Input from Others Can Improve Your Output as an Author

Input from Others Can Improve Your Output as an Author

by Barbara Renner

I wrote my first two picture books while living in a small town in northwest Minnesota for the summer. Enthralled with the state bird, the Common Loon, my mind conjured what I thought would be cute stories about Lonnie the Loon. I found an critique membersillustrator, researched loons, and added interesting facts to almost every page.

Determined to be a published author, I pursued my dream with the help of Google. Armed with Writing Children’s Books for Dummies, an English degree, several years of teaching grammar, writing newsletters, and raising two children on Mercer Mayer, I figured I was qualified to author children’s books.

I knew the importance of having another set of eyes read my manuscript, but the only people I could rely on at the time were my husband, a friend, and my next door neighbor who writes young adult novels. My husband critiqued, “The story just gets going and then it ends.” My friend stated, “It’s cute, Barb. I’ll buy one for my grandchildren.” My neighbor wanted me to add more description, and we had a discussion about past perfect tenses.

As a novice at this self-publishing game, however, my Lonnie the Loon books have sold very well. I’ve sold over 200 copies of each book. I’ve learned a lot since Lonnie flew onto the scene and have more stories floating around in my head.

Then I met Joanne at a Kid Lit Mingle, an event hosted by SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). She told me she was writing a picture book and was part of a critique group. I knew one other lady in the group, Rita. I asked if there was room for one more – there was, and I’ve been meeting with them once a month ever since. There are only four of us, and we each bring our own style and interpretations to the group. Rita is an author/illustrator, so she can give tips on our manuscripts from an illustrator’s viewpoint. Joanne has a unique way of writing lyrical text and gives great tips on how to restructure our sentences. Jill read and outlined Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul for us and keeps us in line with story arc and conflict. I insert my grammatical expertise.

Basically, we use Writing Picture Books to guide us with our critiques, particularly Chapter 7 (Diving Into Story), Chapter 9 (Three-Act Structure: Basic Plotting), Chapter 12 (Two S’s of Strong Writing), and Chapter 18 (Sharing Your Story). I highly recommend purchasing this book as a great resource for authors of picture books.

Not an author of picture books? Here are some tips for critique groups of all genres:

  1. Keep the number of members small and manageable, perhaps four to six.
  2. Establish a regular meeting time and place. Limit the time of the meeting. For example, 30 minutes per writer. Also limit the number of pages or word count that is manageable per meeting for the size of the group.
  3. Agree on rules for the group to avoid misunderstandings and hard feelings.
  4. Email your writing selection to all members at least one week before the meeting.
  5. Share news (conferences, good books, publishing updates, agents, etc.) related to your genre.
  6. When critiquing, don’t just focus on grammar. A critique should also focus on characterization, plot logic, conflict, consistency in point of view, scene structure, pacing, telling vs. showing, dialogue, and reaching an audience.
  7. Use the “sandwich” technique when critiquing. Begin by saying something positive about the selection, then point out areas for improvement, and end with another positive comment.
  8. Critique the writing, never the author.
  9. Don’t just identify deficiencies. Give helpful suggestions or ideas.
  10. As a writer, listen and consider the critiques. Avoid becoming defensive. Consider all the comments, but accept only what works for you and your work, then go home and revise.

Joining a critique group gives you an opportunity to have other writers offer constructive criticism about your manuscript. In addition, analyzing others’ works can help you become more objective about your own writing. I’ve read comments that authors are introverts and the process of writing is lonely. Authors lock themselves in a room, alone with their muse, and don’t emerge until they type the words “The End.” Networking with other authors and joining a critique group will not only improve your writing, it will also educate you about what’s happening in your industry.

Now, excuse me while I climb the stairs to my room, lock the door, open my laptop, and listen to the calls of the loons. Oh yes, and I need to write my critique of Jill’s story.

Please leave comments about your experiences with critique groups.

Barbara Renner
and her husband have lived in Phoenix for more than 40 years – almostBarbara Renner natives – but not quite. As “Sun Birds,” they fly away to Minnesota to escape the summer heat – and fish. While in Minnesota, Barbara became fascinated with its state bird, the Common Loon. This prompted her to write four picture books about Lonnie the Loon, because everyone should know about loons. Since books about loons don’t sell very well in the desert, she is writing a series of picture books about Quincy the Quail. Barbara visits elementary schools as a guest author to read her books and share interesting facts about loons and quails. Barbara is working on other children’s books and a special book about her yellow lab, Larry, called Larry’s Words of Wisdom. Find out more about Barbara on her website,, twitter, Facebook, and GoodReads.


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Straying from Conventional Grammar Can Help Tell a Story

Straying from Conventional Grammar Can Help Tell a Story

by Kathleen Watson

Authors sometimes take license with grammar to create a mood, a scene, or a character. I usually don’t object to storytelling that deviates from standard usage, as long as it serves a purpose. Songwriters do it all the time!The-Dog-Stars

When I joined a book club, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my horizons by reading things I might not otherwise have chosen to explore. The Dog Stars was one of those works; it’s a tale about a handful of individuals who have survived a flu pandemic that appears to have wiped out much of civilization. One review described it as “a post-apocalyptic adventure.”

Peter Heller, an experienced author with a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers Workshop in fiction and poetry, uses a writing style that suits the story he weaves. It mimics the sometimes-random thoughts that float through all of our heads, ramblings that don’t require grammatically complete sentences or punctuation. Here’s an example:

I have a neighbor. One. Just us at a small country airport a few miles from the mountains. A training field where they built a bunch of houses for people who couldn’t sleep without their little planes, the way golfers live on a golf course.

Heller’s writing is sparse, often without punctuation. There are no quotation marks anywhere to indicate dialog. He leaves a lot for the reader to surmise.

Younger than. Or not. Leaner. White haired. Hard like shoe leather. Creases. Creased lines deep from cheeks down. Grimace lines. Spray of creases from corners of the eyes, outside corners. Gray eyes sparking. Used to sparking back at the naked sun. No bullshit at all. Every movement sure and swift.

Heller’s style reflects his characters’ dilemma: There is no room for anything extraneous when life is so basic, so rudimentary that survival is the only goal.

I was able to decipher meaning without punctuation, but there are some places where I believe Heller’s editor could have served him better:

  • Redundancies such as retreating back and lower it down
  • Using further rather than farther: went further back south from the house, walked further into the green (farther is a more literal distance, further implies symbolic distance or in greater degree or extent)
  • And this structure — when we get sick of rabbits and sunfish from the pond — could imply that rabbits and sunfish both come from the pond. I might have suggested: when we get sick of sunfish from the pond and of rabbits.

This excerpt, with its customary-for-Heller abbreviated phrasing, surprisingly uses a reference to punctuation to clarify his thought, to make his point:

We have the perimeter. But if someone hid. In the old farmsteads. In the sage. The willows along a creek. Arroyos, too, with undercut banks. He asked me that once: how do I know. How do I know someone is not inside our perimeter, in all that empty country, hiding, waiting to attack us? But thing is I can see a lot. Not like the back of the hand, too simple, but like a book I have read and reread too many times to count, maybe like the Bible for some folks of old. I would know. A sentence out of place. A gap. Two periods where there should be one. I know.

I don’t believe that redundancies or using a wrong word enhance storytelling, unless they might be in dialogue that helps define a character. The lack of punctuation and sometimes-choppy structure of phrasing in this work put readers inside Heller’s protagonist’s head, enabling them to see the world as the leading character sees — and feels — it.

Kathleen Watson
has nearly three decades of experience as an independent business writer, serving clients in both corporate and academic settings. Her weekly blog, Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor, offers practical word and punctuation tips, as does her recently published book Grammar For People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips From The Ruthless Editor. Contact her at:

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Staying Positive

Staying Positive

by Vaughn Treude

Over the years I’ve attended many science fiction conventions, both as a fan meeting my favorite personalities and as a writer promoting my work. Last week (July 1-4, 2017) the regional science fiction convention Westercon was held at the Tempe Mission Palms. My wife Arlys and I participated in two panels about our favorite science fiction sub-genre: steampunk. It’s always an enjoyable experience to bond with other sci-fi aficionados. It can also be somewhat disheartening, as I meet so many talented writers, some of whom are struggling even after a taste of success in mainstream publishing. After the first day, Arlys remarked that I always get a bit discouraged when I attend a con. This time, I’ve vowed to stay positive.


Of the panels I attended as an audience member, my favorite was called “You Must Choose Wisely,” which referred to the writer’s choice of publishing method. The panel consisted of five different writers who compared their experiences with independent, small press, and mainstream publishing. My biggest takeaway from this was that a writer’s choice depends on their personality (how much of a control freak are you?).

As for one’s experience, it could be good or bad depending on who you’re dealing with. Good editors and agents are worth their proverbial weight in gold. Some of the indies had tried for decades to publish with the Big Five (or however many there are now) and turned to self-publishing in frustration. Others started out in the mainstream, only to be forced into independence when even the bigger houses dropped many mid-list authors during the publishing recession of the early 2000s. Still, others found small presses the best way to go, provided they were able to get a good contract that included a clause  reverting all rights to the creator if the company were to fold, as small publishers often do.

After introductions and some basic questions from the moderator, discussion was opened up to the audience. My agenda is usually marketing, so of course, I asked what each author found to be their most effective promotional vehicle. One of the panelists was J. L. Doty, whose self-published book Child of the Sword went viral, which has led to traditional contracts with major publishers. He admitted that he’d been lucky, having done no promotion at all on his first book. The panelists then discussed how success in e-book publishing went from being a big draw for the corporate publishers to a bit of a stigma, as some of the earlier e-book smash successes had poisoned the well a bit by doing too much aggressive marketing via social media. Doty went on to say that social media is no longer a good tool for unknown authors, because “people don’t like to be spammed.” I agree, to a point, but this leaves us with almost no avenues that are cost effective, so I will continue using it. My theory is that if you provide free content that people value – for example, informative or humorous blog posts – your audience won’t mind a bit of incidental self-promotion.

Another thing they talked about was a private Facebook group called (if I remember correctly) “Club Indy.” You get in by invitation only, so perhaps I’ll start schmoozing with some of these folks. Club Indy does a lot of its own market research, which helps keep promotional sites such as BookBub honest. If the promoters’ claims weren’t true, Club Indy would catch them. BookBub is quite selective, the panelists said, accepting only 20 percent of submissions for their promotional list, though an author can keep submitting the same book once a month, and they may eventually accept it. If that site doesn’t work out, other promotional sites such as BookGorilla offer alternatives.

One of the most interesting statistics the authors cited was the factors that influence book buying. As you’d expect, the biggest consideration is whether a reader has purchased one of an author’s books before. Second after that is the recommendation of a friend. Before hearing that fact, I had the idea that personal appearances were a waste of time, because you can reach so many more people online. But if you get a handful of fans who really like your work and refer it to friends, live events could have a powerful multiplier effect. This also means that you need to ask friends and family for their support. Becoming a successful writer is not something one can do alone.

Now that Westercon is over, I’m trying to digest everything I learned. I have vowed to use the resources that the various panelists mentioned and to look for more opportunities for personal appearances. I also plan to submit some of my soon-to-be-finished works to small press publishers. Above all, I will stay positive.vaughntreude

aughn Treude grew up on a farm in North Dakota. The remoteness of his home, with few children nearby, made science fiction a welcome escape. After many years in software, he realized that the discipline of engineering could be applied to writing fiction. Check out Vaughn’s works at

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Upbeat Living: How Free Do You Feel?

Upbeat Living: How Free Do You Feel?

© 2017 Kebba Buckley Button, MS, OM. World Rights Reserved.

Moon - freedom

How free do you feel today? What does “freedom” mean to you, or what could it mean? If you are living in the U.S., then you know very well that this country was founded on principles of religious freedom. And political freedom. And economic freedom. All of those. After the Colonies decided they needed massively more freedom, their Declaration of Independence – from Great Britain – was passed by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

So for 241 years, this country has been committed to freedom, to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all people. The Declaration of Independence asserts that these are among certain inalienable rights given to all by our Creator, and that governments are obligated to protect those rights. And yes, women and Blacks were specifically reassigned some of these rights in later legislation. We continue to refine ways to ensure that everyone really has those rights.

So, do you feel free to pursue your life and happiness? Each of us has the right to pursue our life choices as we please. I have known people who exercised their right to choose in ways that seemed risky or even dangerous. Think of Evel Knievel, the motorcycle stunt performer. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Knievel had had 20 crashes and 433 bone breaks by 1975. Asked why he was choosing this lifestyle, Knievel said, “I really wanted to fly through the air.” He was exercising his freedom to choose, to follow his passions. His passions, in turn, uplifted and filled him.

In the 13th Century, the Sufi mystic poet Rumi wrote,

“Freedom is oxygen to the soul.”

In what became the last year of his life, Knievel turned his attention to a new passionate pursuit: experiencing God. He explained that in the past, he had wanted to pursue values that he now saw as bad. Knievel spoke passionately about his experience of Christ in 2007, on Robert H. Schuller’s television program, Hour of Power, broadcast from California’s Crystal Cathedral. Knievel, obviously in ill health and struggling for breath, said there is no feeling like being filled with Jesus.

While he was speaking most excitedly, his breathing problem disappeared. He said he was now seeking different things in his life, mainly a relationship with Jesus. Only eight months later, Knievel died, oddly not of injuries from his daredevil escapades, but of pulmonary fibrosis. And he died feeling free. In his life, he flew through the air, he became very rich, he married twice, he had four children, and he found a close relationship with the Divine. He made choices that gave him the kinds of freedom he wanted, at different points in his life.

How free do you feel today? Are you exercising your right to pursue a fulfilling life? Why not journal your thoughts, acknowledge what is holding you back, pray for help, and get going down your freedom road? Why not start now?

And that’s Upbeat Livingsm!

Kebba Buckley Button is a stress management expert and author of the award-winning Kebba booksbook, Discover the Secret Energized You, as well as the 2013 book, Peace Within: Your Peaceful Inner Core, Second Edition. Her newest book, Sacred Meditation: Embracing the Divine, is available through her office. Just email for more info. Like this article? Buy Kebba’s books by clicking the links! Reach the writer at For an appointment or to ask Kebba to speak for your group:

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Rosie Napravnik – Woman Jockey Among the Firsts

Rosie Napravnik – Woman Jockey Among the Firsts

by C.K. Thomas

Rosie Napravnik has ridden in all three thoroughbred, dirt-track races that make up the famous Triple Crown: The Kentucky Derby – Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky; The Preakness Stakes – Pimlico Racecourse, Baltimore, Maryland; and The Rosie NapravnikBelmont Stakes – Belmont Park, Elmont, New York. She remains the only woman to have achieved this feat in a field where women make up only 10 percent of horse-racing jockeys.

Napravnik placed fifth in the 2013 Kentucky Derby and third in that year’s Preakness, the best finishes for any woman jockey in those two races to date. At 5 feet two inches and a riding weight of 113 pounds, Napravnik has heard her share of snide comments from male jockeys. She responds to such talk quickly, letting her peers know she’s a serious contender. Over the course of her career, the other jockeys have come to respect her riding skills.

When Napravnik retired from racing in 2014 to train horses with her husband Joe Sharp, her lifetime earnings total topped $71 million. She ranked fifth by earnings and sixth by number of wins that year and was the highest-ranked woman jockey in North America.

Julie KroneNapravnik drew inspiration from Julie Krone, the first woman to win the Belmont Stakes. The National Women’s Hall of Fame, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame honor her among their members. Krone was the first woman inducted into The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

While there were several important firsts as female riders gained equality with men, it was (Diane) Crump who is recognized as the first woman to compete as a licensed jockey at a U.S. racetrack.
Bob Ehalt, America’s Best Racing, May 2017

Crump paved the way for a legion of women in future years when, undaunted by the Diane Crumpwidespread hostility against her for tearing down the walls of a males-only bastion, she rode Bridle ’n Bit in a race at Hialeah Park on February 7, 1969.

“It always impacted me, being the first female jockey,” said the 68-year-old Crump during a recent interview with America’s Best Racing. “I have one little footprint in history that turned a corner not just for women’s rights, but equal rights. Maybe that opened it up for equal rights, and that’s important to me. Wherever you go now, women have the opportunity to ride and that’s awesome. It gave all of us a chance to do what was in our hearts and that to me was important.”

Photos from Wikipedia

_______________________________C.K. Thomas
C.K. Thomas lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Before retiring, she worked for Phoenix Newspapers while raising three children and later as communications editor for a large United Methodist Church. The Storm Women is her fourth novel and the third in the Arrowstar series about adventurous women of the desert Southwest. Follow her blog: We-Tired and Writing Blog.

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Horseshoe Crab Blood

Horseshoe Crab Blood

by Rita Goldner

On the evolution timetable, we humans are relatively the new kids on the block. We have been here in our current form for about 200,000 years. The horseshoe crab, however, Crab blood.jpghas been here in almost the same form for roughly 450 million years. In all that time, he has evolved some amazing defense mechanisms. His greatest feat, (at least in the opinion of humans) is developing blood with the remarkable ability to detect bacteria. These animals spend most of their time close to shore, where bacteria is abundant. If they get even a slight crack in their shells, bacteria will invade. Their blood is able to find contamination in amounts as small as one part per trillion. Their reaction time to the infection is 45 minutes, not two days, like mammals’ white blood cell defense system.

For the last 50 years, the biomedical industry has been harvesting a quarter of a million horseshoe crabs a year, draining 30 percent of their blood and releasing them back into the ocean. Theoretically, most survive and replenish their blood supply within a month. The FDA has approved the use of this blood in detecting contamination in vaccines, as well as implanted medical and dental devices like pacemakers and joint replacements. Some contamination from bacteria byproducts can remain even after sterilization of scalpels, etc., and this quality checking method is far superior to any used in the past. In modern times, anyone who receives a flu shot, an intravenous solution, or has their pet receive a vaccination can thank a horseshoe crab for their safety.

Not surprisingly, there’s a profit motive, too, since the blood sells for $15,000 a quart. Scientists have been scurrying around trying to find a synthetic alternative, but so far nothing has been good enough to earn FDA approval.

This whole topic, if you want to research it on the internet, is comprised of countless facets: videos of the blood extraction process, the controversy about how overfishing may threaten the population, the history of the biomedical research and discovery, etc. I’m a research junkie, so be assured that I have fallen down several fascinating but time-stealing rabbit holes while writing this post. As usual in my posts, I try to segue into a concept or analogy that I can use in my daily adventure of being an author. Therefore, I am going to avoid those detours and dive right into the physiology of the crab’s defense mechanism, wherein lies the metaphor.

When the crab’s blood (which is light blue, by the way, although that nugget of info has nothing to do with the story) detects even a minute presence of bacteria after a cut or puncture, it immediately forms a tiny gel blob around the invader. It doesn’t kill or expel the bacteria, but imprisons it in this impenetrable gel, where it can do no harm. My metaphor sprang to mind when I was thinking of how we people in creative pursuits are bombarded with assailants, in the form of distractions, bad reviews, self-doubt, and relatives telling us to get a real job. If we just put an escape-proof gel around these impediments in a very specific and limited area, it’s a lot better than walling ourselves off from the whole cruel world.

An example of the latter choice appeared at a recent informal author mixer. I was talking to another author about joining a critique group, and she was adamant about never doing that. She said any negative criticism would derail her creativity; she planned to just finish her book in secrecy and then submit it to agents and publishers. She didn’t subscribe to the concept of taking in all the feedback you can get, and then putting a gel coating around the parts that are irrelevant or not working, while you digest the good parts. Sometimes the offending intruder in your creative life is your boss or a relative. Like the crab, you can’t kill them or expel them from your life, but you can covertly wrap just the toxic parts of them in the gel of irrelevance. 

Another case in point was a gentleman I met at another mixer. He was cautious about trading critiques with authors he felt weren’t as good as he was, to the extent that he wouldn’t even accept a business card from someone without checking their website first. He was a new author, unpublished, and felt he would improve faster if he only associated with established authors, so he walled himself off from other newbies. Dead wrong, in my opinion, since newbies are still readers who can see inconsistencies or confusing parts in your story. Another set of eyes is always valuable. If your critiquers are very inexperienced, you can encapsulate the uninformed parts of their comments, and keep the rest.

Comments welcome!

Rita signature.jpg

Rita Goldner
is the author and illustrator of the children’s picture book, Orangutan: A Rita Goldner2Day in the Rainforest Canopy. Rita has also written and illustrated two eBooks, Jackson’s History Adventure and Jackson’s Aviation Adventure, in the Jackson’s Adventure series. For orangutan facts and images and to purchase the book (also available as an ebook), visit Or by the Kindle version here. Rita’s newest book, Making Marks on the World: A Storybook for Left- and Right-Handed Coloring, is available for purchase here. To view additional illustrations and other books in progress, visit Rita’s website. Contact Rita here. Follow Rita on Facebook.

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What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

by Elizabeth Blake

mask & pen.jpg

Whether we are writing under our given name or a pseudonym, how we choose to present ourselves to the world is important. We pour considerable energy and time into showing who we are and proving we have something valuable to say. Seeing a name we identify with on the cover of our life’s work is a potent thing.

Another author who writes under the name Elizabeth Blake recently contacted me and asked me to change my author name, which happens to be my given name. I politely said, “No thanks.”

Her concern was that people might get us confused. She was very worried that her audience might accidentally buy my books, thinking they were hers. Since she writes children’s picture books and I write violent dystopian fiction, I assured her any mix-up was unlikely.

The incident brings to mind two things. Firstly, if you build a social media following that is familiar with your personality and the look and feel of your work, cases of mistaken identity won’t happen often. Secondly, if you choose to write different in genres, it can be useful to have a different pen name for each genre. Authors have to consider their audiences. If you’re writing books that appeal to entirely different types of readers, a pen name can spare your audience confusion or disappointment.

I’m currently writing in vastly different genres under two names. I keep their businesses entirely separate from each other, and never the two shall meet. I’m confident in doing so because I know their readership does not overlap. Obviously, I’m an advocate of using pen names, but it isn’t the only way of doing things. It isn’t always the right way, either.

If you have nonfiction material that ties directly into your fiction work, it might be appropriate to market them together. For example, if you’re an expert on private investigation and you’re also writing a detective series, it’s safe to assume your audience won’t be surprised by either work.

Sadly, if you chose to use multiple names, you’ll have to invest the extra work required to present both personas to the world. Fellow introverts can attest to how draining the social media crusade is on our tender energy reserves, so be cautious. Make sure the need warrants the effort.

As always, keep writing.

I’m sure I’ve missed some pros and cons on the subject, so feel free to comment. Have you considered using a pen name?


Elizabeth Blake is a complex woman. She’ll tell you that she’s not that complicated, that her demands are simple: Coffee, good books, freedom, world domination… Elizabeth Blake is a sorceress of stories, a lover of letters. If you want to get to know her, visit The Mind & Heart of Elizabeth Blake, pick up her books, follow her on social media, buy her a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

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