Posts Tagged ‘critique groups’


When I finished my first novel, I couldn’t wait to take a long-awaited and well deserved break. My intention was to take a week or two off and then begin the second one. Because the second book was co-written with a good friend who is disciplined and knows how the writing process works, I didn’t have the luxury of letting too much time slip by before getting back up on the horse. After the second one was finished however, it was a different story. My third book, which was supposed to have begun in May, didn’t get started until late August. Now it is mid-October and I am all of seven (and a half) pages into it.

I could blame this inactivity on a dozen various external sources: I moved, started a new job, I was busy revising the previous book… the list could go on. But the truth is, I’ve let the priority of writing slip into second (or third) place. The reason for this is simple: I am sick of writing! But, I am also sick of combing my hair, eating, going to bed on time, getting up for work, brushing my teeth, and shaving that godforsaken unibrow of mine that just refuses to admit defeat. But I do these things anyway. I do them, regardless of my mood, because when I don’t, I’m not happy, and the same could be said about writing. When I am not writing, I am not happy. So, with this newfound reality check, I decide to put myself in the chair, and just write… whether I feel like it or not. And… an amazing thing happens. Nothing.

The trouble with taking too much time off is that the creative muscle, just like any other muscle in the body, will atrophy with disuse, and be strengthened the more it is exercised. After four months of literary lethargy, I’m having a hard time finding anything to say. The bad news is, this is a form of writer’s block. The good news is, there are a million different ways to combat it. Listed below are the exercises I’ve successfully used in the past to strengthen my writing muscles, and as soon as I am finished writing this blog, I will begin to incorporate some of them, and get my own writing back on track. Also, I hope these suggestions help you build your writing muscles! Grrrr….

1. Read something. One of the most effective things I’ve done when I am faced with the perpetual blank page is read. It doesn’t seem to matter what I read, but a good thirty to ninety minutes of reading something usually gets my mind working in a more creative way.

2. Get some exercise. I don’t know how or why this helps writing, or if it applies to other people at all, but for me, getting some good, strenuous exercise seems to release those mysterious “endorphins” everyone’s always talking about, and gives me the extra push I need.

3. Write something else. Sometimes, I just need to write something totally unrelated to the story I am working on. This is where having a blog comes in handy. I might also write someone a letter, or a long e-mail, or write some new poetry.

4. Reread the story. This one is a tricky one and it wouldn’t be at the top of my list of things to do, but a lot of times, rereading the story I  am working on inspires me to go on with it. There have been times though, that this exercise has resulted in the opposite effect.

5. Pry, spy, and lie. As a natural-born busybody, this one is probably my favorite. I take a pen and paper and go somewhere and find someone (or several people) who strike my interest for some reason or another. I give them new names, new jobs, a brand new past, and if I am cranky, a life-threatening illness. I cast them into a make-believe present situation, usually something very critical and/or scandalous, and ponder the different ways they might handle it.

6. Try something new. As simple as it sounds, there’s something to be said for doing something you’ve never done before, tasting something you’ve never tasted, going somewhere you’ve never been, or talking to someone you’ve never met.

7. Get involved in your local writing community. Wherever you might live, chances are good that you share your space with a few or a few hundred like-minded folks who are part of a local writing community. Getting involved means meeting other people who have fresh ideas. It means submerging yourself in the world of writing and bringing it to the forefront of your mind. It means learning new skills, meeting with new opportunities, and finding new inspiration.

8. Join, or start, a critique group. When you’re part of a critique group, it’s hard to not write. You have a sense of expectation from yourself, and the other members are depending on you to keep the group going.

9. Assign the time. By assigning yourself a certain time of day to write for a specific duration, you are training yourself to respond accordingly. If you know you have to sit down and write Monday though Friday from 6:30 pm to 7:00 pm, it’s just a matter of time before your mind starts to accept its duties. If you don’t know what to write for that half hour, start out by writing about not knowing what to write.

10. Interview the characters. Another one of my favorites, interviewing my characters almost always leads to some kind of revelation about the character or the story he or she is in, and makes me eager to write it all out. To interview the characters, I sit down at the computer and write out a kind of questions and answers game. This exercise is both fun and effective.

These are just a few stars in the endless galaxy of different ways to strengthen your own writing. Whether you’re blocked or just trying to get a little better at your craft, there is no end to the ways you can invigorate and improve your creative writing.

There are many books written on this subject that I would highly recommend to anyone. Among my favorites are: The Writer’s Block by Jason Rekulak, The Pocket Muse – Ideas & Inspirations for Writing by Monica Wood, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias, and Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich.

However you choose to boost and strengthen your own writing, it’s my opinion that it should be fun, and finding all the different methods that will work for you is a big part of that fun. Remember that in writing, what works for one person may not work for the other, and keep in mind that writing exercises can fast become the perfect excuse to get no actual writing done, but if you are sincerely dedicated to writing, there are hundreds upon hundreds of ways to go from this:

To this!

Happy writing!

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     Me and my friends’ Kim (Williams-Justesen) and Joe (Ostler) talked about forming our own critique group for many months before we ever got together and actually did it. The trouble was that the project Kim and I were collaborating on was very high in gore and horror, and I, being the nice guy I am, didn’t feel comfortable corrupting poor Joe by subjecting him to the nastiness and raw morbidity of our story, (little did I realize at the time that Joe has his own unique brand of deviance ~ but hey, I was trying to be nice!) Just kidding, Joe. 😉

So, as Kim and I wrapped up An Evil Heart, we both began new (and far tamer)  projects which we used in our critique group of three. The interesting thing about our group is that I write Horror/Supernatural, Kim writes for Middle Grade and Young Adult, and Joe writes Sci-Fi/High Fantasy, so the contrast of our styles creates a fun dynamic. The three of us were only able to meet twice though. I am leaving the state in two days from now, but we plan to continue the group through Instant Messenger and e-mail, but already, in the short time I have been a participant of a critique group, I have learned a good deal.

A critique group is an assembly of writers who’ve come together for the purpose of gaining insight and feedback from other writers, and no matter how good a writer you may be, there can be no arguing the benefits of being part of one. Critique groups may be as large or small as the group desires. They may be done face to face, over the phone, or online.

The beauty of the critique group is that however polished a writer may be, he or she will undoubtedly overlook some necessary detail at some point in his or her story. The other member’s of the group will hopefully be able to see these snags and help the writer smooth them over. Editors, agents and publishers don’t want raw and sloppy rough drafts. They want polished, revised material that has been read and critiqued, preferably a few times over. A critique group can help a writer be sure that the material he or she sends to an agent or editor is clean, concise, and professional.

     There are however, those groups of writers who do not have their fellows’ best interests at heart. I’ve heard many horror stories about really nasty critique groups whose members were apparently more interested in stroking their own egos than becoming better writers. These kinds of folks undoubtedly run rampant in writing communities worldwide. These kinds of writers aren’t hard to spot and should be avoided at all times. When someone works up the courage to allow his or her work to be viewed by others, I think we need to respect the vulnerability of the writer. That’s not to say that honesty isn’t imperative, it absolutely is, but honesty in and of itself does not need to be cruel. Writer’s are up against enough rejection and damage without having his or her peers standing in line to take turns crushing him or her. Critique groups should be constructive and supportive, and if they aren’t, find a new one. End of story.

Critique groups are as good (or bad) as the members make them, and I am grateful to have a pretty good, albeit very small, group of trusted writers to share my work with. It’s a disconcerting and unfortunately very necessary thing to lay your heart out and ask to be critiqued. To find just a handful of people who I feel comfortable asking feedback from is a wonderful thing.

     The world in general loves to give its opinion and whether you ask for it or not, you are going to get it. The trouble is, you have to be very careful who you listen to. The way I see it, you can divide the world’s population into three groups. The first (and probably largest) group, are those who really just don’t much care whether or not you succeed or fail. The second group is what I call the “cockroaches”. These guys will go out of their way to try to sabotage your success and sense of self-confidence. And the third and final group is the group you need to stick with. These are the folks who want to be better people themselves, and who want to help you become a better person.

So if you are thinking of joining or creating  your own critique group, my advice is to be sure you are among good company because, as important as it is to get feedback from other people, it’s even more important that you don’t give up on writing at the hands of someone who took it upon him or herself to let you know how bad you suck. We all suck or have sucked at some time or another. Totally sucking is the first step of good writing, so if you have to suck, why not suck with the best of them? 🙂

Write on.