Focus Your Focus Group

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Combination of 20px and rotated version of 20p...

Combination of 20px and rotated version of 20px to form icon for Peer Review process (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Asking a trusted friend, colleague or fellow author to review your work is a brave thing to do. And it’s an important and necessary part of the writing process- when publishing is amongst your goals.

If you have chosen wisely, your ‘critiquer’ will be someone who can be honest with you and whose opinion you can trust.

Still it’s never a good practice to hand someone your work and say, “Let me know what you think”.  Even a seasoned editor or literary agent has a checklist of plusses and minuses they refer to when diving into a new manuscript.

That being said, if a general impression is what you are looking for- ask for that. But if you want help identifying strengths and weaknesses in your piece, you need to focus your reviewer’s attention, without overloading them with too much to look for. Their job is to give you constructive feedback…not to edit your work for you.

My writer’s group Somerset Ink has one member each month offer a piece of their writing for peer review.  At the end of the submission are two or three questions for their fellow authors to work from. This not only helps to focus the critiques but also serves to identify patterns in the feedback when a group of individuals review the work. Similar comments or impressions can be red flags within your writing.

So, when handing over your ‘baby’ for critical inspection, ask your reviewer(s) if they can identify two or three specific issues including questions, which offer the opportunity for praise as well as censure- i.e., “What do you feel is my antagonists number one strength and number one weakness?”

When I asked this of Lucy, the main character in my novel, Lost and Found: The Souls of Rosewood, I got a resounding, “She’s too nice. She needs a dark side.” This warned me that the most important character I was creating was not authentic. My readers were not identifying with her because she was too good. I needed to give her a vice or a button, which when pushed made her angry maybe even unreasonable. Being the heroine does not exclude her from being flawed like the rest of us (most especially because she’s a teen).

As my own worst critic, I always have on tap plot issues I am sure I am writing into my story. I know I always struggle with tense. So I usually ask my ‘critiquers’ to point out where in my work, I may have switched tenses.

If you know you have reoccurring plot issues, be sure to ask about that.

Here are some other topics for your reviewers:

What would you ask of your ‘critiquer’?

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I’ll Show You Mine, If …Nah, Forget It

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Please enjoy the following guest post from author Kimberlee Thompson. Kim is a fiction writer and Poet with a sophisticated wit. She lives in the North East and is a contributing author of First Thursdays, a collection of short stories by member of the writer’s group Somerset Ink.

 

My birthday? 1/1/1900.  Or is it 2000?  I live at 123 Main Street.  My mother’s maiden name is Jones; my first pet’s name was Spot.  My birthplace was Intercourse, PA and I attended Sweet Valley High.

English: First 4 digits of a credit card

English: First 4 digits of a credit card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I enjoy writing and reading fiction…except when I’m in a virtual stick-up.  Online, I’m repeatedly told to hand over my info if I want coupons, access to a site, or to establish my identity as an author.

My personal information is all over the web already, since I pay my credit cards online and grab my bank statements off the net.  I console myself that if anything happens to my bank account or credit card, the financial institution will make it right.  Plus, I assume – hope – that they have a higher level of security than, say, a liquor site that wants my birthday before I can see a new drink recipe.  And you can bet that Don Julio is not getting my real digits!  As long as I’m 21 in his electronic eyes, I’m in.

I enter fake birthdays and names all over the worldwide web.  My info doesn’t need to travel where I do.  But even this is difficult for me.  I don’t lie about my age in person, but online, I invariably make myself younger.  Not by much, but hey, I’m not going to get older just for anonymity’s sake.  So now I’m lying about my age, too.

Then it gets worse.  Facebook?  Millions provide it with free content.  Any tragedy that strikes, there will be a file photo of the victim, courtesy of guess who.  Not to mention the gigantic time suck.  I could be doing laundry instead of posting pictures for people who only want me to look at their stuff, anyway.  I could be reading.  A book.  Not daily ephemera and self-promo.

I read all over how I’m supposed to have a platform, an online identity, as a writer.  Don’t we write fiction to walk in others’ shoes?  So why all the personal info posted willy-nilly?  I feel like I’m dumping the contents of my wallet on a scanner and posting the copy for anyone who needs to scam me.  Or just plain ol’ violate my privacy.

I’m not sure how to reconcile my craving for privacy with the marketplace’s appetite for self-promotion.  How do others honor their integrity and protect themselves while displaying information that most folks kept to themselves until recently?

Oh, but I don’t want to write under a pseudonym, either.  I would like my writing to wear my name. I just don’t think anyone else needs to know my mother’s true maiden name to make my fiction worth reading.  By the way, her name was Smith.

I hope you enjoyed Kim’s contribution and find it fosters the flow of some fresh creativity.  Please feel free to comment on what Kim had to share and ask her any questions you may have. 

Look for future guest posts from Kim and more of my favorite writers here at Writer’s Block.

 

After All I Am The AUTHOR

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Please enjoy the following guest post from author Marie Catalfamo. Marie is a fiction writer with interests in mysteries and exploring the myths and lore of her Italian heritage.  A native of the North East, Marie is a contributing author of First Thursdays, a collection of short stories by member of the writer’s group Somerset Ink.

Since my imagination is limited and you should only write what you know, I am working on a novel about my family, Time to Come Home.  It starts with my grandparents coming from Italy, living through wars, the depression and family troubles.  So I didn’t have to extend my mind too much – just follow their yellow brick road.  I mean, after all I am the AUTHOR.

I started by naming my characters, making a time line (several decades to go through) and picking out the most interesting conflicts to include.  The ending was set before I began.  I knew how I wanted it to finish.  All I had to do was fill in the middle, letting my pen do all the work.  Simple?  Right?  After all I am the AUTHOR.

At first they followed my pen nicely, going where I led.  As I’ve completed a little over a third of the story I realized my characters were revolting, going in different directions.  They refuse to go where my mind wanted to take them.  How could this be?  After all, I am the AUTHOR.

I’ve submitted my chapters to several of my Somerset Ink writing group members.  While they express interest and encouragement, they’ve chosen different characters to lead the story.  Flattering, although not the direction I’m going toward.  What to do?  After all, I am the AUTHOR.

I finally decided that rather than trying to shave, chisel, or jam my round characters into square holes, I would just let them tell me where to go (in the story).  It is amazing to see where they lead me in the telling of their life.  It has become easier to “pick up the pen” to continue rather than face another day of trying to justify myself.

Have I been replaced?  Has my creativity expanded?  Have the inmates taken over?  Yes, yes, and yes.  But it’s okay.  You see I made the decision to let them work hard while I just sit back and follow.  After all I am the AUTHOR!

Who is writing your story?

I hope you enjoyed Marie’s contribution and find it fosters the flow of some fresh creativity.  Please feel free to comment on what Marie had to share and ask her any questions you may have.

Look for future guest posts from Marie and more of my favorite writers here at Writer’s Block.

 

Take Your Characters Hula Hooping

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A hula hoop contingent in the 2007 Summer Sols...

A hula hoop contingent in the 2007 Summer Solstice Parade, Fremont Fair, Seattle, Washington marched the route while “hula hooping”; they deliberately had an oversupply of hula hoops, and continually urged people in the viewing crowd to join them. Many did, at least briefly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The best plot in the world won’t go anywhere without great characters for your readers to experience it with. Readers, whether they know it or not, live vicariously through your characters. If you’ve done your job right they will become emotionally invested in your characters and care about what happens to them by the story’s end.

Characters deliver our story to the reader through the events that unfold in the plot. If you really do your job right, your characters will grow, evolve and be forever changed by the resolution to your story’s conflict.

This change can be as simple or as earth shattering as you want. The more profound it is, the more satisfied your readers will be. Why? Because it means as a storyteller, you offered them a story where the stakes were high, and that, makes for good reading. These days, more than ever, your readers need to feel their time with your book is time well spent.

For me, I have come to discover that most times when my plot stalls it’s because I have begun to focus more on the plot and less on the characters. My first clue is when I write more than two pages without dialogue. It means my story is being told -not experienced.

Why does this happen? It happens because my characters stop talking to me. Always sitting on my shoulder telling me what happens next, my characters drive my plot. But when I write them into unfamiliar territory where they are not sure how they feel, what they would say or what they are experiencing emotionally and intellectually, they stop talking and my plot stalls like a car without gas.

At this point, I’m usually onto something good. After all the idea is to challenge your characters, take them out of their comfort zone, shock them. So, rather than abandon my plot’s current progression, I take a break and spend some quality time with my characters -outside of my story’s setting and away from the plot. This way I can get to know them better and even learn some things about them I never knew. The results? It’s like adding Nitrous to that stalled car’s engine.

Here are some ways I grow my characters.

Fill out an online dating questionnaire for them.
Have you ever seen one of these? They can be tedious and comical. They are designed to give a complete stranger a 360° look at who you are without boring them before they’re hooked. They ask everything from your shoe size to your bedtime. They put your sense of humor on a scale, make you choose between chocolate and vanilla and divulge your most embarrassing moment.

Play Truth or Dare.
Imagine you are at a party. Someone says, “Hey let’s play Truth or Dare.” First think about how willing your character would be to play. If they suddenly cry out, “Gee- look at the time… I gotta go.” Then you need to figure out why. If they stay for the game, think about some questions and how they may respond- truth or dare. If they keep saying truth, think of harder questions. If they say dare…don’t let them off the hook.

Invite them Hula Hooping.
One of my favorite writers, Lisa Markov (Cousin Lavinia, 2012) recently took up hula hooping. When she first told me I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this wasn’t something new I had just learned about Lisa. Hula hooping was right up her alley…energetic, colorful and fun.

One day Lisa shared with me that she was at a dead end with her new story. She just couldn’t get a hold on her characters and without them she didn’t care much about writing. So, I told her to invite them hula hooping.

Inviting your characters to join you in your favorite hobby or pastime is a great way to relax with them and get to know them better.

Would they be good at this activity or clumsy? Would they play fair and be a good sport? Would they have a lucky shirt they wore when they participated? Is this something new for them or do you share this interest with you? What kinds of things would you talk about if your minds were away from all of life’s trials and tribulations and you were having good clean fun?

Ask them to watch a marathon of your favorite TV show.
Play your favorite board game or go shoot some hoops.
Invite them to help you bake for a bake sale.
Take them fishing, rock climbing, to your spin class.
My personal favorite…spend a day at the barn.

The more intimately you know your characters, the more you can challenge them and richer their experiences will be throughout your plot.

What do you do to get to know your characters better?

Aside

A short story with a Big heart.
Available wherever eBooks are sold!

On a crisp winter afternoon, eight year old Inez steps out into the middle of her Papa’s tree farm with a piece of paper and some twine squeezed tightly in her mitten. A few days later, she wakes to find that one simple act of kindness is never truly a single act.

Now in the eve of her life, Inez seeks to pass on that simple act and does so in the most unexpected way.

Inspired by a true story; One Act: Papa’s Trees, takes its readers on a heartwarming, multigenerational journey that starts with one small wish and never truly ends.

Available wherever eBooks are sold!

One Act: Papa’s Trees

The Bad Stuff Is Good

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This week, I read an excerpt from a YA novel, which was offered for peer critiquing on a writer’s blog I often visit. After reading the excerpt, readers are invited to leave any thoughts, comments or criticism (constructive of course), for the author to consider.

I make it a practice to compose my comments on the author’s piece, before reading those already posted because I wouldn’t want my perception of the work to be influenced by others. My goal is to give the author my honest opinion. However, once I write my response and send it, I take the time to see what others have said.

I have always felt that the visitors to this blog are fair and genuinely helpful in their critiquing. They, on the whole, make intelligent and practical suggestions, which generally come from experience. And aside from the occasional difference in viewpoints I usually agree with the overall themes that bond the individual critiques… until this week that is.

This week I found myself with very little to offer the guest author in way of criticism. I loved the excerpt and wanted to read more.  I had some trouble with the language she was using with the main character, not feeling it was true to the teenage girl she was introducing us to. I felt a heightened sensitivity to this issue because it is an important part of the novel I am working on, Lost and Found: The Souls of Rosewood. My main character Lucy is an American teenager as well as many of her friends therefore, I work hard to be sure the language they use is authentic and current without dating the story.  Other than that, this author’s writing was a read right up my alley.  So, as I always do, I wrote my comments, posted them and began reading the opinions of my fellow readers.

Didn’t like the first one…hated the second one…began feeling angry by the third one…by the time I was finished with all the posts I had a knot in my stomach and I was fighting mad! What was their problem??? Why were they being so critical??? Why were they being so nitpicky?

I hit reply and prepared to fiercely defend this author’s work.  As I was thinking through my rebuttal, I began to wonder why I was so angry. The first though that came to mind was that this was the first time a YA novel was spotlighted for critiquing. Hmmm maybe it’s the wrong audience for a piece like this.

Ok so let’s see…issue one: everyone seemed to think there was way too much description-too many adjectives.  Well, to be honest I get that a lot from the writer’s in my writing group, Somerset Ink. But you know, writing is about words, so how can there be too many?

Issue two: the reviewers seemed to think the author had some trouble with tense. Well, once again, I admit that is a problem I have myself, identified with my novel’s plot. It’s subtle but there and I know I need a professional to help me with it before I begin submitting to agents.  I’m sure lots of writers have that trouble.

Hmm… you know this reminds me of my husband’s favorite button to push when we are arguing. If he makes an accusation that gets me fired up, he smirks and says that it must be true or I wouldn’t be so mad.

Is it possible that I got so angry with the peer reviews because I projected their critiques for the guest author’s piece onto my own work? Gee what would Freud say? He would probably tell me to blame my mom. Or maybe he would say, suck it up and learn something.

I have.  It’s good to know that others may struggle with the same writing pitfalls as you do. It’s more important to recognize the mistakes you make and fix them.

Reading critiques or reviews of your peer’s work can be a valuable tool in helping you to identify and weed out the week spots in your own writing.

What might you take away from reviews and critiques of your peer’s work?