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Excerpted from The Writer’s Craft Newsletter

Paid editing and critique services have their advantages, however one of the best things you can do for your writing career is get into a good critique group. You may have to try out a few before you find one that is the right fit for you, but it is well worth the effort.

With the right critique group you can learn exponentially, shaving years off the learning curve.

It takes some skill and effort to learn to step back from your own writing and ask yourself why something doesn’t work. A critique done by a sympathetic friend and/or writer can more quickly flag the problem and that act alone will teach you a great deal.

Face-to-Face or On-line Groups?

Face-to-Face Group


  • Meet local writers. Make friends with similar interests with whom you informally share experiences in the real world. In this day of cyberspace, it is nice to get away from the computer and actually exchange ideas with some real people.

  • Get firsthand reactions and instant feedback from those reading your work. You can actually watch the audience react to your story—do they fidget at the bottom of the third page; are they deeply engrossed during the fight scene? You can only get these insights from reading to a group.

  • Meetings are a great place to discuss problems you are having with your manuscript or raise writing issues in general.

  • You usually experience a wide variety of styles and genres. Face-to-face groups are usually less specialized because there simply aren’t enough writers of any one genre to make a group.


  • Criticism can be harder to take face-to-face. It is difficult to hear criticism of your work and it is hard to fight the urge to argue.

  • The lack of specialization can be a problem if you need specific input from other writers who understand the genre.

  • There is little choice as you are limited by the caliber of writers in the area or what type of group is available

  • A personality conflict is harder to deal with face-to-face. Comments can seem a lot more personal.

  • Meetings are scheduled events and not pliable to your own timetable.

  • Depending on how the meetings are run, you receive oral feedback immediately following your reading with no chance for the reader to reconsider their critique.

  • As there might only be time for one or two people to read at a meeting, you could go a couple of months between readings of your own work.

On-Line Groups


  • Communicate with writers from all over the world. You can make some lasting friendships with writers from your on-line critique group. Then one day you can travel to meet with established friends.

  • On-line groups can be more specialized, gearing themselves to a particular genre or target audience.

  • You can fit the critique work into your own schedule, doing it when you have time to concentrate on it. And you get a thorough, detailed written critique because the other person is not as rushed.

  • You may get more honest feedback in an on-line environment as the relationship is comfortably distant. Your critique partner is reacting only to your writing, not your looks or your personality.

  • You can come and go through several groups while choosing the one that works best for you.


  • You don’t really get to know all the people in your group and there is always some fear of others stealing your work —usually an unfounded fear of beginning writers—but possible none the less.

  • You have to wait for your critiques, sometimes for a week or more and if someone is totally off base or misreads your story, there is no opportunity to correct them so the critique may not be as valuable as it could be.

  • You sometimes get so involved with your career online that you do most of your socializing on the computer with someone on the other side of the globe. It is easy to become recluse if this is the only socializing you do. You have to remind yourself to get out and talk to real people once in a while. I find this very true for me as I have small children and don’t get out often.

While the right critique group can advance your writing in giant leaps, the wrong group can severely damage your tender confidence. Like any meaningful relationship where you are being vulnerable and hoping to grow and develop, the group must meet those needs. So how do you choose a group?

There are a number of questions you can ask before you begin. Assess your comfort with the answers before committing to join.

  • If it is a face-to-face group, how often do they meet? How long are meetings? How are critiques handled at meetings?

  • Do you submit manuscripts ahead of time so that the other members have a chance to review them at their leisure? Or do you only critique what is read/heard during the meeting?

  • How many people are in the group? Are they beginners, experienced or both?

  • Does everyone critique all submissions? How long do you have to critique a submission and how many per week are you required to critique?

  • How often are you required to submit something and what word length is expected?

  • Do the participants support and encourage each other even when delivering that sometimes painful criticism? No pain, no gain, right?

Once you find a group that fits into your schedule, try it out. People come and go in groups all the time. Sometimes, you hit on a good combination of people and you stay in one group for months or even years. Other times, there is someone in the group that you clash with or the group is at a different level than you are (either way too advanced, or way too beginner for you).

When that happens, just move on to another group.

Eventually, you’ll find one that works. You may find, as I did, that you pick up a couple of friends from each group who you keep in touch with and occasionally (or more often) exchange manuscripts on a more informal basis.

Be afraid, very afraid to jump into writing about characters who are not of your race, sex, age, nationality, experience or ability. But be brave and do it anyway. We all need to be able to get into each other’s heads and empathize deeply. The survival of the world ultimately depends on it.

Ten years ago, I walked into an appointment with a New York agent who liked my work, but with one look at me as I walked in the door, my dreams of representation were history. “I thought you were a black writer. We can’t possibly sell a mystery about a black family written by a white author.” Since then, I’ve been collecting thoughts on this false assumption.

Despite Trump-era nationalism, a growing number of our planet’s inhabitants live in a multi-cultural world. And it’s only going to become more so. I can understand how it raises fear of change and disenfranchisement. White privilege is slowly on its way out. Sorry folks, all the marching in the streets with torches, chanting Nazi slogans and murdering innocent pedestrians is not going to stop it.

Embrace the future. I can’t imagine writing just about a bunch of white people. I’m white, but I’m also part of a melting pot that needs a wide variety of ingredients to serve up a world-class comfort soup.

Racial, ethnic and sexual politics are at the core of our shared history. In my Lucy Vega and Beatrice Middleton series (debut April 1, 20178 with Deadly Focus,) I step inside a black woman’s head and share the things I can—devotion to family, seeking the truth and fighting for love and justice. I chose to focus more on our shared humanity than on race.

The author may not always get it right, but that’s life. Take the risk and open the dialogue.

Identity Politics Identity politics can be defined as political activity or movements based on or catering to the cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, religious, or social interests that characterize a group identity.

But things are (possibly) starting to change. Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue appears to be the culmination of something that’s been going on for the past few years: the thawing of cultural ownership. If this is not yet a full-fledged movement, it is certainly a pivot.

“White writers are returning to the subject of race, and they are driven not by some ham-fisted, white-guilt social consciousness, as William Styron was, but from the realization that the story of race is their story, too. They’re not cultural carpetbaggers—they’re taking a long look in the mirror and assessing the impact of race and racism on themselves.”

Cultural Diversity in Mystery Novels Susan Triss writes further about Cultural Diversity in Mystery Novels. The following article was published this year in both the Poisoned Pen Newsletter and the Sisters in Crime Quarterly Newsletter December 2017.

In September, I wrote about including real life diversity in mystery fiction. Depictions and plots that reflect that are an important part of the issue, but it does not end there. Deeper and more complicated is the question of how to write important characters from backgrounds not our own. If you want to see a bunch of writers with smoke coming out of their heads, suggest that it is not possible, or even merely that it is hard to write different gender, race, ethnicity, or any other difference, and do it well. It’s such a touchy subject that even as I write this, there is a heated discussion on a mystery writers e-list. “Censorship” has been mentioned—with heat. It’s true that writing only what we know personally— our own gender, own age, own background, own experiences—would be pretty boring and limited. Writers observe and imagine! Nothing is off limits, although, doing it well might be harder than it seems at first.

A Time When “Everyone Knew” After all, it’s not what we don’t know that trips us. We all know how to research. It’s what we think we know, but we don’t. Let’s not forget there was a time, quite recently, when “everyone knew” that women are not logical enough to do law, all Asians are good at math, and all African-Americans are athletic. Some people would still sign on to those ideas, even without hatred, and never recognize that it is prejudice. And there was a time, not even that long ago, that “everyone knew” that “ladies” were too delicate for the workplace, Africans were not fit for any work but manual labor, the Irish were drunks, and Jews cheated at business. Need I go on? It’s certainly disconcerting to read old favorites from earlier 20th century and see the everyday, ordinary prejudice. It was “normal” to write it because “everyone” knew it was true. For instance, the casual anti-Semitism in British mysteries of the pre-World War II decades is chilling in light of history. Another example comes from my early career in children’s books, at a time when everything was being reassessed. A beloved classic book included an African prince who reads fairy tales and goes off to find his own Sleeping Beauty. And when he awakens a girl sleeping in her garden she says, “You are ugly. You are too black.” So he puts white coloring on his face. Anyone who is not appalled by that is not thinking hard enough. And yet, at the time it was published, there was no problem with it.

Passing The Reality Test It seems fairly arrogant to assume that everything we—in all our talented glory—think we know, now, about “other” communities, would pass the reality test by someone within the community. We don’t need to look any further than some lauded 20th century male American writers who could never separate their own feelings about women from writing about women. It was always from the outside, the male gaze in action, and their women are never quite convincing. At least, to women. On the other hand, one of the most powerful depictions of being an old man I’ve ever read was written by a young woman in her twenties. She was writing outside her experience in multiple ways but it was so sensitively observed, so complex in characterization, that it seemed powerful and truthful. Of course, I don’t know what a very old man would say. Complexity might be the key word here. If you want to go beyond populating the background of your book with believable diversity, and make that character a bigger part of the story, then make him or her complex. As we all are. The Mexican worker in the grocery store has big dreams for a smart child. The teen in a wheelchair is going to a rock concert. The Nepali manicurist has conflicts with her teenage son. The Jamaican nanny just became a citizen. And they all have feelings and opinions about all of it. We need to read and ask questions, a lot, before we decide what to include.

Finding the Importance You may be able to include a minor character, but not an important one. You may be able to include an important one, but not as the narrator, because you would not have the voice or accent just right. People who speak Spanish with different accents in their native language also speak English with a different accent. And there’s more to sounding West Indian than sprinkling in “mon.” I have actually stopped reading a few mysteries because they seemed so unconvincing and only found out later that the author, writing in the first person, was using a different gender voice. There are no easy answers. Why should there be? Incorporating diversity has been a tough subject in our whole society from the beginning and is only bigger and harder lately. In our writing lives, I think a good start is to really listen to what people say and how they say it, to research, to question our own assumptions, and to be respectful. A caricature of any kind, a hateful name, even a stereotyped compliment, has no place in honest writing.

Every year, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers is pleased to present the Colorado Gold Conference, where hundreds of writers from all over the United States and beyond gather for a full weekend of writerly camaraderie, exciting programming, and opportunities to pitch projects to the industry’s top agents and editors.

Programming focuses on craft improvement, genre knowledge, career management, industry savvy, and continuing education and professional development for published authors.

Whether you’re new to the idea of becoming a writer or you’re a veteran published author, whether you hope to pursue a traditional publishing contract with a big New York publishing house or launch a self-publishing venture, you’re sure to find the skills, knowledge, inspiration, motivation, and support you need at Colorado Gold.

Although Colorado Gold is not specifically a mystery writer’s event, there is significant coverage of the genre that make it well worthwhile. Members of Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America are well represented as presenters, authors, and attendees.

No writer/prospector leaves without a handful of nuggets in the form of relationships, craft, marketing, or personal career development gold. The 2017 conference featured keynote speakers Diana Gabaldon, Sherry Thomas, and Lori Rader-Day.

At this year’s conference, which was held Sept. 8-10 in Denver, master classes included writing fiction with the Book Architecture method, deep character building, deep revision, writing a series that sells, MFA in half a day, and self-publishing like a pro.

There were more than 75 workshops on craft, marketing, and career development, touching on topics such as creating book trailers; sex, gender, and sexuality; avoiding bad publishing contracts; creating unreliable and unlikable characters that people still want to read; networking for introverted writers; writing YA; and using Facebook ads.

Gabaldon on Immersion

In Diana Gabaldon’s seminar on immersion, she discussed the importance of underpainting in the creation of story structure, using her Outlander novels as examples. In visual art, underpainting is an initial layer of paint applied to a ground, which serves as a base for subsequent layers of paint. This technique, when applied to writing, anchors and enriches through flickers of action and small bits of information or pictorial detail.

To build a sense of immersion, Gabaldon says paragraphs should be kept short with at least one sentence involving an action. Less is more—practice restraint and engage small details, not heavy-handed descriptions.

This subtlety works particularly well in sex scenes. The Outlander protagonists, Jamie and Claire, are among the most sensual of literary lovers.Following is an example she used to illustrate the underpainting technique. She discusses this further on her Facebook page.

(Claire’s POV) He made no noise, but I felt him at once; a warmth, a thickening, in the cool air of the room.

“Are ye well, Sassenach?” he asked softly from the doorway.

Gabaldon pointed out that, technically, she is invoking the sense of touch, even though no one is actually touching. Contrasting “warmth” and “cool” enhances the impression of touch, and metaphorically equating Jamie’s presence to “warmth” and “thickening” establishes his presence as immediately attractive.

Layering upon the larger background also helps build what Gabaldon refers to as micro-tensions. The author wants the reader to constantly be pricked by questions to create a feeling that something is about to happen.

As part of underpainting, Gabaldon suggests adding backstory a snippet at a time, and using at least three senses in every scene to add dimension and connection to the characters and their environment.

When asked why she thinks more writers don’t employ underpainting effectively, she chuckled and commented how much time it takes to create an immersive story. The payoff for Gabaldon, however, has been that millions of readers are begging for more.

Next year’s conference

The first 2018 keynoters have been announced, both of them bestselling crime fiction authors: James Scott Bell, also an acclaimed writer’s coach, and Kate Moretti.

Find more information on the conference at

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