Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Magic of Critique

by Maggie Marr

The first critique group I attended was in *ahem cough* 1998.  While I'd been a writer since 2nd grade (GBC Post 9/13).  The idea of becoming a published writer didn't take hold until sometime after grad school.  I knew I could write because I had these stories that dropped out of my head onto paper, all I had to do was sit down and listen to the stories.  But listening and transcribing the stories was not then and is not now the same as crafting a book.

I needed a critique group.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Enter The Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Capital Hill Critique Group.  The first and third Thursday for four years I printed up my ten pages and went.  The group was a mixed bag.  Some pedigreed writers (MFA), some blue collar writers, some mommy writers, some daddy writers, some white collar writers, some retired writers, some student writers and even (gasp!) published writers--but everyone was a writer and everyone (save one member) was a reader.

The first night was brutal.  The first time you get critiqued is always brutal.  I read my ten pages aloud to the group.  When I finished there was silence.  There is always silence but the first time you are critiqued it seems as though the silence is longer and louder.  Even as I read the pages aloud, after listening to other critiques before mine that night, I could see where I wanted to edit, what I needed to change--even before my critique partners started the critique.  That was magic. 

They were gentle.  They were kind.  I went back.    

I've now, 15 years later, written over one million words.  I don't know the exact count although if I had a whole day and a calculator I could probably suss it out.  I've been a member of two other critique groups.  I was even a critique group trainer for the RWA WFA chapter.  I believe in critique.  I believe that writers help other writers to become better writers.

Again, because this line is important:  I believe that writers help other writers to become better writers.

This is fundamental.  This is a core belief for me.  But the even bigger benefit, the unspoken truth about critique, the magic of critique, is that critique doesn't just help the critiquee with their writing,  critiquing also helps the critiquer.  I learned as much or more by critiquing other writers work as I did from receiving critiques of my work.  That is one of the great beauties and the magic of critique.  Of life really--by the act of giving you receive more than you ever gave.

Maggie Marr is the author of Hollywood Girls Club, Secrets of The Hollywood Girls Club and the soon to be released Hollywood Hit (Dec. 2013).  She also wrote Courting Trouble and Can't Buy Me Love.  The first book in her New Adult book series, Hard Glamour publishes January 2014.  She is legal counsel for the Women's Fiction Writers Association and a member of RWA and LARA.  She lives and works in Los Angeles.  You can find her on Twitter and FB.  Don't forget to enter to win a $100.00 gift card from Maggie!  She's giving them away on 11/15 and 12/15.  Enter here.    


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Busting Out of the Writing Bubble by Melissa Clark

As we all know, writing is such an isolated experience. The tippy tappy of keys day after day after night after night alone at your desk in your office/bedroom/dining room. Days, months, years pass until finally you emerge, a little battered and bruised, but with a hearty first draft, or at least something that appears to have a beginning, middle and end.

And now it's time to usher your pal, your oeuvre, out into the world to see if it's got legs. 

Here's who I've turned it in to in the past before completing the process:

The Cousin in Canada - she herself tinkers with words, and has proven to be an astute reader, bringing with her that quirky Canadian sensibility that I always hope for my novels to embody. She asks the hard questions, points out the inconsistencies and then we spend the rest of the time on family gossip.

The Friend From That Workshop You Took Years Ago - This friend is a 'bigger picture' reader, addressing things like theme and structure. You appreciate his point-of-view and usually meet over multiple cups of coffee as he summarizes your novel and the elements that did or didn't work.

The Mother - The Mother is a surprising choice, but since The Father is also a writer, The Mother has a keen editorial eye - has been at it for years with The Father's work - and knows grammar like nobody's business. When I hand in my work to her I pretend there are no sex scenes, and when she returns my book, those sex scenes are always grammatically correct.

But this time I used a source I've never used before:

The Freelance Editor - Oh, this was a wise investment. I heard about her through a friend and was so impressed with the notes she'd given to that friend that I hired her on the spot. It was a financial sacrifice - and God love her she allowed me a payment plan - but it was worth every penny. Her prescient notes were able to articulate what I knew was wrong or missing or off. She was as professional as she was friendly and I felt my story benefitted greatly because of her.

Lastly, I'd like to pay my respects to a former writing teacher who took his own life earlier this month. Les Plesko taught through UCLA Extension where I workshopped my first novel, "Swimming Upstream, Slowly." He was a generous teacher, a giving soul, who made sure you perfected each paragraph, sentence and word. RIP Les. Thank you for caring.

Melissa Clark lives in Los Angeles. You can follow her on her blog, Connections Clark. Her second novel Imperfect is on kindle sale for 2.99. 2.99 are you out of your mind?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Critique partner or Beta reader?

by Maria Geraci

I will never forget the first critique I received as a writer. And I use the term writer loosely, because honestly, that first manuscript was pretty awful. But like thousands of people before me I "woke" up one day and decided to write a book. Knowing almost nothing about how to write a novel, I powered up the family computer and began hitting the keys. Six months later, I had a manuscript. Or rather, I had a first draft. A really dirty, rough draft that I loved almost as much as I loved my 3 children. Every word of that novel was born from my blood sweat and tears. Naturally, everyone else was going to love it too.

Okay, stop laughing.

Soon after I finished that manuscript I joined Romance Writers of America and was lucky enough to get into a fabulous online critique group. Our little group was composed of unpublished writers like myself, with big New York dreams and lots of enthusiasm. I put up the first chapter of my novel and waited while my new online pals were wowed by my brilliance. They were wowed, all right. Mostly by the number of exclamation points I could use in one page. I think I downed an entire bottle of wine while listening to Nora Jones that night. How could I have been so delusional? How can I not have known how much I sucked?

I was probably a little hard on myself, but the truth was, they were right. Not that I sucked. But my writing needed a lot of improvement. So I listened to my crit group (most of them, anyway) and began the long hard process of learning how to write. Which, in case you haven't figured it out by now, means writing and writing and writing. And reading. And learning. And rewriting. It's endless. And it gets harder with every book.

Fast forward a few years.

Eventually, I landed an agent and a book deal and I gained the ultimate crit partner. An Editor. My crit partners (by that time they had dwindled down to 2 really fab fellow authors) were as busy as I was and they had editors too. I still loved getting feedback from them but I had an editor to please and a much better sense of what did and didn't work for me.

I've been writing for over ten years now and I have 1 crit partner (another fellow author) and several beta readers. I love the brainstorming and the professional camaraderie between my crit partner and I. I think she's pretty fabulous and well, I'm pretty sure she thinks the same about me ;) but I have to admit I do love those beta readers. I've seen different definitions for beta readers, but mine are simply friends (who I trust to tell me mainly the truth) who enjoy reading the kinds of stories I write. I can depend on them to tell me whether a story is working, whether or not they like a character and their overall opinion on the book. In other words, they read my manuscript like a future potential reader as opposed to my crit partner who reads it like a potential editor or copy editor. Both crit partner and beta reader are essential to helping me produce the kind of work I want to get out there.

What about you? Beta reader? Crit partner? Both? or Lone wolf?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Time to Put on Your Big Girl Panties!

" better pull on your big girl panties because if you want to be a successful writer, you better learn how to take criticism.  You not only have to take it, but you have to turn it around and be grateful that someone cares deeply enough about your words and work to tell you the truth about

Honesty vs. Brutality

As much as I try to be constructive and helpful when critiquing another writer’s work, it does NOT come across as either, for these reasons: they (the writers) are in love with their work (as they should be); they want to hear praise (I make sure to do that); just the same, no amount of praise is going to ameliorate hard truths, like “This scene does not forward the storyline.  It seems unnecessary to the book’s arc.”  Or “You’ve already said this.”  Or “This dialogue has no subtext.  It’s not believable.”  I could go on and on.  I don’t read for anyone anymore.  For me, it tends to end with hurt feelings.

On the flip side of the coin, I have received editorial feedback like, “I think you should rewrite this from a different point of view.”  “Cut these four pages.”  “Write something better, more beautiful here.”  “You don’t need this.” 

And, truth be told, you better pull on your big boy or big girl panties because if you want to be a successful writer, you better learn how to take criticism.  You not only have to take it, but you have to turn it around and be grateful that someone cares deeply enough about your words and work to tell you the truth about them. 

Like in comedy, delivery is everything.  Start by saying something positive, like, “I like the paper you used.”  “I bet this pen was expensive.”  “Great font you’ve chosen.”

I try VERY hard not to read the work of aspiring authors.  Feelings get hurt. 

Flip the coin: I know who I can trust to read for me, and I am oh so appreciative!

Michele Young-Stone is the author of The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, a 2010 Publisher's Weekly top ten for debut fiction.  Buy the book HERE.  

Look for WHERE I AM BORN, Simon & Schuster, 2014/2015.  You can read excerpts at Michele's Blog/Website

Friday, October 25, 2013

'Twas the Night Before Pub Date

By Ellen Meister

The following poem is presented with apologies to Clement Moore ... and to anyone who thought it was autobiographical. It exists at the intersection of fiction and wishful thinking ...

‘Twas the night before pub date and all through the house
Not a PC was stirring, nor trackball, nor mouse;
The bound books were stacked by the front door with care,
In hopes that the critics would like what was there.

The writer was nestled all snug in her bed,
While visions of Kirkus-love danced in her head.
The kids in their jammies, the spouse drunk on booze,
Had just settled in for a long winter’s snooze.

When out on the porch there arrived such a thwack
That she sprang from the bed to see what the frack.
Away to the window she flew like a flash
Tore open the curtains and threw up the sash.

The moon on the piles of papers delivered
Gave the writer a jolt and a frightening shiver.
Then, what to her wondering eyes came in view,
But the Sunday Times paper and Book Review, too

More rapid than eagles her curses they came,
But stopped herself short and called help by name;
"Come Valium! Now Paxil! Now Zoloft and Serax!
On Lexipro! Prozac! On Haldol! On Xanax!"
The writer was crazed and so ready to fall
That she felt like she needed to swallow them all!

And then, in a twinkling, she heard on her phone
The jingling twang of Verizon’s ringtone.
She answered it quick and she heard quite a shriek
From her publicist’s mouth as he started to speak.

He was happy and kind—a right jolly old elf,
And she laughed when she heard him in spite of herself,
For his news was so joyous it went to her head
And she knew right away she had nothing to dread.

For the NPR folks said her book had a flair
And could Terry Gross chat with her now on Fresh Air?
Then the writer did cry out to all near and far,
Happy pub date to all and to all NPR!

Ellen Meister is the author of four novels, including Farewell, Dorothy Parker, in which the bad girl of the roaring twenties literary scene rematerializes from an ancient guest book ... and takes up residence in the home of a skittish modern woman. Now available in hardcover and ebook. Coming soon in trade paperback. For more information visit

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Revisions! Thinking Again...

Thinking Again--Revision!

I’m trying something new on Twitter and Facebook--keeping track of my revision process for my newest book TRUTH BE TOLD. I love revisions. It’s a real joy to get to the end of the first draft of novel—sometimes it feels as if it will never happen!—and then get to go back and unearth the book I mean to write.  I usually cut about 10,000 words. I look for logic, and poetry, and the stakes, and continuity, and motivation. I have a yellow stickie on my computer—it says: “Hook, stakes, beautiful writing.”

So day by day, via twitter and Facebook, I’m posting where I am and what I am learning.  If you miss episodes of TV shows, you can go to On Demand to catch up. Here’s my version of On Demand for Girlfriends readers—what I’ve posted for the past week or so.
 The Facebook versions are longer, of course, but it’s fun to try to capture a moment in 140 characters—it’s revisions after all! And it’s all about keeping it tight.

.    #WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD abt new #thriller in progress, TRUTH BE TOLD. Let's share the journey via this hashtag!! 

#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD When I meander, it means I haven't decided on scene's goal. So--delete all that doesn't get me there.


#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD Revisions! Sometimes I move the cursor, see where it lands, and see if I like it. Try it.  Fun & useful.     

#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD Revisions! Narrowed his eyes, narrowed her eyes--HOW many times can THAT happen? ALL have to go.
    #WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD Oh, oh, I had a moment of THIS STINKS! But I keep a little writing journal, I know this happens each time.

#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD I am working on logic. Why did Lizzie do that? If she's inconsistent, I am still unclear on her goals.


#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD Ah HA. Making progress. Fixed a whole flabby scene by amping the verbs--and focusing on intent.


#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD Fixing typos and taking out "had" &"was" = small potatoes. Maybe it'll help get to the big potatoes.


#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD Yesterday I had a good idea. I bet I will have one today. One good idea a day--just one--will be fine.


#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD One good idea is like putting a drop of iodine in a glass of  water. It instantly colors everything.

#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD Taking a main character-and making her consistent. Is she a real person? Can I make you understand her?

#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD I'll go through her POV only..and see if her story holds together. Logical? Compelling? Believable?


#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD   Ellipses and dashes, away with 'em!. How could there be so many? Almost never neccessary...sigh. 

#WRITINGTRUTHBETOLD At start of each scene, I'll clarify the setting and the POV. If I don't, reader is lost!

 Come join me every day for the updates! On Facebook at HankPhillippiRyanAuthorPage and on twitter at hank_phillippi 
My latest book, by the way, is THE WRONG GIRL--What if an adoption agency was reuniting birth parents with the wrong children?

Do you dread revisions? Or to you enjoy them, as I do? And what are your revision secrets?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The First Writing Critique

by Marilyn Brant

Writers write...
In the past 13 years, ever since I started writing fiction with the intent to publish, I've had a lot of critiquing experiences. Some inspiring and encouraging, even while being instructive in regards to narrative flaws. Others intentionally cruel and providing very little of value, even in supposedly "educational" settings.

It can be heartbreaking to a new writer to finally work up the courage to share a draft of a story only to have this offering met with scorn... And, yet, I don't know if there's a more effective way to learn to differentiate genuinely constructive feedback from the toxic variety until we've personally witnessed both in action.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the annual conference for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English, which I was invited to this fall because they'd selected me as their 2013 Author of the Year. It was a huge honor for me (understatement!!), and I had the opportunity to be their speaker on Friday at the Awards Luncheon in Bloomington-Normal. In preparing for my talk, I couldn't stop thinking about my first and most memorable experience with getting my writing critiqued. It was during the only undergraduate composition class I ever took, which also happened to be the first time I remember making a conscious decision about whether or not to follow my (sort of secret) writing dream.

The award presented to me by the IATE and, because I'm
fascinated by Route 66 (I wrote about it in my latest novel),
the cool ornament that a teacher at the conference gave
to me on that same day. Loved both of these!
I was 19 that year and, as a direct result of taking this particular class, I chose not to pursue writing seriously then. It wasn't, however, for the reason you might think...

As an education major, I was surprised and a little disappointed when I discovered I only had to take ONE writing course to get my degree. I'd always liked writing. I'd been on the yearbook staff in high school, and I was one of the head editors of our school newspaper. Nothing about the sound of this puny college English requirement scared me one bit. So what if I'd been warned about the teacher? Told he was a real nutcase, a tough grader and someone to avoid like a bad virus, if at all possible?

But it wasn't possible. His class was the only one that fit well enough into my schedule that spring, so I took it. I didn't expect problems.

Can you hear the hubris gods laughing with demonic glee?!

At first acquaintance, Dr. Raymond Schoen seemed almost as terrifying in person as I'd been led to believe. He was a big, gruff, older man with a beard and a pipe, and he spent the entire first class period (75 minutes!) droning on and on about the proper use of a semicolon. Seriously. That's all he talked about for a full hour and a quarter, as if it might be the freakin' cornerstone of literacy or something. I was simultaneously mesmerized and horrified by his lecture, and I kept exchanging sideways glances with a guy friend who was in the room with me. We agreed afterward that, indeed, we should have held out for a professor who was a little more sane. Someone who might actually talk about, you know, writing in our college class. Not just one weird little punctuation mark.

But I was in for a surprise that semester. Dr. Schoen turned out to be not nearly as crazy as I'd initially thought. In fact, he started to scare me for another reason entirely: He was really logical and not easily fooled. He wasn't a professor you could snow with half-formed, ill-considered arguments. He was genuinely reading our papers. Making careful comments. Pointing out every single fallacy in our statements and every single cliché in our descriptions. I actually got a B+ on my first assignment...and again on my second one. I couldn't even remember the last time I'd gotten a B of any kind on an English paper (sometime in junior high, maybe?), so this was not, in my opinion, an auspicious start. And I desperately wanted to hate him for this...but I couldn't. I couldn't because everything he said was right.

Furthermore, one option we had as students in his class was an open invitation to go to his office to discuss our writing during a short, individual conference -- particularly if we were concerned about our grades, and I was starting to be. My curiosity was at war with my resentment over this -- I was sure it was going to be a soul-crushing experience -- but curiosity eventually won out and I made an appointment to see him.

You've probably already guessed that Dr. Schoen became one of my favorite teachers ever. The man possessed an amazing gift -- both as a writer himself and as a professor. He was incredibly clear-minded, but he was also fair and kind. He knew what good writing looked like, and he knew when he wasn't seeing it. He was the first person in years to hold me accountable for what I wrote, to not let me get away with lazy thinking and to make sure I really conveyed on paper what I was trying to express. He demanded honesty and clarity. Most amazingly, he inspired in me a powerful desire to prove to him that I was not illogical, unoriginal or remotely lazy. That his faith in my ability to live up to his expectations was somehow justified.

My newest release -- The Road to You -- a
coming-of-age romantic mystery.
But one of the very best gifts he gave me was in treating me like a writing peer years before I would ever have the courage to become a writer. Since I'd never actually stopped going to visit him for conferences, even after my semester in his class was over, I had a chance to talk with him about his own work on a few occasions. He was a poet who loved Shakespeare, and one day when I popped by his office to say hello, he shared with me a poem he was working on. It was way over my head and I knew it -- far too clever and full of literary allusions for me to even pretend to understand it -- but I loved that he read it to me and explained that it was still a work in progress. That revision on it was necessary. And that, always, "writers write"...they don't just analyze writing or chitchat about writing. They do it.

It was so emotionally honest of him. So open. So real. And I knew that I wasn't ready to do that then -- to be that kind of writer. Certainly not at 19 or 20. Not at 25 either. Or, for that matter, at 29. But, a few years after that, when I was ready, I recognized it; I knew the qualities I needed to look for in myself. (I'd also never forgotten how to properly use a semicolon, LOL.) And when, inevitably, I encountered a critiquing situation where there was derision and a lack of constructive feedback, I had a better model to emulate. To hold out for critique partners who were closer to Dr. Schoen's style...because I knew what an exceptional writing critique should feel like. That it should inspire us to want to work harder. To revise with intent and hopefulness. To reach deeper and consider the significance of every phrase, every punctuation mark. To, above all, be more ourselves on the page, not less. Never less.

(Thanks, Dr. Schoen. RIP.)

Do you have a favorite teacher? One who inspired you and made you strive to work harder at something? I'd love to know!

Marilyn is a former classroom teacher and a USA Today bestselling author of contemporary fiction. Her latest novel, THE ROAD TO YOU, is out now in paperback and ebook on Amazon, B&N, Kobo and more. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter, too!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Let Your Mother Look Over Your Shoulder

by Samantha Wilde

People will tell you not to let your mother look over your shoulder while you write. In my case, she is my first reader. If my mama ain't read it, ain't nobody read it.


Of course, having a New York Times bestselling novelist of twenty-three books and counting does have an effect on a person. Still I wonder sometimes how I got into the situation of having Nancy Thayer as my first reader. My other best reader is my best friend, an artist and editor, not a novelist, who I count on to take a penetrating look at my work.

As far as I'm concerned, only one quality matters in a critique partner: honesty.

My mother and my best friend are the kind of women who will tell you if the homemade chocolate chip cookies you just baked taste terrible. I don't necessarily want to hear that, but there's nothing I want to hear more when it comes to my work than the truth. If you want to expose your writing to another person, you must feel that they will speak the truth in love to you. That "in love" part matters because honesty can be brutal, but if it's delivered with a compassionate hand, it can guide and liberate your work.

Everything I write is amazing for this first ten minutes. After that, I really do want to know if it can survive in the big, bad world. For that, a set of eyes and an truthful reader are what I need. All too often readers can want approval or be afraid of hurting someone's feelings or simply not have a discerning gaze. To read purposefully and offer criticism usefully, we have to stick to our truth and bring it with total humility to a writer's desk. It's always an honor to be asked; we honor one another when we live up to the task.

So can your mother look over your shoulder while you write? Maybe she's the best critic a girl can have. That is, if she can say it kindly and truly.

Here we are having fun with the writing life. Enjoy!

Samantha Wilde is the author of I'll Take What She Has and This Little Mommy Stayed Home. She's the at-home mother of three young children, a minister, and a yoga teacher. She always wants to be liked on Facebook and who can blame her?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Critique Group of One

Judith Arnold

Many of my writer friends participate in critique groups or work with critique partners. It seems like a fine idea: invite a fresh set of eyes to read a work-in-progress. Gain good insights. Learn what’s working and what’s not working. Wind up with a better piece of writing.

I can’t do it.

I’ve had experience with critique groups. As an undergraduate, and then working on a graduate degree in creative writing, I participated in many critique-group seminars with other writers. We would distribute copies of what we’d written since the previous class, read the story or excerpt aloud as classmates read the printed copy and jotted notes, and then sit silently as those classmates analyzed the work. After our fellow students were done, the professor might add a few comments.

I can’t say those critiques were particularly painful for me. Not to brag, but I was a pretty talented writer. More importantly, I would not submit a story for the class’s dissection unless I’d polished it into a gem I was convinced would dazzle everyone in the room with its brilliance.

And that was exactly the problem. After a few years of this process, I realized that what I was doing was writing with the goal of dazzling my critique group. In each class, I eventually figured out what sort of writing would elicit oohs and ahhs. An abundance of metaphors? A feminist undertone? Concrete imagery? Cryptic dialogue? Single-sentence paragraphs? Humor? Irony? (We were college students. Irony was always near the top of the list.) I’d use whatever tools and tricks I had at my disposal to create a story my classmates would gush over.

That’s not exactly a bad thing. Those of us who write for publication do so with the expectation of reaching an audience. We want readers to appreciate what we’ve written. We’re writing to communicate with others.

But for me, the critique group became the only audience that mattered. I lost track of my most important audience: myself. I was so intent on impressing the people who would be critiquing my work that the stories I wanted to write, in my voice, with my world view, somehow got lost in the process.

I realized that the only way I could write what I wanted—and needed—to write would be to trust myself. I am usually my harshest critic, anyway. I “kill my darlings” with such gruesome relish, it’s a wonder I haven’t been sentenced to life behind bars. (Thank goodness it isn’t a crime to murder a bad simile!)

I write. I critique what I’ve written. I revise. I critique again. My critique group is me. I share every work-in-progress with exactly one person: me. No one else is allowed to glimpse it, comment on it, touch it or tamper with it until I say it’s done, until I believe it’s polished enough to dazzle not just a group of wise, helpful colleagues but the entire world.

Maybe my books would be improved with input from a critique group. But at least I know that the stories I write are all mine. Every word, every nuance, every comma and question mark has to pass muster with my very intense, very tough critique group of one. I’m damned hard to dazzle. So if I decide that what I’ve written is good enough, it probably is. And if it isn’t, the responsibility is all mine.

USA Today bestselling author Judith Arnold’s most recent indie-published release, Going Back, is now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. Her new “Daddy School” novella, Almost An Angel, is included in the just-released Christmas boxed set, The Heart of Christmas, on sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Koboand iTunes. To learn more about these and her other books, please visit her web site and sign up for her newsletter.