10 Tips for Working with a Critique Group

Critique groups and beta readers are wonderful for growing your craft, whipping your book into shape before submission, and networking with other writers. But there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Take what makes sense to you–leave the rest. Don’t edit your book to suit someone’s opinion if you don’t share their opinion. It’s YOUR book.
  2. Not all critiques are created equal. For example, the advice of someone who reads widely in your genre may be better than the advice of someone who doesn’t.
  3. Not everyone will like you–or your writing. Taste is subjective. If the criticism is constructive and helpful in some way, fantastic. If not, don’t give it another thought. There are people who think John Green is long-winded, Stephen King is boring, and J.K. Rowling is unimaginative. TLDR: People be crazy.
  4. If you have more than one critique partner, you’ll receive conflicting advice. See #1. However, if more than one person shares the same opinion, listen up! You can still reject their advice if you disagree with it, but don’t disregard it without considering it.
  5. Don’t take it personally. It’s hard to see your work torn apart, but even the harshest criticism is rarely intended to hurt you.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Never argue with a critique partner or try to change their opinion, but if something is confusing–or you need suggestions for how to fix the issue–ask.
  7. Choose a group that suits your needs. Maybe you need accountability, and sharing one chapter at a time as it’s written will work best for you. Or perhaps you’re not ready to share your work until the book is finished. Your needs may even require more than one group. I have a critique group for children’s books and another for romance.
  8.  It’s okay to walk away. If a critique group isn’t working for you, leave (politely, of course). Find the people who motivate and encourage you.
  9. Don’t discount online groups or forums. My critique group for children’s books is comprised of writers I know in real life, but my romance group is made up of women I haven’t met in person–yet. Note: Inked Voices is a great resource for critique groups that “meet” online.
  10. Reciprocate. Users are losers.

“Don’t take criticism personally; take from it what’s useful. Apply it and move on to something better.” — Catherine Tate

October Mood

October is the best, isn’t it? The temperatures drop, the leaves start to change, the air smells like a pumpkin spice latte. And, of course, Halloween! It’s my favorite holiday, by far. I love the costumes, though I’ll confess I look for reasons to dress up the rest of the year too (I’ll totally be rocking a Hufflepuff uniform to every Fantastic Beasts movie, for example). And I live for the spooky films, haunted houses, and creepy stories — but only this time of year. Don’t try to get me to go to a scary movie in April. It ain’t happening.

Last year, I even took a stab at writing horror. YARN (the Young Adult Review Network) had a contest around Halloween. My story At the End of the World received an honorable mention and was chosen for publication.

This story is very different from my usual writing style. It’s a different genre (horror), category (YA), tense (present), and point of view (first person). It was an exercise in writing something outside my comfort zone. I may never write anything like it again, but I’m proud of it.

If you’re in an October mood, check it out.

Image may contain: Ashley Shouse Storm

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
― L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Coffee Injection, Stat

Finding time to write can be challenging. I’ve been stealing moments here and there when I can, usually in the evenings after work. There are lots of distractions, though. Stopping by the grocery, laundry, dinner, quality time with my husband, playing with the cats, making sure the chickens go to bed in their coop (instead of on top of it, or in a tree, or on the porch). Not to mention that I’m often mentally exhausted by the time I get around to turning on my laptop.

So, I’ve decided to try writing in the morning before work. I am not a morning person, so it hasn’t been easy. My friend Gail Nall is a talented Middle Grade author who gets up to write at 5:00 a.m. She’s been doing it for years and has several published novels to show for her hard work. I’m not quite ready to get up at 5:00 a.m., but for about a week now, I’ve been getting up every morning by 6:00 a.m.

I set an alarm and when it goes off, I pop up, ready to write!

Okay, you know that’s a lie. I hit the snooze button once — sometimes twice. Then I punch the start button on the electric kettle and pour 3 scoops of coffee into the French press. Less than 10 minutes later, I’m settled into my writing space with a warm cup of coffee and my laptop, ready to write. Right now, I’m getting in around 45 minutes of uninterrupted writing time. Eventually, I’d like to wake up earlier and write longer, but for now, the routine is working for me. I’ve written every morning.

And if I can do it, you can do it. Seriously. I fought to get out of a mandatory class in college because it was at 8:00 a.m. — and succeeded. I’m ready to go to battle for those few precious hours of sleep. But we make time for what’s important to us, right?

So, what do you say, writer friends? Would early-morning writing sessions work for you? Non-writer friends, is there something you’re willing to get up early for?

“Some people dream of success, while other people get up every morning and make it happen.” — Wayne Huizenga

Lessons from Chickens #1

If you had told me a few years ago that I would have chickens in my backyard, I’d have laughed in your face. I was a busy trial attorney who barely had time for a cat. I certainly wouldn’t have farm animals.

But here we are. I love having chickens. I have four laying hens and each have their own personalities. One is bossy, one is lazy, one is sassy, and one is really, really dumb. But I love the little dinosaurs — and not just because they each lay an egg a day; that’s just a bonus!

It’s amazing how much I learn by watching the silly creatures. So, I’ve decided to have a regular blog topic called Lessons from Chickens.

(Seriously, if twenty-something Ash traveled to the future and saw me (us?) now, she’d think I (we?) had been abducted by aliens.)

One of my hens is broody. She wants to sit on her clutch of eggs until they hatch. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize how babies are made. No rooster, no babies. Every day I take her out of the nest box and remove the eggs. Still, she won’t give up. She’s the Scarlett O’Hara of chickens. There will be more eggs to sit on tomorrow.

Lesson #1: Give it your best shot, but if/when it doesn’t happen, move on. Know when to walk away. As a writer, that may mean admitting that the opening to your novel just isn’t working. Perhaps it’s time to scrap a secondary character that you absolutely love but isn’t doing anything to further the story. It may even mean shelving your book entirely. Maybe you’ll come back to it in the future. Maybe not.

So, what do you think, friends? Is it time for you to let something go?

“Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.” Aesop

To Plot or Not?

I’ve mentioned before that my husband and I enjoy camping. We love to get away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday world, explore the great outdoors, and then snuggle by a campfire under a blanket of stars. It’s wonderful. However, there are some downsides to camping, and perhaps the biggest is that it requires more planning — and packing — than just staying at a hotel.

When it comes to packing, my husband and I couldn’t be more different. He’s a list maker. If it’s on the list, it goes. If it’s not, it doesn’t. This is true of groceries, too. It doesn’t matter if we’ve had a ten minute discussion about needing shredded cheddar cheese — if it’s not on the list, he’ll come home without it.

As for me? Sometimes I make lists, but when I do, it’s scribbled on a post-it or a napkin or the back of an envelope. It immediately gets lost (or stolen by faeries), long before I need to look at it again. If I do manage to keep up with it, I’m never able to stick to it. Something always gets added, or forgotten, or both.

With writing, I’m much the same way. I like to have a list — an outline — but it often gets lost, ignored, or changed.

Still, I have to admit that the writing process goes more smoothly when I have an outline. That’s not true of everyone. Some writers are 100% “pantsers” (they write by the seat of their pants, planning nothing in advance). To them, an outline is stifling and kills their creativity. Other writers create fifty-page outlines that plot out the book’s journey in its entirety, with routes from A to B to C all planned out. For them, writer’s block comes when they don’t know where the story is going. Then there are writers like me, who work better with an outline, but prefer it to be far less detailed. For me, the outline is like a road map with the destinations decided but the routes left to chance. Sometimes the destinations even change along the way.

There’s no wrong way or right way — as long as the book gets written.

“Some beautiful paths can’t be discovered without getting lost.” – Erol Ozan

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The Power of Romance Novels

I had a terrifying couple of minutes this morning as I waited to hear back from a friend who works in the Fifth Third building in Cincinnati — the site of an active shooter situation. She quickly texted back that the building was locked down, but that she was safe. The sense of relief that washed over me was immediate and overwhelming, until it dawned on me that the texts of the family and friends of the victims would go unanswered.

Last week, I listened to my mom recount the horror of active shooter training at the high school where she teaches. It’s now necessary for teachers and students to prepare for gunfire in the hallways, cafeterias, and libraries. In a matter of seconds, a school can become a war zone.

The world is a scary place. Racism. Sexism. Xenophobia. Homophobia. Violence. Injustice. Climate change. The decimation of the environmental protection agency. The changing face of SCOTUS. The economy. Mental illness. Sickness. Death. The list goes on.

That’s why we need romance novels. When we’re overwhelmed by the evil in the world, we can crack open a romance novel and be reminded that love conquers all. Through the twists and turns, the laughter and tears, there’s always a happily ever after at the end. It’s guaranteed.

Romance novels are about overcoming the odds, growing as a person, changing for the better. They’re stories of hope, kindness, and the power of human connection.

So, read. Read romance. Share your favorite books with others. After all, we’re in this together.

We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m Not Ashamed

I attended a workshop recently that was open to writers of all categories and genres. At the start of the day, we were asked to introduce ourselves and say what we’re writing. A man seated near me said, “I write fantasy…but at least I don’t write romance!” When it was my turn, I resisted the urge to glare at Mr. Fantasy as I said, “Hi, I’m Ash. I’m writing a romance novel.”

My annoyance with him quickly turned to pity. He was attempting to make a joke because he was uncomfortable about writing fantasy. That’s sad. No one should be ashamed of what they choose to write. Or read.

Romance writers and readers are frequently looked down upon. We’re told that our books are easy to write (they’ve never written one), that they’re formulaic and predictable (they’ve never read one). They say we shouldn’t waste our talent on genre fiction and think they’re complimenting us when they say this.

Over half of all mass market paperbacks published are romance novels. That’s a lot of books, y’all. A lot of writers. And even more readers. And that’s not even taking into account the huge romance e-book market. Romance novels are awesome, but I’ll write about that another time. It’s not what this blog entry is about.

All I want to say now is this: no one should be ashamed of the books they love. You hear me, Mr. Fantasy? Hold your head high. And knock it off with the romance bashing.

If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.  — J.K. Rowling