Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Write What You Know

It’s no secret that when a writer is bitten by the fiction bug they experience a jolt of excitement in finding their passion. There is, however, for some of those writers, a nasty toxin that lingers in their systems, sometimes for life. What effects does this toxin have on unsuspecting writers? One particularly nasty effect gets them to lock into writing guidelines and consider them hard, carved-in-stone rules from which they must never deviate.

Most of these so-called rules are easy to dismiss, bend, break or ignore. Though, there is one that puts up a tougher fight. On many occasions I’ve heard and read that writers should write what they know. I’ve fielded that question a few times at conventions or in writing groups and every time I get stuck in the same sparring match – how can I write about murder or flying an airplane or driving a racecar when I’ve never murdered anyone, flown a plane or even gotten a speeding ticket?

The fiction writing bug does a great job because its venom gets the writer to take this suggestion literally. One has to look at the broader meaning.

Consider this, a scene has many elements and one of them is emotion (or lack of it). When we talk about writing what we know, we talk about making a connection with something emotionally, something close enough to the action you’re writing about to give it realism.

I’ve never flown a plane, but I can ask a pilot about the mechanics of flying a plane or I can try a flight simulator to get a handle on the procedures of piloting an aircraft. What I lose is the emotional connection to flying a plane. By all means ask a pilot what it feels like to fly a plane and use that but go one step further and write what you know.

Here’s what I know about flying a plane. I’ve been in the cockpit of one in flight, I’ve also been at the open door of a plane several thousand feet in the air, while the plane was banking. I’ve flown on commercial airlines and felt severe turbulence. I’ve flown through fog so thick that I spotted the runway just as the wheels touched down. I’ve been on a plane that lost altitude and quickly recovered. I’ve flown at night and day, above, below and through the clouds. I’ve been on a plane during a heavy storm. I’m sure I could come up with more.

I must consider what the scene entails. Let’s say the pilot has a killer flying after him in another plane and he’s trying to lose him. I can not only use what I know of being on and around planes and the interview with a real pilot but also anything that will bring me the emotions that go with…flying fast, erratically, banking and rolling. I can draw from my experience of being on a rollercoaster that flipped upside-down. I can use my experiences watching movies at the Ontario Place Theatre. There was a film that showed a bird’s eye perspective of flying over all kinds of terrain and you felt just like you were the bird (my stomach flipped a few times as I recall).

What you might find is that your scene is likely to change when you apply write what you know. It will get better and feel far more real to you which translates to a much more fulfilling read for your audience.

There are going to be scenes where you’ll have to stretch your imagination to apply write what you know. Let’s take murder for example. No, I’ve never murdered anyone and I’ve never even wanted to. I’ve been angry and upset at people, but murder never crossed my mind. So, what then? How do you apply writing what you know in this situation?

Since you’re writing in the realm of fiction then I know you’re a creative person and that is what you’ll have to tap to make the emotional connection work. You’ll have to be very specific to your character’s needs and wants and their reasons for committing such a heinous crime. Once you’re clear on all that, ask yourself what that experience may be like for your character? What are they feeling? If it’s anger that drives them to kill, think of the most angry you’ve ever been and connect your character to those emotions.

This is where you’ll be happy that writing is a solitary affair; you wouldn’t want to openly share these emotional moments with people since they are so personal – I know I’d never share them. You’re not writing about the event that made you feel a certain way, you’re focusing on the feelings that were a result of the event. Did your body shake? What did it feel like? Were you sweating, breathing hard, or outwardly completely in control and your mind reeling? Fists clenched or hands wrung together? Think about that time and write what you know.

Now go write something – that you know.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Do we ever disconnect from people?

I heard some sad news a few days ago and I got to thinking of a guy who was a big part of my life in my younger days. I laughed a lot with this friend of mine and I truly enjoyed being around him. He had a way of pushing you to do things that you might not, at first thought, want to even try. I still can’t believe that he got me to go parachuting. I was fine until I got in the damn plane.

Kenny practically stormed the plane and I laughed at him thinking that if he wanted to go first, that was just fine with me. I hung back and made sure I was one of the last to get on the plane – I was in no hurry to leave a perfectly good aircraft. My logic was pretty sound until I took my seat on the floor, legs out for the person in front of me to sit between, and they were the only thing between me and the open door.

I took a quick look out the window and learned a very valuable lesson in perspective. Ever stand under a bridge and think, that’s not so high. Then, on the bridge looking down you’re amazed at how high it is. That was exactly what I experienced on that little plane. I’d seen small aircraft flying around Toronto all the time and they didn’t look so high. They were a lot higher than I ever imagined. I mentally tried to blow up Kenney’s head but I wouldn’t even know if I’d succeeded since he was at the very back of the plane, ten people away from me. I was sure I heard him laugh though.

The plane dipped sideways and me and my fifty pound chute slid against the side, my face an inch from the window. The instructor motioned for jumper one, the guy sitting in front of me, to get set. He scrambled to the door and the plane turned again, the guy leaned out the door then the instructor yelled, “Go.” Static line or not, this guy fell away from that plane like he was Superman – faster than a speeding bullet. He was there, then he was gone.

Jumper number two did the same, then the instructor motioned to me. I hated and loved Kenny at that exact moment. He’d gotten me to do something that wasn’t remotely on my list of things to do. My heart was trying to burst through my chest, the straps holding the chute on me and my emergency parachute. I tasted bile or maybe blood since I was gnawing on my lip like it was chewing tobacco.

I waddled into position at the door and as the plane arced left to get back to the jump zone, my mind went over every detail I’d learned that day and it stopped dead on one thing - my only real fear was getting my chute caught on the tail of the plane. I even said so during the slide presentation that morning – the one that was to help us understand what might go wrong and how to handle it.

“Nothing to worry about,” the instructor said. “I’ve never seen it happen.”

Four slides later the voice on the tape said that if your chute gets caught on the tail of the plane, not to worry. Skilled pilots will still be able to land the plane and you’ll only have a few bumps and bruises to show for it. I turned to Kenny and apparently I’d still not mastered shooting lasers from my eyes. My expression only made him laugh louder and stall the presentation.

I was hanging out of the door, my fingers gripping its lip to the point where I was sure they’d find metal under my fingernails when I splatted against the ground. I saw a light turn green and the instructor yelled at me. Using the lip on the door, I pulled myself back so I could get more momentum reducing the risk of getting snagged on the tail.

The instructor must have thought I was freezing, because he put his hands on the bottom of my vintage parachute and hoisted me through the door.

I flipped and screamed and yelled and then opened my eyes (as you can tell, my training really sank in) to see the plane disappear. Sounds came out of my throat that I didn’t think I could make. The chute whipped by my left hip and as a drowning man will clutch at anything, I grabbed for it. I quickly realized my mistake and let it go.

I felt a massive jolt and I swung back and forth a few times. I looked up and saw the ground. I looked down and saw the chute. My mind couldn’t process this information fast enough and sent my hand to my emergency chute. But, before I pulled it, I realized that I wasn’t falling – it felt like I was floating. I looked down again and saw that my feet were tangled in my risers (those straps that go from all the chute cords to your shoulders). I slowly untangled my feet and my body snapped upright.

It was, and still is, one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. The soft orange glow of the setting sun shrouded by slight strips of black cloud bathed the earth in the sweetest colour of light I’ve ever seen. I forgot every bad thing that had happened and floated for what felt like an hour.

When I was safely on the ground I found Kenny and we hugged, laughing and smiling. It was a journey that I will never forget and it will forever be linked to my friend Kenny. There are other memories, too, that help keep Kenny in my thoughts every so often.

So, do we really disconnect from people? No. Once in our lives, always in our lives.

Safe journey Ken Montgomery, and thanks for being my friend.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A few questions with…Eve Silver A.K.A. Eve Kenin

Eve Silver is an instructor of human anatomy and microbiology, and a bestselling author. Her first book was published in November of 2005 and not surprisingly to anyone who’s read her work, since then she's earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, Reviewers Choice Awards from RT BOOKreviews, and was chosen by Library Journal as one of their Best Genre Fiction 2007 picks.

Her latest release, Hidden, written as Eve Kenin, is in stores now with His Wicked Sins, penned under Eve Silver, hitting stores in August. Demon's Hunger will be available November.

I’m thrilled that she could take time out of what has to be an incredibly busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Hello…Thanks for the intro.

Q. How does a woman with a busy family life (husband and two sons), teach anatomy and microbiology, and write for three different publishers? I’m tired just asking the question.

A. It’s no secret…butt-in-chair-hands-on-keyboard. I’m business oriented in that sense, even though I’m in a creative profession. I promised my publisher(s) a book by deadline, and I’m determined to meet my obligation. I make every effort to turn in the project, clean and on time. Sometimes, that means sacrifices. On family vacations, I get up early and write while everyone else sleeps, then hang out with them once they roll out of bed. And unfortunately, I have to delegate jobs like cleaning the bathroom or doing the Everest-sized mountain of laundry. Sad, I know. But something’s gotta give, LOL!

Last year was a bit crazy. I completed four projects: HIDDEN by Eve Kenin and three Eve Silver releases, HIS WICKED SINS, NATURE OF THE BEAST (Kiss of the Vampire), and DEMON’S HUNGER.

Q. Though you write for three different lines, there is a common thread between them. They are, at their core, romances. What drew you to the romance genre?

A. I read my first romance when I was in my teens, and what struck me about the genre was the tone of hope, strength and perseverance. I love that. Throughout the rough patches in my life, romance novels offered the happy ending, and that was uplifting and wonderful. When I started writing, there was no question in my mind that romance was the way I would go. That said, I write three different genres: historical gothics (sort of historical suspense stories), contemporary paranormals about demons and sorcerers, and futuristic speculative stories that recently had a reviewer pose the question, “This is a ROMANCE?”, in stunned amazement when he read DRIVEN. Guess he wasn’t expecting a post-apocalyptic, trans-Siberian trucker tale to be a love story.

Q. From what I’ve read of your work, you’re not exactly writing your mom’s romance. How have things changed from the time you started reading romances to writing them?

A. Hey, don’t knock Mom’s romance, LOL!

Interesting question. Some things haven’t changed at all. Many romances are quite brilliant, with amazing character development and emotional depth. I still pull old reads off my keeper shelf, curl up in a comfy chair and lose myself in those stories. And some things have changed a great deal. There is a blurring of lines between romance and other genres, and blends and hybrids are increasingly more common. For example, years ago, when I started reading Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld books, they were shelved and sold as horror. Today, those same books are among romance fan favorites.

Q. Do you write at home? If so, is your family on board? Do they give you room and quiet to work?

Yes, I write at home. And yes, my family is on board. In fact, they recently helped set up a great office for me…a room all to myself! Up until that point I’d been writing in bed or at the kitchen table or on the couch…sitting in a lawn chair at one kid’s football practice or waiting outside their martial arts lessons…wherever, whenever. Because life doesn’t stop just because I need to finish a scene. I’m used to writing in a tumult of activity, so I don’t usually ask for quiet. But they are amazing in the sense that they pick up the slack for all household chores and such when I’m deep in deadline hell.

Q. How in depth are your outlines, if you outline at all?

A. Urrgh! This is embarrassing. I’m horrible at outlines. In this business, you need to send your editor a synopsis or outline. And mine are pathetic. My books never end up anything like the outlines I create (except for the novella Kiss of the Vampire in the anthology NATURE OF THE BEAST that actually, by some miracle, did follow the outline). But mostly, I’m a pantser: I write by the seat of my pants. I just start to type (actually, I hunt and peck…I never learned to type) and I hope that a story shows up on the pages. Because if it doesn’t, I’m in big trouble, LOL!

Q. What comes first for you when developing a story, plot or character?

A. Neither. I open a blank page. I start to type (er…hunt and peck), and whatever shows up, shows up. I’m not very good at planning or plotting, and my characters don’t even get names for the first few chapter. I just type YYY for the guy (because of the Y chromosome) and XXX for the girl (because of the X chromosome), and then I go back and do find-and-replace when a name hits me.

Q. How heavily do you research your stories?

A. Tons of research. For me, it isn’t enough to say that there’s a laser in the story. I need to find out what type of laser. And it isn’t enough to say the vehicles are hydrogen powered. I actually need to research the physics of it and see exactly what that would entail.

For my historicals, I research the little things in the hopes of getting it right. What year were matches invented? What would have been served for breakfast? Exactly how was tea prepared? The little things bug me because I hate to miss something and get it wrong.

Q. With so many books under your belt you must have quite a fan base. Do you enjoy book signings and meeting your fans?

A. I do enjoy booksignings. I like connecting with readers who enjoy my stories. It’s a lovely thing to know I did it right, to know that the book I wrote spoke to a reader and made them feel the way I hoped they would feel.

Q. Do you have any advice for writers trying to get published?

A. Butt-in-chair-hands-on-keyboard. If you don’t write the book, you can’t sell the book. And don’t become obsessed with the first chapter. I know people who polish that first chapter, rewriting it over and over again, submitting it to contests, but never getting any farther in the story. Push on. Get through the first chapter and the second and the third. Make it to the end. Then go back and change what you want to change. Write the book, not just a chapter. Persevere. It isn’t always an easy road (I had hundreds of rejections before I made my first sale), but if the need to write burns inside of you like a cold blue flame, then write.

Thank you again Eve, for answering a few of my questions and best of luck with Hidden, His Wicked Sins, and Demon's Hunger.

Eve has graciously offered to drop by and answer questions so, please leave a comment or question.

If you’d like to learn more about Eve Silver and all of the books she has available, please drop by her website.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

(More than…) A few questions for Doug M. Cummings

Now a full time writer, Doug M. Cummings once worked both sides of the crime scene tape, first as a deputy sheriff and then as an investigative reporter. Putting all that experience to work, Doug created his series character, TV reporter Reno McCarthy, who made his debut in Deader by the Lake.

In Every Secret Crime, McCarthy returns after a homicide rocks wealthy Chicago suburb, Falcon Ridge. When the 17-year-old son of celebrity attorneys is found shot to death just outside his bedroom door, the police rush to the scene – and while there, conduct a bizarre investigation. McCarthy suspects a cover-up, and endeavors to find the real killer without police help. As he gets closer to discovering the truth, the killer gets closer to him – and aims to make McCarthy’s next TV shot his last.

Hello Doug and thanks so much for taking time to answer my questions.

Hi Ian and thanks for your questions.

Q. I self-published a novel a few years back and learned so much from that experience. I see that your first novel, Deader by the Lake, was self-published with iUniverse. Why did you self-publish and what was that experience like for you?

A. I brought Deader by the Lake out myself because I had tried for years to have it published traditionally without success. Self-publishing was a wonderful experience with the old iUniverse. I have no idea what it's like for new authors, now that Author House has taken over. I was treated with great respect and the folks I worked with, who I think have all moved on, really went to the wall for me. They not only tried doing some things for me that they hadn't done before, the former CEO Susan Driscoll also managed to get me quoted in articles in the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and a program on satellite radio. iUniverse was a first-class operation.

Q. Any advice for writers considering self-publishing?

A. Anyone who writes books should do three things. Number One: finish the book before even giving a thought to finding an agent or a publisher. Number Two: Go the traditional route before considering self-publishing. Try to find an agent, the whole bit. It gives you an insight into the business you will not have otherwise and you may receive valuable advice along the way...and get offered a contract! Number Three: Always, always, always have your book professionally edited before you attempt to sell or self-publish it. The word "professional" does not include your daughter-in-law the English teacher or your buddy, "the guy who reads a lot of books." It means hire a professional who does not know you and who is free to offer suggestions without constraint. Hiring a professional editor does not guarantee your work will sell, but it gives it a far better chance. For a first-time author, publishing a book without professional editing is like selling a car without a steering wheel: something essential is missing.

While self-publishing was fulfilling for me, the industry's response to it was lukewarm then (in 2003/2004) and has turned frigid since. Talk to bookstores before you decide to self-publish. Ask critics. Go to a writers' conference and ask other authors. You will find that self-published authors are considered pariahs in the publishing world. Few bookstores, if any, will stock self-published work and the mainstream critics will ignore them. Professional associations will generally not accept self-published authors as voting members and those that say they do will have hidden restrictions that only surface after you've paid your dues. A case in point, without naming names: I joined a major mystery authors group because they showed no prejudice to self-published authors. When the time came to sign up for a Hollywood pitch conference (the opportunity to go to Hollywood and meet with producers), I was told I didn't qualify because I was self-published. No matter that their excuse was long and complicated; it boiled down to the fact that some members were more equal than others. Now traditionally published, I would never consider joining that group again.

Having said all that negative stuff, self-publishing is a way to maintain complete control of your work. You retain your rights. One piece of advice: make sure a lawyer reads whatever contract you're offered.

Q. You must be thrilled that Every Secret Crime was picked up by Five Star?

A. I'm pleased, yes. It's always great to be offered a contract for real money. That said, publishing is a business. Getting picked up is like being hired at any job . . . just the first of
many steps. Once you cash that advance check, you're on the clock. You become a salesperson. Very few houses will offer any more than extremely basic promotional support to their first-time authors. As with self-publishing, it's your responsibility to get publicity, get your books into stores, arrange book-signings, and lobby to be sure the publisher has books available for you to sell when you need them. I've heard stories from booksellers and librarians about authors who walk into stores and libraries and say, "This is a place that has why don't you have mine?" It doesn't work that way. In the four years I've been pushing books, every time I've found my book on a shelf it's been because my publicist and I worked to get it into that particular store. It's not an automatic process.

Q. You've held a few jobs from crime reporter to sheriff. How has that work experience benefited you as a writer?

A. I think any life and work experience you have benefits you as a writer, especially jobs that encourage you to ask questions, do research and learn about how other people live. In that way, being a cop and being a reporter has been enormously beneficial. Many of the questions new crime authors have to ask the professionals I already have the answers for and, if I'm confused about something (which is the case about 99 percent of the time), I have great friends to ask. As a reporter, I saw all sorts of weird things and met loads of interesting people. I also learned a bit about working under stress and on deadline. Some people find asking questions difficult; I got over that in my first year in television. It was great training to be assigned the Man on the Street question of the week...and makes it very unlikely I will ever buttonhole people in shopping malls to get them to buy my book. Spend time at enough crime scenes where the last person a cop wants to see is a "freaking reporter" and calling someone on the phone to ask a question will be a breeze.

Q. I'm sure this is a question you've tackled on occasion but I can't help myself - any situations in your books mirror those that happened to you on the job?

A. I don't think there are any scenes that exactly mirror real-life but many that are similar. In Every Secret Crime, there is constant conflict between the police and the reporters covering a couple of murder cases. I dealt with that at virtually every crime and crash scene I ever attended. Most cops don't want anything to do with reporters and the less intelligent folks in law enforcement will go to ridiculous, and sometimes even illegal, lengths to keep reporters from getting a story. The better, more professional, police officers know dealing with the media is just another facet of the job.

As far as action sequences, I know a bit about guns, both from work and because handgunning is a hobby. I've been in high-speed pursuits and crashes. I know how fights usually happen and how painful they can be. What I try to do is, accepting that I write fiction, try to make the action as realistic as possible. Reno, my protagonist, will never take on a room full of thugs, for example. When he shoots someone, he has to deal with real-life feelings about it. Blood gets spilled, but not by the barrel and, I hope, not in a wanton way. Sometimes the bad guys don't go to jail. Sometimes good people die.

Q. How much of you is in your main character, Reno McCarthy and vice-versa?

A. Reno and I are both handsome, debonair and have women falling all over themselves to take us to bed. When I shake off that fantasy, however, I realize we really are alike in a few ways. We're persistent. We deal with the horrible things we see with dark humor and a realistic attitude. We wisecrack. We resist authority. Sometimes we don't play well with others. Occasionally you'll see us running with scissors. Mostly, we both really care about the victims, probably more than anyone else in the stories we cover. They really are the most important part of the work.

Q. How long does it take you to write a novel starting at the idea stage and ending with a final edit? How do you feel about edits?

A. My first book took ten years, my second two and I've been working on the third for about a year and probably have another six months before it's finished and six more until it's edited. I know some authors who can put a book together in a month. Frankly if I did that, I'd spend the following month in the hospital.

Editing is fun. I feel a great deal of freedom when I finish a book and editing is where I get to express that freedom. I have worked with great editors and most often I incorporate the suggestions they make.

Q. A lot of writers believe that marketing their book should be the publisher's responsibility. That, as we both know, is not reality. How and when do you start the marketing process for your books? Was the decision to hire a publicist influenced by your self-publishing experience?

A. For Every Secret Crime, I started six-months before the publication date by hiring a professional publicity team. I had a single publicist for the first book, Deader by the Lake, but we didn't start much more than a month ahead of time. Promoting a book is a full-time job. I probably could do it by myself but it would be to the exclusion of everything else, including working on the next book. I want every single base covered. It can't ever happen that way but if you approach it with that attitude, you'll certainly have some successes. Publicists are expensive. I started budgeting for book promotion when I first began attending writers conferences in the mid-eighties.

Q. How important is the internet as a marketing tool? I noticed you wrote on your blog a piece about how your readers can help market your books. Was it your intent to include your readers directly in the process? Have they responded positively? What is the best marketing tool at an author's disposal and what's worked best for you?

A. I guess I take a certain Zen approach to marketing. Every marketing tool works in its own way. If you try a tactic and it works for you, keep it in your tool box. If it doesn't, don't use it again.

The internet is essential. Word of mouth is what sells books. Someone reading about you in a blog or on a website may have no interest in your work themselves but, by virtue of cut and paste, can send your name along to their friends. I have found a number of new authors from signing up for sites like Crimespace and Goodreads. Blog book tours are fun. If just one person buys a book after reading about me on a blog, that's terrific. If they show up for a book signing, that's great. If I just get practice honing "the message" I want to use, that's a good thing, too.

I want to involve my readers, my friends and even just those nice helpful folks out there in promoting my work because it's so easy. Asking a library or a bookstore to stock Every Secret Crime takes less than ten minutes. Writing a review for one of the book sites is easy, fun and can be a learning experience because it gives you a chance to think critically as well as being another chance to write and be published!

My best marketing tools are my publicist and events coordinator. Their energy is contagious!

Q. What advice would you have for writers trying to get published? What does the future hold for Doug Cummings?

A. I love these questions because they both give me a chance to use my father's favorite expression: "Get workin' and quit shirkin'!"

Thank you again Doug for taking time to answer my questions. This has been incredibly insightful. Best of luck with Every Secret Crime

To learn more about Doug M. Cummings and to find out where you can purchase his books or visit him at a signing, visit his website and blog.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Big Step For Writers

Critiques are tough to take at the best of times. Think back to the first time you showed your writing to someone. I’ll bet it was a day that you dropped things, had an upset stomach and spent a fair bit of time saying to people, “I’m fine. Really. Just some bad salmon.”

I’ve had conversations with writers who have held off showing their work to people for years since it was just too daunting. Every writer has a different experience when sharing their work for the first time. Some writers talk of how well their work was received and that the critic barely had anything negative to say, if at all. These are likely writers who have showed their work to a family member or friend. Talk to those same people after they have had a stranger’s eyes on their words and you’re sure to get a different tale.

We all have to start somewhere and why shouldn’t it be somewhere safe? Writing is a solitary activity and we only have our own eyes, heart and mind to use when judging our work. It’s a tremendously difficult step to take outside of that comfort zone; mom, dad, brother, sister or even Uncle Joe, are accessible and let’s face it, a safe bet for positive feedback. Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Positive is good, especially at the outset of a person’s writing life. It builds confidence which is much needed fuel on a writer’s journey.

Where a problem begins to surface is when that writer sticks to their safe zone for a long period of time. I’m wondering if all that positive feedback is what convinced them to try their hand at serious writing? If all you hear is how great you are then who wouldn’t take a shot at a novel? Therein lies the problem. It’s not that the writer is bad, it’s that the writer is ill prepared for the honesty to come.

The length of time spent showing work to loved ones directly correlates to how personally and negatively that writer is likely to take feedback from someone outside of their safe harbour.

There are those writers who realize that the ‘all positive’ feedback from loved ones is getting them nowhere. They feel as though they’re not growing or getting better at the craft. Though slightly more prepared for the onslaught of edits, they too, feel a crush of insecurity from the honesty of strangers.

However you get to that place, it is a writing-life changing experience; you are not as good as mom said you were and your stories aren’t as great as Uncle Joe led you to believe. It can be devastating. But, it is so important to cross that threshold. What’s more, carefully choose the direction of that step. Writers, though all in the boat together, can still help sink it with a well placed barb. Who knows why some critics are so mean and harsh. Ultimately, all they accomplish is to hurt and shatter dreams. Keep your eyes peeled for these kinds of people – they are useless and will never help you grow as a writer.

So, where does one turn for critiques? There are several choices. One of the best places to find feedback is in a writing group, either online or a one that meets face-to-face on a regular basis. With everything, there are risks, not to life and limb, but a risk of getting the same kind of feedback one gets from their safe zone critics.

It’s as difficult to give feedback as it is to receive. Add to that delivering the message in person and you get a lot of writing groups that turn into a love fest. You’re bound to hear things like, “It was wonderful,” and, “Your work is great.” It can happen just as easily in an online group. For some reason, it is difficult for people to find fault with another member’s writing. Meanwhile, you still don’t know how to improve your work and get better at your craft.

The opposite is also possible, where a member of the writing group is far too harsh or is trying to push their way of writing on other members. For instance, you’ve written a novel with a blonde, female, well-to-do protagonist and without reason, the critic is telling you to make it a red-headed, poor male. There are critics that are far too harsh and only stand to discourage. There is never a reason to name-call, or run down another writer. It’s online groups that are more likely to have members treating others harshly – easy to do when you’re protected by distance and no chance of meeting the other members. Watch carefully for these types of critics.

A good writing group is made up of people all working toward a common goal - getting better at the craft of writing. Even better, find a well established group with writers performing at different ability levels. Entering a group of all first-time, never-showed-their-work-to-anyone writers, won’t help you improve beyond your current level. Taking criticism from writers at a higher level is an eye-opening experience and will have you progressing in the craft.

Check at local bookstores and libraries, as well as online for writing groups in your area. You’ll want to tap the world wide web for writing groups online. Join the group and take it for a test drive to see how it feels. Don’t be afraid to walk away if it isn’t what you want.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when navigating through a group for the first time.

Be prepared to do your part. If you give a weak, I liked it, you’re great, kind of critique, don’t be surprised when you receive few critiques or none at all. You will get as good as you give, so put some thought and effort into helping your fellow writers and they’ll be far more enthusiastic about helping you.

Be willing to accept criticism. Ask yourself if you are ready to have someone tell you what you are doing wrong. If you think your work is above criticism, then don’t ask for feedback. I’ve given feedback and had people tell me that I just didn’t get it, but their friends did. Well, your friends don’t want to hurt your feelings and are telling you what you want to hear. A writing group is filled with people who will tell you what you need to hear to get better. Are you ready for that?

Accept criticism with grace. It still astounds me when writers argue with someone who has given them a critique. If a critic says a paragraph of description confused them, don’t argue because you can’t tell them what they feel or think. Plus, you cannot be there when someone is reading your work to explain what didn’t work so, don’t even attempt it with every critique. If someone thought the pace was slow, it was slow to them. Accept it and move forward.

There is never a need to be hurtful. Keep critiques clean and respectful. Calling someone names is not only juvenile, it’s unprofessional. Besides, the person you upset today may one day be in a position to offer you help and writers have a great memory. Also, simply say thank you to anyone who has taken the time to critique your work because you’re lucky to have them. Always remember that you are in control of your work and can use their suggestions or not. I take every suggestion seriously and weigh the merits of using them or not, then I do what is best for the work.

Feel free to add any comments regarding writing groups as I’m sure there is far more information to consider than what I’ve provided here.

I belong to the OWG (online writers group) associated with Kelley Armstrong’s Forum. It has been invaluable to me and I hope every writer out there looking for a group will have as much success finding one as I did. Best of luck.