what our kids are doing. We read aloud and critique. Bring up problems. Challenge ourselves with writing games—ten minutes using five words. One time, Kathi wrote a longish piece about a boy who wouldn’t even be in the story when it became The Underneath.

LS: After dinner, there’s usually some porch and swing time. It’s lovely to sit outside, watch the sky turn soft purple and listen to the leaves in the trees. Some evenings we sit together and read and offer celebrations and suggestions on our work. Other nights we chat about the industry. Once in a while we offer up a writing exercise or two and end up laughing ourselves silly.

KWH: Here’s the beauty of it all. We don’t have much of a structure and yet a lovely routine seems to have organically formed from our gatherings. Somehow meals get cooked and dishes get washed.

And we still devote a great deal of our time to writing and reading each other’s work. We have all found our spaces at the ranch–Rebecca’s is always one corner of the dining table. Kathi, Jeanette and I have squatters’ rights on certain benches on the back porch. However, we move inside the house when the heat becomes unbearable.

Some rituals are a must–We always make one visit to town to check email, grocery shop, and eat pie at Royers Round Top Cafe and the last evening is always reserved for a meal at the Mexican restaurant in LaGrange.

JI: There’s always our lunch in Round Top (have to buy the pie) and our final Tex-Mex dinner night to look forward to, and disasters to enjoy remembering–my efforts to introduce Rebecca to tofu, the time Lola set the oven on fire….

RKD: I love evenings the most. Pouring a glass of wine after dinner, we listen to what each of us has written during the day. We offer comments. We dig in to the manuscripts with precision. And eat pie.

We’ve come up with titles, character names, plot promises. Sometimes we get goofy and laugh ourselves silly. They often laugh at things I say, which amazed me at first, because they think I’m funny. At home, no one thinks I’m particularly funny!

KA: It’s important to have at least one “thrill” per retreat. The burning oven certainly ranks as one of those.

RKD: I remember setting the oven on fire (was it bacon?) with Lola. She claims it was her fault, but since she’s the cook and I’m not, it was probably mine.

Kimberly, Jeanette, Kathi and Lola are all good cooks. So they let me off easy and I make a simple dinner one night (maybe) and revel in their meals (except the Tofu) and do dishes. I help chop and pour wine, too. Just sayin’…

KA: This past fall, we had a drive-by with a coral snake. I can’t remember which came first—snake? cows? snake? cows?

CLS: Where do you meet? Why is that space good for y’all?

KWH: The ranch is near LaGrange. It is a rambling hacienda with plenty of room and taxidermy to set the mood for women writers who like to think of themselves as daring and mysterious.

That is what happens to one when they pass a bobcat in the hallway and are peered at by wild prey from every corner. It creates a wild atmosphere, and one finds courage to face the page each day. Unless you count the time on this last retreat when Kathi had to rescue me from a group of cattle.

LS: It’s an idyllic location to forget about other responsibilities and find yourself and your writing.

JI: It’s a perfect place for a retreat, beautiful, quiet, isolated, spacious, and with corners that we’ve all staked out for ourselves. It’s a place where the land talks to you.

CLS: So, who’s your big-picture person? Your logic guru? Your poet? The line-editor of the group? What other superpowers have I missed?

LS (pictured): Kathi is our general manager. She organizes the date of the retreat and arrival times at the airport. If that wasn’t enough, she typically buys food and prepares that first evening meal to welcome us all to the ranch.

As far as other roles, we all step in at different times on different days. Although I do have to say that when it comes to parsing out a sentence, Rebecca shines. She’s all about “just the right word.”

KA: I agree that Rebecca is our poet extraordinaire.

JI: Lola’s our practical teacher, structured and encouraging. Rebecca and Kathi are our by-definition poets, but Kimberly’s lovely prose is poetry, too.

Rebecca’s our gentle soul, Kimberly our home soul, Kathi our push to get out and do something with our musings.

KWH: I can’t quite peg anyone. All I can say is this–each of these women have many gifts and my work is better having had them read it and giving me their input. They have my respect, admiration, and love.

KA: It seems to me that we each bring different strengths to the table at different times. We completely trust each other and that is perhaps the huge value that we’ve given ourselves over the years. I may not agree with what one of them has to tell me, but I trust that the advice is solid and worthy and I would be crazy to not pay attention.

RKD: Every single one offers some of the same to the group; patience, hard work, a listening ear, an inviting ‘come on in’ even while they are working, yet something special, too.

You can always interrupt Jeanette (or at least, I do) because she works hard yet is always ready for a bit of a breather and an interesting idea for you to try or think about when you get back to working.

Kathi is such a good teacher and offers advice on the whole picture, Kimberly zeros in on character development and structure, and Lola will help you take everything apart and put it back together.

KA: I would say that Jeanette is the best copy-editor ever. Just before I turned in The Underneath, she went over it line by line. Her background in journalism is a boon for all of us.

Kimberly is the questioner. She asks the hard questions that help us see our work from the inside out.

LS: Some of us work on picture books or poetry and some work on novels or early chapter books. Since our work is varied, so are our opportunities to offer suggestions.

CLS: What have been a few of your most glowing moments? The memories that stand out?

KA: I’ll never forget sitting on the porch for the inaugural reading of Lola’s picture book about butts.

LS: Pie at the Round Top Cafe puts a smile on all of our faces. It’s a tradition. Literary memories–we were the first to read or hear parts of award-winning novels and picture books.

We watched Kimberly use a line from an evening writing exercise in her book Part of Me: Stories of a Louisiana Family (Henry Holt, 2006)(see movie). We watch crude ideas come full circle to extraordinary literature.

KWH: The waitress that assumed we were together to shop.

Kathi remarked, “Why do people always think a group of women out of town together means a shopping trip?”

There are many more memories, but this one symbolizes so much of our time together. Shopping is the last thing any of us wants to do.

JI: Every retreat starts out with glowing moments as we come together at the airport, two of us and then three, and then we’re all there, in the middle of conversations picked up as though they were never broken off.

There have been successes to celebrate with pie. Starred reviews. Awards. We pored over outfit possibilities for Kathi to wear to the National Book Awards.

We’ve got our myths going, and growing. Kimberly will probably never live down needing to be rescued when a bunch of cows tried to join her morning walk.

KA: Nope, Kimberly will forever be reminded about the cows.

JI: Kathi has earned her reputation for being able to handle wildlife from snakes to scorpions.

KA: Actually, I think it’s Rebecca who handles the wildlife. She’s the scorpion spotter and swatter. I’ve never seen anyone smack a scorpion harder with a shoe than Rebecca!

RKD: One of the things I love the most is process and watching the process of all these amazing writers I call my friends; my cowgirls.

You get to see a first line turn into the beginning nugget of something. You hear the plot forming as they are talking. You can stop by a chair and talk over a word, a line, a paragraph taking on a life of its own.

I am the peeping tom of process. Did I say I love it?

CLS: Biggest challenges?

KWH: Finding a week where we all can attend. We all travel a lot and have family obligations, but I think our retreat has become a high priority.

JI: Yes, calendars are a problem. We haven’t yet resorted to Excel for finding times when we’re all free, but if one of us actually knew Excel…

LS: Disciplining ourselves to work in isolation when there is so much to learn from one another and a year of personal experiences that we’re anxious to share.

KA: The cows, y’all!

CLS: How has the vibe and/or membership changed over the years?

KWH (pictured): Any apprehension that I felt prior to that first retreat has grown into finding a safe haven with good friends that I look forward to attending each year.

LS: I think that Kathi, Kimberly and Jeanette have faithfully met each and every time.

The past two years I’ve been absent. My consulting work in schools has increased, and I’ve taken a sabbatical from the ranch, hoping to return one year in the near future.

But since we sometimes share works-in-progress via email, we’re never more than a keystroke away from one another.

RKD: Lola and I always shared a room, and I’ve missed her these last few years (I missed a few myself). But now Kathi shares the room with me, and what I have loved about both of them is that we lay in our beds and talk quietly and share bits about family or what we’re working on or the day or thoughts on a book we love or are reading.

Often it helps me to fall asleep. At first I was a scaredy cat at night, out there all alone on 2200 hundred acres surrounded by nothing but cows, horses, and assorted wildlife. But I’ve gotten used to it.

JI: We’ve become more a part of each other’s non-writing lives as we’ve shared personal challenges and joys and followed each other’s kids growing up, going through school, taking jobs.

KA: We’re growing up together, we are. And even when one of us is absent, that doesn’t change.

CLS: What makes your group special?

LS: Five unique women who totally support one another.

KWH: Kathi, Jeanette, Rebecca, Lola.

KA: Kimberly.

JI: It’s the kindness—the absolute generosity of dear friends sharing their talent and their lives.

KA: Each other.

(Pictured: Jeanette, Kathi, Kimberly and Rebecca.)

CLS: What do you see in your crystal ball?

KWH: More and much much more of the same.

LS: Unconditional kindness, generosity, support and understanding!

JI: Nothing crystal clear, that’s for sure. This feels like a time for trying something new—new forms, new subjects—and probably part of our talk will be about how we’re going to change in this business that is so different from the one we all entered.

But there’s strength in coming together, especially at a place where there’ve been women looking out over the same land for the last 150 years, wondering what the future holds.

KA: I can’t see Kimberly taking a walk with the cows again, but beyond that, what everyone else said.

RKD: I am looking in my crystal ball, and I see many more years at the ranch and even some years in Paris or in a house by the sea in Maine. We will investigate and explore other places, other genres, other books, and yet we will keep and love the tradition of what we have and what brought us together.

We will push each other and support each other and…maybe one day…I’ll cook them a really great meal.

KA: We’ll have pie.

Critique Group Interview: Joyce Sweeney

Learn about Joyce Sweeney.

[Joyce in black-and-blue with her most famous graduate student, author Alex Flinn. Alex is holding A Kiss In Time (HarperCollins, 2009); see the new cover.]

Thank you for inviting us to peek in on your group! Who are the members?

I have three ongoing critique groups now, one on Tuesday afternoon, one on Wednesday morning and the flagship group on Thursday night, which has been meeting since 1994.

How did you all come together?

I saw the need and gave it a try. I had been teaching five-week writing classes through the Florida Center for the Book, and I would see people making such strides during the five weeks, then almost immediately losing momentum. I realized people need ongoing support and a team of cheerleaders to be able to invest the years of work it usually takes to get published.

How do you structure your schedule, meetings, and menus (if applicable)?

The format of the group is: read and critique, and whoever reads on a given session hands the work in to me for line editing, margin tutorial overall assessment, etc.

I give two grades…you either get an A plus or you don’t. A plus means, whatever level you are on, I’m seeing good progress.

We also stop the class and “teach” something if an important topic comes up. So it’s both a workshop and a critique group.

It’s nice to offer the three time slots so we can accommodate people with day jobs, teachers, stay at home moms, everyone!

The Tuesday people never eat, even if treats are brought in. The Wednesday people who come to my house have a tendency to stop at muffin and doughnut places and bring breakfast.

The Thursday class is best…one of the members, Victoria Allman is a chef…she makes us wonderful treats!

Where do you meet? Why is that space good for y’all?

Tuesdays are at a member’s house. Wednesday is my house. Thursday is in downtown Fort Lauderdale in a board room at the Sun Sentinel.

We used public spaces when we started in the nineties, and we’ve evolved toward meeting in people’s homes. But I’m used to the Thursdays being in an office space, and I wouldn’t change it. It works for that group.

Word on the street is that you’ve basically launched the Florida youth writing community! Tell us about your inner teacher/critiquer?

Well, my formula is something like this: the group is invitation-only…I only let people in if I see some real potential that they could get published someday.

Ours are workshops about getting published; you’re expected to try at some point, when you have a project that’s ready.

In the meantime, I channel my teachers, Daniel Keyes and Walter Tevis, to teach craft as assiduously as a Masters Program would.

SCBWI has had a huge impact on my success rate, feeding me both talented writers and a way for me to meet agents and editors and make referrals.

Finally, the most important thing is…I keep people in the game…getting published takes years longer than people think…without help you get discouraged.

My students will tell you I have a hot-line service…if you feel like quitting, you call me. That’s probably the most important thing I do.

Why do you love to mentor/teach?

My father and mother were both talented at teaching, although neither was a teacher by profession. I just get so excited, seeing people progress…and when they make it all the way through the publishing gauntlet to get a book contract…I can’t describe the elation I feel.

There’s nothing better.

What do you gain from the process?

Well, it benefits me as far as growing my businesses…now I do these workshops, I do weekend retreats with my partner Jamie Morris, and I have a manuscript critiquing service too…people want to work with a teacher who gets people published.

So it’s made me a professional success…but as I said above, the personal satisfaction is what it’s all about.

Including yourself, who’s your big-picture person? Your logic guru? Your poet? The line-editor?

If I understand the question, in each group there are roles that emerge.

A lot of people use critique time to line edit, but I discourage that. On a given day, the writer needs to know, “Am I on track with what I’m trying to do, and if not, why not?”

The group knows each person, their strengths and weaknesses their hopes and fears for the project. I.e., “Should I be writing this in two points of view or not?”

We try to address the big things: “Hey, you had conquered info dumping, but you’ve had a relapse here.” Or, “yes you have a poetic voice, but it’s time to get the plot moving.”

The beauty of it is they know each other and care about each other, so the critiquing is personal and usually very on target.

And the environment is safe and never harsh. That’s my job. We set a tone in every group that we are not competing, one-upping or trying to shame or hurt anyone…we’re all in this together and the rising tide lifts all the boats.

What other superpowers have I missed?

I battle the inner critic. The inner critic is evil and makes you quit. I remind people 24-7 how talented they are and how they deserve a shot just as much as the published people out there.

We have such a great situation now because my newer people get to see my students from the past such as Alex Flinn walking around having a magnificent career…they have built in role models right in front of them…that makes it all seem more real and doable.

What have been a few of your most glowing moments? Biggest challenges? The memories that stand out?

Recently I had a glowing moment. People drop out of these groups and give up on writing all the time…sometimes when it’s a really talented person, it literally breaks my heart.

I had a student like that, Dennis Bailey. Magnificent writer. Dropped out and I barely had contact with him for 18 years. This year, he came back like the prodigal son…and he is so ready to do it now. That is a thrill for me.

My biggest challenge is holding them back. They see the people who are ready querying agents and the minute they get a credible draft they want to play, too. But it’s often best to wait a whole year after you think you’re amazing and get a little bit more amazing before you tackle New York.

The memories that stand out are 29 in all…each time we have a “magic bean” ceremony for someone who had a book accepted.

I have tokens in the form of guanacaste seeds, which you can only get when you get a book accepted.

We have a wild pagan ceremony in the group, shaking rattles, etc., and I present the bean. It’s very cool.

[Joyce “beans” Stacy B. Davids.]

How has the vibe and/or membership changed over the years?

I’m a lot more confident than when I started. I never dreamed we could get so many people published. I’m more deeply involved with the students. They’re more deeply involved with each other. Everyone knows we’ve got something special, and we all cherish it.

Each of my three groups has its own personality. The Tuesdays are very serious students and are very loving to each other. I call them the Panda Bears. The Wednesdays are noisy and enthusiastic and very ambitious. I call them the Dolphins. The Thursdays carry the responsibility of being the flagship…they have the most people who are published and agented and they are very proud to be in that group. I call them the Lions.

What makes your group special?

The love and support they have for each other and the love they know I have for them.

What do you see in your crystal ball?

I see a magic bean ceremony for Steven Dos Santos, who has written the most amazing dystopia I’ve ever read.