Monthly Archives: April 2008

Writer Unblocked

Writer’s block–everyone has heard of it. Presumably every writer sometimes runs into the brick wall of a frozen brain. The premise is that we key along in zoom form, our creative juices swirling and pouring out in luscious words and phrases. Then, without warning, smack! The brick wall, the solid glass door, a cave-in at the end of the tunnel right when we think we’re seeing the splendid finish of our manuscript. Our words have gone on vacation and our fingers refuse to obey our direction. The dread writer-block-monster has struck again!

I congratulate myself on usually having two or three manuscripts going at the same time, so if I get bogged down in one I can fly right off to another–no problem. If my feet begin to twitch and I drift away from the computer, it’s not because of a block, merely a touch of spring fever. When it’s not spring, it’s a case of “have to’s” in the house or garden or grocery store. Of course I’d rather be writing.

OK, I’ll be truthful. There are times I go into a brain-freeze too. Those thoughts, words, paragraphs, even a whole article just won’t come together like obedient puzzle pieces should. And then–oh joy–it’s time for our critique group to meet. A suggestion here, new point there, and general encouragement everywhere. Hey, the story or article wasn’t as bad as I thought it was! I can hardly wait to get back to my computer and plug in all those good ideas. Brick walls have been pushed over, the glass door opened, and the light has returned to the end of the tunnel.

Thank you, Wordsmiths. You’ve done it again!

Contributed by Shirley Shibley


Fun Ideas

Do you feel bored or out of touch with your critique group? Is the energy level low due to the same old same old or overabundance of rejection letters for everyone? Here are some great ideas to increase the energy level, add excitement, and just make your critique group a fun and fantastic group to belong to.

Design a logo. Ask a local artist (or an artistic member of your group) to design a group logo. You can put the logo on T-shirts for everyone to wear or tote bags to carry your stuff. It’s a great way to feel “official” as a writer and as a group.

Write and publish a book together. There are so many inexpensive Print-on-Demand publishers these days that it’s an exciting adventure to write a book together as a group! One of my groups took a year to write our book, Writing To Give God the Glory. One section is instructional about writing. One section is inspirational to encourage a writer’s soul. One section is a showcase to feature selections of our writing. How fun it is to share with family and friends!

Mentor a struggling critique group. If you know of another group that is struggling to stay together, ask if they’d like a mentor. Rotate volunteer members of your group to attend their meetings and share tips on what makes a successful critique group.

Take a field trip! Sign up for a local conference or writer’s event–together! Carpool and just have a day of fun even while you’re learning more about the craft of writing.

Have a potluck. If you always meet at the same place, plan someplace new to meet for the potluck. Enjoy the time together. For added fun, allow time for each member to have a short 1-3 page critique.

Host an event. Some critique groups host huge events such as a conference. Other’s host smaller events such as a contest. Plan it together, man it together, and host it together to build a wonderful new sense of purpose and productivity.

Make a group blog. It’s been so much fun to make a group blog for Wordsmiths, our own critique group. And it’s free, too! We have it set up so that each member in our group of eight writes a new post just twice a month so that it’s very manageable for all.

Explore the same genre together. Recently we took an Alphabet Book Adventure together and all studied the market, wrote our own alphabet book, and critiqued each other’s manuscripts–together! It was so great to expand the project we were each working on by all the wonderful tips and information that each of us was able to bring to the group to share during that time.

Start a club. One of my critique groups hosts the Book In A Month Club. Each year in March we take the zany, crazy challenge and attempt to write the first draft of an entire book in just one month! This year we made it official and took it online at my blog, Blogzone. We invited everyone to join in the fun. Now we have a logo for people’s blogs, a certificate for official members, and more!

So how about it? Don’t settle for a ho hum critique group when you can add sparkle and pizzazz! A critique group should be helpful, but it can also be fun, fun, fun!

-Contributed by Nancy I. Sanders

Our Critique Group “Gems ” and What Makes Them Sparkle

A ruby, sapphire, opal or amethyst are lovely in a single setting ring, but together they compliment each other and help bring out the beauty in each individual stone.  I liken the writers in our critique group to a ring with assorted precious stones.
Our Critique Group “Gems”:
  • MARILYN (Aquamarine): Marilyn has lots of experience in writing great middle grade novels as well as magazine stories. She is one of our grammar and sentence structure experts and has her own editorial service. Marilyn, you are one of the nicest editors I’ve ever known. (o: Your warmth toward others and willingness to help is one of your trademarks. Hug!
  • NANCY (Emerald): Nancy writes practically everything from spell-binding historical middle grade chapter books, to nonfiction and fiction magazine pieces. She writes poetry, mini-plays, rebuses, curriculum, and devotionals. Nancy is an expert at market research and digging up accurate historical facts. Her wonderful editing and organizational skills are evident. Nancy, you encourage us to grow and you keep us informed about new writing opportunities. You are our humble leader and a loving friend to each of us. Thank you!
  • MARJORIE (Diamond): Marjorie has written a GAZILLION short stories for children’s magazines and newspaper kid-pages. The number is actually over 300! Whew! She knows her stuff. She also writes middle grade chapter books. She has many talents, one being a knitting marvel. Her articles have appeared in knitting magazines and her finished pieces are incredible. Marjorie, you are a delight to know and your smile is contagious!
  • SHIRLEY (Yellow Topaz): Shirley writes wonderful retold Bible and non-fiction pieces for magazines. She also writes exciting middle grade historical fiction as well as devotional material. Shirley, you are known for your sweet, SWEET spirit. You are such an inspiration and encourager to all of us!
  • VERONICA (Amethyst): Veronica is our professional illustrator and designer. She is an absolute artist with words as well. Veronica writes non-fiction and really does her homework.  She can envision illustrations as she writes, which adds to her creativity. This is helpful as she reads the manuscripts of others. Veronica, you have TWO wonderful gifts to share with us, and we are so glad to know you!
  • GLORIA (Zircon): Gloria is our writing comedian. You never want to have any liquid in your mouth when she shares one of her hysterical manuscripts! She writes picture books, poetry, drama, and magazine stories. Gloria, your Southern accent is music to our ears, and you liven up our group with creativity and humor. You have the gift of hospitality and we love the Christmas parties at your home. Gloria, you’re just plain talented and fun!
  • CATHERINE (Pearl): Catherine is amazing. Oh, how I wish I had Catherine’s brain! She writes non-fiction picture books, cliff-hanger-hold-your-breath middle grade fiction, devotionals, and magazine pieces.  She is also an expert at doing research and so willing to help others. Catherine, thanks for your recent step-by-step help to me! Your blog devotionals lift our spirits—just as you do when you’re with us!

There’s one last member—Sheryl. That’s me, and I’m a Zircon. I write fiction and non-fiction picture books, magazine stories, retold Bible stories, rebuses, poetry, and mini-plays.  I, along with my co-writer Lauren Harris, am working on a historical fiction middle grade chapter book. Looks like I’ve got a few experts around to help me!

During our meetings, I try to soak everything in from the experience and expertise of the seven “gems” around me— every one of them as special as the next.

If you belong to a critique group, you’ve probably realized that each member has something unique to offer. A different perspective. A creative idea. A thought provoking challenge. That ever-needed grammar help.

Every serious writer has strengths in one area or another. I believe our critique group brings out the STRENGTHS in each writer— strengths that some of us never knew we had.  Isn’t that what a critique group is supposed to do?

YOU may be lovely gem in a single setting. If so, I hope that you will seek out and find a critique group that will surround you with an assortment of precious stones. It will stretch you and help you grow as a writer.

I’m so glad there was an empty setting waiting for me. What a stunning ring we’ve got!

Copyright 2008 Sheryl Ann Crawford

Do’s and Don’ts

Wordsmiths is tops, but I have been in a number of other critique groups over the years.  Here are a few friendly do’s and don’ts based on those experiences.

DO make a commitment.  Once you’ve been accepted in a group and have decided to join, enter the meeting dates on your calendar and make attending a high priority.

DON’T attend just now and then.  I’ve actually known people who were eager to join but then only showed up if they had “nothing better to do.”  Example:  one woman said she couldn’t attend a meeting because she was having her carpets cleaned that day!  Everyone has emergencies, illness, etc., but we owe it to the group, and to ourselves, to plan our schedule around the meetings.

DO make encouraging comments.  Preface remarks with statements such as “Would you consider…” or “How about…”

DON’T be negative or hurtful.  Marking our whole paragraphs (or pages) and writing comments such as “This makes no sense” or “Stupid idea” does not help anyone.  Even if you don’t like the work, respect the effort.

DO encourage good work.  Note where dialogue, setting, etc. work well.

DON’T be too positive!  A manuscript with ALL glowing comments doesn’t help a writer, either.  Show where something doesn’t quite work, or is inconsistent, and suggest an alternative.

DO try to accept all comments.  Even if comments are occasionally hurtful (should that happen) simply listen.  Then use only the ideas you think will work.  Remember, it’s still YOUR story.

DON’T explain or defend your work.  You can be sure that if a group member spots a legitimate problem, an editor will see it, too…and you won’t be able to explain it to him or her.

Whole books have been written about critique groups, but I think the above ideas can help any group be the best it can be.

Contributed by Marjorie Flathers

Featured Interview: Sally Stuart

Meet Sally Stuart!


Web site:


Bio: Sally has been writing for over 40 years and is currently working on the 24th edition of the Christian Writers’ Market Guide. In addition to the market guide she has written a dozen other books and hundreds of articles and columns. She is a writing/marketing columnist for the Christian Communicator, Advanced Christian Writer, Oregon Christian Writer, as well as some online publications. Sally is the mother of 3 and grandmother of 8, and lives with her husband, Norm, in Aloha, Oregon.


Q: How have you personally benefited from critique groups?

A: When I was writing and selling regularly, I belonged to a critique group for about 15 years. We met monthly and I never missed a meeting unless I was ill or out of town. Although I was selling regularly, I still depended on the input of other writers I trusted to help me improve everything I wrote. The group I belonged to had pretty strict rules–which meant you were expected to bring something to read every month. Really helped me with the discipline of being sure I was producing on a regular basis. I left the group reluctantly when my time was taken up with the market guide and I was no longer writing regularly for publication. 

Q: Are critique groups as valuable to a veteran writer as to a beginner?

A: Definitely. Actually, when I was in the critique group, about half of the members were well-published writers that depended on it as much as I did. It seems all writers have a blind spot when it comes to being a good judge of their own writing. It benefits all of us to have the input of someone more objective. They often helped me see that I had overlooked an aspect of my topic, or needed to show another point of view.

Q: How can a writer find a good critique group to join?

A: Of course, there is a section in the market guide that lists many of the writers’ groups by city and state, but you may not find one in your area listed there. If not, start by advertising for members in your own congregation–then have those members invite others they may know about in the community. There seem to be “closet” writers everywhere. You can also advertise at your local library–or at a local writers’ conference. It only takes a few people to get a group started. In fact, if you are all going to read at each meeting, then 6-8 members is plenty–4 to 5 is enough.

Q: What tips would you give to someone trying to start a critique group?

A: In addition to the answer above about finding members, you will want to have specific guidelines for the group. It is important that everyone commits to bringing something to read each month (or whenever the group meets). I think we allowed people not to read one time during the year. Set up a specific structure for the meetings. Our groups started by going around the circle and having everyone give an update on what had happened since the last meeting (what they were working on, sales made, queries or proposals submitted, etc.). Then as each person read, we went around the circle and everyone had to respond by saying something (positive or negative). You tend to pay closer attention if you know you will have to critique the piece. Instead of reading aloud, some groups have each person bring a printed copy of their piece so everyone can have a copy, read and critique it on their own. Then either just turn the marked-up copy back to the author and/or have a critique session on it after everyone is finished. I’ve heard of other groups where they e-mailed each other the copies ahead of time. If you live in a more isolated area, then you might want to set up an e-mail, round-robin group where you don’t actually get together, but pass around material by e-mail only. I do actually sell a little booklet on how to start a critique group if anyone is serious about starting a group. You can order it on my Website bookstore. It’s called “How to Develop a Professional Writers’ Group.”


A Critique Group Surprise

Soon after my first novel, The House at Sutter’s Sands, was published, I was invited to sign books at the local bookstore. A woman approached me, and as we chatted, she told me about her critique group. “We would love to have you come and visit,” she said. “How about next week?”

That sounded great. I had been looking for a group of writers to meet with. And this would be a good chance to see how a critique group worked.

“We’ll have a nice luncheon,” she promised. “One of the writers makes homemade tamales.” My mouth watered as she gave me directions to an address in a nearby town.

On the day of the meeting, I arrived about fifteen minutes early. Cars were already parked up and down both sides of the street. It must be a larger group than I had expected.

When the hostess ushered me into the living room, I saw that folding chairs had been set up in every available space–and they were quickly filling. “I invited a few guests,” she explained. It was 10:00 a.m., and the aroma of steaming tamales drifted in from the kitchen. The hostess smiled. “Lunch will be ready at noon,” she said. “You’ll have plenty of time.”

Time for what? A suspicion began to grow at the back of my mind. Why did these people have notebooks in their laps instead of manuscripts ready to be read? Why was a chair placed in the front of the room?

“We have a special program today,” the hostess was saying. “Our guest, Marilyn Donahue, is going to tell us everything she knows about writing a novel.”

I got to my feet. People clapped. It was a short distance to the chair, but it was long enough for me to pray: Lord, you can see what a mess I’m in. Please put words in my mouth that will open a door for somebody. Let me speak to their hearts.”

And so I began. I talked about what I knew. About getting up at 5:00 a.m. and sitting outside with God and a cup of coffee before I started work for the day. About trial and error and the joy of finding the right word. About my characters and how they interacted. About plot, and voice, and the importance of keeping your seat in the chair.

Later, one writer said, “I felt like you were speaking to our hearts. It opened a door for me, and I can’t wait to get home and start writing.”

I learned that day that we can do unexpected things–with God’s help and guidance. Today, whenever I am about to give a lecture or conduct a workshop, I take time to whisper softly the words that have carried me through many a public appearance:

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

Contributed by Marilyn Donahue

All in Good Time

I am the unofficial time keeper of the Wordsmiths. At each meeting, usually after we pray, I am handed a small stop watch upon which I dutifully register 20 minutes. Once a member begins her discussion/reading, I start the timer.

Why do we set a time limit? First of all, we need boundaries. Eight women gathering together after having not seen one another in a month can talk up a storm very easily. If we didn’t set some type of limit, we’d never get anything accomplished.

Secondly, we want to be fair. Our meetings last four hours. Some of us travel great distances; a few have children or grandchildren to pick up from school. Giving each member a 20 minute limit allows us to hear everyone’s manuscripts in a fair amount of time and still have room for food, fellowship, and fun before we have to leave for home.

It helps that we have a maximum of ten pages of writing that we can bring. Twenty minutes is usually a perfect amount to read and discuss a person’s work.

What happens if someone goes over? The timer starts beeping and the member tries to close up quickly. If we are in the middle of a really intense piece, we will allow some flexibility as long as we have the minutes to spare; but we really try to be considerate all around.

Perhaps your group could benefit from keeping time. It has helped us to stay focused and be better organized while still having lots of fun.

Contributed by Catherine L. Osornio