Should Writers Join A Critique Group Or Not?

Guest author: Betty Webb

Writers are an argumentative bunch, especially when it comes to the subject of critique groups.

Some writers advise newbies – but only newbies – to join a critique group, while other writers say never, never, not ever. Since my own critique group – the Sheridan Street Irregulars — just celebrated its 30-year anniversary, I’m definitely on the pro-group side. But with caution.

I had my first experience with critique groups around 35 years ago when living in New York and had just begun writing seriously. That group, which I’d learned about from a library flier, met monthly in a converted barn in Westchester County. We were all writing poetry, and we drank a lot. I’m not sure how much the group helped to hone my work (or my liver), but we sure had fun.

The second experience came about shortly after I’d moved to the Phoenix, AZ area. In that group, all genres were welcome, and the only rule was that alcohol wasn’t allowed. Ironically, I left that group after a fistfight broke out between a sober Western writer and a sober sci-fi writer after one of them had received a particularly nasty critique from the other.

At that point, I’d already had some of my poetry published in a literary magazine, seen one satirical novel published, had one play produced, and was writing three humor columns a week for newspaper syndication. Technically, I was no longer a newbie, but I still felt the need for other eyes on my work, so I spent a few months checking out more groups. Some I found too rigid, some too lax, and some were merely excuses for sitting around, drinking and discussing lofty views on “lit-er-a-ture.”

Disappointed with the local offerings, I decided to start my own critique group. The first thing I did was to take a hard look at the problems others groups had run into. To avoid them, I typed up a long list of rules, one of the rules being, “Never respond to the criticism of your work. Just say ‘Thank you,’ and move on.” Now, we all know that writers hate rules, but what was the alternative? Hurt feelings, fist fights and long, defensive monologues from inebriated writers who felt their manuscripts were being unfairly judged? (If you want to see the whole list, email me at webbscottsdale@aol.com and I’ll send you a copy.)

Then, in a daring move, I put an ad in the local newspaper, headlined WRITERS CRITIQUE GROUP FORMING.  As could be expected, the first meeting was a large one, and it was a mess. Just about everyone broke the rules I had passed out. And some people, miffed by others’ critiques of their work, simply got up and stalked out, leaving a few obscenities in their wake. But a core group remained.

And we persevered. Thirty years after that messy first meeting, I’ve retired from my full-time job as a journalist, retired from my part-time job as a creative writing adjunct at the local college, retired from writing my column for Mystery Scene Magazine, and seen 18 of my novels published. But I still value the Sheridan Street Irregular’s opinions of my works-in-progress. Because of the group – we’re all traditionally-published novelists now – my number of drafts on any given project has dwindled from 17 to four. The “Streeters” catch all my plot holes and are ever-alert for unwieldy phrasing. But the most help that I get from the group is the  reminder that Ernest Hemingway said “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Betty Webb is the author of the best-selling Lena Jones mysteries and the humorous Gunn Zoo mysteries. Before writing mysteries, she spent 20 years as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents to moon-walking astronauts, Nobel Prize-winners, and polygamy runaways. 

Advice For Writers: 4 Things Writers Should Know Before Doing Readings From Their Work

I’ve done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents and I love being out there with my writing—it’s a dream come true. But even though I’m an extrovert, I found doing readings more challenging than I expected when I started out touring twenty-five books ago.

I had the benefit of some acting experience in college, so I was very comfortable with my spouse coming along to give me director’s notes on my first book tour. I learned a lot from every single reading: what worked, what didn’t, and how I needed to up my game. I began to look forward to every reading with excitement. Do I get nervous even now? Absolutely, but in a good way.

I’ve taught workshops about how to do author readings because I believe that there are skills you can learn if you’re dedicated enough. And whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, here are four things authors should know and consider before they meet their public in a bookstore or any other venue.

1. The word “reading” sounds a little flat because it actually involves a whole lot more than the text at hand. It’s a performance. You’re performing your own work, acting it out, giving it texture and color that might not even be there on the page, but that audiences crave. I’ve seen people actually fall asleep at some readings because the authors read as if they were sitting at their desk, in a monotone, with no shading, no nuance, no drama.

2. You need to prepare for this performance as if you’re going on stage, which in effect you are. You don’t have to memorize your text, but you need to have practiced reading it enough times so that you’re familiar with it and can look up at the audience as often as possible. Making eye contact is important in a reading, and this is a chance to connect with your audience in a very deep way. It’s not just your words that count, it’s the power you imbue them with.

3. Picking the right thing to read can be tricky. Whether you’re reading for ten minutes or half an hour, what you present needs to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. You want to satisfy your audience’s need for structure in the entertainment. Don’t choose anything you feel iffy about, or that you don’t have emotional control over. Crying or even choking up in a reading can be very embarrassing for people who are listening.

4. Trying to win the audience’s favor right off by apologizing isn’t a good idea. Telling them that this is your first time, or that you’re not entirely sure this story or novel chapter really works undercuts your authority as a performer. Likewise, announcing that you decided on what to read “on the way over here” is disrespectful to the audience: they deserve an author who’s prepared. And be careful about making jokes to warm up your listeners—they might fall flat.

It doesn’t matter how big your audience is. Every audience deserves the best you’ve got, and you can learn how to give that to them, no matter how shy you might be, or how anxious, or how reluctant.  Readings are a unique way to reach your audience–and they can make you a better writer, too.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Advice For Writers: Is Writing a “Muscle”? Should You Write Every Day?

Lots of authors worry about the number of words they write per day. Some even post the tally on Facebook or Twitter as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them? How come everyone else is racking up the pages?

If that kind of system works for you, fine. But I think too many writers believe that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent. Especially when they read on line about other people’s booming word counts.

How do they get caught in that kind of dead-end thinking? It’s thanks to the endless blogs and books that urge writers to write every day and make that sound not just doable, but the norm. Some days, though, it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. And why should it be?

And if you can’t eke out your daily quota, the advice sometimes goes that you should at least re-type what you wrote the previous day. Well, even if I weren’t a slow typist, that’s never had any appeal for me, either, or made much sense. I’d rather switch careers then do something so mind-numbing.

I don’t urge my creative writing workshop students to write every day; I suggest they try to find the system that works for them. I’ve also never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book, every project has its own unique rhythm. While recently working on a suspense novel, my 25th book, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while on the treadmill at the gym. Though I sketched its scenes out when I got home, I spent weeks actually writing it.

Some people would call that obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I did was musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic, as it were, making sure everything fit right before I went ahead, because this was a crucial chapter. I was also doing some major fact-checking, too, because guns are involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had an outline and then a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I wrote ten pages in a single day on this same book.

The chapter was the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. So when I re-worked a few lines that had been giving me trouble and found that they finally flowed, it made me very happy.  I was done for the day!

And if I didn’t write a word on any given day or days, I knew I would be, soon enough. Because the book was always writing itself in my head, whether I met some magical daily quota or not. I don’t count how many words or pages I write a day, I focus on whether what I’ve written is good, or even if it has potential with revisions. That’s enough for me.

Lev Raphael has been teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can now take a wide variety of online workshops him online at writewithoutborders.com.

3 Things Nobody Tells You About The Writing Life

When I published my first short story in Redbook after winning a prize, I thought my career was set. I was my MFA program’s star; I’d made a lot of money (for a graduate student) from the prize and the magazine; I was getting fan mail and queries from agents. But even though I’d spent over two years in the program, nobody told me what my career could be like. When I got my degree I had no idea what the writing life was like and learned three key things the hard way.

1–You need to accept from the start that you have very little control. You can polish your work as much as you can, read widely and educate yourself as an author; attend seminars; find a terrific mentor; network like crazy; get a top agent and even land a book contract with a great publisher–but what happens to your book once it’s born may seem completely random at times. Other books just like it will swamp yours. Books that are far worse will get great reviews or better sales. Your book may simply be ignored by reviewers of all kinds for reasons you will never know. So you have to focus on what you can control: being the best writer you can be; enjoying what you do while you do it, plan it, revise it, and research it. And then, try to let go and move on to another project.

2-Writing is a business. It always was and always will be. Expect pressure from all sides on you to sell, sell, sell. When I started out, bookmarks and other petty swag were in. Then I was urged not just to attend conferences but to advertise in conference programs. Later came building my web site, book trailers, establishing a Facebook and Goodreads presence, blogging, tweeting, blog tours. There’s always something new which is the magic answer to making you successful. But the competition gets fiercer all the time and you can find that promotion is a rat hole. It’s important to establish parameters for yourself since you can’t do everything and be everywhere. Never let promotion become more important than writing itself, and just because something works for someone else is no guarantee it’ll work for you.

3–The writing life will be lonelier than you can imagine despite all the writers you might meet and hang out with, and they’re not always the easiest people to be around. Let’s face it, are you? Ask your significant other. As paradoxical as it might seem, don’t let writing take over your life. If you haven’t already, start building a life for yourself that has other compelling interests. Travel. Learn to play an instrument. Study a foreign language. Garden. Train for a triathalon. Get a dog. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as writing isn’t the be-all and end-all of your existence, because otherwise those days (or weeks or months or even years) when things go south you’ll feel empty. And make sure you have plenty of friends who aren’t writers so that you’re not constantly talking shop. Normal people can be interesting, too.

Lev Raphael offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com after over 15 years of university teaching.  He’s authored 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

Re-reading My Favorite Authors Makes Me A Better Writer

When I’m on a book tour fans often ask me “What are you reading?”  I get the same question when I teach a creative writing workshop or master class like I just did at Oakland University, sponsored by Rochester Writers.  I’m often reading books that will inspire me to write and lately I’ve been-re-reading favorite authors like Martin Cruz Smith.  His novels set after the fall of the Soviet Union explore a country that’s just as cruel and dangerous, but one where oligarchs are becoming swollen with daring, arrogance, and billions in wealth.

In Three Stations there’s a gigantic contrast between diamond-studded luxury goods and homeless kids stealing whatever they can to survive in the heart of Moscow. Arkady Renko is a disgraced police investigator with a clear eye for what’s happening around him and a dedication to justice. Though he’s the son of a famous general and communist, he is truly an outsider because he won’t follow orders. I’m really glad I missed this one somehow as I worked through the series, because I found it really inspiring.

And for authors who struggle with writing good sex scenes, he dispatches one in a brilliant paragraph that could be a model for anyone. It inspired me in my stand-alone currently about 200 pages along which will be my 28th book.

I’m also re-reading luminous, thrilling mystery novels by C.S. Harris set in Regency England, starting with Why Kings Confess, one of my favorites in the series.  These books feature nobleman Sebastian St. Cyr who has access to all levels of society and is indefatigable in solving any crime that he comes across and intrigues him.  He’s a dashing figure with almost magically keen eyesight and hearing, and a man not remotely averse to challenging the rich and powerful.  Harris is brilliant at evoking the period through appealing to sight, sound, and smells–you can almost taste the acrid fog that’s so much a part of the era when coal was burned indiscriminately.  Who even thought of climate disruption back then?

The two authors are very different in setting, tone, and prose style.  Harris is more sensual, Cruz is more spare.  Cruz’s books ooze cynicism about old and new Russia’s corruption and greed, while Harris fields a sleuth who serves justice and believes it exists.  Both authors evoke their time and place with dazzling detail and tell fast-paced, gripping stories.

I learned years ago in my writing career that what could stimulate and inspire my work was a creative clash of voices and styles.  Reading these two different authors again right now has made me very productive: I wrote two chapters of my next mystery in under a week.  This method of reading different writers in succession might not work for everyone, and that’s something I tell all my writing students and workshop participants: find what works for you.  But whether you’re a writer or not, C.S. Harris and Martin Cruz Smith are authors you should add to your TBR pile.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, most recently State University of Murder and Let’s Get Criminal, newly released as an ebook.  He teaches online writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Guest Post: The One Thing You’re Missing When Evaluating Your Writing

One thing we writers must do is regularly seek feedback on our work. It’s the only way we can expect to improve.

The problem is, most of us go about it all wrong.

Let’s say Sandy creates a story and takes it to her writer’s group, submits it to a contest that offers critiques, or hires an editor. Her ultimate goal is to get feedback, but when she gets it, she focuses on only one part of it—the negative. Like most writers, she zeroes in on what she perceives to be her weaknesses, or on what she feels she did wrong.

Seemingly forgotten are all those comments describing what she did well.

This approach may make sense to you. After all, aren’t we supposed to work on our weak areas to improve as writers? Once we fix these, don’t we become publishable, potentially bestselling authors?

Logical, except it rarely works that way. Instead, what usually happens is you work for months or maybe years trying to fix what’s wrong, and odds are what you’ll have to show for it will be a slightly better story, but one that’s still not good enough to attract the eye of an agent or editor.

What happened? Your writing coach or group or editor or whoever it was said your dialogue was weak, and you needed to speed up the pacing. You worked on both and afterward “they” said it was better. So why didn’t you get the result you were hoping for?

Making a weakness less of a weakness is not enough to make you competitive in today’s market. Competition is too fierce.

Focusing mostly on your weaknesses results only in mediocrity. To succeed as a writer, you’ve got to find a way to be extraordinary.

Why Writers Must Identify and Focus on Their Strengths

Bestselling author Paul B. Brown wrote in Forbes, “You are far better off capitalizing on what you do best, instead of trying to offset your weakness. Making a weakness less of a weakness is simply not as good as being the best you possibly can be at something.”

I’m not saying you should ignore your weaknesses completely. When I first started writing novels, I hired an editor and got feedback that was really helpful. She pointed out my weaknesses, and I spent a good amount of time studying plot, story structure, conflict, and suspense.

It was time well spent as we all need to educate ourselves in the craft of writing. The problem was that I spent more time on those things than I did building my strengths, which slowed my progress considerably.

As long as you’re stuck in the “fixing your weaknesses” mindset, you’ll remain blind to the things you do really well—and that will keep you from reaching your highest potential.

Maybe you’re great at writing stories that make people think, or that keep them up at night. Maybe you’re an amazing world builder or mystery plot-weaver, or perhaps you have a special way of getting across a strong argument.

What are your strengths as a writer? You must discover the answer to that question, for only then can you start to build on those strengths and become the best writer you can be. For more information on how to use your strengths to build a noticeable author platform, check out Colleen’s new book, Writer Get Noticed! Get your free chapter here.

Colleen M. Story’s Writer Get Noticed! is a strengths-based guide to help writers break the spell of invisibility and discover unique author platforms that will draw readers their way. With over 20 years in the creative industry, Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness and Writer CEO. Her author website is colleenmstory.com and you can follow her on Twitter @colleen_m_story.

Research is One of the Best Parts of Writing!

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn about writing as a career in my MFA program.  One of them is how enjoyable and even exciting researching a book can be.  And I don’t just mean tracking things down online or spending time in an archive.  I mean talking to experts.

Working on book after book, I’ve found how helpful experts can be, and how much they enjoy opening up about their fields of expertise.  One of the first was a county Medical Examiner I interviewed because my firts mystery had a body found in a river.  We talked about decomposition and a lot of other aspects of the situation, and went very deep (pun intended in our hour-long chat.

I’ve spoken with lawyers, cops, private investigators and have never found anyone unwilling to talk about what they do and love.  I tell them who I am and why I’ve contacted them and ask if they have time.  The majority of interviews get done in person, but once or twice I’ve had to work on the phone if the expert was an inconvenient distance away.

These interviews don’t just help ground my books in reality, whatever the genre, they also take me out of my own world into worlds I don’t know and find fascinating.

In my current novel-in-progress, music plays a role and so I’ve interviewed a cello played I know and a friend who’s played the piano for years, and a professor of piano at Michigan State University.  I have eight years of piano behind me, but don’t know much about repertoire and the kinds of issues professionals deal with and the talks have been fascinating.  I’ve also interviewed a fire chief and the head of an advertising agency.  Each one has been unfailingly generous with their time and of course will be acknowledged when the book comes out.

It may not take a village to write a book, but it definitely takes human resources who live in very different worlds than I do, and enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience.  Talking to them doesn’t just augment the reality of whatever book I’m working on, it almost always opens up new possibilities.  Better still, it breaks the isolation of writing a book, and that makes me very grateful.

Even if you’re shy, contacting the expert you want is easy via phone or email.  What’s most important is thinking out your questions in advance and being prepared for the book to go in a different direction or take on aspects you hand’t imagined, based on what you learn.  As Henry James advised a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in many genres including the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder.

Success For Writers Is Soooooo Unpredictable

Poor newbie writers. Everywhere they turn, someone’s telling them how to be successful. Go indie! Publish traditionally! The advocates of each path offer mind-numbing statistics to prove their points. It’s as frantic as those middle-of-the-night infomercials for exercise machines that will trim belly fat in only ten minute sessions, three times a week.

Of course, these machines are modeled for you by men and women with killer abs and minimal body fat. You and I will never look like that unless we give everything up and hire live-in trainers. And even then, as the coach said in Chariots of Fire, “You can’t put in what God left out.”

I’ve lost my patience with super-successful indie or traditionally-published authors telling the world to publish and promote your books the way they did because look how great things turned out for them. Each side reports the benefits of what they’ve done with certainty and conviction, and of course they’re either best-selling authors on the newspaper lists or best-selling authors on Amazon. Or both.

First-time authors sometimes publish big with a New York press, and sometimes they make it big going indie (and possibly go bigger switching to legacy publishing). It’s all a crap shoot.

Most authors will never reach the heights of these newly-minted experts, and not through any fault of their own. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how good your book is, luck and timing are key ingredients that can’t be corralled. Books have their own karma. The right book at the right time published in the right way booms. We have no control over how our books succeed or fail, but we can control how good they are before they reach readers.

But nobody can predict it’s going to happen. And the authors who share their glorious experiences need to realize that though they may want to inspire and enlighten wannabes, at some level, they just make the rest of us drool or wish we’d listened to our parents and gone into something less unpredictable like Accounting.

The author of 25 books in many genres, Lev Raphael has taken his twenty years of university teaching online to offer unique, one-month creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Have You Been Dissed By A Writing Professor?

It happened to Harlan Ellison who was one of our most prolific and influential science fiction writers. He published 1700 short stories and over 50 books, writing scripts for Outer Limits and Star Trek among other shows. His work influenced James Cameron when he filmed Terminator, and that’s just a start when it comes to his cultural impact.

But when Ellison attended Ohio State University, a professor passed judgment and said he had no talent for writing. Irascible even as an undergraduate, Ellison punched his professor and was expelled.

I’m not defending Ellison’s response, but if you think a professor wouldn’t feel the need to be so harsh and unequivocal you’d be wrong.

I’ve known creative writing professors who treat students like dirt. One was notorious for humiliating students by telling them their work was “shit.” He could make students cry or tremble with fear. Another would only let favorite students read aloud, clearly sending the same ugly message to everyone else in her class. These professors are not anomalies: I know from sources across the country that dissing student writing is a commonplace in creative writing workshops at the undergraduate and graduate level. A good friend was told she would never publish because she apparently hadn’t “suffered enough.” Soon afterwards, she had a story accepted at a fine literary magazine.

I loved the community of writers in my MFA program, but got poleaxed by a professor. A story that I thought was a breakthrough was demolished by my workshop, and then the professor delivered the coup de grâce. He said it was nothing new and the kind of thing I could write in my sleep.  It was devastating.

A few weeks later it won first prize in the program’s writing contest which was judged by a famous editor. When I shared the brickbats from my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word!” I then sold it for a lot of money to Redbook, which at the time had 4.5 million readers, and the story launched my career as an author. My professor’s comment at the next workshop? “It’s still shit, but now it’s shit with a prize.”

Taking writing workshops to develop and hone your craft is a good idea, but not everyone commenting on your work comes from a pace of creative nurturing and encouragement–or even neutrality. Too many of them want to tear you down for whatever twisted reasons of their own. You don’t have to punch out your professor or anyone who disparages your work, but it’s wise to listen to all criticism with your shields up, as if you were in Star Trek. Remember what Kirk says to Sulu: “Steady as she goes.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk. You can take writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU

Don’t Believe in “Writer’s Block”!

I’m just back from keynoting a writers’ conference in Michigan where one of the questions was “Do you ever get writer’s block?”

My answer was simple: No.  And here’s why.

I once heard prize-winning author Loren D. Estleman deplore the use of the term.  He said that it’s a grossly unhelpful way of describing something very basic and ordinary in the writer’s life: you’re stuck.

I totally agree. When you say that you have writer’s block, you turn a minor problem into something major like depression or even cancer. Suddenly you’re beset by a grave affliction and a normal, unremarkable part of the writing process potentially becomes  debilitating.

I’ve felt this way through many years as a published author; through twenty-five books in many genres; and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that we all get stuck sometimes in our work, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published sixty books. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means that you haven’t worked something out, you haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction.

When I get stuck, I do what Estleman suggested, and what I’ve advised my creative writing students over the years: I leave the writing alone and don’t obsess about it.

Are you stuck? Don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious to figure out. Work on something else or don’t do any writing at all. Focus outward: the gym, a movie, dinner with your spouse, drinks with some buddies, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, going out, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that will absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck is connected to secrecy and revelation. It can mean you’re afraid of what you want to write, afraid of revealing too much about yourself (or someone else), afraid of what people might think. That fear of exposure is shame, or the dread of shame. Calling it “writer’s block” confuses the issue and disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a gigantic industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because our culture loves stories about blocked writers like The Shining, there’s a perverse kind of glamor associated with this “condition.” It’s dramatic, it’s proof of how serious a professional you are. And hey, writers are crazy anyway, so of course they can’t do their jobs.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of texting, “writer’s block” connects with non-writers much better than when you say, “I’m working on my book, it’s going great and I’m having a blast.” You risk being seen as cocky or even arrogant. Saying that you have writer’s block brings you back to earth. It comforts people who don’t write, because it confirms their perception of writing as drudgery and even torment.

Don’t buy into the script.  Write your own.

Lev Raphel is the author of twenty-five books in many genres including the guide for writers Writer’s Block is Bunk. He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers coaching and mentoring.

(this blog originally appeared on The Huffington Post)