Critique Group for Writers – Help Yourself and Others

A critique group for writers is a luxury I have missed.  Since the pandemic, my group has not met for over six months, and I miss them all.  I have been an active member of the Lesser North Texas Writers’ Group for a little over nine years.  My experience with them has exponentially improved my writing skills and helped me to see my work through other’s eyes.  I have completed reading all three of my novels, and they have been very helpful in honing my voice.

Picking the Right Group – This is critical to your success as a writer.  You want a group that will nurture while at the same time doesn’t coddle you.  This is a delicate balance as you have to be honest yet not hurtful.

Develop a Thick Skin – Here is the hardest part.  Accept negative criticism with grace.  In our group we recommend a hard copy be provided so that marks for grammar and comments can be given.  Time permitting each person in the group will give a verbal summary of their thoughts.  Sometimes the reaction of the group may not be what you’re expecting, but remember it is representative of another reader’s thoughts which is the exact reason you write–for others to read.  Now maybe you feel that those people are not your target audience, but the critique is still valid.  The challenge is to let their comments simmer.  Take some time away from the chapter you wrote and then look at it with new eyes.  Most times you will find the critique has value.

Take What You Want – This is a case where you have a variety of reviewers which gives you a range of potential readers.  You can determine who from the group is not your target audience.  You can choose to prioritize other reviewers remarks before theirs.  Also remember that with hard copies you can always get grammatical or typographical suggestions.  Even if someone is not your target audience, they can spot problems and logical disconnects.  Which means: everyone’s critique has value.

Don’t Change Just Cause Someone Says So– Sometimes a writer can get confused with all the suggestions from their critique group.  Take all of it and think about it.  Don’t believe you must update your chapter to appease all the reviews.  Remember your target audience.  Remember that you are the god of your story.  And as god, you can decide whether to adjust your writing to fit things together as you believe.

Karma: Help Others While Helping Yourself – At times, I will read something and think, “I can write better than this”.  But most others times, I realize that OMG there’s so much work I have to do with my craft.  I can’t stop.  I have to keep pushing forward.  Critique groups help you mature quicker as a writer .  You can’t write in a vacuum.

Be Polite and Helpful – Remember to critique but not bash your fellow critique member.  If time is tight, speak to the bigger things and mark the little ones like: Grammar, POV, Tense, Passive Voice, Echos, etc.

Writing Must be a Verb First Before it can Ever be a Noun – No one can critique a blank sheet of paper.  You have to get it out of your head and onto the page.

Cobra Kai – An Exercise in Writing Villains

“The Karate Kid” franchise is perfect example of writing villains. I recently got the opportunity to watch, NETFLIX’s “Cobra Kai”, the sequel series to the 1984 hit movie, “The Karate Kid.” It was a fun trip down memory lane. The characters again enter into each other’s gravitational field and circle each other in combat.

When I watched the movie, “The Karate Kid”, it was clear that Johnny was the bad guy and Daniel was the hero. After watching Cobra Kai Season 1 and 2, I got an entirely different perspective. Johnny perceives Daniel as the villain.

Recap from Johnny’s Perspective

1. Daniel makes a move on his girlfriend, Ali. Johnny steps in and attempts to get Daniel to back off with a little shoving. Daniel punches Johnny in the face. Game on, and Johnny smacks Daniel down. Johnny loses Ali.

2. Later at the Halloween Dance, Daniel feels compelled to turn on a hose, dowsing Johnny in a bathroom stall. Johnny and his friends chase Daniel down a hill and trap him in a fenced area near his apartment complex. While Johnny administers the beating Johnny believes Daniel deserves, Daniel’s neighbor, Mr. Miyagi, steps in and thwarts Johnny and his underage friends.

3. Johnny respectfully leaves Daniel alone while he trains for the All Valley Karate Tournament. Johnny gets lucky and Daniel faces him in the finals. Finally, he gets his revenge. Johnny regrets sweeping Daniel’s hurt leg, but Johnny’s only obeying his sensei. Daniel then does an illegal Crane kick to Johnny’s head and wins the match, making Daniel the champion. Regardless, Johnny remains the good guy and congratulates Daniel on the win.

Johnny’s POV in his own words.

Flash Forward to Cobra Kai

The “Cobra Kai” series begins thirty four years later with Johnny as a beer guzzling, newly unemployed handyman. The loss to Daniel all those years ago sent Johnny on a downward spiral. He is at rock bottom. In a reversal of roles, he becomes a Miyagi-like character and saves his nerdy apartment neighbor from school bullies. The experience makes Johnny realize that he misses the discipline and confidence his training gave him. He decides to resurrect the Cobra Kai school.

Daniel believes he cannot allow Cobra Kai to infest the minds of new students and does some villain-type moves to destroy it. I won’t spoil the series, but this is essentially the set up.

Application to Writing Villains

Why is this interesting? Writers are told that to write a believable villain, you must make them three dimensional. They can’t be just crazy. Crazy has only two dimensions. Crazy is flat and boring. The villain must believe their actions are justified. They are only doing what is required for their character to survive. The best villains must view themselves as the hero of their story.

“Cobra Kai” allows this duality to come into the forefront. Both Johnny and Daniel are heroes. Both of them are also human, so they have parts of themselves that are less than heroic. If they could visualize themselves through each other’s eyes, then they might become friends. This makes the NETFLIX series work. The viewer wants them to become allies, but fate and thirty-four years of bad history makes this a difficult proposition. Besides, conflict drives the story, and without it, there is no need for Season 3.

Both of these characters reside in grey areas, neither exists completely in darkness nor light. The series is fun and entertaining. I believe the key to its success is the writing team, who have created a complicated and multi-layered world. If you enjoy writing, and want an example about writing villains, then check out “Cobra Kai”.

Looking forward to Season 3.

Meeting Your Novel’s Character in Real Life

Healing Hands

I am currently on the last revision of my first novel, SAINT JIM.  It has been a long road of culling passive sentences, removing useless words, fixing connection points, etc. I have read it so many times I think I have parts of it memorized.  The story is of a homeless man named, Jim, who develops an ability to heal.  He comes upon this gift by accident, but is reluctant to use it because he wants to remain anonymous.   The gift, however, has a mind of its own and compels him to help others–almost like an addiction.

I had completed the first draft of my novel in 2010 with all the places and characters complete and was in a hospital helping my wife as she recovered from a surgical procedure.  When I arrived at the refreshment area on that hospital floor to make my wife some tea, I found an older white-haired gentleman there in his patient gown getting some water.  I asked him how he was doing.

“I have my faith in the Lord,” was his response.

I found him interesting, so I struck up a conversation.  Now, understand that I never brought up my novel or healing in any way during our talk.  I asked why he was in the hospital, and he said that he had a cancer and was recovering–the Lord willing.  He volunteered that he had been reborn and even a healer at one point.  This caught my attention.

The gentleman told me that he had been given the gift of healing when he re-dedicated his life to the Lord after being away from the Church for a long time. He remarked that the power of healing was real and beautiful at the same time.  He claimed to have healed one particular man of some deadly disease.  He told the man that he would remain healed on the condition that the man turned from his dark path within a year.  The man was healed but a year later abruptly passed because he remained unrepentant.  The gentleman told me that he had lost this healing gift after he once again had a lapse in his faith.  He no longer could heal but his trust in the Lord remained strong, so he assured me he would be all right.

I asked that man his name.  Somehow I knew what he would say.  He said, “Jimmy.”

This gave me a small sign that maybe I should complete my latest revisions and somehow get it published. I never saw Jimmy again on that floor as my wife was released soon afterward.  That was two years ago and I’m thoroughly amazed, even now, that every time I read my latest draft that there is still some typo, unconnected detail, or polishing to be done.  The time has finally come though for me to wrap it up.  It’s like an old friend you spent a number of years with who’s moving away to another city.  I don’t want that relationship to end, but I have to give it up.  Who knows maybe we will reconnect someday.


I Wrote a Novel – Now What?

So you’ve suffered through a grueling, lonely journey and have a first draft novel to show for it.  Now what do you do?  Hell, if I know.  I’m still trying to get my first novel published, but I have learned some things along the way that new writers might take note and see if it works for them.

Understand the Rules – Some have said that you have to be unique and that coloring within the lines is a cookie-cutter form of existence.  There is some truth to that thinking, but for a new writer you need to know what the rules are, so you can later bend and, at times, break them. A good reference book is “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.  The book is less than a hundred pages, but it’s packed with the basic rules for writing the English language. If you know where the lines are, you can artistically draw over them and not make a mess of your art. Remember: Writing is just painting with words.

Cull Out the Passive Voice (As Needed) – I thought I understood what people meant by write in an active voice and avoid the passive.  It wasn’t until I had someone ( other than a family member) read a few chapters of my first draft.  She asked if my novel was a literary work.  When I told her no, she explained in a polite way that I had used a lot of passive voice.  After recovering from the embarrassment, I started looking at ways to identify the passive voice.  The best passive example I’ve heard is, “The road was crossed by the chicken.”  The active version being, “The chicken crossed the road.”  The passive voice is something people from a technical background like myself, have a hard time recognizing and killing from their prose. Look for these word patterns:  “was” or “is” followed by a verb ending in “ed” or “ing”  You can use Word to help you look for the pattern.  A friend showed me this trick using wildcards:

In Word, open the Find window. Select the “More” button.  Then check “Use wildcards,” and type the following wildcard in the “Find what:” line:
     was ?(ed)>
Then repeat your search using two question mark wildcards, then three, etc.  Repeat the whole process again looking for the (ing) verbs.

Understand that the passive voice has its place.  If you wish to convey doubt or uncertainty of a fact, the passive voice works, so don’t remove all of it.

Stop Repeating Yourself, Avoid Saying the Same Thing Twice, and Remove Repetition (You get the point) – Repetition is a problem a still struggle with in my writing.  I would make a statement in one sentence and then follow it up with saying the same thing in a slightly different way.  What I realized was by repeating myself, I demonstrated a lack of confidence in what I had written. It showed me I needed to make one strong sentence and whack the other.

Join a Writing Critique Group – You cannot write successfully in a vacuum.  The whole idea of writing is to get people to read it.  Having your family read your novel is a start, but you need to get feedback from others who fall outside your immediate circle of influence.  These are people who don’t care if they hurt your feelings.  This doesn’t mean you have to be a sadist and belong to a group of jerk wannabe writers.  It’s about finding a group of other authors who have a variety of experience and learning to see your work through their eyes. Carol Woods is the lady who runs the critique group I belong.  She calls herself, “The Benign Dictator,” and has been a big help to me in understanding my writing style and ways to make it better.  My fellow members each bring a different POV to their critique of my work and I to theirs.  Over a nine month period, I read to them all the chapters of my first novel.  Afterward, I sifted through all my critiques, took some of their suggestions, ignored others, found a ton of typos, and when finished, I had a much cleaner, tighter manuscript.  She explained that those that actively participate in a critique group significantly escalate their pathway to getting published.  Most groups are free and others require only a nominal fee to join. Search the web and visit.  Look for a group to call your own.  You’ll know when it’s the right one.

Edit Edit Edit – Writers need to edit their manuscripts multiple times looking for the basic typos, the grammatical errors and the structural story disconnects.  You would be surprised at the number of typos you can find when you read your work out loud.  The Benign Dictator suggested the people who read out loud and in front of a mirror get the best results.  The process of verbalizing your work allows the opportunity to feel where the words struggle and where they flow.

Read Read Read – Writers need to read.  Not their work, but others. For the same reason you can’t write in a vacuum, you have to read another author’s work to feel what pacing is, what prose is, and all the other things you’re trying to emulate.   If you are writing YA, then read YA. If writing Romance, then you need to read Romance ( But read other things too, ’cause reading that stuff can make you go bald, I’m told ).


Anyone Can Write – Just be Brave Enough to Try

Image Created by: Karen Droste McGowan

Image Created by: Karen Droste McGowan

I always wanted to write a novel.  There were several ideas roughly formed in my head that I kept in a journal on my nightstand.  Although I had amassed several concepts, I didn’t get very far.  The problem was that I was thinking about writing and not actually doing it.

As I explained in my “About Me” page, I found Stephen King’s book, “On Writing” and realized that there are other ways to tackle the art of writing a novel.  If I dwelt on the fact that it would be a lot of work — nothing would get done.  If I let myself be paralyzed with fear  over grammatical things I’ve yet to learn — I won’t write anything. If I spent all my time thinking about it — my novel would be stillborn.

The realization hit me that no matter how good or bad my writing was going to be, I couldn’t improve it if I had nothing written down. Nobody can fix a blank sheet of paper.  There would be nothing to give others to critique and help me see the error of my literary ways or receive the encouragement needed to get over that creeping thought that plagues all first time writers: “I don’t know what I’m doing, and my writing sucks.”

I decided to just write and force myself to get the story out of my head and into a document.  I had the concept for a homeless man that acquires the gift of healing.  Nothing more than just some ideas on how the story might go.  I wrote the first chapter like a short story, introducing the four main characters that would drive the novel.  It was strange how these same characters came alive only when I wrote.

I kept my writing secret from everyone in my family until I had several chapters done.  I didn’t want to proclaim, “I’m writing a novel” and put that kind of pressure on myself.  Soldiering away on it for almost a year, I got sidetracked several times.  When I didn’t know where the story was going next, I skipped ahead to a scene I could visualize.  It helped me fill in the blanks and get moving again.  Before I knew it, my first draft of “Saint Jim” was done.  It was one of the more difficult things I have ever done, but definitely satisfying.

There is a magic that is truly wonderful when you start writing.  Ideas and situations come from nothingness.  I had read about this magic, but to experience it first hand was surreal. There is a muse that comes.  At times it may be silent, and one has to push through those moments where it seems the work has no soul to get to the moments that feel as if they were divinely inspired.

In the immortal words of Nike Marketing: Just Do It!