I looked it up. This blog was born in April of 2010, when our critique group sat in Charla Rae’s office and came up with the crazy idea of a blog to help writers improve their craft and not feel so alone, working in solitude. We’ve posted three times a week since then and have been quoted, reblogged, and received awards. Members of the group came and went, but WITS has remained.
This, I hope, will always be true.
But it’s time for me to move on. I love this place, and all of you, but I’ve come to realize that I’ve said everything I have to say. I’ll still be writing, and learning. I’ll still be around — I’ll see you in the comments, and I’ll be blogging on WITS once a quarter. I’m not sure what will be next for me, but I’ll let you know.
In the meantime, I hope you continue to enjoy and support WITS — with new blood, it’s likely to be even BETTER!
I thought I’d leave you (for now) with my top 5 favorite blogs of all time here on WITS. And since you know I’m the writer's cheerleader-in-a-too-tight-skirt, they’re inspirational:
- Everything I Need To Know About Writing, I Learned at Dairy Queen
- You Are Your Golden Ticket
- Where the Stories Come From
- Why Learning Takes So Long
- Notes to My Unpublished Self
Not saying goodbye — just so long for now. See you down the writing road!
I remember the night we decided to start a writer's blog. We spent a good deal of time trying to agree on a name. When I suggested Writers in the Storm, some asked if that was a Doors song. “If we change a couple of words,” I answered. Laura liked the idea because the publishing industry was in turmoil and the climate of the industry was like a storm. Someone shortened it to WITS, which we all liked a lot.
It’s hard to believe that was almost ten years ago. All I wanted to do was survive learning how to write and post blogs. I knew nothing about “connecting” electronically with anyone. But Jenny said we needed to start WITS as a platform for all of us. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but everyone else seemed to think that was important, so I went along.
I must thank all of you for reading my early-years posts, from the very early posts about my travels (From the Safari Journal) to the only writing craft topic I felt competent to blog about: a three-part world building series beginning with World-Building: Part 1 - Physical Setting to throwdowns with Laura, this one is my favorite on Inspiration vs. Perspiration in Writing.
Your comments and support helped me grow as a blogger, as well as become more confident in my writing skills so that I could offer 5 Conflict-making Choices Characters Can Make and career insights like 7 Tips to "Level Up" Your Writing Career.
Writers in the Storm has grown to something I never believed possible, and it’s because of you, our readers. I know you will understand when I share with you that it is time for me to concentrate on my own writing career now. I have to master marketing like I did blogging. I have to devote more time to writing my books. I have to “level up” my writing game by taking more intensive classes.
All this is going to take a huge chunk of time, and though I’ve studied a lot of physics, I can’t create an hour like I can create a batch of chocolate chip cookies, so I’ve been looking at what needed to change. Writers in the Storm takes up three full months of my writing time a year, and that is time I need to reclaim.
I won’t be a stranger. I’ll still be reading and responding when I have something to say, even though I’ll be more in “lurk” mode. And I’ll keep you up on what I’m learning during the year with new posts.
This is a sad time (goodbyes are really hard for me), but it is time for me to let Writers in the Storm sail on without me as part of the crew. You can keep in touch with me at my website or email (email@example.com) or Facebook. You know I’ll be watching you and your writing progress. Share those successes as well as the tougher writing times. We’re all this boat together.
About Laura & Fae
They've been with Writers in the Storm from the beginning, they are lovely people, and they write fantastic books. What else do you need to know?
Earlier this year, my co-writer and I released three novels of a mythological mystery/thriller series. Unfortunately, we didn't know quite know where our story fit, since it had elements of urban fantasy but was set on an island. And it was kind of a thriller, but also a mystery.
So we considered our specific story, which featured:
- A somewhat-uptight forensic psychologist
- A tropical island with a pink-sanded beach
- Mythology and magic
Armed with that information, we approached a designer, told her what we wanted, and she delivered three beautiful covers according to our request. Mind you, these were shorter books, we were releasing on a quick schedule, and we chose to streamline the look to save some money.
Behind these covers are fabulous stories that you totally want to read—trust me!—but the books weren't selling well.
We decided to rethink our strategy, and along came a guest blogger here on Writers in the Storm who nailed where we'd gone wrong. From Your Cover Sells Your Book by Melinda VanLone:
A side note about the genre: Pick one. Just one. This story will have to go on a digital shelf. If you can’t focus on one genre, then you don’t know your customer well enough yet. Go back and think about how and where they look for books like yours. Study what keywords they type in, what aisle in the bookstore they linger over. The story can’t be all things to all people. It must be the right thing for the right person.
Melinda VanLoneAuthor & Cover Designer
She expanded this idea further in The Cover Two-Step:
Be honest. Did you really write a romance? Or did you write a mystery with romantic elements? Forget subgenres, mashups, and crossovers. We’re looking for the overall broad category.
Melinda VanLoneAuthor & Cover Designer
Sure enough, our story wasn't easily categorized, but we could focus on the genre we were closest to—urban fantasy. Thankfully, within that area is an upcoming category titled supernatural suspense, which fit us even better.
Now we had something to work with—a target to aim for. And it no longer mattered to us whether the cover represented the story just so. Rather, the cover had to fit the genre, the tone, the imagery a potential reader was looking for.
We changed designers to a company that specialized in producing urban fantasy covers that had sold well. We spent hours upon hours going through covers in our genre to see what features were common, choosing stock photos we could recommend, and wording our request to our designer to give her an overall sense what we wanted, while allowing her to bring her own expertise into the process.
And then we waited.
Any author who has ever waited for a book cover — not knowing exactly what will show up — knows that it's the nail-biting and tenterhooks kind of waiting.
While we did do some back-and-forth with the designer on the first round, we fairly quickly arrived at these new covers:
What a difference, right?!
Now you can immediately see that this is a supernatural suspense series with a strong female heroine. Who cares that she's a forensic psychologist? (You learn that on page one.) Who cares that she's uptight? (Also on page one.) Who cares that the sands are pink? (Chapter two.)
The point is knowing what kind of story you'll be getting. That's the promise we're making.
Do you need to redesign your cover(s)? Ask yourself a few questions.
- When I show my cover to others, can they easily name the primary genre or story tone?
- Is my book/series selling well?
- Are potential readers clicking on ads that feature my book cover?
- If you DYIed your original cover: Do I have more money now to hire a professional designer?
- Have cover expectations for my genre changed since my book's release?
- Is my cover comparable to bestselling books in my genre?
A cover redesign is not a guarantee of increased book sales. But I've heard enough positive testimonies to know that your cover matters. Your books having the right covers could be the difference between getting passed over and getting purchased. What a difference a cover makes!
Have you had a redesign of your book cover(s)? Are you considering a redesign now?
Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries, young adult fiction, and supernatural suspense (under the pen name Jules Lynn). Her upcoming YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®, and her co-written Muse Island Series is available now, beginning with book one, Mark of the Gods.
You can visit her website here.
Critique groups. Something you want to be part of? Or something you don’t? Ask a few seasoned writers, and you’re sure to get some strong opinions. As a writer, editor, and writing coach, here’s mine—
I’m pro critique group all the way.
Why? Whether you’re a newbie who still uses two spaces after a period or a novelist who’s been writing since everyone used two spaces after a period, there’s a certain energy among effective groups that you can’t help but soak up.
Notice I said “effective” groups.
In my years as a group member and a group leader, I’ve had both super and so-not-super experiences. But I’m still very much in favor of finding people who share your passion. The key is finding the right people.
The Upsides: What’s so great about belonging to a critique group?
Writers Understand Writers
Likeminded people reaffirm your sanity. Do you yell at your characters? Get up in the middle of the night to voice text a conversation to yourself that they started without you? Do you scribble plot ideas on gum wrappers? Does your imagination travel into dark corners where your regular friends are afraid to tread? Is your Google search history enough to alert homeland security? See? A tribe who gets you is huge.
Writers Offer Resources
Everyone brings a different life experience to their edits. Someone may be a great grammatical editor, someone else may find content errors, and still someone else may be an expert on a topic you’re trying to research. You’ll be surprised at how much “pooling” your knowledge will get you.
It’s Easier for Someone Else to Find Your Mistakes
No matter how much experience you have, it’s hard to see your own errors. I’m an editor, and I hire an editor. It’s impossible to read our own work with objective eyes. Because we know what’s supposed to be there, our brain automatically fills in typos and missing story parts. Reader’s brains don’t. Let your critique partners point out where they’re confused and nudge you to close the gaps.
You Learn More from Catching Other People’s Mistakes
You pick up things in others’ manuscripts that you might miss in your own. The more you edit, the more you learn how to be a tighter, stronger writer. Sometimes when I see errors in one of my writing partner’s pages, it’s a light bulb moment for my own.
There will be times when you hit a wall—in your plot, characters, and ideas. Talking out your problems with the group can help you find direction. I’ve come up with twists, turns, and resolutions I never knew were lurking in my head. What seems like a major block to you might be easily solved by a fresh perspective.
Sticking out this writing thing requires discipline. One of the best ways to be disciplined is through accountability. Find others who have similar goals, agree to meet often, and hold each other to that promise. The most productive groups meet weekly. If you’re not ready for that, try every other week until you establish a comfortable routine.
Critique group members who write together stay together—and become a writing family. Your writing family. The more you get to know each other, the more you can help each other. Hearing constructive criticism from people you trust is far easier than having your work torn to shreds by someone you don’t know.
The Downsides: What’s not so great about belonging to a critique group?
Losing Your Voice
One of the biggest cons to a critique group is that the members can start to sound alike. Each writer has a unique voice. Even if it takes a while to discover, it’s in there somewhere. Peer pressure forces some writers to change their voice, while others just slip into someone else’s style gradually without realizing they’ve abandoned their own. And there’s always the temptation to edit other’s work in your voice. Watch out for that. Get to know your editing partners’ unique styles and edit like you’re ghostwriting for them.
One person shouldn’t be doing all the work. The goal for the group is to divide and conquer—especially if you’re just starting out. Go to conferences. Take online classes. Sit in on seminars. Bring back what you learn and share it with your group. If each member takes the other members’ work as seriously as they take their own, the overall edits will become better and better.
Feeling Beaten Down
Different people bring different styles, experiences, skill sets, and personalities to your meetings. Think before you speak. Think before you redline. Think before you criticize. You came here for help—just like everyone else. So help. Don’t hinder. Don’t make your writing family cry. Not sure how to be a good critique partner? Say something positive first, then suggest ways to tighten and strengthen writing or conception issues, and end with something positive. People tend to shut down if the first thing they hear is a correction. They’re more likely to listen to your constructive criticism after you’ve told them something that makes them feel good.
One person shouldn’t be the center of the meeting every meeting. Respect each other’s time. Be on time. End on time. Elect a facilitator who will keep you on time and on task or set a timer to divide your minutes equally. Some weeks, one person may need more help than other weeks. Be fair. Be considerate.
Congratulations! You’re helping each other succeed and keeping each other accountable. You’re aware of possible issues and are ready to head them off before they become problems. Here are a few more tips for building strong, encouraging critique groups.
Set Your Group Size
I’ve heard the magic three. I’ve worked with groups of five. My long-time group at one point had seven. This is a personal choice. But limit the size of your group to the workload everyone can handle in the time allotted. If you have a larger group, divide into subgroups when you meet. But stick with the same people. Building trust and relationships is crucial to success.
What do the members want to get out of the group? How much work are they each willing to put in? Are they looking for someone to pat them on the back or really help them become stronger writers? Talk about expectations first. Make sure everyone is on the same page.
Agree on a place and time that works for everyone. Meet somewhere neutral—a restaurant, coffee shop, church, or library—or take turns hosting the group.
Option 1: Send your pages out on email or something like Google Docs. Read and make notes prior to meeting. You can print out and write on the document directly or make notes using features like track changes and comment boxes and then print the document out or email it back to the person. This work-ahead method allows for a good, in-depth critique but takes a time commitment outside of the group.
Option 2: Print your pages and bring enough copies for everyone to the meeting. Let someone else read your work out loud. It will give you a chance to hear where any places there’s a struggle and to pick up mistakes you may have missed. What the eye misses, the ear often picks up. This do-it-there method negates the time commitment outside the group but gives you a less thorough critique.
Option 3: Form an online group to electronically edit each other’s manuscripts. This is my least favorite method. Yes, you’re able to get an in-depth critique. But there’s something about talking things through that seems to be more helpful. Your constructive criticism is also liable to be taken more harshly when it’s just notes on a page. If this is the way you need to go, make sure to include praise. And consider “meeting” online live every once in a while.
You don’t want the other members of the group to dread your weekly submissions. Send the cleanest, easiest-to-read version of your brilliance.
- No more than five double-spaced pages a meeting (depending on group size and time allowed). Double spacing allows room for written comments and is easier to see.
- Read your masterpiece out loud before you submit. The ear catches what the eye misses.
- Run a spell check with grammar.
- Use Times New Roman or Calibri 12-point font. No weird font or all italics. It’s hard to read. See below.
No one wants to decipher that.
New to Critique? Not sure what to do? Here are some things to look for.
- Awkward phrases, sentences, comparisons, or ideas (if it feels “off,” ask)
- Passive verbs—especially “to be” verbs (was, is, am, are)
- Ly Adverbs (better to use a strong verb)
- Too many adjectives
- Accidentally repeated words (don’t use the same word close together unless it’s on purpose)
- Vague words like it, that, the, this, things, them (be specific where you can for clarity)
- Extra words: the, that, had (if the sentence reads clearly without them, cross them out)
- Redundant words or phrases: Two or more descriptions of the same thing or words that mean the same thing.
- Paragraph opening repetition: Do the paragraphs all begin the same way?
- Sentence length (don’t write all choppy, short sentences or cram too much information into too many long sentences)
- POV: Are you head hopping—moving from person to person’s thoughts? Read up on POV for more information.
- Action/Reaction: An action must come before a reaction, and every action needs a reaction.
- Show/don’t tell (He was mad is telling. He threw the chair across the room is showing.)
- Clarity issues (do you know what’s going on in the chapter, and does it make sense for the story?)
- Roller coaster emotions: Does the character react inappropriately without a motivation to do so?
- Information dumps (don’t dump too much information at once and interrupt the story)
- Action issues (are the characters standing in one place one minute and another the next without you knowing how they got there?)
The longer you edit, the stronger writer and critique partner you’ll become. Remember, the key to a good group is finding the right people. If a group isn’t working for you, look for another. But do some soul searching and make sure you’re not the problem.
Comment below with any tips you have on joining critique groups.
An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.
You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app.
I haven’t felt strong since May 15.
If you don’t know about the tragedy in my life, brace yourself for devastating news.
My husband died in an airplane crash. And his death changed me, forever.
But when needed, I can be strong.
I channel the strengths I had before May 15, and I can do anything I could do before he died.
But in order to channel your strengths, you need to know them. There are lots of ways to determine your strengths. I’m sharing an easy, fun way today.
Who Are You?
What words would you use to describe yourself?
Take each letter of your first name and think of a word that starts with those letters that describes you. First responses. No censoring.
Use a name that’s at least five letters long. If your first name is Lori, add the first letter of your last name and use LoriK.
Use descriptors that represent you that are positive.
These are off-the-top-of-my-head responses from several years ago.
M – Master Planner
A – Assertive
R – Risk-taker
G – Goofy
I – Imaginative
E – Enthusiastic
I don’t feel those strengths too often. Not since Tom died.
Here’s how I feel:
M – Missing Tom
A – Authentic
R – 'rong – Everything is wrong without Tom here.
G – Gutted
I – Inescapably Sad
E – Erasable – Like I’m not here. Because it seems like Tom got erased.
Clearly, those aren’t strengths. They’re feelings.
They’re honest feelings. I’m authentic about my life-changing loss.
That’s a sad, sad, sad list. I am inescapably sad. And that’s okay for now.
Don’t worry about my emotional state. Don’t worry that I came up with the word erasable.
Bad things happen. Any of us can be erased from this world at any time. And that’s the only E word that popped into my mind. I was authentic and shared it here.
Considering the catastrophic loss, my emotions are right where they need to be.
Back to focusing on strengths. I can access my strengths, use them, and feel stronger.
Three weeks after Tom died, I taught a week-long class for West Texas Writer’s Academy at West Texas A&M University.
You may be thinking WHY?
I didn’t have to teach that week. Everyone understood. No one would have been upset if I’d cancelled.
But I needed to prove to myself that I could do my life. That I could go on without Tom, even though part of me wanted to stay in bed and never leave my room.
I turned on my teaching brain and did my Margie thing. And the following week I taught an Immersion class in Dallas.
My strengths got me through each day.
M – Master Planner – I was prepared. Teaching materials, loaded handout packets, and millions of on-target examples.
A – Assertive – I took charge.
R – Risk-taker – I pushed myself to be there, to teach two weeks in a row.
G – Goofy – I laughed and joked around. That’s who I am.
I – Imaginative – Deep editing techniques and teaching methods.
E – Enthusiastic – I shared my passion for helping writers make their writing as strong as it could be.
I had most of the feelings in my list for those two weeks. I missed Tom. It felt wrong to not call him, to not hear from him. At times I felt gutted. When I wasn’t teaching, I felt inescapably sad. But I didn’t feel erasable, I felt valuable.
I don’t feel erasable now. Please don’t worry about me.
Okay – now it’s your turn.
Write the letters of your name in a column and throw down the first descriptors that come to mind that start with those letters.
Choose words that describe your personality, your approach to life. Not short, near-sighted, and chocoholic.
BE FAST, FAST, FAST!
Don’t take more than 10 seconds to come up with all of your descriptors.
You may be oh-so-creative. You saw how I used R for wrong. So wrong, but right for the list.
Analyze Your Descriptors
How do your strengths work for you?
Can you channel your strengths even when you don’t feel strong?
Please share your list of strengths in the comments. I’d love to see them.
A Quick Note About Defeat Self-Defeating Behaviors
Who Are You? is one of the exercises in my Defeat Self-Defeating Behaviors course. It’s packed with dozens of ways to get your writing career on a smart track and keep it on that smart track.
THANK YOU to the WITS gals for hosting me again. Love you all!
BLOG GUESTS — THANK YOU for dropping by WITS.
Please post your WHO ARE YOU? list, or just say Hi.
You could win a Lecture Packet from me or an online class from Lawson Writer’s Academy. The drawing will be Sunday night, 9:00 PM Mountain Time.
Lawson Writer’s Academy – October Courses
- Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More – Instructor: Suzanne Purvis teaching Margie Lawson’s course
- Create Compelling Characters – Instructor: Rhay Christou
- A Deep Editing Guide to Make Your Openings Pop – Instructor: Margie Lawson
- Five-Week First Draft – Instructor: Koreen Myers
- Crazy-Easy Awesome Author Websites – Instructor: Lisa Norman
- New Course: Two-Week Intensive — Fixing Your Plot – Instructor: Shirley Jump
- New Course: Profitable Facebook Ads – Instructor: Michelle Fox
Margie Lawson — editor and international presenter — teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners.
She’s presented over 120 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as taught multi-day intensives on cruises in the Caribbean.
To learn about Margie’s 5-day Immersion Master Classes, full day and weekend workshops, keynote speeches, online courses through Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit: www.margielawson.com
Interested in inviting Margie to present a full day workshop for your writing organization? Contact Margie through her website, or Facebook message her.
Interested in attending one of Margie’s 5-day Immersion classes? Click over to her website and check them out.
A few years back, I wrote a post called How To Focus on Your Story's DNA that identified the elements of story that never change. I use those unchanging elements to help keep my story on track. Theme is one of those important elements, and it's a tough one because most of the writers I talk to don't how to articulate their story's theme. Or they learn it as they write, which is a huge leap of faith.
What is a story theme?
Theme is the "big idea." The underlying message, or the critical belief about life the author is trying to convey. This belief, or idea, is universal. It transcends all barriers (i.e., age, culture or religion).
For myself, I like to simplify "the big idea" to a few quick words. Examples: There's no place like home, shame blocks happiness, control is illusion.
Theme as an iceberg
Reedsy made a cool graphic in their post, What Is the Theme of Your Story?Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, they created a diagram that illustrates the relationship between the theme of a book, its story, and the plot.
- Plot: the events of the narrative
- Story: internal and external character conflicts
- Theme: drives both plots and story from beneath the surface
"Like the portions of an iceberg beneath the surface, theme may not be immediately apparent to the reader — but it is implicitly conveyed through the writer's craft, using story, character conflict, and symbolism."
Writing around a theme
John August, the creator of Charlie's Angels and Big Fish penned a great post about Writing From Theme, which I've excerpted in blue below.
Note: This post demonstrated his level of awesome to me. I write to theme, once I know what it is. This guy writes from theme...as in he figures it out in advance and builds a whole story around it. There are always great lessons to learn from the awesome people.
I suspect what your pro-theme writer friends were talking about was some essence that permeates every moment of a good film. Something that’s in its DNA. You feel it when it’s there, and notice it when it’s missing — even when the script otherwise seems solid.
Think back to one of your favorite movies. Chances are, you could pick any moment in it, and it would “feel like” the movie. That is, you could take that little slice of it, plant it in some cinematic soil, and it would grow into something resembling the original.
My favorite movie is Aliens, and it meets this test easily. Pull out any sequence — even before Ripley has agreed to join the mission — and it would grow into a story that fits its universe.
I don’t know that “theme” is really the best word for this DNA quality I’m describing. But I think it’s what we mean when we say it.
Theme as the essential idea
For Big Fish: I had a lot of conversations about “what it was about.” Not the plot, really, but what the point of it all was. I talked about the difference between what is true and what is real. I don’t know that I ever articulated it quite that way, but this was definitely the underlying idea that informed every moment and every character in the script.
And for most of my projects, I can point to the DNA ideas:
- Charlie’s Angels: Three princesses must save their father, the King.
- The Remnants: The end of the world isn’t so bad.
- The Variant: You are still your younger self.
- Go: You cross a line, then your only way out is to accelerate.
For [some] projects, I remember saying these things aloud before I started writing. For others, I probably didn’t. But I could definitely feel the edges of their core ideas before I put pen to paper. I won’t start writing until I know it.
When you really understand a project’s DNA, it’s much easier to write and rewrite. You know exactly what types of scenes, moments and lines of dialogue belong in your movie, and which don’t.
Every scene in your screenplay can change, but it still feels like the movie.
John August's magic did not help me explain theme to my nine year-old and her 4th grade class. The video below did it for me, in a way that was easy for them to understand.
To summarize: Theme is the lesson the author wants you to get from the story. Themes tell us what we should or should not do to ensure happiness and success in our own lives.
How to discover theme (simple version)
- Observe what the characters in a story say and do.
- Ask yourself what were the consequences of those actions.
How to describe theme (simple version)
- Themes are a complete sentence.
- Themes never contain character names.
- A theme is true for everyone — young or old, rich or poor.
Theme help for pantsers
Laura Drake would not forgive me if I left this part out. Many pantsers have no idea what the theme is until they are done with the first draft. That is their discovery draft, when they find out all the magic that lurks below the story they were compelled to write.
That's okay, pantsers. You can put the magic into the second draft. Your theme will still be there, waiting to be defined and refined by you. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is your story. You'll nail theme in the editing process.
Do you know your story's theme from the beginning, or learn it as you go along? Do your themes surprise you? Do you have themes you write about over and over again?
* * * * * *
By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 20+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.