Category Archives: Writing

NOMONANOWRIMO

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When an accomplishment addict like me retires, she has to find a way to impose deadlines, milestones, items to check off the to-do list. I sort of feel like I don’t exist if I’m not getting stuff done. Two years into retirement, I still crave those external markers of accomplishment. One such is National Novel Writing Month. Each November, thousands of writers pledge to churn out a 50,000-word novel by month’s end. That’s 1,667 words per day.

After two years of “winning” NANOWRIMO, I’m taking a break. This November will find me at my writing desk every day, of course, but I won’t be churning out a first draft of anything. As a matter of fact, I’m still refining and polishing the story I started back in NANO 2014. The also-promising mystery novel I started in NANO 2015 is marinating in a folder, patiently waiting until I get back to it. This year I’m focusing on Chuck Wendig’s valuable advice: “Finish your shit.”

Just in case you haven’t read this sharp, funny, poke-in-your-writerly-ass essay, here it is: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/11/26/why-its-important-to-finish-your-shit/

NANO has given me good habits, a sense of determination, and some fun writing contacts in my local area. But despite the sparkly appeal of new beginnings, it’s time to plod, chug, crunch, grunt and push my way through this latest revision and then launch another round of queries.

New beginnings are such fun, but it’s the steady plodding forward that gets stuff done.

Writer Heaven with Margaritas: The Women’s Fiction Writers Association Retreat 2016

Two days after returning from the WFWA retreat, my inner music track is still playing the Partridge Family’s “Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque.” Go ahead, children of the ’70s, give a listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swjLglCwflE

Wasn’t David Cassidy dreamy?

Albuquerque is where the WFWA held its second annual Writers’ Retreat last week. What a lovely town! We stayed in the Hotel Albuquerque, two short blocks from the historic city center.

Here I am in front the San Felipe de Neri church, built in 1793, on the Old Town Plaza

Here I am in front the San Felipe de Neri church, built in 1793, on the Old Town Plaza. 1793!

Adobe shops in Albuquerque's Old Town

Adobe shops in Albuquerque’s Old Town

Albuquerque’s Old Town is charming, as is the Hotel Albuquerque. There was ample room on the patio where writers hung out, spun tales, and sipped margaritas. I didn’t spend much time on the patio, though; I came for the workshops and discussions. Orly Konig Lopez, author of The Memory of Hoofbeats, and the rest of the WFWA board and helpers created a brain-busting, notebook filling learn-a-palooza for writers of women’s fiction, and then scheduled three group dinners where we blew off steam—did I mention the margaritas?

This was the largest writers’ workshop I’ve attended, and easily the most welcoming. I didn’t know a soul before my arrival, and am at heart a quivering introvert who requires a lot of psychic energy to approach strangers. The eighty women and one guy could not have been more welcoming. Many of the writers in attendance had already published novels, some independently, some traditionally, but an atmosphere of “we’re all in this together” pervaded the 3 ½ day event.

Margie-fied pages

Margie-fied pages

A highlight was Margie Lawson’s workshop on her Deep Editing techniques. I’ve read dozens of books on the craft of writing, but nothing has provided as much immediate practical benefit as this workshop, where we turned our printed chapters into rainbows of highlights, circles, underlines and margin notes. I’ll definitely continue exploring her courses as I polish up this and future manuscripts. And Margie’s long list of rhetorical devices, from alliteration to zeugma, put a grin on the face of this former English teacher. Here’s where you can learn more about Margie’s courses:

http://www.margielawson.com/

Another highlight was connecting with so many writers who “get it,” IT being the joys and frustrations of the writer’s journey to publication. There were sessions on diversity in fiction, queries, log lines, reaching out to readers, modalities of publishing, social media, agents and how/whether to find them, along with editors and publicists, how to stage a coming-out party for your debut book, and navigating the social media jungle.

I got to spend time with some fascinating women from across the US and Canada, along with one adorable guy, Scott Wilbanks, winner of the WFWA Star Award for The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster. I met businesswomen, professors, attorneys, stay-at-home mothers, yoginis, teachers, journalists–all of them passionate about spinning stories. And you’ve never heard such raving about each other’s books! I have a long reading list of women’s fiction to warm the cold winter months.

And while you’re stocking your bookshelves, check out The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes, WFWA Star Award Winner for Outstanding Debut.

 

 

ISWG Question o’ the Month: How do you find time to write?

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

It’s ISWG time again. The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a place where writers encourage each other, express their doubts, and offer help. According to their website, it’s “a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.” They also offer oodles of writerly resources. Visit them here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

This month’s question: How do you find the time to write in your busy day?

Well, that hardly seems fair. I’m retired, y’all. I had the great good fortune to retire from teaching high school at age fifty-two, and I’ve been writing with the energy of a demon-possessed squirrel ever since—and the focus. Oh look, there’s a peanut!

I have my own little office in our new home, and here I sit, BICFOKTAM. (On the very small chance you haven’t seen that acronym, it means butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, typing away madly.) Right now I’m revising a manuscript, carving out great swaths of extraneous sub-plot, filing away unneeded secondary characters for future stories. It hurts a little, but mostly it’s an interesting challenge.

I’ve always functioned best with deadlines, and now I have to create or find them, such as the upcoming Women’s Fiction Writers Association conference, critique group meetings, and contests.

Still, there are temptations to stray. Like sexy sirens perched on the treacherous rocks, email, Facebook and Twitter constantly tempt me to put aside my writing “just for a moment.”

“Take a break,” they sing in their velvety, soothing voices. “Look at this interesting article, that blog post. They’re about writing, so it’s OK.” It seems the song of the sirens actually sounds like “Ping, buzz, ping, ping, buzz” as my laptop and phone tempt me to stray from the path of righteousness.

It’s hard to focus, especially when the words aren’t flowing easily. Coffee helps. So does keeping track of my daily word count, a good habit cultivated during NANOWRIMO.

After a lifetime of deadlines and schedules imposed from without, it’s challenging to handle all this writing time in a productive way. And it’s a very frustrating feeling to realize I’ve frittered away a day on social media, errands, chores and TV without writing much. I find I actually write with more focus on days when a chunk of my time is scheduled for other things—appointments, tutoring and the like. Then I know I must buckle down and produce something in, say, the next two hours.

But as for finding time to write, no prob’. For me, it’s a question of focus. See coffee, above.

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

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This much-used quote has been attributed to E.M. Forster, but actually he was making fun of what most writerly folk today call “pantsers,” writers who don’t do much outlining, but rather start with an idea and let it grow organically. Forster did not approve of this approach. Don’t believe me? Read this excellent blog post:

https://rjheeks.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/discovery-writing-and-the-so-called-forster-quote/

But never mind. I’m a pantser, as in writing by the seat of my pants. Though some of my blog posts might look that way, I assure you that I never actually sit on the keyboard.

“What’s your blog about?” That’s become an embarrassing question. Just for fun, I looked over all my blog entries so far: there are twenty-four different topics.

I started out in 2013 with the intention of blogging about being in my fifties. I was looking for inspiration on how to fully enjoy this new era in my life. And that is one of the topics I’ve written the most about, though not my most frequent topic. I continue to enjoy looking for role models my age and older, and am very interested in the anti-ageism movement. Most of the midlife female bloggers I’ve found so far   are writing about topics that interest me not at all: cosmetics, what not to wear, dating, empty nests, moaning over lost youth. Meh.

Then I lucked into early retirement in 2014, and resolved to write about that journey. I didn’t—at least, not much. I’ve actually written more book reviews than entries about retirement. Having lots of time to read is one of retirement’s greatest blessings.

I love reading about real food, cooking, and food’s effect on our health. I’m also interested in frugality, voluntary simplicity, avoiding the excesses of consumerism. Food blogs are so much fun to read, and I thought I might eventually become a food blogger or cookbook author with a focus on reducing food waste.  My blog entries under “The Leftover Project” have been a good way for me to keep track of my culinary experiments but, given lots of free time, I find I don’t think about that topic all that often. Oh well.

My greatest focus has been twofold: entries on writing, and entries on happiness. The former makes sense, since I spend so much time writing fiction. I enjoy being part of the conversation among writers, but there are so many of us, so many good blogs on that topic. I get more juice from the direct conversations I have with other writers, whether face-to-face or online, in genre-specific discussion forums.

The rest of my musings turn out to be about my efforts to achieve happiness, and what I’ve read/learned from others about that topic. Who ‘da thunk it? I’m a practical philosopher. It turns out I’m most inspired by questions about the meaning of life and how to enjoy this gift of time and good fortune. And things that I thought would matter, such as wardrobe, diet, and travel, don’t really take up all that much space on my mental bookshelf.

So there you go: this seems to be a blog about a middle-aged writer’s search for the good life. We all have our personal recipes for the good life, and this is my test kitchen. Bon appétit!

 

Blood-Red Ink

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

It’s ISWG Wednesday again. The first Wednesday of each month, members of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group answer a question about writing and then hop about the blogosphere, checking out each other’s answers.

From the ISWG website: “The Insecure Writer’s Support Group is a home for writers in all stages; from unpublished to bestsellers. Our goal is to offer assistance and guidance. We want to help writers overcome their insecurities, and by offering encouragement we are creating a community of support.”

ISWG offers an impressive number of resources for writers. And this month’s question is: What was your very first piece of writing as an aspiring writer? Where is it now? Collecting dust or has it been published?

In Writing Fiction from Point Zero, June 6, 2016, I wrote about my first act of murder on paper, a story inspired by a crazy student during my early teaching years. I never finished that piece. Further literary murders followed as my then-marriage descended into nastiness. Just last week I found two short stories from that era than involve the demise of a scornful, demeaning husband. So therapeutic! I had no intention of publishing back then; I was just flexing my muscles, enjoying the creative process.

The first piece I wrote for publication was a cozy mystery entitled Murder on Principal. It’s the tale of a high school teacher who finds her principal dead in his office. Of course, she falls under suspicion, and when a second staff member is found dead, she tries to find the killer’s identity before s/he can strike again. You can read a sample in this year’s Guide to Literary Agents, in the section where a panel of agents critique first pages. Their comments were mixed; it’s a first novel, after all.

While my goal is traditional publication, I had a pretty realistic idea of my chances for getting this first novel published—that is, slim. Whisper-thin. Like, one cell thick. I used the revision and submission process as my training ground for future, more salable novels. I’m still entertaining notions about self-publishing it, though. There must be teachers like me who would enjoy reading about the demise of a sadistic principal. For now, my first novel is waiting patiently on the shelf for further attention.

Meanwhile, the blood-red ink continues to drip from my computer, as well as from my revision notes. I’m happily remarried and retired from teaching, and yet I can’t control my murderous impulses. I guess once you’ve tasted blood, there’s no turning back.

High Praise from the Other Side

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

“I don’t usually like stories like this, but I really enjoyed reading yours.”

What’s the best thing someone has ever said about your writing? That’s this month’s question from the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a collection of bloggers whose topic is, at least sometimes, the writing life. Support and commiseration from other writers has been so helpful during these first years of my writing “career”—nothing published yet, but I am working on it.

My face-to-face critique group meets twice a month, an ever-revolving batch of local writers with a few core members, of which I’m one. We’ve had submissions of historical fiction, memoir, vampire romance, literary short stories, mortal romance, blog entries, folk tales, military fiction, speculative fiction, fiction for children, and poetry, but the greatest number of writers in the group are working on science fiction and/or fantasy. And then there’s me, with my contemporary women’s fiction and cozy mysteries. No explosions, no aliens, no vampires, and only a little sex.

It’s a valuable exercise for us all to look carefully at evolving stories in genres we’d never pick up off the book shelf. In general, romance novels send me into a diabetic coma. Anything that smacks of post-apocalyptic leaves me cold—I mean, we all face enough tragedy and hardship in real life; why wallow in it? I don’t find vampires at all sexy. Descriptions of military weaponry make me snooze. Fantasy can be so predictable: flying dragons, magic crystals, some chica finds out she’s the hereditary princess and must lead her people in an epic battle against Snog the Despicable… And don’t get me started on YA. After more than a quarter century of teaching teenagers, I don’t want to read about some kid coming of age in predictable ways, whether it’s on Planet Zoltron or in fourteenth-century France. And, other than the occasional female writer around my age, no group member would reach for a lighthearted tale of a middle-aged woman reinventing herself after her kids finally leave the nest.

And yet, good storytelling is good storytelling. My writing is definitely richer from having plunged into all these other genres. I’ve really enjoyed watching these tales of talking animals, mysterious space ships, time travel, epic battles, psychotic breaks, and teenage family drama coalesce into entertaining, moving stories. And when one of the group members tells me that he enjoys my writing despite a lack of interest in the subject matter, I know that I’ve hit the mark. So here’s to stretching ourselves as writers by sharing and critiquing across genres. We have so much to teach each other.

A Few of My Favorite Things: Books on Writing

Book Quote

As part of the promotion process for her newly released book DIY MFA, Gabrielle Pereira has given her “Street Team” of advance reviewers several interesting writing prompts. (Scroll down to see my review of her book and a link to her website.) This week’s question: What are your essentials? What are your go-to “read like a writer” resources?

In her book, Pereira reminds us of the importance of reading widely in the genre we write as well as outside our own genre(s). She calls it “reading like a revolutionary,” but most literature teachers just call it critical reading, which means noticing the effect an author achieves and examining how she achieves that effect. For example: “Wow, this scene really builds suspense! How did she do that? Aha—she used dramatic irony by showing us the vampire lurking in the shadows. Giving the protagonist too much coffee and a tendency to jump at harmless sounds also helps. And look at those short, choppy sentences. Cool.”

The novel I’m currently shopping around to literary agents falls into the women’s fiction genre, because the story revolves around the female protagonist’s personal growth and a family conflict, rather than solving a mystery, thwarting terrorists, falling in love (though she does that), rebelling against an evil space emperor, battling demons, traveling through time, daydreaming about what could have been while gazing at the endless Kansas prairies, conquering the music industry, etc. In an effort to understand the expectations of this genre’s readers, I’ve joined the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and am reading many women’s fiction titles. It helps—quite a lot.

My collection of reference books for writers

My collection of reference books for writers

Then there’s the question of reference books for writers. Well, here you go: In addition to a pile of magazines, mostly Writer’s Digest, I have quite a collection of reference books and how-to books for writers. I’ve learned something valuable from every one of them, and I pull them out for inspiration when I get stuck or when I’m starting a new project.

In addition to Pereira’s fine book, I also find these particularly valuable:

  • Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell
  • Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, by Lawrence Block
  • A Handbook for Fiction Writers, also by Lawrence Block
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King
  • The Kick-Ass Writer, by Chuck Wendig

And, because I also like to write mystery stories:

  • The Elements of Mystery Fiction, by William G. Tapply
  • Don’t Murder Your Mystery, by Chris Roerden
  • Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton, with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman
  • How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author, by Janet Evanovich, with Ina Yalof

Of course, I have the current Writers Market and Guide to Literary Agents. And I haven’t even begun to list my favorite blogs for writers; there are so many!

So there you go. I hope that was helpful to any writers who are building their own reference shelves. What are your favorite references for writers?

 

Book Review: DIY MFA, by Gabriela Pereira

DIYMFA-Book-Cover-201x300DIYMFA-Book-Cover-201x300DIYMFA-Book-Cover-201x300

I was delighted to receive a free advance copy of Ms. Pereira’s newly-released how-to book for writers: DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community. Have a look here: http://diymfa.com/product/diy-mfa-book

In this volume, she promises the reader the most important lessons from a Masters of Fine Arts program in creative writing. After all, an MFA program requires a huge investment in time and money, and seldom focuses on genre/commercial fiction, which is why I’ve decided not to pursue that degree. Pereira is not the first to try to condense the best bits of an MFA into a book; in fact, I have on my bookshelf The Portable MFA in Create Writing by the New York Writers Workshop, published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2006, as well as forty-two other volumes on the craft of writing fiction. Why add another one?

Well, I’m always hoping for new nuggets of writerly wisdom and inspiration, and I found quite a few in DIY MFA. This book would be a good starting point for any writer who’s just beginning her reference library. Pereira doesn’t go into any one facet of the writing world in great depth, but she gives such a broad view of all the aspects of writerly success that every reader would most likely learn something valuable.

In the first section, Write with Focus, Pereira does a very solid job of presenting basic story structure, characterization, tips for busting through writer’s block, and other goodies that fiction writers need to know. Her background is in the design and data analysis, and she’s fond of acronyms and formulas. Her tone can be quite gushing: the book is liberally sprinkled with exclamation marks and phrases like “Awesomesauce.” My favorite nugget from the first section is her technique of outlining a plot in the style of a subway map, which was a great help to me with my current novel in progress.

In section two, Read with Purpose, we see Pereira’s scholarly training. I did appreciate her liberal use of examples from popular fiction: Pride and Prejudice, The Hunger Games trilogy, and the Harry Potter books. Her explanations of these examples, though, sometimes made me roll my eyes as she belabored the obvious. Her term for critical reading is “Read like a revolutionary”—but every high school student and college English major has done this type of examination of a writer’s technique. If it’s been a while since you’ve examined how a story was put together, you’ll find good reminders here.

It was in section three, Build Your Community, that I found the most value. In fact, I’d recommend buying the book just for this section. Pereira’s advice on critique groups should be read by everyone before they attend their first face-to-face meeting with such a group. Her advice on building your online presence and blogging was also detailed and up to date.

All in all, I found a great deal of valuable information and food for thought in DIY MFA. If you’re a writer in the early stages of your career, this volume belongs on your bookshelf—or in your Kindle. Also, be sure to check out her blog at DIYMFA.com, and her podcasts at DIY MFA Radio.

Writing Fiction from Point Zero

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I’m nearly finished reading Gabriela Pereira’s upcoming how-to manual for writers, DIYMFA. My review will appear here by the end of the week. You can check out the book here:

DIY MFA Book

This week, she’s challenged her team of early reviewers to write about our Point Zero moment, that moment when we first became writers. That’s easy for me; I became a fiction writer when I killed a boy.

Relax. I only killed him on paper, and it was so refreshing, better than any fancy-shmancy therapy.

I was a young high school teacher, only twenty-six, and not yet skilled at defusing classroom conflicts. Bubba, a big, thick jock, landed in my French class. Funny and playful, he was one of my favorite students up to that terrifying day. We’d been doing a creative activity that involved lots of discussion. I needed the class to quiet down for further instructions, but Bubba didn’t want to quiet down. Instead, he bolted from his chair and started shouting at me. I later learned that he was rather dangerously unhinged, but this was my first inkling of trouble.

Anyway, when I asked Bubba to step out into the hallway, he flushed a deep purple and unleashed a torrent of abuse, crazy stuff along the lines of “You can’t tell me what to do, Bitch.” And then he plumped down into his seat, his arms crossed, and glowered up at the clock, waiting for the bell to ring.

You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. The other students gaped at him, and then at me. You know, they don’t teach you about this stuff in college education classes. Quietly, I retreated behind my desk and picked up the phone. “Saved by the bell” has never rung truer as when Bubba stomped out a moment later.

I didn’t cry—I’m not usually a crier, but I was shaking so hard I could barely dial the principal’s office. At the end of the school day, after having met with the principal and the counselor, I was still shaking. When the school’s hallways quieted, I sat at my desk, reviewing what had happened, what I might have said to set him off, what I could have done differently. The kid was suspended for his outburst, but he’d be back. I was a skinny little thing, and he was a hulking brute. How could I protect myself?

And then my eyes landed on the three-hole punch. It was one of those heavy monsters you find in classrooms and offices, five pounds at least, with a convenient handle. If a person were to swing that hole-punch overhead and bring it crashing down on someone’s skull, that would do some serious damage. Cerrunch! I could picture the moment, and it felt good.

I sat down at my computer and slammed out the beginning of a story right then and there: a young female teacher is confronted by a big, angry jock student who threatens her, lunges for her. In a panic, she grabs the hole-punch and crushes his skull. Blood everywhere, soaking into the carpet. Where could she hide the body? She sneaks down the hallway to the janitor’s supply closet and nabs a roll of those heavy-duty blue trash bags…

On and on I went, detailing every move the quaking young teacher made as she hides the body in a vacant locker, planning to retrieve it over the weekend. But when she comes back, late Saturday night, the body has been moved! A trail of ants leads to the gym, where the dead jock has been stuffed beneath the bleachers. Who could have done it?

This was fun! I must’ve hunched over my keyboard for a good hour, my fingers flying. When I finally stopped, I felt—relieved, refreshed, empowered. Whatever happened next, I could face it because I’d already killed that evildoer. As it turns out, he soon left school.

I never finished that creepy little story, but I’ve since written several more, plus two novels, and I’m working on a third. And it all started with the question from which all story ideas come: What if?

In Search of the Perfect Critique Partners

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

Today I’m joining the ranks for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. Thank you to IWSG for the opportunity to share and learn from your writerly experiences. We post the first Wednesday of the month, but I’m posting early due to family commitments. Check them out here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

A topic much on my mind lately is getting good-quality feedback on my writing. I’ve just finished another (hopefully final) polish of my second novel, and am starting another round of agent queries. It took bloody forever to work this manuscript through my critique group, since we’re only allowed to submit twenty pages per meeting. It’s a fair rule—we’d never get through a meeting otherwise.

I’ve been participating in the same critique group for over a year now, and their bi-monthly meetings are a highlight of my writing practice. It’s energizing to chat face-to-face with other writers. From them, I’ve received lots of valuable advice on refining my cozy mystery and women’s fiction novels. No one in my group writes in these genres, but that doesn’t disqualify them from critiquing my work; in fact, the best writing advice I’ve received so far has come from writers of historical fiction and sci-fi. Good storytelling is good storytelling.

I’ve also exchanged a few online critiques with members of the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association, and will continue to pursue that avenue. These readers understand the expectations of our shared genre, and a bonus is that some of these critiques come from published writers.

Here’s where the insecure bit comes in: I give more credence to advice from fiction writers whose work has been published, especially those who’ve been traditionally published.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there’s lots of very fine indie-published fiction out there—but the indie fiction I’ve sampled so far has mostly been clunky, unpolished, not enjoyable for a reader like me who expects that level of polish found in most traditionally-published fiction. And that level of polish is what I’m trying to achieve—not just good proofreading, but well-rounded, relatable characters wrapped up in a believable, non-rambling plot.

Back to my face-to-face critique group. Sure, it’s valuable to get feedback from all sorts of writers, and to see the evolution of their works in progress. We all have a great deal in common, and sharing the process of chiseling away the dross from a draft to reveal the gem inside—that’s a great learning opportunity for me.

But the limitations of this critique group are becoming hard to ignore. A few of our best writers have peeled off, dissatisfied with nature of the critiques. They tell me there’s too much nit-picking over mechanics and too little focus on plot, characters, pacing—the meat of the story.  They have a point.

Our group contains some die-hard writing-rule-evangelists. (One actually carries the Chicago Manual of Style to every meeting.) Oh, how these writers cling to their formulas, their cherished edicts about what one must and must not do in order to create a work of fiction. Here’s where I admit to being a retired high school English teacher. I have great respect for grammar, punctuation—all the tools we use to achieve clear communication. But oh, dear reader, there is much eye-rolling when these group members start spouting their rules for this and that aspect of writing fiction. And have these particular group members published anything? Not as far as I know. That doesn’t mean that they won’t, of course, but still…

Ugly thoughts, I know. And unfair—after all, I haven’t published anything yet either. When I finally do get my work published, whether traditionally or independently, it’ll have more to do with voice and storytelling than whether I’ve followed a certain formula or eliminated all my adverbs and exclamation points. A good storyteller can bend lots of rules and still delight her readers.

I don’t want to leave the security of my little critique group, but suspect it’s time to move beyond its secure borders. It’s time to look for more in-depth feedback than I can get twenty pages at a time. Wish me luck.