Critiquing vs. Brainstorming

As soon as I connected to other writers, I started hearing about the importance of having your writing critiqued. Whether it’s critique partners or a critique group or a professional editor, quality feedback can lift your writing to another level. Since authors want their books read by others, we should welcome helpful comments that hone our writing skills and push us to pen better novels.

While I don’t have a specific critique group, I have relied on critique partners. It can take some time to find the right fit, but once you do, the results are wonderful! I can’t speak highly enough about those who have helped me better craft my stories and my words.

But I’ve recently had the pleasure of an activity that has possibly helped me even more: brainstorming.

Three people brainstorming, light bulb overhead
Hey, let’s brainstorm!

First, a multi-published author friend of mine put together a monthly brainstorming group. Rather than reading scenes or chapters aloud and critiquing one another, we each have an opportunity to share a plot or characterization issue, a draft query or synopsis we need help with, or even a passage that’s got us stumped. You can even throw out a novel premise to see if it has legs or wings, and thus counts as worth the trouble to write. Whatever your issue, you present it to the group, and then for maybe 15 minutes the rest of the group brainstorms ideas to deal with the problem.

With several people in the group, and the synergy of the discussion, many suggestions fly around. Even if some of them aren’t usable in the end, I’ve had some incredible gems come from this process. The brainstormers also tend to ask hard questions that lead me to obvious solutions or even the discovery of other problems (which I need to know about now, before I publish). I’ve quickly become very attached to attending this group, because it’s so helpful and, quite honestly, fun. What’s more fun for a bunch of writers than getting around a table and talking about our stories?

Another avenue for brainstorming has been one-on-one chats with friends. I’ve recently had the pleasure of tapping the brilliant minds of fellow authors Melinda VanLone and Diana Beebe when I got stuck on a scene or contemplating a story premise. Their what if… comments have been illuminating. Even if I end up figuring out a solution myself, the conversation gets my mind focused and flowing.

Face-to-face, I’ve also been writing with a couple of groups at cafés and coffee shops. I love pausing in a frustrating place in a scene, looking up at another writer and asking a question, and voilà! problem solved. Even a minute or two of brainstorming has sometimes cracked a puzzle better than me ruminating over the issue for half an hour. That’s time well-spent.

Brainstorming has been a big boon to my writing lately. I highly recommend it.

ROW80

And speaking of time well-spent, A Round of Words in 80 Days begins this week. Very quickly, here are my goals for Round 4:

1. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. I’m planning to release A Little Fairy Dust and Living with Ghosts before the end of the year.

2. Read 12 books. This is a good number for me to aim for, and I enjoy sharing what I’ve read here.

3. Attend Immersion Master Class and follow-up. Starting at the end of this week, I’ll be hanging out for a few days with a few fellow writers and coach extraordinaire, Margie Lawson. I’m taking my Sharing Hunter manuscript to see what more I can do to make it sparkle.

I wonder how many other authors are using brainstorming rather than, or in addition to, critiquing. Do others have formalized brainstorming groups? Do you have brainstorming partners? Does your critique group use brainstorming in some way?

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Contests, Critiques, and Queries: Not for the Fainthearted

If you want to be a real writer, you have to get better — better than you started out, better than thought you were, better than you are. You have to be okay with putting your work out there and seeking feedback from good critiquers. This past week, I’ve been on that road.

Wizard of Oz

Way back in December, my local RWA chapter had a Christmas party, and one of the activities was to write down a goal for 2014 which we would review at the next Christmas party (this December). I wrote down: “Enter three contests.”

And I did enter those three contests, finaled in two, and placed first in one. (Which, I won’t lie, felt awesome.) But I’ve decided to enter two more contests as well, and I’ve been getting those submissions ready. Entering contests provides an opportunity to get your work in front of other writers, hear their feedback, and possibly get an industry professional’s take. I was reluctant at first, but now I’m sold on the benefit of contest entries.

When choosing which ones to enter, look for appropriate genre categories, what exactly gets judged (chapters? synopsis? query?), what the requirements are, and who are the final judges. I chose one of my contests solely based on an editor judge from my dream publisher; the potential of getting a request from them is worth the entry for me.

I’ve also been getting critiques from critique partners in my midst. I am so blessed to have fabulous writer friends willing to do everything from brainstorm plot or characterization issues, to read a passage I’m struggling with, to go over whole chapters and provide detailed feedback. I also love getting to read work from others and give my perspective. I believe my commentary has improved as my understanding of craft has deepened.

One of the most common questions I see in the writing community is “How do I find a good critique partner?” And honestly, I still don’t know how to answer. I sort of stumbled upon my marvelous luck. My beta readers/critique partners came from an in-depth writing class, a conference, online interaction, a local writing chapter, and a long-term friendship. I guess the threads through all of those are finding ways to link to other writers and being willing to share your work, try out those connections, see if you fit.

Critiques are a must-have for any serious writer, and your critique partners should be your most honest critics and your best cheerleaders. This past week, I’ve been getting the criticism and the cheerleading, both of which I need.

Speaking of critiques, I am taking an online query class through Lawson Writing Academy this month: Submissions That Sell with RITA Winner Laura Drake. Queries are a different animal. Many writers hate the idea of having to summarize their hundreds-of-pages novel in a few paragraphs or — how can it be done?! — a single logline. But this is the business of selling the novel you spent so much time writing. Whether you query a traditional agent or publisher or write marketing blurbs for a self-published novel, you’d better know what your book is about and be able to state it in the attention span of a gnat.

I’ve queried before and actually enjoy writing up these letters, along with loglines and synopses. It’s a good challenge. However, I admit to feeling a little wounded by the critique of my query I posted on the online class forum. (Just right there — in the left chamber of my heart, a half-inch by half-inch space, a little bit of an ouch.) Yeah, my query could be better.

But this is no time to be fainthearted. If my query can be improved, I need to know. I need to present the product I’ve spent hours and hours and hours putting together in the best light possible. I want people to read this baby! So there will be blood, sweat, and tears expended on query writing. Which I consider well-worth my effort.

So that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing this past week: contests, critiques, and queries. Oh, and writing. And editing. And . . . well, here’s my progress report for A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.

ROW80

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel.

Snoopy doing happy dance

That is my update. I’m now letting the novel sit until midweek, then tackling another edit.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. I can now start on this goal this week!

3. Read 12 books. Read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and almost finished with Promise of Magic by Melinda VanLone — which will make 11 books for the round.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Just waiting to finish #1.

So what feedback do you receive and recommend? What do you think of contests, critiques, and/or queries? And how was your week?