Critique Groups: A resource worth having

I know not every writer is a critique group fan. I fully understand why—there are critique groups that become useless echo chambers, ones that don’t actually lift the craft of their members, or that contain a toxic mix of people. But while there are bad groups, having a good one is invaluable.

I am in a small critique group. We’ve purposely kept it small because we all write novels. With too many people, it takes far too long to put a whole novel through a group. We also kept it small because that way we have flexibility in meeting times—we can find a date that works for everyone.

We are diverse in age range and in what we write. Our backgrounds, both in writing and in life, are also a mixed bag, which brings a variety of expertise into our knowledgebase. Our craft strengths also vary, which allows for a well-rounded critique when you take all of the feedback as a whole.

Personality is a big part of how the group meshes, and we have been lucky to gather a group that leaves their ego at the door. Every one of us is grateful for the feedback (even if we don’t agree with it), and we are also grateful for the kind manner in which the feedback is given. After all, you don’t need to tear someone apart to critique them. We have quite a bit of laughter in our meetings, because while we take our writing seriously, we can laugh at ourselves and our mistakes.

My assessment is that a good critique group is an invaluable resource. My novel THE WITCH OF ZAL went through the group and it would not have made it out of the slush pile without their input. Every month I learn something new about my craft and begin to see and understand ways to improve.

What has your experience with critique groups been?

Editing Multiple Projects at Once: When It Rains…

It pours. Or in my case, when it snows, it blizzards. We are getting some snow this weekend, and predictions range from 5 inches to several feet. So we will see if this will turn into Snowmaggedon 2016, or be a big bust!

I like to tackle creative projects one at a time (with the exception of when I am burnt out on one story and jump to another for relief). With much less writing time, I prefer to be able to keep the creative part of my brain in one world, one story—it makes my writing time more efficient, since my mind has chewed over the story while I’ve been running around doing life-y stuff.

However, I don’t always have the luxury of focusing on one story at a time, and this is one of those times. I am in the middle of a major revision of a YA manuscript, and my middle grade adventure manuscript has come back to me from my co-authors. So now I have two manuscripts to work on—in very different genres, very different voices.

Veritas-Cover-Art-231x300Pharaoh-Curse-640x1024My YA, Veritas, is a science fiction narrated from three different points of view. My MG, The Curse of the Pharaoh’s Stone, is an adventure story set in 1922 Philadelphia, narrated by a 12-year-old boy. How can I keep them straight, creatively speaking?

One thing to my benefit is the stage of the writing process for each of them. Curse is in a final proofread/copyedit before I send it out to readers. Veritas is in what I call 3rd draft stage, where I am still working on story, character, and depth. Because the stories are not in the same stage of development, I can switch gears between them a little more easily—copyediting does not call for the same creative muscle as deep revision.

The other thing I do to keep them apart in my mind is that I never work on one directly after the other. In my new work day schedule, I have writing time reserved in the morning (9-11 am), and again after my daughter goes to bed at night (9-11pm). By doing one in the morning and one in the evening, I leave enough time in between to “surface” from one world before diving into the other.

This seems to be doing the trick, although I wonder if it would be the same if I was in, say, drafting mode for both stories.

When you’re working on multiple projects at a time, how do you keep from having them bleed into one another?

Stay warm, people, and if you are in the path of the snowstorm, stay safe!



New Year, New Work Schedule

Calendar Jan 2016

Nat’l Wildlife Federation 2016 calendar*

In September, my daughter started full-day Kindergarten. Thoughts of how much work I could get done in the roughly 6 hours she was at school made me giddy. Before she’d been born, I’d been a workhorse, churning out words like crazy! This was going to be like old times.

Only it didn’t happen that way. Instead, I would find myself at the end of her school day wondering what I had spent all my time doing. In spite of my best intentions, I felt like I was getting nothing accomplished. My marketing languished, my non-writing projects ground to a halt, and worst of all my fiction writing word count dropped to zero. The only items I managed to get done regularly were my blogs—because other people counted on me to get them done.

Frustration and failure marked my days.

So I began my new year with a new approach. I scheduled my workday. It looks something like this:

Daughter goes to school, then:

45 minutes: exercise and social media/email

2 hours: writing fiction

45 minutes: exercise and lunch

1 hr, 15 minutes: marketing and social media/email

1 hr, 30 minutes: free time

Then my daughter’s back from school.

After she goes to bed: 2 hours: blog posts

You can see that I carved out specific time for my fiction writing. I had to do that, or I would fall into the same trap as before—thinking I didn’t have enough “time” to get into my world or my story. You may also note that this is the largest block of time in my workday. Priorities.

And, yes, you read that second to last entry right—I scheduled free time. This is time for me, to recharge after the workday and before my daughter gets home and we rush into the hurly burly of her after-school activities. I use this time to relax, but also to accomplish those “home projects” I have such as keeping up with the family photo albums or working on my genealogy or converting old videotapes to DVD. Having this time keeps those projects from piling up and adding pressure to me. And some days (like yesterday), I nap during that time.

My evening hours are slotted for blog posts (I usually write 2 a week), but if I’ve finished my posts for the week, then I use the time for whatever I want—fiction, projects, reading, sleeping.

So how’s this new schedule working?

Great! I set alarms on my phone, and when that rings, I am on to the next section of my day. The most exciting thing for me is that my word count has shot up. From January 4th through this post, I have written/revised 11,609 words. Even more exciting is that 8,504 of them are in my current fiction work-in-progress (WIP). I went from literally 0 words per day to an average of 1,000 words a day on my book. That’s something to celebrate!

This schedule is for weekdays. This past weekend, I had 2 days with 0 words written. I did a bit of research and reading, but got nothing written. Last year, this would have upset me. But with almost 6,300 words written (5,000 on my WIP), I could relax instead. I don’t expect that every weekend will be a goose egg for writing, but if I maintain my word count during the week, I won’t sweat it if it is.

I know there will be weekdays that I can’t adhere to this schedule. I will have errands to run and appointments to keep—in fact, last Thursday I lost the whole school day that way. But that’s okay, too, because most of the time this will work for me. This schedule keeps me focused because I know I will have a chance to “get to” everything I need or want to that day. It keeps me accountable by having those alarms going off and urging me to the next phase.

I am liking this new schedule, and the results speak for themselves.

Most of us writers are self-employed and self-motivated. What are some tricks you use to stay on track?


*Calendar photo copyrights: Penguins–copyright Phillip Colla/ Seal & Fox–copyright Lisa & Mike Husar/

Our Characters’ Other Lives

Today was Parent Visitation Day at my daughter’s school. We got a peek into this world she inhabits—a world we know very little about. The older my daughter gets, the more of her life happens out of our view, out of our sight. It’s her “other life.”

So she has this other life, this “offstage” life as it were, and what happens there impacts how she acts when I pick her up—when she is back “onstage.” If she had a good day, she will be happy and cheerful. If something is bothering her about school, she will be upset or pensive.

The same holds true for the characters in our stories. While our POV characters are rarely offstage, many of the secondary characters are. And of course any “walk-on” or “cameo” characters also enter our story having come from their own offstage life.

What happens to them while they are offstage is important. It will impact how they interact with the main character. A secondary character who was up all night with a screaming baby will react to a situation differently than one who had a good night’s sleep. And if you have a secondary character who is secretly working against the protagonist, what they do while offstage is vitally important.

Yet I find that I often do not consider my secondary character’s other lives when I write. They flit in and out of the story with just the right attitude, the needed info, fulfilling whatever need I have to fulfill. They are often too perfect in that way. And yet I find myself being lazy because it takes too long to visualize what they’re doing when they’re offstage. I mean, I’m juggling enough just trying to deal with the main character and the villain, right?

Wrong. I need to consider my other characters’ offstage lives more. Why? For a few of reasons. First, because it deepens their characters. I get to know them better, and so can write them with more nuance. Second, because it’s more realistic—life happens to people even when you’re not there to witness it. And third, because it can add tension to your story, especially in scenes where there is not much external tension or conflict.

After all, your secondary character could be having coffee withdrawal, and therefore be unlikely to follow the protagonist on a half-baked adventure. Or they could be coffee-stoked, and therefore they will follow the protagonist on that very same half-baked adventure simply because they can’t sit still. A variable as small as that can make a big difference in how a scene goes.

My friend Keith Strunk once said that even if your character is only borrowing a cup of sugar, there needs to be a motivation behind it (he’s an actor, can you tell?). What happened to that character before he showed up asking for the cup of sugar will determine how he reacts when you tell him that you have no sugar. If he had a bad day, he will react poorly. If he had a good day, he will react indifferently.

As a writer, which sugar-borrower would you want in your story? The one that bursts into tears or becomes irate when you have no sugar, or the one that shrugs and goes home to quietly eat the chocolate chips straight out of the bag? I know which one I’d want.

Do you consider your characters’ other lives when you write? How do you keep track of them all?

Learning to See

We all know how hard it is to see mistakes in our own writing. Sometimes even when someone points it out to us, we still can’t “see” it. We can see the mistakes where they flagged them, but we can’t see the same mistakes elsewhere in the manuscript.

I’ve struggled with this in my own work. For months, my critiques have included “boring verbs,” “generic description,” and “telling rather than showing.” With my brain, I understood what the critiques meant. Where the critquers marked passages, I saw the problems. But I could not see the problems where they had not flagged. I knew the same problems must exist in every scene, yet try as I might, I could not see them for myself.

How frustrating!

The reason those critiques are problematic is that generic, telling, boring words do not create a visceral connection with the reader. Instead of pulling the reader into the world of the story, making the reader feel what the character feels, the reader feels as if someone is reciting the story to them. This distance between the reader and the story is not what you want as a writer.

Still, the critiques kept coming in. I kept studying what they had to say. Then just this past week, something weird happened. As I prepared this month’s submission for critique, I said to myself, “That’s a blah verb.”

A little while later, I said, “Wow, that’s really generic.”

And then, “Geez, that’s totally telling.”


Could I finally be “seeing” what my (incredibly patient) critique partners have been pounding into me for months? Maybe. I hope so.

The other part of the equation, of course, is: If I am seeing the problems, do I have the skill to fix them? Can I dig deeper, stretch farther, and make that elusive connection with my readers?

This possible breakthrough has me very excited, and I can’t wait to see if this marks another step up the ladder in my writing.

Have you ever suddenly “seen” flaws in your writing when you were not able to see them before?

My Writing Season Has Begun

DSCN3173My daughter went back to school last week—full day for the first time ever. I did exactly what I had planned to do her first two days back—whatever I wanted! I napped, I read, I just relaxed.

Now, however, it’s time to get some work done.

I’d like to set some sort of schedule for the school day, a schedule that incorporates exercise, work, and what I call personal projects. Personal projects are things like photo albums or listening to music or doing genealogy—things that are necessary, that build up over time, and slowly become overwhelming if not attended to.

I have often lamented the inherent imbalance in my life since my child was born. I would either spend all my free time writing, thus getting behind on my personal projects, or divert to some of the personal projects, which then allowed my writing to languish. So I am hoping, with 6+ hours of child-free time 5 days a week, I can now find some sort of schedule where I can move both sets of projects forward at the same time, and thereby not feel the pressure of having so much undone work staring at me.

So one of my goals this week is to sketch out a weekly schedule and see how that works. I know things will come up that derail it from time to time, but I am a person of routine. I like my routines. I think that’s one reason this past summer was so wearing on my nerves—I had no routine for my work.

I purposely left my schedule as loose as possible because I wanted my daughter to have a “free” summer. We had karate and swimming, but the rest of the time was unstructured play or trips to various play places or to the park or play dates. It was great for her, not so great for me!

Now school is here and we are all routinized again. I look forward to my writing season and can’t wait to see where it takes me!

Do you have a writing season, or is your routine the same all year round?

The Night Owl and the Alarm Clock

DSCN2510I am a night owl. Some people are sun worshippers, but I love the moon. I find a healing and peace in moonlight I can never find in the light of day. I love the quiet of the night. No phones ringing, few cars driving, no people talking. There’s something about the night that lets my soul relax and frees my mind.

Unfortunately, school is upon us. And while I am looking forward to having my daughter in all-day school for the first time, it also means getting up earlier than I like. This entire last year of preschool, my daughter was in the afternoon class, so most mornings were late-rising, slow-moving affairs. Now we will have to rush through the mornings to get to school.

I realize that rising at 7 AM is not really that early by most people’s standards. My mother rises at 5:45 AM. I have a friend who gets up at 4 AM. When I worked in corporate America, I got up at 6 AM. So 7 AM is not too bad.

Except that I am a night owl and anything before 8 AM seems obscene to my body clock.

DSCN3173My mother insists that a night owl can become a morning person—she claims she did it. I have a 5-year-old, so I have (until this year) been getting up early and at odd times through the infant stage, the toddler stage, and the 2 years of preschool before this one. I can tell you with authority that my body has rebelled every step of the way. There is no morning person emerging.

We are slowly moving Kinder-girl’s bedtime back so she will wake up easier and earlier in the morning. It is having the desired effect—she is waking up earlier. However, I as her mother have not been smart enough to move MY bedtime back yet, so I am suffering the consequences.

This is because my best creative juices flow at night. When the world goes to bed, my brain wakes up. My focus is better and I can fall into my imagination more easily. Perhaps it is because of the closeness of sleep at that time, but I am less inhibited and my inner editor tends to be quieter.

Maybe it’s because night time is for dreaming, and writing is but a waking dream.


Any other night owls out there? How do you cope with living in a morning-person world?


The Rusty Merry-Go-Round: Switching between projects

Last weekend I met my friend and fellow writer Nancy Keim Comley for a “writer’s play date.” We both needed a break from “summer mommy brain” and a chance to get reacquainted with our writing. We had fun, and it felt good to immerse myself in my fiction for a few hours.

A mere six years ago, it wouldn’t have been unusual to find me working on multiple novels at one time—and having the time to immerse myself in all of them. After my daughter came, however, I have been much more single-minded. I’ve worked on one story at a time because if I didn’t nothing would ever get finished.

DSCN1713So when I started up the novel merry-go-round again this week, I found my skills a bit rusty. My current full-throttle work-in-progress is a YA science fiction called Veritas—and talking to Nancy showed me just how much work I have yet to do on it. (Daunting. So I will pretend I don’t know how high the mountain is and just keep climbing.)

However, I also have my debut novel, The Witch of Zal, coming out soon. While I am not actively writing for that, the marketing requires me to delve back into my story world—or at least remember what the heck I wrote. So that story is floating around in my head, popping up at odd moments to say hello.

Also, I’ve been collaborating on a middle grade historical action-adventure novel, The Curse of the Pharaoh’s Stone, and the latest 10 chapters have just landed back in my lap. I’m reading them as if I’ve never seen them before—good for editing, bad for getting back into that novel’s headspace.

To make things even more interesting, I’ve got a YA contemporary fantasy, The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas, that needs to be looked at again before I send it back out for another round of queries. So that’s on a back burner of my brain, too.

Earlier in my life, juggling all these would not have been a problem. In fact, I relished having multiple projects going at once because it eliminated writer’s block and boredom. Whenever I got stuck or burned out on a particular story, I could jump to another one and give my subconscious a chance to chew on the problem. It always worked for me.

This time around, I’m finding it hard to switch from project to project. Part of it is lack of practice, of course—writing skills are like any other skills, you have to use them to keep them sharp. My brain is also not as sharp as it was, largely due to perpetual under-sleeping. And I’m six years older—maybe my brain is more reluctant to leave the groove it’s in and move to something different.

I think the biggest problem is my fragmented time. I have spoken before about how my fragmented writing time has negatively impacted my writing, and I think it plays a large role here. I don’t have concentrated hours of time a day to write. This has made it harder for me to slip into the world of my story. Now mix in more than one fictional world. Synaptic chaos.

The only way I have found to combat the fragmentation is to always have my current work-in-progress running in the back of my mind. Simmering, as I like to call it. You can think of it as having the movie of my story playing in the background on my mental TV all the time. So when I have time to get back to it, I waste less time getting my mind back into the story.

There’s no way I can keep 5 stories simmering at usable levels. My brain would explode. I may have to assign specific days to specific stories, so I can have my brain set to the correct channel all day. That’s my plan, at any rate. We’ll see what happens!

If you have merry-go-round projects, how do you keep your headspace straight? Have you ever had trouble jumping from one world to the next?


Summer Doldrums

AI Beach 2I don’t know what it is about summer, but it makes me lazy. Maybe it’s because we’ve been conditioned since childhood to think of summer as “vacation time” or “time off.” All I know is that when the heat and humidity turn up, all I feel like doing is sitting in a cool place and reading a book—unless I fall asleep, which is also perfectly acceptable.

To add to this lazy mindset, those of us with children know that now you have the kids home all day. This will completely mess with whatever productive schedule you had hammered out during the school year. It will also seriously impede your sitting and reading/sleeping plans.

My child is still young, and that means she wants me to play with her from the minute we get up to the minute her head hits the pillow at night. This gives me a dilemma: 1) Get no work done and play with her all day, or 2) tell her sometimes that I need to work and then deal with the guilt of feeling like a bad mommy.

We’ve been trying to work it out as far as work-play balance, but all I can say is that 6 more weeks of summer just might steal whatever sanity I have left.

Of the two distractions, though, the more sinister productivity-killer is the summer doldrums. I’ll grab my half-hour to work and then…email…Facebook…Word Scramble…a little more Facebook…maybe some Pinterest…guess I should check Twitter…more Word Scramble…now, time to write…what do you mean my time’s up?

It’s unusual for me to not be able to focus when I need to. But something about summer just sucks the motivation out of me. I crave doing NOTHING. And I am not a person who likes to do nothing.

I struggle through as best I can, waiting for the cool winds of autumn to blow away the summer cobwebs. It will come, but right now that shady spot under the tree is tempting me.

How about you? Do you suffer from the summer doldrums? Do you have any tips to shake it off and get back to your usual productive self?

What Big Question Do You Write to Answer?

It’s no secret that writers tend to spill words on a page when they’re trying to deal with an issue they’re struggling with, or emotions that are overwhelming. When my best friend Donna Hanson Woolman died at age 32, that experience became my Masters’ thesis short story.

Followers of my blog have seen me write through other periods of grief, whether it be the lesser loss of a celebrity who had touched my life like Davy Jones, or the greater loss of family. On here you can find my goodbyes to my Aunt Clare and Uncle Ed (on the same day), my Uncle Bill, my Aunt Marge, my cousin Charley, my friend’s 5-year-old son Gavin, and even our family dog Cody. Obviously, I write to get my thoughts in order. I write to get the pain out of my heart and onto the page. Because, just like in writing fiction, once it’s on the page I can deal with it. That first draft of raw emotion spills out, and then I can find some perspective. Find the words, the voice, to express myself and my grief properly.

So when I took Catherine Stine’s workshop at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference this year, something she said resonated with me. She said all of her books started with a “big question” that she was struggling with. As an example, she said she was a Quaker, and therefore anti-violence, but she wondered if sometimes violence (particularly war) was the only answer. And how could those two things be reconciled? She wrote a book to explore all the options.

She also made a point to say that we as the writer should be careful not to answer the big question for the reader—that we should lay out all the evidence and arguments on both sides and let the reader come to their own conclusion. She didn’t tell us the answer she found to her big question.

I got to wondering if I am asking “big questions”—if that’s why I write whatever story I am writing. If I am, it’s subconsciously. I certainly don’t look for questions to answer. But I would wager that if I look at my stories, there is a big question buried in there somewhere. It’s worth a look, because if I can figure out the big question, it will clarify my explanations of the books and be useful in marketing. If the books are not sold yet, it will also be useful in revision—helping to focus on the heart of the book.

What about you? Do you consciously write to explore a “big question”? Or do you find that after you’ve written, you explored a question you didn’t know you had? Or does a big question never enter into the equation for you and you write for completely different reasons?

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