Saturday, September 29, 2012

How to Facilitate a Writers Critique Group

At a recent business meeting of the Kansas City Writers Meetup Group, the topic of conversation was critique groups.  Every week, the meetup’s organizer gets four or five requests from writers who want to join critique groups.  As the facilitator of one such group, I have had to inform several writers we're full.

And yet the opportunity to start new groups has never been greater.  The KCWMG provides a ready forum for connecting with other writers and announcing meetings.  If you want to join a critiquing group and are tired of waiting for openings, there's an easy alternative: start your own.

While every group operates differently, here are a few suggestions which have worked for the group I facilitate, the Monday Night Writers:

1. Be open to different genres.  Some critiquing groups focus on a particular genre, such as science fiction or children’s stories.  While such a focus can keep everyone on the same page, the Monday Night Writers Group benefits from being as diverse as possible.  Our writers have submitted screenplays, high fantasy, Young Adult, thriller, flash fiction, and gay romance. 

This diversity helps us focus on two things: the qualities common to all stories and broadening our audience.

And, really, don’t you want your work to reach the widest possible audience?

2. Create a supportive atmosphere.  Guides for offering and receiving feedback can be found everywhere, but the bottom line is this:  Be honest but respectful   If you are critiquing a story, tell the writer how it reads to you.  Never make absolute statements (“This story is bad.”); instead, frame your comments as suggestions coming from a reader who might pick up the author’s book (“I think you can get to the meat of the scene quicker.”). 

And writers: practice the art of distancing yourself from your story.  Just because someone criticized it does not mean you are a bad person.

3. Be willing to incorporate non-critiquing activities and events into your group.  By all means, stay true to your purpose (to critique each others’ work), but be receptive to other writing-related events. Members of the MNWG have held joint book readings, participated in events such as Author Extravaganza, and attended book launch parties.  

Our group also holds a monthly meeting called P&L (sardonically, "Plans and Lies"), in which we share our goals for the upcoming month and report our progress of the previous month.

Accountability and community are essential qualities in sustaining any group.

4. Share responsibility.  Just because you're the facilitator doesn't mean you have to do it all.  Let others contribute skills they are particularly good at.  One member of our group recruited new members.  Another is a whiz at setting up events and networking. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed (as I did recently), ask for help in even mundane tasks, such as responding to requests from potential members.

5. Most importantly—have fun!  This is sometimes harder than it seems.  As facilitator, you have to be responsible for keeping the group on focus and (occasionally) making decisions.  But let conversations drift where they want to go, let people be people, and don’t forget to laugh.  If you’re not having a good time, why would others?

The above merely scratches the surface of how a critiquing group can work.  If you approach starting a group with firm goals in mind, a willingness to be open, and a sense of commitment, you can create what you seek: a nurturing, supportive team to help you realize your dreams as a writer.

Because, after all, you’ll be helping them realize theirs.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Comics and Story Structure: How to Keep Your Plot in Focus

Spider-Man debuts: Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1...
Spider-Man debuts: Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1962). Cover art by Jack Kirby (penciler) and Steve Ditko (inker). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Marvel Comics used to call "the dreaded deadline doom" is upon me.  It's Saturday, and I don't have a new topic to write about.  Here's a favorite from 2009.  This article originally appeared on Suite 101.

Use dramatic structure to keep your readers hangingnot yourself!

Losing control of the story is one of the worst things that can happen to a writer in any genre, but it is especially perilous for comic book writers who depend on exciting and often super-heroic tales to keep readers coming back month after month, year after year. 

But sooner or later, readers tire of stories that never end. Developments meant to hold readers’ interest can often backfire if they seem too far-fetched or appear “out of the blue.” One reason why writers resort to such tricks is because they haven’t thought out the story’s structure.

Freytag's Pyramid

Dramatic structure is a fairly simple device to keep the writer on track, regardless of story length. Structure requires the writer to know the beginning, middle, and end of her story, and to recoognize when she has reached each point.
Freytag's pyramid
Freytag's pyramid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While there are many ways of looking at story structure, one of the most useful patterns is Freytag’s Pyramid. Named after Gustav Freytag, the 19th century novelist and dramatist who devised it, Freytag’s Pyramid divides the elements of a story into five (sometimes seven) categories and identifies the function of each element.

Many graphic representations and explanations of the pyramid can be found online, but to illustrate its usefulness in writing comic books, let’s look at one of the most popular comic book stories of all time.

Spinning Webs and Analyzing Stories

Spoiler Warning: This section analyzes the origin of Spider-Man. If you are not familiar with the origin and don’t want to know how it ends, proceed at your own risk.

Originally published in Amazing Fantasy # 15, August 1962, the origin of Spider-Man has been told and retold countless times. Some details have been embellished, added, and altered in subsequent comics and even films, but notice how the underlying structure developed by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko remains intact:
  • Exposition (What information does the reader need to know in order to understand the story?)
Peter Parker, science nerd, is shy around girls, picked on by jocks, and doted on by Aunt May and Uncle Ben.
  • Inciting Incident (What happens to disrupt the character's normal life?)
Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider.
  • Rising Action (Things either start going well for the hero or poorly, depending on the type of story you are telling.)
Peter discovers that he has powers and creates his Spider-Man costume. He tries to cash in on his abilities by wrestling.
  • Climax (This is often a moment of truth, a moment when our hero’s fortunes change.)
Peter refuses to stop a burglar.
  • Falling Action (The reversal of Rising Action; if things were going well before, they go poorly now, or vice versa.)
Returning home, Peter learns that Uncle Ben has been killed by an intruder. As Spider-Man, Peter tracks the killer to a warehouse and fights him.
  • Resolution (How does the story end?)
Peter discovers to his horror that the killer is the same burglar he allowed to get away.

  • Denouement (What is the outcome of the story?)

Peter learns that “with great power comes great responsibility” and vows to use his powers to help others.

Not every story will fit into the pattern as neatly as Spider-Man’s origin, and there is room for some interpretation. (Does the true climax occur when Spidey confronts the burglar?) But the pattern itself gives the story power and meaning. It tells us when the story ends and why it is significant.

Without a solid structure, Spidey could be chasing the burglar through a 12-issue maxi-series with numerous crossovers by way of the Avengers and never get a resolution. Or if the resolution does come, it might be delayed for so long that the readers who have stuck with you have forgotten its significance.

Try plotting your own story on Freytag’s Pyramid. Use one or two sentence descriptions to identify the most important actions that take place in each category. Look for a strong climax and resolution. Then add subplots, cross-overs, and other frills as needed.


Lee, Stan, writer, and Steve Ditko, artist. “Spider-Man!” Amazing Fantasy 15 (Aug. 1962).

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

5 Tips to Make Readers Care about Your Character

A member of my writers group recently complimented me on a short story I’m writing. One of her comments stood out: she was pleased that my protagonist is female.

She reminded me that all readers, to one degree or another, like to identify with protagonists. We see ourselves in the characters of a story. When they experience trials, we experience them, too. The hero's victory becomes ours. The insight which changes her life changes ours. 

While reading a story (and perhaps even for a long time after), we become the character.

That isn’t to say readers cannot identify with a character of a different gender (or race, age, faith, time period, etc.). In fact, the best stories transcend boundaries and connect us to the deeper reality of being human.

Still, it's easier to identify with a character who is somehow “like” us.

And this is why the writer should create characters the reader can care about.

Giving readers a character to care about, to root for, to identify with is one of the most basic ingredients of writing fiction. Yet writers sometimes forget this. They become immersed in the Great Idea, the Clever Plot, or the Exotic Setting and neglect to develop their characters.

But flat characters=flat story.

Flat characters often come off as stereotypes. They never grow because they don't come off as real people to begin with.
(This is why, in a previous post, I recommended writing a character biography. If your character becomes real to you, he should become real to the reader.)

So, how do you make readers care about your character?  Here are five tips:

  •  Show the character doing something good for someone else.  In Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Aibilene dotes on the baby daughter of her employer, even though her employer treats Aibilene badly. Aibilene constantly tells the girl, “You is special” so she doesn’t grow up hating herself like her mother did.
  • Give your character traits the reader would like to see in herself.  At the beginning of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen comes off as a very independent young woman. She hunts, she’s good with a bow and arrow, she sneaks past the border of her district to provide food for her family.
  • Give your character adverse circumstances.  Peter Parker—the future Spider-Man—is the quintessential science nerd: smart, but unpopular with girls and picked on by jocks. Harry Potter is an unloved orphan, abused and neglected by his horrible aunt, uncle, and cousin.
  •  Give your character other people who love and care about them.  Peter Parker has his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Katniss has her sister, Primrose, and best friend, Gale Hawthorne. Aibilene has her friend and fellow maid, Minnie.
  • Most importantly: Do one or more of the above in the first few pages of your story.  Readers are impatient. If you don’t give them a reason to care immediately, they may put the book down and never pick it back up.

Giving your readers a character to care about is one of the most important things you will ever do in your story. Your hero is our guide through the Great Idea, the Clever Plot, and the Exotic Setting. By all means, be wildly creative in these aspects of your story. But your character is the one we’re going to root for and remember the most.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Should You Plan Your Writing or Be Spontaneous?

The obvious answer to the above question is, “It depends on the writer and/or the story.”

But since obvious answers are as helpful as an umbrella in a flood, let’s see if we can be more specific.

Spontaneity can be defined as that quality of writing where you start out and don’t know where you’re going: making it up as you go along. 

Planning is exactly that: having a detailed outline or map of where your story is going, who’s in it, what they are doing and why, etc.

Most writers would probably say they use both spontaneity and planning to one degree or another. And both tools are valuable for writers. Spontaneity keeps your story fresh and exciting; planning keeps your story from going off track or trying to accomplish too much. 

Yet there's a downside to spontaneity. It can easily lead your story astray with characters, ideas, and plot lines that lead nowhere. Stories that rely too much on spontenaity read like dreams: one idea leads to another, and then another idea pops up, and, before long, you’ve lost sight of the original idea.

The downside of planning is that an overly detailed outline can leave your story with little room to grow in ways that surprise both you and your readers. Such stories often read like a response to an argument no one has made: the writer has determined what the “answer” will be, although no one’s asked that particular question.

Here are five tips for finding the right blend of spontenaity and planning that works best for your story:

1. Determine the ending of your story.  Some writers write the ending first or very shortly after they write the beginning.  Others keep the ending firmly in mind.  Whatever your approach, you will keep your story on track (and your interest level high) if you have a specific goal to shoot for.

2. Do not determine exactly how you get to that ending.  Have a general outline or map in mind, yes, but resist the impulse to make it so detailed that you are in effect telling your story before you actually write it. Instead, know where the story’s plot points will be: the inciting incident, the climax, the denouement, etc. 

3. While writing, check your Brilliant New Idea against the above structure.  Will this new character take your story toward its ending?  If not, do you really need him?  If there’s a strong possiblity he might move your story tward its conclusion, let him stay but keep him on a tight leash until you know you can trust him.

4. Write more than one draft.  This almost goes without saying. Yet its surprising how many writers think their first draft should be the final one. Multiple drafts give you time to experiment with new approaches.  They let you see what that Brilliant New Idea has to offer.

5. Be willing to accept the possibility that your story may go in a different direction than the one you planned. Of course, this means knowing what the “heart” of your story is and what you want (in the abstract sense) to accomplish. 

I recently put this idea to the test. In my Compostion I classes, I had students brainstorm ideas for a paper they will be writing. I knew generally what I wanted: a list of topics any student could write about.  (Sorry, Dr. Who fans.  Not everyone watches that show.)  We ended up with a list of 23 topics. I then asked a student to pick a number between 1 and 23, each number corresponding to a particular topic. Then, for whatever topic was selected, we brainstormed ideas and possible audiences and purposes for it.

Exercises such as this always carry risks. What if the topic selected doesn't interest most students? What if it doesn’t interest me? What if my students are shy and don’t want to participate?

Yet the exercise worked marvelously. It demonstrated my abstract goal of showing students how a writer can brainstorm ideas for any topic.

Likewise, the ending of your story may change, but knowing the heart of your story means you can still get there even if the route changes along the way.

Spontaneity and planning work together to create a story that is exciting both for yourself and for your readers. Although there is no formula for determining how much of either tool you should use, it helps to have a clear plan in mind with the caveat that it’s subject to change. 

Know where you are going, but let your muse do the driving.

How much spontaneity versus planning do you include in your writing?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What's in it for You? Rate this Blog

This blog has now been around for a year and a half.  It consists of 85 posts and counting—at least one per week.  While its purpose (like that of most author blogs) is to promote my brand as a writer, it also exists to share insights and advice on writing in general and, in particular, about writing super-heroes and for young adults.

And, apparently, what I have to say has some value, as over 4600 pageviews have been recorded (some, I know, are probably spambots, but we’ll ignore them).  Fifteen people have joined the site (thank you!) and many of you have left comments on various posts (thank you, too!).   

I’m thrilled to have an audience and one that keeps growing! 

But I can’t take sole credit for this blog’s current or continuing success.  Much of that rests with you. Without readers, there would be no point in doing this.

So here’s your chance to tell me what you like and don’t like about The Semi-Great Gildersleeve. What’s working for you and what isn’t? What would you like to see more of or less of? 

(I’m thinking content-wise, though if you have strong feelings about the graphics or any other aspect of the blog, let me know that, too.)

Some questions to consider:
  • What attracted you to this blog in the first place?  How did you find it?
  • What posts have been particularly insightful, helpful,  or otherwise memorable?  (No, you don’t have to look them up.  Just tell me what you remember.)   Have any been cringeworthy?
  • Are the posts too long, too short, too diffuse in terms of subjects covered?
  • What keeps you coming back (or, if you haven’t been back in awhile, what’s kept you away)?
  • On a scale of 1-10 (ten being the highest), how would you rate this blog in terms of how interesting or useful you find it?

As my work-in-progress, The Power Club, nears completion, I'll be posting more stuff related to it, such here, here, and here.  But, in the meantime, I've also analyzed old comic book stories such as here, here, and here, and discussed movies such as The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class.  But this blog also branches out into "this 'n' that" territory, such as The Help and The Beatles

My underlying purpose is to show that all writing is connected, and that writers who want to excel in their craft can learn from a diverse body of works while remaining true to their central focus (e.g., super-heroes).  

So, what do you think?  Is The Semi-Great Gildersleeve fulfilling your blogging needs?  If not, what can be improved?

Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...