Guest Post: Annette Dashofy on her Online Critique Group

It’s that time again: time for the monthly guest-post on critiquing. Remember, leave a comment on this post, and I’ll enter you to win a copy of my book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.  I met Annette Dashofy when I went to Pittsburgh for the Pennwriters Conference (one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to, btw). We’d talked back and forth on Twitter before, and meeting her in person confirmed everything I thought about her from our online conversations–she’s sharp, funny, and a great person to be around.

Annette Dashofy is secretary of the Mary Roberts Rinehart (Pittsburgh) Chapter of Sisters in Crime and vice president of Pennwriters. She’s a regular contributor to Pennsylvania Magazine. Her short fiction includes “A Murder Runs Through It” from Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology (2011) and “A Signature in Blood,” a 2007 Derringer Award nominee. She is currently working with an agent on revisions to her mystery novel set in the world of Thoroughbred racing. She blogs at Writing, Etc.  and Working Stiffs. To learn more, check out her website .

And here’s Annette’s excellent post.

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Over the years, I’ve belonged to a number of critique groups, both face-to-face and online. Becky has asked me to share a bit of my experience with my online group.

I started out as just another member. When the owner put out a call for assistance, I became one of three moderators. Now the three of us have taken over as owners. We divide the tasks. I’m known as The Cleaning Lady.

Our group is genre-specific. We’re crime-fiction writers, although we span a wide range from historical to traditional to thriller to paranormal. And anything in between. We keep a maximum of 20 members, and participation is required. Each member must critique three submissions and post one chapter each month. If you want to run more than one chapter a month through the group, you must critique three for each one.

I’d love to say the system runs flawlessly, but I’d be lying. It’s my job to track everyone’s submissions and critiques. If a member stops participating, it’s up to me to nudge them. If they continue to drop the ball, I drop them.

Sometimes I hate my job.

But with only 20 members, we need to keep everyone honest. Besides, I’m not the wicked witch (although I’m sure there’s at least one member who might disagree—you know who you are!). If life has simply gotten in the way, I’m happy to put a member “on hold” for a month or two, reserving their space until they can get back to writing.

There are good and bad points to a critique group of this size. With twenty members, not everyone is going to be on the same level skill-wise, whether you’re talking about writing skill or critiquing skill. We have published authors. We have rank beginners. Not all the stories are to everyone’s tastes, either. But the good part is that members do tend to gravitate toward those they can best work with. No one has to read all the submissions (although there are those over-achievers who try—you know who YOU are, too!) We tend to have “clusters” of members who critique each other’s work.

Each member gets at least three critiques on each of their chapters. Often they’ll get more. So while they may not find one person’s comments particularly helpful, another critique might really ring true to them. Even the very unskilled, beginning critiquer can offer some insight from a reader’s point of view.

Regardless of how helpful a particular critique might be, I think it’s of the utmost importance to be gracious in receiving it. You may disagree with the feedback, but that person took the time to read your stuff and offer suggestions on how they think you might make it stronger. You can take it or leave it, but it’s nice to offer a genuine thank you to the critiquer. After all, that person spent time on your story. Time they could have spent working on their own.

I’ve been a member of other online critique groups as well. Most weren’t as structured as this one. But those didn’t seem as productive either. Having the obligation to post and critique each month keeps our members plodding (and plotting) ahead. I’ve run three and a half manuscripts through this group and my writing has benefited greatly from the feedback I’ve received.


Friday Five: Pennwriters Conference

A week ago, I headed downstairs from my hotel room to join the happy crowd picking up their registration goodies for the 2011 Pennwriters Conference. I’d already had some excitement the night before, what with my plane circling the Pittsburgh airport in the middle of some very cool lightning flashes,  landing between the thunderstorms sitting on top of the airport, then waiting an hour or so for the lightning to stop before we could get to our gate. I didn’t mind–the ride wasn’t bumpy at all, we landed safely, and–as our pilot told us after we were on the ground–ten minutes more, and we’d have been heading to Cleveland. I’ve got nothing against Cleveland, but, hey, the conference I wanted to get to was in Pittsburgh! I rode in on the airport shuttle with Denise Little, and we both agreed that making it there made up for any hassles along the way.

And it was great. Pennwriters is an amazing group, filled with warm, friendly, and energized writers. The conference coordinators brought in some awesome faculty–agents and editors and lots of writers to share their craft & market experience. Keynoters were Jacquelyn Michard, who told stories I’m not sure anyone else could have told and had us laughing, and Jonathan Mayberry, who shared all the misconceptions he had about writers when he first started out, before the Pennwriters proved him totally wrong.

Lots and lots happened, but here are five highlights from the weekend.

1. My three workshops went well. The Powerpoint presentations worked, and–let me tell you–it is a joy to give workshops in a hotel where the tech staff is there for you.  People asked lots of questions, and I think I got a few of them feeling better about finding a group and getting started with the whole critique thing.

2. I got the chance to sit in on other people’s classes. I mentioned Ramona DeFelice Long’s character workshop in Tuesday’s post. I also listened to Heather Terrell give a great talk about making the move from “adult” fiction to YA, and went to a fascinating workshop from Tamara Girardi about determining our learning processes, then finding writing techniques and tools that actually work with the way we,  as individuals, learn. I’ll be doing her homework, believe me. On Saturday, I ran in late to a workshop with Kathryn Miller Haines on researching historical fiction. I’ll tell you, sitting with that group, tossing around ideas about how to find the stuff we all need, how to weave facts into story, felt like coming home. Which, since I never thought I’d write historical fiction, is still a bit disconcerting, but wonderful.

3. Friday night, I sat up late (thank goodness for the time change) and did a Read-and-Critique session with Kathleen Ortiz. The last time I did anything like this, I was on the other side of the “table,” having an agent critique the (anonymous) first page of my picture book, so I know how intimidating it can be to be the writer in this scenario. Kudos and big hugs to the eight writers who handed over their first two pages and synopses and let Kathleen and I go at it!  And let me tell you, Kathleen is sharp–she has an incredible ear for voice and is dead on target about that divide between middle-grade and YA. If you’re looking for an agent, I can definitely recommend putting her on your list.

4. I signed books. Yes, I’ve done this before, but never behind long tables with other writers sitting to either side of me, all down the row. Quite fun, because there’s always someone to chat with. Tricky, because–you know–I had books of my own I had to get signed, and while I didn’t have a line out the door (Ha!), I was a bit worried that I’d miss someone while I stood in Jonathan Mayberry’s line, getting his zombie YA signed for my son. It is just so much fun to have someone come up to you, with your book in their hands, and get into conversation about their critique group, their writing project, and their hopes for both.

5. I bought books. Of course I did. I had even called my credit card company ahead of time so they wouldn’t freak out, because there was a conference years ago when they called me, to check if I really HAD gone into the same bookstore six times in two days. Um, yeah. You know. You grab the books you know you want first thing. Then you go to a workshop, and–boy, you need that book. And then another workshop…another book. There is just no way to be efficient about this, folks! I ended up toting home a nice, full suitcase, loaded down with the following:

All in all, the conference was one of the best I’ve ever attended. People came from all over the place; I met a woman from Alaska! I can see why. If you’re anywhere in the neighborhood next year–and, sure, Alaska counts as the neighborhood–I totally recommend this one. It’s a weekend you will treasure.

Houston, We Have a Problem.

I’m baaack! I had a wonderful time at the 2011 Pennwriters Conference, and I’m going to do a more complete post about it later this week. This morning, I’m going to talk about one of the revelations I had at one particular workshop, and what I’m going to do about it.

First, a quick reminder that today is the last day to enter my contest for the “best” revision metaphor. Leave a comment at last week’s post and join in the fun.

So..there were plenty of wonderful workshops at the conference, and I had time to drop in on a few. One was Ramona DeFelice Long’s “Four Truths of Character.” Ramona’s talk was great, and it got me thinking–as all the good classes do–about my own projects. Specifically, about Caro’s story. One of the things Ramona talked about was the character’s mission–another word for her goal. THE THING SHE WANTS. And I realized that I’ve been drifting around that question, not honing in on what it is that Caro is going after.

Now, I have some excuse, I know. There was that crazy first draft, at the end of which I realized I had two stories to write, not one. If I wasn’t clear, while I was drafting, what story I was supposed to be putting Caro in, it’s no wonder I wasn’t clear on what she wanted. So I’m not flagellating myself. Too much.

BUT…here’s the thing. I have this book-in-a-drawer. It’s a book I still love, and a book I have hopes of revising at some point down the line. And the longer I stay away from it, the longer I realize that perhaps the biggest revision point will be…wait for it: what the hero in that book really wants.

Light-bulb moment.

I wrote six drafts of that book, all without tightening the story enough around the hero’s goal/needs. And the result has been, I think, that I have a nice, well-written, funny book, with a big flaw that is now–because of that polishing–harder to revise away.

In other words, I don’t want to wait that long on Caro’s story to figure it out.  (Okay, and this is very possibly true for the picture book, too!)

So what am I going to do about it? Well, my first thought was that I needed some brainstorming time with my critique group. So I brought it up at yesterday’s meeting, thinking I’d just schedule 20 minutes or so at our next meeting. But, of course, because they are so amazing, that wasn’t good enough for them. One brilliant critique partner suggested that I could let them know about some missions/goals that I’ve seen in other YA books.

Another light bulb.

So here’s the plan. In the next couple of weeks, I will:

  • Pick a half-dozen of my favorite YA novels and reread at least the first chapter, but most likely up to the point where the inciting incident hits, since I think that incident is a microcosm of the story’s BIG PROBLEM.
  • Figure out what the hero wants at that moment, and see if I can come up with how that specific goal plays into the big story goal (which, I think, the hero doesn’t always know until later in the story).
  • See if, in the process, any more light bulbs go off.
  • Bring those goals and my own questions about Caro to my critique group for brainstorming

I’m also, I think, going to read Donald Maass’ The Breakout Novelist. I think Maass’ writing books may be the best I’ve found, for pushing me to actually think about character, instead of just typing away and seeing what comes.

Between Ramona, my critique partners, Donald, and me, I’m guessing Caro and I will get our mission. Or at least get a heck of a lot closer to it!