Surviving a Writing Group (plus weekend prompt)

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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.)

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Plot
• 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?

Character
• 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.

Dialogue
• 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?

Description
• 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!

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WRITING PROMPT: That Damn Cat
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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