Monday, May 16, 2011

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 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 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 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.


Augusta Scattergood said...

Wow. Great post. As one of Joyce's magic beaners, I can attest to her skills. And although I wish I were in one of those amazing groups she describes, I live too far away.
For those of you reading this and wishing you had a "Joyce" in your life? Her manuscript critiquing is also invaluable. It was for me! Yay, Joyce Sweeney!

Shannon Hitchcock said...

Joyce has really helped me and my goal is to earn one of those magic beans!

Mindy Alyse Weiss said...

Thanks for posting this fantastic interview of Joyce, Cyn. You always have such wonderful info in your blog.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Augusta & Shannon, I'm so glad to hear you've been in Joyce's capable hands!

And thanks, Mindy!

LL said...

I've recently signed up for a "Next Level" workshop with Joyce and Jamie. I feel like they've already taken me under their wing! My hat is off to these two women who are so passionate about helping other writers succeed.
Lori Norman

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