Happy 146th Birthday! (the good, the bad, and the not so ugly)


Helga’s Post # 41 — Just one week after welcoming the summer solstice, I have the honour of posting yet another upcoming celebration: Our beloved country’s 146th birthday.

Happy Canada Day once again!

And what a year it’s been for our mighty nation! Let’s start with the bad and the ugly and, like a good novel, keep the good stuff for the end. So what have some of our famous sons and daughters been up to this past year? How about this for a sampling (to make our neighbours to the south snicker). Canada, eh? Not so boring after all

– We got a mayor with a crack scandal (Rob Ford, mayor of Canada’s largest municipality, Toronto).

– Talking of mayors, this headline just out: “Alexandre Duplessis, Scandal-Plagued Canadian Mayor Denies Allegations of Sexual Favors”.

– A series of politico scandals have recently rocked Canadian cities: Montreal’s interim mayor was arrested on corruption and defrauding the government charges. He took over from ex-Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay who resigned last fall amid allegations of illegal campaign donations. The list goes on.

– Moving on to federal politics: yesterday in the House of Commons, the son of former prime minister Trudeau, now leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, called the Environment Minister “a piece of shit”.

– Moving on to the west coast: a premier who couldn’t even win her own seat… (she will run for a by-election July 10).

How about a story about a hero’s journey, a topic we writers have more than a passing acquaintance with.

Chris Hadfield is an astronaut. He recently got back from space. He commanded a space station orbiting Earth. In space. Not only did this Canadian from Sarnia, Ontario spend five months on the International Space Station, he did it in the most awesome way possible. He brought the ISS experience down to us mere earthlings with a constant stream of tweets, photos, videos and chats. In 146 days, he made space cool again as he captured our collective imaginations. Chris Hadfield

To continue with the good stuff: Canadian writers and novels. It’s books after all  that this blog is about. Aside from the fact that Canada has a respectable number of internationally known literary authors, we can proudly claim that some of the best crime fiction authors live here.

With that in mind, here is a list of great summer reading. Pack a picnic basket with some fine Canadian cheeses, a bowl of local cherries, a bottle of Okanagan wine, and have your spouse or favourite friend join you to head for the beach. Leave space in your basket to pack some of these fabulous books:

Sean Slater: (I would be remiss if I didn’t top the list with Sean Slater. Not only is he the founder of our critique group and lifelong honorary member, his books are truly awesome. Fast-paced crime fiction, impossible to put down once you start.) His titles: The Survivor; Snakes and Ladders; The Guilty. More in the works.

More good reads:

Louise Penny: A Trick of the Light

Peter Robinson: Before the Poison

Robert Rotenberg: The Guilty Plea

Jack Batten: Take Five

Gina Buonaguro: The Wolves of St. Peter’s

Rick Mofina: Into the Dark

Rosemary McCracken: Black Water

Janet Bolin: Thread and Buried

Meg Howald: Expatriate Bones

This only a minuscule sample. If you want to expand the list, check out the website of Crime Writers of Canada. You may be amazed at how many excellent Canadian authors live and write here. The books on offer are as diverse as the people of our great country.

And with some luck and a good dose of perseverance, who knows, you may see some of the 5 writers’ names on the list sometimes soon. Rest assured, we are all hard at work after getting back from our Whistler retreat. The myriad of advice and suggestions for rewriting and editing our novels in progress will keep us busy and out of mischief for a while to come.

Critique fallout


Joe’s Post #41 — I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m still processing all that I heard at the Writer’s Retreat.

But as I think about solutions to the issues raised, I wanted to get back to reading for fun, again.

Not as easy as you’d think. It’s a switch from being all left-brained and analytical to right-brained and creative and locked into the pure pleasure of reading.

I couldn’t quite get there and so, while I read David Baldacci, I thought back on what happened at the critique retreat. Baldacci has at least one scene with people talking in a coffee shop.

Didn’t we all ding each other for such scenes?

We did.

But here’s the lesson I learned. There are things that could be fixed to make a better story and things that really HAVE to be fixed. If Baldacci was a new writer, he might well have to rethink a coffee scene, but he’s not and here’s what he does with the coffee scene. There is vital, critical information that the character HAS TO know. There is a chance that they are being watched. And both men come to the meeting armed.

So, does this have to be fixed? No. The reason a coffee scene might not work is lack of tension. Two characters sipping a non-fat, no whip, double-shot dolce cinnamon latte with extra sprinkles and discussing the weather or back-story or nothing that really drives the story forward lacks tension. But add hidden guns, a meeting that HAS to take place and villains tracking them and the coffee scene becomes something else.

imagesCAMVB2MASure it could be fixed. But it doesn’t HAVE to be fixed?

Perhaps he thought it did.

So he made it something more than just a coffee scene.

But therein lies the problem. Can we see in our own novels what HAS TO be fixed vs what could be fixed? Even after a critique. Many suggestions are given. Some contradictory.

It therefore falls back to the writer. To not only hear what’s being said but understand why it’s being said. “I hate coffee scenes” may well be translated into “there is no conflict or tension in that scene.”

Easy, right?


My guess is I have about half a dozen things that HAVE TO be fixed. The rest are things that I will look at and ask myself, does this make the story better? Does it make my characters stronger? Does it increase pacing? Etc.

Because, for me, even if I can make my story even a little bit better, I have to do it.

It has to be the best I can possibly do.

It’s what I owe my readers.

Nothing is in stone until the book is published

critique exhaustion

Karalee’s Post #38 — Last week was completely exhausting for me. I wish I had the innate ability to analyze the written word and organize my thoughts like other fellow 5 writers, but I do struggle with this. When I read I get stopped at much the same places as others, but to put the finger on why is still difficult for me. Hey, I grew up simply reading a book and enjoying the story, and truth be told that’s what I still enjoy doing and do best. Undoubtedly listening to other’s critiques is always a huge learning experience for me as well. That means that the whole day was important for me, not only adding my critique into the mix.

And what I wouldn’t give to have the gift of the gab too.

As for my book’s critique, I’m letting the suggestions and comments percolate this week. Ideas and changes are circulating in my brain like a lion around its prey before the chase begins. It’s interfering with my domestic chores and trying to have some family time and down time, but I love it! Maybe I’ll make this my new definition for what makes me a writer.

And that’s what is so cool about this process. Nothing is written in stone until the book is published. I can change names, back story, the beginning, middle and end. Personality changes are as easy as deleting my character sketch and adding a new bent. The difficult part comes when those changes need to be consistently followed through in the story line. Thankfully not all of the above needs changing.

I think I can speak for all of us in that one of the major assets of last week was the brainstorming after the critiques were finished. Five minds are definitely better than one.

Nothing like 5 writers critiquing 5 novels after more than 5 months of plotting and character development drafted into a  story line close to one’s heart.

And we all agree that each and every one of our story lines are compelling.

Next week I’m on to my rewriting process. My changes will warrant readdressing my outline and some back story modifications, which of course means following them throughout the manuscript.

All said, I can’t wait for the day that my writing will be in stone! For me that is the major carrot keeping me on this path.

The verdict

Before the verdict.

Before the verdict.

Silk’s Post #41 — I sat in the straight-backed chair at the head of the table, facing the panel. The hot seat. Four jurors sat before me, two on each side, laptops open and coffee cups steaming. Four faces smiled back at me as I made some forgettable opening statement.

Don’t worry, their expressions telegraphed. This won’t hurt a bit. Uh huh. I’ve heard that one before.

I knew I was starting from behind, with my paltry 100 pages of manuscript. It should have been closer to 400. Sitting before a jury of my peers, I knew I was already guilty on one count: Writing Without Due Care and Attention to a Deadline. As I yielded the floor to my colleagues, I sat up a little straighter, steeling myself for the additional charges that might be added.

Illegal Use of Backstory, maybe.

Violation of the First Five Pages Hook Requirement.

Contributing to the Corruption of a Plotline.

Arrested Character Development.

Failure to Signal Emotions.

Or the worst of all, Author Voice Intrusion. 

It was going to be a long day. I looked longingly at the bowl of candy bars.

Candy bowl: before.

Candy bowl: before.

Candy bowl: after.

Candy bowl: after.

Here’s what it can sound like when you’re trying to follow a verbal critique: “On page 18” … (I scroll to find page 18, miss page 18 and find myself on page 34) … “blah blah blah your character’s acting like a nitwit blah blah blah” … (I finally find page 18) … “and then on page 72” … (scroll, scroll, scroll) … “blah blah blah brilliant dialogue, well done blah blah blah.”

You really have to be on your toes, and I began flat-footed.

The jury.

The jury.

But I got my rhythm. Listen, don’t scroll, that’s the secret. Listen, don’t defend. Listen, don’t read, don’t write, don’t explain, don’t try to atone for your sins. Now, no one can listen to a discussion of their work and fail to react at all, but I tried (with partial success) to keep open ears and a closed mouth. An inveterate note-taker, I didn’t even take notes. I wanted to look the jury in the face and listen to their unspoken words, the ones behind their eyes.

When you’re being critiqued, the impulse to interrupt with “Yes, but …” is almost irresistible. I admit, I did occasionally try to acquit myself. But the object of getting a first draft critiqued is not to convince the jury your manuscript is already perfect as written. No first draft is perfect. As Papa Hemingway so delicately put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

No, the object of getting critiqued is to get some clues about how to make the second draft  better. Hopefully, much better. And faster than if you rattle around in your own head for weeks trying to decide which of your treasured characters to dump, or where to actually open the first scene, or how to turn 15 flabby pages into 5 tight pages, or where you can painlessly weave in the arcane details needed to understand your plot.

The problem with first drafts, especially for us unpublished writers, is that we grow attached to them. We love them for their strengths and tolerate their weaknesses. An honest critique – delivered with good will and intelligence by someone whose opinion we value – helps get us unattached. Able to see it through other eyes.

In advance of our “critter summit” at Whistler, BC, we all blogged about the challenges of critiquing. We researched critiquing advice in books, on websites, on blogs. We developed a template for organizing our comments. But, like all communication, the critique process is a two-way encounter: a speaker and a listener. And the best critique in the world will not help the writer who lacks listening skills.

That’s why I was watching the eyes of my 5writers colleagues as they delivered their verdicts. We’re friends. When we declare each other guilty of a writing offence, we try not to inflict too much pain. So I was watching for supplementary, unspoken input: signs of pulled punches, frustration, or, worst of all, pity. And for unvoiced agreement (or disagreement) around the table while each juror made his or her statement: heads nodding, heads shaking, eyes rolling.

What I realized – what we all realized in our 5-day retreat – was that after a couple of years of practice we have actually become pretty damn skilled critiquers (if I do say so myself, and I do). For all five books, for almost every major observation both positive and negative, there was a high degree of agreement around the table. Every juror viewed the work through a slightly different lens, and often had a different suggestion for solving a problem, but as a group we were virtually unanimous in identifying the key strengths and weaknesses of each manuscript.

We’re learning. And not only from the critiques we receive, but also from critiquing others’ work. And hearing everyone else’s critiques. And then discussing them. And then brainstorming ideas to help get a writer “unstuck” with a plot or character difficulty. And then taking advice on board and going back to the keyboard to craft our own solutions in our own voices. We’re learning.

In my own case, the verdict was clear and this was my sentence:

  • Smarten up my protagonist so she never sounds witless or allows herself to be used to serve the plot at the author’s whim.
  • Make sure the protagonist is consistently driven by priorities. Mystery and jeopardy first. Everything else second.
  • Rewrite the whole story in first person.
  • Introduce the villain earlier.
  • Extract all undue writer cleverness that takes the reader out of the story.
  • Tear down and rebuild one major character and his relationship with the protagonist.
  • Resequence some of the plot points to make the beats work better.
  • Keep the characters in motion. Don’t let them sit around.
  • When I scare the bejesus out of the protagonist, make sure she shows it.

I was thrilled with this sentence, as much for what isn’t in it as for the rewrite direction it gives. I wasn’t convicted of serious backstory violations, for instance. That’s progress, for me. I only got dinged for minor author voice misdemeanours, except for my plot-driving-character felonies. And almost all my characters were unanimously acquitted, with the exception of a couple who were released after time served and will be replaced. Even my protagonist got away with a stern lecture, shown leniency as a spirited but sometimes confused youth. (However, she is expected to keep her nose clean from now on.)

I’m wildly grateful to my 5writers colleagues who spent hours reading my partial first draft, deliberating the verdict, and giving me a sentence that will rehabilitate my book and help give it new life.

I will begin serving my sentence tomorrow. It’ll be a piece of pie. I hope.

Pie for 5. Sweet.

Pie for 5. Sweet.

Happy summer solstice 2013!


The Sun today, June 20, 2013, at 17:25:30 UTC, as seen in the extreme ultraviolet by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Helga’s Post #40 — Today is Summer Solstice. It occurs when Earth’s axis is the most tilted toward the sun. This year’s Summer Solstice is remarkable because it will be closely followed by the largest “supermoon” of 2013. Make sure you set your alarm clock to the  wee hours of the morning on Sunday, when the moon will reach its full phase and will be the closest to Earth that it will be all year.

Serendipity: It was also the last of five long and intensive days of our writers’ group retreat in the scenic Olympic village of Whistler.

And my turn to receive critiques of my manuscript. A long critique on the longest day of the year, generously given by my writing partners.

Here’s what happened:

Every one of us in the hot seat was allowed opening comments before the critiques started. I chose mine to say what I think I could improve, based on what I learned during our retreat thus far.

I started with what I predicted my four fellow writers would ding me on (sort of taking the wind out of their sails). In other words, I critiqued my own writing before I let them have a go at it. As it turned out, I was pretty close to the mark. Here’s what my writing partners dinged me on:

Problem #1:

– There isn’t enough suspense in my first five pages. And it doesn’t relate to the main plot

Problem # 2:

– The scientific lingo is too complicated for non-scientists. Such as, is the average reader of suspense novels familiar with chromosomal damage and shortening of telomeres?

Problem #3:

– I have two protagonists. Who is the main one? Can you have two of equal weight and importance? Much discussion ensued on who should be the one; the vivacious Indian biochemist working at a Canadian West coast university, or the social scientist at the U.N. in New York (both female).

– Sex in the lab? Oh dear! Well, maybe, but not just spontaneous; build it up before it happens Much discussion about spontaneity. What’s so special about sex in a chemical lab, when sex in an elevator wasn’t a big deal in another, you-know-which novel? More discussion about whether a seasoned and respected woman scientist should risk her reputation for giving in to a moment of, well, feeling horny. Regardless, this pesky little topic appears frequently, not just in our writing. Such as, a cocktail named ‘Sex in the Gondola’, offered at the Whistler restaurant where we dined on this, our last evening.

–  Have more dialogue instead of being in my characters’ heads so much.

Overall, I got away easier than I thought I would. No bruises, no running to the bathroom, no hurt feelings. There is a learning curve in being able to do this. And we all became good at it during these last five days. The most valuable aspect we learned during our little retreat was that the critiques we received are going to improve our manuscripts. Follow the advice or ignore at your peril. Your choice. Period. We came, we listened, we learned. Perhaps it wasn’t quite what we may have hoped for, although in general we kind of knew what to expect. Better our friends point out the weaknesses in our writing than giving an agent an excuse to reject us. Polish the writing, weed out superfluous scenes that don’t aid the plot, make your characters drive the action, rather than the plot dictate what the characters should do, and you will likely have a winner.

Not surprisingly, it turned out that we all have a good story. Not yet perfect, but the bones are good. Now it’s up to every one of us to put some flesh on it. Judging from the dynamics of those last five days, there’s no question that we’ll keep the flame alive. We are passionate about writing, and while that by itself is no guarantee for success, we take comfort from knowing that passion is one of the main ingredients for writing a good story.

Tomorrow morning we’re leaving this picturesque and inspiring setting. Whistler has been good to us. A little rain in the last two days, but we managed to stay intact and sober in spite of invitations to the contrary.


We will have more to say about next steps of our group. Some exciting ideas emerged that may sound even crazier than the initial concept of the ‘5writers5novels5months’.

Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and do without a safety net.


The unsung hero of the writer’s retreat

IMG_0492Joe’s Post #40 — Well, my turn came and went. I survived and found, once again, that things I think are working just fine… aren’t. Other things, though, seem to work just fine or at least that’s what I took from Paula bowing to me.

It’s exhausting work, this critiquing, sitting in a room, listening, trying to understand, writing out notes, delivering or receiving critiques. More so for an introvert like me.

But the amazing thing for me has been how much better we’ve become as critiquers. I’ve found that even when other people are on the ‘hotseat’, I’m busy writing notes about how to make my own story better.

Things like…

“Don’t delay information too long, it drives the readers nuts.” Hmmm, this one may apply to me as well.

“Characters are more than just a page of details and features, they are a sum of their past and their experiences and their hopes and fears.” (Wait, can I quote myself?) Either way, I have one character I may need to take a look at.

“Put characters in motion.” I love this. All characters in my novel who sit and have tea will now be shot.

It’s remarkable, really, how it’s easy to see what opportunities exist in other people’s writing and yet, in our own, we’re completely blind sometimes.

The trick, I think, will be to walk away from here and remember what makes good fiction when we’re writing. We don’t have to be perfect, but we have to be good enough to entertain, to draw the reader in and not let that book get put down.

So, on to the unsung hero of the retreat. Poor Vegas the dog got dragged up here and though she has had some adventures in the woods, this is not her home and she has had to be vigilant about guarding the room against maids, coffee deliverers and, while she has not actually seen any…  bears.

However, she has had one very important job. Choosing who reads out their critique first. The video show this, I hope. And though it goes dark at the end, you can still hear me shouting, “Let go!” as we try to retrieve the name.

Good times.

Lots of hard work ahead, though.

Two for the price of one

Karalee’s Post #37 — Sometimes a bargain isn’t a bargain. Don’t we all have those clothes in the closet that we’ve bought but never worn and tossed out without even removing the price tags? But hey, they were two for the price of one….

The comments I received from my critique today weren’t unexpected. As I had written in a previous post running up to this critique week, I had concerns about my protagonist and antagonist vying for equal attention.

Today I had unanimous feedback: I had written two books, not one!

I had been so clever in hiding all my villain’s villainous activities that my detective had nothing to detect. That was my struggle in writing this novel as well, and I certainly wasn’t able to hide that from my wonderful 5Writers.

So here I am with two books, and not to my surprise, the antagonist won as the more compelling story, or should I say, had a story to tell. My weaknesses show like red flags in a hurricane, but my strengths do too. I had a lot of fun writing the villainous parts while I struggled with my detective detecting parts and it showed.

In general my characters need to be fleshed out more and have higher personal stakes. Sounds simple if typed quickly, but creating characters is not an easy job.

A adult character comes on stage fully mature with all his life’s experiences making him what he (or she) is. The author (me) must have concocted the character’s complete family/friend/school/professional/cultural/global background, and then only let out bits like releasing steam from a pressure cooker. The character’s personal information must not be too much at once and take away from the action, and it must also be relevant in the context of the scene and be personal and believable to the character.

Oh did I mention that the plot must pushed along too? 

It’s not an easy task, but when it happens it is pure magic.

And that’s the magic I want in my writing. 

This is my first draft of a book that has a strong and unique premise. Now I need to look at it like one does at the stalls in a flea market and pick and choose what to purchase and what to walk away from in order to create a manuscript that will keep readers up all night. 

Fortunately there are fixes for every problem and the brainstorming among our group was invaluable to me. I’m off with fresh ideas and my delete button will be busy in the coming weeks. My fingers will also be flying on the keyboard creating a new maze to be unraveled.

And that’s why I feel blessed to be part of this group that is helping me (and each other) on our journeys to be the best writers we can be.

Happy rewriting!

Paula in the lion’s den


Paula’s Post #40 – Paula The Lionhearted? Is that really how dear Silk characterized me in “An elevated level of critiques,” her delightful 5writers‘ post from yesterday? 

Because, I’m thinking maybe we were at different events.

I’m thinking maybe, in retrospect, Paula In the Lion’s Den seems a far more apropos description of yesterday’s festivities. Dead on the mark in terms of what it felt like to be metaphorically ‘thrown to the lions’ as the first sacrificial offering selected from the five, newly hatched manuscripts ready for collegial scrutiny.

You can imagine my nervous banter. My inane comments. My gallows humor.

At some point, someone jokingly started to refer to the seat at the end of our long table where we convened for this event as ‘the hot seat’. Henceforth, the name stuck.

Ha! Ha! Very funny. How frightfully clever! 

Let’s see if my colleagues are all laughing quite so hard after their turn as the 5writer du jour.

But if you’ve been following us from the beginning of this challenge, I suspect you want to know. I suspect you want to ask: ‘Come on,  Paula, how did it really go?’

I want to answer that question for you. I really do. I believe that if you’ve followed us this far, you sincerely deserve an answer to that question. I’m just not quite sure how to answer that question.

I guess for me, it’s a bit like the six blind men tasked with describing an elephant. It all depends upon what part of the elephant we’re talking about: beginning, middle or end?

My quick recap:


Yippee, I’ve got one of those! A pretty exciting one, apparently. (But let’s not get ahead of ourselves). I’m not going to get too cocky about my beginning. Not yet. Especially since my 5writer colleagues revel in picking apart plots and paragraphs, characters and sentences and I know I have a ton of comments and margin notes to review still. That beginning is still going to need a lot of work.

But guess what?


Hallelujah!  I don’t have a sagging middle, (well, at least not the literary kind) my blistering pace so relentless, the action so fast and furious, the middle never had time to sag.

What about the end, Paula?


End? Hmm … maybe not so good. Some of the plot details resolved, some left … dangling. A lot of work to do still to flesh out characters, tack down their motivation. Too many fingers-in-dykes required to plug all the holes in the plot. How could I have missed the most obvious of details?

I did outline. Using StoryMill, I created over 70 scenes-that-became-chapters. Ninety per cent of the novel.

Just not all of it.

Not the ending. Ouch! You see, I still hadn’t quite figured that part out. Not all the details. Not by the time I decided to start writing.

So now, I’m going to need to become ‘The Fixer’.

Anyway, by the end of the day, I felt like a kid in school, standing at the blackboard, writing lines.

paulaRepeat after me:

I will outline.

I will outline my entire manuscript before starting my next novel…

I will outline my entire manuscript before starting my next novel…

I will outline my entire manuscript before starting my next novel…

I will outline my entire manuscript before starting my next novel…

Oh, and maybe I’ll work just a teensy-weensy bit harder on developing the character of my protagonist  too. And maybe a few other people.

Seriously, all kidding aside, I can honestly say that having my manuscript critiqued in this very special manner felt, to indulge in a small colloquialism, awesome, man!

My entire story and character arcs revealed and reviewed, from beginning to end. A fabulous experience. Better than I ever could have hoped for.

But not because of any great praise heaped on my writing. (Some).

Not because of the outpouring of encouragement and support I received from my 5writer colleagues. (Much).

No, for me, it wasn’t just the words of praise or encouragement or even constructive criticism received (although all of those are fabulous).

For me, the privilege of sitting at a table surrounded by such wonderful friends, mentors, peers and colleagues, felt to me like the proverbial credit card commercials: Priceless.

My 5writer colleagues come to this group from a wide variety of backgrounds. Each one brings to our group something special: a skill set, a unique take on ‘the writing life’, a flair for plot, or dialogue or character development.  We all write in different genres. We all have different styles, different strengths. Some of us are more adept at ferreting out necessary missing plot elements. Some of us are better at seeing broad brush strokes and big pictures plot lines. Some of us are better at pacing, others at character development.

But bottom line, four outstanding individuals concentrated on my story, for weeks, leading up to yesterday. On me as a writer and on the words I put on paper. Not just for a day, but for the better part of a month. A month out of their busy lives. Days required to analyse setting, plot, character and structure. Hours spent musing about what might be broken … even more time engaged in speculating on how to fix it.

And then, on a sunny, glorious day up at Whistler, they willingly agreed to lock themselves in a room with me for over six hours.

And why?

To try to help me be a better writer. To try to help me fix problems. To try to support me in reaching whatever goals I may wish to set for myself as a writer.


Elephant and Blind Men b


An elevated level of critiques


Silk’s Post #40 — Hey, here we are! The 5 Writers’ big Whistler Mountain adventure has begun. Don’t we look like happy tourists? This was our first night, Saturday. We’re going out to dinner. We just drank a bottle of wine. No one has been critiqued yet. No wonder we look so happy.

helga-and-paulaAnd are we ever prepared.

We have nutritious, healthy snacks, courtesy of Helga and Karalee. The fridge in our suite is filled with wholesome raw veggies, fruit, hummus, cheeses and sparkling water. Just in case we wear ourselves out talking and really need some vitamins, minerals and fibre.

We have delicious, unhealthy snacks, courtesy of Paula and Silk. A gigantic bowl of candy looms on the table, just in case a recently-critiqued writer needs a high-calorie hug after a hard day on the hotseat. And we have a homemade apple pie from Silk’s orchard, ready to be baked as a last-night reward for our bravery.writer-treats

We have champagne for a wind-up toast courtesy of Joe, and the loyal and uncritical companionship of our critique week pooch, Vegas.

We have our critiques and margin notes written, printed out and ready to go. Mostly. Well, some of us do. There’s a rumour that one of the critiques runs to 44 pages, which is more than 10% of the length of the novel itself.

Oh, yes. We are sooo prepared.

Today, Sunday, was our first critique day. Paula the Lionhearted was the first to step up and offer herself for judgement. Not that she actually did that willingly. We drew straws. But still, you have to give her full credit for showing up, all dressed in orange (a courageous colour), and sticking it out all day without ever locking herself in the bathroom. She’ll be telling you about her special day in her post tomorrow.

Tomorrow is my day for rotten tomatoes. I take courage from the fact that Shakespeare himself (or at least the long-suffering actors performing his plays) apparently had all manner of no-longer-edible foodstuffs pitched at them onstage, as was the jolly practice during Elizabethan times. Having no one else to push into the footlights in my stead, I will be forced to play myself tomorrow. I look forward to raiding the candy dish afterwards.

One thing we have already learned, and are happy to share with all our writer friends and followers: if you want to elevate your critiquing, one sure approach is to simply increase your altitude. Pack your laptops and get thee to a mountain retreat, where you can breathe in the clean, evergreen-scented air and commune with nature.



Let the Games Begin

Helga’s Post #39

Image courtesy Mystery Fanfare

Image courtesy Mystery Fanfare

Bags are packed, loins are girded, critiques are printed. We are ready.

Well, not everybody quite at the same level, but we’ll better be by Sunday morning when critiques start in earnest. The morning after we meet for a bonding dinner somewhere in the picturesque village of Whistler. Before the games begin in the heart of the former Olympics site.


Maybe. Or maybe a subliminal choice of venue. A signal of our aplomb and commitment as writers preparing to get published.

To make the process random and fair we drew names from a hat. Paula will be the first in the hot seat starting Sunday après pancakes or whatever. I will be the last. Not sure if that’s in Paula’s favour or not. Or in mine. What we haven’t done yet is determine who is first in the line-up of GIVING their critique. (Think about it. This could be a sticky wicket.)

We allow one day of critique for each of five manuscripts. Not only one-way communication, but dialogue. Opportunity for the writer to ask specific questions that may not have been covered in the critiques.

Genres and writing styles of the five novels are as varied as their authors’ personalities: A colourful palette of suspense, mystery, fantasy, Y-A and some in-betweens that straddle more than one genre. I tried to visualize all the different characters from our novels in one room. A hilarious exercise!

Because of the sheer diversity of our novels, the entire event is incredibly dynamic. In the last month we each had to read and critique four manuscripts. And critique them in an objective manner, regardless of whether these novels are in the genre of our own preferences. Or in a writing style that’s not a favourite. Believe me, it takes an Olympian effort of self-discipline and constraint (Is it surprising that we have chosen Whistler?) and the main ingredient (as Joe said in his latest post), an open mind. Challenging as it sounds, it turned out I have learned more during this process than during writers’ conferences and workshops galore. It never ceases to amaze me how I can spot problems in other people’s writing, but continue to make the same mistakes in my own manuscript.

But it has also been an intense and challenging lifestyle during this last month. Not the healthiest one I admit, because it meant spending most of my non-sleeping hours sitting and staring at the computer screen. Not something I aspire to repeat anytime soon.

That process is behind us now. We are planning for lots of fresh air and outdoor activities in between the hard work. And yes, having fun ranks high on the agenda.

(To be continued from our idyllic retreat in the village of Whistler)