Critique Group: It's Not Just About Critiques

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

    Does your critique group do more than critique? Has your writing improved since you've been a member? If you answered "no" to both of these questions then maybe your group ought to consider taking a class together.

     "Too expensive," you say? It doesn't have to be. Let me explain.

     The gals in my critique group and I are very serious about our writing. We welcome what we laughingly call "brutal" critiques, not because we like to be cruel, but because we all want our ability to craft a good story to grow, so we're honest, straight-forward and we don't mince words.

     Three years ago we decided to enrich our group beyond critiques. Instead of one critique partner sharing a great book on craft, we decided to learn together. We all purchased copies of Ursula LeGuin's book, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Naviagator or Mutinous Crew, read it chapter by chapter, and completed and discussed the exercises. 

I must admit, I was not happy with the suggestion of studying the book, at first, but as we worked our way though the lessons, I could tell that my writing improved. We all felt it. So it was only logical that we would find another book or class or workshop to study when we finished Steering the Craft.  

     We were intrigued when one of the partners found a course available on DVD from called, Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft, given by Professor Brooks Landon, Professor of English, Collegiate Fellow and Director of the General Education Literature Program at the University of Iowa.

    Could it really be true? Twenty four lectures with activities on building sentences? Sounds boring, right? Well it might have been if we hadn't done it together. Even so, one critique partner read the lecture each week unable to endure the DVD.

     Professor Landon loves long sentences. He points out that many feel long sentences are bad, but in his opinion, "a long sentence isn't bad because it's long, it's bad because it's bad." He lectured about cumulative sentences in all forms, the rhythm of cumulative syntax, coordinate cumulative sentences, subordinate and mixed cumulatives, cumulative syntax to create suspense, balanced sentences and balanced forms, just to mention a few.

     We painstakingly went through each exercise stretching the course out over a two year span and little by little the quality of our sentences grew. Whether cumulative sentences eventually show up in our writing remains to be seen. But it's safe to say, that after 24 lectures on building great sentences, we're all much more aware of how we write and what we write.

     Will we find something else to study? Most likely, because our critique group is about more than critiques.

     How does your critique group study the craft of writing?

     Read more about critique groups in Kristin Lamb's latest post, Franken-Novel, Perfectionism & The Dark Side of Critique Groups,





MEMOIRS: Why Every Writer Should Write One!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

     A recent blog by one of my critique partners, Gretchen Griffith, prompted me to finish this blog, something I started writing a few weeks ago. In her blog, Gretchen talks about old cards found while cleaning out her great-grandfather’s house. Check it out here

     Gretchen's blog made me wonder what, if anything, will our great-grandchildren discover about our lives? In this tear-them-down, throw-away world will there even be a house to go through? Or worse yet, will those discs were putting all our photos on even be viewable on the technology of the day? Surely the technology we used to save them all will be a laughable joke, obsolete in our great-grandchildren’s lives.

     This is why I think it’s important for ALL writers to hunker down and write a memoir. Capture all those family stories that you've been told; interview those great aunts, grandparents and great-grandparents, if you’re fortunate enough to still have them in your life. Sit down with that one family member who holds all the stories in their head. You know--the one you always turn to when trying to figure out who belongs to whom.

     My mother was that person in our family. But, I didn't realize it until she was gone. Suddenly, my go-to person for family lore and information was no longer with me. Gone were the stories and family connections of near and distant relations.

     "Why do you have to write it?" you ask. Because if you’re a writer, you have all the skills to get it done. In addition, your descendants will be fascinated with the idea that you were a writer. Trust me. They will be, even if that novel you've written never hits the Best Seller List, or even gets published. I guarantee that at least one of your descendants will want to know more, wish they knew more about who you were, what and why you wrote?

     Memoirs come in all shapes and sizes. They can be about one event in your life or a relative’s life or a total life history. They can be general or specific. They might be a collection of stories from different relatives. You’re the writer. You get to decide.

     You don’t have to stop your other writing to write a memoir. Just start collecting, capturing if you will, some thoughts and ideas

  1. Print out your thoughts and file in a folder, a real hands-on manila folder that fits in a file cabinet someone can open later.
  2. Each holiday, write down what happened, the funny stuff and even the not so funny things.
  3. Ask questions and begin to collect the gems you’re told. 
  4. Record your personal memories of school, entertainment, daily lives back when you were a child. 
  5. When a memory surfaces, jot a few notes, names and places,  and file it.
  6.  Remember to include feelings, especially with your own  memories.
  7.  Capture stories of life-altering events such as War and  depression and death and disease. 
  8.  Show the courage exhibited by those who lived it. 
  9.  Get a digital recorder and sit down with your elderly    relatives before it’s too late. Once they’re gone, the stories are  lost forever. 
     You think you’ll remember the specifics of events and you might, but details fade with time. Jot them down now so you have them later when you’re ready to put something together.

     I had the pleasure of writing two memoirs of Army Reserve nurses who served in the Persian Gulf War. For both of these gals, the experience was life-altering, but I can guarantee you they would not be able to remember the day-to-day struggle they experienced if it hadn't been captured in their books.

     I believe a memoir should be true and honest capturing the ups and downs of life. You don’t want to upset family members by dwelling on he-said she-said things, but it will be important for those who come after to know that you persevered and grew and survived the challenges of life.

     As much as technology and daily life will change in the future, one thing will not change; people will continue to have joys and sorrows, life-altering experiences and challenges to over-come. And knowing that relations in the past, great-grandparents or great aunts and uncles, struggled and overcame despite enormous odds, will inspire future generations to never give up.

     So capture those memoirs that only you can write. You’re a writer. Do it for your family. Write the memoir only you can write!

PS: No, I haven't written my own yet, but I've been collecting stories and memories to pull out of a file when I'm ready. 

     What stories do you have to tell? 


     Two memoirs written by Sandra Warren for others are: When Duty Called: Even Grandma Had To Go and Hidden Casualties: Battles On The Home Front. 

     Check out all Sandra Warren's books at  

Does Your Critique Group Coddle or Mentor?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Is your critique group helping you become a better writer or just patting you on the back? 

Each of us has to decide what we want from a critique group but attending one that doesn't allow negative comments, only positives, seems counter-productive. 

If you want folks to love your manuscript, call your relatives. 

If you want to grow in your craft, find writers who you admire and ask them for a "brutal" analysis of your work. Yes, I did say "brutal." 

Perhaps it will help if I define a few things. Let me start with some definitions from Webster's New World Dictionary:  

Critique: a critical analysis or evaluation of a subject, situation, literary work, etc. 

Criticize: to analyze and judge as a critic. 

Criticism: the act of making judgements; analysis of qualities and evaluation of comparative worth; esp. the critical consideration and judgement of literary or artistic work.  

Brutal: plain and direct although distressing in effect. I would add, honest, painfully honest to this definition. 

Nowhere in the definitions did you find the word, coddle or pat-on-the back or ego stroking. That's not to say we don't need to hear what inspired or tickled someones funny bone or delighted one of our critique partners. Of course we do. Analyzing and evaluating do have a positive side. 

It may just be the delivery of the negative aspects of the above words that get us off track; the act of disapproval, censure, finding fault. Rare is the person who can deliver a negative comment in a positive way, but that's what we as writers need. 

                   IN POSITIVE WAYS! 

We need to know where the holes are, what doesn't make sense, when we've used the same word too many times, when were telling not showing, when point-of-view changes mid-stream, when we've used too many adjectives, when the story doesn't flow, when the character gets off track, when situations don't advance the story. And we need examples for clarification of suggestions. 

Positive comments alone cannot address these needs. Only an honest, straight-forward, pick-it-apart analysis and discussion can. 

Writers should welcome honest, brutal critiques with open arms. I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't hurt or make you stop writing for a day or two. It might. But in the long run, you'll be able to discern the things that need changing and the things you want to keep the same and you'll see your manuscript improve.   

I am in a brutal critique group and I love it. Thanks to my SOUP SISTERS, I've eliminated whole chapters because, "although written well, it didn't advance the story." I've changed titles and character actions because, "your character wouldn't do that, that way." There were days I've had to put the critique aside until I could take the emotion out of it and look at it intellectually for the gems, the suggestions that would make my story better. 

Here are some suggestions for making your critique group critique: 

1. Find writers you admire. 
2. Brainstorm critique goals and expectations.
3. Study the Craft of writing: 
4. For large meeting size critique groups: Make a poster of the Key Components of a Good Story; maybe 4 points to look for in each story. and use this as a guide for each critique.  
     a.What is the story arc?
     b. Too many adjectives?
     c. Over use of a word?
     d. Does the story flow? 
     e. Does the child solve the problem? 
     f.  Does the child fail a couple of times before solving the problem? 
     g. Is each failure worse than the last? 
5. Give suggestions for improvement.

If your critique group loves everything you write, then maybe it's not the group for you. Even great writers get edited before publication. Keep in mind that the harder your critique group is on the elements in your manuscript now, the easier it will be when the publication edits come through. It might even make the difference between a rejection and an acceptance.  

A good critique group can make your manuscript shine and make you a better writer. 

How does your critique group stack up? 


Congratulations to Carol Baldwin for winning a copy of If I Were A Table, for commenting on my last blog. 

For publications by Sandra Warren visit or 


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About Me

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Hi! I’m Sandra Warren, a writer with very eclectic writing tastes. I’ve been fortunate to have publications in multiple genres including children’s, gifted education, parenting, how to, poetry, journal, educational activity guides and biography as well as audio and video production. I'm a city gal recently transplanted to the mountains of NC where glorious mountain vistas inspire latest renderings.

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