James Petigru and Carrie McCray

Written by Jayne Bowers

Thirteen or fourteen years ago, I attended the South Carolina Book Festival in Columbia. What a joy it was to walk up and down the long aisles, gawking at vendors’ wares and talking to “real life” authors, publishers, and book sellers. The atmosphere was abuzz with positive energy, and I was agog with excitement.

At the end of one aisle, I was attracted to a table of lively, friendly people and stopped to see what the excitement was all about. Turns out they represented the South Carolina Writers’ Association (SCWW at that time). Happy to be part of the statewide organization, they told me about its many chapters and the annual conference.

I picked up a book and began leafing through it, and one of the women behind the table stood up, smoothed her skirt, leaned in closer and said, “That’s a book we publish each year.” Titled Catfish Stew, it included a variety of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. As I recall, the woman showed me her story and then said something like, “We have fun. And we write, too.”

Really? There’s a book published in the Palmetto State each year by a group of writers? I wondered.

I bought a copy and knew I wanted to be part of such an organization in which people wrote and had fun, two of my favorite activities.

Like all organizations, change occurred over the years, and twelve years ago the South Carolina Writers Association (SCWA) changed the name of its annual literary anthology to The Petigru Review. Named after James Louis Petigru, a staunch unionist who once said, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum,” the journal’s contributors believe in their truths like Petigru believed in his. With categories of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, flash, and first chapter of a novel, the journal serves as a forum which affords SCWA members the opportunity to publish their best works.

There’s nothing like an award to get those creative juices flowing, and each year there’s a Carrie McCray Memorial Literary Award to do just that. Created to inspire writers and to honor one of the founders of SCWA, Carrie Allen McCray, the contest has first, second, and third place winners in these areas:

  • First Chapter of a Novel – 3,500 word limit.
  • Short Fiction – 3,000 word limit.
  • Creative Nonfiction – 3,000 word limit.
  • Poetry – submit up to three (3) poems, not to exceed 80 lines in total.

Every edition of TPR obtains guest judges who select the most polished submissions for publication and for the award. The quality of writing and the judges’ assessments are perhaps part of the reason the Petigru, as it is fondly referred to, earned a positive and relatively lengthy review from Kirkus Review in 2016. Its summative statement: An impressive, wide-ranging collection of a region’s creative voices.

Although we’re still narrowing the search for a judge for the First Chapter of a Novel submissions, the other four judges have been selected: Fiction – Rebecca Hammond Yager; Nonfiction – Joni Tevas; Flash – Luke Whisnant; Poetry – Katie Pryor.

I’ll be writing more about each of them, but in the meantime you can read about their backgrounds, publications, interests, and influences on the SCWA website. Their bios also reveal just what they’re looking for in the areas in which they’re judging. Hint hint.

For now, polish your prose, tweak your story, and submit your work to this year’s The Petigru Review. It’s open for submissions until May 31.

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So What Happens at a Critique Group, Anyway?

Written by Jayne Bowers

Are you ready to make your writing the best it can be even if it means listening to constructive criticism? If you’re both motivated and humble, a rare combination, it’s time.

In our group, submissions can be fiction, nonfiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. Almost anything our members want to create, we’re willing to read and critique. One person submitted chapters of her three novels as works-in-progress, and today she generously gives the group much credit for her success.

Manuscripts are due three days before our group meets, thus allowing writers time to read, reread, and comment on each submission. Short and long work is accepted, but the absolute limit is ten pages. We double-space our work and insert line numbers. Instead of saying, “There’s a misplaced modifier on page three right after the scene where Harry meets Sally,” it’s more expeditious to say, “There’s a misplaced modifier on line 107.”

The Camden group meets twice a month, once in the evening, primarily for those who work during the day, and once in the morning. The number of attendees and submissions varies from meeting to meeting, but we usually have from eight to ten sitting around the table, edited manuscripts in hand.

While everyone writes suggestions on the manuscript itself, some also write a one or two-page document including recommendations and genuine encouragement for the writer. All submissions are seen as works in progress, with comments looking toward the future. For instance, a critiquer might say, “Switching POVs might be beneficial for the nest draft,” or “I’d really like to see this character developed more fully.”

About that encouragement, we follow the maxim to do the least harm. Our goal is to help, not hurt. Without ever discussing it, we all have a tacit understanding of the sandwich technique. (1) We start with something positive, (2) move on to the meaty middle with pros and cons, and (3) close with something positive. Here’s an example:

  1. “This is a unique twist on an old theme. How did you come up with this idea of writing from the POV of the foster parent instead of the child?”
  2. “I kept getting the characters confused. It could be because there are so many of them…or maybe their names are just so similar.”
  3. “I can’t wait to see what you do with this.”

At first, I didn’t get it, “it” being the whole process of critiquing, and would likely say something like, “I enjoyed this,” and then go on to point out missing words, comma splices, and misspellings. I soon came to understand I was proofing for errors instead of critiquing for story, and I quickly learned to mark grammatical and punctuation mistakes on the manuscript with a heads-up to the writer about their existence. Pointing them out in the critique group often detracts from the primary purpose of the meeting and what the writer wants to know: Is the STORY working?

At the same time, there are still some proofreading errors that we will mention aloud if we think the entire group will benefit. For instance, I recall one member asking another, “Do you think you need to mention that it’s Thursday four times on the first page?” That question, tactfully asked, alerted all of us to the ease with which we all fall into overusing the same word when there are other choices.

We do more than critique, too. We talk about books we’ve read, tips we’ve learned, and possible projects. I always go away with some newfound knowledge! Next week, we’ll take a look at some of those gems.




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Critique Groups: Guard Dogs, the Passive Voice and Grammar Girl

Written by Jayne Bowers

Seven years ago, I made one of the smartest and most beneficial decisions of my life. I joined the Camden Chapter critique group of the South Carolina Writers’ Association, known then as the South Carolina Writers Workshop. Until attending the Association’s annual conference in Myrtle Beach, I didn’t know such a network of critique groups existed, and learning there was a group in my hometown was almost worth the total cost of the conference.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll share how our group operates, some advantages of being part of such an assemblage, and things I’ve learned. But first, let’s go back to a balmy April evening in 2011 when I attended my first meeting.

Anxious and excited, I rang the doorbell and heard the barking of what sounded like a ferocious dog. Maybe joining a critique group wasn’t such a good idea after all, I thought. But then, Kathryn Lovatt opened the door with a welcoming smile and an enthusiastic, “Hi Jayne,” and I knew things were going to be fine.

That was seven years ago, and since then every meeting of the Camden Chapter critique group has been a good one. Even when I didn’t like what I heard about my writing, it was a good meeting. In fact, sometimes those are the best kinds of meetings, the kind when people teach you something, the kind when people tell you what isn’t working, when they catch the overuse of passive voice or notice that you used the same word four times on one page.

That first night, people asked what kind of writing I did. “Mostly nonfiction,” I blurted out. When someone asked if I’d ever been published, I wondered if that was a requirement for membership and responded that I’d published a textbook a couple of decades earlier. “Uh-huh,” someone mumbled. Twenty years ago? Eight sets of eyes seemed to be asking, “Is that it? Haven’t you done anything since then?”

“Oh, and I just had a story published in Guideposts,” I said, eager to seem like a bona fide and up-to-date writer. That evening I didn’t know anything about the other people in the group and assumed they were all professionals whose skills and experience were advanced far beyond mine. I soon learned that this group, like others, has a variety of writers. While it’s true that some have published novels, articles, and short stories, many have never published, some have self-published, and still others write with no intention of publication. They write because they must.

I told them the name of the article, “Is It I, Lord?”, and mentioned that someone on Facebook had asked if the pronoun should be me instead of I. Can you guess what someone in the critique group did? She looked it up, and a lively discussion of objective and nominative pronouns followed. That’s the evening I first became acquainted with Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada who’s written several informative, yet fun, books on writing. My favorite is Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Fogarty has a podcast by the same name that I subscribe to. The twenty or so minutes I spend listening and learning always leaves me enlightened and entertained. Always.

After Fogarty’s website assured us/me that the title’s pronoun was correct, the meeting proceeded with a couple of critiques and some chapter business. Never having been in a critique group before, I felt a bit overwhelmed that night, but since I was determined to be a better writer, I made a commitment to the group and have never looked back. If a person wants to improve, she soon recognizes the importance of listening, revising, editing, and putting newfound knowledge into practice.

One of the hundreds of things I’ve learned since becoming a member of the critique group is to be specific. Remember that ferocious-sounding dog I mentioned in the third paragraph? She was a Lhasa Apso, a dog originally bred in Tibet as a guard dog. Playful, perky, and affectionate, the little pooch was the cutest little yipper I’ve ever seen. Isabel was a devoted member of our group and spent many meetings with us fiercely guarding her owner.

Check in next week for more information about SCWA Critique Groups. Until then, try to get some writing done!


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2018 has arrived! Welcome to it!

There is a lot of thought put forth at the start of a new year. Big plans and resolutions are being considered. As we head into late January, some of those big ideas have already gone by the way side. Continue reading

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