Critique Partners: 7 Things to Consider

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Original Image Credit: CCO Creative Commons/Pixabay

Many years ago, I joined one of my first writers’ groups.

In this group were writers of various ages and professional backgrounds. Some were stay-at-home moms. Others were teachers, nurses, social workers, and office managers. We also had a company president or two and a smattering of business owners. Some were published authors.

While we were all at different stages in our writing careers, we shared a common interest and a mutual goal: our love for the creative arts and the desire to grow in our craft.

Our monthly meetings were a great time of fellowship and learning. It was a “safe” environment where we let down our hair and talked about our works-in-progress. We discussed writing mechanics, industry changes, and anything else related to our craft.

As our group grew in number, new friendships formed. Some of us clicked with those who would become our critique partners.

In fact, that’s how I found my first critique partner. Though she eventually moved out of the area and away from writing, I enjoyed our time together and my writing improved. Our working relationship stretched me and nudged me beyond my comfort zone.

There are, of course, some authors who prefer to go it alone, though, I just don’t know of many. The creative process is challenging enough without wondering if our stories are connecting. Even seasoned authors use critique partners to peruse their work.

Does the plot intrigue? Are our characters realistic? Are there any timeline discrepancies? And oh, my gravy, what about grammatical issues?

These are things critique partners can spot easier than we can. When we’ve looked at our own work a thousand times we’re no longer objective, and often, we’re too bleary-eyed from the process to completely care. Well, we care, but the truth is we may tire of our own words. (There. I said it!) Too, we may recognize there are holes and issues within our stories, but we just don’t know how to fix them.

That’s where our awesome, stupendous critique partners help.

It may take time to gel with the right individuals, but once we discover each other, it’s a beautiful thing. These are the folks who become our coaches, cheerleaders, mentors, and friends.

Now that we’ve talked about critique partners and their importance, what criteria should we look for in those connections?

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Original Image Credit: fancycrave1/Pixabay

Let’s consider these seven things:

 

  1. Are they like-minded? Are they believers? Doctrinal issues aside, do our life philosophies mesh? In other words, I love Jesus, sticky notes, and Starbucks. Those last two are negotiable. Now, casting stones and holier-than-thou mindsets? Sorry. Those don’t work for me. They make me break out in hives.

 

  1. Do they write in similar genres? Our critique partners may write in different sub-genres, but underneath the inspirational fiction umbrella. They’re aware of the vast differences between CBA and ABA guidelines. Likewise, if we write for the secular market, we best choose those who have a knowledgeable grasp on the industry.

 

  1. Are they well-read? Our critique partners might write to a specific audience, but they enjoy reading a variety of stories. In other words, they’re experienced readers.

 

  1. Do our personalities mesh? I’m a see-the-glass-half-full, Pollyanna kind of gal. I love to laugh and have fun. I’m an encourager. I’m candid (but tactful), down-to-earth, and unpretentious. I recognize I’m not perfect. While our critique partners have their own special traits, it’s important we share common ground.

 

  1. Are they aware of the changing market? Do they stay abreast of industry news? This is a must because as times change, so does the publishing world. Our crit partners help us discern what changes might affect our work and what could influence editors’ decisions regarding it. They understand the importance of staying on top of market demands because they’re writers, too.

 

  1. Will it be a mutually beneficial relationship? While friendship is often a prerequisite, our relationship with our critique partners should be a give-and-take scenario. In the ideal partnership, strengths and weaknesses are addressed, shared, and dealt with professionally (and lovingly).

 

  1. Do we feel safe? Do our partners understand the importance of trust and confidentiality?  The best working relationships are fueled by those two factors.

 

***

What things do you look for in a productive partnership?

How have you benefited from critique partners?

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Cynthia writes Heartfelt, Homespun Fiction from the beautiful Ozark Mountains. She loves to connect with friends at her online home. “Cindy” also hangs out on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. For love, fun, and encouragement, sign up for her monthly newsletters.

 

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4 Strategies to Examine Your Life and Work Priorities

At times, I get exhausted chasing all of my writing ideas and plans.

I’m tempted to give up when I look at my “to do” list. But after examining the lessons I learned about rearranging furniture, I realized I needed to reposition a few things in my writing life, too.

This process included examining my priorities, resolving some internal and external conflicts, developing a strategy, and asking for help.

1.  Examine your priorities. Right now, I’m overwhelmed with many of the projects I face. So, I decided to visit my priorities again in all of my writing, blogging, and speaking commitments.

I also know that I need to be willing to make changes. Last week’s priority may not even be in the top ten on my “to do” list today. But often it takes a conflict or a stumble to get my attention.

2. Resolve internal and external conflicts. I often take on more commitments than I can handle. Do you? And this causes me humiliation and embarrassment as I’m faced with making choices that others won’t understand.

For instance, a few weeks ago, I traveled out of town to speak at two separate events, leaving only one day to prepare for my next event. Although I had prepared most of my materials, I became overwhelmed as I sorted through the last minute details.

Then, the day after I returned home, I drove a couple of hours to spend a few days at my daughter’s home. She needed a little moral support, preparing to send her four young children back to school and tackling some household projects.

When I returned home again, not only did I need some rest, I needed to sort a few things in my own house, including my writing life.

3.  Develop a strategy. I asked myself, What should I do to meet my writing needs right now? 

I knew I needed to develop a new strategy. Writing down all of my commitments helped me examine them, so I could get a more objective view of my writing decisions.

So, as I reviewed my calendar and my “to do” list, I also asked myself some hard questions. Why did I commit to this endeavor? Am I passionate about this?

Often, I can’t see my own life objectively until I examine it on paper. And sometimes, that process doesn’t even work. So, that’s when I call in the troops.

4.  Recruit a friend for help. I’m grateful for a few family members and writing friends who will be honest with me when I ask for their input about my schedule.

Sometimes the looks on their faces say it all, “What were you thinking?”

At other times, they encourage me, “Don’t give up! You can do this thing!”

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Eccl. 4:12 NIV)

If you’re overwhelmed in your life—whether you’re a writer or not—don’t give up!

I encourage you to examine your priorities, resolve those internal and external conflicts, develop a strategy, and maybe even call in the troops for some help.

What strategies have helped you as you examine your life and work priorities?

Have We Met? Creating Characters Your Readers Will Feel They Know

Last semester at school, my daughter made friends with quite a few international students, including several from Mexico. So when one of them invited her to visit Mexico this past summer, my daughter was ecstatic. She had the time of her life, deepened her relationships with the friends she’d made here, and returned home already talking about her next trip.

A few days ago, an earthquake struck Mexico City, where her friends live. They texted her that day as they stood outside their school watching the walls crack and nearby buildings collapse.

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She and I watched the news together, glued to scenes of rescue efforts. My daughter studied faces, searching through the throngs of people stumbling over debris as they searched for the missing. Had she passed by some of those collapsed buildings when she’d been in that city just a few weeks earlier? Quite possibly. Did she know any of the people walking by, streaked with dirt, hands scratched from digging through rubble, or shouting with joy when they were reunited with a loved one? She might. People she knew well, friends she loved, were impacted by this disaster. They were afraid, traumatized, comforting friends and strangers, tired, homeless, helping others. So she couldn’t tear her eyes from the screen. And because I knew their names, had heard their stories, had witnessed the love and friendship they shared with my daughter, neither could I.

I watch the news every night. I want to be informed about what is going on in the world. I sometimes see, through the lens of the Bible, end time prophesies unfolding before my eyes. And it helps me to know how to pray.

But I have never watched with the intense interest, concern, and compassion with which I have watched the last few days, with my daughter. What has made the difference? People I have met, people who matter to my family, are involved. And so I am involved. I care deeply about what happens to them, so I am mesmerized. I am emotionally connected to her friends; I know their names and their faces; my chest literally aches for them. And their faith and trust in God in the midst of tragedy humbles and inspires me.

And it strikes me – this is how we, as Christian authors, need to write our characters. When we create the people in our stories, we do so in imitation of the creation of the first man and woman, and our words breathe life into them. We have been charged with the task of taking the dust and mud of an empty page and forming it with our fingers into characters with such depth that they become real to our readers, as though they know them personally.

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When that happens, everything changes. Readers become emotionally connected to the people in our stories—relatable because of their strengths and weaknesses, their flaws and their capacity for greatness, their ordinariness and their uniqueness—and intensely interested in what is happening in their lives. They will ache with them when they experience hardship and tragedy, and rejoice with them when they triumph over their circumstances.

And when some of those characters live out their faith on our pages, whether they are stumbling around, scratched and streaked with dirt, or shouting and dancing with joy, our readers too may be humbled and inspired to live out their faith in their own lives.

So this week I pray for Mexico and I pray for all the suffering and the lost in the world, that they may experience God’s mercy, comfort, and love. And I pray that God will, in some small way, use the words, the actions, the faith of the characters we create, to impart that mercy, comfort, and love to those who read their stories and come to know and care deeply about them.

How about you – have you ever connected so deeply with a character you felt as though you knew him or her personally? What was it that drew you in so deeply?

My Favorite Encouragement Quotes for Writers

Never Too OldIf you write for any length of time, you’re going to need encouragement somewhere along the journey, no matter how long you’ve been at it. If you’re like me, you may need a lot of motivating words, and you can’t wait around expecting someone else to provide them. Often, to keep the creative juices flowing, you need to get intentional about inspiring yourself — which is why I keep my favorite encouragement quotes for writers close by.

See if any of these strike a chord with you. Maybe you could use one of these morale boosters for your writing.

“Be ruthless about protecting writing days. Do not cave in to endless requests to have essential and long overdue meetings on those days.” — J.K. Rowling

Writing Quote George Orwell“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

“Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage. Courage to risk rejection, ridicule, and failure.” — Robert McKee

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” — Anais Nin

“If you wait for inspiration to write, you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” — Dan Poynter

Writing Quote Tobias Wolff“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” — Agatha Christie

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” — Thomas Mann

“I can fight off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” — Anne Frank

“This business of being a writer is ultimately about asking yourself, how alive am I willing to be?” — Anne Lamott

“You can do it!” — Your Morning Coffee

Do you have some favorite encouragement quotes for writers you’d like to share? Which of these is your favorite?

Why Our Time Matters

Why Our Time Matters

Original Image Credit: Pixabay/FreePhotos

When writers work from home, distractions abound.

We care for our homes and families, chauffeur kids, tackle laundry, prepare meals, and handle the day-to-day affairs that go with the territory.

We also field infringements on our time from outside sources. Those come by way of well-intentioned friends and family who may not realize that while we’re home, we are indeed still working. At writing. Yes—that.

And though we are home, our time still matters.

The truth is if we don’t value our time and treat writing as our career, no one else will either.

Prioritizing our work load isn’t something that always comes naturally. We must be intentional, focused, and goal-oriented. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions.

Life ebbs and flows. Of course, sometimes, unforeseen things upend our schedule. We know we have a problem, though, when we begin to see a pattern—when we allow things that could wait to hijack our day.

For people-pleasers, time management is difficult. We want to be approachable and available, yet we also understand the rigors of working from home. We have X number of hours during the day to get our work done before our families arrive home and our evening routine begins.

Occasionally, we try to juggle it all only to discover we can’t.

Writing is our job. Maybe we don’t yet earn the income from it we’d like. Maybe we’re still pursuing career goals.

Does that mean our work is less meaningful?

I’ll give you an example.

Many years ago, “Sally Sue” used to call me—usually more than once a day. I dreaded those calls that went something like this.

“Hey, Cindy. There’s a great meat sale down at the market. Of course, they tried to cheat me out of some deals, but I got everything worked out. Let me tell you about it.”

“I’m working just now, Sally Sue. Can I call you back when I take a break?”

“Oh, this will just take a minute. Five, tops.”

What do you think happened?

One guess.

Well, of course, those it’ll just take a minute phone calls morphed into thirty-minute commentaries.

And Sally Sue was always in a tizzy. Nothing ever went right. The world was against her.

Her calls left me resentful and deflated. For this see-the-glass-half-full gal, I was thoroughly parched by the time the calls ended.

As much as I wanted to be there for Sally Sue, it became apparent I needed to distance myself from what had become a disturbing pattern.

“Sally Sue, I won’t be available to talk as often,” I announced one day. Subtle hints hadn’t worked and neither had direct cues. It was time to cut to the chase. Tactfully. Truthfully. Lovingly. (Did I mention truthfully?)

“Oh, what do you mean?” The sound of an electric mixer whirred in the background.

I plunged ahead. “My time matters, Sally Sue. I work from home and when you call, that’s time away from work.”

“So, you want me to call in the evenings? I can do that.”

No. That’s not what I wanted at all. Evenings were family time.

“Sally Sue, that won’t work.”

Right then, I nipped this situation in the bud. I regretted not doing it sooner.

I told Sally Sue I’d only be able take calls on Friday afternoons and I could no longer chat beyond the ten-minute mark.

When she pushed the envelope, as I feared she would, I refused to answer her calls other than on Fridays. When ten minutes passed, I ended the conversation. Politely, but firmly.

Her parting line was always: “Wow. I guess you’re serious. Your time really matters, huh?”

Yes. And yes.

Sally Sue’s calls stopped altogether when we moved from the area. I prayed that God would direct her to the friend she so obviously yearned for. One who shared similar interests and attributes.

Since I’m a firm believer that God brings folks together for a reason, a season, or a lifetime, I recognize the time with Sally Sue as a defining point in my writing career.

When I grew serious about managing my time, I began to think in a new way. My craft (my work) no longer took a back seat to other “nobler” professions. I approached my job with a new mindset, having learned a valuable lesson in the process.

There are always times of sacrifice, but self-respect is non-negotiable.

See, here’s the thing—and may I be frank?

  • I may not always answer the phone.
  • I may not answer my door.
  • Dusting may have to wait, as well as clothes-folding, toilet-scrubbing, and errand-running.

And call me a “meanie” BUT

  • I will no longer serve on every committee, join every club, or attend social functions for the sake of “putting in an appearance.”
  • I can’t walk your dog.
  • I don’t do laundry (other than my own).
  • I won’t organize your closets, clean your kitchen, or mow your lawn.
  • I know nothing about stamp-collecting, beekeeping, or turnip-growing.

Because writing is my full-time profession, if I don’t value my time and my career, no one else will. That’s why there are times I must say “No, thank you” and “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to pass.”

Let me encourage you today to get real about your work—whether at a tabletop or a little niche inside your home.

Some folks will understand. Others won’t.

That’s when we love them anyway.

Then we silence our phones and eat chocolate.

While we work. 😊

***

As a writer, how do you handle life’s delicate situations?

Any time-saving tips you care to share?

 

Cynthia writes Heartfelt, Homespun Fiction from the beautiful Ozark Mountains. She loves to connect with friends at her online home. “Cindy” also hangs out on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. For love, fun, and encouragement, sign up for her monthly newsletters.

That Time When I Plagiarized… Accidentally.

I was riding on the wings of a book launch, when energy and excitement are high, and the invitations for radio interviews, podcasts, and guest blog posts filled the pages of my calendar.  I was delighted to have one of the most coveted (can Christians say coveted?) invitations, a guest post on a blog that’s read worldwide. I pulled an excerpt from a chapter in my book, a piece about having confidence in the sovereignty of God, even when you feel overlooked.  I submitted to the editors, I got the stamp of approval, and I waited for the day it would go live. These were exciting times, my friends. Exciting times, indeed.

The morning after the post went into the world, I got an email from an author I’ve long loved, one whose writing I have studied and learned fromI was delighted to hear from her, as I’ve long read her words and tucked them into my heart.  I found her work years ago, shortly after my husband died, when I was searching everywhere for guidance and any ounce of hope.  This author had experienced her own dark valley of grief, and I read her words voraciously, letting her light my path through the valley. She had been a lighthouse for me. She had read my guest post and she wanted to reach out to me… but not for reasons I had hoped.

She said,

Tricia: I know what it’s like to find someone else’s words that sound so much like your own thoughts and to use them so much they begin to feel like your own. I know I’ve used other people’s words in this way, so I’m not throwing stones. But your beautiful blog post today had some very familiar-sounding words, and I wonder if you might want to either rewrite them to make them your own or attribute them as a quote?

And then she wrote the text from the blog post, and I gasped aloud and spilled my coffee across the dining room table. Those words were definitely hers. I was very accidentally, but very definitely, guilty of plagiarizing. And I was horrified.  As embarrassing as it is, let me tell you what happened so I can perhaps spare you from breaking the Number One Rule of writing.  Here’s what happened.

As I devoured her books so many years ago, I had quoted her in my journals, prayed her prayers in my own voice. In my silent hours of crying out to God, I had copied her passages and doodled her quotes, weaving them into my own.  After all, she had given me words when I was too sad to find my own. But in my stream of consciousness journaling, I didn’t quote my sources. (Because who footnotes in the privacy of their own journals?)  Years later, when it came time to write this new book, I revisited those journals that had chronicled the stages of my journey.  I rediscovered words and prayers and ideas and themes, all in my handwriting.  And I simply pulled from my journals, and I wrote them into a new manuscript.

Yes, she had found her words in a blog post that could be easily fixed, but the greater concern is that the blog post was an excerpt from a book. And that book was now out in the world. Such things are not as quickly fixed.

I called my agent, Greg, immediately.  It happened to be on his birthday. First, I told him happy birthday, then I told him I had accidentally broken the law in a book that was out in the world.  I prepared myself to be sued, to lose my credibility, and worst of all, to never write again.  It felt unprofessional, and unprofessional is never something I want to be known for. I didn’t want to draw anyone’s integrity into question, certainly not mine, and definitely not my publishers’.

Greg talked me off the ledge, explained that this was an honest mistake that happens sometimes, particularly among pastors who become authors.  They gather their resources from all over, they write a sermon, and then their sermons are transcribed to become book chapters, and the original sources get lost in translation. He walked me through a plan: we would write a correction on the blog post, we would make changes in future reprints of the book, and we would make changes in ebooks immediately.  This mistake was not, in fact, the very end of the world or even of my career.

We offered our solution to this acclaimed author, and she was gracious in her reply.  She said:

Please don’t sweat this.  I know I’ve done this.  In fact, I think we would both be horrified to see how much I’ve done it without realizing it because I too have been sloppy in noting where I got things.  So please don’t beat yourself up. You are forgiven and free, my dear.  And may the Lord give me grace to respond as graciously as you have when an error like this is pointed out to me, as I’m sure they one day will be.

She was the epitome of gentleness, forgiveness, and professional compassion.  She showed me how we, a community of Christian authors, can support one another’s work and hold each other accountable. I’ve learned some hard lessons about plagiarism, gentle confrontation, grace, and footnoting everything – even in the sacred privacy of my journals.

Take it from me, my fellow writers. Even on cocktail napkins, journal pages, and fleeting scraps of paper, note your sources so you can quote your sources.

Six Hurdles to Becoming an Author

When I attended my first writer’s conference in 2006, I thought I’d pitch an agent or editor and sell my book on the spot. After all, my college professor used my papers as good examples for her class, so these writing professionals were sure to read my work and sing the Hallelujah Chorus, right? Interviews on Good Morning America, Oprah’s Book Club, and a Pulitzer Prize would be sure to follow. Money would rain from the heavens. I was 28.

I’ll be 40 this year. I’m older, wiser, more experienced, and yet I’ve never met Oprah.

So let me step in as your coach and tell you how this really works.

  1. You have to write a book. I started many books before I finished one. And I probably only finished because I’d paid for a conference and needed something to sell to all those editors who I thought would come knocking. Editors or not, this is probably the hardest hurdle to clear. You don’t know you can leap over it until you do. So set that deadline for yourself, make the time, and feel free to write crap. Because this manuscript will likely be considered a false start anyway.I Got Nothin'
  2. Find a critique partner. Now because I’m the kind of person who takes off before the pistol is fired, I did have an editor request my manuscript after this conference and an agent sign me on the basis that I had an editor interested. This story didn’t get published though (thank goodness), and the most valuable thing that came out of my first conference was my critique partner. She got me back on track and trained with me. We moved at about the same pace and agreed to read each other’s manuscript. I not only learned a lot from her, but she ended up starting a publishing company which eventually published my Fun4Hire series. This is one of the coolest things about the writing community. Meeting all those famous authors is exciting, but it’s even more exciting to help your friends succeed.

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    I named characters Christina and Dave after my first critique partner and her husband.

  3. Enter contests. Christina and I both finaled in contests. This is great encouragement to keep going when it feels like your words will never see the ink of a printing press. It also looks good in a cover letter and can include great feedback. Often these contests are judged by your dream editor. You’ll be scored on exactly what they like or don’t like about your work. And sometimes, if they like your work enough, as in the case of the Harlequin contest I entered, they’ll give you a contract and publish it.

    Book Signing

    Almost all of Team Love on the Run sold manuscripts through a Harlequin contest!

  4. Submit. Now I didn’t include “reading” as one of the six hurdles because normally if you want to be a writer, reading is no hurdle. It’s more like cheering from the stands. That being said, READ and research your favorite books to find out who sold and edited them. That’s probably who you should to submit your work to. Agents and editors know what they want, and you are wasting time if you send them something outside their interests.

    Angela and Editor

    My editor Miralee Ferrell is hard to keep up with.

  5. Get rejected. This is like shin splints. You don’t feel the pain unless you push yourself. Now you can commiserate with the rest of us. Feel free to keep count of your rejection letters or recycle them so your next rejection letter can possibly be written on the same fibers. Whatever you do, be proud. You’re writing isn’t perfect, but that’s okay. It’ll never be perfect. What matters is you’re working hard to beat your last time. Get up and keep going.

    Me and Mark Twain

    Even Mark Twain’s WAR PRAYER was rejected. He said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”

  6. Network. To some of you, this hurdle might be even harder than getting rejected. It’s like being interviewed after you lost a race on television. But you have to get in front of an audience to build what editors like to call a platform. It can be through social media, blogs, websites, radio, magazines, or newspaper. You are your own front man. You exude the the passion that pours into each of your stories. People want to read what you have to say because you inspire them.

    Why Christian romance- (2)

    People who know me know I’m passionate about healthy relationships and that I believe love can change lives. Also, it’s fun.

If you continue to improve your performance and don’t give up, you increase your chance of crossing the finish line into publication. All I’m going to say here is that selling your first manuscript won’t be anything like you imagine it to be. It will be better.

There you have it. Though you should also know that on average it takes seven years to win a book contract. And then you face a whole new set of hurdles.

Is it worth it? Only if you can relate to Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire when he says, “I feel God’s pleasure when I run.”

He never met Oprah either.

Oprah

Photoshop is probably the closest I’ll ever get.