Surviving a Writing Group (plus weekend prompt)

If you’ve ever been involved in a writing group, you know things can get awkward. Part of that awkwardness tends to take the form of silence—the nemesis of any writer whose piece has just been read.

In my first writing group, in between twirled thumbs and wall-stares, I realized that (well, most of the time) it’s not the spectacularly bad quality of your piece that stifles your peers. It’s often the fact that developing a language for critiquing, and greasing the wheels of the dialogue, can be monstrously hard. But once you do, the group run smoother, members are left less haunted by nonresponses, and in the end, everyone gets more from your meetings.

Writing groups are on my mind because Kelly Nickell, the executive editor of WD Books who sits across from me, periodically spotlights one of her favorite releases on the WD homepage as a Kelly’s Pick. After reading her post featuring Becky Levine’s Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, I nabbed a copy of the book from one of the displays near her desk, and was intrigued by the worksheets inside.

For your critiquing pleasure, I’ve posted some points below from the worksheet on fiction. Here’s to hoping it might help fill some of the silent spaces in your own group …

(For the complete worksheet, drop by the Kelly’s Pick page, or click here to check out the book.)

• Can you identify the hero’s overall goal? Describe it here or note that you aren’t seeing it clearly. What steps is the hero taking to achieve that goal?
• What are the cause-and-effect story reasons behind the characters’ actions?
• What are the subplots in the story? What connections has the author made between these subplots and the hero’s main plot?

• How do the hero and other characters react to the world around them? How do they respond to each others’ dialogue and to the actions and events taking place?
• How has the author portrayed her characters as real, layered people?
What complex and contradictory traits do the characters possess?
• What actions do you see that don’t match the character development the author has created in the story so far? What story reasons, if any, does the author give for these shifts?

Voice and Point of View
 • How would you describe the voice of the story? What kind of personality do the voice and point of view evoke?
• Where do you see places that the narrator slips out of her own point of view? If the story is told in multiple points of view, track where and how the shifts are made clear and where they may be confusing.

• What do the dialogue beats tell you about the characters? How do the beats layer in extra meaning to the characters’ spoken words?
• How is information revealed through dialogue? Can you show the author any places she may have used dialogue to dump too much information all in one chunk? How can the author trim this information, and where can she weave it through the story?

• How many details does the author use in her descriptions? Are there places the author could trim the words used to convey a character’s appearance or a setting?
• How well does the author paint a picture of her characters? What kind of image do you see when you first meet a character in the story?

Scene Structure
• What does the author do to keep tension rising across a scene? How does the author increase the level of tension to keep the reader turning pages?

Best of luck at your writing group!

Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

You could have done it. It all should have been simple.
“If it hadn’t been for that damn cat …” he mumbles.

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0 thoughts on “Surviving a Writing Group (plus weekend prompt)

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  2. John Corrigan

    "Demmed ket!" Jeremiah stared at the little animal so hard I knew I had to do something or he would incinerate it. "But, you usually like a little pussy". The angry face darkened into a mask. Serious mistake. His massive head cranked slowly up and round until I was the only object in his field of vision. So, this was death row. I held the gaze like an idiot and longed to crawl under the hall runner. Jeremiah looked back at the cat and blew hard into the clear white tube in front of him. The joystick under his chin clicked and the machine the giant man sat on spun on its axis and lurched down the hall. The little animal reared, hissing and screaming in rapid succession. It was no use. Hard up against the door with the vast black judgment lurching down upon it, there was no escape. It began screaming and flaking paint off the door with its tiny claws. "Jeremiah! What in the holy name of fuck? What has the mangy creature done?" Judging from the scuffling and growling sounds, the footplates must have stopped a couple of inches off the door suspending the superbly groomed animal between life and death. "Back up! For God’s sake man, what will Maryanne say”. The big head bobbed from side to side. “I hate it! I just hate it!” His whole body shook. A long fragile silence filled the room I was standing in. I waited for the chin control to click. “She loves thet fucking ket more than me.”

  3. John Clemmons

    Thank you for the prompt,

    How many times had I mumbled these words I thought as I caught that moment between event, realization and the reaction. You could have done it. It all should be been so simple.

    It had been a fantastic evening: an excellent meal at a small place that never disappointed and a stop at one of the old school bookstore coffee houses that still ground your espresso beans and pressed them for your shot of espresso. She was wearing a dress that was the epitome of “Little Black Dress”; she was simple, elegant, and beautiful. The evening air was crisp and washed clean by the recent rain.
    It is rare when things line up so properly. I felt the excitement in my veins as we walked towards the townhouse. Even here in the city, on this night, the stars shone brightly; Celestial navigation was engaged, I remembered thinking as we wandered our way back hand in hand. Stealing kisses in the shadows on the street light, the stars winking their approval.

    We reached our destination, fumbling with keys to enter our lair this evening. Our passions started to overwhelm us, hands reaching, lips searching, our minds working towards our common desires. We snaked our way through the townhouse leaving in our trail a wake of high heel shoes in the foyer, loafers in the hallway, my shirt on the handle to the bedroom. The zipper of the little black dress had just been unzipped. The unveiling was just a mere few seconds away when I reached for light switch. She captured my hand before I could reach it.

    She kissed my hand and fingers slowly, then, up my forearm and bicep, across my shoulder, tracing her way to my neck. Her hands came to rest my shoulders; she stood on her tip toes to whisper in my ear, “Good things come to those who wait,” then she pushed me back on the bed. I let myself fall willingly, giving myself over to the moment, when I felt it: the soft black and white fur of one Mojo the cat, as all my weight came down on the eight and half pound feline.

    So here I am, caught in this briefest of moments, fully aware of the ear piercing cry that is about to be emitted from his jaws. The evening’s wondrous chain of events broken, the moment in time frozen, as the words escaped my lips, “That damn cat.”

  4. Dorraine

    Thank you for the welcome, Zac, Mark and Martha! Oh and great stories this week, M&M!

    And, Zac, thanks for the information. Even though I don’t belong to a critique group at the moment, all the points are very essential for keeping a novel on the right track. Now to the prompt…here kitty, kitty. 🙂

    The Naked Lady

    My marriage was finally over. I knew and was relived. I had never lived up to Wendy’s expectations. For ten years I tried, but there was no pleasing that woman. I was nothing but a medical sales rep and even though the money was good, the title was never glamorous enough for her. What she loved was the cat. And her new boy toy, Antonio, the painter. She painted, too, and had met him on a trip she’d won to Venice. She had apparently been his apprentice…cough, cough. All I needed now was proof of their affair and my lawyer said I’d come out shiny.

    Since the separation Wendy had moved into our vacation cabin tucked into the Green Mountains, just outside of Vermont. I still had a key and was waiting for a call that she’d gone into town. Two rings and I picked up. Our closest neighbor and longtime friend, Kenny Rivers, had seen her drive by and gave me the all clear. I was waiting in my truck at the gas station just a mile away, eating a Snickers bar. I gunned it there and parked behind the cabin.

    What my know it all wife didn’t know was that I’d found her secret box quite a while back- a jeweled, cheap looking wooden thing with a lock. I suspected there were things inside that might make my lawyer grin. I found an identical box at Wal-mart and now had a matching key, I hoped. Did I know her or what? This ole boy was brighter than she suspected.

    Inside the cabin everything winked and sparkled. The smell of bayberry hung in nooks and crannies. No sign that she’d shed a single, freaking tear over me. I went straight to our old bedroom and found her box underneath the bed. With shaky hands, I sat on the edge of the bed and tried the key.


    Inside were love letters from Antonio, a diary and pictures of them together. One I couldn’t stop staring at. Wendy was underneath a Cypress tree, hair wind tousled, the hippie, slobbering on her cheek. My wife was gleaming. I choked back tears. She had never looked that happy with me. I pulled myself together, removed some items and placed the box back under the bed. I could read the letters later. Or not.

    It dawned on me then that I hadn’t seen Mimi, our sphynx cat. Wendy called her the naked lady because she was hairless. That cat had always hated me. I suspected my wife whispered mumbo jumbo about my worthlessness to the poor cat as well as anyone else who would listen.

    “Mimi,” I called. “Here kitty, kitty. Come here girl.” No meow, nothing.

    My phone rang. It was Kenny, saying he’d seen Wendy’s car speed past his house,so get the hell out of there. She was in the driveway before I had a chance and I hid in a hall closet. The door had been ajar but I didn’t think anything of it. I sucked in my breath when I heard her car door slam.

    Clack, clack, the sound of Wendy’s heels on the wooden floor echoed. Her keys jingled when she slung them on the kitchen counter. I heard the crackle of grocery bags and then her heels clacking again. “Come here, Mimi, baby. Come to Mama. Where’s my sweet baby.”

    Ms. hairless leaped from a shelf onto my head and mewed loudly. Wendy flung open the closet door, her eyes big as coasters. When she saw the cat on my head she roared with laughter. Her laughter faded at the sight of her diary and the incriminating pictures in my hands. She snatched them away. "Good Kitty."

    Damn those naked ladies.

  5. Martha W

    Zac – great info. I got lucky with the crit group I have now. No one takes anything personally and no one is afraid to speak up. Although, we’re internet based (One lives in MA, one in VA, and me in MI)and communicate through a yahoo loop – so a little different…

    Mark – loved the tone on this one.


    You could have done it. It all should have been so simple.

    "Start at the top and work your way down," that stupid man had said.

    You let out a deep sigh and rub sticky hands together. It would probably take days for the red to wash off. "I don’t think we should have done it this way."

    "What? The guy said this is how to do it." Your best friend’s incredulity gives her a comical look when mixed with the back spray littering her face.

    "I don’t think he meant to literally start at the top." You try not to giggle as you stare at the ceiling. The situation really doesn’t call for it but, God, things always turn out this way – something always goes wrong.

    She shakes her head gingerly. "My ears are ringing."

    "That’s what happens when you play with fire." I push the hair away from her pale face, sending crimson streaks to disappear into her brunette hair. "Big knot from the fall."

    She tries to smile but you can see the headache dulling the normally sparkling blue of her eyes. "Why can’t we do anything normal?"

    "You’re the one that had to have the power stroke." I smile, unable to stop myself. "Your problem is you picked the wrong enemy."

    “If it hadn’t been for that damn cat …” she mumbles.

    You look over at her, one eyebrow arches up. "You think?"

    "We should have locked him up. We’d have been okay if not for him."

    "Naw. I think we were screwed from the beginning."

    Looking around the room, the overturned ladder and spilled red paint with little kitty prints leading into the kitchen said it all.

  6. Mark James

    Zac, awesome blog with tips for writing groups. Thanks

    Could be I was stupid, but when you get like me, you learn there’s a real fine, real fuzzy line between desperate and stupid.

    The door to the most haunted house in Taylorsville opened on a rotting wood staircase that went down. I didn’t hesitate, went down to the basement. The rope looked just as strong as I remembered.

    Metal scraped across the concrete floor. It was him, in those chains. I hated the ringing, clanging sound. Reminded me how dead he was.

    “When’s old man Chester coming, Daddy?”

    “He’ll be along. You just remember what I told you.”

    “It’s all good to go?”

    He gave me a look like I was spoiled fish and I was stinking up the place. “Use the eyes what God gave you boy. How do it look?”

    I eyed the rope hanging over a beam, all knotted into a solid noose, saw the stool underneath, the one I was supposed to stand on. “Looks real fine, Daddy.”

    I made to sit on the stool and wait, but Daddy shook his chains so loud, it have could have a ghost convention passing through. “Not on the stool you three times born, low to the river muck ijit. Lean on a wall if you can’t stand up like a man.”

    Him talking to me like that, it wasn’t right. I think it’s why I killed Daddy way all them years ago.

    “Alright,” Daddy says, “here he comes. You act natural and scared.”

    Chester came through the wall looking deader than a man what’s lied in water for months and months. His pale face was smooth and round, like his head was a balloon, blown up too big.

    “You come to find my treasure, boy?” Chester said.

    “Yes, Sir. Sure did. I know the legend.”

    “Good,” the balloon-head ghost said. “Climb up on the stool, put the noose around your neck, and it’s yours.”

    Ghost tales said that if you climbed up on the stool Chester had kicked away, and put your head through the noose he’d used to strangle hisself to death, you’d see the trunk of gold bars he left behind. But your feet had to be on the stool, and the noose had to be around your neck for you to see.

    I climbed right up, stood on tip toe, as still as I could, and put my head through the noose, real delicate, real slow.

    And Glory, wasn’t it just there in the far corner, a black trunk, bars of gold all but pouring out the top. I was rich. Goddman. I was rich forever. I’d never stop seeing it.

    I was reaching for the noose real careful, didn’t want no mistakes, when a rat went zooming across the floor, under my stool. A great big black cat came after him, streaking across the floor, heading for my stool.

    No, I wanted to say. I grabbed at the rope around my neck, but too slow. The cat knocked the stool right out from under me.

    So here I am. Dead, just like Daddy. He ain’t as hard on me as I thought he would be.

    Just keeps on about the cat. “You could have done it. It all should have been simple,” he mumbles. “If it hadn’t been for that damn cat.”