4 Tough Questions for Your Critique Group

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgCritique groups are great. I have participated in several, of different sizes and styles, and each one taught me to be a better writer. Reading works in progress allowed me to see how stories grew and, from those lessons, I became a more astute reader.

Now that I work as an editor, I have my own process for critiquing a manuscript or work in progress. If the MS is complete, I do an initial quick read from a reader’s perspective. I want to find out where the story goes without thinking about how it happened, what it means, and if it makes sense. After that, when I know the ending, I start back on page 1 and read again, this time as an editor. In the editorial pass, I make lots of comments because now that I know where the story ends, it is my job to help make sure the path there was efficient, entertaining, and logical. When you’re in a critique group, you may do the same thing, or some similar process.

As I wear my editor hat more and more, I find it is can be easy to fall into that role and to think less about my impressions as a reader. When one critiques, the focus is on making sure the scene works. Is it plausible? Is it pleasing? Is it in the right spot, would the character really say/do/feel this, does it heighten the tension, etc. These are all vital considerations, when you are reading as a critiquer or editor.

 But what about the reader?

If you are in a critique group, when is the last time you made a comment like one of the following when reviewing a colleague’s manuscript?

“I lost interest here…..”

“I would have stop reading at this spot because…..”

“I wanted to skim this section….”

“Right here is where I figured out the ending….”

When we are readers, we all give up on books that get boring, we all lose patience, we all skim, we all figure out the ending. Not with every book and not every time, but often enough that we learn to recognize what we enjoy as readers. Carrying over those considerations might be as valuable as noting that the woman who flips the light switch to the basement and finds the bulb out—but she goes down anyway—is Too Stupid To Live.

How would such comments be helpful, instead of simply mean, in a critique group? Because the people in your group are required to read to the end. People who buy or borrow your book are not. You are not writing to be read by other writers (well, mostly not). You are writing to be read by readers.

If you belong to a critique group, would you be blunt enough to answer these questions?

As a reader, where would you lose interest?

As a reader, what would have made you stop reading?

As a reader, what sections would you skim?

As a reader, where did you figure out that ending?

In a critique group, you have the benefit of a mini-focus group. Why not use that benefit? If you are in a group of 5 readers and 3 of them say they lost interest in Chapter 7, there’s something wrong with Chapter 7. If 1 person figured out the ending halfway through but the other 3 didn’t get it until the big reveal, your skills at keeping secrets are probably pretty good.

What do you think? Do you dare ask these tough questions of your critique partners?



What’s not to like about not?

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI gave a brief, impromptu lecture this past weekend on avoiding the “nots” when discussing your writing. This took place at a Read & Critique. For those who may not be familiar, a Read & Critique is an on-the-spot evaluation of the opening of a novel or nonfiction work. The critiquers—three of us this time—do a blind read of a half page synopsis and 2-page opening of a work. The writers in the session listen while the critiquers offer their gut responses to these openings. Continue reading

Self-Myths in Character Building

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgYesterday, I wrote about self-myths and the “I’m not” sentences we sometimes blithely—and other times insightfully—use to describe ourselves.

I joked that I’m not good at math. My neighbor, a pediatrics ICU nurse, uses algebra all the time at her job. She likes numbers, and I’m glad she does. You want someone who enjoys algebra calculating your meds. Someone who is not me. Continue reading

The Merry Month of Self-Myths

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI attended a food truck party this past weekend, an event to support the local arts alliance where I participate in open mics, enjoy exhibits and classes and, this summer, will offer a multi-week course on novel writing.

The party was a smashing success. Despite the drippy skies, we arrived (late) to a parking lot full of students, art patrons, and locals patiently standing in loooong lines to the food trucks. The atmosphere was upbeat. A musician sang. Dogs wagged their tails. Children played around the tents. Even the lights of the firetruck closing off the street seemed festive. It was as much a community block party as it was a fundraiser. Continue reading

Fellowship Interview

DDoA 2016 banner

Each year, the Delaware Division of the Arts creates a page to highlight the 16 artists who are granted Individual Artist Fellowships. The IAF page features interviews with each artist by Christopher Yasiejko as well as work samples. You can read my interview with Christopher as well as the opening pages of my (then) work in progress, LEST I FORGET.

As always, I am grateful to the Delaware Division of the Arts, the State of Delaware, and the National Endowment for the Arts for their support of my work and the arts community.

On Sunday, April 3, 2016, fellow IAF recipient and poet Maggie Rowe and I will share our work with the public at the Judge Morris Estate, White Clay Creek Park, in Newark, Delaware. Built in the 1790s by the , it was the  home of distinguished federal judge Hugh Morris and is now a showcase in the 600-acre estate. Our reading will begin at 1:00 and will be followed by a reception for our friends and kind listeners.

Continue reading

To Free or Not to Free

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgWriting for free is a Gordian knot of should I or shouldn’t I for writers. Do we devalue our work, and by extension ourselves, by submitting to publications that don’t pay for the work they publish? Are a couple of copies adequate payment and, if so, do I declare that on my tax return? Is “exposure” worth the hours put into an article, story, or blog post? Continue reading

Crash Course in Cajun French


Official flag of the Acadians

On the first day of first grade, my mother could speak exactly one sentence in English: “My name is Vivian.”

My mother’s family was Louisiana French and her household communicated via the patois called Cajun French. In schools in the 1930s, however, it was believed that speaking English was necessary to get ahead. Speaking your ancestral language would hold you back in modern society. At my mother’s school, children who spoke Cajun French got their knuckles rapped with a ruler by the teacher. Louisiana French children learned to answer their teachers in English or not speak at all. The language wars are nothing new. Continue reading