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Critique Groups

Last time I wrote about hope, and how necessary it was to a writer.  Something that has made a tremendous difference to me over the years is belonging to a critique group.

I’ve been fortunate to be a member of four critique groups.  I organized the first one and it included my husband and three friends who were trying to break in.  That group taught me the first three lessons of CG’s.

1) Decide from the start how you want to run the thing.  In our case, we decided to use a relaxed version of the rules used at the Clarion writing workshops.  We handed out our chapters, read through them, then brought them back and read our comments aloud.  For the most part, we tried to keep our comment time as close to five minutes as possible, so we could a) get through in a reasonable time, and b) not seem like we were belaboring a point.  Authors were to listen and not interrupt or defend.

2) It’s best if you all are striving for the same thing.  In our case, we were all working toward professional publication.  None of us were writing for our own amusement or memoirs for our families.

3)  If one person says something, it’s one person’s opinion.  LISTEN!  (Especially if you don’t like what you’re hearing.)  Evaluate it.  Then take it or leave it.  If several people make the same observation, you should look long and hard at the problem area.

My second critique group, eventually named “Working Title” taught me four  more lessons:

4)  It’s good if all members of the group are familiar with the genres being written.  It’s not absolutely necessary, but it helps.  Science fiction, fantasy, and romance all have conventions specific to the genre.

5)  Mention the good things as well as the mistakes.  As Emma Bull said on a panel once, “If you don’t tell me what I did right, I may revise it out.”  Besides that, we all need encouragement.  As wonderful as writing is, this can at times be a soul killing business.  Put a smiley face on the page.  Give applause where it’s due.

6)  It’s good if the members are not too far apart in skill level.  I was blessed to receive guidance from others who were better writers than I was.  It accelerated my improvement considerably.  Fortunately they didn’t have to bend down too far to give me a hand up.  Even a rank beginner can read and say “this isn’t working for me,” even when they don’t know why.  But if the disparity is too great, the better writers aren’t getting the help they need.

7)  Keep it small.  More than six and it become unwieldy.  Four or five is better.  Three is doable, but almost too small.  You need a diversity of opinion (see #3 above).

The third group I joined, simultaneously for a while with the second and fourth groups, is the “Tanque Wordies.”  I’m still a member.  This group reads aloud instead of handing out pages at the previous meeting.  From this group I’ve learned:

8)  Read your work out loud.  You’ll hear things that your eye misses.  Repeated words, bad dialogue, etc.

I was in the fourth group for only about six months.  That group focused on writing romance, something I really wanted to be in.   It taught me a difficult lesson:

9)  Listen to your gut.  No matter how much you like the individual members of a group, it may not be the right one for you.  Depending on the problem, you may be able to talk it out.  If not, your best bet may be to leave graciously.

I’ve had (mostly) good luck, but some people don’t like critique groups.   There is a risk of being swayed away from your natural style.  But in my experience, if you find the right group it can help you grow, help you stay motivated, and keep you hopeful in between those elusive sales.

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Hope springs eternal

I had a nice experience today.  I’d written the URL for TusCon on the back of one of my cards for a favorite waitress a couple of weeks ago (she’s a Harry Potter fan).  Today she said she’d been to my website.  “I didn’t know you were a writer!  I want to read your story Debts.”

That felt pretty great.

I’m still a newbie to publishing, even though I’ve been writing for several years.  I’m one of those writers whose name (I hope) will be invoked to newbies in about 20 years:  “Do you know how long it took Frankie to make it?  Don’t lose hope.”

I do get discouraged sometimes.  I question.  Drive myself crazy.   Should I try to follow a trend?  Put more sex in my stories?  Less?  Write historical?  Contemporary?

I know I’m not alone in asking these questions.  From rank beginner to experienced pro every writer has doubts.  The publishing industry almost seems to be designed to foster insecurity in writers.  As a friend said recently, “If you’re not neurotic when you start your career, you will be shortly.”

I’ve given up trying to follow trends.  From now on I’m writing what I’m passionate about.  I’ll do what I can business-wise to further my career, and keep trying to improve my craft, but the writing has to come from the heart.

This business (and it is a business) is too hard if you don’t enjoy the journey.


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Religion in fiction

It may be my destiny to offend people.  I don’t want to, but I can’t help myself.  Every one of my as yet unpublished novels deals with religion in some way. When I build a new world, it just seems reasonable to put some kind of religious belief system in place for my characters.  There’s no culture on earth that hasn’t been influenced by at least one religion.  Why should fiction be any different?

My first two novels, Dangerous Talents and Forbidden Talents, are about the descendents of a lost Vinland colony and their adventures in Alfheim.  So far, so good.  Not many people will be troubled if I take a few liberties with the old Norse religion.  (Cultural drift changes beliefs over time, you know.)  But remember, the Vinlanders had been exposed to Christianity.  They don’t follow that religion, but they do have an opinion about it.  Not satisfied to stop there, I also populated Alfheim with the descendents of the Anasazi Indians.  (The Anasazi disappeared as a distint culture from Arizona about 800 years ago — I say they went to Alfheim.)  Their (the descendants) beliefs are derived from those of the Hopi Indians — the Anasazi’s actual descendents — but I couldn’t leave them untouched either.

My third book, Veiled Mirror, only deals with ghosts — but how can you talk about ghosts without asking questions about the afterlife?

In my lastest book, Lightbringer, I go all the way.  I have a fallen angel trying to protect a psychic from a demonic assassin.  How could I let the characters ignore the obvious questions?

Religion isn’t necessary for a book to be compelling.  If I’m swept up in the story, I may not notice its lack until later — as I did with Souless by Gail Carriger.  Souless is a lot of fun — I highly recommend it.  It’s what Pride and Prejudice and Zombies should have been.  The heroine, Alexia, is souless.  She is a proximity antidote to both vampires and werewolves.  When she touches them they instantly become mortal.  The plot hinges on this fact.  Yet I realized as I began writing this blog that the author had barely touched on the existential questions that should arise from the premise.

I don’t know if readers will be offended by anything I’ve written.  I hope not.  But there is a vocal minority who aren’t very tolerant of differences of opinion.  I guess that’s just another reason why authors need to grow a thick skin.

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Time management and other fairy-tales

No Virginia, there’s no such thing as time management.  Only self-management.

It took me a long time to figure this out.  I tried quite a few organizing tools, various tricks and planners, some of them were helpful, but none of them really helped me to become the miraculously organized person I thought I should be.

I grew up with a father who was career military, who believed if you weren’t ten minutes early you were late.  My mother grew up as local gentry in Texas and believed the party didn’t start until she got there.  It’s no wonder I have a split personality with regard to time.  I grew up believing I ought to be squared away, but resistant to being tightly scheduled — even when I’m the one making the schedule.  I like keeping my options open.

I finally figured out I was trying to put a square peg in a round hole.  Everybody has to find their own way.  What works for me is making a weekly list and from there, a daily list.  I’m always tempted to put more on the lists than I can possibly do.  Some things get pushed to the next day, week, or month.  But the three most important things are at the top of the list.  They become my deadlines, my must-do’s.  Doing this over and over and over is a clarifying experience.  It’s shown me that my priorities aren’t always what I think they are.  (How dirty does the house have to be before it moves to the top of the list?)


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Jumping In

Over the last year I’ve been easing into the social media waters.  First I got a website and then I got a FaceBook account for my alter ego.  Recently I had extensive conversations with Mike Stackpole at TusCon 36 (a great little Science-fiction convention in Tucson, AZ) about how writers can use social media.  I’ve been hearing and reading about such things for some time now, but the message has finally sunk in:  participating in social media is a necessity.

So here I am.

I’m not a Luddite, but I’m not a first adopter, either.  But times being what they are in the publishing industry, I’m now taking another step into the great internet community.

I’ll try to keep this interesting, and I hope you come back.

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