How to be a rock star critique partner

Critique groups are lifelines for writers. Joining a new writing group can be kind of intimidating, especially when you’re new to an area or if you’re new to writing. But- when you find that right group? It’s game changing.

For me, the right group is made up of consistent, candid, encouraging people.

People who show up consistently creates a group that builds momentum and accountability. Partners who are candid about what works and what doesn’t are super-helpful. I can’t improve as a writer if my group tells me everything’s great all the time (I know it’s not). Having said that, a positive, encouraging group is much more pleasant to be around than a bunch of Debbie Downers. I don’t want you to tell me I’m perfect. I want you to tell me it’s okay to not be perfect yet, and brainstorm with me if/when I get stuck.

As I went out in search of my people, I learned a few things – first and foremost, I want to be the kind of partner that I would like to have in my group. Here’s a short list of what I learned to do:

Check the expectations before you show up. Don’t go in unprepared – ask the group leader how many pages your writing sample should be. Should you share it before or during the meeting? What file format does everyone prefer?

Ask each member what they need. Some are interested in general reactions to their work; others may be trying to solve a specific problem. Tailor your feedback to help each writer achieve his or her objectives.

Give as specific feedback as you can, and comment from your own perspective. For example, “I wondered if this character might have a stronger response when his little sister fell,” is more constructive input than “Needs better characterization.”

Be considerate and helpful. No matter what type of feedback you offer, consider how you would feel if you were the one receiving it. Deliver every comment, whether critical or complimentary, thoughtfully and with care for the receiver.

When you receive feedback, don’t freak out. Criticism of your work is not the same as criticism of you as a human being, so do not treat it as such. They’re notes from a fellow writer about how they reacted to your work product, not a judgment of your value or worth as a human being.

Don’t obsess but do notice trends. If you get certain types of feedback consistently, there’s a reason.

Try not to brush off the good things. If you’re like me, you are your own harshest critic. Learn to graciously accept compliments.

Remember to be respectful of the group’s time. Make an effort to be on time and prepared. Everyone understands that life happens, but if you’re going to miss a meeting or be late, let your group leader know.

The most productive groups are the ones who set clear expectations about group behavior early. It’s easier for everyone when they know what to expect.

Have anything to add to this list? Drop me a note and let me know. I’d love to learn!

** a version of this post first appeared on AlmostAnAuthor.com in October of 2020**

Mum’s the Word

HoCo Learning Curve
How cute is this little singing bear?

I’m not a native Texan.

This was stunningly obvious to a fellow Hobby Lobby shopper who spotted me as I blinked at the homecoming decoration display. She touched my shoulder, smiled empathetically, and said, “Aw. Honey. You’re not from here, are you?”

This sweet stranger spent fifteen minutes talking me through how to make a mum, who gets how many flowers and what color ribbon, and the importance of personalization.

When she was done, I thanked her kindly for her help. Then I returned my empty basket to the front of the store and saw myself out. I may or may not have purchased a consolation chocolate bar first. For homecoming.

I’m okay with a glue gun. I can paint a flat surface one color. I stenciled a flower once.

But I’m not homecoming-mum-level crafty. And I’m good with that.

I found a neighbor on the Facebook who is homecoming-mum-level crafty. She owns a floral shop and she’s amazing. And patient. Which is a great thing because when I called her I spent a solid thirty minutes racing through questions:

  1. My son is going with a friend, do we still get her a mum?
  2. Why is this a thing?
  3. How does she wear it?
  4. When does she wear it?
  5. When does he give her the mum?
  6. Does he have to wear one?
  7. Why is it on a garter?
  8. Do they keep them afterward?
  9. Are the flowers real?
  10. No really, why is this a thing?

I still don’t have solid answers for #2 or #10. But we embraced the tradition, horrified our kid, and thoroughly exasperated friends and family in the process with near-daily mum texts.

I can’t wait until next year.

Unpopular Opinion: Pumpkin Spice Isn’t That Great.

This time of year, people like me lurk in the shadows, stealth-sipping our cinnamon teas or our chai lattes. No more hiding. I’m speaking up.

I love autumn as much as the next gal. Honest. I do. I love decorating the house for Thanksgiving. A good harvest theme never gets old. What does get old, though, is pumpkin spice.

Before you start hurling gourds at me, hear me out. Please?

Have you ever tasted pumpkin? It’s a squash. Squash ain’t sexy. Squash doesn’t make you want to curl up by the fireplace and daydream. It makes you want something else to eat that’s not squash.

Notice that the flavor is pumpkin spice. Not pumpkin. The “spice”- that’s where it’s at. Because pumpkin is gross. What is this spice, anyway? It’s not pumpkin pie. It’s not gingerbread. It’s… something else. If I want spice, I’ll get it from my buffalo wings, not a squash, thankyouverymuch.

The good news for people like me is that PSL season arrives earlier and earlier each year. It’s still eighty-hundred-thousand degrees outside. That means that before the weather cools off enough for people to enjoy it, they’ll have burned themselves out on the stuff.

So for now, I’m sporting a tank top, watching people drink their pumpkin spice coffees and sweating through their cozy scarves and ugg boots. Yay fall.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Three Things I Learned at a Writing Workshop

Writer friends, I know you. Some of you are on the fence about investing anything other than your time and imagination in your writing future.

I know this because that’s where I was. Full of doubt. Overflowing with insecurity.

As long as I didn’t take this “writing thing” too seriously, I hadn’t risked embarrassment or failure.

Then, four years ago, me and all my doubt and insecurity went to the SCBWI annual conference in Anaheim. You know what happened?

1) I met other writers.  When you meet other writers, you learn that you’re not the only one with fears and doubts. You’re not the only one who’s figuring things out as you go. You’re at a table with an ecclectic, diverse group of people who share a common dream: to write stories people want to read. I don’t know about you, but I find that very comforting.  

2) I learned from experienced authors, editors, agents, and publishers. Publishing is a great big messy world with a head-spinning number of moving parts and pieces. I won’t even pretend I understand it all. But there are experts out there who know their business exceptionally well, and they’re generous enough to share what they know at conferences. I’m convinced that if I work hard and stay teachable, someday I will see my books on shelves. You can too.

3) I gained some confidence. There’s nothing quite like sharing your work with a critique group for the first time. There’s also nothing quite like getting through the critique session and thinking, “I’ve got plenty to work on, but that wasn’t so bad.” Think about it – you shared a piece of yourself with others and the world didn’t explode. Not too shabby! I’ll share a secret with you: Writers want to help writers. We know how hard this is. We want to help.

Lastly – If you’ve read along and thought “This is all well and good, but I could never go to anything like this. I’m ______,” allow me to gently and kindly take you by the shoulder and say “Yes you can.”  Not only can you, if you’re serious about writing, you should invest time and energy in learning new things about your craft.

For every writer in the room, there’s a unique path that led them there. Don’t worry whether or not your path is like theirs. It won’t be. The good news is: There’s room at the table for all of us.

Adjectivery

I recently participated in my first-ever Instagram author’s challenge. You’d think that someone who’d been a marketing manager – as in, paid real money to develop and activate marketing strategies for a living – would be aaalll over the marketing for her own writing work. You’d think that, and you’d be right to snicker a little behind your hand right now because I have been slow to do the things I know I should do. It’s okay. I agree with you.

Anyway so I started doing this thing. I was excited. Day one I’m logged in, ready to social media and right out of the gate there was this great prompt: What one adjective would you use to describe yourself?

I didn’t go into this on Instagram, because it’s Instagram, but here’s the story behind my adjective:  I cheated. I asked my husband and my kid what one word they would use. I totally copped out. Because describing myself is like trying to apply liquid eyeliner without a mirror. I can do it, but it’s going to be slightly off. hello, i'm delightful

I like the word they chose, so I don’t mind stealing it one bit. Especially since it can be accurate when used both sincerely and sarcastically. Although I’d prefer to think that a solid 85% of the time I manage to pull off the positive, without a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee I’m like that eyeliner – a little off.

 

Onomatopoeia a.k.a. Sounds Like

True story: I had to look up how to spell this word three times before I got it right.

How often should we use this useful device in writing? Overdo it and you come off like you’re trying too hard. Don’t use it at all and you might be missing a spicy opportunity.

Some of my favorites (new and historical):

Mlem

Splat

Cluck

Tweet

sploshy splosh
onomatopoeia

What are some of your best onomatopoeias?

Three Content Issues to Consider for Middle Grade Readers

Know your audience. That’s one of the first things they teach you in journalism school. What they don’t teach you is that this rule applies to writing pretty much anything else. Especially children’s fiction. But there’s a catch.

When you’re writing for middle grade readers – or children of any age – you’re actually writing for two audiences: the young reader and the adult gatekeeper.

Whether that gatekeeper is a parent, grandparent, teacher or librarian, there’s almost always another set of discerning eyes on work intended for middle grade readers. It’s tricky, but it can be done.

When you think about it, writing for two readers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gatekeepers want to make sure their kiddos’ reading material feeds their brains with wisdom without exposing them to developmentally inappropriate content. Parent gatekeepers are rightly vigilant in determining what their kids may or may not be ready to tackle, and often want to fuel my kid’s imagination by introducing them to parts of the world that they may not otherwise get to see.

The folks who decide where books are shelved and whether they are bought are incredibly important.

In talking with a number of librarians, parents, grandparents and teachers, here are three subjects that are “no-go” when they’re looking for appropriate middle grade reading material.

1) Gore.
Life is full of bumps and thumps. But graphic descriptions of the broken bones is unnecessary for a middle grade reader.

Author Steven James distinguishes suspense from thriller from horror writing like this: Suspense is when you know *something horrible* is about to happen.Thrillers are stories in which the reader knows the horrible thing that’s about to happen and they follow the protagonist through efforts to stop it. Horror is when you watch the horrible thing happening to the protagonist.

The variables here? Point of view and treatment of violence, and they’re relevant to kids as well as adults. Generally speaking, middle grade readers and their adults agree that mild suspense and thrills are okay, but graphic descriptions of violence are not at all appropriate. Violence and gore are off limits.

2) Extreme Romance.
One aunt told me her fifth grade niece would rather read ten books about puppies than a single book about a girl with a crush on the boy-next-door. Middle grade readers are still very outward-focused and don’t want to read an inner monologue describing the torment of a first crush.

Some kids are curious about and experiment with physical romance at an early age – but writing descriptions of physical romance for young children is unnecessary. There’s no need to rush kids into romantic entanglements, and there’s even less need to introduce discussions of attraction or temptation. Seriously, that’s bordering on grooming behavior. Sex, sexuality, and innuendo are out of bounds for this age group. Children should get to be children. Full stop.

3) @#!@##%
“I know that he’s going to hear foul language on the playground at school. I can’t stop him from that, or make him unhear what he’s already heard. That doesn’t make it okay to read cursing in our living room,” says one mom. Coarse language, swear words, potty-mouth characters – however you describe it – are off limits for middle grade readers. If you want to create an “edgy” character, use wardrobe or behavior choices, give her an interesting ‘tic’ or quirky habit. But keep it clean.

Does this jibe with what you have learned about writing for middle grade readers? Do you agree or disagree? I’d love to hear about your experiences writing for this age group, so please comment below.

Marbles and how to find them. Maybe.

Have you ever looked at your Astounding List of Totally Compelling Blog Post Ideas and wondered to yourself, “What in the name of chili cheese fries was I thinking when I wrote that?”

Yep. That happened to me today. Three times.

Maybe you can help me remember what in the world I’d wanted to write about when I jotted this little jewel into my notes folder.

No Chickens On The Boat
Exhibit A.  Ahoy.

 

 

So yeah. I don’t remember what that was about.  I love chickens.  Enjoy boats too. But not sure where the chicken-boat combo came from.

 

Or this one:

Another idea

 

I feel like this is something I wanted to investigate but now I can’t remember what it is or why. This is why the internet is my frenemy. It kicks the tires of my imagination but then disappears off the lot of my brain.

Last one:

scrambled mess
?????

 

I know not where to start. Apparently at one point I was considering a poll. And laughing about mental face slapping.

If I couldn’t laugh at myself I’d be crying right now. This is how my brain works, my friends. The funniest thing though is that I think I’m being so clever and efficient, writing down these ideas when I have them. Apparently I need to write a note to myself and explain that I need more context in my own notes.

 

 

Stating the obvious.

When I first decided I was going to make a for-real attempt at writing for a living, I started reading all the advice to new writers I could get my hands on. You know what the underlying thread is in nearly all of them – from award-winning, NYT Best-Selling icons to newbies?

Every single person says the best thing you can do if you want to be a writer is to write every day.

I love love love though that nobody tries to hide the secret sauce. There’s no silver bullet method to getting published. If you talk to a dozen authors, you’ll get a dozen unique stories about their path from idea to shelf, whether they’ve self-pubbed or been picked up by one of the big houses. But you can’t get published if you don’t write.

The killer, of course, is that this is much harder than it sounds.

Life gets in the way. Work. Spouse. Kids. Pets. Plumbing. Illnesses. Miss one day and it snowballs into months in a blink of an eye.

So here’s my advice, as a pre-published author who also happens to freelance copywrite and proofread for a living. If you’ve missed a day (or year), put it behind you. Don’t beat yourself up. Start fresh. Start now. Make an appointment with yourself to write for however long you can, however often you can. And keep that appointment.

What happened when I started a diet: A cautionary tale.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but this year I’m staring down the barrel of (at least) one family member’s wedding, a multi-decade high school reunion, and a cruise. Not only do I need to boost my stamina and endurance for these exciting events, I would love to feel comfortable in something other than sweatpants at these things.

So I made a plan.  Starting Jan 2, there would be:

  • No dairy
  • No processed foods
  • No bread or grains
  • No sugar

The days leading up to Jan 2 were pure gluttony. Of course I’d made Christmas candy, and bought cheese, and bread, and the list goes on because how can you celebrate holidays without shameless overindulgence? (there’s lots of sarcasm and embarrassment in that sentence that doesn’t come through on the screen, btw)

As I polished off a plate of cookies and let out my drawstring pants another notch, I could feel the dread flooding me like a melted chocolate wash. This was going to hurt. I knew it.

So tried to reframe my eating strategy in a more positive light. Instead of all the “no’s,” I thought about the things I loved that I could eat. For example,

  • I can have all the roasted brussels sprouts I want!
  • Yay blueberries and apples!
  • Steak? Chicken? Yes please!
  • Avocados anytime!

And I looked at old pictures, reminding myself that once upon a time I was healthier and stronger. Wouldn’t it be great to not be winded every time you climb stairs, I asked me. Won’t it feel better to, well, feel better?

January 2 was a long day. Not gonna lie. But I did it. Scrambled eggs with spinach and mushrooms for breakfast. Garden salad with balsamic vinaigrette and an avocado for lunch. Cashews for a snack. Shredded cilantro chicken over an avocado for dinner. Water and mint tea all day long.

I would love to tell you that it was fantastic and easier than I expected.  Some parts were. Giving up bread, breakfast cereal and pasta wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it would be. Eating vegetables and fruit, it turns out, is still possible to do without adding butter or cheese. And it still tastes good.

Somewhere around the middle of the day I developed a nagging headache, and noticed I was ridiculously irritable.  My filter was in overdrive by dinnertime, I was trying so hard not to rage on my family, our dog, birds outside. It was exhausting and confusing.

The third, fourth, and fifth of January weren’t much different. I adjusted pretty quickly to the eating plan, and I started riding our stationary bike again. So that was good. But this disturbing new She-Hulk personality still lingered.

Then I realized why I was so cranky: sugar addiction. I had been denial about my eating habits for so long, I didn’t really see it. My answer for everything – boredom? thirst? sleepy? stressed? – was to eat or drink something, and that something was usually sugary or starchy. I’d get my quick fix of sugar happy and be on my way.

My body just needed a little time to recalibrate. The headaches and moodiness lasted about a week and a half, and I learned to manage them without turning to a soda (or a chocolate covered cherry).  Epsom salt baths and ibuprofen helped, as did drinking lots of water.

What’s my point? I’m wondering the same thing. My point is not to be discouraged if you change your eating habits and it’s horrible and cranky-making. The detox process stinks, but it’s worth it. You’re worth it. Hang in there.

Anybody else kicking a bad habit this year? How’s it going?