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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The Paranormal Playground: Cover Reveal

I’ve been talking on my blog about short stories I plan to self-publish this year. Well, the first one is coming out very soon. Sometime this month.

Each of these six stories is a young adult paranormal told from the point of view of a teenage girl. Beyond that, they don’t really have much in common. Indeed, I’ve named the series the Paranormal Playground*, because that’s how it feels — like I toured the playground of the paranormal, spending a little time with demons and then fairies and then ghosts and so on.

The first story released will be My Sister’s Demon, and I’m thrilled to share the cover and the blurb. I feel like there should be a drumroll, so just imagine a bbbrrrrrrrrr pish in your head, please.

Book cover for My Sister's Demon short story

Every teenager thinks her older sibling is possessed, but Courtney’s actually is. When big sister Nickie shifts from sweet homecoming queen to evil mischief-maker, Courtney alone discovers the true source of change—demon possession. With Hell invading her home and no one to turn to, is she seriously the only one who can exorcise her sister’s demon?

Cover by Book Cover Corner

That’s it! I hope to release one story every 4-6 weeks and at the end put out a box set. It’s been a challenge and a joy writing short stories. I’m eager to share them with readers!

ROW80 Update

1. Read 12 books. Finished Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress by Tina Ferraro. By the way, I don’t know how this YA contemporary novel got on my radar, but I really enjoyed it. 4 of 12 done.

2. Finish editing SHARING HUNTER, a young adult contemporary novel. Well, I’m on fire for this goal now! Here’s where I struggle about announcing good news: I never want to come across as bragging (because I totally hate that). But hey, I submitted the first chapter to the Utah RWA Great Beginnings Contest and received 1st place. And that’s exactly the impetus I need to get me back into the story to polish it up and send it off! A bit of progress.

3. Edit one short story to publication quality. I was struggling with a plot hole on one story and finally figured out the problem involved my not understanding my antagonist well enough. At the suggestion of fellow writers, I wrote the murder scene from the point of view of the villain. It was an exercise just for me, and I felt sick to my stomach when I was done. But yeah, great writing exercise — because it totally cleared up some questions. When I returned to the story, things fell into place, I fixed the plot hole, and I got through one full edit. Major progress!

4. Publish and promote two short stories. Tweaked the book cover with my designer and chose colors for each short story. This series of shorts will have a standard image book cover, with variations of tone and title to distinguish them. I’m hoping to release the first short, My Sister’s Demon, in mid-May. On track!

5. Stay on top of ROW80 sponsor duties. Visited 10 blogs this week. Done!

*Major thanks to Melinda VanLone for suggesting this title while we were brainstorming together. It fits perfectly!

No Second First Impressions: Book Covers

You’ve heard that line:

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

I read a great book years ago, still on my bookshelf, titled You’ve Only Got Three Seconds, about making that first impression in your business and social life. It was written by Camille Lavington, a woman whom executives hired to “enhance” their image. As Camille presented it:

“Get used to it. The real world has your number. It only takes people three seconds to know where you’re coming from. Within a few seconds they can size you up. It’s not a comforting prospect to be judged so hastily, but that’s the way it is.”

She goes on to describe how quickly and automatically we really do size each other up, trying to glean information about others from clothing and hairstyle, posture and carriage, grooming and accessories, manners and mannerisms, etc. Of course, we hope to adjust our impressions as we learn more or discover discrepancies with our assumptions, but if we think we aren’t making those snap judgments, we’re fooling ourselves. Some scientists suggest this tendency is a survival instinct, which allowed us to quickly determine friend or foe and act accordingly.

Like it or not, we draw conclusions based on first impressions. And we give first impressions too — intentionally expressing our personalities and priorities by how we wear our hair, what clothing we put on, the jewelry we choose. The expensive-suited man with custom cuff links and well-trimmed hair driving a Jaguar is saying something about himself to the world, while the black-clothed, multi-tattooed and pierced man riding a motorcycle is saying something else altogether. And while it’s only a glimpse into who they are, it still suggests something about the person inside.

Which is why book covers matter.

Book cover examples
Stories I’ve Read Recently

Of course, the book cover is just a glimpse, but it makes a first impression — another promise about what the novel itself will be. You can even look at many covers and know their genre. Otherwise, why bother with the shirtless, muscular man and his swooning, bodice-ripping lady? Or the warrior holding a gleaming sword? Or the rusty ax and the blood-dripping font?

I’ve been following a marvelous series of blog posts from the marvelous Melinda VanLone of Book Cover Corner about book covers and what they should include. I encourage writers to check it out: The Amateur’s Guide to a Professional Book Package: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four to Come. As a book cover designer, Melinda understands the importance of making that first impression and gives authors specific tips on what to look for when designing or requesting a cover.

Book covers have also been on my mind because my local RWA chapter, Houston Bay Area RWA, hosts the annual JABBIC (Judge A Book By Its Cover) contest. Official judging of submitted covers has ended, but now it’s time for Reader’s Choice voting. I encourage you to vote your own first impression on the book covers there. Here’s the official announcement:

Judging for the Readers’ Choice Award in Houston Bay Area RWA’s 2013 Judge A Book By Its Cover contest is now open. The Readers’ Choice winners will be featured on HBA RWA’s website at hbarwa.com.

Anyone can judge, so spread the word. Voting will be open until midnight CST on February 9, 2014. We will announce the Grand Prize Winners, judged by booksellers, as well as the Readers’ Choice Winners on February 10, 2014.

The following link will take you to the Readers’ Choice page. Follow the instructions there to vote on all the covers.

https://jabbic.hbarwa.com/readers/

Vote quickly. Judging ends tonight at 12:00 midnight Texas time (CST).

ROW80 Update

Speaking of judging, I’ll let you be the judge of how I did with my writing goals this week. Following is my regular update for A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life. Here are my goals for the round:

1. Read 12 books. I finished book #6, Mila 2.0 by Debra Driza (fiction), and also read half of #7, Making Love in the Microwave (nonfiction), by Aja Dorsey Jackson. On track.

2. Complete two drafts of short stories. I wrote a little more on one short story, but not as much as I’d hoped. A little off track.

3. Take care of ROW80 sponsor responsibilities. Visited blogs on Sundays and Wednesdays. What’s amazing about this particular challenge is to see writers at all stages of the journey: from first draft of first book to multipublished authors! And everyone supporting each other each step. On track.

4. Edit at least once through Good & Guilty, young adult mystery. Deep edited two chapters. I also won a first chapter critique from a fellow author, so I sent those pages to her for feedback and received some great tips. On track, but I wish the train moved faster.

What’s your opinion of book covers? Are you swayed to read a book or even the book blurb based on a fabulous cover? And how was your week?