Tag Archives: critique groups

The Purpose of a Critique Group

Earlier this week, Katherine from my critique group, sent a link to a post by Rachelle Gardner about developing a thick skin as a writer. Gardner points out that it will likely never happen, but that you will survive. 

I’ve been in the Raintree Writers since 2003 and myself and author, Patricia Stoltey, are the only original members (we’ve obviously scared everyone off). We’ve had to learn to not only take criticism, but to give feedback in a constructive way. Over the years, there might have been a tear or two shed by members (and it’s not because someone ate the last piece of chocolate on the table). It’s because writing is a personal endeavor and when you’re first starting out, it’s like watching your toddler trip and fall on the playground for the first time. You want to yell at whoever left the little dump truck half buried in the sand for your two-and-a-half foot tall cherub to trip over. Then you want to cry (which you probably will do). 

There’s no crying in critique group. Unless they’re tears of joy, no one should cry. You’re there to give honest, but constructive feedback. Always include positive comments interspersed in  your critique and approach your concerns with sensitivity. Chances are, if it’s something that needs addressing, others will chime in, too, so don’t channel your inner Simon Cowell. I also think it’s important to never should on anyone. You should have the aliens invade before the birthday party, or You should make this character funnier.

Laura Powers, one of our critique group members, said it best:

“You can’t let others dictate your story. Fellow writers are great for offering another perspective, spotting problems, sharing techniques, and helping you through creative blocks, but we are just passengers on your ride. You are driving the bus.”

And I’ll leave you with that. 

Happy writing.

So, You Say You Want to Write?

Quite often, I’m approached by people who are either just getting into writing, or have a finished manuscript, but don’t know what steps to take next. I’ve talked to retirees who are finally getting around to that story in their head, and the stay-at-home mom whose kids are now in school full-time, so at last, she has quiet time to write. So how do I get started? How do go about publishing my book? Ah . . . as many of you know, those are very loaded questions that require more than a quick chat over coffee. But they need to start somewhere, so I have five pieces of advice that will hopefully point them in the write direction.
The End (Now What)

1.) Connect with a local writing organization. Some people think that you can either write or you can’t, and for those who think they can, they don’t necessarily see the value in attending writing workshops and classes. Well sure, we all like to think we can handle this writing thing on our own, but quite frankly, even seasoned authors are constantly improving on their craft. There’s always room to grow and improve as a writer—especially with help from other writers. Writing doesn’t have to be a solo venture. The support and camaraderie between writers is a beautiful thing—we learn from one another, not only about the craft, but the business of writing as well. Plus, when your short stories, articles or book comes out, you’ll already have an audience ready and willing to read, Tweet, and review. Networking is just as important in writing as it is in any other occupation.

2.) Join a critique group. Vital. I can’t reiterate enough how important this is. This is also another great reason to join a local writing organization—they will likely be able to hook you up with a group that would fit your needs. Don’t subject your friends and family to your “shitty first drafts,” as Anne Lamott calls them; that’s what your critique group is for. Plus, a critique group will be more honest with you and have the writing chops to help. Another great reason to join one is that they keep you on track and accountable when it’s your turn to submit, otherwise, it’s easy to veer off the writing path. And besides, it’s fun to get your name in the acknowledgements page of their books (because your feedback was so valuable!)

3.) Perfect your query letter (for fiction). There’s a special place in hell for query letters. Many writers say that the query letter is harder to write than the damn book. Your amazing story is relegated to 1-2 paragraphs that has a killer hook in the opening. But it can’t be cliche. And it shouldn’t open with a question. Or can it? But you have to include the word count and some want it in the opening paragraph and some want it in the end. Oh, and don’t forget the brief bio and what other writing credits you have. And most important: never, ever, forget to . . . um, hmmm. . . . can’t remember. See what I mean? They suck. Luckily, there are a number of sources out there to help—though they all vary to some degree. I recommend Give ‘Em What They Want: The Right Way to Pitch Your Novel to Editors and Agents. Also check out Query Shark to get very blunt, to-the-point advice on writing a query. For some new writers, finding out that agents are practically the gatekeepers to traditional publishing, is like a punch to the gut. “You mean, you don’t send the manuscript and cover letter to Simon & Schuster?” Nope. That’s why I also recommend Agent Query when it comes time to start the glorious process.

4.) Perfect your pitch or book proposal (for nonfiction). These are usually just as heinous as the query letter. For most book-length nonfiction, a proposal is often sent with . . . brace yourself . . . a query letter too. I know, I’m sorry. (And that’s if you’re lucky!) Sometimes agents will take a proposal right off the bat (check their online guidelines). Oftentimes, you have to query the book proposal! Plus, the book doesn’t need to be finished, like it does with fiction. Many agents and editors want to be able to move things around and tweak a nonfiction manuscript, but you still need an outline and sample chapters to present in your proposal, which is often 30 pages or more. Fortunately, there’s help. Check out How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen. For pitching magazine articles, Kerrie Flanagan, freelance writer and director of the Northern Colorado Writers says that in your query, open with a catchy hook; give the editor a brief description of the proposed article (and how it ties to their guidelines); tell them what their readers will get out of reading it; and finally, tell them why you’re the perfect person to write it.

5.) Set up a blog. For some, this is more daunting than the query letter. When an agent sees promise in your query or book proposal, they want to find out more about you. And what better way than Google? A lot of agents and editors believe that you need a web presence, no matter how stellar your book is. It won’t sell itself. You don’t have to be a Super Blogger like some of those in my previous post, but you have to let people know that you and your book exist. You’ll also need a page where you post links to any online clips so that magazine editors can get a feel for your writing style. Blog a couple of times a week—the key is quality, not quantity. Start building your audience, especially if you’re an expert in a certain field and are shopping your nonfiction how-to, for example. It’s a necessary evil. But wait, there’s more. Follow other writers’ blogs and comment! The more you put yourself out there with quality content, the bigger the audience you’ll build—agents and editors will love you for it. 

So there you have it: my 5-step, Get Published Quick Scheme. Well, more like writing scheme, and sometimes, that’s all you need to get going.

What’s your best advice for a new writer? (Besides turn the other way and run?)

Fantasy Critique Group

I love being a part  of a writing critique group. Who else is going to constructively  tell me the chapter I spent a month writing, sucks? (And besides my mom), who is going to put those hard-earned smiley faces next to certain sentences and paragraphs that were funny or well-written? My critique group, that’s who. Plus, it’s much wiser to have a trusted group of fellow writers tell me that my plot has pacing issues, my characters are flat, or that I misspelled an agent’s name on a query, instead of a big, fat rejection letter telling me. I’ve been with the Raintree Writers since it began in late 2003. We’re the fab five and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. When I wrote the acknowledgments page for my book, it was with great honor to include each of their names, because after all, I wouldn’t have gotten that far without them. Of course, it would have been really cool to be able to write, “And a big thank you to Stephen King. This book could not have been possible without his invaluable input.” Does Stephen King even have a critique group? Hell, does he even need one? This got me thinking . . . (as much as I love my group) who would be my fantasy critique group? Sports enthusiasts have their Fantasy Football; us writers have our Fantasy Critique Group (or maybe I’m the only one) . . .

1.) Ivan Doig. Mr. Doig is hands down, my favorite author. His thirty-two year writing career has yielded 14 books, including a memoir, that are all set in his home state of Montana. He’s arguably considered the dean of western literature. I greatly admire (green with envy, actually) his clever, witty, and original prose that makes me stop and re-read lines several times, just because they’re so damn good. His characters are so well developed, you almost forget they’re fictional.

2.) J.K. Rowling. And no, not because of her lovely British accent (although I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t be mesmerizing to hear her read her submissions aloud), but because I would hope that a even just a tiny bit of her badass creativeness would rub off on me. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt if we became besties and she paid for my son’s college education.

3.) Jefferey Eugenides. Eugenides is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who wrote Middlesex, probably one of the best books I’ve ever read (as evidenced by the 5 stars I gave it on Goodreads). I don’t hand out those Goodreads stars willy-nilly. That  book earned every one of those yellow, five-point accolades. Everything I learned about a hermaphrodite, I learned from Jefferey Eugenides.

4.) J.D. Salinger. Oh yes, did I mention that your Fantasy Critique group could be made up of dead authors? (That’s why it’s called a Fantasy Critique Group). Granted, he’d probably sit in the corner and not say much, but c’mon, it’s J.D. Salinger.

5.) Fanny Flagg. Holy shit, her books are funny. We’d probably get nothing done except drain some bottles of wine and laugh. She’s most known for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (which, like most books, is better than the movie), but her other books are just as funny, poignant and damn good reads.

6.) Harper Lee. Room for two Pulitzer Prize winners? Of course. It’s my fantasy group, so anything is possible. Who hasn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird? Seriously? Who hasn’t?

My list could go on and on. There are a hundreds of authors I would love to have sitting around my kitchen table, brainstorming ideas and telling me how fabulous I am at eliminating passive voice. (Again, it’s a fantasy, right)? I also wouldn’t turn Davis Sedaris away if he showed up with a six-pack and fruitcake.

So, who would be in your Fantasy Critique Group?