WFMAD Day 9 – Dangerous Parasites

I debated for a long time about this post. I generally try to stay postive when I'm talk about writing and making art. The world can be a harsh place, right? I didn't want to add to that negativity. 

But evil festers in darkness.



I want to talk about the people who are shitting on your dream.

Sometimes they're obvious; the neighbor who mocks you openly at parties, or the relative who rolls her eyes when you say you're working on a novel. Those haters are easy to spot and avoid. (They are also fun to turn into characters!)



It's harder to spot the parasites. They pretend to support your dream, but they work to undermine your confidence. You might have one in a critique group. You'll likely find a couple at a writer's conference or in a creative writing class.

The most dangerous parasite might be in the front of the room.



One of the reasons I am not a huge fan of MFA programs is that I have heard too many horror stories about Creative Writing professors who were monsters in disguise. (Yes, I know there are amazing, dedicated, kind, generous professors out there. I'm not talking about them.) I've heard stories of professors who amp up the competitive environment in their classes until people are reduced to tears. Professors who tell students that they have no talent. Who turn the peer critiquing process into a bloodsport.

If you have a professor like that, drop the class. That filthy atmosphere of ego and bile usually develops because the professor is a failed writer who can only justify his inability to be published by destroying the creative dreams of others.



You'll run into people like this outside the classroom, too. One of them might pretend to be a friend. This happened to me.

I had left the second critique group I mentioned in yesterday's post and had not yet found the critique group that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I met a fellow struggling author at a conference. We lived fairly close to each other and we hit it off. A friendship developed, based largely on critiquing each other's manuscripts and drinking bitter tea. 

I'll spare you the red flags I should have noticed. The point is this: she was the first person to read SPEAK. She wrote me a three-page, single-spaced critique of the manuscript. It was the most damaging three pages I ever held in my hands. She did not critique the book. She attacked me, personally, for what I wrote about and how I wrote it. She eviserated me.

It was the nicest thing she could have done.

Her response was so over-the-top hateful that it made me step back and look at our relationship. I realized that I had given her all the control. I had allowed her to say hurtful things to me in the past without challenging her. I'd brushed off her nasty critiques of my other manuscripts by convincing myself that she was trying to make me better.

She'd done the same thing that my high school art teacher had done to me. I LOVED art when I was a kid. I loved drawing and painting and mucking around with clay and paper maiche until that art teacher told me I sucked. He said I had no talent and then he ignored me for the rest of the year. I was young and still thought adults knew what they were talking about so I believed him. I didn't draw another thing for thirty years.

(I draw now. And I paint. And I muck around with clay and all sorts of things.)

People who care about you and your dreams will not attack. They will work with you to find out where you are with a draft, what kind of information would be helpful to you as you consider your next revision. They will never call you names or put down your lofty goals. They will support you the way that you support them.


A lot of friendships come with expiration dates. If someone in your life is sabotaging your writing dream, examine that relationship the way you would a package of old bologna. Does it pass the smell test? If not, say good-bye and make new friends. 




Non-fiction prompt – Write a letter to someone who made you feel bad about wanting to write. This can be someone in your life now or in your past. Now right a personals ad looking for a friend who thinks your dream is amazing.

Fiction prompt – Write a scene in which a creative writing student stands up to the bullying atmosphere in class. Feel free to take over the campus and start a revolution.


Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…


WFMAD Day 8 – Belonging To A Critique Group Without Murdering Anyone




A critique group can be a gathering of kindred spirits who comb through each other's manuscripts in the common spirit of raising the quality of their work. These groups sometimes exist for decades and are the source of support, hilarity, Kleenex, champagne and inspiration.

Or it can be a group of people who are all secretly thinking of committing murder by paper clip.




There are as many different kinds of critique groups out there as there are writers, so obviously no fast and fast rules can be developed. Except….

1. You must all figure out what the rules and guidelines are for your group. If you haven't had this conversation in a while, bring it up at the next meeting, with gin, if necessary. Make sure that you're all on the same page (ha!) about frequency, location, and duration of meetings, how much time each writer gets, what is an acceptable length of work to submit, should pages be submitted a week in advance or read cold at the meeting, etc.

2. Respect for each writer's work and process must be the highest priority. If you're in a group that feels competitive or nasty, then flee. We already feel insecure about our work. Your critique group should be a place that feels safe, not scary.




I've belonged to four critique groups. I found the first one because of a flyer posted in the library of the local community college. They were nice people, I guess. I was the only one writing for kids and felt a little out of place. There was the guy who was writing science fiction erotica, a man writing a memoir to make make all of his relatives feel rotten about being so mean to him, and a woman writing Regency romaces "with a twist." (I didn't stick around long enough to find out what that was. Sorry.) I attended it twice.

The second group spent about 5% of the meeting on critiquing and the rest of the time complaining about their partners, kids, and therapists. Not for me, thanks.




The third critique group changed my life. I attended it regularly for more than a decade. We met once a month in the public library. The mornings were for reading our selections out loud and getting feedback, then we'd go out to lunch and talk business, moan about the publishing industry, and laugh. A lot. The only reason I stopped attending was that I moved 300 miles away.




I belong to a critique group where I live now, but because of my schedule I only make about half of the meetings. They are very patient with me and I consider myself lucky that they haven't booted me to the curb. It doesn't matter how many books you write, getting the opinions of trusted peers, plus having the chance to analyze the work in progress of other writers is going to make you better.

A question came in on Facebook that fits in well here:

"Say you've gone through major revisions including critique from writing buddies and professionals. You think you might be ready to send to an agent. How do you know and what kind of feedback could help you at this point?"

You don't.

But Time is your friend here, the irritating kind of friend who always flosses and washes her sheets once a week and is almost always right. Take a month. Take three. Seriously. You are not counting on some phantom advance to pay your rent, so you have the luxury of time. And it is a luxury, so bask in it.

There are no do-overs when it comes to submitting manuscripts. You can't fly to New York and bribe the agent's intern to let you crawl through the mail room and steal your manuscript back because after you sent it you realized that the main character's major conflict was the lamest conflict ever.

Make a note on your calendar to read through your manuscript in three months. Do not look at it until then. Start a new book. Learn tatting. Raise goats. Teach yourself particle physics. If – in three months – you read it through and cannot think of how to make it any better, then say a prayer and send it.

Take time before you that leap.



Non-fiction prompt – What are the strengths and weaknesses of your writing? What comes to you naturally and what do you have to work on? Bonus points – take out one of our favorite books and reread it. Highlight or copy out the best passages in the book (setting, pacing, narrative, dialog) that exemplify what you are trying to improve in your own writing. 

Fiction prompt – What is the hardest thing for your character to do? Write a scene in which your character sees a minor character, someone younger or more vulnerable, forced to do that Hard Thing. Your character is compelled to take on the task so spare the other person the burden of it. Or maybe not – maybe your character really doesn't have the gumption. How would that play out?


Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

WFMAD Day 7 – Getting Feedback On Your Story

It's always something, isn't it?

You change up your daily schedule to make time for writing and then you WRITE and you create something wonderful and you're so excited, but you are a wise writer, a seasoned artist. You know that you need some feedback before you hire a plane and pilot to drop copies of your masterpiece (equipped with adorable little parachutes) over midtown Manhattan so that one will land in the hands of an agent or editor.

You need feedback.


This can be tricky. I know writers who have quit writing because they were so beat up by comments about their work made by people they thought they could trust. That is incredibly sad and I don't want it to happen to you. So here are some handy rules. As always, your mileage will vary.

1. Don't expect honest, useful feedback from someone who loves you or wants to jump into your bed. People like that should only say, "Looks great!" which won't help you, but might keep the relationship intact. I guess if you want to break up with someone, you could ask them to read your manuscript and then exit in a dramatic huff when they give you a crappy critique. That seems a little passive-aggressive to me, but you could always use it as a scene in a future book. 


2. Seek out people who read and/or write in the genre that you are writing in. If someone is unfamiliar with or doesn't like your genre, they can't possibly offer you helpful feedback.

3. Adjust your attitude. Assuming you've found a competent, caring person who will give you an honest evaluation of your work, make sure you are emotionally strong enough and in the right frame of mind to receive their feedback. Arguing with that person because she couldn't see any point to chapter ten, or was confused by a character who showed up in the last pages of the book won't help you or your story. Maybe your critiquer is an idiot, but she's entitled to her opinion and you asked for it, so be quiet and listen.


4. Ask for written feedback as well as a conversation. The experience of having your work critiqued can really mess with your head. Your reader might say one slightly hurtful thing and twenty useful, positive things; guess which one thing you'll remember?

5. Don't leap too early. Many writers (me) are so excited in the early chapters of an early draft that they are desperate for someone to read those pages. Resist. This. Urge. 


The story is going to change a bazillion times before it's ready to show to an editor. Your critiquer is not going to want to read a bazillion drafts. If you're lucky, she'll read two. Plan accordingly.

6. After you get your written feedback and you reread it, put it and the manuscript away for a while. Start a new project. Take long walks. Give your brain time to ponder the comments. One of the hardest things about writing is learning how to gain enough perspective on your work to be able to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. You want your emotional reaction to the feedback out of the way before you get back to work on the manuscript.

I have a lot more to say about this, so I think I'll devote two more posts to it. One will talk about the Care and Feeding of Critique Groups and the other will be about how to cope when someone you trusted savages your work. How does that sound? Do you have any other questions about feedback and critiquing? If you can't leave them in the Comments section of this blog (WordPress is acting up again), you can tweet me or leave a note on my Facebook page or Tumblr. 

take a nap

Non-fiction prompt – Make a list of people you think could offer you good feedback. Freewrite about why those folks might work, and why it could turn into a disaster. How would you feel if they asked you to critique something they wrote? 

Fiction prompt – Think of a young character, someone between the ages of four and nine. Your character has created a school project or piece of art, writing, or music and has to present it in front of the class. Write about the presentation and how the teacher judges or criticizes or praises the work after the presentation. This could be a nightmare or a wonderful thing for the character – you choose.


Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your entire life.

scribble…. scribble…. scribble…..

WFMAD Day 6 – Temper Tantrums & Do-Overs



So we're almost to the end of the first week of WFMAD 2013 and it has gotten a little quiet around here. People who were so enthusiatic six days ago have dropped off the radar, guilt-laden and sorrowful.

The week after Labor Day is filled with harsh reality as school begins and bosses ramp up expectations. People who promised themselves that they would write for fifteen minutes a day ("How hard can that be?" they wondered) feel crappy because, as turns out, it can be wicked hard.




They feel really bad, and the bad feeling turns into self-loathing and they eat too much pasta with cheap tomato sauce and powdered "cheese" because their life is already overloaded but there are so many WORDS in their head, and characters and feelings, SO many feelings, ALL the feelings, and they want to write but goddamn life is complicated and too busy and how the hell does ANYBODY ever write a book?

I understand.

Life got in the way of my writing this week, too. 

I had my schedule perfectly balanced between working on my first draft and researching the swamps of South Carolina in the 18th century and taking care of my dad and exercise and cooking and appointments and …. then for a lot of boring reasons my best-laid plans fell apart and one day I didn't write. Not even for fifteen minutes.



I went throught the Stages of Writer Loss: sadness, more sadness, chocolate, self-hatred, fear of having to become an accountant, and then




Because  I had done it to myself and I couldn't un-do it. Worse, a few more unexpected things cropped up and threw off my schedule for the next few days. Then I really got upset.


Do you know the feeling?

But there is always hope. Opportunity, even. This morning I sat down with my schedule, moved some items, cancelled a few more and blocked out writing time that will not be violated unless someone I love starts bleeding from an artery.


You can choose to beat yourself up about a lost or missed writing session, or you can call for a do-over and use your energy to write. Taking a do-over and moving on will make you happier, I promise. So if you haven't written as much this week as you hoped, it's OK. All is forgiven. Your Muse is patiently waiting and the creative world is cheering you on. I am, too.




Non-fiction prompt – Describe a perfect day that would combine everything you have to do and everything you want to do, including writing. What changes can you make this week that will get you a step or two closer to being able to enjoy days like that? 

Fiction prompt – Your character hates cats and is secretly a little bit afraid of them. But s/he is in love with a person who has a mean, nasty old cat. In the hopes of getting to spend more time with Love Interest, your character has offered to come over and help Love Interest get a pill down the horrible cat's mouth. Describe the scene from the moment that Love Interest places the wretched cat in your character's lap.


Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your entire life.

scribble… scribble… scribble 


WFMAD Day 5 – Finding the Right Tool, Part 2


OK. I've meditated and thought very happy thoughts about how this WordPress blog will be completely cooperative today. Keep your fingers crossed!


Many of you have written to me with your frustrations about not being allowed to post your comments here because the Evil Capthcha will not let you pass. Others say the Captcha let them in some days, but not all. Please accept my humble apologies. My website has been hacked a couple of times this year so we've had to increase security and position archers on the ramparts to keep out the bad guys. Keep trying!

On to Tools – Part 2!


Scrivener is a WONDERFUL tool (for Mac and Windows) that allows you to organize the structure of novel, keep your research in reasonable order, and even write the book, if you want. (That's a really bad description. They do a much better job on their website.) I wouldn't have been able to write CHAINS and FORGE without Scrivener. (Note: I only use it for outlining and the early draft, then I shift over to Word.) Giant Hat Tip and hugs for author Holly Black, who turned me on to this very functional tool!

The same company also makes Scapple, a free-flowing mind-mapping program for brainstorming. I've tried it a couple times, but find I prefer a giant pad of paper and a good gel pen.


I'm kind of a ducky-bunny writer. I get most of my books done by bribing myself with popcorn or hunks of half-melted brie topped with apricot jam. But not everyone responds to that. Some writers require threats of hell-fire and damnation to keep their butt in the chair and their fingers flying across the keys.


You want Write or Die, the first draft tool that "puts the Prod in Productivity." You get to set the parameters about how long you need to keep writing and how long your pauses are allowed to be. You also choose the consequences that rain down upon you if you screw up:  a gentle reminder, an annoying noise, the words you are typed vanish – FOREVER, or a dragon shows up and eats your car. (I made up that last one.)

Even though I prefer brie and jam to battling dragons I must admit I am thinking of trying this with a few picture book ideas that have been kicking around my noggin.




Two more tools that work with positive reinforcement instead of dragons are Chains (built around the Jerry Seinfeld approach to life mastery, "don't break the chain"), and Lift, whose irresistable tag line is, "Build better habits. Change your life." I strongly suggest you check them both out. Writing can be lonely and uncertain. I find the tiny rewards these apps offer make the going easier.

In the past fifteen years, I've written seven novels, a series about a vet clinic for young readers, and a half dozen picture books, not to mention way too many posts on various social media sites and this blog.

Hello, Carpal Tunnel!



My lastest tool is Dragon Dictate, dictation software that allows me to speak into a headset and have the words magically appear on the screen, without causing the muscles in my forearms to shriek in pain and despair. I haven't been using it long, but I'm beginning to love it. You'll need the latest upgrades to your operating system and Word for it to work, and the instructions could use a little tweaking, but once I figured all that out, it was super-cool.

Are there other tools that you'd like me to feature here?

Non-fiction prompt – write about a time when you were injured or ill. Focuse on the adaptations you had to make to accomodate whatever the problem was; walking on crutches, writing with your other hand, only seeing out of one eye, etc. After digging out highly specific details, explore how the experience changed you.

Fiction prompt – write about a character who is slowly losing his/her ability to move her fingers, then arms, then legs in the middle of a world that thinks s/he is faking it. Great opportunities for dialog here!

Fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your entire life.

Scribble… scribble… scribble