Our Critique Group Gems and What Makes Them Sparkle!

Have you joined a critique group?  Are you even looking for one? The right critique group can bring out your strengths as a writer and help you grow.  It’s true that your weak areas will be out in the open, but look at it this way—everyone’s in the same boat!  As writers we all have strengths and weaknesses.  We all need to grow in some way.  Writers need to mentor and encourage one another. Don’t go it alone!

I’d like to tell you about the special critique group I belong to. We’ve called our group of eight writers, “Wordsmiths.”

A ruby, sapphire, opal or amethyst are lovely in a single setting ring, but together they compliment each other and help bring out the radiant individuality of each stone.  I liken the writers in our critique group to a ring with assorted precious stones—a group of “Gems.”

These are our critique group “Gems”:

MARILYN (Aquamarine): Marilyn has lots of experience in writing great YA novels as well as magazine stories.  She is the author of 31 books and recently signed several more contracts! Marilyn is our grammar and sentence structure expert, is an English teacher, and has her own editorial service. Marilyn, you are one of the nicest editors I’ve ever known. (o: Your warmth toward others andwillingness 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 the author of over 75 books!  She is an expert at market research and digging up accurate historical facts. Her wonderful editing and organizational skills are evident and help keep our group running smoothly. 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 over 300 short stories for children’s magazines and newspaper kid-pages. Whew! Marjorie knows her stuff.  She can write tight! She also writes wonderful middle grade chapter books. Marjorie 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 retold Bible stories, Christian school curriculum, and non-fiction pieces for magazines. She also writes exciting you-are-there middle grade historical fiction, as well as devotional material for adults.  She’s a natural. 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. Gloria, you’re just plain talented and fun!

CATHERINE (Pearl): Catherine is amazing. Oh, how I wish I had Catherine’s brain! Her first non-fiction picture book was released recently! She writes cliff-hanger-hold-your-breath middle grade fiction, devotionals, and magazine pieces.  Catherine is also an expert at doing research and so willing to help others. Catherine, thanks for your step-by-step instructions! You lift our spirits and we learn so much about good writing from you!

There’s one last member—Sheryl. That’s me, and I’m a Zircon. I write books for the educational market, fiction and non-fiction picture books, magazine stories, retold Bible stories, rebuses, poetry, and mini-plays. I’m working on a beginning chapter book—new territory in my writing journey. 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! I’ll say it again, every serious writer has strengths in one area or another. A good critique group can bring out those strengths—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. Yes, YOU! 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!
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 with varying degrees of satisfaction.  Here are a number of friendly do’s and don’ts based on those experiences:

DO Make a Commitment

It’s ok to visit a group to see if it fits your needs (and if they have an opening), but once you’ve been accepted and decide 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 said they wanted to join, but then only showed up if they “had nothing better to do” or “if I feel like it.”  Everyone faces illness or other emergencies from time to time, but we owe it to the group, and ourselves, to attend regularly.

DO Make Encouraging Comments

Preface remarks with statements, such as “Would you consider…”  “How about…” or “It might help…”

DON’T Be Negative or Hurtful

Marking out whole paragraphs (or pages) and writing comments such as “This makes no sense” or “You don’t understand kids” or “Why are you bothering with this?” doesn’t help anyone.  (I’ve actually seen these remarks on manuscripts!)  Even if you don’t like the work, respect the effort.

DO Encourage Good Work

Note where dialogue, setting, etc. work well.

But…DON’T Be Too Positive!

A manuscript with all glowing comments will not help a writer improve.  I was in a group, many years ago, with a woman who had been brought up with the admonition, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  While this may be a good idea for everyday life, it doesn’t work in critique groups.  Showing where something doesn’t quite work, something that’s not clear, or facts that perhaps don’t agree and suggesting alternatives is better.

DO Try to Accept All Comments

Even if comments are occasionally hurtful (should that happen) simply listen without comment.  Then use only the ideas you think will work.  Remember…it’s YOUR story!

DON’T Explain or Defend Your Work

You can be pretty sure if a group member spots a legitimate problem, an editor will see it, too…and you won’t be there to explain!

DO Respect Limits

Bring only the requested number of pages (usually around 10) and note the time limits for each person.  Wordsmiths keeps it around 20 minutes per person.  We find a timer works great.

DON’T Ask For Exceptions.

Bringing numerous chapters of your manuscript “just this once” and using up others’ time is usually not a good idea and does not help group harmony.

Following these tips should assist any critique group be the best it can be.

Marjorie Flathers

A Critique Group Surprise

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

That sounded OK to me. I had been looking for a group of writers to meet with. 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 treat today,” the hostess was saying. “Our guest, Marilyn Donahue, is going to tell us everything she knows about writing a novel that sells.”

I staggered 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 guest 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. (Psalms 19:14)

Cheerleading 101

I was never a cheerleader in school. In fact, I tried to stay clear of all that “rah, rah” stuff. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. But I have to admit, cheerleaders were a vital part of any team when it came to rallying support and encouragement.

A critique group should be like cheerleaders. We are to encourage one another and be supportive. We are to build up, not tear down. We are to be excited with the victories (even the little ones), and optimistic when faced with a few defeats. We are to look for the goals ahead, and see each little move forward as one step closer to success.

So even though I didn’t care for cheerleading growing up, I’m a big cheerleader now, supporting my fellow Wordsmiths in projects big and small as we move along this writing road. Go team!

Contributed by Catherine L. Osornio

Why Join A Critique Group?

There are many reasons to join a critique group.

1. Community
Writing is a lonely occupation. Having like-minded people to fellowship with is the reason some decide to join a critique group.

2. Understanding What You Do
Most of us acknowledge that many people don’t really “get” what we do. Some join a critique group because they want to be around people who understand what being a writer is all about.

3. To Learn
Many “newbies” join a critque group hoping to glean information from those who have traveled the road a little longer than they have and can help them avoid pitfalls.

4. To Receive encouragement
Some join a critque group to have people who will hold them accountable and give them encouragement when they are down or discouraged.

5. To Hone Their Craft
Many join a critque group to have people who will help them develop the best material possible before they send their material out.

All of these are great reasons to join a critique group. Most who do take the plunge and join a group find that a sense of family develops. You really care about each other, pray for each other, and rejoice when one of the “family” succeeds.

I personally treasure all those who are part of my critique group. If I were to have a need, they would be the first I would go to. We have become that close.

I encourage you to find a critique group. You will be a better writer and person if you find the right one. I pray you are as blessed as I have been in finding such a special group.

Thankful for my critique group, Gloria

The Spice of Life (writing, too)

So what’s left for me to say about self-editing? Not a whole lot, since these pros throughout the month have done such an excellent job.

As hinted at by the title, I like to look for variety with my writing. Let’s begin with the visual. The eye catches an overall view of a page. Too much narrative in fiction can be boring before you even start to read. Children, especially, will reject an all-narrative page, chapter, book. White areas give a restful, more interesting aspect to the reader’s eye. Most of those white areas occur in fiction because dialogue is used. There again, too much dialogue can become boring, and even confusing.

Dialogue needs to be written skillfully, with the readers’ and the characters’ ages kept in mind. Tags can be a problem. Some writers will do most anything in their stories to avoid a redundancy of “said.” The results can be laughable. Instead of trying to be creative with unusual tags, use action part of the time to designate the speaker. For instance: “Oliver sat on the bench and looked at Sharon. ‘So what are you having for lunch?’” instead of: “Oliver sat on the bench beside Sharon. ‘What are you having for lunch?’ he asked.” Again, variety in the way dialogue is used will be more appealing to the reader. But there is nothing wrong with plain old “said” if it is not overused. Dialogue can further action, show character attributes, thoughts, or as we say, develop voice of the character. By blending these forces dialogue can also show growth in character, a point editors look for, whether the writing is for adults or children.

A variety of sentence lengths also improves our writing. Some writers for adult books have a signature style with the length of most of their sentences. Max Lucado tends to write short, to the  point sentences. Some people object to this style, calling it choppy. I like it because that author is emphasizing certain features this way, and definitely makes his statements stand out. John MacArthur, another Christian author, writes in a more scholarly style, using longer sentences and intellectual words. I like both authors but my preference would be a mixture of the styles. If we are writing for children, it’s important to keep ages in mind for the length of sentences. And definitely vary sentence structure as well as length.

Sprinkling in humor, metaphors, reminders of setting and character descriptions add more variety to our writing, and again, a little at a time works more efficiently than too much.

So let’s continue to spice up our writing with variety, and when we self-edit we can catch the areas that need a little more seasoning to bring zest to the written words. As in a favorite food recipe, it can make the difference between dull and delectable.


Put on Your Editor’s Hat

Do you like to edit your own manuscripts? You know—self edit? Come on…really?

I don’t.

I mean, it’s just not the cat’s meow.

But I know I should. I know I’m supposed to. I know it’s what a cat’s gotta do to learn how to be a successful writer. So I decided to break my habit of neglecting this part of my writing life.

The first thing I did was get myself an editor’s hat. You know—first you wear the writer’s hat and then you take that off and put on your editor’s hat? Right? Well, I didn’t have an editor’s hat. So I went out and got one. Like it? It even has a little mouse at the top and this twirly thing to twirl around. It’s purrfect for a cat like me. You should get one, too!

After I finish my first draft of my manuscript, I set aside some time to edit. And now I make sure it isn’t the drudgery it used to be. I make sure it’s fun!

I put on my silly editor’s beanie. It gets me in the mood to have fun, dude. Then I get out my special highlighter pens. I splurged and bought some wa-ay cool ones that I can use to make neon colors and decorate all over my manuscript. (They don’t even have a cap to lose, but click like a ballpoint pen.) Since I have neon yellow and neon pink and neon orange, now I’m HOPING to find mistakes in my manuscript just so I can mark ‘em on my page and turn the boring black and white little marks on the paper into bright, fun, colorful pictures.

I know my weaknesses, too. So I made a list of ‘em. Here are the first three, for starters:
1. Don’t always use punctuation correctly.
2. Weak verbs.
3. Poorly constructed paragraphs without a clear beginning, middle, and end.

I also printed out some self-editing checklists from how-to-write books, and articles I found on the Internet. These lists remind me to check for realistic dialog, show don’t tell, and lots of other important stuff.

I take my highlighters and have some fun! First I look at every single sentence I wrote in my first paragraph. I highlight the capital letter at the beginning of the sentence in pink. I highlight the punctuation in that sentence in yellow. Then I make sure to check that I used that punctuation correctly.

If I’m not sure about the punctuation rule, I look it up in my reference books. But hey—my reference books aren’t bo-o-oring like yours might be. Oh no! First I made specially decorated book covers for each one of ‘em so they’re bright and colorful, not scary-looking or over-the-top academic. Then I got my highlighters out and really decorated the pages I use the most to remind me what the rules are that I most often forget. Plus, I got sticky notes in all shapes and sizes to stick on the pages I look up over and over again. I want to save my energy for chasing mice, not for flipping through the pages looking up the same rule I’ve used a zillion times before. Like I said—I want this self-editing thing to be as fun as a cat can have it.

So hey—how about you? Are you having fun when you self-edit your manuscript? If not, do something about it. Make it fun, like I did. Now editing’s my favorite part of writing. Not! But really, it’s way more fun than it used to be. Especially when I put on my editor’s hat. And nibble on tunafish…but that’s another story.

-contributed by Humphrey, Nancy’s writing buddy