Sunday, November 20, 2005


Critique Groups: Are You Up to the Challenge?

Getting a writing critique group up and running can be pretty dicey. I know. I’ve done it and it’s been fun and, at times, trying. But the group I belong to has been active for six years and is still going strong. Wanna know how to go about starting your own successful critique group? Read on ...

GETTING STARTED: The first thing to do is check around town and find active critique groups that are already up and running. See if they’re accepting new members. If they’re not, ask if you can sit in on one of their sessions to see if critiquing's right for you. This will give you ideas to help start your own group, and maybe even point out some dos and don’ts. If you find a group willing to accept you, great. If not — or if they’re not doing the kind of critique you want (non-critique, soft, hard, etc.) — it’s time to form your own. To get started you’ll need to find writers who are of the same mind as you. Most internet service providers (AOL, etc.) have member directories that list bios. Find people in your area that are interested in writing and shoot them an e-mail. Put flyers up at local bookstores, laundromats, and other billboard locations announcing the formation of a writers critique group (make sure to put down your contact information, especially an e-mail address.) After you’ve got a sizeable number of people interested, find a meeting location — someone’s house, a coffee shop, a bookstore, your local library, etc. — and let your members decide on a date and time to meet (be aware that you won’t be able to get 100% consensus on this so don’t even try; go with the majority.)

YOUR FIRST MEETING: Time to set the ground-rules, and the members of your group should help formulate them. What type of critiquing do you want to do? How will submissions occur? Via the internet? Through the postal service? At the meetings? How many people can submit at one time? How long should the meetings be? How long should submissions be? How often should you meet? If there’s a point of contention (and believe me, there will be), how will it be solved? These are just a few of the items awaiting you during that first meeting. You shouldn’t do any critiquing here. This time is dedicated to the group’s layout and framework so that, later on, it’s smooth sailing.

SETTING UP CRITIQUING: You’ll need to arrange a critiquing schedule. If you’ve got only eight members, you might want half of them to submit one time and the other half at the next meeting. Much of this will depend on the number of members you have, how long the submissions are and how frequently you meet.

DURING CRITIQUES: Critiques are not always easy to swallow. Having someone manhandle a beloved manuscript can cause blood pressures to rise and tempers to flare. To help keep critiques on a slow simmer, you should have the critiquers point out the positive aspects of the material before moving on to areas that "need improvement." This helps season the critique with equal parts good and not-so-good. Make sure the critiques don’t go on too long. Their focus should be on plot, prose, narrative flow and the overall quality of the story. Don’t get hung up on punctuation, spelling, grammar, etc. That’ll come later.

WHY CRITIQUE: Remember why you’re there: to help each other become more proficient at the art of writing. When giving and receiving critiques, make sure you keep that at the forefront of your gatherings. This will keep everyone focused and not devolve them into unnecessary bashings and hurting feelings. Remind members why you’re together ...often

CONTROLLING MEETINGS: Don’t let meetings spiral out of control. These sessions should not be social gatherings (although food and drink is good.) You’re here to help and be helped. When someone is giving a critique, there should be no interruptions, even from the author of the material. Everyone should finish their critiques uninterrupted and ONLY THEN should the author be allowed to speak. This will keep the meetings moving forward and prevent back and forth arguments, as well as ensuring critiques don’t come to a standstill.

BE POSITIVE: Even if you’re forced to review the worst "crap" you’ve ever read, put a positive spin on it. Tell the writer why you found the material unattractive and show them ways to improve. Don’t just say, "This is garbage!" and walk away. Remember, even amongst trash there is often a glimmer of something substantial. Point it out. Help them build their ideas. Get into their stories with them. This will show genuine interest and will make the writer feel valued. However, you should NEVER re-write someone’s story. This doesn’t help them at all. Authors often feel insulted if you re-write their work, and it doesn’t help them grow.

ENDING MEETINGS: At the end of every session, make sure you thank everyone for coming and mention when the next meeting is and who’s going to be submitting. All the members then know what to expect. Surprises can cause conflict, so try to avoid them whenever possible.

Want to know how my group functions? Keep reading ...

Now that I’ve given you some ideas on how to set up a critique group, let me tell you about FWOMP (Fiction Writers of the Monterey Peninsula), the group I helped form and how we operate.

Our first meeting took place in January of 2000 at a local bookstore in Monterey. Over 30 writers showed up, which was waaaaaay too many. I was a bit freaked out by this because I had no idea that many authors in my area were looking for a critique group. And it turns out several of these weren’t really looking for what I was. They wanted this new group to "get them published." As soon as they learned we weren’t doing that, they drifted away, which still left us with about 25 people.

We’d decided to perform a short exercise to find out where everyone lay with respect to their writing abilities. What we did was put pieces of paper into a hat and pass it around. Everyone took one piece of paper and on them were written a person, place and thing (for instance, a prostitute, the Berlin Wall and a horse saddle ...don’t get kinky!) They were required to come up with a 1,000 word (maximum) short story which incorporated these three items and submit it to the group. This proved to be an excellent method for finding out where everyone’s writing strengths and weakness lay, and we all had a whooping good time writing and reading them.

As the next few months went by, we lost more writers and dwindled down to ten solid members. Our critiques, it was decided, would be hard-nosed. We weren’t going to be a social group, celebrating birthdays and meeting for holidays. We were dedicated to the written word and to helping each other improve our skills, come what may.

We decided to meet once a month — Saturday afternoons — for four hours. There would be three or four submitters per month and they would send out their submissions via e-mail attachment at least five days in advance of the meetings; submission length set at 15 pages, double-spaced, in Times New Roman 12-point font. This gave members time to critique stories in the comfort of their own homes, then come together at the selected meeting date and give a face to face critique. "Why not just do an online critiquing session?" you may be asking. Because much gets lost in translation during online critiques. Face to face forces you to address the author directly and for him/her to address you. Although this might not sound like a large issue, it is. Trust me. Try it and see.

Our meetings are lively and the discussions sometimes loud, but we’re respectful of one another and know our boundaries (after six years, we’d better!) For instance, if someone tries to respond while they’re being critiqued, another member will "shush" them or give them a friendly elbow in the side, a reminder that they need to wait until all critiques are finished before responding.

Critiques focus first on the positive aspects of the material before delving into the negative points. Always.

I know I mentioned earlier the trap of devolving into a social gathering, and although we aren’t a social group we do have social discussions at meetings. But we don’t let them take over our purpose, which is to read, write and improve our abilities.

Find out what FWOMP is up to by clicking here.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Trouble With Googles

On the surface, the giant search engine Google's planned launch of "Google Print"-- an entire library downloaded onto the internet-- sounded like a great idea. Just imagine never having to go to the library again. No wasting of gas to drive downtown. No extra effort searching through volumes of useless spines staring at you from dusty shelves. Anyone with internet access would easily be able to find some lost piece of literature tucked into a pop-open computer file. Sound cool?
Probably. That is unless you're a writer, publisher or book marketer. If you're involved in one of those three "industries", you're likely a bit hot around the collar. It's no small matter to you. Because financially we're talking about millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

From the writer's perspective, one has to remember how authors get paid. Advances (if you're J.K. Rowling or Stephen King) and Royalties. Royalties are the miniscule percentage that author's receive every time one of their titles sell. I can already here the arguments about this: "But these are library books. Authors won't make money on them anyway."


How do libraries acquire those books? They buy them from the publishers, thus generating cash for them to keep doing business and for writers to keep writing.

Book marketers would be devastated as they would have a major outlet (the libraries) taken away. Jobs would be lost by their thousands.

I'm not an alarmist but I believe that Google has overstepped their boundaries here. The financial implications are too broad to simply say "Yeah, we should do this because it's easy." The questions we should be asking are "Why?" Why is it important to set up this "Google Print" library? Why do we need almost all the books in the world digitalized? What will happen to our libraries, librarians (another job cut?) and authors? How vital is it that we sit on our asses in front of a computer and never leave our homes?

There are tons of copyright protections for film and now music. Why is print being left out?

As the lawsuits against Google pile up and the general population wonder what the hell is going on, we need to be asking questions.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Understanding Grandpa

I didn’t really understand who (or what) my grandfather was until I was in my teens. He’d written some of the best-selling science fiction books in literary history, had rubbed shoulders with the famous film director David Lynch, science fiction hotshot Arthur C. Clarke and had even been "in the know" with Washington senators during his early writing career.

But even when I began to understand the magnitude of Grandpa’s influence, it still didn’t have much of an impact on me. I mean, I was just a kid and kid’s priorities are quite different. I was in lust with a lithe young girl named Trisha and worked steadily to gain her adoration. I rode motorcycles, destroyed motorcycles (and nearly myself along with them) and repaired motorcycles. I played baseball. Why should I be interested in the "ancient" history of my grandfather’s life and work?

Time changes all things...

My mother and father allowed me to visit my grandfather for several summers before Bev, my grandmother, took ill and passed away. But during these summer visits I began to appreciate what this "Frank Herbert" guy had accomplished. Here was a man who supported himself and his wife by writing words. Words! And not only did he support himself but he owned houses in Hawaii, Alaska and Washington.

One day we went out shopping together and the area we were running around had a bookstore. The owner of the store recognized him and asked him to come in and autograph a stock of Dune books they’d just gotten in. So we strode in and I watched him start autographing a stack of them. Book browsers wandered by and took notice. A crowd slowly built, and the little favor turned into a task. Fans wanted pictures with him, or an autograph on the back of a business card they’d yanked from a wallet or purse. Others bolted out front and told anyone walking past that Frank Herbert was here. "He’s here!" Someone asked who I was and I told them. Photos were taken of me and that’s when Grandpa stood up, turned me around and left the store. The owner of the bookstore later apologized for the fiasco and my grandfather had graciously accepted it.

It was immediately after this event that a glimmer of understanding winked into existence in the back of my mind. This guy, my grandfather, was famous. Whoa. Famous. My family. This felt bizarre. I’d never met anyone famous, let alone someone close to me who was.

I once asked my grandfather if he felt "famous".

"No. Just bothered," he’d said. And although this was a way of poking fun at himself, I now know there was some seriousness to it, too. He guarded his privacy like a pitbull. His sanctuary was his upstairs loft in the Port Townsend, Washington home. He’d pull himself up every morning before sunlight peeked above the horizon and disappear for hours, working on his latest creation, chatting with Bill Ransom—a co-author he enjoyed working with—and/or exercising on a stationary bicycle.

When he died on February 11, 1986, I had just come to understand how amazing, how unique, this man I called "Grandpa" was.

And he still is least in my mind.

Market Thyself!

When a fiction author decides to self-publish, I often wonder if they know what lay ahead for them. Because printing a book doesn’t make it "published," nor does it make it sell. Someone actually has to buy and read the novel (besides family and friends), maybe through or via the writer’s own website (more on this in a minute.)

"Publication" revolves around several aspects, which include: editing/critiquing of the work prior to print, ISBN purchase, artwork (cover and internal), book layout/design, blurbs/reviews, garnering sales locations and, finally, marketing.

Much of this can be handled prior to sending the book off to a printer. But sales locations and marketing come after; you need a product in your hand for these two things to happen. And finding sales locations can be as easy as shaking hands with local bookstore managers and placing the novel under their noses. Most area bookstores where I live love to support local authors.

But marketing is an entirely different animal. I know this from firsthand experience, and it usually involves the following formula: "Made ten contacts last week. Only one returned my call. May cost money I don’t have."

Sound disheartening? Welcome to the world of marketing yourself...

Most self-published authors don’t have money to fling around, so managing your marketing dollar so that you get the most bang for your buck becomes paramount. Having the spine of your book sitting on a bookshelf surrounded by ten thousand other titles just ain’t gonna cut it. So what can you do?

First, get a website. You can find cheap servers out there that’ll charge you less than $100 per year. Problem: if you’re not familiar with HTML or have no experience being a webmaster, you’ll need to hire someone to do it for you (more $$). But there are free blog sites out there—like this one—that can make website management pretty easy. The only problem might be the blog’s limitations (Can you set up a PayPal account to make sales? How many gigabytes of space do they offer? How many pages are you allowed?) But make no mistake, websites are your best friend when it comes to marketing. You can set up monthly updates and, if you’re lucky, a group of followers who are interested in what you have to say and what’s happening with your books might spring up.

Second, get postcards made up with your cover art on them. This is probably the cheapest and most effective marketing tool in your arsenal. They cost pennies to produce and you can hand them out by their thousands. Mail them to friends, family, and acquaintances. Ask your local bookstores to put them on their counters; they make nifty free bookmarks.

Third, you need to get hold of every newspaper and periodical in your area and let them know about your book. And I don’t mean calling and leaving a message. You need to get the name of someone at the newspaper or magazine and set up a meeting with them. Sit down and shake hands. Get some face-to-face time in no matter how long it takes to get the meeting arranged.

Fourth, spend a few dollars to get blow-ups of your cover—this can usually be done at Kinko’s or some other overnight copy place. Glue them to poster boards and see if your local independent store will display them on a highly visible counter.

Fifth, set up a booth at local street fairs (4th of July events, Spring Break Celebrations, etc.) Sell your books and promote yourself. Have some appealing colors at your booth that pull people to you, thus allowing you to plug your book. You may not always make money at these but you will get notice put on your book and this may generate sales at local bookstores after the event (Remember why people often buy Nike shoes or eat at McDonald’s? Product recognition.)

So that ought to get you started. There are other marketing ideas out there, but chances are they’ll cost you more money than they’re worth.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Can Literature Survive An Image-Conscious America?

It used to be that I could go to a bookstore and, nearly at random, pick a book, buy it and take it home and enjoy it. I'd devour the novel in a few short days and end up back at the store picking up another and getting to know the store clerks on a first name basis. Since I'm only 40 years old, it doesn't seem like that long ago that I was doing this.

But how the times are a-changin'. How?

Let's look at the publishing industry for just a moment. Back in my getting-to-know-the-clerks-by-first-name days, the reason I found novels so appealing was how they were put together, how well they were edited, and the thought-provoking -- or at least very entertaining -- prose. The publishers took the time to nurse an author along if there were any structural problems and they had great editors and proofreaders who knew what "conjugating a verb" meant. But recently I had to ask myself when it was that I last read a book that didn't have at least a few editorial issues that could've easily been caught by someone with keen proofreading eyes. Is Simon & Schuster employing 8th graders to proof their authors' manuscripts? Does Random House employee an editorial staff with any knowledge of grammar?

So when (and where) did producing a quality product take a backseat in the publishing biz? I can't really say when or where this happened; perhaps it was a gradual tumble that turned into an avalanche (I suspect this is the case). But whenever and wherever it occurred, one thing is certain: there are no signs that the trend is reversing. Pretty sad.

The evidence for this can be directly attributed to several factors. First, and not surprising, is money. It's what drives the publishing industry; if they don't make money, they're out of business. I heard a rumor not long ago that stated the only reason the big publishers are still out there is because of a select few writers who's stories net tons of cash and make up for losses incurred by those books that don't sell as well. The "Big Three" were said to be J.K. Rowling (no surprise there), Dan Brown (THE DA VINCI CODE), and thrill-writer and veteran Stephen King. The rumor reports that between the three of them their net worth is over $150 million (see Forbes Magazine).

But even within these three towering examples of literary success' books, one can find a terrible level of editing and proofing (yes, even in the Harry Potter series). THE DA VINCI CODE has many, too. And, although King's horror books are pretty clean structurally, their content and the author's imaginative prose has seemed to suffer greatly as the years trundled by. I love Mr. King's early works -- IT freaked me out and so did THE SHINING -- but his latest works have been, well, let's just say, "less than engaging" (see THE COLORADO KID and FROM A BUICK 8 as prime examples).

I'm guessing, too, that there's probably a large turn-over rate in proofreaders at these publishing conglomerates, which would also be a factor in finding errors in the manuscript. If Mr. Hillbilly College-Graduate is looking for a job and will work for peanuts just to get his foot in the door, you'd better believe that John Q Publisher will hire him (again, it's all about the money).

The other and completely nauseating aspect that I see as a problem is the "dumbing down" of American culture (especially when it comes to literacy). Readers just don't seem to care about these fundamental flaws anymore or, more likely, don't pick up on them because of limited reading skills and a poor understanding of English. Instead they'd rather worry if their hair looks like Jennifer Aniston's, or have "racks" that come close to Pamela Anderson's. Have we become so materialistic and image-conscious that the basic structure of the written word no longer matters?

These are some tough issues that readers and the general populace need to be discussing. But I fear that will probably never come to pass as long as reruns of Friends are still on and the audience for Stacked continues to grow.

I'm not going to leave this blog on that sour note, though. There are beacons of hope that have been out there for some time and even a new arrival on the literary scene that breathed some fresh air into my battered reading sail. A great little book that's in its gazillionth printing is Strunck and Whites THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. This little guide made its first appearance in 1957 and has been selling strong on college campuses ever since. Every serious writer should have a copy near-at-hand.

The other, newer shining light is EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES by British-born writer, Lynne Truss. This amazing and funny book on punctuation actually made it to the NY Times Best Seller list, which makes me hold out a glimmer of hope that somewhere out there are readers and writers who still care about the finished product.