Guest Post: A View from the Critique by George Seaton

Several years ago when I was attending critique a lively discussion was prompted by one of the members asking the group if we thought of ourselves as writers or authors. I was surprised by the fervor some exhibited in response to that question. The person who’d brought it up was the group’s constant devil’s advocate, a young man whose demeanor was firmly categorical, his criticism blunt and sometimes unkind. When a few said they were authors, the young man aggressively responded that authors were published writers. There was disagreement on that point, and the young man countered with, “Well, raise your hand if you’re a published writer.” (I suppose one could argue that asking such a thing of folks whose singular ambition is to be published is a kind of shaming; if your hand doesn’t go up, well shame on you.) None of us had been published at that time, and no hands were raised. I gave a passing thought about the uselessness of labels and concluded the young man was as usual just giving another performance, just letting us know his ego was stoked that night. Who knows? Maybe that young man was just as frustrated as the rest of us; none of us had yet to publish our Great American Novel, and, by God, when would somebody see the worth of our talent?

I didn’t stay with the face-to-face critique group for very long.  Even though they were good people who shared my passions—to write and become published—I just had no talent for it. I was lousy at it. Who was I to tell another writer how they could improve their work? Hell, I had enough problems trying to figure out my own. The criticism? I took it well except when I didn’t. Besides that I found I was devoting more time preparing for critique than actually writing anything I was happy with.

After I’d left face-to-face critique, I joined an online group. We had three members, one of whom wrote from an assisted care facility way out on the eastern plains of Colorado. She was a delight. Her stories were as homey as I imagined she was. I don’t know where the other one lived, but from her writing I got the impression she was a Highlands Ranch soccer mom who had an interest in Biblical lore and murder mysteries which formed the basis of her storytelling. I believe it was the soccer mom who left first, and I left after that because, as I said, I was spending too much time on it. I did regret leaving my buddy out there on those pancake-flat plains to fend for herself. Though, if memory serves, the critique chair promised to hook her up with another online group. I hope that happened. Her stories were precious and they reminded me of Kent Haruf’s gems—clean construction and salt of the earth.

I’ve had some success over the years since leaving critique. My first published novel appeared in 2010. (I don’t count the novel I published in 2005. It was the product of a vanity press for which I paid a goodly sum. It was not ready for eyes other than mine to see. I’m not ashamed of it, but just a wee bit embarrassed that I had thought it was ready to see the light of day when now I know it clearly wasn’t. I suspect if I’d been attending critique at the time, and had let others see what I was up to, I probably would have heeded the criticism and polished it a lot more than I had.) The 2010 novel was published by a New York publisher. No,  not in Manhattan but Albion, six hours from the Big Apple and just off the shores of Lake Ontario. Small presses do abound, and I hooked up with one of them. Since 2010 three more of my novels have been published, as well as several novellas and short stories that have appeared in anthologies and some as stand-alone. I’ve not delved much into self-publishing and, truth be told, prefer to let someone else handle that part of the process. And, like every other writer I know, I’m working on several WIPs, writing every day, holed up in my writing room where the rest of the world knows to knock before entering.

I don’t think I’ll ever return to critique. I know I’d still be lousy at it. But, as I write this, I know there are those whose dreams have a much better chance of being fulfilled by attending critique than by not bothering with it. Not only for the constructive criticism that is essential to the process, but from the camaraderie as well. Something like everybody being in the same boat, working their oars, and all searching for landfall in the distance. That’s fine, some may say, but you didn’t stay with it. You gave up the ship. Well, I’m reminded of C.J. Box’s—former RMFW Writer of the Year and a New York Times Bestseller—response about his experience with critique: He said, and I paraphrase, “It just wasn’t for me.”

The point of all this is that we’re all different. I, for example, am a solitary writer with a quirk about letting anyone read my stuff before I send it off to a publisher. Others write good stuff in Starbucks, share it with fifteen friends, their critique partners, their Aunt Sybil in Paonia, and their Uncle Ted in Tulsa and then send it off for evaluation and hopefully a contract. We all do what we do because, yes, we are who we are. We can call ourselves writers or authors or whatever the hell we want to. I suppose what we can’t do, though, and I know you all share this sentiment, is give it up.

We breathe therefore we write.





George Seaton lives and writes in Pine, Colorado. Learn more about him at




Cause for Whine or Food for Thought? … by Chris Mandeville

Chris MandevilleI’ve been perfecting my recipe for Coq au Vin for years. I use the happiest, most humanely raised poultry, a decent French Burgundy, organic farm-fresh veggies, and my own secret blend of herbs. The other night I prepared this special dish for my critique group—we always eat dinner before discussing our writing—and because my critique partner Aaron is a vegan, I also prepared an eggplant Wellington just for him.

As I proudly placed the food on the table, alongside a nice Cabernet, I asked the group, “So, what do you think?”

The guests tasted and slurped and savored and pondered, then they let me know what they thought of the dishes I’d worked so hard on.

Wine, not whine.

Photo “Wine” by Evan Wood, courtesy of Creative Commons.

“It’s pretty good, but I think there’s a little too much salt,” Morgen commented.

“Yeah,” Todd said. “Too much salt, not enough garlic. And the carrots are too crunchy.”

“I don’t love the wine in the dish,” Giles said. “It doesn’t seem to go with the wine we’re drinking. I would have made a different choice on one or the other.”

“I like the wine,” Aaron said. “But my vegan Wellington doesn’t relate at all to the Coq au Vin. It would have been nicer if there were at least some parallel to the dish the rest of you are eating. Besides, I personally don’t enjoy eggplant.”

“Of all the nerve!” you may be thinking. “These guests are so rude. Chris’ feelings must be hurt after putting so much time, effort and love into creating that meal. And that Aaron—what an ingrate! He shouldn’t complain, especially after she went to all the trouble to make a vegan dish just for him.”

Hold your horses and your happy chickens.

This is a happy chicken. He has not been turned into dinner because the prior story was all made up.

Photo “Don’t be a chicken” by Helgi Halldorsson/Freddi courtesy of Creative Commons.

This is just an imaginary dinner party, so don’t be too hard on my friends. The real Aaron would never say those things about a real meal I cooked for him, but he might say something like that about a story I ask him to critique. I can almost hear him:

“I like the voice [wine]. But the subplot [vegan Wellington] doesn’t relate thematically to the main plot [Coq au Vin], and I personally don’t like ‘fish out of water’ stories [eggplant].”

“Ah,” you may be saying. “I see the parallel now.”

Yes, this dinner party conversation is an analogy for CRITIQUE.

Now that you know that, let’s go back to the dinner party and change things up a little. Rather than simply asking “What do you think?” when I put the food on the table, let’s say instead I explained things this way: “I’m working on some recipes I’m going to cook for the producers of the Food Network, and they’re going to decide—based on this one meal—whether or not to give me my own cooking show. I need this meal to be perfect, so please evaluate these dishes as critically as possible.”

Would the same comments from my dinner guests feel any different to you after that?

“Sure!” I imagine you saying. “Absolutely.”

Knowing the context of the situation—that a career milestone hinged on the outcome of this event, and that I really wanted critical feedback—makes all the difference, right? The criticism at the dinner table doesn’t seem so harsh once you know that it was my goal to make the dinner the best it could be and that I was inviting criticism so I could improve.

Although we writers communicate for a living, we’re not always clear with ourselves and with others about the nature of the feedback we’re seeking when we offer up our work with a question like “What do you think?”

In my fictional dinner party scenario, without knowing the backstory about the Food Network’s interest in me (which is also sadly totally fictional), there’s no way of knowing if I’m asking for critical feedback or simply looking for a pat on the back.

Sometimes all we want is for someone to say, “You look nice,” not “Well, your butt does look a little fat in those pants.”

Sometimes we want constructive criticism, and sometimes we just want a little praise. Both are fine when it comes to cooking, to writing, and to everything else for that matter. The important thing is to be cognizant of which we’re seeking when we ask for feedback, and state our requests with a bit more specificity than the simple “What do you think?” By being clear and explicit with ourselves—and with others—about what kind of feedback we’re seeking, it can save us from a whole lot of heartache.

When it comes to writing, if you show your work to your best friend or a family member and you aren’t looking for critique, be sure to say that. But when you submit your work to a critique group, be prepared for criticism. That’s because whether you verbalize the request for criticism or not, the job of a critique group is to LOOK FOR THINGS TO CRITICIZE so that you can learn from it and improve. It would be a waste of time to belong to a critique group that said nothing but “This is awesome,” wouldn’t it?

The moral of this story is, when you submit your work to your critique partners and ask “What do you think?” be aware that what you’re really saying is: “Find problems. Poke holes in it. This needs to be perfect so please evaluate as critically as possible.” For the sake of your morale, try to prepare yourself emotionally for responses like “there’s not enough salt” or “the Wellington doesn’t relate to the theme of the meal.”

This is good. This is what we want. We like the color red.

Photo “I tend to scribble a lot” by Nic McPhee, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Remember: we want critiquers to be critical.

Even when you’re expecting criticism, it can still sting to have your precious words criticized. I find that it helps to remember that we want critiquers to be critical. Recently I had to remind myself of this as I prepared to send my debut novel, Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure to my publisher. My critique partners dealt out some heavy criticism, but I set aside my feelings, remembering I’d asked for tough feedback. Even though it was still a little painful on an emotional level to hear that my story wasn’t perfect, on an intellectual level I viewed their critiques as food for thought. I accepted the criticism and advice that resonated with me and revised my story accordingly (a process I repeated when I received feedback from my editor). In the end, my story was greatly improved as a result of all the criticism it received, and I believe it now has the exact right amount of salt, if I do say so myself.

This is not to say that critics (and dinner guests) shouldn’t be complimentary and kind and constructive with their criticism. Of course they should be.

This is to say that we—the cooks and writers—should be aware of what kind of feedback we’re looking for and prepared as much as possible to receive that feedback. If we’re clear with others about what we want, and we’re clear with ourselves about what to expect, there will be a lot fewer hurt feelings, and a lot less vegan Wellington hurled at our friends and critique partners.

So at the next meeting of your critique group, I encourage you to set ego and emotion aside and prepare yourself to receive criticism with an open mind. In fact, welcome the criticism! Because that’s what we’re seeking by being part of a critique group, right? Consider the criticism food for thought. Let it digest, then use it to make your stories better. And bring on the wine, not the whine!

Photo “cheers” by dutchbaby, courtesy of Creative Commons.


Mandeville_SeedsMandeville_52waysChris Mandeville writes science fiction/fantasy and nonfiction for writers. She served as Pikes Peak Writers’ president for 5 years, and has taught writing workshops for 10 years. She’s teaching a Master Class “Everything You Need to Know to Write a Novel” at Colorado Gold 2015. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. For information about Chris’ books, upcoming events, and tips for writers, visit

Coming soon: watch for an interview with Chris on the RMFW podcast!

How To Handle a Bad Critique – Aaron Michael Ritchey Style

BY Aaron Michael Ritchey

So I’ve been in critique groups for nine years now. That’s a whole lot of words being read by other people. You want the math? Oh yes, I know you do.

So ten pages a week, times fifty-two ‘cause there are fifty-two weeks in a year, so that’s 520 pages a year for nine years. For a grand total of 4680 pages. If a book is around three hundred pages, that’s 15.6 books. Roughly. Break that into words, about three thousand words every week, times fifty-two, times nine, and that’s 1,404,000 words critiqued.

I won’t do hours.

So yeah. I’ve been around the block and back. Most of the time the critiques are good, sometimes they are fun, and sometimes, sometimes, the critiques have claws that rip my poor wittle heart to shreds.

A bad critique attacks the very heart of my writing, and I’m not sure how productive that is. But it happens. It’s part of the deal. A good critique seeks to improve or offers a different perspective. A bad critique is destructive. And to make myself perfectly clear, sometimes the bad critique comes from someone who innocently is just offering their opinion. A bad critique can fall out of the sky like hail. Hail doesn’t hate you. It just falls. Sabes?

How do I handle things when good critiques go bad?

I hate.

I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. I sharpen knives and listen to Cannibal Corpse. I plot murder, rebellion, revolution, anarchy in the U.K. I draft long emails defending my work, defending the vicious act of writing words and its difficulty, defending the very purpose of my soul on earth. I print out the emails and eat them, tearing one page off at a time and swallowing them down with cold, cold black coffee from last Thursday.

Or I write letters (not emails) with blood-filled pens on sheets of paper made from human skin. I attack the critique, wanting them to know just how much I DON’T CARE ABOUT THEIR USELESS, STUPID, PEDANTIC OPINIONS. Who are they to question me and my work? What do they know? If they’re so smart how come they’re not New York Times bestsellers? I eat those letters as well, but I use gutter water to wash them down.

I rant. I shake my fists at heaven (literally). I weep.

Alone. So alone.

So that’s what I do. I don’t recommend it, but you can do all those things, just don’t carry out your wicked plans of murder, rebellion, revolution, and the U.K. doesn’t need your anarchy, thank you very much.

So I do that for awhile. I used to do it for weeks on end. Or months. Okay, 2009 was really bad. But I learn. It’s a slow process, me learning, but I learn.

Last time I got a bad critique I spent a bad night not sleeping and doing all the things I said. The next day, I journaled about the experience and got a good understanding of my part.

Because yes, when I’m upset, when my heart is shredded, I have a part. The experienced triggered something in me, and it might have much to do with what actually happened. If I didn’t care about the bad critique, I wouldn’t care. Why do I care? That’s what I have to find out.

Through the inventory process, I find out where I was selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and afraid. Generally it’s all four. And yeah, when I’m hurt, it’s all about me and my ego.

After getting a good understanding of why I’m weeping, I then find people to talk to about the experience. Sometimes it’s just one person, but if it’s bad, I find two: one normal person and a writer (who is not normal).

We talk it through because you know what? Humans heal through their mouths. We talk to each other and magic happens.

So I figure out why the bad critique hurt me, I share the secret, and I get free.

And I keep writing, I keep submitting, and I keep editing. Because bad critiques, bad reviews, bad deals, are part of the writing experience. You want the whole buffet, yeah?

Well, there’s always gonna be crap sandwiches in the buffet, but don’t load up your plate with ‘em. Because like I said at the start, most of the time the critique experience makes me excited to revise! That’s what you want. That’s the idea.

And if your critique group is mostly serving you crap sandwiches, week after week, it’s time to find another critique group.

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


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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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:


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.