Elevate your writing: the power of critique groups, with Syd Young
22 August, 2023
In this episode, hosts Theo and Julia are joined by Syd Young, an author, lawyer, and longstanding participant in The History Quill’s group coaching programme.
Syd’s debut novel is a biographical contemporary historical fiction piece, centered around Lady Bird Johnson in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Together with our hosts, she explores the unique challenges and opportunities of writing about more recent historical figures. During the conversation, Syd discusses how working with a critique group helped shape her novel and writing process, sharing insights from her own experience as part of a community of historical fiction writers.
Applications for the group coaching programme open in September 2023. If you’re eager to receive guidance, connect with fellow writers, and elevate your craft, visit the group coaching page to find out more and join the waiting the list.
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[00:00:00] Julia Kelly: Welcome to The History Quill Podcast I am Julia Kelly, historical fiction author, and I am joined by my co-host, Theo. Theo, how are you?
[00:00:23] Theo Brun: I’m doing really well, actually. I’m excited ’cause I’m about to go on holiday for sometimes. That’s basically packing up my house, clearing out with my family tomorrow for a couple of a few weeks. So taking my work with me, I have to say.
[00:00:39] Julia Kelly: I was going to ask, are you, are you going to be bringing the laptop with you?
[00:00:43] Theo Brun: Yes, very much so. And possibly a podcast microphone as well. I think like you, you’ve got a book coming out in October, haven’t you? And so have I. So I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple of weeks about a game plan to, strategize how that’s gonna go well, so, and, and various podcasts I managed to get myself signed up for, so that’s why I’m traveling with a microphone.
How about you? Are you, are you writing a lot? Are you plowing on with your next mystery?
[00:01:13] Julia Kelly: So I promised at the beginning of the last episode we did, I promised that I would have an update because I am working on two books this summer, both of which have deadlines very close to each other. So book one of those two is done. So the historical mystery novel, it’s the second in my Parisian orphan series, which is an amateur sleuth book.
That book is, Off to the editor. I don’t have to worry about it for a little while, which is great because I am working on my other book, which is due at the end of this month. So it’s a bit of a jam packed summer, but I promised myself that I’ll take a little bit of time in August and do a little bit of that kind of forward looking and planning that you’re talking about with, with a book release coming.
So I think we’ve, I think we’ve, we both probably deserve some time off, but also maybe continuing on to think about what might be ahead this year.
[00:02:03] Theo Brun: What’s the name of the, the book coming out? It’s the something in Whitehall, isn’t it?
[00:02:06] Julia Kelly: A traitor. Yep. A Traitor in Whitehall. And it’s a historical mystery series set in World War II and Churchill’s Cabinet War Room. So I’m really excited about it. This is a new foray for me going into historical mystery. So it’ll be fun.
[00:02:20] Theo Brun: And is it out on October the fifth?
[00:02:22] Julia Kelly: October the third.
[00:02:25] Theo Brun: Mine’s called A Savage Moon, which probably says a lot about the difference between our genres, doesn’t it, out on October the fifth. So anyway, we’ll be able to kind of be cheering each other on when that happens. And then actually, I submitted a book today to, to publish it.
It’s not a historical fiction book, sadly, but it’s, it’s a book. A book exists for someone else. It’s a kind of nonfiction, ghostwriting project about how to be a man. Of course, isn’t that obvious.
[00:02:56] Julia Kelly: Hot topic right now.
[00:02:58] Theo Brun: Yes, it is a hot topic anyway, so hopefully we’re not talking utter bla. but it was quite satisfying to at least submit to a, to an editor and see what happens to that one. and then meanwhile, I promise you I’d have a chapter ready of my own historical mystery and I, I’m afraid I haven’t got there because again, the, all these stupid books keep getting in the way that I’m reading the,
[00:03:22] Julia Kelly: Yes. You’re doing some judging.
[00:03:24] Theo Brun: My HWA gold crown judging, has sort of sucked up all my spare time. But anyway, hopefully that will, what you call it, we’re sort of filtering down to the first sort of step of the next round, as it were. So hopefully that will create a bit of space. And I, I’m determined to make some headway ’cause I was on the cusp of putting pen to paper when, when all these books started pouring into my life.
So, yeah, I’ve gotta keep the, the story alive in my head for when I actually get going on it.
[00:03:53] Julia Kelly: Well, it’s, it’s a lot of next steps for, for everybody involved and we’re actually talk about a transition. We are talking to an author who is in the middle of some next steps herself. her name is Sydney Young. She has a bit of a unique perspective because she’s been at this writing thing for a long time.
She’s just hit a big milestone in her career, so, should be a good conversation.
[00:04:12] Theo Brun: Yeah, I look forward to getting into it. Welcome Sydney.
[00:04:22] Julia Kelly: We’re very excited, because we have a very special guest with us today at the History Quo Podcast. Syd Young is a author who is writing about more recent history. I think maybe the most recent history of all of our guests that we’ve had on this season. I’m gonna let you introduce a little bit more about yourself, but welcome.
[00:04:41] Syd Young: Thank you. Thank you. I’m Sid Young. I am a lawyer, practicing lawyer, and I have written a book called Working Title. Lady Bird Takes a Train about Lady Bird Johnson in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, what it felt like. To be heard is step into that White House and that world. So I’ve been writing professionally all my life.
I’ve been writing fiction for I guess about 14 years, and I just recently signed with a, an agent. Really excited about it. Kevin Leon with Marshall Leon. So a dream agent for me.
[00:05:15] Julia Kelly: Congratulations. Madeline Martin is is one of, one of Kevin’s authors, so you’re in very good hands.
[00:05:21] Syd Young: Thank you. I do wanna also say I run, I’m one of the co-hosts for the HF chitchat chat that’s on Twitter and a little bit on Instagram, and I’m also a history Quill writer, so.
[00:05:35] Julia Kelly: I, I think we wanna get into all of that in a little bit more detail, but perhaps we can start by talking a little bit about what drew you to the story of Lady Bird Johnson and this particular moment in history.
[00:05:47] Syd Young: I had written as many do my first book that got nowhere. It was a great practice book. It is really fun. It was a historical fantasy. And after I wrote that, I really started thinking, you know, what do I really want to write? What do I want to write that, that I would, I. Feel good publishing, whether it was stuff published or whether it was picked up traditionally.
And at the time, Hillary Manel was big and very inspiring, and so I started writing biographical fiction and with my first biographical fiction, I got an agent. We went on sub, I don’t think it was this many, but it sure felt like about a hundred houses. Picked it up and looked at it, and no one made an offer.
So one day I was walking, and this is where all ideas come from, right? All good ideas. I was walking on the Lady Bird Trail in Austin, Austin, Texas, and every time I walked there, I. Thank you Lady Bird. Thank you for this wonderful city planning, this green space, everything you’ve done. And the idea went straight into my head, why are you not writing about Lady Bird?
And so I did a quick little listen to, I wanna say an N P R one hour little radio program. I. I was immediately enthralled and I started out. I tend to, when I write and choose the story, I tend to, you know, deep dive and explore and really decide whether I wanna spend a lot of time with this person. And the deeper I got, the more I fell in love with her.
And I thought I would write about her entire time in the White House because it was pretty calamitous. But I ended up looking at that first year, and I had gotten into the writing by that point in time. And 2020 Summer rolled around and a lot of people were saying, this kind of thing has never happened before.
And I happened to be living with Lady Bird in a summer that, that seemed very reminiscent of, of some things that we’re, that we’re going through now. So that was it.
[00:07:45] Theo Brun: So do you wanna unpack that a little bit just to just, well, both for myself, but also for our audience. Like what were the commonalities that you were seeing there and, and what was specifically going on in her life that made you make that connection. And also, you know, how did that sort of still crystallize into.
An actual beginning, middle, and end for a novel.
[00:08:08] Syd Young: P. Very instrumental in changing America to be the kind of America that, that I thought I knew today in 1964, L B J was very smart. He knew that he had a chance to do something to pass President Kennedy’s civil rights bill that he really wanted. And he worked it and worked it and worked it. And in the summer of 1964, that bill passed.
As you can imagine, there was also a lot of violence. There was some violence in New York. There was violence, of course, in the South as Freedom Riders were going to the South, and more and more news was being reported. Of course, Martin Luther King Jr. Was active and it was. It was the time that that people finally stood up and said, enough is enough.
America needs to change. We need to give rights to all of our citizens. And there was great pushback. So that’s a really interesting time to think about and realize that with great progress also comes great strife. And thank goodness there are some people like L B J and Lady Bird Johnson who are strong enough to stand firm and say, this is what we’re.
[00:09:24] Julia Kelly: I’m thinking, obviously with the accent, I’m American and I, you know, these are very familiar figures in history to me. I, I, you know, learned about them in high school. I remember history classes and all of those things. How do you take a. Figure who is so familiar and, and also so recent, so there’s a lot of people who lived through what was going on at this time, who might recall those things.
How do you take those figures and how do you give them kind of a new spin or something we haven’t seen that really will draw a reader in so it, it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a newspaper because that’s not what you’re trying to do as a novelist, right? You’re trying to give a a different perspective on who this person was.
How do you tackle that challenge?
[00:10:06] Syd Young: It’s very hard, and it’s funny, whenever historical fiction writers begin writing biographical fiction, some of them will come to me and they’ll be like, this is so hard because it’s like you’re taking a chisel and trying to. Fit some kind of arc. So you just keep looking and looking and, and honestly, even though this, there is so much history that this was a very different kind of book for me because it’s, it’s more how do you figure out what to leave out than, than what, how do you find out what the truth, you know, what what’s there.
And the fact of the matter is, I know this very well as a lawyer that. Everyone who participates in these things all had different takes on them. So we think we know the story, but in fact, do we know what it felt like to be Lady Bird Johnson in the aftermath of that assassination? You know that that woman who wasn’t really wanting to be the center of attention and in the White House and following this glamorous, glamorous Jackie Kennedy, and then also knowing she was from the South.
She’s from East Texas, which is where I live, so I was even more interested in her, but her story’s not been told. So, so what you do is, is you look and you, you try to think what has been told and what hasn’t been told, and, where are the emotions to me that that’s where it is, is how did she feel in all this, that story’s not been told.
So it, it really helped me also as we’ve gone through the last few years, process how I feel about things.
[00:11:38] Theo Brun: So, but this is the book that you, you’ve now managed to get representation for, which is fantastic news. Do you, is there something about the story or something about your own progress as a writer that has kind of, you know, the stars have aligned, like what’s the, the kind of magic ingredient that has kind of, you, you said you were write, you’ve been writing for 14 years, I think you said, you know, what do you think was the magic ingredient that made this one stick as it were?
[00:12:05] Syd Young: The magic for this one that’s so different is it’s, it’s so from my heart, it is really, you know, I, I could feel her pain, I could feel. Her confusion, I could feel her desire to do something more and, and to become a different person and to help America become a different America. But also I knew that this was a really, gonna be a really hard, it’s a great idea.
It’s a big hook. But if you’re writing Lady Bird Johnson, you better do it. Well. And having gone through sub where my, my book didn’t get picked up. I just thought, you know, I, I probably need to go back to craft and figure out what it is that makes people really want this story, but then not want it. And that’s where I exist on Twitter because I live in a small world, a small rural community where there’s not a lot of writers that I can talk to about this.
And I. On Twitter and found out about History Quill and signed up for it because I wanted some really good historical fiction writers who were into it to read my work and give me feedback, and I learned in that process also that part of the magic of writing is also giving other people feedback because you see that everyone has.
And weaknesses, and everyone has a little bit of magic that if they can just stay focused, they, they can grab onto. So I just dug in and, and did the hard work.
[00:13:36] Julia Kelly: I’m, I’m so glad that you’ve mentioned the group coaching because I think not only being coached by an author and mentored is such a valuable thing, but then also finding your peers and finding a community that can kind of help you, sup help support you as you write a book, because it can be, A very lonely thing, especially when you don’t know other authors, but critique groups in particular are such a unique part of being an author and, and such a valuable thing when you find the right critique group, and pure critiques.
Can you talk a little bit about, for people who aren’t aware of what that process is like, what does it, what is it like receiving critique and what is it like actually doing that for somebody else as well?
[00:14:14] Syd Young: So the interesting thing about critique groups and, and I hear. I hear even some published authors say, oh, I don’t want anyone to critique me, but that’s, It’s going to happen, happen whether you want it to or not. And the lovely thing about GR critique groups is that it gets to happen before you have that, that word published, you know?
So, I had not had great successes finding a, a critique group. I had joined Pitch War when it was around on Twitter, which was just a hashtag, and anyone could get on. And they have great, great material about how to do things. But not every critique is. So I, I wanted people who write historical fiction tend to understand the, the challenges of writing historical fiction better than, than people who don’t.
So that would, that was my number one criteria I had when I signed up for the History Quill. And I also really like on the history Quill, I, I feel that sometimes critique groups can get in a rutt. It is very easy to give your friend a nice critique. Right. So the magic of the history quill is that you do make friends and you do find people’s work that you love and, and people find your work that they love, but also you’re not, you are not so invested in a friendship that you won’t be honest.
So what I think is really important about a critique is you learn to read it. Take a deep breath. Put it away for a little bit, come back to it and see that it’s, it’s a little bit better than maybe you thought when you first got it. And that’s not too different from getting an editor’s letter, is it?
[00:16:00] Julia Kelly: Absolutely true.
[00:16:02] Syd Young: Yeah. So, the great thing also about critique groups is it helps you learn what’s a good critique. And, and maybe, you know, what’s a critique that. Might have worked for a different book, but not for your book. The other thing that’s wonderful about the history quo, and I know many critique groups are like this, there’s a monthly deadline.
So every month you can, you can submit up to 5,000 words and you know if you can do it, and sometimes you learn that you can’t. but when you can do it, it’s. I, I like working off of goals, and so it makes sure that you keep going and then you’re also giving two critiques in return. So, it’s, it’s a big, I think honestly that it’s what helped me with, with my agent once she and I got together understand we are talking the same language with what she’s saying to me about the things that I need to improve. I understand, and I agree with. So with, without that experience, I’m not sure. I think I would’ve just cast about and maybe signed with, with the first person that may be an offer, you know, on it. And instead, I, I think I, I waited and worked hard and got a good one.
[00:17:16] Theo Brun: So how do you think you know that back and forth with, with both other? But also you have tutors as well, or, or sort of expert tutors on the, the coaching program, don’t you? How do you think that kind of shaped the final products of your novel? Like what were the sort of, what things came back that you were unexpected that that like, you know, basically helped you craft it to the higher quality?
[00:17:43] Syd Young: you know what’s interesting with me? They say to do beta reads, they say to do professional critiques, editor critiques with my first book that, that I signed an agent with, I, I hadn’t done any of that. I really didn’t understand to do that. So history Will was my first professional editor critique and it was, it was great because, They are both confirming, you know, they, they affirm you, they lift you up, and then they’re honest.
And the, the great thing about that tutorial critique was that it went all the way through the book. It gave me chapter by chapter what they liked, what they didn’t like, you know, gave me their take of, of where they thought that, that I should go with the book. I think I had one chapter, where my tutor said, don’t change a single word of this one chapter, you know?
Um, and, and the funny thing is the book is very different from what it was when I got that critique. but it helped me see the value in what I was doing. It helped me keep going and, and say, okay, that I’m onto something here. I’m not there yet, and I wanna say about that. A lot of people, I think, throw in the towel too soon.
I, I really believe that writers, should invest in themselves and in their writing with time and, and with the resources that they have. It, it’s just, it makes a difference. And once you start getting there, you, you really can tell, okay, I’ve turned a corner here. My writing people are liking it. I’m getting different kind of feedback now.
So if I hadn’t gone through all of that, I, I honestly wouldn’t feel comfortable even going on sub with this book because it’s such a big idea.
[00:19:33] Julia Kelly: I love the idea of sort of using that community and those resources to help build. Confidence as an author and as you say, turn the corner. And I just wanted to go back to something you said about signing with your agent. What was it about kind of having that community and having gone through that process that helped you understand that you needed to look for the right agent and not necessarily the first agent who offered on your book?
What, what made that stand out to you that this was something you wanted to be very specific about?
[00:20:04] Syd Young: Well, I had, I had been through, you know, you hear people say you’ll get, if you keep with this, you’ll get closer and closer. And that’s true with me. It’s, you know, everyone has a different path. But that’s true with me. ’cause I had already been through one agent that I had signed after, after going to a local Texas conference.
And then we parted ways after my book didn’t sell. And I just wanted to, after I learned more, I just realized I really want to try to, go for that dream. I’ve, I’ve put all this energy in it. You know, why not? Why not try? And I will say this. It’s very hard to go on sub whether you’re trying to get an agent or, you know, I’ve, I’ve experienced it with, with a book too.
One thing I decided after that first time that I went through it is that I wasn’t ever going to do it alone again. So get yourself surrounded with writers, whether it’s through something like HF, chitchat, the, the Twitter chat or History Quill, the The Writer’s Critique Group, or even, you know, some of these podcasts will, we’ll, we’ll occasionally have writer’s conferences.
Surround yourself. So this time around when I was getting closer and I, and I, I had been talking with Kevin and she had been giving me some, some advice for some resub and resubmit, and I thought, okay, this is it. I’m getting there and if she doesn’t like it, I’m ready to, to start going on, but I’m not going to do it emotionally alone.
So, that’s what I would suggest too, because it, it’s grueling, you all know, everybody knows how hard it’s.
[00:21:42] Theo Brun: That’s interesting, isn’t it? Because I, yeah, I mean, you do start to make friends, don’t you? In in the sort of what I suppose you call it, the publishing community, the writing community, and you can feed off other people’s energy and. And their enthusiasm, their encouragement, but at the same time, there’s, there can be a little devil on your shoulder at the same time playing the competitive game as well.
And so I, I’m often having to remind myself like, running your own lane, you know, you can see it because people, authors share different stuff on social media or the stuff that you can see and like, you know, those guys who are like, Hey, I just write 3000 words today and it, and again today and again today.
And you’re like, okay, okay. That’s okay. So, you know, there’s different aspects isn’t there to, to, you know, what it means to be connected into and, and that visibility of seeing, seeing other people. Yeah. I wondered on that theme, I guess we’ve had a few different guests on here this last sixth episode. We, and, and two jump out at me for different reasons.
One was, Octavia Randolph who was talking about the idea of like this very clear theme that she had for her writing, and then we had, Piper Hugeley who was talking about this sort of strategy and like a game plan for her writing career. Just wonder whether, you know the stage you’re at. You’ve obviously had big breakthrough.
There’s. Further games to play as it were. Like, are these sort of intentional thoughts and ideas around theme and strategy that are kind of crystallizing in your head or you just taking it one, one step at a time?
[00:23:16] Syd Young: I always think ahead. Is that, is that me a lawyer is or is it just a type A?
[00:23:23] Julia Kelly: Absolutely.
[00:23:25] Theo Brun: Risk reward.
[00:23:27] Syd Young: I also think the, the critiques and, and I haven’t mentioned this, but I’ve also done the beta reads with History Quill, and that was a great process. It’s relatively inexpensive. I was really thrilled with the fact that. Eight people signed up for my book pretty quick, and I, I got six reviews back within three weeks, which I thought was amazing.
Um, and, and they were also helpful. But one of the things that has surprised me, and I guess it shouldn’t because I’m Southern, you can hear my accent here, but it’s surprised me that so many people have loved. My voice or, or actually I think of it as Lady Bird’s voice in this book. So I think of, you know, gosh, I sure hope that a southern book about a southern woman who’s done something amazing can be published and I would sure love to tap into that and, and do another southern themed book, whether that’s what I stick with or not.
I do think that’s part of the power of my writing. I hate to say, write what you know. But, sometimes what you know comes through Very true.
[00:24:33] Theo Brun: And it can be very close to what you love as well.
[00:24:36] Syd Young: And that’s what yes. Part of my heart. I mean, this was a book of my heart, so
[00:24:42] Julia Kelly: I, I’d love to learn a little bit more about your Twitter chat as well, and the community that you’ve built there. I’m gonna mess the name up. Is it his HiFi chitchat?
[00:24:52] Syd Young: it’s HF chit.
[00:24:54] Julia Kelly: Hf Chitchat, okay. Easier to say.
[00:24:58] Syd Young: Yes. So, so what happened with that? I, I told you, I, I’ve written for a long time, but some of those years I was writing in the closet. I was busy with my job. I had kids I was raising and once they graduated I promised myself, once they graduated from high school, I would go to, to a conference and, and the one I wanted to go was Historical Novel Society in North America in 2017.
And it was so much fun to get to meet other writers. I think for the first time, say I’m writing historical fiction. My husband just talks about how giddy we all are about. What year did you write? You know how it is. We’re all such geeks, right? And it’s so fun to be together. So I went to that and then I was just really sad that there wasn’t a community on Twitter.
Like there was, you know, pitch wars and, and the fantasy writers and other writers groups or just very visible on social media and, and us historical fiction nerds we’re a little slow. You know, we like to look at things and, and see. So there wasn’t much of a presence and I had met. Janet and Noelle, one of one of our co-hosts through Pitch Wars and talked her into going to the conference in 2019.
And at the conference she says, I kept saying so I really wanna do this, this Twitter chat, and I want you to do it with me. And she finally said, yes, but what it did it, and it was really cool. I just got back from going to another. Historical Fiction Writers Association in June, and it was so fun to see all these writers who have met each other and supported each other and know each other’s work, meet in person, and they have a deeper relationship because of that HF Chit Chat.
Hashtag So a lot of people don’t really understand how, how the hashtag works for us because we’re, we want to concentrate on our writing. We only do it once a month, and we either do, we, we mostly alternate months between a live chat event or a daily event. And so what that means is when it’s a live event, and I’m, I’m sorry to say.
More focused in the US just because of the time. You know, we would love to, to have it also be timed where everyone can do it, but we’re doing it after work hours in the US And so for the live event, it’s a one hour event and we’ll have six questions and you just find the, the hashtag and answer the questions if you want.
You who? Follow along and pay attention to it. We don’t necessarily chat. You can also answer the chat anytime you want. We have four co-hosts, and so between the four of us, there’s usually someone hanging out late, you know, not able to come at the right time for the daily chats, which this is honestly one of the more popular ones.
We’ll, we’ll have a theme and each day for four days we’ll ask a question. It always is on the last Tuesday of the month. And so it’ll, you know, on the daily, it’ll go Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, except for our big event in December. We do a 12 days of. and so it’s really fun to, to start during the holidays and, and go through the new year, you know, where you’re talking about your New Year’s resolutions and talk about everything we love about the craft of historical fiction, the research, the writers, the books.
You know, it’s, it’s just been a lot of fun and, and it’s been nice to see the community that’s come together. who knows what’s gonna happen with it, with all the Twitter things going on. But I will say if you’re on Twitter or if you’re afraid to get on Twitter, because, because it’s such a hateful timeline, you just follow that chat and, and follow along.
And we have some pretty strong rules that we don’t allow bullying, that kind of thing. And it’ll wash your timeline to just have some pleasant historical fiction writing stuff.
[00:28:48] Theo Brun: Sounds like a whole world waiting to be discovered. For me, I.
[00:28:52] Julia Kelly: I
[00:28:53] Theo Brun: Just didn’t know all this sort of stuff went on. I, I obviously should have.
[00:28:56] Syd Young: I’ve seen authors don’t really have time to, to do it much, but they’ll pop in. Kate Quinn pops in pretty regularly. And the the cool thing about that is it does help authors boost things organically. It’s not paid, it’s just the love of people who read and talk about historical fiction.
[00:29:16] Theo Brun: I think it’s great to have somewhere where you can go to on social media that isn’t instantly gonna poison your day, because I find that quite rare. But yeah, no, it’s, I mean, historical fiction writers, they’re all so lovely to one another, aren’t they? So it’s, it’s all a big love in, but I, I wanted to ask you a question.
You are, perhaps we’ve got time for a, a couple more, but as a lawyer, I’m sure you are intimidated by nothing. but I did have a question. I did have a question written down, which was, was sort of looking forward a little bit in the future and, and sort of, you know, you’ve reached that, that milestone of getting a, an agent and now the next thing would be to get a publisher.
And so looking ahead at the kind of landscape of that you’ve now got to tackle, like what, what excites you most in terms of the challenges, but also what. Sort, if I wanna say intimidates, but I don’t know. That’s probably the wrong word. You know what? What? What do you think? Right? I’m gonna have to kind of up my loins and really go at this.
[00:30:17] Syd Young: So I’ll start with the negative first. What’s intimidating? I believe that if, if you’re not, if you’re not challenging yourself, You know, you’re probably not reaching your full writing potential. I will say with with this Lady Bird book, I, I reached way far out there and it has been an intimidation from day one, you know, a, a head game, a feeling, very much the imposter syndrome.
So I. I don’t know. I would love for that to go away, but I also hope that I keep reaching and, and keep knowing that every time there’s a struggle, I feel like it’s very, riding is very much like, like pregnancy and birth. Every time there’s a struggle and you get to that crowning moment where you think, this ain’t gonna work.
I’m not gonna get there. And you keep your butt in the seat and you keep going. And then the next day you wake up and you’re like, I wrote this. I, I got it there. So I hope to, to keep with it and to keep reaching. And the exciting part of it is I feel, you know, how they say in the world that, that, everyone’s related to Kevin Bacon within seven Degrees. I feel like everyone’s related to Lady Bird probably within three degrees. and maybe it’s just from where I’m from, but it seems like everyone has a Lady Bird story and there’s so much fun. I really can’t wait. I. To get that book published. I’m just gonna manifest that and get to talk to people about it and hear their stories and really do this Team Lady bird thing.
I recently was, was rewriting a fight scene that was really important and I was trying to, to bury some more plot points into it and just feeling like I was getting nowhere. So we have a really creative theater community here and I invited a couple of actors over. One to read to narrate, one to be Lady Bird and one to be Lyndon Johnson.
And it was so much fun. It was just a delight. And then to, to listen to their stories about, you know, what they know about, about the Johnsons and about the sixties. That’s exciting. I’m looking forward to that.
[00:32:24] Julia Kelly: It’s been so much fun talking to you, and I feel like I hope everybody finds it as sort of affirming and and inspirational. Hearing your story, just kind of big picture. If somebody is sort of where you were 14 years ago when you first started writing, or where you were even two years ago, what would your advice be to them about sort of continuing on and, and pushing yourself, as you say, challenging yourself to, to do something different with your writing and to keep pushing?
How do you sort of. Advise people who are maybe in that spot looking at you saying, well, you, you did it. You got representation. Then you’ve taken the next step.
[00:33:03] Syd Young: So that’s, that’s two. The first one is, Get out the closet and start telling people that you’re writing and what you’re writing, it’s okay. You know, some, sometimes you need to keep it secret, but, but if you’re just beginning your journey and, and you really want to, to go somewhere with it, start, start admitting it and finding those friends.
Maybe join something like History Quill, or go to a conference or look at the, the chat or other things. There’s many things now for. For us on social media. And the second thing is, and, and this is really important, when Kevin and I started talking, she had read a query, my query in a, in a query group and loved it and invited me to, to submit my manscript to her.
And when I sent it to her, she said, okay, this is great, but there is a particular element that you need to work on. And I could taken that and said, Nope, not gonna do it. This is my way or the highway. I advise you to really think about what you want in your path. Do you want it to just be your work or do you want it to maybe be accessible by more people and you know, really get that, that dig in and, and see how, how good you can make it.
[00:34:16] Julia Kelly: Well, this has been such a wonderful, and, and I think I hope for everybody inspirational conversation. Before you go, I wanna make sure we have a chance to ask you where we can follow along with your writing career from. Hopefully next big step to next big step.
[00:34:30] Syd Young: All right, thank you. you can find me on any of the social medias, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook at Sid Young Stories, and I also have a website.
[00:34:43] Theo Brun: Thank you so much, Sid. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you. And yeah, we wish you luck for the future and hopefully we’ll hear some good news soon about publication of this amazing book. So we wish you well and see you out there in the Twitter sphere.
[00:34:58] Syd Young: I’ve really enjoyed your podcast. I’ve listened to every single one of ’em. I’ve written down quotes from ’em, so great job. Keep going.
[00:35:05] Julia Kelly: Thank you. Well, that was fantastic. Syd is a, is a great guest and I, again, I hope inspirational to a lot of people who are listening, certainly to me, we have a lot of things to talk about here and I’m really excited for our discussion.
[00:35:25] Theo Brun: Yeah, absolutely. It was so interesting talking to someone at a slightly different stage in their career to the other guests that we’ve had, but, but we can get into that and I think there’s things to learn, even for us in theory, further down the track. But there’s still a lot of what she said was, Making me sort of think of things that I can apply to my own writing and career.
But before we do, I’ve got some housekeeping, so I need to remind all our listeners to visit the history quill.com/six where you can access a range of resources relating to this episode and it’s specific to what we were actually discussing. Syd Young herself has been a participant on what’s called r.
Work in progress group coaching program and the next one is starting in September, so it’s coming up the information. There’s a link in the description of this episode that you can go to the link sign up. Clearly she got a lot out of that. Hopefully some of our listeners who sign up will do so as well and hopefully make the progress that she made from it.
Otherwise, you can also join our email list to receive new podcast episodes and more content for historical fiction writers. Find the link in the description and enter that into your browser.
[00:36:37] Julia Kelly: Yep. So all those tools you need can help you put everything into action. But I think before we talk about any of that stuff, we, we need to, we need to. Take a moment and dissect. There’s so much good stuff that Syd was talking about and so much that I wanna talk about around critiques and community and finding an agent and writing historical fiction and her approach. Theo, outta that huge, huge list of things. What would you like to start out with?
[00:37:04] Theo Brun: I think the, one of the most basic things when you start looking at. The kind of things she’s gone through when you’re talking about critique and feedback is like how do you, what’s the attitude you bring into the room for that? Because when we talk about sort of holding your heart out, when you write something and you’re offering someone else to say cast judgment or just have an opinion on that, you have to be ready for the good and the bad.
And I think she seemed to bring quite healthy attitudes to just the concepts of like, okay, here I’m ready to receive critique. I wanna learn. I’m ready to, to hear past the sharp of, of being told it’s not absolutely wonderful in order to learn and make it better.
[00:37:46] Julia Kelly: I think that is absolutely right. I think it’s a really hard thing to do and a hard thing to remind yourself is necessary have, have you ever used. Used a critique group or critique partners before, have you gone through that stage that she is talking about?
[00:38:00] Theo Brun: I haven’t, I’ve never talked. The value in joining a writer’s group, and I don’t think it’s a kind of sense of superiority or anything that aloofness or whatever that holds me out that I’ve just, I’ve just found other ways of getting a bit of feedback from that rather than just being a participant in a group.
And actually some of the stuff that I’ve done personally with the history Quill has been really useful as a tutor benefit. I suppose it’s what she was doing. Like you’re critiquing other people’s work as well as having, submitting yours for critique, but that’s as much a learning process for you as for the subject as it were.
So I’ve really found that through mentoring people, through, yeah, just doing sort of more short, smaller scale tutoring exercises or whatever, then coming back to my own work and going, oh, okay. You know, you see it with a different eye and that slightly objective eye which is such a key part of what we do. How about you? Have you been through the years that you’ve been doing it been part of groups?
[00:39:06] Julia Kelly: I have. Yeah, so nothing is nothing as formal as Sid was talking about. And I have to say, I wish that I had been, I. Very, very early on in my career, in fact, so early, I’m not even sure. That it was a book that I went out to get an agent with. I think it may have been even before that. There was a basically a website that was essentially a chat room where you could kind of get into genres that were pretty similar to yours.
And, you know, people would trade credits, I think, I don’t even remember the name of this thing, but you’d trade credits, you’d trade, each review that you did for somebody else earned you a certain number of credits. So there were, they were trying to make sure that it was somewhat even that you were both.
Giving feedback as well as receiving feedback. And I did find that helpful. But what I think was missing for me was the consistency of working with people who are aware of what you’re trying to do as an author. They’re aware of, you know, the progression of your books so far. These, I was receiving critiques on chapters that were pretty random.
You know, people would sort of jump in and it was, it was great. But I think the thing that was missing for me, the pieces that were missing was that consistency and so that when I did start to meet other authors, again, I was unpublished at the time, but I did have an agent at this point. I was able to trade critiques back and forth with authors who were willing to read through my entire book and kind of really get in and say, okay, you know, you have a character who starts at this point in the book looking at their whole character arc. I think you’re missing some emotional points here. Or I think this maybe isn’t working as well, or you’re really good at this. Maybe consider, I. You know how you can play that up.
And I was able to also do the same for them. So some of those people have become such an important part of my life that I talk to them every day still. You know, we don’t necessarily do the same level of critiques as we used to, because some of us have switched genres. Some of us have, you know, had different life circumstances come up.
But I think having, having that relationship where, as she said, you know, you can be honest, but you are also invested in somebody else’s work is really, really valuable.
[00:41:12] Theo Brun: Yeah, it was interesting the way she characterized those sort of friendships or relationships. It’s like they’re kind of, the link is, is the writing first and then the friendship. Built sort of behind that, which changes the character of that relationship and that friendship a little bit. I’m trying to think like, I can’t remember even why I went on Good Reads the other day and like the latest review of one of my books, I think my last book was like, you know, it was a two star and it was pretty bad.
It’s like, but it was, but it was also, you could sort of see that. It wasn’t unfair, you know, like in the little gremlin inside your head that’s like, is this all that you are doing? You know, is your dialogue stilted or is your, you know, are these plot lines sort of obvious and what have you? It’s, it was sort of, and it was, it was expressing a kind of level of astonishment that anyone else on Good Reads could have enjoyed this book.
So it’s like, okay, that’s pretty hard to take, but I’m just,
[00:42:12] Julia Kelly: Theo, that’s like, a right of passage as an author.
[00:42:13] Theo Brun: I think I’ve had them before, but I thought it made me think, you know, very recently the idea, which I think every author needs to appreciate is that one man or woman’s meat is another man or woman’s poison. And I, I mean, even personally, Syd talked about Hillary Mantel when I first, I think I listened to Wolf Hall.
I had a sort of very famous book about Thomas Cromwell. I just, I was like, nah, I didn’t think it was, it wasn’t for me, but like, I, maybe I’m wrong about that. And I’ve enjoyed other stuff that she’s done and I, I have to just hop back. Into my previous life when I was, I used to row a lot when I was at, at university and we had this amazing coach.
He was a very sort of monosyllabic, new Zealander who ended up actually coaching the British team that won the Olympic gold medal in 2000. And sadly, he passed away the year after, after that kind of moment of great glory. But his, his yes or his no. You just wanted to get that. Yes. And, and you were prepared to, it’s like you just, I, I think that was a great exercise or period actually where I was just learning to take criticism.
It’s like, no, no, no, no. You’re not getting it. You’re not getting it. And I think, you know, to be able to take criticism is, is one of the key. Characteristics of an author, I think is you’ve gotta have a bit of a thick skin. ’cause otherwise, I mean, I don’t know about for you, but you, you could be stopped in your tracks very early on in a writing career.
Can’t you just ’cause someone didn’t like it and then you’re like, oh, it’s not me, I’m a, I’m out of it.
[00:43:54] Julia Kelly: Absolutely. Well, and I think it’s also one of those tricky things where everybody does have to learn how to take criticism as part of a writing career. Because whether it happens when you’re unpublished, you’re getting an agent, you’re agented, you know, you are going through the editorial process, or readers are reading your book, you know, they’re seeing it in bookshelves and, and get.
Leaving you feedback on good reads. The reality is this is a business that people have opinions about books and people have an opinion about story and what works and what doesn’t work. People aren’t afraid often to tell you what that opinion is, and in some cases that’s really healthy. It’s a really good thing.
An editorial letter is an incredibly valuable thing when it’s, you know, done in good faith by, by a good editor. So I think it’s important to learn how to take criticism. I think it’s also important to learn how to. Understand what is valuable and what you can maybe leave behind. And I say that at every stage of the process, whether you are, you know, published, unpublished, working with an editor, working with a critique group, you know, understanding that you don’t have to take every suggestion or every bit of feedback, but they’re good to think about and sort of for you to understand what is.
What is it that you’re trying to do with a book? What is it that you are trying to achieve and does that criticism or does that feedback help get you closer to that or does it take you further away? And I think that’s kind of one of the skills that as you’re working in a group, like the group coaching, you can sort of start to develop that sort of almost sixth sense for what is going to be important and significant for your book and your story.
And it can really help you hone down. What you’re trying to do as an author, which I think is a, is one of those things that I, I still struggle with sometimes. I’m working on a book right now that took me a long time to get to what, what am I actually trying to do with this book? What is the story I’m trying to tell?
And that sounds so fundamental, but sometimes when you’re all caught up and you know, these are what my characters are going to do, and this is the plot and. Sometimes you need to get back to basics and kind of cut away and cut away and say, what? What do I want to do with this story? And how am I telling it?
And I think that critiques and feedback can be really, really helpful in pinpointing that and making you really sit there and say, okay, this is what, this is what this book is going to be about and this is what I’m doing that’s getting me closer and this is what I’m doing that’s holding me back.
[00:46:11] Theo Brun: I think you need to get to. That point, don’t you? For most books, like, I, I think what you’re sort of describing is, is, is the premise of, of a book, which I now I’ve read, read books. There was one by a guy called James Fray called How to Write a Damn Good Novel, which I recommend to anyone as an interesting book.
For just the, the kind of craft of writing. But he talks about that sort of, yeah. What is this book about? What is, what is the kernel of this book? And you can call it different things, but actually listening to other people. Sometimes you, yeah, there’s a sounding board of like, them coming back and saying, I think this is what it is.
But you, I think the point you’re, you are saying, and I agree with is that there’s a sort of chiming, like if you hear someone echo it back to you, you, you, you know, in your. Like you say, sixth sense, yes, that’s it. And that probably helps you frame it. But once you know that thing, it actually helps you make decisions about what actually is going in and staying out of this book.
And also the threads of, you know, that what actually happens in terms of plot and characterization, all of that. So it’s having that confidence, I suppose, that like all this information’s coming in, I’ve gotta trust a little bit that I’ve got a kind of filtration system in place that. As you say, you can discard some of it, but actually that’s really useful.
But there’s, there’s still that moment where you have to, you read someone’s critique for the first time and, and you, and you’re literally not seeing it as it actually is. It’s so weird, isn’t it? And then you read that same. Like she described, you read that same letter again the next day, let’s say, and you’re like, oh, oh, I can do that.
I can make that change. So I see that. I see what she’s saying now. I see what you’re saying there. It’s so funny, isn’t it? Like how your own subjectivity gets sort of projected onto something.
[00:48:00] Julia Kelly: I, I am notorious for, I love my editors. I love being edited. It’s a, it’s, it, I think it’s a really, really vital part of my process. But the moment I get an edit letter, I open it up and I know, okay, we’re gonna do this. I open it, I read it, and I. Close my laptop and I walk away and I’m like, this, they just don’t get it.
They don’t get it. It’s, it’s, it’s just terrible. Like I’m never, this is this, we’re just too far apart. This is never gonna happen. And then usually I give myself about 24 hours, I sleep on it. I open the edit letter back up again. I usually will print it out, make notes. ’cause for some reason that that works really well with my brain.
And almost inevitably I sit there and I go, yep. Absolutely. Yep. She’s right about that. ’cause both my editors are women. She’s right about that. She’s right about that. I hadn’t thought about that. Oh, that just triggered this thought in my brain. And that solves this problem that I knew was a problem, but I didn’t know how to get at it.
And so I think having that external set of eyes, feedback, whatever it is coming in, can be really helpful. But I do think as an author, no matter where you are in your career, you’re allowed to have a bit of a.
[00:49:03] Theo Brun: Yes.
[00:49:03] Julia Kelly: an edit letter or a critique, or a good reads review or whatever that is, that is completely allowed and I, and I fully endorse it,
[00:49:10] Theo Brun: Yeah, funnily enough, I had the last, the last one I had, so it was the first round of edits coming, coming back, and they were quite, and it was quite positive, but quite short. And I was like, she didn’t like it. She didn’t like it. It was like, that can’t be it, you know? It’s like, It’s so bad that she can’t be bothered to, to make any comments on it.
Anyway, it’s so funny, isn’t it? Going back to Sid, another theme that again, is there, which has been with all our guests, is this incredible length of time that she’s been persevering with it. For 14 years or whatever it is. And then that sort of shift in terms of that moment of inspiration was significant, wasn’t it?
And that somehow seemed to align with whether it was a very obvious passion to her, but something that she, she really felt connected to.
[00:50:02] Julia Kelly: Absolutely, and I, I think also one of the other things is just understanding that she needed to find people who were doing this also, and she needed to find people who could. Sort of, she could build a community around. So whether that was doing something like The History Quill or going to conferences or getting on Twitter and trying to sort of surround herself by authors who are going through some of the same things and are interested by some of the same things, I think really makes a huge difference.
You know, finding, finding a community and finding people who understand this strange thing, which is. Being a writer and having these stories in your head and feeling the compulsion to write them down, I think that that’s something very universal that authors, it’s come up a lot, you know, as we’ve, as we’ve talked to people throughout this season, you know, the need to find other authors and to connect and try to really make something, make something of a community out of this sometimes very solitary work.
[00:50:56] Theo Brun: Yeah, she was, she was impressive on that score, wasn’t she, in terms of what, the way she obviously went about creating a kind of community as much as just trying to participate in one and also, you know, her attitude to challenge, I suppose. She was just like, I want to, I wanna stretch myself. I, I mean, I guess the pressure of being a lawyer, Something I’m familiar with in my past and Anna was talking about, wasn’t she as well.
You know, how do you see a big difficult challenge, something that you’re not gonna get this massive, necessarily a massive sort of payoff. You’re just gonna get a sense that you are getting somewhere and that’s about all you can hope for. So yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s tough. It’s definitely tough. The satisfaction that she obviously got from the progress that she made, that, that it’s.
[00:51:48] Julia Kelly: Absolutely, absolutely. It gives me, it gives me hope for, you know, continuing to grow and, and change through my own career. And I hope, I hope people who listen, find that to be a very hopeful thing as well.
[00:52:00] Theo Brun: Well, I think that’s a lovely note to end the season on and the episodes. So lots to take away from the six guests that we’ve had and hopefully there’ll be lots more.
[00:52:14] Julia Kelly: Absolutely. Well, thank, thank you again, in particular to, Syd Young. That was a wonderful conversation. And that concludes this episode of The History Quill Podcast. If you enjoyed today’s show and want to find out more about the topics we discussed, you can head over to thehistory quill.com/6 to gain access to a range of resources related to this episode, including more information about our group coaching program. You can also join our email list to receive new podcast episodes and more content for historical fiction writers. The link is in the description and you can enter it into your browser.
[00:52:49] Theo Brun: And of course, wherever you’re listening to this podcast, make sure that you like, subscribe, and leave us a comment or review. Thank you so much for listening and hopefully we’ll see you soon.
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