Monthly Archives: March 2013

Critique Groups, Conferences, Contests

EvaluationIn many respects, writing a book is only a beginning. The next big question is, will anyone read it? The only way to be sure is to get feedback–not from those who dearly love you like your husband or your mother.

In fact, you need readers who not only can tell you if they liked the story or connected with the character or had to resist the temptation to skim a few pages, you need to receive feedback from someone who understands writing well enough to tell you why. Why did your story succeeded or fail, why are readers connecting or are not with your character, or why are there boring stretches in the middle.

There are a number of ways to receive good feedback. One of the best is to join a critique group. Some writing organizations facilitate online groups, putting together those who work in the same genre.

In many cities there are established in-person writing groups that provide the opportunity for critiques. Organizations such as the Romance Writers of America (RWA) or the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) have chapters throughout the country. Some areas have independent writing clubs, and of course there’s always the option of starting your own group. If you’d like helpful advice about how to start a group, I suggest The Complete Guide To Writers Groups That Work by B. J. Taylor.

The advantage of a critique group is that you have unbiased people who have some knowledge of writing who read your work and give you their reaction. Of course some critiquers may be more helpful than others, based on experience both as a writer and as an evaluator.

Least helpful is the person who wants to rewrite your work as they would have written it. A close second is the person who only says how much they love your work. Neither of those help you to sharpen your skills.

Critique groups may lead you to a critique partner, who may become your most valuable asset. This is the person who “gets” what you’re trying to do, who has a level of proficiency that will help you to improve, and who communicates clearly.

Writing conferences provide another way for you to improve your craft. First there are workshops that provide instruction. Some have critique classes. Many provide a critique service, either paid by an additional fee or covered by the conference tuition. These critiques give you feedback from a professional in the writing industry and are invaluable. True, this is only one person’s opinion, but it is unbiased and the view of someone who sees many other manuscripts, good and bad, so they a knowledgeable point of reference with which to compare your work.

There are hundreds of writing conferences. Wikipedia has compiled a partial list, but a Google search will uncover a many more. The key is to refine the search based on genre and location. Some of the more well known conferences include the Writer’s Digest (East and West), SCBWI (LA and New York, as well as smaller local gatherings), and RWA. Christian writers’ conferences include Mount Hermon, Colorado Christian Writers, Writing for the Soul, Oregon Christian Writers, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and Blue Ridge.

Many writing organizations and some online sites conduct writing contests, and that’s another great way to get feedback on your writing, whether over the first 250 words, the first 15 pages, or the entire manuscript. Some contests come with monetary prizes, others with the promise that your work will receive feedback from a writing professional.

Online contests may be public, allowing other writers to give their feedback as well. One such contest is held by Miss Snark’s First Victim.

Some fiction contests, such as the various Writer’s Digest contests, are for shorter works while others are for novel beginnings. Some have non-fiction categories. Entry fees for these vary.

I suggest you do an online search for contests in your genre, then compare entry fees, list of judges, and awards to help determine with is most suited to your needs. Having an agent or editor read your work is a great reward in itself, but contests also allow you to measure your progress against other writers. And of course if you receive judges sheets from professionals, you have specific areas you know you can work on.

Feedback. It’s invaluable to a writer. When unbiased readers, especially those who understand the ins and outs of writing, give us their reaction to our work in progress, we can only get better as we listen and learn.


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Filed under Resources, Writing Process

Timeless Questions And Eternal Mysteries

church_1Writers say something. Whether that something is trivial and mundane or significant and profound depends on how unafraid they are. Yes, unafraid. Many writers are afraid they will limit the scope of their book if they place their story firmly in a particular economic or political or religious milieu. They’re afraid if they take sides in a controversial question, they’ll make enemies and lose readers.

Just this week another writer related on an email the gist of a discussion elsewhere regarding the inclusion of particular evangelical Christian denominations and their practices in works of fiction. This writer argued against generic “community churches” and in favor of the First Presbyterian Church or Grace Lutheran or Diamond Bar Baptist. In other words, she advocated including specific churches with peculiar doctrines.

The individual taking the opposite position made a case for widening the audience for a book by painting generic evangelical elements rather than specific ones.

Which is right?

According to a host of writing instructors, writing with specific details brings a place or a person alive. Consequently, writers that steer away from presenting a particular environment or view point, whether religious or political, are actually neutering their story. From Donald Maass:

What distinguishes our era? What are its look, buzzwords, issues, and conflicts? Fashion magazines, op-ed pages, sports reporting, rappers, corporate websites, and teen slang are all barometers of our times . . . I don’t mean to suggest dropping in brand names or news events. Those are shallow gimmicks. I do mean that an important component of any novel’s grip on readers’ imaginations is how that novel brings alive its times. (Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 168 – emphasis mine)

The fear of dating a novel scares off some authors from creating the kind of particular atmosphere that makes a story feel as if it’s anchored in reality. However, stories like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck bring alive a time and culture through which the author can then say something important and universal.

Some writers also fear taking a stand on a controversial subject or saying something significant about an eternal question. Maass again:

The mysteries of existence are also often avoided in manuscripts. Do you believe in destiny? Do you believe in God? Are our lives random or do they have a purpose? Do you think about these things? Of course you do . . . What about your protagonist? What’s her take on the big questions? Is it pretentious to include them?

Ducking the big questions is easy. So is achieving low impact . . . Is there such a thing as justice when laws are made by fallible humans? Does do no harm have any meaning when medicine becomes guesswork? Is it worth building bridges when their ultimate collapse is guaranteed? Do we teach in schools “truths” that are untrue? Does the accumulation of capital do good or does it corrupt? What are the limits of friendship? Should loyalty last beyond the grave? We read fiction not just for entertainment but for answers to those questions. So answer them. (Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 169-170 – emphasis mine)

A good many writers are afraid of answering these kinds of questions, thinking that by doing so they’ll come across as preachy–the death knell to fiction, especially Christian fiction.

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdHaving something to say does not equate with preachy writing. Harper Lee had some specific things to say about prejudice, but I’ve never heard anyone claim To Kill A Mockingbird was preachy. That’s because Ms. Lee didn’t explain what she had to say: she showed it through her characters.

She didn’t have one of them sum up the meaning of all the events or spell out the ethical implications of why they did what they chose to do. Rather, she created believable people who lived in a specific time with a certain set of problems, and she showed one man and his daughter who lived in contradiction to the societal norm.

Clearly she tackled her subject unafraid, even in the racially charged era of the pre-Civil Rights movement, and the result was a classic story with timeless truths, still being read and studied fifty years later.

Oh, and that author opposed to specific evangelical Christian denominations in fiction? It turns out each of her books is set in the Amish community–quite particular, very unique, and yet apparently a fertile field for stories that speak to readers today.


Filed under Theme

Creating Minor Characters That Matter

Gone_With_The_WindAll parts of a story should contribute to the whole, and supporting characters are no different. Yet too often we writers brush past them in a hurry, not realizing the positive impact they could have if we paid them a little more attention.

Think about the cast of characters that surround the protagonist in some well-known stories. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind had Melanie, Ashley, and of course Rhett. Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Homes had Watson and Inspector LeStrade. In the TV program Monk, Adrian, the obsessive/compulsive protagonist, has a collection of people important to him: his nurse/assistant, Captain Stottlemeyer, Lieutenant Randy Disher, and of course his therapist.

Minor characters play important roles in stories, but they also magnify the main character often by contrast. While Scarlett is selfish and self-absorbed, Melanie is giving and kind. While Adrian is serious and detail-oriented in his investigation, Randy is silly and outlandish in his theories. These contrasting traits of the minor characters magnify those of the protagonist.

Protagonists also need adversaries–not the antagonist of the story, but someone on his team that can be a source of irritation, a foil, a roadblock.

In the 80s TV show Magnum, P.I., the title character Thomas Magnum lives at the behest of millionaire Robin Masters in the guest cottage of his estate in Hawaii. The overseer, Jonathan Higgins–who, with his strict gentleman’s code, is also a perfect balance to Magnum’s easy-going temperament–is often an antagonist, throwing difficulties in Magnum’s path. The two aren’t enemies and in fact become trusted friends over time, but Higgins keeps the viewer guessing whether he will do something that will put Thomas in further danger or help him out of a jam.

An adversary may have different values from the protagonist or might have a different worldview that makes him see things differently. He might be jealous and act out of spite or be foolish and bumble along so that things become more difficult.

The key is, this adversary offers an added layer of conflict to your story. To achieve his goal, the protagonist has someone within his camp he must convince, cajole, dupe, or in some other way struggle against.

Minor characters add texture to the protagonist–they validate that she has a life and has not been dropped on the page for the sole amusement of the author and readers. These characters can be co-workers, next door neighbors, brothers or sisters, the girl working in the fast food place the protagonist frequents, the guy who takes tickets in the movie theater–anyone the protagonist runs into frequently.

Some writing instructors suggest combining roles for minor characters–the guy who witnessed the accident the sleuth is investigating is also the guy who does her yard work, for example. Taking this approach insures that each character adds more than window dressing. They actually contribute to the story and advance the plot.

A couple things will help minor characters have the impact you as the writer want them to have. First, give them names that readers can remember and can associate with them. Nothing is more frustrating to me as a reader than encountering a character in a new scene who hasn’t made a big enough impression that I remember who he or she is. The protagonist might seem relieved or worried or irritated to see this person, but I don’t know why. Instead of entering into the protagonist’s emotions, I have to stop reading and flip back to remind myself who this person is.

Names can help to alleviate this problem. Choose names–or perhaps nicknames–that reflect a character’s personality such as Sparky, Poetry (The Sugar Creek Gang books), or Aunt Pittypat (Gone With The Wind). If not the character’s personality, then the name can perhaps reflect his physical appearance or some physical ability: Circus, Little Jim, Bits, or Tiny.

Names should also be distinct so that the reader doesn’t easily confuse one with the other. Ted and Tad have obvious similarities–beginning and ending with the same consonants and also consisting of only one syllable. Variety in these areas will help your reader distinguish between minor characters.

In crafting minor characters, avoid stereotypes. Not every mother-in-law needs to be the protagonist’s adversary. Not every teenager needs to be sullen or rebellious. Not every cop needs to be a bully. Minor characters, while not as complex as the star of the story, still have their own stories, their own goals, their own flaws. Make them unique in your own mind, at least, and chances are, they will pop off the page in a memorable way for your readers.

Minor characters should also be memorable for what they do. Rarely will a lengthy description of a minor character stick with a reader. Instead it will stop the action and slow the pace. Rather, a character who does something in a memorable way will be one that readers will later recall.

Finally, don’t forget to people your world with extras–characters who have no lines but by appearing, bring life to the scene. A couple seated at the next table, an elderly man pushing a grocery cart down the aisle, a group of tourists snapping pictures at the beach–whatever your locale, extras make the world believable.

See for example these lines from the fantasy short story “Swallow And Beyond”:

As the egg-shaped ship drifted toward Swallow’s shore, Rhei jostled to get a better view–past a mother with her baby nestled in a sling, past four or five tradesmen clustered in front of the tinker’s stand, past a mason repairing the rocky wharf.

Whether your minor characters are as important as the protagonist’s sidekick or as insignificant as an extra, they add value to any story. The more attention we writers give them, the better they’ll do their job.


Filed under Characters