Critical Response Process

Liz Lerman. Photo by Lise Metzger

Liz Lerman. Photo by Lise Metzger

I’m hopeful that a new generation of writing workshops will offer the kind of meaningful and useful feedback that’s possible with Critical Response Process, the kind of feedback that fosters creativity and the desire to resume work, and not the kind that is so demoralizing the writer gives up in despair.

Critical Response Process is a dynamic method for both giving and receiving feedback on creative endeavors. Initially developed within the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, CRP is a process that can provide “useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert.”

Last week it was my great good fortune to attend a two-day workshop in Critical Response Process with Liz Lerman, at Marlboro College.

I was there to learn the process, so I can use it in the Narrative Non-Fiction Writing Workshop I’m scheduled to lead at the Marlboro Graduate Center in the fall.

I was already all too familiar with the shortfalls of the workshop methods I’d grown up with, where participants generally tell a writer how they would rewrite the author’s work, which isn’t really helpful at best, and can be quite harmful.

As a writing teacher for more than thirty years, I’d already developed better methods, starting with praise, and limiting students’ comments to two simple questions: 1) Where did you get lost in the text? and 2) What questions do you have that rise from the text? Sometimes I’d start classes with, Have you ever had a conversation only in questions? These were good practices, but I wanted more, and I knew from others that Critical Response Process offered it.

The theory behind CRP is that there are ways to provide feedback that make the artist eager to return to work with new understanding and ideas; in practice, CRP enlarges artistic capacity for all who participate in the well-defined steps of the process.

Participants include the artist, the responders, and the facilitator. In a writing workshop the author is the artist, the other workshop participants serve as responders, and the workshop leader facilitates. In the narrative non-fiction workshop I’m planning, I hope to pass the facilitator’s role to each of the other participants, so that they can bring CRP back to their classrooms and writing workshops.

CRP coverAfter an artist presents their* work, Critical Response Practice follows four core steps.

Step One: Statements of Meaning. Following the artist’s presentation, the facilitator asks the responders what they found meaningful, memorable, challenging, compelling, delightful – or some other quality through which responders can filter their reactions. These are not simple affirmations, but statements of meaning that serve to establish what responders witnessed in the work.

Step Two, The Artist as Questioner, places the writer at the center of the process; it’s the writer’s chance to ask questions about the work. In Step Three, Neutral Questions from Responders, responders ask neutral questions of the writer, which the writer answers. A neutral question does not have an embedded opinion. For example: How are you hoping the reader will experience this passage? is neutral. How do you expect the reader to understand this passage? is not; it contains the embedded opinion, This passage is incomprehensible! (Example from Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process by Liz Lerman and John Borstel.) Neutral questions allow the artist to think widely and creatively; they help artists define their focus and understand their intent and/or their presentation better.

After two days of intensive practice, I can confidently assert that learning how to ask useful questions in both Steps Two and Three are at the heart of this process, and this skill alone is transformative to both writer and responders.

Finally, in Step Four, Permissioned Opinions, responders are invited to ask permission to give an opinion about a specific topic. For example, a responder might say, I have an opinion about your use of “they” as a singular pronoun. Would you like to hear it? Only if the writer says yes may the responder share that opinion.

Throughout all these steps, the facilitator checks in with the writer, coaches participants to ask helpful and neutral questions, helps with follow-up questions, and keeps track of time.

The process takes time, and the more people in the group, the more time it can take. But as a group gains practice of CRP, it gathers group knowledge, skill and momentum. I witnessed this over the two days twenty of us spent together learning.

While Critical Response Process was initially designed for use in the dance world, it’s successfully used across the spectrum of creative endeavor. My purpose here is to prompt writers, teachers and writing workshop participants to know that Critical Response Process can make the writing workshop a positive, engaging, creative activity that fosters writing the story a writer wants to tell. But this post is necessarily just a thumbnail sketch of a powerful tool. I encourage you to learn more.

* This is a deliberate use of the Singular They.

photo by M. Shafer

photo by M. Shafer

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into the Wilderness, and an educator who has been teaching writing and literature to learners in a wide variety of settings, from the Ivy League to Vermont prisons. Her blogs include Living in Place and The Middle Ages.

Weekend Edition – NaNoWriNOPE plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

NaNoWriMo – Maybe Next Year

I don't mind adventure on the road, but I like to know where (I think) I'm going.

I don’t mind adventure on the road, but I like to know where (I think) I’m going.

I think 2009 was my first NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. You know, the month of story-driven insanity where intrepid writers try to get 50,000 words out in thirty days. Today at the stroke of midnight, thousands of people sat down to keyboards, laptops, and notebooks and began to chip away at the word count. It’s an experience that is both exhilarating and exhausting. The camaraderie is contagious. Some might say it’s because misery loves company, but I think it’s more that insanity is better shared.

Whether or not to participate in NaNoWriMo is a decision that plagues many writers this time of year. Despite being up to my eyeballs with copywriting deadlines and already overextended with a (fabulous) writing class at Grub Street, I was still tempted. There is something heroic about joining this crusade against the blank page. There is something comforting about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all those other literary legions, valiantly marching towards victory, one word at a time.

But, at the end of the day, I passed on NaNoWriMo this year for the same reason that I reluctantly turned my back on the writing frenzy in 2012: Larry Brooks. I explained my justification for bailing on this literary tradition in the post NaNoWriMo #fail – I Blame You, Larry Brooks. The short version is that I found myself unprepared (as in no outline) and unable to stomach the idea of writing 50,000 without a plan. Once upon a time, I might have just forged ahead anyway. I did, actually, in 2009, write 50,000 words with nary a storyline in sight. I embraced the No Plot, No Problem! spirit of the event 150%.

But, as I’ve learned more about story structure, characterization, context, etc., I find that – for better or worse – I only want to tackle a story if I’ve had the time to get a plan in place. Even for a short story, like the assignment I’m working on today for class, I need to have a roadmap. I don’t need to have every nitty-gritty detail lined up like so many tasks on a To Do list, but I do need a strong understanding of my characters, themes, and a general idea of how (I think) the story is going to develop. It’s okay if things evolve in new directions while I’m working, but I need that starting foundation before I can settle in to crafting actual sentences.

Am I just making excuses? I don’t think so, but I can understand why you might ask the question. At some point, the planning has to stop and the writing must commence. I get that. But, I’ve always found that the writing part goes much more smoothly if I’ve taken the time to do the prep work. Whether I’m writing a blog post, a column, a website, or a business ebook, the writing is much easier if I’ve put the effort into developing solid outlines that address everything from my topic to my theme, consider my audience, and even start to lay out creative elements like structure, presentation, etc.

But, maybe that’s just me.

What’s your take? Planner or Panster? NaNoWriMo Forever or NaNoWriNope?


What I’m Writing:

practical sandra

Smile, even when things may not go as you’d planned.

Last Tuesday, my fellow students and Grub Street instructor workshopped my “homework submission” for the Fiction I class I’m taking. I was a little nervous. After all, although I knew everyone would be kind, it’s never easy to be on the hot seat, or – as it’s called in class – “in the box.” On the other hand, there is something undeniably thrilling about having someone read your work. You feel naked, but you also feel heard. I knew that all the flaws and faux pas of my writing were there on the page, but it was worth it to have readers join me inside the world of my story.

I spent some more time last week and this working on further developing the idea and outline for the short story I’m hoping to submit for next Tuesday’s class. Once again, I had set a big, juicy block of writing time aside. That mini writing retreat was scheduled to begin a few minutes ago, but after a Norman Rockwell-worthy Halloween with my daughter, I got a bit of a late start on this post. And, I just learned moments ago that my daughter’s dad has decided to pick her up later than expected. A lot later.

So, once again, my writing window has shrunk down to the size of a porthole.

In the past, I would have railed against this development. I would have slid quickly from disappointed to angry to bitter. I would have written a slightly whiny post about how hard I was fighting for my writing life, and the whole world seemed hell bent on stopping me. In short, I would have pouted.

Not any more. It’s a cold, gray day-after-Halloween. I am just about to curl on on the sofa with my daughter and watch Practical Magic – one of my all-time favorite movies with her for the first time. And, you know what? I’m not just good with that. I’m delighted. Sure, it will curtail my writing for the day, but as important as writing is to me, life is more important. Life is, after all, what fuels the writing. Life is what makes the writing worthwhile.


What I’m Reading:

miniature booksAs you might imagine, I didn’t have a ton of time for reading this week, but what I did enjoy were a few short stories and essays. I’m beginning to develop quite an affinity for short form fiction. I’m even starting to get an itch to play around with flash fiction a bit.

In addition to reading the workshop submissions from two fellow students in class (submissions which were, by the way, excellent and so much fun!), I also read a wonderful essay by Jamie Passaro on Full Grown People, and a couple of appropriately spooky 19th century tales by Elia W. Peattie from Short Story Thursdays – The Room of Evil Thoughts and A Child of the Rain.

Though these pieces were short, they were fulfilling. They didn’t provide any sense of closure, something I usually like in a story. Instead, they raised questions and curiosity. They made me wonder what else might have happened. They reached into my writer’s mind and spun the wheels about a bit. That’s a good thing.


And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:


Finally, a quote for the week:

pin happy let go

Smile and enjoy your day, even if it doesn’t go as you’d planned. Write, read, live. 

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Hourglass Photo Credit: chiaralily via Compfight cc
Country Road Photo Credit: fatboyke (Luc) via Compfight cc
Miniature Books Photo Credit: lamont_cranston via Compfight cc

Inviting Reader Response

EllenMSWhen I wrote about Finding Preliminary Readers back in September, I hadn’t yet asked anyone to read my current work in progress. But that changed in June, when I reached that place where I could no longer see the forest for the trees; I needed new eyes on the page, and I needed to know what works and what doesn’t. It was time for me to follow my two rules for asking for feedback.

  • Rule 1: Tell your readers exactly what kind of feedback you want.

I queried ten different people, hoping two or three would be up to the task. They all said yes. This group includes people from every decade between twenty and ninety; it includes men and women; and the group represents a variety of professions: two high school English teachers (one retired, one current), a professional book reviewer, a physician, a carpenter, a fiber artist, a poet, an antiques dealer, a Jane Austen fan, and my agent. These are the instructions I sent them:

Thank you for reading Ellen. In addition to bearing witness to the work I’ve done over the past three years, here are other, specific ways you can help me finish the book:

  • Praise: Tell me what you like about the book – what characters, scenes, circumstances – anything and everything that you liked, in detail.
  • Tell me if and where you lose the thread of the story or have a question that you need answered to maintain your willing suspension of disbelief. Please tell me what your question is and where it arose.
  • Tell me where you yawn and/or lose interest.
  • Please alert me to typos, grammar, spelling.
  • Also let me know about inconsistencies, anachronisms, repetitions, dead ends.
  • It would be incredibly helpful to me to have your written synopsis of the book. What do you think it’s about?

Two things that would not be helpful and that I ask you to refrain from:

  • Suggestions about how to fix problems
  • Allowing anyone else to read this draft. In fact, I would like the hard copies returned to me and the electronic ones deleted from your machines when you are done.
  • Rule Two: Listen to what your readers tell you without defending your work.

Two readers have already responded. They both had questions and comments. Hard as it was, I just listened. I didn’t try to answer their questions or explain what I was trying to do. And I didn’t blame them for not getting it; I accepted responsibility for not being clear. I noted where they lost the thread of the narrative or didn’t believe the course of the action or wanted less or asked for more. Lest you think I’m inhuman, it wasn’t always easy to refrain from defending my work as it stands. But what I’ve learned over the years is that the comments that rankle the most are invariably the most salient.

I’ve also learned to let my work ferment. While the book is out with my readers, I’m doing other things, some writing-related, like updating and filing my clips, and some not, like heading to Maine for a week’s vacation. All the while, I’m thinking about the book, but I’m not actually delving into the typescript. For the time being, I’m just letting it sit.

dll2013_124x186Deborah Lee Luskin is looking forward to reading the novels of Virginia Woolf while vacationing in Maine.


I get by with a little help from my friends

'Help!' photo (c) 2013, Betsy Weber - license:’ve been investing more time in my fiction writing since January. Not only have I written more, but I’ve attended a conference and a workshop. I’ve been happy with the progress, but I’m still working out my process long form writing. Recently I was feeling at wits end with the story. I knew I had something good, but it felt amorphous and I felt like I was flailing. I needed to bounce some ideas off of someone. I bit the bullet and asked a friend and fellow romance writer if she’d help me see the holes. Prior to this, I’ll admit some reticence about asking others for help with my stories. I readily admit I’m still at the beginning of the process, so the structure and ideas feel fragile. We’ve all heard horror stories of sharing our work with family and friends too soon and getting crushing feedback. I needed someone who could be constructive. I wanted real feedback, but at the same time, I needed someone who understood the process and could respect where I was. Someone who could offer helpful suggestions as opposed to “that’s great, keep going” or “You should totally name your hero Kurt” (not that there is anything wrong with the name Kurt). I have a friend who is also a romance writer and working mom. I had recently critiqued one of her manuscripts (with what I hope and she says was constructive feedback). So I felt confident in asking her if she’d spend some time helping me shape things a little. Thankfully she enthusiastically agreed. I sent her my character descriptions and plot summary/outline in advance and we met for lunch. After we ordered our sushi, I tried to open my mind and shut my mouth. I *think* I was mostly successful. I know the feedback I got was invaluable. I tried to listen and hold off on evaluating her suggestions until I’d had time to digest them. It didn’t hurt that she said she liked the story and was interested in my characters. She did point out that my heroine wasn’t flawed enough and we bemoaned the challenge of writing flawed female characters. I took four pages of notes and came away reinvigorated and excited about the story again. It’s been two weeks and I’ve had time to ponder her questions and process her suggestions. Some I took to heart, others I discarded as not a fit for this story (at least the way I want to tell it). I’m to the point where I’ve gotten as far with my plot summary/outline as I’m going to get with out writing more scenes (I’m a hybrid plotter/pantser). On the docket for this week, is finalizing some characterizations and adding some meat to the outline. Asking for help in any situation is hard for most people. We like to think we can do it all ourselves, but that just isn’t realistic. With a creative endeavor, it can be even riskier especially if you don’t ask the right person or you don’t have enough faith in your own ability. It might not take much to let someone else’s ideas (well meaning as they may be) overrun you own thoughts or crush your momentum. Here are my suggestions for getting the right kind of help for your writing.

  • Find someone who is as experienced as you or better yet a little ahead of where you are.
  • Friends can work, but make sure they are familiar with the genre your are writing in. They don’t have to be a writer, sometimes readers can also provide valuable insights.
  • Don’t impose. Ask your helper how much time they have and supply only enough material to get the answers you need.
  • Evaluate the information provided. Don’t take everything someone else says as the Gospel Truth.

What has your experience been asking for help with your writing?

One Thousand Words at a Time

So it is mid-March, and I’m living the dream. I have a book contract, and a hard deadline. And so I have a book to write. 80,000 words total. I’m writing them 1000 words at a time.

Now, I’ve got friends who’ve written books. And I have taken classes, sat in on panels, and had conversations about the process. So I know what I’m doing, or at least I hope so. But as I was working on my schedule, working back from my deadline, it occurred to me that I know so much more about what it really takes to write a book than I did ten years ago. I thought I’d share my process in broad strokes. Throughout the year, I will check back on where I am in the process, and let you know how it is going.

First Step: The idea. What is the story you want to tell? Who are the main characters? If you are writing a mystery, what is the crime? Who is the victim? Who is the sleuth? Who is the criminal? Where are you setting your story? Who else is in the world? What does the world look like?

Second Step: The plot. I am a plotter, which means I think about the dramatic structure of the book, what needs to happen to move the story forward, what scenes are needed to do that? For each scene, what is the goal? Who is in it?

Third Step: First draft hell. This is where I write and write and write. I may go back and tweak scenes, or add some, but I don’t stop, or second guess, or go back and edit. I just let the characters tell the story, and try and transcribe it. This is where I am right now.

Fourth Step:  Rest. I need to give my brain time to forget the specifics, so I put the manuscript in a drawer right for a bit.

Fifth Step: Read it. How does it hang as a story? Does it make sense? Do I need to move scene around? Do I need to add some, or take some away? How is the tension?

Sixth Step: Rest again. And then dive in, and edit. Add descriptions. Elevate the language. Ratchet up the tension. Make it better.

Seventh Step: Go through it one more time. How close to perfect can you get it?

Eighth Step: Give it to someone else for feedback. Or a couple of somebodies.

Ninth Step: Read the comments, and either ignore them, or make the changes.

The loop of steps 7-9 can take a while, but that is fine. It should. Because before you hit send to your editor, or query the book to an agent, it needs to be as close to great as you can get it.

This takes TIME. 1000 words a day means an 80,000 word manuscript takes 80 days. Almost three months. When I wrote my first book, I didn’t understand steps 5-9 as being part of the process. That my first draft wasn’t perfect, and that fixing was part of writing. Understanding that, and giving it time, is critical.

So, this is my process. How do the rest of you tackle writing a book? Any tips you want to add?


J.A. Hennrikus writes short stories. Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery Series.


Weekend Edition: On writer’s doubt plus good reads and writing advice

Welcome to the Weekend  Edition in which I share a little of what I’m up to with my writing (when I’m not here) and what I’m reading (between the covers and around the web). I’ll also pull back the curtain a little on my version of the writing life (but not so much as to be indecent).

I hope you enjoy this little diversion and encourage you to share your own thoughts, posts, and picks in the comments. I LOVE hearing from you and seeing the world from your perspective.

Happy writing! Happy reading! 



question roadAll Writers Doubt Their Ability. Every. Single. One.

Writers doubt their instincts. They doubt their talent. They doubt their choices. They doubt that they will ever be as good as the other writers they admire.

Doubt does not discriminate. It gets all of us – from the most virgin newbie to the most seasoned veteran.

Only last week, J.K. Rowling admitted that she regretted her pairing of Hermione and Ron in the Harry Potter series.

In a post inspired, I can only imagine, by that news, New York Magazine (not to be confused with The New Yorker) published a post chronicling the regrets of some of literature’s best known icons. Among those on the list are Mark Twain (who looked back and wondered if he should have written Tom Sawyer in the first person) and Stephen King (who rewrote almost every page of The Gunslinger for a later edition).

Even my recently rediscovered favorite, E.B. White, openly expressed his doubt. In a letter to his wife he despaired over progress on a piece he was writing, saying, “Have reached the stage where I am suspicious that it is perhaps the lousiest concoction I have dreamed up to date …” Boy, don’t we all know what that feels like!

So, the next time you’re feeling down about your work and facing down your demons while battling an awful case of comparisonitis, please remember that you are in good company.

What I’m Writing:

hayThis has been a very busy week in terms of client work, so I haven’t had a chance to do much personal writing except for my morning journaling.

Although I’m always so grateful to have work, I absolutely get frustrated when things get so busy that I have to rush through everything and still wind up working late (and early) and having to forego many things I would like to do (such as taking the day off to share my daughter’s snow day). The ebb and flow of work is, however, a very real part of life as a self-employed writer. Sometimes, work is scarce and you have to busy yourself with personal projects while you wait for the next paying gig. Other times, you manage to find the Holy Grail of the freelancer’s life – a balanced workload. And then there are the times when your work queue is like a slow-motion, twenty-car pile-up and all you can do is sit by and watch while clinging to the feeble hope that when everything stops spinning you’ll be able to go in with the jaws of life and extract survivors.

The key to survival is to roll with the punches. As I explained to my ten year-old daughter at bedtime last night, a self-employed writer has to make hay while the sun shines. Sure, it’s a bit stressful when all the work gets compressed into a short period of time; but even so I wouldn’t give up this lifestyle for anything. I know that, eventually, things will level off and I’ll have a few weeks of blissful breathing room. I can’t wait.

What I’m Reading:

Meantime, even though I haven’t had time for creative writing, I made time for some reading. I know enough that I can’t lose both my writing time and my reading time without risking my sanity. So, last weekend – when I found myself in a momentary lull brought about by the various balls I’m juggling being in other people’s courts – I parked myself on the couch with a couple of books and didn’t move for the better part of the day.

Interestingly, the two books I wound up reading this week are polar opposites in terms of style and craft, voice and genre, and even era.

Affiliate Link

First, I blew through the middle grade novel, The Angel Experiment: A Maximum Ride Novel (Book 1) (affiliate link). I borrowed the book from the library for my daughter who recently read The Hunger Games trilogy and has since found every other book wanting. Betsy, a lovely woman and fabulous children’s librarian, recommended the “Maximum Ride” series by prolific author, James Patterson. I have never been a huge fan of Patterson because of  his writing “model” of working with ghost writers (something he discussed openly in an interview on NPR, “James Patterson on Writing All Those Books“). But, I was desperate to find something my daughter would read.

I read the entire book in just a few hours. It’s a fast-paced urban fantasy with chapters nearly as short as the ones in Dan Brown’s blockbuster, The DaVinci Code. The writing is simple and straightforward. There is lots of exposition. The characters are fairly one-dimensional. The plot twists feel manufactured and not totally unexpected. Reading this book was kind of like eating an entire bag of cheese curls in one sitting. It was entertaining, but there was no substance. Chewing gum for the brain. Still, if it gets my daughter to re-engage with the written word, I’ll be happy.

Affiliate Link

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a collection of letters and essays titled E. B. White on Dogs (affiliate link).

Let me say that I have long been an ardent admirer of White’s work. His books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little were two of my first favorite books. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I came across some of his essays and swooned a little. This collection is especially charming because each of the included items is somehow related to dogs, often to White’s own dogs, a diverse bunch but mostly comprised of dachshunds.

This is the kind of writing that on the one hand inspires me and on the other hand makes me want to abandon writing all together. Each of these pieces – whether a professionally published essay or a casual letter to a friend – is full of beautifully crafted sentences that elicited from me quiet but emphatic (not to mention outwardly audible) grunts of appreciation.

Reading two such different types of books, one so close on the heels of the other, forced a comparison that otherwise would seem ludicrous. But, like Andrea Badgley observed in her recent post, Growth Spurt, writers often become critical readers. While Andrea’s epiphany focused on the role of good structure in a work of fiction, I was struck by the vast range of quality. If The Angel Experiment was a bag of cheese curls, E.B. White’s writing was a beautifully arranged and deeply satisfying platter of fresh fruit, aromatic bread, and a selection of the finest cheeses money can buy … all accompanied by a perfectly paired glass of merlot with a bit of dark chocolate for dessert.

There really is no comparison when you get right down to it.

Does that mean I will never read another “cheese curl” book? Nope. I will read plenty of them, I’m sure. But, I will know and appreciate them for what they are, and I will only indulge every once in a while. After all, if people are what they eat, writers must certainly be what they read.

P.S. – Little side note and bit of trivia: our own Wendy Thomas is the great niece of E.B. White. Quite a nice, if intimidating, bit of literary heritage there!

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin must read

And that’s all from me.

I hope the rest of your weekend is full of time to write and read. Remember that we all have our doubts and the only thing to do is push past them and get the words on the page. You can figure out the rest after that.

Thanks for stopping by! See you on the other side. 

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credits:

What Do You Think?

My writer friends, beware of asking that question regarding your work. Or more precisely, to whom you ask the question. Because not all critiques are alike. Or even useful.

I have a friend who was on a deadline for submitting a manuscript. She had asked a (fairly new to her) critique group for feedback. Everyone wrote in the same genre, so she felt like the feedback would be helpful. What she was hoping for were plot problems, characters with the wrong name, bursts of unattributed dialogue, scenes that were in the wrong place or unclear. What she got was punctuation notes (some helpful, others contradicting the style guide of the publisher), suggestions to rewrite entire subplots, and one person questioning the premise of the book.

My friend freaked out. I finally wrote an all caps email telling her to IGNORE EVERYTHING. Because it was just too late (deadline) to make substantive changes to the plot. And her premise had gotten her a book contract, so somebody liked it.

It made me think about critique groups and critique partners. We’ve talked about critiquescritiquing, feedback and editing on the blog several times. I thought I’d weigh in with my opinion on who you should ask to read your book when, and what a good critique partner does and doesn’t do.

My process is two write a lousy first draft, and then add research and shape it into second draft. I also try to give each draft time to sit, though deadlines sometimes get in the way. This is when the first critique comes in–usually my friend Jason. At this point I need someone to look at the big picture, the frame of the story. Does it hold together? How is the pacing? Was he surprised?

I then take his comments, and incorporate them into the manuscript. If they make sense, and work for the story. He may not love that the farmer’s son was guilty of the crime. But was he upset because the rest of the story didn’t support that (bad), or because he really liked the farmer’s son and was sad that he was guilty (good)? This critique partner needs to be a trusted reader who understands how delicate a book (and writer’s ego) is at this stage. Honesty and suggestions.

I then do another pass on the manuscript, looking for action, sensory moments, pacing, and every other editing technique I have learned after years of classes and workshops. When I am “done” I give it to the next level of readers. This round reacts to story (and usually Jason is a reader here too), but also looks at structure, grammar, punctuation, and overall clarity.

At this stage, I am easily confused. I have been working on the manuscript for too long, and have lost all objectivity. So I need to find people I trust. People who offer their ideas, but couch their ideas in support of my work, not a desire to write my story themselves. And I need to muster the strength to say “no” to some suggestions.

Any my final critique partner? Me. A couple of days in the drawer, and a read through of the entire manuscript. Straight through. And then I ask myself “what do you think?” and hope the answer is in the affirmative. And if not, I fix it.

How about you? Do you have readers or critique partners you trust? Or are you your only reader?


J.A. Hennrikus is a mystery writer. She is the President of Sisters in Crime New England, on the national board of Sisters in Crime, and a member of Mystery Writers of America. She also blogs with Wicked Cozy Authors.

Finding a Critique Group

I’ve been asked a number of times how to find a critique group, so I thought I’d list some of the avenues I followed to find a critique group that works for me.

First, you need to have an open mind. A good friend of mine joined a mommies group after she had her first child, and she told me she was going to keep going “until I made one good friend.” I thought that was really smart. Often we join a group and, when it’s not immediately fulfilling, we stop going. My friend kept going until she had one good friend that she continued to see outside the group—mission accomplished.

After that, I think it’s a matter of trying multiple options. Here are some of the things I tried, which eventually led to my current critique group, which is everything I ever dreamed of in a critique group:

Online critique groups: There are many. One free one is Critique Circle, which allows you to critique others and receive feedback on your own work. You can also try places like The Writer’s Chatroom, an online writing community, which hosts author chats, workshops, and  also has discussion forums where you can find other writers who are looking for someone to critique their work (I am a moderator on this site. Everyone there is very helpful!)

NaNoWriMo: November is National Novel Writing Month, and the members of have all committed to writing a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Once you sign up (it’s free, although donations are accepted and encouraged) you can join your local region and chat online with other people in your area. There are also many live and virtual “meet-ups” during the month—a great way to connect with other writers in your area.

National and regional writing organizations: I joined Sisters in Crime, a mystery-writing group, and the local chapter (Sisters in Crime New England). Sisters in Crime has a online chapter called the Guppies that is dedicated to getting its members published. Critique is a big part of their mission. If you are looking to publish in the mystery genre, I highly recommend them. Other genres have similar groups, so just join the group that fits you best.

Writing Conferences: I have gone to New England Crime Bake for the past few years and I have met many people who inspire me as a writer, but I also met one of my current critique group members there. I recommend volunteering at the conference you go to as it forces you to meet people and interact (especially helpful if you go alone.)

Local bookstores and libraries: Most local bookstores (even the big ones, like Barnes & Noble,) have a bulletin board or a newsletter that tells you if any writing groups meet there. You can also ask the staff if there is a writing group that meets there.

Local coffee shops: Like bookstores and libraries, most coffee shops have a bulletin board. Post something telling writers you are looking to form a critique group, or ask the staff if they know of any writing groups that meet there.

Lastly, keep that open mind and keep trying—all that time and energy seems well-spent once you have a critique group that helps you become a better writer.

Any other ideas for finding a critique group?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: wife, mother, writer, life coach, blogger, family physician. I’m working on my my novel and getting ready for NaNo. On the advice of my critique group, I’m currently going back and outlining my novel-in-progress to make the plotting better (and to make sure I have GMC in every scene!)

(Another) Lesson from Critique Group

A couple of weeks ago, at my critique group meeting, one of my fellow group members handed me back a hard copy of my piece after she finished giving me her feedback verbally. Across the top of the first page were these words: Too surface. No clear GMC.

“What’s ‘GMC?’ ” I asked.

“Goal, motivation, and conflict.”

“Oh.” Yeah, I can see how not having any of that could be a problem.

When I looked at the scene I’d written again, through my writing friend’s eyes, I could see what she was talking about and I also wondered how I could have missed it.

I’m working on a novel and this is not the first—or the second—draft.

Obviously, I’m in need of my critique group.

I think part of the reason that I haven’t seen what is so clearly lacking in my drafts before now is that I’m still feeling pretty overwhelmed by the whole idea of writing a novel. My goal has been to keep writing and to get to the end—with each draft.

Now, I realize, I can’t keep tweaking each scene superficially and submitting it. I need to step back and look at the whole picture and I need to look at each scene and make sure it works.

This may take some time.

And, I realize, that’s the biggest reason why I haven’t done it yet. But the longer I put it off, the longer my novel is going to stay an unemotional, passive piece of writing that no one would want to read, never mind publish!

I know I have the bones of a great novel, now I’m going to look for “GMC” in each scene.

  • Goals: What is the goal of the scene? What is the goal of the protagonist in this scene? What is the goal of the antagonist?
  • Motivation: What is my protagonist’s motivation for doing what she does in this scene? Why does she care about whatever is going on around her? What is my protagonist’s motivation in general? Why does she get up in the morning?
  • Conflict: What’s the conflict in the scene? How is it resolved?

I just submitted another piece to my writing group and I’m hoping this one has a lot more “GMC” than my previous pieces.

I’m also going to go back to the beginning and complete a synopsis of my novel—I started one many months ago and found it very helpful, but I didn’t carry it through to the end of the novel. I think it will help me figure out the overarching goals, motivations, and conflicts of the novel, my protagonist, my antagonist(s), and every other major character.

Wish me luck.

How is your writing project going? Do you have “GMC?”

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: is a writer, blogger, mom, life coach, and family physician. Now that MasterChef is over, I can devote more of my evenings to writing!

Resource: On the Premises Magazine

On the Premisesa good place to start is a resource for fiction writers. It’s a PDF and web-based magazine published 3 times a year. The stories in the magazine are those that have won in the contests set up by the editors. You can read or download back issues here.

So, On the Premises is always running a contest – a ‘regular’ one and a ‘mini’. I learn a lot from the editors suggestions/hints/tips for submissions as well as the feedback they offer once a contest closes. They also share entries.

And they offer a free critique if your story places in the top 10; and have a reasonable fee if you’d like a critique if your story didn’t make the top 10.

blue ribbonDid I mention the staff is generous in helping writers?

  • As of -last- Monday, their newest ‘regular’ contest, Contest #21, already had 36 entries. Submissions are being accepted until Sept 27. It’s looking for 1,000 to 5,000 words on the premise described here. There is no entry fee and prizes are: 1st: $180, 2nd: $140, 3rd: $100, Honorable mention: $40 (and sometimes they’ll do up to 3 honorable mentions).
  • The new ‘mini’ contest, Mini-Contest #21, is now open to entries until August 30. No entry fee. Prizes are: $15 for first, $10 for second, $5 for third, and honorable mentions get published but make no money. This contest is seeking a 20- to 40-word (yes, that’s only a maximum of 40 words) story that starts and ends with the exact same word. Oh, and that word can’t be used anywhere else in the story.

To enter either contest, use this page to submit your entry (and to get the details/guidelines for both contests).

In addition to its website, On the Premises is also on Facebook, and has a blog. The blog doesn’t have a recent post, but that’s intentional. In the latest newsletter, the co-publisher mentions that the content on the blog is solid and they find it more beneficial to put time into the monthly newsletter.

I find the monthly newsletter to contain useful writing-related information every time, and look forward to seeing it in my Inbox.

This month’s newsletter, for instance, talks about using misdirection in a story — and also about how when submitting to a contest, to make sure your story doesn’t simply end, but that it actually wraps up the story line.

You can subscribe to their newsletter through this link.

Note: I’m not being compensated for this post. I personally enjoy On the Premises and felt you might like to know about it, if you didn’t already.

I’ve submitted stories in the past, but did not get published. I plan to submit to the mini contest this month, though! Nothing to lose and publication to gain. Are you with me?

Lisa J. Jackson Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys writing short. She loves writing about NH people, places, and activities. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and Biznik.