Writer's Notes

Contests: Children’s Author Natasha Yim


Yim The Rock Maiden 2.23.18By Natasha Yim

Suffering from in-between project blues? The soggy middle doldrums? Plain old writer’s block? Enter a writing contest! Contests can be a great way to rev up your muse.  Think of them as the jumper cables to your stalled creative engine. And they’re fun!

Nowadays, finding a contest that matches your interest is easy. No more buying countless magazines to peruse the back for possible contests or shelling out more money than you make for a hefty tome of publication markets and contests. A quick Google search will yield a variety of contests in all different genres.

They can run the gamut from free to ones that require an entry fee, fun just-to-get-your-creative-juices-flowing ones to those that offer prizes and/or publication for winners. Here are a few sources to get you started:

The Redwood Writers’ Club,, a non-profit organization for writers of all genres, runs three themed contests a year. Upcoming contests are Memoir (launching on May 20 with submission deadline of June 24) and Young Adult and Middle Grade (launching Sept. 9, with submission deadline of Oct. 21). Quite a few reputable sources cull contests from around the nation and internationally:


Poets and Writers:


Writer’s Digest:


The Write Life:


The Writer:


For theatre and dramatic works, the Burry Man Writer’s Center is a great resource for places around the world to send your plays:


Short+Sweet Ten-Minute Play Festival, billed as the largest ten-minute play festival in the world, has 12 international festival venues from Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, to the US. Submitting to one festival will enter you in consideration for all of them:


Many writing contests charge an entry fee. These fees generally pay a stipend for judges to read the submissions and go towards the prizes. But are they legit? As with anything having to do with the internet, make sure you do your research and check your sources.  There are plenty of legitimate contests which charge a fee (Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition has now gone up to the hefty sum of $35 per entry). But there are also scams that offer a writer the chance of publication—until you find out you have to pay $75 to buy the book (usually anthologies) before you’re guaranteed you’ll see your name in print. Whether you want to shell out money to enter a contest is purely personal, but here are some things to consider:


  1. Your odds of winning. Are you competing with 25 writers or 250?
  2. The ratio of entry fee to prizes—are you paying $20 for the chance of winning $50?
  3. Do you get feedback? Access to editors and agents?
  4. Are previous winners listed on the website? (You can write to them and get some feedback on their experience)
  5. Have the judges published in or worked with the contest genre?


If you do submit to a contest, remember to follow submission guidelines. If the limit is 10 pages, don’t send 11.  If the desired font is 12-point Times New Roman, don’t use 14-point Helvetica. As the General Contest Chair for Redwood Writers, I’m always amazed that with every contest, there are one or two submissions that have not complied with the guidelines. What happens to these submissions? They don’t get read. So, as with any submissions, be it to a contest or a publisher, give your story the best chance of getting past the first reader.


If you have any questions on contests, particular the Redwood Writer contests, please contact me at


Natasha Yim
Natasha Yim at a Writer’s Retreat in Port Orchard, Washington
I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but attended elementary school in Singapore, and high school in Hong Kong, where we moved to be closer to my Mom’s family. In 1979, I came to the U.S. for college and graduated from Dominican University in San Rafael, California with a B.A. in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, and a M.S. in Counseling Psychology. I worked with kids in residential treatment centers, group homes, and finally, with Mendocino County Child Protective Services. I left to become a stay-at-home mom for 12 years to my 3 kids, but am now back working part-time at the Mendocino County Office of Education in Northern California. I enjoy writing in different genres and, in addition to children’s books, have written magazine articles (both for kids and adults), short plays, play and book reviews, and am currently working on a young adult and a middle grade novel.











Writer's Notes

Writers’ Contests Count

By Thonie Hevron

PSWA-stickerEntering contests are a no-brainer for me. I can directly attribute my entry into the realm of traditional publishing (albeit a small press) to winning a contest. I’ll bet many authors could say the same.

In 2012, I entered my unpublished manuscript, working title Probable Cause, in the Public Safety Writers Contest (PSWA). I won third place in my category-unpublished novel. Now re-named, By Force or Fear, I soon self-published it on Smashwords as an eBook, in the hopes of getting enough money together to do a print version. Meanwhile, I worked on mapping out the second book of the Nick and Meredith Mysteries (I’m a compulsive plotter).

After months of writing, querying, submitting and all-around frustration, I entered my novel, in a contest at Oak Tree Publishing (OTP). Oak Tree had recently published an anthology for the PSWA, so I thought it would be worth a chance. I was stunned when I won. First prize was publication of the winning book. I’d entered my second Nick and Meredith Mystery, Intent to Hold. It had just won second place in unpublished novel category the PSWA’s 2014 Writers’ Contest. After a polishing up, my new publisher agreed to publish the first novel, now renamed By Force or Fear.

aklogo-web_origAs events progressed, both novels with Oak Tree Press went to press with the third, With Malice Aforethought, in contract. Sadly, Oak Tree’s production has fallen into limbo with the ongoing health issues of its publisher, Billie Johnson. Johnson offered many OTP authors their rights, so I took mine. The short version of this story is I now have another publisher, Aakenbaaken & Kent, with whom I’m very pleased. I’m currently working on another Nick and Meredith Mystery, working title, Felon with a Firearm. I’m hustling to get it finished for the next PSWA writing contest that opens in May.

East Texas Writers Guild Book Award 3rd place 2015I’m also looking into other places to submit my work for competition. In 2015, the East Texas Writers Guild awarded Malice third place in “Best First Chapter” category. There are many more contests in which to submit your work. Start with a Google search: I use “mystery contests.” It helps to search within your genre.

Contests count. They give the author credibility. Winning a contest means someone other than your mother likes your work. Agents and publishers look at winners differently. It’s a terrific marketing tactic to use, “Winner of the Agatha Award” on the book cover. But for me, it’s a wonderful confidence booster to win a writing contest. Winning motivates me to work harder for the next entry. It also helps me to set goals. Having a first draft by May 1st, the usual deadline for PSWA’s contest, is a typical goal. I’ll make Felon the fourth try to come in better than Malice’s second place in 2016.

This month, Romance author Donna Schlachter will weigh in on Do’s and Don’ts in Contests. J.L. Greger, author of several science-based mysteries asks, “Do You Feel Lucky?” February will end with thoughts from a prolific children’s author, Natasha Yim, the chair of the Redwood Writers Club (California Writers Club branch in Sonoma County) Contests. Posts are up every Friday at 6 A.M. on Just the Facts, Ma’am, Writer’s Notes.

Think about entering a contest. You can’t lose anything more than a few bucks–some are even free. A contest might jump-start flagging progress on your WIP, you could set and meet realistic goals, or even better yet, you could win!

Writer's Notes

Writer’s Notes: Conferences

By Thonie Hevron


Conference pic
Thonie at the 2014 Redwood Writers Pen to Published Conference

December is an exciting month. The anticipation builds all month of Christmas, Hanukah or whatever holiday you celebrate. Gift-giving, family traditions, religious celebration are all part of it. But there’s another side of December that most people don’t think about: writers planning career strategies. December/January is a time when most people set new resolutions to change their lives. Be it losing weight, asking for a promotion, or planning a new book, these days authors need to think about their futures.

What’s in your personal inventory that needs improvement? Do you have a craft issue? Afraid of marketing? Are you searching for an agent, editor, or publisher?

Finding the right writing conference could help you find solutions to your problems. Almost everything I know, I learned from other writers, especially at conferences. Where better to get help than from other writers?

If you’ve ever researched a conference, you know there are many kinds. Laurel S. Peterson (her post appears on 12/15) talks about the different types. Her perspective is as an introvert—aren’t all writers mostly introverted? You’ll definitely find something to help. On 12/5, Christina Hoag give an overview of the most popular events—coast to coast. When I read her post, I changed my plans. You might, too.


Redwood Writers Conference for 2018 will be on April 21st. Click on the link below for further information.

Donna Schachter (12/22) and Michelle Drier (12/29) will have something to offer as well. In January, Gil Mansergh, former Director of the California Writers Club Conference at Asilomar for seven years, has written an honest perspective of the realities of what conferences advertise, what they really provide, and what writers at different skill levels can learn by attending. Nancy J. Cohen will chime in as well in January with fabulous advice on how to choose the right conference as well as some resources.


Where to find conferences? Word of mouth, your writer’s community (club, critique group, etc.), online: Google ‘Writers Conferences’ but your best bet is peer recommendations. Even if you’re a new author, identify those in your literary community and let them guide you. They have a better sense of your writing needs than the internet does.

How do conferences work? A lot of conferences have “tracks” which are topics you can choose and follow through the event. For instance, popular tracks are “genre,” “craft,” “platform & promotion,” “the business of writing,” and “getting published.” It’s not mandatory to stay within a track for the duration, though you want to be sure about this before sending in your money. Some events are strict while others use it as a guideline.

They’re expensive, aren’t they? There are ways around spending a fortune at conferences, but I haven’t found them yet. Okay, you can stay at a less pricey hotel (or if you have friends or relatives in the area) but that detracts from the experience. There’s a comradery between attendees who sweat through the same pitch sessions or learn earth-shattering lessons from the same presenters. Plus, you never know with whom you’ll share the elevator. Ever heard of the elevator pitch? You won’t get the opportunity if you’re staying with Aunt Sally.

You must weigh the expenditure against the experience you hope to gain.

My first big event was the San Francisco Writers Conference. It was the big time—I pitched to Donald Maass and several other top tier agents. I prepared myself ahead of time by practicing my pitch. After attending my small Redwood Writers Conferences, I knew what would to expect. Attending an event with prominent professionals of the literary world was daunting but with preparation, there were few surprises. Okay, at the “Speed-pitching” event, the agent who specialized in film rights listened politely to my twenty-second pitch, thought for a moment, then said, “Hm, woman in jeopardy. It’s been done. Next!” His rudeness went into my arsenal for developing a thicker skin. I still have many professional relationships that began in San Francisco in 2011.

PSWA header4My favorite conference is smaller and more reasonable. The Public Safety Writers Association holds a 4-day event every year in Las Vegas. It’s where I met my first publisher. It’s intimate yet not cliquish. Welcoming and–well, you’ll hear more from Conference Director Mike Black in January.

I could go on and on about conferences but next Friday (in December and January) will begin presentations from seven other authors with their perspectives.

One last thing—do it. You may not get an agent or publisher, but what you learn should increase your craft and experience.

That’s vital in today’s publishing scene.


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

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

Writers Helping Writers

By Thonie Hevron

“Writers helping writers” is the motto of my writing club, Redwood Writers, a chapter of the California Writers Club. Granted, it sounds a bit overused, trite maybe even idealistic. But this chapter takes its motto seriously. It’s something we all learn when we become members. From the President, Sandy Baker, Past President, Linda Loveland Reid down to the newest member—all are willing to share expertise, time and the wisdom gleaned from years of scribbling.

Something in the Attic by Billie Payton-Settles
Something in the Attic by Billie Payton-Settles

So when a friend, colleague and critique partner, Billie Payton-Settles, asked for help marketing her new book, I jumped at the chance. After all, didn’t romance writer Sharon Hamilton spend almost a full day helping me set the perfect sig line for my emails? Didn’t Kate Farrell teach me WordPress to help with the club website? I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Payback time.

Tonight, after our critique group, Billie took me into her office to show off her new website. It was wonderful! She now had a place where readers, agents and publishers can go to find out about her, contact her and order her book!

Another “Yay!” moment was my cousin Sandie, setting up a blog site within days after spending time exploring her new adventure into authorship. Yay, Sandie! She now has two posts on her site, with the promise of more. This while she works on her new book.

I know this post sounds like I’m patting myself on the back but my intention is just the opposite: I want to let the world know that these two women have taken the plunge–beyond writing a pristine manuscript and into the brand new world of social media and book promotion. This is not for the faint of heart as it requires commitment, organization and drive. Writing, publishing and marketing books isn’t like a Jessica Fletcher TV show. Times have changed. Publishers and agents demand authors promote their work more than ever before. This is almost as much work as the actual writing. And it’s a tough thing for writers, who are normally pretty shy. It’s work to put yourself and your project out there.

There will be times when they’ll be at the keyboard instead of having lunch with friends because of that commitment. Be patient, honor that streak of creativity that drives them. I guarantee, you’ll find a happier friend next lunch date.

Billie and Sandie are on the right track and I’m so pleased I could be a part of it.

Writer's Notes

Thinking About a Critique Group?


By Thonie Hevron

RW logoBack in 2007, I joined Redwood Writers, a local branch (pardon the pun) of California Writers Club. At my first meeting, author Christi Phillips appeared to read from her new book, The Rossetti Letter. After her reading, she took questions. Someone asked her, if she had it to do over again, what she would change about the writing process. Her answer was quick and obviously well-considered. “Join a critique group.”CWC logo

In those days, I was a fledgling author. I scribbled mostly with no sense of purpose. I’d written two novels, one of which I’d brought to an “open” critique group. It was a horrible experience. Poets and literary writers listened to my work—a suspense police procedural—and panned it. With little tact, they dismembered my chapter, eviscerated my characters, and dismissed my plot.

Well, I’m Norwegian and I don’t know any better, so I kept writing. The thing is every one of their comments was on target. When I calmed down enough to be objective about the novel, I realized they were right: my structure was haphazard, my characters were one dimensional with hidden agendas and the plot, well, let’s just say, the plot was a story I needed to tell, then package up and shove it on the top shelf of my closet. Which is what I did.

While the result (a critique) was why I attended, the experience lacked the positive solutions that I so desperately needed.

In the intervening years, I joined Redwood Writer, heard Phillips talk, and decided to give crit groups another try. A senior member of the writers club matched writers by genre. About 2008, I attended the inaugural meeting of the “Thrillerz” group. Of the five attendees, three are still active, committed members. We meet every two weeks with ten pages (hardcopy or later emailed pages) of our work. We exchange the pages to be read and critiqued by the next group night. Our ground rules are simple: make a commitment to be there (as reasonable as possible), present your pages, and respect others work.

I’m a firm believer in critique groups, but they have to be the right one for you. The wrong readers can present even bigger problems than dangling participles.

  • Members who are defensive in this setting will not learn, nor will they be able to contribute to the betterment of the group.
  • The same goes for writers who have agendas or are competitive.
  • Overworking the work in progress (WIP) can be an excuse for writers who are afraid to move forward.
  • By their nature, crit groups have trouble seeing overall work structure, pacing, turning points, and story and character arcs. (Here is an argument for closed groups)
  • Not all opinions are equal. My schoolteacher friend has more clout when it comes to punctuation. We’ve had members in the past who I consider less credible than others yet I always take something away from their corrections. I have to remind myself that everyone has value.

With all these drawbacks, why would one want to join a group of people who tear your work apart? Simple, to improve your writing. Here are some of the reasons I keep coming back to my group, year after year and have two books published to show for it:

  • The need to clean up prose for punctuation, grammar, and context.
  • It forces me to make a commitment to other people that I will write and turn in 10 pages every two weeks.
  • Other readers can spot weaknesses like passive voice phrasing, excessive adverbs, and poor sentence structure
  • We share info on contests, publishers, our experience and much more. Most of our time is critiquing but when someone has something to share, it is welcomed. Three out of five of our current members have published.

A few more thoughts on choosing a critique group:

  • Decide whether you need an open or closed structure. Open means drop-ins are welcome (think poetry, short story and flash fiction); closed have only committed members (much better for novel-length works).
  • Does your work need to be exclusive to genre? My group has a tough time with different genres like romance (even with a mystery sub-plot) but we did fine with an author who wrote speculative fiction that was suspenseful. Go figure.

Deciding whether to do an online or in person group may be dictated by geography and/or time. Both have value; you can decide which will suit you better.

To find “in person” critique groups, I suggest you join a local writing club, attend a writing class or network with other writers. Online resources include,, Critique Circle and Scribophile. Just be sure your site is reputable and doesn’t charge. Some of these are open critique circles who trade reviews/critiques with other writers. Be willing to check into the rules before you sign up.

I hope your experience is as productive as mine is. Thank you Billie, Susan, Andy, Fred, Julie, Ron, and Robin!

Writer's Notes

Writer’s Notes: The Kiss Between Plot and Character

Joshua Mohr appeared at the Redwood Writers General Meeting Sunday, May 18. I’m so sorry  I missed him but reading his “homework,” I found that he put words to the techniques I seem to be evolving. Reading these two files were helpful in moving forward with my third Nick and Meredith novel. 


The following is taken from the Redwood Writers website; links are to Mohr’s website and pdf files.

Joshua Mohr


Joshua Mohr
“Plarachterization: Intersection of Plot and Character”

The best plots aren’t controlled by an authorial presence. Plot springs from the characters themselves. The writer masterminds all of these things, but the more we program ourselves to think of it in this way—that our protagonists are sovereign beings with independent consciousnesses from our own—the better prepared we are to traverse what I’m calling “plarachterization.”

This seminar will be geared around characters’ decision making, the causality between plot points, how to keep a reader excitedly flipping pages. We’ll also delve into specific tactics for constructing a present action and how to fold backstory into it. Plarachterization is a strategy that will help any aspiring writer!

Joshua Mohr is the author of four novels, including Damascus, which The New York Times called “Beat-poet cool.” He’s also written Some Things that Meant the World to Me, one of O Magazine’s Top 10 reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller, as well as Termite Parade, an Editors’ Choice on The New York Times Best Seller List. He lives in San Francisco and teaches in the MFA program at USF. His latest novel is Fight Song. Visit his website:



Writer's Notes

Fledgling Authors

By Thonie Hevron

It’s occurred to me that I may have something to offer to those fledgling authors out there. Not so long ago, I was in your ranks. In fact, I consider that most of my writing years were at this level. This was for three simple reasons: I was busy making a living, I had direction but no real goal set down, and I thought I had enough smarts to write a book without educating myself further.

If I knew then what I know now….blah, blah, blah.

San Rafael PD Meter Maids c1973 Marie Morris, Sharon Bunker, Thonie Mulcahy (Hevron)
San Rafael PD Meter Maids c1973 Marie Morris, Sharon Bunker, Thonie Mulcahy (Hevron)

Let me articulate the three points that I now work by: “making a living” —for me, this meant working at my alumni police departments (and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office). But more than just “making a living,” I was learning all the technical and emotional aspects of law enforcement. When I got serious about writing, I heeded the old adage, “Write what you know.” I certainly knew cops and emergency services. What’s more exciting than saving lives?

Besides, one of the earliest inspirations for a story came from witnessing a detective come into my office, yell at the top of his lungs in frustration (over a broken typewriter, of all things), then leave. My first thought was that it could be a short trip for him to go postal. Oh, no. What if he took us hostage? In our own police department? How would that work? Ewwww, what a story! That became a book that I wrote after “By Force or Fear.” It’s now sitting in my closet tucked away in a box until I have time to re-work it.

Anyway, the point is that all those years I worked, my brain was storing up details, impressions, and feelings about the job. All to be mined for future novels.

The second point was not having a goal set down. I wrote my first story in the fifth grade, “How the Leopard Got His Spots.” Between journaling and fiction, I’ve been writing ever since. But with no discernable goal, most of my stuff was never fully imagined, thus never finished. Despite my parents support as well as my husband, Danny’s (he once fully remodeled a bedroom into an office for me), I plodded, putting words down…to no end.

What happened to change that? About the year 2005, my husband pointed out an advertisement in the local newspaper for a writing group. I joined and over the following year, jumpstarted my writing. The instructor, Pat Tyler, encouraged me to join her writers’ club—Redwood Writers, a branch of the California Writers Club (founded by Jack London and literary friends). Through this club, I was able to discern my genre—suspense/thriller/police procedural, then define my goal—to publish my novel.

Redwood Writers
Redwood Writers

The third part of this process was a two-parter: to educate myself and keep writing. Redwood Writers had several workshops each year as well as contests, anthologies and conferences. I devoured information from magazines, blogs, websites, books and newspapers. The changing face of publishing made all of us authors entrepreneurial. Self-publishing is no longer considered vanity press because so much of what is available is independently published.

But even if you have a publisher, you must do most of your own marketing.

Thonie reading at RWC
Thonie reading at RWC

Daunting, to be sure. An introvert by nature, what writer wants to put him/herself in front of a crowd and say, “Come buy my book.” Well, that’s exactly what we must do. Through workshops, conferences, et al, I have learned how to put myself “out there” via social media and public contact. I’ve pushed past my comfort level and have read my work in public—with many more events to come—and God help me, I’ve found my inner ham. I’m pushing my limits by enjoying being in the public eye while keeping my audience entertained.

All these lessons come hard. Even though I suffered sweaty palms before getting up in front of a crowd, pushing myself made it easier each time. Still, I wish I’d paid attention earlier. I could’ve been writing with purpose all along.

But the instructions have been heard: pay attention to the lessons of life, decide on the goal, and writing and education continue forever.

Writer's Notes

Guest Blogger Amanda McTigue — The Power of Place

The Power of Place
The Power of Place

Writing is setting. Indeed, to write is to place (that’s “place” as a verb).

We writers place readers in worlds. We set them into circumstances, stories, imagery, facts, memories, actions, fantasies, and so on.

Setting in this sense isn’t mere background. It’s the sum total of every last word we write. And yet, so often we think of place as scenery. What a mistake!

Place shapes voice. I’m not talking dialect here. I’m saying the ways we writers situate ourselves in imagined (or remembered) worlds give rise to the ways we convey those worlds to others.

Our first task, then, is to place ourselves so fully that our readers go with us.

“All well and good,” you say, “but how can we interrupt our action-packed, conflict=drama, page-turning flow to squeeze in some detail of setting? We’re writing to keep readers reading! There’s no room! There’s no time!”

I feel your pain. We writers are in such a rush. Determined to finish-and-publish, we worry about where to put the “where” in our text before we even know where “where” is.

But place gathers power when we slow down.

In my writing process, “where” has a time and pace (that’s not a typo). I do everything I can to remind myself that plot points can wait; endings will find themselves. Meanwhile, when I’m lost, I get more lost. I schedule time for sheer exploration. We’re talking undirected (but focused!) wandering accomplished through short sessions of stream-of-consciousness writing.

So often, our best work is discovered, not planned. When’s the last time you ambled through your worlds with no agenda? How about sitting still? How about nosing around for nothing in particular? Try leaving your map at home. Paddle. Search. Listen. Taste. Sniff. Find a new vantage point. Marvel. Take a nap. Unpack a picnic, etc.

Forget writing. Just notice and take notes. The bird watcher doesn’t agonize about her style when she’s out in the field. She scribbles as fast as she can. Who cares if there’s a better word for “red?” She keeps her eye not on the page, but on that tiny splash of color hidden in the branches. She tries to capture everything, knowing the bird will fly off any minute, taking the moment with it.

Lately, I find such field trips invaluable. I schedule them not only as I’m drafting but also right through my editing process.

Let’s say I’m polishing a chapter for the umpteenth time and it’s still god-awful. Sometimes I know what’s missing. Sometimes I have no idea why it stinks. Either way, I set the manuscript aside, put on my boots and step out into a wet garden or a fetid alley or a crater on the Planet Zarn with absolutely no sense of how that’s going to help. I just give myself a half-hour and go.

I take field equipment along to sharpen my observations: binoculars, a camera dolly, a satellite, a cloud boat, a microphone, a microscope, my tongue. I grab every writer’s prompt I’ve ever enjoyed and bring them too—questions or novel points-of-view—to keep myself playful and curious.

I place myself—and things happen. Setting always brings more than static landscape. Worlds always world, even the quietest of them.

When I return to editing, I bring the fruits of my wandering. Suddenly an overlooked shoelace suggests a murder weapon, a tree branch holds a charm, or the stitching on a pillow brings a character to life.

Does that mean that I use every word I write in such sessions? Not even close. But nothing is wasted. What I don’t use leads me to what I do use: richer passages—even new storylines—far fresher than anything my editor’s brain could cook up.

There’s nothing like a road-trip. Whether staring at a blank page, or yet another re-write, schedule time to explore. Place yourself first (pun very much intended). Shake off your worries about the where of where; you can figure that out when the where is there.


Slow down.

Forget writing.

Take notes.

Amanda McTigue
Amanda McTigue

Amanda McTigue’s debut novel, Going to Solace, was selected as one of four “Best Reads of 2012” by Gil Mansergh on KRCB’s “Word by Word.” Her new collection of short stories, Convergence, is due out in 2015 with a second novel, Monkey Bottom, on its heels. Amanda will moderate a rocking panel (“Excuse Me, But I Love My Damn Neck”) with Linda Loveland Reid and Kate Farrell at the Gather the Women Conference on March 8th in Santa Rosa. On March 30, she’ll be in Auburn, CA to lead a master class in presentation skills for writers at the Save the Dewitt Theater Writers’ Workshop. Then, apropos of this blog post, Amanda’s pen-to-paper workshop on “The Power of Place” will be featured as part of the Redwood Writers Conference on April 26.

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