Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Value of Critique Groups

THE VALUE OF CRITIQUE GROUPS 
by Miko Johnston

Did you know that Writers in Residence began as a critique group? Gayle, Bonnie, Rosemary, the Jackies and I met monthly to discuss one member’s set of pages. Although we all benefited from the peer review, we grew to enjoy each other’s company and finally accepted that work interfered too much with play. From then on we became a social group, meeting monthly for lunch and conversation. We relegate critiquing to a by request as needed basis (to which we always say yes).

As much as I enjoy getting together with my WinR friends, which now includes Kate and Madeline, I must credit their critiques for my success as a published author. Aside from their helpful comments to me, evaluating their work sharpened my ability to judge my own. Critique groups have been invaluable in my personal life as well. Last year I moved from California to Washington, where I knew no one. After spending over a week alone in my house, I researched local writing groups and found one in my new hometown. The members welcomed me and since then we've become good friends.  I also belong to two other groups dedicated to critique – one strictly online, one in-person.

Membership in a writers group can provide support, encouragement and networking opportunities for the independent writer. You’re probably aware of the national organizations that champion a popular genre like romance or mystery. However, if you want to join a critique group, here are some things to consider:

There are two basic types – public and private. Public groups tend to be large organizations like the Ventura County Writers Club, Whidbey Island Writers Association, and the recently defunct Alameda Writers Group.  They hold monthly general meetings featuring a guest speaker and offer various special interest groups – SIGs – geared to a specific genre of writing. You pay an annual membership fee, which entitles you to participate in their SIGs. The group I found in Washington, Just Write, is a unique public group anyone can attend. We gather once a week at a coffeehouse with our notepads or computers and just write for two hours. Afterward, we head to a nearby pub to socialize.

Members of public groups who want more autonomy or have different aspirations often form private groups like WinR. Membership is by invitation only and usually requires a probation period, where the newbie participates in a set number of critiquing sessions before presenting his or her own work.  Some private groups meet in person, where members read their work aloud. Others exchange pages online and email their comments to the author.

Which type of group is better? That depends on what you need. I always recommend public groups for beginners – if you’re interested in writing but haven’t done much, if you’re unsure of what genre suits you, if you’re unsure if you truly want to write. Public group SIGs host a variety of skill levels. You can experiment with different genres to find one you like. You’ll learn a lot very quickly, for you’ll get to read some awful stuff. Since membership tends to fluctuate you’ll interact with many more writers and get a broad diversity of opinions in these groups. Best of all, if you find other members with whom you’re simpatico, you can start your own group.

If you’re well on your way to publishing or have published already, then consider a private group. Working with people you know builds trust and you minimize overexposure of your pre-published manuscripts. There is some debate as to whether it’s better to limit a group to a specific genre. I think that makes sense if you’re working outside mainstream fiction, particularly controversial or quirky sub-genres that traditionalists might not ‘get’. Otherwise seek or form a mixed genre group comprised of writers with a comparable skill level.

Writing is such a solitary endeavor we often get lost in our own head. It helps to connect with like-minded people who can spot the glitches in our work that we sense but can’t quite see.  So does sharing a common goal, whether it’s completing that first novel or getting it published.

Do you, or did you ever, belong to a writers critique group? Share your experiences with us.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Finding a Writer's World by Rosemary Lord

      
Someone recently asked me: “My friend just moved to L.A. and wants to be a science-fiction writer. Where would she meet other science fiction writers?”  Hmmm.

It made me think: we write alone. Writing is such an isolated profession – it can be a lonely world. So how did I end up with such a terrific, diverse group of writer friends? I also have an endless source of answers to my literary questions – and heartfelt encouragement and feedback when I get ‘The Writer Blues.’

I had been a journalist for many years, specializing in Old Hollywood. So my world was the Old Time Movie Stars, their publicists and the movie studios. What did I know about fiction writing?  The heady world of mystery writers, from P.D. James, Agatha Christie, to Michael Connolly and Lee Childs, was something for the privileged, really grown-up writers. How could I ever be part of that circle? Where would I start?

Then I came across a slim volume titled, Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. I learned it’s not just about the writing, but being part of the writer’s world. Beyond the basic tenet of  writing a certain number of words each day, See suggests seeking out and supporting other writers. If you want to be a novelist, then support other novelists.  Write a charming note to at least one author a week.( Just acknowledge their work. Don’t ask for their help.) Attend at least one writer’s book signing or event each week. This way you meet published writers and can ask them questions. This is how I met all sorts of writers, readers and people in the publishing world. I learned a lot and made new friends and acquaintances in the writing spheres.

I learned about the best writing classes for my needs. I took novel and mystery writing courses at UCLA, where I made more friends. There I learned about different writer’s groups and joined Mystery Writers of America and Sisters-in-Crime-LA. These all have local chapters. If it’s Science Fiction or Romance novels, there’s a group you can find with the same interests. Once I looked beyond my typewriter (this was pre-computers) I found I was now part of a writer’s domain. Heady indeed!

Writers are amazing. They have curious minds. You need that in writing fiction, to create realms different from your own. They are supportive and encouraging to new writers.  We hang out together, drink lots of coffee (or something stronger), complain about our problem areas of our latest writing projects, ask questions or offer advice. I attend lectures, writers’ lunches, conferences, book-signings and launch parties. I have made friends in all areas of the literary and publishing world, and continue to learn from them.

I am now writing mysteries set in the Hollywood of the 1920s: The Lottie Topaz Hollywood Mysteries. But I can write anywhere, thanks to computers.  And thanks to Skype and Face Book, writers no longer have to feel alone or isolated – unless that’s what they want.   So there is a way in from the outside. I came in from the cold...and into a writer’s world. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Lunch, Rules, and Personal Preference



Once a month the Writers in Residence authors have lunch at a restaurant in the Pasadena/Arcadia area[i], and since this group of fellow authors now includes me, I try to make the trek into the BIG city whenever I can. The last time I attended, and as always, I not only ate a lot of great food, but also participated in several thoughtful and energizing conversations with some very supportive, smart, and nice authors. This post was inspired by that lunch, and a conversation about writing rules, writing booboos, and things that stop a reader from enjoying a book.

Madeline (M.M.) Gornell
Disclaimer alert! (smile) It is my firm belief every writer is different, but I also think it’s good to listen to a lot of “stuff,” then pick and chose what fits.

So here are some thoughts that started percolating over onion rings… (mixed metaphor?)

Though I’ve heard over and over the word “rules” used when talking about writing, I think more are fads or current conventions. One of those is, Prefaces. Well, I love writing prefaces. The “love” part may sound a little over the top, but for me, a preface really can set the stage for the reader, giving a hint at what is driving an author to write a particular story, and most importantly—pull the reader in. I’m also fond of tying things up in prologue type sections at the end. Prefaces and Prologues, whether in or not right now, can be useful. For me, they’re integral to my writing and thinking.

Another “thing” I really like are semi-colons and colons. Though, I think complex and compound ideas are not that much in favor. Admittedly, I often have to look up which punctuation mark I should be using; but expressing a complex idea, or a list of thoughts (or things) well, is an ability I greatly admire and strive for. Many self-indulgent semi-colons have been struck out of my drafts by my wonderful editors.

Here's a difficult one—I don’t like describing characters in detail, prefer giving the reader only a vague idea, and letting them draw the picture from their own background of friends, family and acquaintances—think those character-pictures are consequently the most memorable for the reader. (At least until the movie is made!) For example, “Leiv liked the doctor, and was glad he came back into town. In looks, ShinĂ©’s doctor was the epitome of an archetypical country doctor, with savvy old-time wisdom and experience, combined with current day technical expertise.” I think it’s hard to do, but I think I’m getting better at “inferring,” rather than describing because one of my editors who is a stickler for making sure the reader can “see” the character (and early on), didn’t much ding-me this last go-around.

This one I think, is probably a “rule,”—Don’t use footnotes in fiction—haven’t broken this one in my books (though, oh so tempted!), have done in other writings, e.g. this blog.

Don’t use long words. Ha! If I don’t have to go to the dictionary at least once—I feel like something was missing. For sure, that probably comes from reading and admiring P.D. James, who has sent me to the dictionary more than once. Here’s an example from me, concatenation (a word I like and maybe use too often)—a dearly beloved editor, and a book club member, both thought I might do well to find a better word—i.e. a word most readers are familiar with. They’re probably right, but I just keep channeling P.D.—smile. (Did you get the e.g. and i.e. usage rule I slipped in?)

Then there’s “tie up loose ends”… hmm that one is tricky. Satisfy readers—but not a fairy tale type ending. Once again, I love leaving loose ends—because life is like that, and a book for me is peeking into of your character’s world and experiencing with them a little slice of their lives.

Finally, following up on my earlier disclaimer—someone told me, and I can’t remember who it was, or their exact words, but I do still remember the idea—Take it all in, know the rules, so that when you break them, you know why. So true, I think. An addendum to that thought is, if you tell a good story where the reader is pulled in and doesn’t want to leave—all is forgiven—whether knowledgeably breaking the rules, or just plain screwing-up.



[i] In Southern California LA area.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

My Book Reviewing Agony!


Hello. My name is Jackie Houchin and I'm a book review addict.

Yes, I know. There are lots of blog posts and articles on Book Reviewing: How to Do It, How Not to Do It, How to Get Someone Else to Do It (for your book). Here's my take.

But first a word on "blurbs." They fall into this "reviewing" category too. You think they are easier to write because, well, hey, they're only a sentence or two long, or occasionally an ecstatic 5-word blast that lands on the front cover with your name right there beneath the author's! Granted, much smaller, but nevertheless, there.

But blurbs are not easier. As with book reviews, I read the entire book (not just the first and last chapters with a breeze-flip through the middle) and then I actually write a complete review from which I can extract that blurb. Upside is, I now have a review that I can peddle or post somewhere. 

There are many blogs that would love to have your reviews for free and to give your name a boost. Also, you will be BFF with authors if you spread your love for their books around. (Result: A definite "feel good" if not lucrative, opportunity.)

Back to book reviewing. How about remuneration? Authors don't like to pay you – and they probably shouldn't because it might look like bribery or worse – but they do offer you a free book, ARC, or digital file.

Personally, I like hard copies because they are easier on my eyes, and I like to underline and write notes on the pages. I sometimes use the blank space after the chapter ends to write a brief synopsis.

With a digital file I have to print out the pages, using MY paper, MY ink, and MY electricity, which is costly even if I print gray scale (which is also hard on eyes), and use the backside of previously printed paper.

So, how DO you get paid for reviews? One way is to write for a magazine or online newsletter. I have written for Mystery Scene Magazine ($15 per review) and The Strand Magazine ($10), plus a few for Crimespree Magazine when I first started, which pays zero but you get clips.

If you are a prolific reader/writer and the paying magazines like your stuff, you can earn a fairly decent check every quarter...to cover your Starbucks habit. Okay, $60 or $75 doesn't seem like much, but what have you invested? A couple days of (hopefully) enjoyable reading and some time at your computer. Plus the free book.

By the way, you should never sell ARCs on Amazon, etc. It's nice to get that extra cash, but it's not fair to the author, especially if you list them BEFORE the book is launched. No-no-no!

Naively, I used to take on four or five books to review in one issue! Now I'm lucky to manage two, and in most issues only one. True, Mystery Scene Magazine gives me books by well-known authors to review – Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, Susan Wittig Albert – but that adds to my stress level.  But why, you may ask.

Well, for me, book reviewing is a perilous journey, fraught (like that word?) with doubts, delusions, and ulcers. For one thing, I am a self-doubting, paranoid perfectionist. For another, I have a very professional magazine editor. She examines my reviews for clarity, accuracy, and word counts (as she should), then lets me know – gently but firmly – where they need work. Eek!

So, consider my cycle of "Book Reviewing Agony" before accepting YOUR first book for review.


  • Request – "I know you like books by --- do you want to review this one?" says my editor. Or sometimes, "Choose a book(s) you'd like from this list." (I feel magnanimous and agree/choose.)
  • Arrival – I'm excited to get a first look at the ARC. I check page numbers, and divide the amount into the days she gave me to leisurely read the book, allowing 3 days for writing the review.
  • Reading – I love this part best, getting into a good story. I use a pencil as a book mark so I can make notes on the rough newsprint.
  • Winding down – My anxiety mounts as I anticipate finishing and having to actually WRITE a review. Often I slow down my reading here, although the climax is approaching.
  • The PC screen – I'm frozen (yes me, not the screen). That first sentence is murder! I write and rewrite it 50 times, then leave it and skip to the end (author style evaluation) which is easier. Finally disgusted I save the file and go to bed.
  • Reading my review – After a horrible night's sleep I reluctantly read what I've written. OH NO! It's horrible! I rewrite, massage, delete, cut & paste, edit out, add in. Oh, why did I ever agree to review books? After a day of misery I punch "SEND."
  • JOY! – I'm done! Relief! Freedom! The euphoria of having completed it makes me dance around the house.
  • Editor email – Down the roller coaster of despondency I plunge. I have to look at this thing again? I pull out the ARC (which fortunately I haven't tossed in my elation over the previous bullet point). I go over my notes and mini-synopses. I struggle to wrangle those words into submission and try to cut 75 words. At last it's done (again) and I am exhausted. Weakly I hit "SEND" and make a solemn self-promise. "I will never accept another book to review."
  • The 60-day wait – The magazine finally arrives. I grab it and flip immediately to the "Reviews" section, and look for my name. I read the review. I WROTE THAT? Seriously? Wow? It's amazingly good! (Okay, she's tweaked a couple words, but that's okay because she made me look great!) I display the magazine prominently on the coffee table with a Post-a-note marking "my" page.
  • Another 60 day wait – The check arrives. I smile smugly, feeling cocky at having earned a couple "Star" bucks. Hey, this reviewing isn't so bad. I could probably do another one....  
And so, I fall off the wagon again.

Q: Do book authors have a similar cycle of agony?


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Character Matters: Your Main Characters Attract Readers, Make Them Memorable


Author G.B. Pool gives us the scoop on writing memorable characters. Visit Gayle's Author Page on Amazon!

Character Matters: Your Main Characters Attract Readers, Make Them Memorable


Aristotle wrote in The Poetics that stories are made up of 5 Elements in balance: Plot, Character, Setting, Dialogue, and the Meaning of the Piece. He thought plot was the most important element, but I wanted to talk about character in this blog.

As in most crime fiction, there is always a bad guy or gal. Some writers want to give the villain a good point like he loves dogs or his mother. I seldom bother. I paint him bad with no redeeming features unless there are extenuating circumstances and my bad guy isn’t so bad after all. In fact once or twice the bad guy has a soul. But usually in a story like that, he or she is actually the star of the piece.

But when I write a main character, I want him or her to be someone I would invite into my home. After all, I spend a lot of time with these characters while I am reading not only my own books but books by other writers. If I find them repulsive, mean, heartless, I really resent the time spent getting to know them. On more than one occasion the character has been written by a famous author and I frankly think the character stinks. That will also be the last time I read one of their books.

Aristotle mentioned that characters should have some redeeming quality. I do reserve those good qualities for the hero and other important characters. The bad guy can be bad to the bone as far as I am concerned.

Another thing Aristotle mentioned was that all the characters should be appropriate to their station in life. I am sure when he wrote The Poetics there was far more of a class system operating. Even in Downton Abbey, the folks living above stairs have a different attitude than the ones living below stairs. Not that this is right or wrong, it was just what society at that time and place was like. I’ll root for the rebel, but I would still be cognizant of the time period in which the story was being told.

There was a movie, The Admirable Crichton, where a shipwreck strands a bunch of aristocrats and their butler on a desert island. The resourceful butler saves everyone with his ingenuity. When the bunch is rescued, he reverts back to the butler and life went on.

But if the writer is true to the inherent abilities of his characters, the story will work. A housewife who miraculously knows everything about solving crime has been watching too much CSI. And a cop will tell you many of the procedures on those police shows are laughingly wrong.

Dick Francis will have his main character who is expert in some interesting thing like wine making or photography, use his skills to solve a crime. That I can believe. If he turns into a latter-day MacGyver and can make a nuclear weapon out of a box of matches and a can of hairspray, sorry, NO SALE.

Just keep your character consistent. If he hates height, make something payoff in the end that uses that fear of heights like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo. I keep a character chart that lists when each was born, when certain things happened in his life, and even things that happened during that time in history just to know what people were exposed to.

  I started doing this while I was taking an acting class. What a great way to learn about a tight story structure, dialogue, and character. My teacher, Rudy Solari, had us write a mini-biography of our own character so we would know where the character came from and what motivated him or her before he or she set foot on the stage. We could glean some things from the script and make up the rest, but you sure know who you were when the scene started.

This works for writing characters, too. When I was writing my Johnny Casino Casebook series I wrote out a bio for Johnny. Boy did I learn a lot about him. There were even some things that came out in the second book that even Johnny didn’t know. It made him more interesting.

Know your character. Character matters.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing Stuff - A Tough Project

Author Kate Thornton shares her thoughts about the process of bringing new life to old projects. Visit her Author's Page on Amazon!

WRITING STUFF - A TOUGH PROJECT


I finished a Christmas story last week and sent if off to a magazine that has a tracking application online. Of course, I check it daily. Five days in slush and still not read – I may have to volunteer as a slush reader to get it going.

I always write seasonal stories out of season - that way there is really no looming deadline and magazines really like to get their seasonal stuff lined up ahead of time. Writing short stories is not easy - they must be tight, have impact, be satisfying and, well, short.

But the really tough writing project I am working on is a novel I wrote in 1998. Back then, I thought I was a novelist and knocked out 3 or 4 long works - adventure/mysteries - that I thought were really good. Hah! Shows what little I knew! They needed a lot of work. So I shelved them (one was actually agented and had some interest from St. Martin's Press, only back then I didn't know enough about revisions to do the necessary rewrites.) The event that triggered this effort was lunch a while back with an old friend, a dear friend, who asked about that particular book and remembered it fondly. Bless my beta readers!

So I am re-reading it first (I have a copy printed on my old laser printer) then doing a page-by-page rewrite into my computer. I used to have this work on an ancient five-inch floppy disc, but who knows what happened to that and what I could use to extract the info anyway. Also, I think it was in one of the very first iterations of Word Perfect. Yes, I am old!

I once heard you must write a million words before you learn how to put them into the right order. I am sure this old effort was part of my first million, and therefore should just be counted as practice, not the real deal. But I want to salvage the basic story, change the main character to one I have been developing, and update the technology (both in the storyline and what I use to write with.)

Maybe it will be a successful project. If so, I have at least three more "Trunk Novels" that could get the same treatment, if they're worth it.

So, how about you? Do you save your old stuff and use it - or parts of it - later? I like the idea of doing this, but it sure is a lot of work. An author of my acquaintance recommends just ditching it all and writing something new. There is certainly a lot to be said for that approach. But there is also something about an old friend, a character you have created, coming home to the present and being with you again.


So, for now, I want to revisit this person and see if they can get used to the world as it is now. And I think maybe it will help me to accept the world of today as well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

To Outline or Not to Outline...Is That the Question?


“Do you use an outline when you write?”

Every time I’ve gone to a writing seminar I hear this question, which puzzles me because I don’t believe it’s what the asker really wants to know. What is really being asked is if writers should use some system to structure their work, whether it’s an outline, software, poster board with index cards, or any other method. I asked several authors, including my co-WinRs, if and how they organize their writing.

Madeline Gornell doesn’t outline or use any formal system beyond a character list. “I ‘wing it,’ develop, build, and go back to fill in as I go.”

Andrea Hurst, author of The Guestbook, Always With You, and the soon-to-be-released Tea and Comfort (in addition to several works of non-fiction), varies her approach with each novel according to what she feels is needed.  “On my first book I knew the beginning and the end and did deep character and setting work. On my second book I knew only the very beginning and end and it just poured out. On my third and current book, I have outlined in detail the scene points and overall plot ahead of time and it seems to work well.”

Gayle Bartos Pool favors some organizing techniques, but adapts them to each project. “I have used an outline before and it worked fine, but I usually just write as I go. I do maintain a timeline to keep the action straight and it keeps the characters from bumping into each other unless I want them to do that. And I do write biographies for my main characters.”

Bonnie Schroeder works with ‘The Snowflake System’. Although she didn’t purchase the software, she follows the general approach. “You start with the germ of an idea and gradually flesh it out through several iterations, including detailed chapter and character summaries. The most valuable thing I got from this was the ‘Scene Spreadsheet’, which has really helped me see where everything happens and where there’s no conflict, etc.” For more details, go to: www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

Rowena Williamson juggles two historical fiction series – Castle Caorann and Ryan and the Redhead – and is working on a sequel to her popular YA book, Escape To The Highlands. Despite her substantial workload, Rowena doesn’t use any system. “I can’t really plot without getting feedback from my characters.”

“I outline my stories in my head and I always know where I’m going,” said Audrey Mackaman, author of two YA fiction series, Murder Most Magic and The Dream Cycle.

Jacqueline Vick always uses an outline. “With a mystery, there is too much backtracking to clean up clues etc. without one. And it's too easy to go off on tangents and get away from the plot.” She begins by taking notes and making up a style sheet – a quick reference tool for things she always needs to look up.  “It helps keep track of names, places, grammar problems that pop up for me personally, hard to spell words, etc.” Although this system has worked for her in the past, she is currently trying out Scrivener software. “I'm going to give that a shot with the next mystery I write. It's gotten good reviews!”  For more information about Scrivener, go to www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php   

I think it's very individual, this writing process,” said Heather Ames, whose publications include the romantic suspense All That Glitters, contemporary romance The Sweetest Song and Indelible, the first in her mystery/suspense series. She tried using an outline to give her writing group an idea of where Swift Justice (the sequel to Indelible) was going, but the story strayed in another direction. I've never used any of the writing programs. I'm a freewheeler.” 

What about me? I began writing my first novel with the idea of seeing if I could do it. I had no plan or outline, just a character, an incident, and a vague sense of the plot. I’m pleased with it now, but it took over a decade to finish. I’ve often thought outlines would speed up the writing process and now begin each book with a synopsis of the story, but I rarely stick to it. I rebel against micromanagement, even self-imposed. My second novel took only four years to complete, so I guess I’m getting faster.

From this small sampling, it appears there is no consensus. Some writers deem systems necessary to keep them on track. Others find them inhibiting; they prefer to let the story flow. Many hybridize the process; they use timelines and biographies to keep the details straight, or work with a beginning and an end, and let their creative instincts fill in the rest. And a few do whatever they find works best for a particular project. Maybe that’s what draws us to writing stories that appeal to us. We prefer having the freedom to follow our muse and only use organizational tools if we need help with our characters or plotting. Or as Rowena Williamson put it, “I couldn’t hold to a book-a-year schedule. My books would go downhill if I did that.”