When I spoke at the Tri-Valley chapter of the California Writer’s Club, I heard about this great base critique group the club had, one that helped the club’s writers get started with critiquing, and then went even further–to help them form their own, smaller break-out groups. I loved this idea then, and I still do. So when Lani Longshore offered to guest-post about the club and her history with its critique groups, I jumped at the idea.

Read Lani’s bio and post below, and don’t forget to enter a comment. I’m doing another giveaway with this post: one commenter will win a copy of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. I’ll draw a name sometime late Sunday and will post the winner on Monday, April 23rd. If your log-in doesn’t link to an email, make sure to leave that email in the comment, so I can find you!

Here’s Lani!

Lani Longshore is a charter member of the California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch. She and her friend Ann Anastasio created a new literary genre – quilting science fiction – with their novella Death By Chenille (available on Smashwords.com). As well as writing the sequel (When Chenille is Not Enough), she teaches quilting and makes art quilts. Her weekly blog follows her adventures in the sewing room.

The Tri-Valley Writers’ Way to Critique

I am pathetic without a deadline. Writing may be in my blood, but the stories collect like plaque on the arteries unless I have a date circled on the calendar. Years ago I joined a writing circle – a critique group by any other name – but it disbanded when two of the women got full-time jobs and one went back to school.

Eventually, I joined the California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch. One of the first things the Tri-Valley Branch did was start a critique group. Hector Timourian volunteered to run it. He arranged for us to meet monthly at a Barnes and Noble. The group started with five regulars and a few drop-ins.

Then the group grew. In one year, membership went from five to fifteen. It was becoming unwieldy to discuss so many pages on one night. We posted our work ahead of time, so that the entire meeting could be devoted to commentary rather than reading, but there were still too many people in the group.

As sad as it was to split, we decided that was the only solution. This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to critiquing at our branch. The first group to spin off was comprised of those of us working on novels.

I joined that first novel group.  We made very few changes to the system that had worked so well in the original group for the first few months. We already had a strong working relationship, so we felt confident we could adapt to changing circumstances. This is exactly what happened, and after two years we are still a productive, committed group.

The original critique group has also adapted. A year after the first spin-off, another novel group was established. The branch recognized the value of training new members to be good critiquers. Now anyone interested in joining a critique group starts with Hector’s. New groups spin off from it when they are ready. Members learn how to give constructive, useful comments under the guidance of experienced critiquers. More important, they learn to accept constructive, useful comments to become better writers.

Tuesday night at the South Bay CWC, I heard Tanya Egan Gibson give a great talk about world building. Now, Tanya doesn’t write fantasy or science fiction. She doesn’t write historical. She writes, in her own words–satire.

Not a genre you necessarily think of as needing a whole lot of world building. But Tanya does. I’m guessing she would say that any genre demands world building.

Because when you build your story world, that world, in turn, steps in to impact, if not drive, what your characters will do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, as I do more research about 1910-1915, Chicago. (And, yes, I am SO going to read Kristin O’Donnell Tubb’s Selling Hope, set in 1910 Chicago–just as Hailey’s Comet comes through.) In my first draft, I did research as I wrote, but I was focusing on getting to the story, to Caro’s story, not worrying as much about filling in the world around her. And this was good, because I not only got to the story, I got to two stories, which–overwhelming as it felt at first–was the right discovery for me to make.

But I’ll tell you, it was frustrating to write without setting. I found myself giving Caro and her supporting cast the same tasks over and over. I had her reacting in situations where I didn’t know precisely what she was reacting to…or with, which pretty  much made her feel (at least to me) hyperbolically melodramatic. Yes, that much. I do like the bracket as an early-drafting tool, but by the time I wrote “The End,” I was pretty sick of typing it all over the place.

I can’t write another draft this way. For my sanity, a big piece of Draft 2 is going to be setting research. Or, yep, world building. I am going to populate my notes and my scenes with real furniture, real architecture, real food, real lifestyles. I’ve already started. And you know what?  As I research, as I find out details, I’m getting ideas for the actions my characters will take–things they can do in their world.

During her talk, Tanya said, “If you furnish the place, people can live in it. And they will live large.”

Tanya’s right.

I leave you with this scene from Shanghai Knights. Look at the setting. Look at the way Jackie Chan uses the setting. Yes, sure, he knows the moves he wants to make. He knows the comedy he’s going to weave into the fights. But he also knows that setting can create action, can set up opportunities for anything and everything to become a piece of his choreography. I can just see him–Okay, let’s see. Open market…chase scenes…dodge the carts…duck between people…oh, hey! Lemons! And umbrellas!

I’ve passed a few milestones in the last couple of weeks, and there are some new ones coming down the road toward me. Looks like for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be able to immerse myself back into my fiction…

but I’ve been having fun with the other stuff, too. The one thing getting The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide published has taught me (even though I thought I knew it before) is that being a writer is not just about writing. We can fight that fact, if we want, or we can look it in the eye, find the parts we enjoy and concentrate on adding those to our lives, and then…keep writing!

So, here’s what’s been up and will be up with me lately.

1. I’ve given a few more talks about critiquing and critique groups. My wonderful friend and critique partner Terri Thayer sat down with me one day and brainstormed topics. I’ve been having fun and I think the writers I’ve been talking to have as well. We might all even be learning something! Here’s me and David Rasch, VP and Program Chair of the Central Coast Writers Branch of the California Writers Club. (Thanks to Ken Jones for the pic.)

We’re listening to Joyce Krieg talk about all the great stuff the club is doing. If you’re a writer or speaker anywhere in the area, this is a really fun group to hang out with!

2. I’m doing a little more guest-blogging. I’ll be posting over at HipWriterMama next week, and my guest-post at agent Rachelle Gardener’s blog went up yesterday–with a giveaway of three copies of my book, if you haven’t yet won one!

3. I’m revving up to teach my online class through the brand-spanking new Writer’s Digest University. The class starts May 6th, and will focus on critiquing first chapters of fiction and nonfiction. A good way, I hope, for new critiquers to get started.

4. I’ve been dipping back into research for my historical. I’m in that magic place where I’ve found a book that is exactly what I need. You may have seen me tweeting/posting on Facebook about Harold L. Platt’s The Electric City: Energy and Growth of the Chicago Area, 1880-1930. This book is, as far as I’m concerned, a writer-researcher’s dream. It’s pulling everything together for me–where Chicago started, in terms of power, and how it evolved into the world that my character moves through in 1913. It’s a history book that connects everything—electricity, urban development, politics, and the daily lives of us regular folk. And it’s written well. I want to curl up and just read, but I’ve got my sticky notes out and am fitting a daily hour or so of reading in with everything else that’s going on. If you clicked through on the link and checked out the price, you’ll see why I totally heart the San Jose Public Library’s Interlibrary Loan Program this month–as much as I want to own this book!

5. It is going to be SUNSHINY this weekend! I will be reading and researching and critiquing, but I may very well be doing it, hold your breath…OUTSIDE. Now for those of you who know me, you know that I’m not really the communing-with-nature type. (Yes, that’s my family you hear snorting with laughter at the very thought…) I live in the mountains because I like looking out on the woods and the birds and the deer, but I’m very into the humans-learned-to-build-shelters-for-a-reason philosophy. I love to walk, but it had better be with friends and we had better be talking.  Most of the time, especially on weekends, I’m happy to putter around the house, curl up on the couch with a book, or catch up on things in my office surrounded by…more books. I am SO craving sunshine, though, and warmth, that I’m just about drooling at the idea of taking my laptop out on the back deck, finding some glare-proof angle, and critiqung away. Bare-footed. You heard it here.

I just saw a post Linda McCabe did about my critique workshop at her writing club–the Redwood Writers branch of the California Writers Club. I had a great time that day–everybody was very nice and made me feel so welcome! And Linda did a great job summarizing the morning. Her post also reviews the Breakout Novel Intensive, with Donald Maass, that she recently attended.

Check out the post here.

I’ll be back in a day or two to talk about that scary place–the Middle!

I’m a member of the California Writers Club, a multi-branch club that has members all over the state. One of the northern branches is the Redwood Writers club, which–for the past couple of years–has run a series of mini-conferences over three consecutive weekends. Last weekend, I drove up to Petaluma to participate in the third weekend, giving a workshop on the basics of critiquing a manuscript.

It was a lovely morning. The group was small, but everybody was warm and friendly and energetic. I did my intro talk, then broke my workshop participants into small groups. They read a sample scene, wrote up a critique, and then presented it to each other. I “eavesdropped” on the critiques, then gave them a few minutes of feedback. No, I didn’t tell them whether they were “right” or “wrong” on what they were saying about the scene. Instead, I focused on whether they were digging deeply into the manuscript, how much detail they wrote into their critiques, and how they presented their comments. I had some really strong critiquers in the group, and it was really fun to listen to them share feedback, then interact with them about the methods and styles.

I got there early enough to sit in on the first workshop of the morning–a great talk about memoirs, presented by Susan Bono. Susan is Editor-in-Chief of Tiny Lights journal. The journal has an annual essay contest, and it’s not too late to enter this year’s. The deadline is Valentine’s Day (this Saturday, folks!), and here’s the info you’ll need if you want to submit.

Linda McCabe is the friend who gave me the first connection to the group, and President Karen Batchelor invited me to speak and kept all the organization stuff running beautifully. Linda sat in on my workshop (Thanks, Linda!), and then took gathered me, Susan, and the other presenter–Ransom Stephens–together for a yummy lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant across the street. Ransom told us all what to order, and I had one of the best noodle bowls I’ve ever eaten.

My “students” were my guinea pigs this weekend; this was the first time for my critique workshop. I think it went well, but I hear a rumor of feedback forms, and I’m really looking forward to any comments and suggestions about how I could improve things. It was a weird experience, listening to a critique for the structure of it, instead of the content, but I think it worked well & I can completely see continuing with this workshop at more conferences in the future.

As usual, any time I hang out with other writers, I had a blast and came home totally recharged. I was even fighting a cold and had a party to go to that night, and I had all the energy I needed to get home, do a quick-change from professional to social apparel, and drag my husband onto the dance floor a couple of times. Son: no way! :)

Question for all of you.  I’d like to make this type of post a staple of my blog; just a quick, mini-report of conferences and workshops I go to, either as a speaker or an attendee. Confession–I am LOUSY with a camera and actually avoid taking one with me places, so you’re not going to see a lot of photos of famous/not-so-famous people here. (Although check Linda’s blog out later this week; I think she’s going to put up her pics!) So the question is: Do you like reading about conferences, etc? If not, I’ll probably keep the posts going, but maybe shorten them a bit (I say that like it’s so easy for me!). If you’re enthused, I’ll keep filling you in on all the fun stuff. I think conferences are a great place for writers to learn and just commune with each other, and if I can get you guys intrigued, well, all the better! Let me know!

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