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Sunday, August 28, 2011

7 Common Pitfalls of Critiquers

You've been there. You join a critique group and submit your baby manuscript into the glaring lights of their red pens, and your story gets dissected, analyzed, and sown back together into a Frankenstein of your writing nightmares. To be sure, the bulk of critiquers are good, and may help to fine-tune a story. But there are those who commit what I'll call the seven common pitfalls of critiquers that I've run into. Maybe you've done some of these yourself. I know I have on occasion.

1. Expounding beyond your expertise.

A lot of new writers, after reading a book or two on writing, suddenly deem themselves experts on what is wrong with your manuscript. The truth is, while reading good books, going to classes, and other helpful sources of training, a new writer isn't going to really know why something is or isn't working until they've written a lot of words themselves. The common suggestion is somewhere in the neighborhood of one million words. Once you've written that many words of fiction, and/or have successfully published and sold your work, then you come closer to claiming the title of expert.

Does that mean I shouldn't give my opinion? Of course you should. Just make sure the tone and message is that it is only your opinion and it could be way off base. The problem comes when despite not having written more than a few short stories and/or a novel or two, you present your opinions as if you're a bestselling author who's earned his or her chops and knows the business, and the author of the story you're critiquing had better listen to you, or watch his or her career go down the drain.

One of the big problems with most on-line critique groups is the people are anonymous, and you have no idea what the qualifications are of the person critiquing your story. They may act as if they are on the bestseller's list, but not have one single story of theirs published. Keep in mind when someone sounds very sure of themselves, unless you know they are a long-time author who's written several successful novels, he or she could be nothing more than someone no more experienced than you, giving you a lot of bluster.

2. Being the writing rule police.

First, let me say, it is important that writers learn the basic rules of writing. But how do we learn those? By writing and practicing one or two things at a time. Let's say you are messing up pov, and doing a lot of telling, and characters are using unnatural dialog, etc. First you take one thing, say pov, and practice writing a story with multiple povs until you've learned to hand off the pov from one character to another, or how to set a new pov in a scene off the bat, or how to avoid jumping outside of that pov. It won't work if you try to practice all the areas you need improvement in at one time. You use each story you write as a targeted practice session, whether it ever sells or not.

But you want to know the truth? The first and only really important part of story telling that you have to get down is to tell a great story that hooks readers in. It is exactly this reason that you will see authors who break nearly every rule in the book and yet end up on the bestseller's list. I'm not saying the rules are not important. I'm only saying they are not the determining factor on whether a story you write will capture and keep the interest of readers. If you have a great story and interesting characters, you can tell all you want and show little, and people will buy it. You can have dialog that the experts laugh at, and sell a million books. Following the rules will not ensure success, nor will breaking them prevent it.

Why? Because the number one reason a reader picks up and reads a fiction book is to be entertained. If you are able to do that one thing, the rest doesn't matter. The whole purpose of the rules is to tell new writers what types of techniques create an entertaining story. They are guides to help you to write a compelling story. But if you have a compelling story and break those rules, they don't matter one hill of beans. Could the story be better if those rules were followed? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Depends on the story. But it can still be successful as long as you write and entertaining story, no matter how that happens.

But in critique groups, some will present a writing rule as if you don't fix this in your story, and do what they say, your story is doomed from the get go. But that is simply not the case. Don't diss anyone who offers such a suggestion, you may need to take heed and practice that technique. All I'm saying here is avoid acting like if the author doesn't fix this broken rule of writing, that their story will never see the light of day.

3. Acting like you know what the readers want.

Let's put this bluntly. If you knew what the readers really wanted, you'd be rich. You sure wouldn't be fiddling around in a critique group. You'd be running a publishing company cranking out one bestseller after another. Since most publishers only hit around 20% successful books in their line up, your company would make millions and you'd have so much money, why would you waste your time being an anonymous critiquer?

And yet, I've heard more than once something along the lines of, "...readers will not read past page one unless you do X, Y, and Z." As a matter of fact, I may have said such myself more than once. But the truth is, none of us knows what the readers are going to do. That is nothing more than one person's opinion. And where readers are concerned, that person's opinion may be a very small minority opinion.

Let me help you out here. Writers tend to be the pickiest readers. They notice every slip of the pen, when you forgot to use a comma right, or will complain to themselves that it should be "its," not "it's." For that writer, seeing that "ruins the whole story" for them. Typos cause them to throw up their arms in disgust. But your average reader out there who doesn't train themselves to notice every little flaw? They aren't going to be bothered by such things, even if they happen to notice it. Sure, there are some who will be, but the bulk of readers are more interested in whether you can tell a good story, not if you have down the proper usage of commas. That only gets in the way when it causes confusion and injures the enjoyment of the story.

So, if you get such a statement, realize the critiquer doesn't know what they are talking about, because nobody can predict what the readers will or will not like. Likewise, resist the urge to make such a statement to an author whose work you are critiquing. All you can do is present what one reader, yourself, noticed and felt. Don't try to speak for the other several million readers out there. That's nothing more than an intimidation ploy in most cases.

4. Demanding the author fix a perceived problem.

This goes along with #1 above. I've had critiquers tell me I couldn't move on with my story until I fixed the problems they'd seen thus far. Now, they had good intentions. Maybe that's how they operate, but I don't. I'll go through a story, gather critiques, then at a later date go back through the comments and decide what needs fixing and how I'm going to do it. I don't tend to make changes to my story in the middle of getting critiqued. For me, that isn't the best time to go making changes. Their opinions may change a little further down the story when they see how that part fit into the whole.

When someone gets mad at me for not fixing it before I move on, that says to me they perceive themselves as the expert who must be listened to, and unless I fix this issue, right now, the whole story is doomed because I've broken a writing rule, and readers will put the book down at this point in the story because they can't stomach what I've done.

Rule number 1 of critiquing someone's story: it is their story, and they can write it however they want. You are being good enough to give your opinion, but to expect them to follow all your advice is silly. It isn't your story. Give your thoughts and then move on, letting them do with your suggestions what they want. There's no reason to feel dissed if the author doesn't take your suggestions, or to get angry and stop giving them your best critique.

5. Never saying what is right about a story.

It never happens that even the best of the professional authors never break a rule or mess up in their writing. It happens far more than they would want to admit. Remember #2 above. It's the entertaining story that sells, not the perfection in technique. Likewise, even a newbie writer is going to do some things right.

Some people say they don't want critiques that are nothing more than "pats on the back." And I agree. I want to know if they didn't like something I've written, and if they can state it, why they think it didn't work for them. If more than one person feels that way, it becomes something I should at least check into. That said, neither is a good critique one that never tells you what you are doing right.

Why? Because an author needs to know what they are doing right as well as wrong, in order that they won't change what they are doing right and mess that up as well. They may not be aware they did something right. Or maybe think they did, but they need confirmation on it. You tell them not to stroke their ego, but as further training in what to do to write a good story.

Take a driving instructor, for instance. Maybe the driver-in-training cuts too close on a turn and hits the curb first time or two attempting the move. The instructor might say something like, "Well, that's no good for the tires, and you could hit someone standing on the corner. Wait until the front end of your vehicle is lined up with the edge of the street before you make your turn next time."

What does the driver-in-training do at that point? Does he slam on his brakes, back the car up, and try again? No. He'd risk backing into a car behind him, or hitting the curve again backing up. It is far harder to drive backwards than forwards. Instead, they go onto the next corner and practice it again.

Then what does the instructor say when the driver-in-training successfully turns the curve without hitting the curb? "Now you've got it. Just do it that way each time, and you'll have it down." The instructor will confirm that the driver-in-training did it right, so they'll know to keep doing it that way in the future. Same thing in writing. Once the writer starts doing something right, you want to confirm that for them so they will know they've got it down, and will stop making major adjustments to it, but move to fine tuning. Why? So the next story they do, they'll know to follow the same principles.

And the other side of the issue is that the negative comments you have are easier to swallow when you also note what was done correctly. I try to start off with what I liked about a story or chapter I'm critiquing, and end with what I liked about it. That way the author doesn't get the idea that I thought the whole thing stunk to high heaven.

6. Starting off with, "I'm sorry, but..."

Anytime I read a critique that starts out with, "I'm sorry," I know what's coming. For what the critiquer is really telling me is, "I'm sorry I hate the crap out of this thing, and I've got some bad news for you about your story, so hold on and get through my coming slam-fest, and maybe, just maybe, we'll salvage this thing you call a story, if you do exactly what I tell you."

Okay, I'm over dramatizing it, but when a critique starts off that way, you know one of two things, neither of which is ever very good. One, they feel what they are about to say will be personally hurtful. Why else tell someone sorry unless you think they are going to feel like someone just clobbered them with a tire iron?

When I critique others, and receive critiques, I never treat them as personal. Sure, it can sometimes be discouraging to realize one of your favorite parts of the story sunk like a rock in a pond in someone's eyes, but if I didn't want to hear that and discover that, I wouldn't have put my story up for critique. That kind of feedback is the very reason I put the story up. If it isn't working, best to find out then than after I've sent it in to an editor. So there's no sense in turning something that is simply treated as a professional improvement learning into a statement that sounds like they expect me to take what is about to be said, personally. Maybe because they would.

Or, two, the critiquer is using that opening as their permission to be disrespectful to me, to make it personal. You see, you can correct someone without making it sound like a parent-child relationship. There is never any cause to treat another author with disrespect, as if they are a five-year-old the critiquer has caught with their hand in the cookie jar. And starting out with, "I'm sorry, but..." does not release you from liability of doing that. I'm sorry, but it does not! Treat even the most newbie of writers, who makes countless errors, as a human God has created and deserves to be treated as an equal, not a literary slob.

And number two goes for those who will tell writers that you have to have a "thick skin" as a writer. In some ways, yes, but that should never be an excuse to take a baseball bat to the writer just to see how thick that skin really is. There is never an excuse for being mean or heartless. You can give honest, truthful, and helpful critiques, telling people where they need improvement, without sounding disrespectful in the process. No one should need to have a thick skin for that.

7. You're not Stephen King.

Have you heard that one before? Every said it, or its equivalent? Here's the deal. When someone points out that some famous author has committed the same writing sin as they have, it would be to point out that the writing sin committed would not prevent the author from writing a good story that people will like. Why? Because so-and-so author did the same thing, and that book became a bestseller.

Now, the rational goes something like this. "He's a successful author for a reason, because he was experienced enough to know how to break the rules for a certain affect. He knew what he was doing." The implication being, I do not. This statement effectively "wins" the point, for most certainly I'm not as experienced a writer as whoever was pointed out, and that author may very well have made a conscious decision to break a rule to produce a certain affect. But nine times out of ten, that writer broke that rule by mistake, not on purpose. Or in his or her day, that wasn't even considered a "rule" for good writing.

No, the real point is, as I stated earlier, is all writers on all levels of experience, break the writing rules by mistake and still write entertaining stories that sell well. What they know by experience how to do is write entertaining stories that people want to read, despite those imperfections. And even the newbie writer who is still working on being able to tell a captivating tale, is correct to point out that popular author X got away with breaking these rules and succeeded. But, what it doesn't mean is it is an excuse to ignore the rules. While they aren't irrevocable laws like the law of gravity, to ignore them as one learns the craft is like discarding the wisdom of countless writers from the past as to what works and doesn't work, generally speaking.

But when some new writer mentions that famous author X committed this sin and did pretty well, instead of pointing out that the new writer isn't author X, and doesn't have the skill set to pull off breaking that rule like author X, help them to see that author X probably wouldn't like that he/she committed that sin either, and might want to correct it if they'd caught it before it was published. And that, yes, you can get published even if you break a rule, but why not make it the best story it can be? If following that rule doesn't help toward that end, then ditch it. But if it could, why ignore it? Author X wouldn't have.

So, there you have it. My seven common pitfalls of critiquers. Do you have others you'd add to this list? Do you disagree with this list?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What is Christian Fiction?

I almost didn't write this one, but some thoughts about it came to me that I felt I should get down, and this is the best place to do that. In part I feared writing about it because I didn't want to beat a dead horse. But then it seemed to wiggle around a little bit, so I'm working to put it out of its misery. Must be a cat, because it keeps coming back to life.

The definition is a little hard to pin down, because it all depends on who is answering it as to what answer you get. Here are the general ideas floating around out there:

  1. Conservative Christians readers: A story that does not mention or promote any kind of sin, including sex, cussing, drinking, or violence of any kind, usually by not mentioning it, or avoiding showing or talking about it.

  2. Less-Conservative Christians readers: A story that doesn't violate their beliefs and principles, whatever that may be.

  3. Christian Author: A story, warts and all, that in the end is redemptive, and is not preachy.

  4. CBA Author: A story with warts removed per publisher's standards in an attempt to market to group #1, but in the end is redemptive, but does have some preachy elements in it, because that is expected.

  5. Non-Christian reader: A story that tries to convert them or doesn't read realistic to their life experiences, and usually the quality is not up to par with the secular market.

  6. Non-Christian author: A preachy, half-baked attempt to convert the masses through poorly written and low quality plots and characters.

So it is no wonder when you get a group of Christians together and ask them what is Christian fiction, you'll get different answers.

For instance, among Christians there are different degrees of Christian fiction:

  1. Overt Christian Fiction: Where the characters are Christian, they regularly quote Bible verses, God plays an active part, you may even get to hear God speaking to people as a character in the story. Often the more speculative stories will allegorize God and Jesus in an attempt to make them more palatable to the non-Christian, but everyone knows who the character represents. Thus keeping it overt.

  2. Subtle Christian Fiction: The more subtle allegories come in here, or even deeply themed works which seek to convey a "message" but in a very integrated way within the story. Usually the names God and Jesus are never directly mentioned, either just not spoken about at all, or a different name for the world is used.

  3. Mixed Christian Fiction: Here usually a Christian character is mixed with non-Christian characters to provide the contrast. Not all non-Christians are necessarily thrown in as a bad light, but the Christian character reacts as a Christian would among non-Christians. Conversion optional, if it fits the story and character.

  4. Worldview Christian Fiction: Here God or religion isn't even mentioned at all, but the worldview of the characters and author form the basis for how the characters act and react, what is shown as good and bad. These are often not at all offensive to non-Christians, but also tend to have themes that few would disagree with, like honor, loyalty, friendship, etc. A good example of this is J. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

So, what is Christian fiction? Here are two more definitions. One practical, and one the core answer.

On one hand, the label, "Christian Fiction" is a marketing term. It defines the type of reader that a particular book is written for, primarily Christians. In the case of CBA books, a particular sub-set of Christians who tend to visit Christian bookstores. Most of them want the clean, sanitized, faith affirming characters and plots found in most CBA books, including someone getting saved at some point. These are as much to support their faith as it is to read a good story. Rarely will these appeal to a non-Christian, as the content seems totally unreal to them.

There is a wider growing market of Christians, however, that want more than that. They want "realistic" fiction. Where the good people sin on occasion. But no matter how gritty, dark, or horror filled, it still leaves one with a sense of redemption and hope along the way. But this market doesn't mind an occasional cuss word if it fits the character and story, doesn't mind reminders that married couples have sex, and sometimes people commit sexual sins as well. Doesn't mind if people are drinking ale, smoking a pipe, or are less than perfect. Some of these books would appeal to non-Christians as well.

But the core definition of what is Christian fiction? It is the fiction that a Christian feels is laid on their heart to write, inspired by God, no matter what category above it fits into. That is why some authors like to say it is fiction written by a Christian, more so than Christian fiction. Then we write it, and God uses it however He sees fit.

All the above categories have their place, and we need authors that write all of them. As part of the Body of Christ, it is pointless for the little finger to say to the little toe, "I don't need you." There are authors writing really good stories in all these categories. Yes, even in the bonnet romances. Some of them are of good quality plots, characters, and writing styles. Why would the writer/reader of "edgy" Christian fiction slap around the bonnet romance folks? Or the bonnet romance folks disparage the worldview Christian writer because he never mentions God in his work? Write what God has laid on your heart, and don't go judging your fellow Christian writer because he or she feels God has laid a different type of work on their heart. God will hold you accountable for what you did with your talent, not what Joe over there did with his.

At the core, Christian fiction is fiction that God can use to further His kingdom as He sees fit. And for that reason, He is the judge of what is Christian fiction. Not you, not me. Him.

Where do you fall in these categories as a reader/writer? What is your baseline definition?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

7 Top Ways to Ensure Your Story is Preachy

Yesterday, author Mike Duran on his popular blog, deCompose, posted an essay titled, "The Problem with Message Driven Fiction." As usual, his post generated a good bit of comments. One of the themes arising in the comments is what makes a story "preachy." As one commenter put it, no one says they want their story to be preachy. Yet, we find a lot of Christian fiction that is preachy. So it must be a more poplar goal than the commenters were willing to admit.

Therefore, for those authors who do want to write preachy Christian fiction, I thought it would be a great service to list the seven best ways to accomplish that worthy task. After all, without a preacher, how will they hear? So here they are in reverse order.


Ensure you have some perfect Christian characters. All by itself, this does not guarantee preachiness, but without it, you have no one to deliver all those poignant lines of spiritual wisdom. And what is a good Christian story without perfect Christians in them to inspire us to such perfection? Someone needs to be the preacher.


Also ensure you have characters that not only need salvation, but will get it by the end of the story. Preferably in an altar call after hearing a sermon, because they by chance stumbled upon a church and decided for the first time in their life to go in because a street preacher called out a Bible verse and it spoke to him or her. Again, doesn't ensure preachiness, but without it, the opportunity for preaching gets scarce.


Make sure the characters end up in a church service at some point in the story. What is more natural to preach to the reader than for your character to end up in a service and listen to a sermon that speaks to them? If the church factors into your story, great! Take advantage of that to get a salvation sermon in. If not? I'm sure you can find somewhere to tack that on.


Sprinkle plenty of Bible verses throughout the story. Especially if you have that perfect Christian pastor or friend who can expound on the meaning in those verses, just in case it isn't clear enough by itself. After all, most Christians don't go around all day quoting Bible verses, and may not know what they really mean.


Don't just show, tell. Don't trust your reader to be smart enough to get what you are attempting to convey in the character's actions and dialog. Make sure one of the characters or the narrator takes some time to fully explain what the reader should understand from what just happened. So if someone rushes into a burning building and saves an baby from the inferno, don't forget to tell the reader how that selfless act illustrates how far God's grace has brought them from the sinner they used to be.


Make sure the plot offers plenty of chances for preaching, either by the perfect Christian or a pastor/evangelist. Remember, plot is to service the message, and that requires getting your characters into situations or discussions where they learn the truth of the Gospel message and other Christian values. Good places to make sure your characters go to are the jail, a bar (but make him/her not like it), the hospital because of some illness or wreck, or a church (see point five above).


And the number one way to ensure your fictional stories are preachy: say every truth you wish to convey at least three times. Every sermon has three point, and the Trinity is three persons. The Bible did it and look how popular it is. The formula is tell, show, and tell.

Do you have other methods to ensure preachiness? Don't keep them hidden under a bushel, do tell.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mind Game SALE!

Yep, that's right. For a limited time, my new novel, Mind Game, will be on sale in all ebook formats until August 31, 2011. The great cover artwork was done by E. M. Mickels, II, be sure to check out his site. The regular retail price for the ebooks is $5.99, but during this sale, you can get a copy for $0.99! Yes, that's right, for about a buck, you can grab your own copy of this new space opera novel. You can't hardly beat that.

You can obtain this special price for the Kindle version at, the Nook version at Barnes and Noble, and by using the coupon code at checkout, CE83R, you can get most any ebook version at Smashwords. As of this writing, the Kindle price still hasn't changed, but if you need that version, wait a bit, or go to Smashwords and get the mobi/prc version which can be read on your Kindle as well.

Don't wait, this offer is a one-time offer. I won't be able to offer it again. So go grab a copy today, and enjoy a fun space story!

For more information on the book, you can also go to my published page about the book.
<h1><em>Mind Game</em> (2011)</h1>

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Real Life and Writer's Block

This is an unusual blog post for me. Mainly because I'm writing about something I don't really have figured out yet, but I'm hoping by writing about it, I will. So bear with me, readers, as I work through this issue.

In the last six years of my creative writing work, I've had very little of what most writers would call "writer's block." Often if I came to a sticky point in writing a novel, I would think about it for a while, and usually within an hour or two (often while driving) I would come up with the solution.

In writing Reality's Dawn, I wrote in September and October of 2010, ten more short stories to add to the original five. I would finish one story not having the faintest idea what the next one would be about. I kept thinking at some point I would try to figure out what to write in the next chapter and nothing would pop out of my little brain. Yet, each time, I would get an idea quite quickly, a story idea would form, and out would pop another interesting tale.

Well, I've found out what gives me writer's block. Real life intruding into my writing world. Back early May, my real life took top priority, and sucked every bit of my attention into it. I won't go into detail here, but suffice it to say it was critical enough and important enough that it was all I could think about and deal with at the time. On top of that, I recently became unemployed, so am now seeking out a new job.

So I've done very little writing since mid-May, and hardly any of it creative writing. I've done a couple of blog post at Grasping for the Wind in my monthly column, and have written the recent character Dating Game that was put on a blog recently. And I've done some editing on my stories as they needed it. And published my Mind Game novel. But otherwise, all the announcements of new stuff coming out were things already in the works before this came about. The truth is I've written about five new lines of text in a creative story since mid-May. And I'm having a hard time getting back into writing fresh, new stuff.

The problem is, I'm not sure exactly why I'm having a hard time getting back into it. I have the time. Not as much as I had before, but still I can make some time. But the last time I tried it, I opened up the story I was working on last, Chapter 4 of Underground, and stared at it for a while, wrote those five lines, then after staring at it for a while longer, gave up. I simply couldn't put my heart into it, and I knew the story would read like I didn't. I've had trouble even opening that back up. Other things and distractions suck away all my spare time.

So I apologize to those readers who have bought the first three chapters of the book on Kindle and Nook and are waiting for Chapter 4 to arrive. My goal was to have a new chapter out every two weeks, and it has been nearly three months. But I still have it on my computer, and do plan on getting it out. I just have to get over this mental hump that has me stalled.

But because this isn't your usual writer's block, the normal solutions won't work for this. This has something to do with my brain getting back to the point of being excited to write. Not that I always feel like writing, you understand. But if I can't get excited about a story, it is hard to get up the desire to write it. I feel like the story will be as exciting to the reader as I feel about writing it.

And maybe that's the catch. I'm not excited about writing right now. The critical issues that have consumed my focus over the past months have left me little interest in writing. It's hard to go off into another world when you feel like your own is struggling to survive, or needs your fingers in the holes to keep the dike from caving in. That's it. You feel like problems were developing while you were holed up in your own world, that you were blindsided by them. So you fear the same thing happening again, and that makes writing not appealing.

So I guess the task at hand is to help myself feel that it is safe to go back into that world again. Like my character in Mind Game, I need to know the real world isn't going to fall apart while I'm off in another world. It's a security issue. So probably the first step is to take a deep breath, open that document I'm working on, let my brain think about it for a while, and see if enough time has passed that I'm past that fear. Take baby steps, but put into place some breaks that will keep me in the real world, and not oblivious to everything going on in it.

So hold onto your hats, readers. I would like to finish up the Underground series before NaNo in November hits. I've less than three months to do that, and a lot of chapters to write. I'm going to take a deep breath and plunge back into it. Life goes on, and so does the writing.

And thanks for letting me write out my issues here. And I welcome any suggestions or support. We all have to deal with these things from time to time. I hate being sidetracked, but real life happens.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reality's Dawn Dating Game

Author Ralene Burke runs a Character Tour on her blog, and I was invited to submit something. Deciding to do something a bit different than the standard character interview, I took four of my characters and put them into the Dating Game.

Enjoyed having fun with the characters. :)

Reality's Dawn Dating Game