Writer's Notes

Critique Groups: 3 Keys for a Productive Writers’ Critique Group

DTF Red Sky

By Deborah Taylor-French

Critique groups for writers serve many purposes. Writers’ groups can keep us on track with our goals like families help members grow and celebrate milestones. Functional or dysfunctional, writers’ groups can help us or hold us back. We can learn from reading with an eye to what works and how others convey stories. We can embrace and acknowledge the thousands of ways to express feelings, thoughts, and actions, which pump life into written ideas and stories. A well-functioning writers’ critique group can advance our abilities and productivity. More importantly, a group can act in several ways to improve our skills, style, clarity, and marketability of our work.

Before You take the Plunge to a Critique Group

  1. Are you interested in learning and changing your writing? If your answer is no, please don’t join a writers’ critique group. There are other types of writers’ groups for you.


  1. Do you like helping others? If the answer is no, you should seek help from an editor and beta readers. Critiques are best as two-way streets.


  1. Do comments help you revise? Not all writers feel receptive to readers’ impressions and questions. If comments confuse or upset you, work with only one reader or professional editor at a time.

Do you feel confused or angry at other’s comments on your writing? Then proceed with caution. Know you have other options. A well-chosen first reader or editor can help.

On the other hand, if you’re curious what your writing means to other people, do join a writer’s critique group. An attitude of mutual helpfulness must be part of why writers join groups. Not only should you be able to answer, yes to all three questions but also the other members of your potential group should too.

Caution: Not All Writers’ Critique Groups Produce Positive Results

  • Be picky.
  • Visit different groups.
  • Ask do I need a face to face group?
  • Know that online groups are not for every writer.

Insightful Critiques Moved My Story onto the Page.

Two critique groups assisted the development in early drafts of my first novel. I learned TONS from my writing group. I consider myself fortunate to have found a positive minded and a mature set of writers. Those four writers read and made detailed comments or questions on my drafts. In our meetings, each writer read aloud his or her work. The group discussed that piece of writing then the author had a few minutes to ask questions of their readers.

Due to readers expressed confusion on my references of fictional time and character motive, I realized the essential parts of my story still resided in my mind. These repetitions of discovering I had failed to write down specifics known only to me, pointed me to what I needed to do to make my story more readable and engaging. Due to a vivid imagination, I had those story facts but had never placed them in my draft. Soon, I learned to choose from the most potent essential objects, feelings, and metaphors. These details expressed and defined my characters, setting, and action more clearly. I learned from writers/readers to include a fleshed-out range of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic descriptions. I overcame a habit of leaving 30% of scene details in my imagination.

Gradually, I learned to go deeper onto each page of fiction. Soon, my fiction writing gasped a subtle use of subtext and humor from reading my writers drafts. Essential details. In each critique, we pointed out what worked in each other’s drafts. Insightful readers pointed to specific word choices, character action, dialogue, and thoughts, which helped to steer the story. Of course, some of our comments were more effective than others.

As I continued to participate in critiques, my written languages skills grew more vivid and effective at communicating my stories into final drafts. Through weekly meetings, my critique group writers taught me to trust the strengths I had as a writer. Believing and using my writing strengths became vital in my long-distance run to my first novel.  Novelists need staying power for the arch of writing 50,000 to 100,000 words has hundreds of challenges. The years of work to produce a coherent novel-length book felt like a daunting challenge. I thought of myself as a marathon runner in training.

Writing one book, for most people, presents a considerable challenge. Because I wanted to write a series of Dog Leader Mysteries I had to reframe endless revisions and draft edits to seem manageable.

Key 1: Positive critique comments grow better writers.

I cannot stress this too strongly. Our format trained us to always remark on the skills, insight, and best elements of each piece of writing. Our marginalia notes, plus verbal comments, ALWAYS began with what we liked, what worked, and what made us want to read more. We looked for what made written passages ZING, SING, and FLOW.

We don’t only learn from our mistakes. We learn from what we do well. We learn from the skills others positively reinforce. We become far more willing to keep repeating behaviors and skills we know others like or find valuable.

Take Dogs for Example

Behavioral studies show dogs learn faster in favorable environments. Canines must have their positive behaviors reinforced. Cookie words, receiving treats, and praise made dogs repeat what they did right. Similarly, we do better when we know what we’re doing right. In functional families, we know our value. Our positive behaviors receive praise or rewards. Our loved ones shape our behavior.

Key 2: Make Clear Critique Agreements

In our meetings, we set up a group knowledge base and agreements with each of us reading Peter Elbow’s book, Writing Without Teachers. The importance of this step cannot be stressed enough. Research showed that creative writing students did not get better through negative criticism alone. These students improved their writing skills when an amount of time became devoted to hearing what they did right.

Key 3: Mutual aid and patience transform critique groups beyond critique

Critique groups raise our empathy. They expand our knowledge and show us myriad ways writers solve similar story problems. They also tend to build friendships, the best lasting support to help us with the business of writing, too. Want a beta reader for a blog post? Need to contact published authors or experts to secure book blurbs for your first book? Want to be more successful in marketing your books?  All these and more valuable progressions can come from a trustworthy and caring critique group.

Positive feedback turns out to be the most effective way to grow as a writer. Who knew? Sure, we can all learn from our mistakes. Even from the mistakes of other writers. Imagine an acknowledged discussion, with notes on what a skillful writer you are. How would that advance your understanding of what works in your writing? Even if you have a reliable and helpful critique group, you have much to gain from pointing out what worked, what made you laugh, what made you want to keep turning those pages.


Deborah Taylor-French, Photo by Cindy Pavlinac
Deborah Taylor-French, Photo by Cindy Pavlinac

Deborah Taylor-French writes mystery, myth, and poetry.

Her Red Sky at Night: Dog Leader Mysteries can be purchase at Amazon Books

Copperfield’s Books and on iUniverse Bookstore At iUniverse sells this book at the same price as Amazon Books.

Deborah blogs to “save dogs’ lives & dog lovers’ sanity” at Dog Leader Mysteries (.com). For six years as Redwood Writers’ Author Support Facilitator, she has nurtured writers at monthly meetings. Redwood Writers is the largest a branch of the California Writers Club.

A former guest artist for California’s Artists in the Schools, Deborah holds a master’s degree in dance education from UCLA. She taught dance as a discipline, an art form and as cultural heritage in private and public schools throughout the State of California.

She has raised five adopted dogs, three pet rabbits, and one daughter. Deborah lives with her family in northern California, plus Tokyo Tuxedo, one sassy adopted house rabbit.













Writer's Notes

An Interview with Thonie Hevron

By David Alan Binders

This interview appeared in David Alan Binder’s site David Alan Binder’s site today.

Thonie Hevron interview with David Alan Binder

Bio from her website:    In 1973, on a dare, Thonie tested with San Rafael Police Department for Parking Enforcement Officer. Yes, she got the job and became Rita the Meter Maid for three years. Six months after promoting to Dispatch, she married an officer and left police work.

In 1981, she got a job with Petaluma Police as a Community Service Officer and shortly after, divorced. For PPD, she took reports, directed traffic, spoke to groups about Crime Prevention and assorted duties. After seven years, she traded jobs with a dispatcher and went inside.  In 1988, she married a Petaluma Fire Captain, Danny Hevron. In 1991, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office recruited her as a Records Supervisor for the Central Information Bureau. With budget cuts looming, she left in 1994.

 In 1994, Danny and Thonie re-located to Bishop, California and worked as a dispatcher for the local police department in Inyo County. Then, in 2004, she again, was offered a job she couldn’t refuse–dispatcher for Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety. Danny and Thonie were thrilled to be back in Sonoma County and she finally retired in 2011. She concentrates on fiction writing, but takes a break with fitness workouts, cycling and kayaking with Danny and riding horses.

 Thonie’s job history gives her a rich and textured understanding of the complex life of the men and women behind the badge. She looks forward to penning the stories she has lived in law enforcement.



Good Reads:



1.     How do you pronounce your name? 

a.     I get that question a lot. It’s pronounced, “Toni.” I was named after my Norwegian grandmother. I’ve heard that Thonie is an old-fashioned name that means a musical note. Pretty ironic, though. I can’t carry a tune in a handbasket.

2.     Where are you currently living?

a.     I’m in Petaluma, California, a suburb of San Francisco with an agricultural identity all its own. This is Sonoma County, a major force in California wines as well as micro-breweries. The restaurants here are amazing and the setting is dairy pastures and vineyards.

3.     What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?

a.     No question about it: Keep working.

4.     What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk?

a.     I used to have to light a specific scented candle but I’ve outgrown that.

b.     I used to like to write to classical music or Jim Brickman, but I find it distracting now.

c.      I won’t drink wine while I am working or anything but water or coffee.

d.     Pretty boring, I’d say. Sometimes, those quirks become excuses for not putting my butt in the chair.

5.     Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?

a.     I’ve done both and each has plusses and minuses. Self-publishing has more author control. I recall after my first book, By Force or Fear, came out, a review said that the reader found very few editorial mistakes. That was a major accomplishment! Then, I got a small press publisher (who eventually published my first book) for my second thriller, Intent to Hold. After Intent was published, a friend called me to tell me he wanted to give the book five stars on Amazon reviews but couldn’t because there were so many editorial mistakes. There was a whole printing that had most of the Mexican words underlined (the correct formatting to indicate italics). Yikes! I’d been give the galleys to check but that slipped by both me and the publisher. I had to destroy a whole $hipment.

b.     Who is the name of your publisher and in what city are they located? My former publisher was Billie Johnson of Oak Tree Press (OTP) in Hanford, Ca.  She is currently on hiatus, recovering from a stroke. She has offered the rights back to her OTP authors who want them. I chose to take advantage and now have both the above books and the forthcoming, With Malice Aforethought.


6.     Any insights eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?

a.     My books are available as eBooks although Amazon still has a few print copies left from an OTP run. I’ll put out With Malice Aforethought in eBook first then the print copy. Then I plan on going back to tighten up By Force or Fear. I like to have both the bases covered, print and electronic. I have yet to do audio books but that’s on the (endless) list of things to do.

b.     For alternative versus conventional publishing: it depends on your genre, your book, your audience, and many other things. I write traditional police procedurals/crime thrillers so an alternative publisher probably wouldn’t work for me. But other authors could be well served by this medium. Bottom line is you, as an author, have to educate yourself on the business. Literary agents would be helpful here.

7.     Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?

a.     First, write and produce a marketable product.

b.     Second, get the word out: enter contests, query literary agents and publishers until you find what you need.

c.      Thirdly, but not least, market yourself and your work. Public relations is one of the most daunting aspects of today’s publishing world. But if an agent or publisher looks at your work compared to another author and you have a solid, thriving platform, chances are good they’ll look harder at you. After all, they only make money if your books sell. If you’re engaged in selling them, too, and the other author isn’t, you’re the better bet.

8.     How did you or would you suggest acquiring an agent?  Any tips for new writers on getting one?

a.     After my experience with a small press publisher, I am working on it. This is what I do:

b.     Query, query, query.

c.      Go to writers’ conferences (volunteering is a great way to get in cheap sometimes), join a writer’s club (I belong to California Writers Club/Redwood Writers-an incredibly active club that has helped set goals, organize, write better, learn to market and so much more).

d.     Go to club workshops, pitch sessions, and volunteer to help at events or the leadership level.

e.      I also joined Public Safety Writers’ Club, Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers. All offer scoops on agents currently looking for new projects.

f.       Sometimes the agents attend the club conferences looking for new clients.

g.     Subscribe to blog newsletters like Funds for Writers: mystery writer C. Hope Clark offers a free version with agent info. I check that every week.

h.     Find a book in your genre that you like, find the author’s agent, research and pitch/query him or her.

i.       Subscribe to QueryTracker or one of the many online (free!) programs to put you in touch with agents and/or publishers.

9.     Do you have any suggestions or helps for new writers (please be specific and informational as possible)?

a.     Write: put your butt in the chair and write—even if you toss it tomorrow, there may be something there that gives you an idea for something else. Write. If it takes a schedule carved in stone, getting up at 5 A.M., or finding a place outside the home: write.

b.     Develop a thick skin: know that when you ask your mother about your newest work, she’s going to tell you it’s a masterpiece. Not so with the rest of the world. I joined my current critique group ten years ago and have learned so much; become a better writer because of their criticisms. I wouldn’t trade any of them. On the other hand, fifteen years ago, I took pages from a new crime thriller to a group I didn’t know (about 20 people of all genres including poetry). They blasted it; said my character sounded whiney. Turns out they were right but the experience soured me on critique groups for years. Had I toughened up and found another group sooner, I might be farther along on my writer journey.

c.      Speaking of critique groups: join one. Find a group of people with similar goals (not necessarily similar genres) to cheer you on, to point out better ways to say it, to give you ideas when you’re stuck, challenge you to dig deeper, but one of the most cogent arguments for a critique group: to produce ten pages of work every meeting.

d.     Join a writer’s club, even if you have to do it from a distance (meaning online). Nothing beats glad handing with other reclusive writers (you want me to meet other people???). These days writers who publish are so much more than writers. They’re speakers, experts, bloggers, marketers, and so on. Like it or not, the Hemingwayian prototype of the writer as a hard-drinking, ascetic is history. Nowadays, writers network.

10.                        What was one of the most surprising things you learned with your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?

a.     That I could do it. I never doubted that I had the skill to write, oddly enough. My reservations lay in setting and achieving a goal. Typing “The End” on the manuscript. When I finally did, I had to polish it—heavily.

b.     I had to learn new skills such as social media, blogging and public speaking (what??? Not me, the girl who couldn’t get up in front of a crowd to be her best friend’s bridesmaid!). Not to mention formatting, even if I’m traditionally published, the editor requires the text to be just so.

11.                        How many books have you written?

a.     Four: By Force or Fear, Intent to Hold both on Amazon.



b.     With Malice Aforethought to be published sometime later in 2017 and a fourth book, working title: Walls of Jericho. That one is still being polished.

12.                        Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer (please be as specific and information as you possibly can)?

a.     I try stay current with what my genre is producing.

b.     I keep a stock of writing craft books on hand so when I get stuck at a denouement (for instance), I can research Stephen King, David Corbett, Nancy Kress, Jordan Rosenfeld and more.

c.      My quick go-to is my critique group. They are awesome with ideas.

13.                        Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story?

a.     I think: what is the opposite of what I think should happen?

b.     How could it get worse? Then, I get ideas.

14.                        What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?

a.     Because my topics are so authentic, they tend to be dark. But I have the cop-survival mechanism of humor to defuse the tension. I think the blend is unique.

b.     I also love to make the setting a character. Whether it is Sonoma County or Puerto Vallarta, I like to take readers there: how does it feel (humid or damp)? Smell (jungles are full of growing things that give off scents)?

15.                        What are some ways in which you promote your work?

a.     I like to use social media to get to audiences. I market heavily to cops so belong to Facebook groups and post my blog links.

b.     I do readings. Our local bookstore, Copperfields’ has partnered with my writers’ club, Redwood Writers, and host many literary events at which I’ve appeared.

c.      I appear at local fairs and festivals where I meet lots of potential customers. I give out freebies like bookmarks with my book info on them.

16.                         What is the one thing you would do differently now (concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating) and why?

a.     I would have started sooner. I began writing in the fifth grade but never had any serious direction. It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I decided I’d better do this if I wanted to write a book. Marketing wasn’t on the radar then or I probably would have been scared off! Basically, I would have believed in myself sooner.

17.                        What saying or mantra do you live by?

a.     Put your butt in the chair and write.

b.     Quitting is the sure road to failure.

18.                        Anything else you would like to say?

a.     Nope, I think I’ve covered it all.

Writer's Notes

News on New Novel

By Thonie Hevron

News flash! Billie Johnson, publisher of Oak Tree Books has sent me a publishing contract for With Malice Aforethought! It may be re-named Malice Aforethought. What do you think?

Anyway, as of now there is not a publishing date, but I’ll let you know when I get one. Also, look for a book launch or signing at Copperfield’s Books, too. That will also be announced.


Warm Springs Bridge where the climax of With Malice Aforethought takes place over Lake Sonoma.


WITH MALICE AFORETHOUGHT–Violent Crimes Investigators Nick Reyes and Meredith Ryan respond to a homicide in the remote northern Sonoma County hills. Finding more than a half-buried corpse, the case gets complicated—fast. The detectives uncover a violent militia-led a plot to devastate the area. When the militant soldiers chase the detectives trying protect their catastrophic plans, the detectives are in the fight of their lives to stop the disaster.


Writer's Notes

I’ll Be Emceeing This Event

Copperfield’s – Redwood Writers Book Club is open to anyone! Our next meeting is at Copperfield’s Montgomery Village store, 775 Village Court, Santa Rosa, Ca. May 26, 6pm-7pm.

huachuca-woman-coverFind out about the inspiration for this character, her tribulations and adventures. Meet Arletta Dawdy, author of Huachuca Woman and By Grace. We’ll be talking about the fiercely independent Josephine Lowell in the Southwestern US from 1876 to 1961. The story is told in the engaging and colorful language of the day. Meet this remarkable woman on the pages of Huachuca Woman and come talk to her author, Arletta Dawdy.

Writer's Notes

A Great Evening at Copperfield’s

Cop reading 7.29.2014Last night I read from my book, Intent to Hold, at Copperfield’s Books in Santa Rosa. Copperfield’s is a thriving indie bookstore with seven stores spread over three counties in the North Bay Area. Every August in partnership with Redwood Writers Club, four authors read from their works at an event called “Hot August Nights.” Readings are held on Tuesday evenings and are free to the public.

C reading group 7.29.2014Last night, of a group of twenty or so, eleven were my family and friends. What a turn-out! I was so pleased to see friends from my years at Petaluma PD and two members of my critique group as well as my sisters. What a great evening!C reading seated 7.29.2014

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