Thursday, July 29, 2010

Got a Match?

HANK: So, you've got this great manuscript. Or actually, you've got his manuscript that MIGHT be great. But you don't want to send it to some big New York agent just yet--in case it's not that great. How do you know? And how do you make it better?

Betsy Bitner (and the Guppies) to the rescue. Betsy is the manuscript matchmaker. The wizard of works in progress. The critique group guru. The finder of feedback. The...well, you get the picture.

So we at JRW wondered--how does the manuscript magic happen?

HANK: How did you get involved? What’s your role?

BETSY: I'd belonged to Guppies for a year or two, but was pretty much just a lurker. I felt guilty about all the people who donate their time to the Guppies in so many ways to make it a valuable organization. So when the call went out for a new Critique Group Coordinator, I raised my hand (fin?) - at least virtually. I figured this was something I could do to help out. I'm still a lurker, but I like bringing writers together so they can get constructive feedback on their writing. It's a volunteer gig and it's a free service to members, but hopefully it's a case of people getting more than what they paid for!

HANK:. And how does it work?

BETSY: For a swap, interested Guppies send me short paragraphs about their WIP, including title, setting, subgenre of mystery (if any) and a couple of sentences describing the book to entice other Guppies to want to read and critique it. I post these blurbs regularly on the Guppy list.

Guppies then contact me if a manuscript catches their eye. I check with both Guppies to make sure they're both interested in each other's work before putting them in touch with each other directly (up to this point, everything has been anonymous).

HANK: How do you make a match?
BETSY: I try to make sure that both writers are at the same point with their manuscripts. I wouldn't match someone who just typed "The End" on their first draft with someone who has a polished manuscript and wants a read through before sending out queries. It also helps if the author lets me know if there's strong language, graphic violence or sex in their manuscript because that's not everyone's cup of tea.

HANK: What's going on this very minute?

BETSY: Last week I formed two new critique groups: The Mayhem Gang and Cookies and Crime, each with four Guppies. I will start a new critique group when I get four or five Guppies interested in the small group format.

HANK: Do you ride herd over the writer/critiquer? Or are they on their own once you make the match?

BETSY: With a swap, the critiquers are pretty much on their own once there's been a match. I may have to give a nudge or two to someone to return a critique, but that doesn't happen very often. I ask Guppies doing a swap to touch base with me when they're done to let me know how it went, and the feedback I've received has been overwhelmingly positive.

I do monitor the small groups to make sure things are running smoothly, but I really just skim their posts looking for any problems. I don't have time to read any of their writing.

HANK: You get sent a paragraph about each person’s manuscript. Is it fun to read those?

BETSY: Absolutely. I'm always amazed at the variety of colorful characters, settings and situations that Guppies dream up. Not to mention some clever titles. It's like spending time in a book store and reading the back covers of a lot of mysteries. Except that I don't actually get to read the book! Although I have no doubt that many of these manuscripts will end up on book store shelves someday.

HANK: Have you learned anything from those paragraphs?

BETSY: That the paragraph describing your manuscript for the Guppies is essentially the same as a pitch you would give an agent. The paragraph is the first impression a reader gets of your book.

I used to do some editing of people's paragraphs, but then I stopped. If there are typos or awkward wording, it can give an indication of what the manuscript is like. It's easy to spot manuscripts coming from more experienced Guppies who have polished and refined their paragraphs/pitches. They get snapped up by other interested Guppies right away.

HANK: Are there Guppy rules for critiquing?

BETSY: I send everyone who participates in one of the critique opportunities a copy of the Guppy Critiquing Guidelines. They cover everything from how to use text editing, to things to look for when doing a critique to appropriate tone and attitude.

HANK: Do you ever get complaints?

BETSY: Complaints??? With me in charge??? Okay, yeah. A few. The one I get most often is when manuscripts are swapped and one person doesn't put the same time and effort into the critique as the other. Although this complaint has diminished since I began each swap with a gentle reminder (read: lecture) that critiquing is a two-way street and they should put as much effort into their critique as they would like to receive on their own manuscript.

With the groups, occasionally there will be a member whose personality/style doesn't quite jibe with the rest of the group and there are hurt feelings. Although this is an extremely rare occurrence given the supportive nature of the Guppies, a gentle reminder to follow the Guppy critiquing guidelines usually does the trick.

If my kids are reading this right now, they're probably thinking, "What's with all the gentle reminders? You're always yelling at us."

HANK: Can we see some of the pitch paragraphs?

BETSY: Sure. Here are some paragraphs that generated a lot of Guppy interest:

*****DESIGNER DIRTY LAUNDRY is a soft-boiled mystery set in the world of high-fashion.
Samantha Kidd, ex-buyer turned trend specialist, designed her future with couture precision, but finding the new boss's corpse on Day One leaves her hanging by a thread. When the killer fabricates evidence that put the cops on her heels, her new life begins to unravel. The cops think they have the case sewn up -- with Samantha as the killer! She trades high fashion for dirty laundry and reveals a cast of designers out for blood. Now this flatfoot in high heels must keep pace with a diabolical designer before she gets marked down for murder.

***AURORA NORTH AND THE HAUNTED HOUSE is a witty and fast-paced whodunit, along the lines of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, set in the thriving city of Manchester, England. Life is a regular breeze of disproving ghostly hauntings, werewolf attacks and vampire vandals for Aurora North, an experienced reporter with the subscription newspaper The Universe and its Secrets, until her editor assigns her a haunted house story with a twist and an over enthusiastic trainee, Jake.
The house in question has been peacefully empty for twenty years but has suddenly come alive with supernatural occurrences. At least it has according to its neighbours, two eccentric older women who seem to have their own agenda for getting Aurora and Jake involved. The ghostly waters become even more muddied when Aurora and Jake’s investigation turns them away from supernatural explanations and point towards an older, but no less intriguing, mystery.
Despite the inconvenient, and always unexpected, presence of an irritating detective, the reappearance of Aurora’s childhood crush and the ghostly episodes she always seems to miss, nothing can shake Aurora from uncovering the truth behind supposed haunting and getting her story.

*****PRESCHOOL IS MURDER is a contemporary, PD James-style mystery set in the world of Manhattan’s private preschools—where toddlers embrace entitlement and over-privileged parents act like toddlers.
At Foundations preschool in Greenwich Village, pretty, charismatic teacher Karen Lennart secretly plays favorites with her students, blackmails their parents and sells influence over kindergarten admissions. When Karen is killed, African-American homicide cop Linda Brewer, whose brilliant daughter attends an elite Uptown prep school on scholarship, gets an education of her own.
Linda’s investigation exposes a headmaster with a taste for young teens, one mom’s shoplifting, another’s kinky affair, and maniacally competitive administrators. Despite her scorn for the foibles of the rich and famous, Linda must learn to navigate the rarefied social circles at her daughter's prep school, which overlap with those of her preschool suspects, in order to unravel the intrigues at the prestigious preschool and solve the murder.

HANK: Oh, those sound great! So--Are you all in critique groups? Did they help you?

And who's a Guppy out there? Have you been in one of these groups? How'd it go?

A former criminal defense attorney and professionally trained chef, Betsy Bitner decided to turn to writing mysteries for the job security and big bucks. She has written several short stories and is working on a novel at a pace that would inspire confidence in a snail. When she's not critiquing her husband and children, Betsy gets her kicks critiquing other writers in her face-to-face critique group through the Mavens of Mayhem, a SinC chapter in Albany, NY.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great blog Hank and Betsy! I'm one of the members of The Mayhem Gang. It's too soon to tell if the group is working out, but we all are at the same stage of manuscript development, and that's essential. Whether the group will benefit everyone and fulfill all of our objectives is anyone's guess. Members of critique groups must have thick skins and be open to constructive criticism. I'm blogging about critique groups on 8/2 at
    Thanks for mentioning Jordaina Robinson's Aurora North book. I critiqued the manuscript and it is a gem in the making.

  3. Hi E.B.
    The Mayhem Gang is doing great so far. It takes a little time for a group to learn each other's style and settle into a rhythm. Hopefully you'll all stick with it until the group has a chance to gel. It helps when someone's read enough of your work that they can spot your quirks and foibles and tell you "You're doing it again..."
    You're right about needing some thick skin and being open to constructive criticism. But the operative word is "constructive." That's where the Guppy Critique Guidelines are helpful in establishing the proper tone of a critique. The way the message is delivered is as important as the message itself.

  4. I've heard the most wonderful things about Guppies, and this just confirms it. Safety and candor and kindness -- that's the recipe. Betsy, sounds like you've got a handle on it.

  5. E.B., thanks! Come back and remind us to visit WHK on the 2nd, okay?

    Is your group all on line? Or do you think you'll ever meet in person?

  6. Any Guppies out there? have you been in a critique group?

  7. Thanks Hank. I will remind everyone when I post next Monday on critique groups. Thanks.

  8. Even though I organize the online critique groups, I've never belonged to one myself. I do belong to a face to face group that meets monthly. I suppose if you get feedback via email that's a little hard to take you can walk away from your computer and think about it for a while. It's a little harder to do that when the person delivering the critique is sitting next to you. Even so, find that distance and time to digest is necessary when you receive a critique. There's usually some nugget of wisdom you can take away from it.

  9. Betsy just put me in the group Cookies and Crime. I am learning so much it is crazy good. Well my toes are being stepped on in a pretty supportive way, but I should think my writing will only improve. Plus I learned something new about MS Word I didn't know. So right now I am as happy as a clam and getting a boatload of guppy insights.

    Thanks Betsy

  10. So, Carole, were you apprehensive about joining in? Were the members of your group the first to ever read your ms?
    (I always think that's such a moment when the first person other than yourself reads the work. Yikes.)
    Were you surprised by the comments?

  11. Betsy has taken on quite the task, and does a great job. The Guppies are such a great support network no matter what stage of writing you are in!

  12. I'm a Guppy and I count manuscript swaps among the biggest perks of membership. Guppies provide tremendous feedback and have found opportunities in my WIP that I missed. Conversely, I feel like I've read several good books from Guppy swaps and hope that one day I'll be able to find the same titles on a bookshelf.

    Betsy, thanks for what you do!

  13. Hank - My husband and best friend have read it and think it's great but know they can't be counted on to be ruthless. This is the first time that fellow writers have looked at it.

    The thing that made me chuckle is that I had a bit of backstory in just the perfect place and they all said it slowed the pacing and shouldn't be there. So I have to change it because they are right.

  14. Carole--and all--yes exactly. There are part of my manuscripts that I loved--but I knew, I just knew, they would have to go.
    It kind of made it easier to have the confirmation from someone I respected.
    And the final test is--when you take it out, is it better? And isn't fun when it is?
    Then I start getting actually empowered by cutting--faster-paced is almost always better.
    And it's so exciting to see the real story start to pop out.

  15. Hey! Did all those links I put to the Guppy website not work?? Grr. It's

  16. I'm a Guppy, but a lot of you already know that. I was in the critique group a few years ago that analyzed beginnings, the first five pages, but I'm not in a group now.

    I suppose it's time I joined one, since I have a first draft and am beginning revisions. I have to admit, though, that I'm dreading it.

    Not for the "usual" reasons of "sending out my baby," but I do occasional critiques and find that they absorb A LOT of my time and energy. Maybe I'm doing 'em wrong?

    But people consider what I tell them helpful, so I'm doing that part right.

    Anyway, I guess I should ask, how many writers do you put in each group?

  17. Hi Rhonda-
    Anytime you're ready to rejoin a critique group, you can reach me through the Guppies.
    When I start a new group, I try for at least four members - although there's a group started by my predecessor that's humming along with only three. I wouldn't put any more than 5 or 6 in a group though (with the exception of the short story group and the historical mystery group) because members have to wait to long to cycle through everybody's turn before getting to post the next segment of their WIP.
    And, you're right, doing a thorough critique can be time consuming and it's great to know that other's find your comments so helpful. Hopefully you received thorough critiques in return.

  18. I was in a Guppy crit group a number of years back, and it was a wonderful experience. We set up our own ground rules, which everyone adhered to. We had some members come and go, but that happens.

    Today, I belong to a face-to-face group, which I love. But I'm still in contact with one of the members of that original Guppy group, swapping work and offering each other a shoulder to lean on when the going gets tough. She's now a twice-published author, and I'm incredibly proud and grateful to call her a friend. We live across the country from each other, but I do hope to meet her in person one day!

  19. OH, anonymous, that's one of the great things about the internet, isn't it? I'd love to be there when you two meet.

    (My captcha word is "elograms." Wonder if that's fanmail to a bad music group? Sorry, ELO fans...)

  20. Thanks for the information Betsy and Hank. I am a new guppy and would like to be in a critique group when school starts back. ;0)

  21. Great, Melissa! You know how to contact Betsy, right?

  22. My first blog on critique groups runs tomorrow, August 9th. The first part of my interview with author Avery Aames runs on the 11th and continues the next Wednesday, August 18th. Come over to tomorrow for my introduction to The Mayhew Gang, a novel critique group set up by Betsy Bitner. We're all Guppies.