Tag Archives: Critique Group

Novel Girls: Comfort Zone and Fantasy

3 Jul

My Novel Girl friends probably thought I forgot about this post. Nope! I just ran out of time to write it so it’s only now going up. We met waaaay back on June 5th. Yes, we’ve met since then. I’ll get to that later.

I shared the first half of a piece I wrote back in February that I’ve shared with one person but really not touched since. My main character is a man named Mitchell who sees a girl he used to know from school and plucks up the courage to go talk to her. He’s a shy guy and remembers her as a quiet girl, but it still makes him nervous to go see her. However, he seems to find his balls really quickly and asks her out on a date. This took Nicole and Katherine aback because it seemed like a really sudden change and it wasn’t well motivated. I’ll have to look at either giving him more balls early on or making him more nervous throughout.

Katherine brought us a piece that will begin a longer story to get our initial reactions. From the portion we read, it was hard to tell if the book was fantasy or not because it had several elements grounded in this world. We talked about ways she could introduce fantastical elements to the story up front. She could show some supernatural powers, describe the setting’s place in the fantastical world, etc. Depending on how outlandish a fantastical world is, there are tons of different ways to do this. The problem is conveying what you have in your head to your readers. It can be hard to get the image on paper the way you want it to look. Which makes me think; maybe it’s okay if you don’t. Part of the magic of reading is being able to create by yourself what the world will look like in detail. There’s a line between enough and not enough. What are some books you thought gave too much detail and what are some that gave too much? Do fantasy books lend themselves to more detail than contemporary books to convey the setting?

Nicole‘s piece was a little different from other things we’ve read from her. We talked a lot about how it can be refreshing to get out of your comfort zone and write something that’s a stretch. Sometimes really good things can come from it. We did an exercise at a writing group once where we all had to name our least favorite genre or the one we didn’t like to read, and then write our first prompt in that style. I think really good pieces like Nicole’s can grow out of exercises like that.

By the time you read this, we’ll have already had another Novel Girls meeting, so be ready for another one of these posts… eventually!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!


Library Writers Group: An Introduction

5 May

Because I’m not in enough writers’ groups, I’ve joined one more. And I’ll be going back to my Wednesday group soon, so you’ll all get a lot more of my writers’ group knowledge in the coming months.

This group is sponsored by my library and run by a librarian who also runs one of my book clubs. She told me about it a few months ago so my anticipation was pretty high. I know, I’m easily excitable. Nicole joined me for dinner and we headed over to see what all the fuss was about.

There were ten of us present, including the two librarians running the group. Besides Nicole and myself, there was a woman who writs poetry, another pair of crit partners who focus on YA and New Adult (how perfect!), a young woman who came in late and I’m not sure what she writes, a gentleman who writs historical biographies and a woman who has published 4 non-fiction books and one fiction book. I really like that we’re going to have some variety in those participating.

A lot of what we discussed was what we wanted to get out of the group. Our leader’s idea was to have two parts to each meeting: discussion and critique. She has some ideas for the discussion part for the next few months and we wrote down suggestions for other topics. Next month we’re going to talk about ‘giving and receiving constructive criticism’ which I think I struggle with. I’m very judgmental when I read something and I have to review it a second time to find things I liked about a piece. They are two different states of mind for me and I have to do them separately. I’m getting excited for this conversation. An idea for another topic was ‘Who is a book’s target audience?’ This reminds me of Stephen King’s advice about an ideal reader and I’m curious to see what others will say.

The second part will be the critique section which will run much like it does in my other critique groups. Word limit is 3,000 words and pieces will be distributed a week ahead of time. One idea I liked is that with your piece, you include a few questions for the other members. This will help get feedback more targeted to what you want. If you’re worried about how your antagonist is developed, you can get that instead of advice on a better way to describe your side character’s shoes.

Our discussion for this meeting was on an article that we read by Chuck Palahnuik where he challenges writers to stop using ‘thought verbs.’ You can read the article here and I really recommend it. His ideas will really drive home ‘show don’t tell’ and give some good ways to practice it.

In essence, he’s saying that using words like though, knew, remembered, liked and wantedĀ are cheating. It’s telling the reader how a character feels or is thinking about. It’s not describing why the character has these feelings. They can sometimes feel like ‘thesis statements’ when you start a paragraph with ‘John knew Sarah was mad’ and then go on to explain why he knew. Why are you giving away to the reader what you’re about to describe? Strike the thesis statement. A few other nuggets that I loved were to have a character alone as little as possible to maximize action and to allow the reader to do the ‘thinking’ and ‘knowing.’

We did a few exercises and I’ll share two of mine here. I hope this illustrates what the goal was.

  1. There is nothing I hate more than waiting. Shelly bounced her foot nervously. Being chronically early to a doctor who was incurably late was a bad diagnosis. She sighed, checking her phone to see if she was still seven minutes behind or if it was yet eight.
  2. I thought she was the nicest person I’d ever met. She oozed smiles like a teenage boy oozes apathy. Her reassuring touches could calm the hulk and in a sentence I’m sure she could pacify Hitler. Every baby shower and birthday party in a ten-mile radius had her touch on it. I never heard her speak ill of anyone and the only thing she ever complained about was the weather.

Does that help? I hope so. I’m really excited for us to meet in May! It will be a great talk. I’m still deciding if I should bring something. Maybe a poem, I’ve been trying to write poetry.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Novel Girls: Fragments, Pacing, and Running a Critique Group

3 Mar

We had a special Tuesday edition of the Novel Girls this week because our dear Sonia is moving this weekend and she will need Thursday to get ready. (I’m in denial about this move happening, if anyone asks.) We gathered at my apartment and started right in with critique. We’ve implemented a new system where we email our pieces out a day ahead of time so we can focus on critique. I’m a big fan of this change.

Something that came up during my piece was a stylistic concern. I have a part where my narrator is reflecting on all the things that are about to change in his life. It goes something like this;

His memory of Sarah was faded but there were still moments that he remembered in detail. The time he broke her favorite china plate and she laughed and cried while she cleaned it up. There was the first time they’d gone ice skating together and she fell down more often than not.

I recognize that the second sentence is a fragment but the third is a full sentence. What my partners recommended was setting up a parallel phrasing situation where the second and third sentences are fragments. I always cringe at fragments but they felt it would be strong stylistically. I’ve not done this anywhere else in my novel, but this scene is a big turning part in the character arc of my protagonist. How do you feel, Reader? Is breaking grammatical convention for style and emphasis a pardonable sin? Does it work here?

Another thing we talked about was pacing. After we discussed Sonia’s piece, she asked us about the pacing of a story. We all agreed it was well paced, needing maybe one or two minor tweaks. This got me thinking more about pacing in general. There are books I’ve read recently that I thought were well paced (Divergent) and books I thought were terribly paced (Outlander) but I never though what contributed to that pacing problem. My quick Google search did not return any tips I found useful so I’m going to write my own.

  1. Use action to describe a scene instead of a description. There’s not a window on the wall; the sun coming through the window warmed the characters skin (‘warmed’ is stronger than ‘is’).
  2. Build a sense of excitement and anticipation. Your characters will feel this as they work toward achieving their goal. If their goal isn’t worth getting excited about, maybe they need a new one.
  3. Cut down on description as the plot progresses. We should know what the characters and common settings look like. If the reader is engrossed in the book, he will likely be able to go off less description as he becomes more and more absorbed. Focus more on action.
  4. Skip the boring parts. If a scene later in your story seems dull, cut it. Early/middle is okay for a lull scene, but the ending is not.
  5. What else would you add to this list?

Another quick stylistic thing we talked about was using ‘present’ adjectives and adverbs in a piece with a past tense narration. Let me give an example.

Mindy wrote about the dark places her mind went to and how this was the most difficult part of her life thus far.

Notice the word ‘this’ in this sentence. In my opinion, ‘this’ describes something that is very immediate and usually fits best with present tense. It seems to immediate to work with past tense. Am I the only one that feels this way? Reader, do you think words like ‘now’ and ‘this’ seem out-of-place in past tense prose?

The final thing we talked about was how our critique group works. As you may have guessed from the name, we’re all working on novels. Each time we meet we share the next ten pages or so of our work. Our problem is that when we review a section, our advice will often be to change something fundamental about the section or to add something to clarify a question we had as readers. For example, lets say my first chapter starts with a major conflict between a couple and my girlfriends said that the reason for the fight seemed weak and unjustified. As a writer I fix the problem, adding in a more believable dialogue section, changing the motivation for the fight, and creating some back story for my characters. The next time the Novel Girls meet, I bring chapter 2 but my readers don’t know what’s changed in chapter 1. They’ll have the same questions, or even new ones arising from what I’ve added. We don’t want to review the same chapter over and over to perfect it because something might happen in chapter 5 that would recommend a change in chapter 1 and we have to get to chapter 5 to even seen that plot development. Wow, is this getting confusing!

Our question is; What is a good way of communicating the changes made in a piece so that the downstream prose will still make sense and the reader has a very real sense of what minutia and characterization has changed? We haven’t found a good way to do this yet and would welcome to any suggestions, advice, or precedents you might have.

We’re sad that Sonia won’t be able to join us in person for a while, but we still plan to do e-mail critiques and the other two and I still plan to meet. No worries, Novel Girls posts will continue for the foreseeable future.

Until next time, write on.

Where Do You Find Critique Partners?

25 Feb

One of the librarians stopped me on my way to book club yesterday to tell me the library was going to start a literary critique group in April. Finally! She’s been pushing for this for a while and I’ve told her I’ll support it when she finally got the red tape torn down. Now it finally seems that it’s happening!

This got me thinking about good critiques and how helpful they can be for writers. I’m fortunate enough to have my own little critique group, my Novel Girls friends. We get together about twice a month to go over each other’s work. Our next meeting is tonight and I’m so excited because I’m sharing the second-to-last section of my first novel. We’re so close to the end!

I’ve found a few other critique groups that have been instrumental in my growth as a writer. Both of them I found from the website Meetup. If you’re not familiar with this website, I recommend checking it out. Meetup is not just for writing, it’s for people with all sorts of interests to find others in their areas with those interests and join together to share experiences. I’ve used it for hiking, book clubs, and, of course, writing. Some groups are focused on critique, others on workshops and still others on writing together. I think all of these are useful because they introduce you to other writers. I met my Novel Girls in a prompt-writing group, the same one where I met an alpha reader.

In my strive to edit, I’m always looking for new ways to find critique partners. How have you found critique partners? Are there forums in which you’ve met people who have helped you make your writing better? Have you had success with Meetup? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think, I love hearing from you!

Until next time, write on.