Tag Archives: critique groups

Your Book…Or Your Critique Group’s?

By Patricia Stoltey

Yes, I’m piggy-backing on Mary Gillgannon’s excellent Friday post called “Your Book…Or Your Editor’s?" She raised some important points about picking your battles and keeping an open mind about suggested editorial changes.

Going into a book contract without a little flexibility along with confidence in your story and characters is a risky business. You can’t work well with your publisher’s editors unless you have both.

As the member of a critique group, or even with a single critique partner, you may face similar challenges as you submit chapters to your group for review. Getting through the first round of critiques, especially if you’re submitting first draft quality, is not so bad. You wouldn’t be part of a critiquing arrangement unless you’re open to constructive criticism, suggestions, and even an occasional round of laughter at a huge mistake. Right?

By the end of the first draft, you will have a bunch of character notes, corrections (some big, some nit-picky), suggestions, alternate plot ideas, and timeline errors that must be considered during the revision process.

Whether you revise as you go, or put it all together after the first draft is written, there is now a big decision to make. Will you submit revised chapters to the group?

My own process is to submit basic first draft quality writing to my group because I want them to have free rein in picking on anything and everything.

If I do decide to submit revised chapters, it’s usually because I’ve made big changes. And if I only want “big picture” observations, I say so. I also tend to discourage line-by-line editing because it’s a waste of the critique member’s time. I go over my manuscripts so many times after the critique group’s contributions, and I make so many changes, that most outside editing is lost in the shuffle anyway.

There are risks involved when you submit revisions for critique, so it’s important to:

1. Define your novel’s genre. There are structural differences for romance, for traditional mystery, for thriller, for horror, for YA.
2. Know if your novel is plot-driven or character-driven.
3. Understand your novel’s theme or message.
4. Decide if you’re open to big changes to plot or character during the next revision.
5. Tell your critique group ahead of time what you want…and what you don’t want.

If you take revised work back to your group but leave the options open, you may receive suggestions for major plot changes, deleting or changing characters, or using structural techniques that don’t really apply to your genre.

What happens then?

You might have a crisis of confidence and feel your novel is absolute garbage.

And start making random changes to absorb all those great suggestions.

And end up with a mess.

More experienced writers tend to work through this stage with their critique groups and learn when to implement and when to reject suggestions. Writers new to the craft, or just new to critique group dynamics, may need to go through a learning phase before they understand that suggestions are just suggestions, like the results of a brainstorming session.

If you know and understand what you’re writing and why, you’ll learn to trust your instincts when absorbing feedback from a critique group or critique partner. And you’ll learn to guide your critique partners before they examine your submission so they don't waste time on comments you’ll only ignore.

In the end, it’s your book. Take control.

The Curse of the First Pancake … by Shannon Baker

Shannon Baker 2015There’s a piece of writing wisdom that says to hone your craft, you must first write one million words. Back in my early years, I’d read somewhere that it takes, on average, twelve years from beginning writer to published author. If you’re writing every day, those might amount to roughly the same. If that’s the case, I’m a below average writer. I don’t remember when I became serious about writing but I started slowly, articles, essays, short stories, before I launched into novels.

I took a few years off here and there for life crises, and eventually published my first novel in 2010. Although I loved that book—as it lives in my head—I’m afraid it’s a First Pancake affair.

You know about the first pancake. For some reason, it never turns out right. Parts of it burn and others are doughy. That’s the one the dog gets. But after that, they rise up to a golden brown, all fluffy and perfect. I’ve learned not to get impatient and gobble that first one. I’m better off to save belly space for the really good pancakes that follow.

I didn’t apply the same wisdom to my First Pancake book. I worked on that poor story for far too long. I knew the characters from their DNA out, why they acted as they did, nearly every day of their childhood. I understood the issues at stake, the technology, the history. I researched and read, dreamed and created. Tore down, rewrote, revised, regurgitated.

My critique groups saw so many versions they grew to hate it. Oh, they never said so, but I knew their inner groaning when I’d cheerfully announce, “I fixed it!” and handed out pages. I queried agents in the hundreds. And in between rejections, I’d rewrite according to the last skill I learned or the latest critique.

Baker_Tattered Legacy (1)I buried myself in that book, refusing to give it up. By the time I finally got a nano-press to accept it, I couldn’t tell you what I’d translated onto the page and what only survived in my head. It was a goulash of partially rewritten scenes, action changed to meet so many others’ ideas, styles and timelines. When I started writing the book, data was stored on CDs and used in desktop computers. When I published it, thumb drives and cell phones were common.

I probably shouldn’t have turned it out for public consumption but publishing seemed the only way for me to let it go and move on.

I can’t say the next book was perfect, but it did rise and cook evenly all the way through. And to follow this analogy to the ridiculous, every book since then has been full of better quality ingredients that just weren’t available for that first pancake. And now I’m thinking of clever ways to incorporate butter and syrup metaphors, layering pancake on pancake to create a towering stack of literature, but I’ll go ahead and give you all a break.

I’ve got my rights back to that book. And I still believe in the story, even after the disaster execution. Every now and then, I get the notion I should pull it out and with my new skills, rework it. Again. The premise is great. The concept is still valid.

So far, my wiser side has prevailed. (That and my friends and family get a rabid gleam in their eyes when I mention it.) I’ll let the dog enjoy that First Pancake book and happily introduce the third book in the stack called the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, Tattered Legacy.

It’s set in the iconic red rocks of Moab, UT. Working to solve the murder of her best friend, Nora uncovers an unlikely intersection of ancient Hopi legends, a secret polygamist sect and one of the world’s richest men. Will Nora put all the pieces together in time to prevent disaster?

I have a friend who declares his oldest step-child is a Pancake Child. What is a Pancake in your life?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shannon Baker is the author of the Nora Abbott mystery series from Midnight Ink. A fast-paced mix of Hopi Indian mysticism, environmental issues, and murder. Shannon is an itinerant writer, which is a nice way of saying she’s confused. She never knows what time zone she’s in, Timbuck-Three, Nebraska, or Denver, or Tucson. Nora Abbott has picked up that location schizophrenia and travels from Flagstaff in Tainted Mountain, to Boulder in Broken Trust and then to Moab in Tattered Legacy. Shannon is proud to have been chosen Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2014 Writer of the Year. Visit Shannon at her website.

While Tattered Legacy is available from your favorite online or bookstore, if you’d like to support indie bookstores, you’re welcome to contact Who Else Books at Broadway Book Mall.  Ron and Nina are the best! And they might have a signed copy to send.

You Need Critique

By Lesley L. Smith

Photo by Patricia Stoltey

Photo by Patricia Stoltey

There's a stereotype of the writer hammering away on her typewriter late into the night in a cold lonely garret in Paris. Okay, nowadays, she's stereotypically hammering on her computer keyboard. Maybe she's wearing those gloves with the fingertips missing. Maybe she's drinking bourbon or scotch or rye. In pretty much every scenario, however, she's writing alone. That part of the stereotype is true. (Why can't it be the Paris part?) Generally, writers write alone. That's why we need feedback. We need someone else to put his or her eyes on the page and tell us if what we've written makes sense (and to warn us about wandering body parts). Another word for feedback is critique.

Like many of you, I've been writing a long time. It wasn't until I became a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW) and joined a critique group that my writing really started to improve. It's hard to see our own work objectively. Getting input from your significant other, your BFF, or your mom is not the same thing as getting input from another writer. Your friends support you by saying nice things. Your fellow writers support you by critiquing your work.

There are many reasons to join a critique group:

  • Get feedback on your writing. Find out what works and what doesn't work in your own pieces. Learn about the mechanics of writing. Learn about the art of writing.
  • Get to know other writers. Be part of the writing community. Help other writers become better writers.
  • Experience those "Ah ha!" moments. When you have to stop and think and explain to another writer why something works or doesn't work it often leads to an increased understanding about writing.
  • Meet writing deadlines. If I'm being honest, usually the only reason I finish my pages for the week is because they're due at critique group.
  • Your reason here. There are almost as many reasons to go to critique group as there are writers. Please share in the comments.

Of course, it's not all wine and roses. Sometimes you go to a critique group and it's not a good fit. But, if this is the case, there's an easy fix: leave the group and find another group.

Another thing to keep is mind is you don't have to change your work because of critique, it's your work, after all. Listen, consider, and then, do what you want.

How can you find this wonderful thing called critique?

  • Many local libraries and bookstores have critique groups.
  • There are a lot of critique groups online these days (search for "online writers critique groups"). Also check out Meet-ups.
  • I've met critique partners at local writers workshops and conferences.
  • Many local Writers Groups have critique groups. For example, RMFW has an entire critique webpage, including critique guidelines and listings of critique groups in the Denver metro area and online.

Please ask your questions about critique and critique groups in the comments.

Finally, I couldn't write a post about critique without including a shout-out to my many critique partners over the years. There have been a lot--and, no, I'm not reading anything into that. :) Thank you for all your help! Thank you Rebecca, Grayson, Jamie, Adrianne, Donna, John, Jim, Mary, Emily, Deb, Mike, Susan, Joseph, Monica, Barb, Nancy, Judy, Zuzana, Jill, Jordan, Dave, Betsy, Renata, Georgia and all the rest. I sincerely appreciate your help, support and insight! Maybe we should have our next meeting in Paris?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lesley L. Smith has an M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction, and her short
fiction has been published in various venues. She's an active member of
the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America and Rocky Mountain Fiction
Writers. You can find her on the web at www.lesleylsmith.com.

5 GAMES FOR WRITERS

By Kevin Paul Tracy

Lively Discussion

Writers block is rarely the inability to think of something to write, as most people think of it. Sometimes it is more insidious: we feel as if we're in a rut, writing the same old thing and not able to break out of the stricture; the plot we've outlined for our current project works, but doesn't inspire us or entice us to sit down and write it; or we sense we are treading ground already tread by other writers and while, yes, we could probably do it as well or better, is what we can do with the subject sufficiently fresh and original to make it worth the effort.

Even if it is writers block in the traditional sense, there are ways to break out of it, with, as the Beatles put it, "a little help from (our) friends." What follows are five games a group of writers can play to help get the juices flowing again. These can be played in a critique group, at a writers retreat, or just while sitting around sipping wine and discussing our craft. The final output of these games may not be anything of value or use at all, but that isn't the point. The point is to recharge the creative batteries by stepping away from our current project and indulging in a little bit of literary silliness!

THE CASTING SLOUCH
Before the writers gather, the host creates three characters. She doesn't name them, only gives them character traits: age, appearance, occupation, quirks, habits, deep dark secret, etc. She then creates a setting: time, place, weather conditions, whatever. Now, as the game starts, the writers are given 30 minutes to write a first chapter or scene, roughly ten pages, using all three characters and the setting to introduce a conflict and begin the plot that will presumably carry through an entire novel. Spelling, grammar, even structure doesn't matter, what's important is the story. Once completed, they read their chapters to each other and discuss.

POSTHUMOUS, THE FRIENDLY GHOST WRITER
In this game, the writers sit around a table or in a rough circle. Each writer is given 5 minutes to write a part of a chapter or story. In the first 5 minutes he starts it, then the pages are passed clockwise. In the subsequent rounds, each writer has 10 minutes (5 minutes to read what was written) to continue the chapter they were just given, and so on until the last writer on each chapter concludes it. The writers then read the chapters together. Once again none of the mechanics of writing matter, only the story. The trick here is not to try to fit your writing style to the writer who went before you, but only to continue the story in your own voice, while possibly giving some twist to stump the next writer.

TWISTER FOR GENRES
Here the writers draw genres from a hat. If it is a genre in which they normally write they should put it back and draw again. It is okay if more than one writer gets the same genre. After this, each writer is given 30 minutes to rewrite the first chapter of one of their projects, whether it is one on which they are currently working, or a published one, in the style of the new genre they have drawn. Need I repeat mechanics don't count, only story. When done, they read them to each other.

CHARACTER ROULETTE
In this game, each writer is given 15 minutes to develop a rough character. A scenario is drawn from a hat, such as: Godzilla has just stepped on the characters' favorite coffee shop; or a sudden mudslide carries the restaurant at which the characters are dining out to sea; or, the characters show up at a party only to discover it is really an FBI sting operation. Then, without waiting to take turns, the writers state how their characters would react, not only to the situation at hand but to the actions of other characters as they are described by their writers. The trick here is to find creative, original ideas for their reactions that would move a plot forward.

BETTER...OR MORE BETTER?
This one is pretty simple and easy. The writers take turns discussing one major or popular work for fiction from literature, movies, the stage, even a well-known commercial and how they would have rewritten a better ending for it. The writers discuss why this would be or may not necessarily be a better ending.

I know these games might seem silly, but a little silliness never hurt anyone, and you'd be surprised how they break loose the cobwebs and inspire writers to expand their boundaries or even break loose from them entirely. I encourage you to try them.

RMFW Spotlight on Monica Poole, Critique Chair

Each month we feature a Q and A with an RMFW board member or a non-board volunteer. These are wonderful folks who generously share their time and expertise, keep RMFW alive and growing, and provide opportunities for members to perfect their craft. An important part of the writing process is getting feedback from critique partners and groups. The RMFW critique groups are active throughout and beyond the Denver area.

Monica Poole1. Monica, tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I encourage members to seek out, join, and actively participate in a critique group. Visiting a critique group was my first introduction to RMFW. I had been to a few other critique groups organized by other writing groups, and they were the blind leading the blind. Visiting the RMFW group was an eye opening and immensely helpful experience. I came away from that meeting knowing that RMFW was a group of writers who not only knew how to write, but who also knew how to share their writing knowledge with others. I want every member to have that sort of positive experience.

2. What is your current WIP or most recent publication, and where can we buy a book, if available?

I’m working on three books, two are in the fantasy genre. One is really intense with a lot of character angst and the other is a little more fun, as much as any of my books can be called fun. I tend to build dark, dystopian type worlds. The third book is a nonfiction account of my daughter’s journey through her diagnosis of schizophrenia and how our family was able to treat that through diet. It was a long journey that led to my opening my specialized bakery. It took me away from fiction writing for 10 years, but I’m back.

3. We've all heard of bucket lists -- you know, those life-wish lists of experiences, dreams or goals we want to accomplish-- what's one of yours?

My mother noticed that I liked making up wild stories and bought me a red, plastic Fisher Price typewriter when I was in second grade and told me to write down the stuff I had made up. Don’t ask me how I knew how to type in second grade, but I did.

I didn’t believe adults would read stories about made up worlds. Then in fifth grade our teacher read aloud The Hobbit. I thought, hold on, Middle Earth doesn’t exist and adults like this book. I’m going to be a writer. That was it for me. I’ve been writing ever since. But when I tell people I write, the first question is, are you published? I’m very ready to answer YES to that question.

I’d also like to do some traveling, but NOT to any of the places I’ve made up.

4. Most writers have an Achilles heel with their writing. Confess, what's yours?

I too often go down a bunny trail when I’m writing. Then I like where the path leads and I want to work that plot line into the book. Let that happen too many times and you can end up with a tangled mess. Dropping fun plot lines is always a tough cut, but in many cases, it has to be done.

5. What do you love most about the writing life?

Getting to the end of a scene and writing that last line and knowing it is a good scene. This is especially true if the character in the scene just overcame the big obstacle or had a revelation. I love that feeling. It’s addictive.

I also really love meeting with other writers, working with them in a critique setting. The positive feedback as well as the corrective suggestions keep the creative juices flowing.

6. Now that you have a little writing experience, what advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginning writer?

Just write it already! Get the first draft done. The words are never perfect, or even good, right out of the shoot.

7. What does your desk look like? What item must be on your desk? Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it?

Oh my, no one wants to see my desk  I write at work, in my office and my desk is a mess of papers and empty coffee cups.

My current WIP is always open on my computer, whatever computer I happen to be working on. Whenever I get a few minutes, I jot down as much as I can. The boss doesn’t mind. I write at work, at home on my laptop, and if I don’t have my laptop, I jot ideas down on a notebook in my car, usually at a stoplight, but I have been known to write and drive. I’m always thinking about a scene, the next one or the one I’m having trouble with, and I never know when the right idea will fly into my brain.

8. What book are you currently reading (or what was the last one you read)?

I am re-reading The Wheel of Time series and am into the second book, The Great Hunt I believe is the title. I’ve never paid much attention to book titles. All I know is that there are a lot of books in this series and now that the series is completed I want to read them all straight through. When I started the series, years ago, I had gotten through book 7 but it became too tedious waiting for each new installment. So I decided to stop reading until they were all out. So here I am.

I’m also reading book 5 in the George RR Martin Fire and Ice series. Again, I can’t remember what it is called. I can hear all of the writers out there who painstakingly labor over their titles, just having a fit, but oh well.

I’m also reading The Book Thief, and a young adult fantasy titled Eon. Then there are all of the books and bits of books that I read for the members of my critique group or from past critique groups or for writing contests.

I like to have lots of stuff going on at once.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thanks so much for answering our questions, Monica.

Readers, if you're a member of RMFW and want to find a critique group in your area, you can contact Monica at critique@rmfw.org.

Being in Community with Other Writers

By Pamela Nowak

In the twenty years I’ve been writing (well… writing with publication as a goal), there are two things that I’ve come to learn are vital:  learning craft and being in community. Since many of us often talk about craft in our blogs, I thought I’d talk about community and how important it is to the writer.

Writing is a solitary task. We sit down at our keyboards and immerse ourselves in the worlds within our minds. We write in our pajamas, our hair a mess, not seeing anyone all day long. At times, we emerge from a muse-inspired streak amazed that hours have passed. Sometimes, we tweet or update our Facebook status to brag about our frenzied, pajama adventure.

But we’re still alone.

Oh, but when we get a Like or a Comment or someone tweets back, something happens—a gooey warmth because we realize we aren’t alone in our solitary task.

When it comes down to it, those times when we discover others do exactly the same thing, we feel a sense of belonging that buoys us up and gets us through those times when we get discouraged by the writers’ block and the rejection letters and the editors who are making insane demands of us.

This incredible sense that I am not alone is one of the things that has made RMFW my family.

And who can’t use more family, right?  (Well, as long as they don’t interrupt the muse!)

Family, though, is more than being part of a community.  It means being “in” community together, interacting.

Interacting?!  Talking to people?  People you don’t know?  (Reader sticks head in sand).

Small steps can get you there and bring you the surprise of your life!

For me, the first step was joining a critique group. I got lucky the first time out. I discovered a genre-specific group I fit with well, one I could learn from, one in which I felt comfortable laying myself bare. When that group moved too far away from me (I lived in Wyoming at the time), it took a bit more effort to find a group that felt right.  Several of us created a private on-line group and I joined a multi-genre group.  Throughout those early years, I learned far more than I ever imagined was possible about craft and made friendships that nurtured me and allowed me to grow as a writer and a person.

I also began attending conference…standing in the corner looking on mustering every bit of my energy just to avoid fleeing to my room.  It took several years for me to venture out of the corner and interact but I spent those early years learning craft. But every year, I knew more people and discovered that the time with them provided me with a boost that inspired months of writing.

Still, it was my move to the Denver metro area that really allowed me to discover the meaning of community.  Someone asked me to help with the editor/agent critiques for conference.  A few months later, I was recruited to chair conference. I was fully, completely, in community. Nearly six years later, I still volunteer for several conference committees and serve on the RMFW Board. I also serve on committees for another writers’ group, WWW. Being involved has allowed me to get to know so many of my fellow writers, to be part of a family with them, to become a bigger person.

So…to the point of my rambling…

If you’re writing but still feeling that constant isolation, still expending lots of energy at conferences and feeling lonely while you’re there, I invite you to be in community with other writers. Join a critique group if you haven’t done so and allow yourself to develop friendships with your critique partners.  Let those friendships stretch beyond your monthly meetings. Attend monthly education events and talk to the person sitting next to you. Go to conference and step outside your social box. Spend time getting to know other writers. You have something in common to talk about, after all. Volunteer.  It doesn’t have to be for anything big. Even small tasks make you part of the bigger family and bring you in to contact with other writers.   Again, you already have something in common.

You’ll discover that we are all introverts that write in isolation but that we can thrive in discovering others who share our same hopes, dreams, fears, and struggles. And, once we share, we grow stronger and increase our energy until it becomes a big snowball.  And who doesn’t like snowballs?

The first steps toward being part of community may be difficult but they are so worth it.

For more information on community:  critique groups, education events, retreats, conference, or volunteering, check out the RMFW website:  www.rmfw.org.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Pameladownload Nowak writes historical romance set in the American West. In addition to widespread critical acclaim, her books have won multiple national awards. In love with history and rich characters for most of her life, Pam has a B.A. in history, has taught prison inmates, managed the Fort Yuma National Historic Site and run a homeless shelter. She was named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Writer of the Year in 2010, chaired three conferences, and now serves as president. Pam and her life partner Ken live in Denver. Their combined families include six daughters and several grand-children. Together, they parent two dogs and a cat.

Pam loves hearing from readers and invites them to visit her on her website, Facebook, or Twitter.