Writer's Notes

Critique Groups: Critiquing for success

By Mary Feliz


Whether we’re at the puppy stage or sailing over tricky hurdles, writers need training, support, guidance, positive feedback, and constructive criticism.

From conferences on a grand scale to critique groups on the smaller end, authors push ourselves and our writing to greater heights when we work together. We smooth over the rough spots in our manuscripts, lives, and career trajectories while celebrating successes others might need a microscope to observe.

Finding or creating a critique group is the subject of another blog. I’m of a mind that they work best when you nail the perfect combination of similar skill sets and objectives.

But what if you’ve found the perfect group? What can you expect from the experience? How can you make the most of it and minimize frustration? The first step, I believe, is recognizing that you have at least three (and maybe more) roles. First, you’re there to provide feedback. Second, you’re there to receive constructive comments on your work. Third, you’re a social member of a group in which people will feel vulnerable. The relationships within the group may be more high-maintenance than you’re used to in other spheres of your life.

Good critiquers:

Provide timely feedback based on the writer’s needs. If an author’s spouse is a grammar whiz and punctuation police officer, she won’t require line edits, but she may need your take on whether her dialogue rings true. Don’t waste your time and hers. If she has a Monday deadline and you don’t get back to her for a month, you’ve squandered goodwill on a fruitless chore.

Find something good to say. No matter how awful you consider a submission, find something useful to say. Was the formatting impeccable or did a three-word turn of phrase capture your attention? Mention it. Doing so nurtures relationships, but also makes it easier for authors to listen to your recommendations for improvement.

Find something that could be better. No one’s writing is perfect, particularly in early drafts. Blockbuster authors may write too-wordy passages, dialogue that sags, or unimaginable plot twists. Even if a submission blew you away with its brilliance, find something that could be improved. No one appreciates a critique group member who consistently responds with “terrific, you’ve outdone yourself.”

Good critique-ees:

Say thank you. Each critique took time away from a group member’s writing. There is nothing authors value more than their time.

Look beyond the comment. Prolific genre-busting English author Neil Gaiman says, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” No matter how bizarre a comment seems, something tore the reader away from your manuscript long enough for them to write you a note. Even if you disregard their advice, examine the passage to determine what might have made a reader stumble.

Busted? Be grateful. When I struggle with a passage in my novel and decide it’s good enough only to have an editor later tell me there is still a problem with it, my initial reaction is that of a child sheepishly caught in the act. I’m angry, then thrilled that someone brought me to task for wimping out. I take the reader’s advice very seriously, even if their solution is not my solution. For example, in my latest book, my editor suggested the murderer needed more explicit motivation—something about the character didn’t ring true. He offered suggestions. Instead, I shifted blame to a new character I wove into the story. That move provided a double-barreled benefit. I fixed the nagging problem and created what I hope proves to be a very satisfying plot twist.
Don’t argue. And don’t continue ask for feedback as you fiddle with your manuscript’s faults. If you need more help, consider taking a class or asking another friend, beta-reader, or editor. Nothing kills a critique group faster than someone who keeps asking for advice on the same tired paragraphs.

Reveal expectations and needs. If you’re on a deadline, let your critique partners know. If you need a quick read and response on a specific portion of the work—rhythm, characterization, believability, etc.—let your readers know that, too.

Overall advice:
Critique groups are meant to be helpful and fun. If your group feels burdensome or feedback isn’t useful, take a break, change the structure of the group, or bow out. Likewise, if a group member becomes argumentative, incapable of meeting deadlines, or provides useless feedback, consider asking if the group still meets her needs.

A supportive critique group is priceless, but the organization that needs care and feeding. Nurture it. But don’t hesitate to end an unsatisfactory group experience. A lousy critique group is worse than no group at all.

FELIZ Author HeadshotMary Feliz writes the Maggie McDonald Mysteries featuring a Silicon Valley professional organizer and her sidekick golden retriever. She’s worked for Fortune 500 firms and mom and pop enterprises, competed in whale boat races and done synchronized swimming. She attends organizing conferences in her character’s stead, but Maggie’s skills leave her in the dust. Address to Die For, the first book in the series, was named a Best Book of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews. All of her books have spent time on the Amazon best seller list. Visit her website at
FELIZ Disorderly Conduct (4)Professional organizer Maggie McDonald balances a fastidious career with friends, family, and a spunky Golden Retriever. But add a fiery murder mystery to the mix, and Maggie wonders if she’s found a mess even she can’t tidy up …

With a devastating wildfire spreading to Silicon Valley, Maggie preps her family for evacuation. The heat rises when firefighters discover a dead body belonging to the husband of Maggie’s best friend Tess Olmos. Tess becomes the prime suspect in what’s shaping up to become a double murder case. Determined to set the record straight, Maggie sorts clues in an investigation more dangerous than the flames approaching her home. When her own loved ones are threatened, can she catch the meticulous killer before everything falls apart?


Writer's Notes

It Takes a Village


By Thonie Hevron

You’ve all heard the African proverb (a cliché these days), “It takes a village to…” fill in your blank. My answer is “write a book.” Writers are solitary creatures—shy by nature. But if you think a writer completes their work alone, let me educate you.

Granted, most of the hard work is done solo. Charlotte Bronte hardly had a critique group to whip her text into shape. While “taking a village” may be a stretch, the support systems we have now weren’t around in their day. I refer to critique groups, beta readers, editors, and experts.

Here are a few words on my support systems:

  • I owe my growth as a writer to the members (current and past) of my critique group. They’re honest enough to say, “This just doesn’t work,” and tell me why. If I want compliments, I’d ask my mother. If I want the truth (and constructive suggestions), I ask my critique partners. To be clear, I’ve written these pages in solitude. But their review and input are part of the process. Their criticism can only improve my work—and it has.
  • Another writer notion is that writers prefer aloneness. We do. I cannot deny it. But having a group of people behind you, cheerleading, challenging, and empathetic, soothes the ouch of an agent’s rejection letter. When I joined Redwood Writers (RW—a branch of the California Writers Club) in 2006, I had two books completed and I needed to figure the next step. Between monthly speakers and workshops, I realized I had more work to do before the manuscripts were polished enough to submit to a literary professional. Through the club, I found my critique group, mentors, learned how to set and achieve goals, and many other lessons. I learned the value of networking. As my genre is mystery/thriller/police procedurals, I joined the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). I applied RW lessons here. This group was comprised of active and retired law enforcement, fire, emergency medical, and military personnel. Several publishers also belong. It was through PSWA that I found my publisher.
  • While I could write a post on each of these support systems (I think I will!), here I need to stress how important it is to put another pair of eyes on my work. I wouldn’t think of letting an agent look at a manuscript without review from two or three Beta Readers (readers who check for general critiques-flow, plotting, etc.).
  • An editor is critical. A submission should be as error-free as possible. More on that later, too.
  • I can’t live without my “experts.” I had my third novel almost half done when I found Mike Brown, a retired lieutenant from Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. I’d worked with Mike years before and re-connected on Facebook. After he looked at my outline, he said, “It couldn’t happen like that.” Sheesh. As I market heavily to law enforcement, I knew my story had to be authentic. Back to the drawing board. The result was, “With Malice Aforethought.” Yet to be published, it won PSWA’s Writers Contest second place award in the 2016 unpublished novel category.

All this before the book is even published! In the weeks that follow, two of my esteemed colleagues will present their ideas on the same topic. Be sure to check in every Friday, or better yet, subscribe to my blog post, Just the Facts, Ma’am.




Writer's Notes

What the Heck is a Beta Reader, Anyway?

What the heck is a Beta Reader?

I’m taking a break. Mostly, because it took so long to get this story down, I struggled with the last half. Eventually, the beginning became a problem, too.

The first half was easy to write because I had a clear picture of what I wanted to happen with Nick and Meredith. The storyline was less important. Then, as you may have read months ago, I connected (on Facebook) with Mike Brown. Mike and I worked together at Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO). Although my tenure was three short years (1991-1993), I remembered Mike Brown’s reputation as an experienced, educated and common sense-supervisor. When I asked him to take a look at my outline for authenticity, he was enthusiastic and helpful.

Be careful what you ask for.

FBI Profiles of Evil

Tactfully, Brown told me the story premise was all wrong. WITH MALICE AFORETHOUGHT (WMA)is set in northern Sonoma County, California. It’s a rural, sometimes remote region patrolled by the county sheriff. As a veteran of SCSO Violent Crimes Investigations (VCI) sergeant, Brown had responded to these hills for a homicide investigation just as my hero in this story, Nick Reyes, does.

So when Mike Brown said my story couldn’t happen, I listened. Enter the readers “suspension of disbelief.” To put it succinctly, a fiction author writes a situation that cannot happen in a way that makes the reader think, “This could happen.”

Lincoln 9“Suspension of disbelief” is very different from authenticity. Suspension refers mainly to situations, where authenticity is the real deal procedurally. For instance: CSI, the TV series, has frustrated so many law enforcement professionals because of their unbelievable situations.

The premise of my story just didn’t work. So I swallowed my pride, tossed the first third and set about re-structuring the story. It meant giving up carefully crafted scenes that any reader with a background in law enforcement would know weren’t the real deal. Knowing early enough to do a re-write was a blessing in disguise. WMA turned out better than I could have hoped. Still in need of polishing for authenticity, I’ve turned to my peers for their expert advice.

Above is a dramatic example of what Beta Readers can do for a story. I have chosen five retired law enforcement professionals to read my book for realism. Three were authors I met through Public Safety Writers Association—Pete Klismet, retired FBI Profiler and author of FBI DIARY-Portrait of Evil; Dave Freedland, retired Deputy Chief of Irvine Police Department and author of LINCOLN 9, and John Schembra, retired sergeant with Pleasant Hill Police Department and author of RETRIBUTION. All three men have something to offer both as writers and cops.


My last two Beta Readers are not authors. Tim Miller, retired CHP Air Operations sergeant from Napa is reading for helicopter veracity and finally but not least, Mike Brown.

I’m on pins and needles until I hear from them.

For the next month, I’m not writing although I have already plotted out the next story in my mind. I’m catching up on closet organization, yard work and other things I’ve let lapse for writing.

When I get the first manuscript back from one of the Beta Readers, you can bet I’ll drop my trowel and get to work making changes.



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