Category Archives: Critique Groups

Dream Team: Finding the Right Critique Group for You

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TeamWork

I’ve had quite a few conversations lately about how isolated the writing life can be (and believe me, I can sympathize as an editor!). So today, I’m reaching into the Archive for an article that addresses this issue. Yes, writing is a solitary task, but becoming a successful author is a team effort. Before you ever sign with an agent or publisher, or hire freelance professionals to help you indie publish, a good critique group or writing partner can be an indispensable key to your success.

Here, some advice on how to choose writing partners who will help you bring out the very best in your work:

 

What to Look for in A Critique Group  [Updated article from the Word Cafe Archive]

One of the top pieces of advice agents and editors give to writers of all experience levels is this: join a critique group. There are many advantages to this, among them: help with finding holes in your plot (and other things that don’t work), a support system to cheer you through writer’s block, and a community of like-minded people who take writing seriously.

So what should you look for in a critique group? Here are some important things to consider:

    • Experience with your genre. This doesn’t mean everyone in the group has to be working on exactly the same type of project—there are pros and cons to that. But think of it this way: if you’re writing a middle grade boy book and all of your other critique  partners write adult fiction, you might not get the feedback you need. That is, unless the other member are avid readers of MG fiction (perhaps they have children in that age range), and they know the market and what it takes to hook a young reader versus an adult.
    • Success among the members. By this, I don’t mean you should turn a group down if its members are not NYT bestsellers. After all, if you’re a new writer, that would be pretty darn intimidating! What you should look for are writers with a successful track record of some kind. Ideally, at least one is published with a traditional house, and another another is achieving success with her self-published titles. Another member has just sold a short story to an online literary journal, and a fourth has just finished his first novel and is shopping it to agents and editors. You’ll learn a lot from this variety of experience levels, and no matter where you are in your writing career, there will be someone who has been there or is going through the same steps now.
    • Reliable group members. We all have busy lives and occasionally have to cancel a commitment. But if several members of your group consistently flake out, you may end up giving a lot more than you get in return, and that’s not fair. Before you join a group, ask about their average attendance and whether there is a system to encourage accountability. A critique group can be one of your greatest assets as a writer—but only if it’s a team you can count on. And don’t forget, they’ll expect the same from you!
    • Healthy balance of encouragement and criticism. When you join a critique group, look for people you can trust to give you honest, objective feedback—after all, if you wanted nothing but praise, you’d ask your mom. The goal for each member should be to make that feedback constructive and useful; a good way to do this is to start by highlighting things you liked or that worked for you, and following them in a respectful manner with your concerns, being specific about what didn’t work and why.

Now, the question is, where can you find a fantastic group like this? A good place to start is with your local writers organization. They should be able to provide you with a list of groups open to new members, or point you to resources for finding one. You can also ask your writer friends or writers you meet at conferences—networking is a great way to find a group. And while I’m generally an advocate for face-to-face interaction, online groups work well for a lot of people, too. Try www.critiquecircle.com, www.thenextbigwriter.com, or www.writers.net . Also, check out this helpful page from Colorado State University—it has more great tips and questions to ask yourself before joining a group, or to help you start your own.

A last piece of advice: go with your gut. If you join a critique group and you feel torn down rather than supported after each meeting, or you wonder if anyone actually read your pages, it’s probably time to let go and find a group of people who are as interested in your success as you are.

Advice from a Multi-Published Author: Q&A with J.D. Mason

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So I know what you’ve been thinking: “Anita, you haven’t posted any author interviews lately. What’s up with that?”

Good question! Instead of apologizing like I should, how about I offer a Q&A session with bestselling author J.D. Mason? J.D. is a fellow Denver resident so I’m very excited about the chance to spotlight our amazing writing community.

About J.D. : JDMason2

J.D. Mason is the author of several bestselling novels, including And on the Eighth Day She Rested, This Fire Down in My Soul, You Gotta Sin To Get Saved, and Somebody Pick Up My Pieces. J.D. has been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Awards in the African American Fiction and Best Contemporary Fiction categories. Her novels have consistently been chosen as Main Selections by The Black Expressions Book Club, and her work has appeared on bestseller lists in the Dallas Morning News, Black Expressions Book Club, and on Amazon.com.

AM: Welcome, J.D. You just celebrated an amazing milestone: your tenth book, Drop Dead, Gorgeous, came out just in time for your tenth anniversary as a published author—congratulations! Any lessons you’d like to share with debut and yet-to-publish authors? How are you different as a writer now than when you first started?

Thank you! Yes, Drop Dead, Gorgeous was released June 25th.  I would tell new authors to get a thick skin, but that’s impossible.  Writing is personal and any criticisms you get are going to sting.  You’re going to have critics no matter how fabulous you think you are.  So, expect it, but have enough faith in yourself and your writing to continue doing what you love despite the negativity.  This business isn’t for sissies, so man or woman up, dig in and commit to it.

As for how I’ve changed through the years as a writer, well, the critics still hurt my feelings, but I don’t dwell on it like I used to.  And I’ve changed my idea of what success looks like now, versus what I thought it would look like when I first started.  I used to think that if I didn’t land the six figure contract advance or land a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, that I was a failure as a writer.  But now I know that there are thousands of writers who’d love to be standing in my shoes.  I have worked with some of the top publishing houses in the business, have one of the most sought after editors in the publishing industry who loves working with and supports just about all of my crazy ideas.  I have readers standing by tapping their foot waiting for my next release.  Years ago, I set out to become a published author, and I’ve done that.  Define what success means to you, and go for it.

DropDeadGorgeousWhat’s the best thing and the worst thing about being an author?

The best thing is being able to express myself creatively.  When you’re a kid, your imagination is everything, but as you grow up, people start to try and convince you that imagination is childish, and tell you that you need to stop pretending and grow up.  Well, I have never stopped pretending, and now I get paid to make stuff up.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

The worst thing is time.  Time is the enemy in this business, especially if you don’t write for a living.  There never seems to be enough of it, and you’re always scrambling to try and meet deadlines despite the interruptions of life.  But even during the periods when I did write full time, the issue was still the same for some reason.  Adding to that is the effort it takes to put together a story.  I have a million ideas or new stories, and can’t seem to write fast enough to get them all down on paper.

You’re in a writers’ group with fellow published authors Carleen Brice and Kimberly Reid (who also happens to be an NLA client—lucky us!). The three of you write in different genres and for different audiences. How did you find each other, and how is this variety an asset to the way you support each other as writers?

I found Carleen from an article I read about her and her new book, Orange Mint and Honey, in Essence Magazine.  I was so happy to find another writer in Denver, and especially a writer of color, that I stalked her on the internet until I found her email address and forced her to be my friend.

She introduced me to Kim and the three of us found sounding boards in each other and meet monthly to talk books, cry books, and drink margaritas.  Oh, and sometimes, we even eat.

Even though we write very different kinds of books, the writing world is pretty much the same for all of us, and we support each other in trying to navigate our way through the industry.  I think that it’s great that we don’t write the same type of books.  The differences we bring from our experiences stem from the different backgrounds, and so we get insight into parts of the industry we wouldn’t otherwise have exposure to.

Many thanks for sharing this fabulous insight, J.D. And best wishes for your next ten books!

Editing Workshop Part 4: Boost Your Line Editing Skills

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EyeglassesEarlier this month, I promised to talk about line editing, so I’m squeezing it in as my final NaNoEdMo post for March—phew! As with developmental editing, every manuscript will have a different set of issues to address in a line edit. But here are a few of the most common ones I see in the manuscripts I work with.

Confusing, awkward, or excessively long sentences. It’s usually hard to recognize awkward or confusing structures in your own work, so you may need help from a friend or critique partner. But you can train yourself to fix long, wordy sentences. As George R.R. Martin puts it in his WD interview, “I’ll write, John got up from the chair and walked across the room and pulled up the Venetian blinds, then lowered the window, latched it, and returned to his chair. Then I change it to, John got up and closed the window.” I love that example!

Pop culture references that may quickly go out of style. There are exceptions that warrant these—say, a novel about actors set in modern day Hollywood. But in general, you want to avoid anything that will soon become dated, and thus kill your book’s chance at longevity. This is especially relevant to slang in YA novels—while it may be tempting to show how well you know teens by peppering dialogue with up-to-the minute slang, it may sound phony and can quickly become old-fashioned. Use sparingly.

Repetition. Didn’t your character just tell us the same thing five pages ago? You may have forgotten because you wrote that line last month, but readers will have an unpleasant feeling of déjà vu. This is an easy mistake to make when you are rearranging scenes or adding to previously written ones. That’s why it’s important to do a final read of your entire manuscript (even if you’ve done multiple edits on individual scenes) to help catch these oversights.

Logistical errors. Time out, your reader says. How can Madame Dupont be wearing the priceless bracelet that fell off the cliff in the previous scene? As with repetition, this problem can crop up when you are moving and rearranging scenes. How to avoid it? As you’re doing a read-through, jot notes in the margins: Where exactly are the characters in the room/castle/cruise ship/dormant volcano (and are they where they should be)? If there is a crucial object in the scene, where is it? What are your characters wearing (and did it change unexpectedly)?

Inconsistencies in character behavior, dialogue, etc. Some of this falls in the realm of developmental (big picture) editing—Why did your main character just kill X—she seemed to like him and don’t we need him for the climax scene? But it can be involved in line editing, too. Why did your character just slip out of dialect in the first half of the page? Why is he now shouting—for now apparent reason—when three lines ago he seemed pretty zen?

Pronouns or dialogue without anchors. Readers can easily be confused if you use pronouns like “he” without a clear reference to one of the three guys in the room; “them” can be even more confusing when it only refers to some of the people in the scene. So make sure you provide enough context in the surrounding sentences. The same goes for dialogue. Cormac McCarthy gets along fine without ever using “he said” or “Rawlins said” to anchor dialogue, but that’s a difficult technique to master. Ask your test readers to mark places where they got lost in the conversation.

Passive voice or unnecessarily complex verb structures. Passages full of sentences like She was handed the letter, or He was sent into a panic by her response, usually feel muted or stodgy. Use Roger handed her the letter, or Her response sent him into a panic. Scrap this sentence: He had been doing laundry when she had dropped by to tell him the news, for this one: He was doing the laundry when she dropped by to tell him the news. Overly complex verb structures add a layer of distance you don’t want your readers to feel.

Reporting. Years ago, a writing teacher pointed out that the short story I’d written was full of “reporting,” a term I was unfamiliar with at the time. Once she pointed it out, I saw exactly what she meant. I was saying things like: I remembered doing X, Y, Z…, and I thought to myself that…, and He wondered whether… This is another form of passive writing that adds an unnecessary layer between the writer and reader. It’s okay to use these structures occasionally, but make active ones your default—instead of having a character wonder about something, let him simply ask a question.

I imagine every writer’s goal is to do less line editing. But how do you get there? Try looking for patterns in your critique group/beta reader comments and make a list of your most common issues. By going back to fix them, you’ll train your brain to catch those problems in the future, and to start avoiding them altogether.

Happy editing!