Evolving a Story: the writing group feedback loop – Part 3

Infinite loop by  Faruk Ateş (kurafire)

Infinite loop by Faruk Ateş

Two days ago, I posted the start of this series, giving our readers a glimpse into the process of incorporating notes from trusted readers.  Yesterday, I posted an update to the story opening.

I was happy to find that the writing group had responded favorably to the revised opening.  The “final” revision feels like less of a re-write, though it was built up from a blank page again; the difference being that I kept one eye on the previous take, retaining the pieces that had worked and incorporating most of the notes along the way.


Team Approach – further revised beginning

Just before it dripped into his eyes, Thom Champlain wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and continued to adjust the sensitivity of the sensor he was calibrating.  He did this with practiced efficiency, the product of quite a few years in the field waiting for his big break.  If practiced efficiency played a bigger role than luck in this endeavor, Thom would have moved up the ranks already, instead of sweating out here in this remote canyon, miles from anyone else but Mickey Barton.  But, since luck was the prime mover in his line of work, there was no instead to be had.  Mickey, dressed in a camouflage shirt and wearing a red cap proclaiming Budweiser as the King of Beers that had probably been purchased at a truck stop, piped up, “Anything I can do to help out?”

Thom considered the question, but, really, Mickey had already helped by just reporting that he had seen, and acquired only slightly blurry footage of, something out of the ordinary.  That was how these outings usually started, some regular Joe going about their regular day to day happened to stumble upon the weird, the unexplainable, the just not quite right.  And the blurry, hastily snapped photos and cell-phone videos usually came along for the ride, even though every once in a while the footage the reporter provided was good enough to move their story up or down in the queue: up because it really might be Bigfoot or down and out because it was very clearly a very hirsute Uncle Earl romping around in the woods.  So, Thom gave his traveling companion the usual “Nope, just about done here.  Then we get to wait for sundown,” before resuming the task at hand.

Mickey, satisfied that he had done his duty in offering, returned to whittling a little doo-dad, a keep-your-hands-busy activity that he had picked up as a youngster.  Thom, satisfied that he had deflected Mickey’s well meaning question, ran the final tests on the sensor and found it ready to go.  He had already set up the multi-array camera unit, giving him both visible and infrared capture capabilities.  Given the distance that they had had to traverse with backpacks, Thom could only bring in light gear.  If this venture panned out, then he could request an air drop of extra items for the next phase, maybe even get a few more field agents on the scene.  But that was putting a cart full of basketed eggs before a thirsty horse, since he first had to get the proof.  Proof of whatever: as long as Mother Nature or human intervention didn’t explain it, it was all within the scope of the Extra-normal Research Group.

As the sun sank below the canyon rim, the light took on an eerie glow, highlighting the rock formations that studded the walls.  Surely there were plenty of caves and crevices up there to hide whatever wanted to stay hidden.  Thom had watched Mickey’s shaky video enough times to know that the creature it appeared to capture was about the size of a bear cub and it was easy for bears to hide themselves from prying eyes even in well traveled wilderness areas.  So, it stood to reason that something else of that size, since the video pretty clearly showed a non-bear, unless bears had all of a sudden started sprouting leathery wings, could just as easily hide as well.  With the equipment all set up, Thom suggested that they move downwind a hundred yards or so to wait.  He had remote monitoring capabilities, so they’d know if the sensors tripped from an acceptably safe range.


This time the notes were very lasered in, as I would expect from the reviews of a piece that has gone through a few revisions: subsequent reads bring up additional items.  This is one of the values of having others read your work – they will see things you don’t and offer additional perspectives.

1. Job vs endeavor?  Word choices can convey the character’s feelings about their current situation, so give the reader that extra bit of info by picking well.

2. Re-read to discern voice/tone.  Each character has a voice, reading the dialogue out loud to yourself can reveal inconsistencies.

3. Expand the description of Mickey whittling as comparison to Thom’s work with the sensor equipment.

4. Decisively convey the specific time-frame that is covered.  Hours, minutes, etc.?

5. Thom’s motivation and frame of mind needs to be clearer.

6. One thing as a what if to consider – flip first two sentences to grab the reader.


Despite the fact that I got some very good notes on this version, the overall discussion was that it was now a good anchor point from which to go forth and to hold on to those notes as things to consider when going back through after the first draft of the entire piece was done.  In other words, these are nuance items not affecting the overall story arc.

I hope that this three post series has given a glimpse into the cycle of writing->feedback->revision->feedback that often occurs within our writing group.

Evolving a Story: the writing group feedback loop – Part 2


Infinite loop by  Faruk Ateş (kurafire)

Infinite loop by Faruk Ateş

Yesterday, I posted the start of this series, giving our readers a glimpse into the process of incorporating notes from trusted readers. Given the notes and recommendations I had received, I scrapped the original story as written and developed a revised opening (despite already having continued along the original storyline, some pieces of which may find their way back in later).  Instead of a team of researchers, I re-imagined the process as a single agent acting as the initial contact with a report that the group had deemed as having real possibility.  This new opening is set “in the moment”:


Team Approach – revised beginning

“Well, it sure took you guys long enough to send someone out here.  I posted on your website a bunch of times over the last year.”  Dressed in a camouflage shirt, jeans, work boots, and a red cap proclaiming Budweiser as the King of Beers, Mickey Barton looked every bit as Thom Champlain had expected.  As the local liaison for the Extra-normal Research Group, Thom had come to this remote canyon with Mickey to ascertain whether the strange phenomena that Mickey had reported was something the group would be interested in studying.

“Like I said, Mickey, sometimes it takes a little while for reports to work their way through the queue.  We recognize that folks on the ground give us our best leads, but the volume is such that it can take some time to find the golden nuggets in the sand. I appreciate you taking the time to bring me out here personally, though.”  Thom hoped this would placate the man’s surly feelings.

“My pleasure, I’m super interested in finding out what’s going on.  I’ve been camping in this same area for many years so I can tell when something’s not quite right.”

They trudged through the brush for another hour before Mickey pulled up and pointed ahead, “Right here’s where I shot the video I sent you.  I know it didn’t capture the full impact of what I saw, but I’m not a pro where that kind of thing is concerned, just happened to have my phone out.”

“Ok, we’ll set up here then – I’ve brought some stuff with me that should help get a clearer picture.  We’ve got a couple of hours before sundown.”

Thom unshouldered his backpack and carefully unpacked the two instruments that were light enough to bring on the hike.  He arranged the motion sensor array where Mickey had indicated and then hooked it up to the high resolution digital video camera.  The whole thing came together when the two worked in tandem with the camera tracking to the motion sensors.  All automatic and very precise.  If there was something to be seen out here, they’d get the necessary footage, for sure.  And Mickey seemed confident that there was something to be seen out here.

Thom enlisted Mickey’s help in testing the gear once it was set up.  This was more to engage Mickey in the process than out of necessity.  Most often, he worked alone.  And most often, he found nothing out of the ordinary.  But that was the local liaison’s job: get a trained set of eyes on things, separate the wheat from the chaff before bringing in a full team.  Eventually, Thom hoped to move up in the ranks and take on the more interesting assignments.  But the group worked on a merit basis, you had to prove yourself in the lower ranks, pay your dues with no screw-ups and patiently wait for the invite.  The group provided the tools to let the liaison’s do their job, after all, it was talent in using those tools that got you noticed.

After testing the gear, the two men just had to wait for nightfall.  They had seen nothing out of the ordinary so far, but Mickey had indicated in his reports that the strange things only happened at night.  That had Thom a bit skeptical.  After all, he was well aware that the extra-normal was not usually on a timetable and it was only a perception that night brought out more of the weird.  With the instruments calibrated, there wasn’t much chance that they’d miss anything.  Minutes gave way to hours and day gave way to night.  Thom was beginning to think he’d wasted the better part of a day when one of the sensors chirped, something that sounded all too natural.  It wouldn’t do to have some alarm blaring, skewing the results by scaring off whatever had caused the sensor to trip.

Thom peered into the darkness, not surprised that he didn’t see anything himself.  The video equipment was scanning infrared as well as capturing the visible spectrum with an extremely sensitive low-light mechanism.  Whatever it was that had engaged the equipment would show up when they reviewed the footage.  Thom would perform a preliminary check in the morning, then send the data on up the food chain.


The notes I received when reviewing this revised piece with the writing group were more focused on specifics as compared to the last batch:

1. Give each character a perspective and more interaction/conversation – the characters feel 2 dimensional, need to put some meat on them.

2. What if you approach it like Thom’s done this 100 times – 99 failures to get to a single success – how would that affect his motivation?

3. You make mention of a chirp sound – expand that to heighten the tension

4. Make stronger contrast between the two men.  Thom as the professional, Mickey as excited to be a part of the experience

5. What if you have a faster heighten – start late, leave early – start with them already on site and get right to the reveal.  Hook the reader early.

6. Even the lightest equipment isn’t easy to hump out into the wilderness, so pare it down to the essentials and give a reason for that specific equipment to have been brought along.


I felt that these notes were more about finessing the story particulars vs it being in need of major overhaul.  Come back tomorrow to see the “final” version of this piece, mostly dialed in and ready to be the cornerstone upon which the story is anchored.


Evolving a Story: the writing group feedback loop – Part 1

Infinite loop by  Faruk Ateş (kurafire)

Infinite loop by Faruk Ateş

Several months ago, I started a new story during a writing group pomodoro session – I came up with an opening line “We found the rip in our world quite by accident” and ran with it.  A month later there was going to be another pomodoro session where I intended to continue the piece, but I had made a commitment to the writing group to post something new to WattPad by that meeting as well.  So, I dusted off the start of the story, ran it through a cleanup editing pass (sometimes those pomodoro pieces get off in the weeds) and got it released to WattPad:


Team Approach – part 1

We found the rip in our world quite by accident.  Sure, there’d been reports of strange goings on in the Arizona desert, but they’d been filed by some pretty out there folks and it just sounded too incredible.  But, even crackpots want to be heard and eventually the volume caused the signal to overtake the noise and some clarity to rise above the chatter.  So, we dispatched a crew and we took it seriously, sending them with all of the gear they’d need, a well-appointed security detail, and a full support structure back at home base to mitigate the risks should any crop up.  See, we don’t take our responsibility lightly.  When you’re the lone defense against the extra-normal you have to keep things sharp, always striving for dotted i’s and crossed t’s.

The team on the ground covered all of the disciplines: cryptozoology, extra-terrestrial chemistry, ESP, alchemy.  Everyone has at least two areas of expertise so we can be efficient and nimble.  The smaller the crew the less noticeable they are, the easier it is to blend in and act like tourists.  Our security details are dispatched with advanced weaponry, nothing that screams out their purpose – the average joe would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the scientists.  Our vehicles look normal from the outside, nothing too flashy.  We try to avoid anything that would garner a second glance.  Now, the insides of those vehicles are a different story.  The highest of the high tech, stuff that would blow the mind of that same average joe: sensor arrays, long range scanners, data collection, chemical composition analysis.  You name it, we’ve either got it or are working on acquiring it.

So, when this team hit the ground, they were ready for just about anything – hours of training spent honing their particular skills, turning the extraordinary into second nature and habit.  Makes my job in the command center look like a walk in the park.  I’m more of a coordinator, keeping tabs on the real worlds reactions, making sure the team’s cover sticks.  Even I get some of that high end tech.  There’s not a police force in the country that we can’t tap into to get up to the minute intel.  Even some of the feds are accessible, and the ones that aren’t are already in the know about our missions and keep us in the loop as peers.  Mostly, I think they realize that without us, they’d be dealing with this stuff themselves.

Right away, we realized this mission was turning into something real and important.  The scanners registered something big, the sensor arrays tuned all sorts of disturbance: electromagnetic flux, super-gravitational bursts, extra-terrestrial chemistry – the whole nine yards.  Everyone was going to get a piece of this one.  Then we hit the first snag.  Everything was pointing to a remote piece of land, a small canyon that was privately owned.  It’s easy for us to make our way onto public land or anything managed by a government agency, but private property can get tricky.  I started working up a back story for a few of the team members, hoping we’d be able to bluff our way in for a little sneak and peek.  Once we had confirmation, we could bring in the state or federals to help get everything smoothed over, usually by offering the land owner a swap for something worth much more – usually they were amenable, sometimes not.  We always got in, sometimes it wasn’t pretty, but it was always quietly handled.

So, I put together a usual cover: environmental group looking to verify a species’ habitat in the canyon.  Usually that was better received than going in with a mining and minerals story.  We would send in the cryptozoologist since she could talk the habitat talk.  Even cryptozoology is rooted in regular earth biology and ecosystems.  Then we had to track down the property owner.  It was a desolate canyon, they didn’t live out there, they just owned it.


During the next writing group meeting, once the other members had had a chance to read it through, I got some great feedback:

1. The story had a subtle contradiction: this group apparently has lots of resources (the narrator even says that) but there is a “seat of the pants” vibe.

2. Inconsistent voicing: the narrator tries to be conversational but it slips into sounding like a filed report at times, giving a “well, this already happened” feeling.

3. The first person narrative is likely going to prove limiting since the narrator is removed from the action so everything will be filtered through what he was told, not what he saw himself.

4. What if you focused on the “feet on the ground” and put the action in the present, bringing the reader along for the ride vs telling them what already happened?


Even though I had already written the continuation of the original, I recognized the validity of these observations and embarked on taking things in a new direction (the value of having a smart group of folks whom you trust).  Come back tomorrow to see where I took it from there.

How to Run a Writing Group: Dealing with Feedback

The assorted authors on this blog belong to a writing group in Phoenix, Arizona, and we thought we would share some of our ideas and experience. This is one in a series of posts we’ve put together on The Care and Feeding of a Writing Group.

Dealing with that other F-Word: Feedback

The stocks

The stocks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know the social contract that stipulates that you don’t tell someone their baby is ugly? Well, as a member of a writing group, you will break that contract. The baby, in this case, is someone’s novel, screenplay, blog, or poem.

Let’s face it, the tendency is for most people to fall into one of three categories when it comes to commenting on someone’s writing: The “Hack and Slash” types, the “Lukewarm” types and the “Shiny Happy” types. Hack and Slash seems to take great pleasure in totally decimating everyone else’s work. There is not one positive nugget they can find in anyone’s writing, save their own. Lukewarm will often take the middle road on everything. The feedback they provide is wishy-washy and they will not give you direct feedback on anything. Shiny Happy, on the other hand, treats everyone’s ego as a fragile Tiffany egg and, while pointing out all things positive about a piece of writing, often fails to give the writer notes they can use to better their work. All of these types tend to be non-productive, especially in the group setting.

Believe it or not there is a tactful way to go about letting someone know that their writing needs work. We know it as constructive criticism. The key word here is “constructive.” Feedback given by members of a writer’s group must be the type that propels a person’s writing forward. Feedback such as “I really like your work. I found it interesting,” while positive, doesn’t really tell the writer anything specific that he or she can use.

Having been in the same writers group for the past eight years and having offered feedback on student papers as a teacher, I have found the following model to be helpful:

a. Point out one or two things you really liked about the piece and why. Give specific details so that the person receiving the feedback can tell you read his or her work closely. What specifically did you like about the writer’s work? What exactly made it interesting? Compared to what? Try to point out specific sentences or paragraphs that work well.

b. Point out one or two areas for improvement. Don’t just mention the problems you saw, offer potential solutions and “What ifs”. For those sentences and paragraphs that don’t work well, explain ways the writer might adjust the ideas or content presented so that they add rather than detract from the overall piece.

c. Ask clarifying questions of the writer. This often helps generate new ideas and helps sort out problem areas in a piece of writing. For example, “Where do you see this character going in the story?” or “What if you took the dialogue from Chapter 2 and incorporated it into Chapter 1 instead?”

Sticking with the ugly baby metaphor, I have always viewed writing as a little like giving birth. Heck, writing gives birth to ideas, right? In that sense, when one of our “children” happens to be the focus of constructive criticism, it is important that all members of the writing group understand how to accept such critique of their work gracefully. When members of a group are familiar to one another, they are often aware of how they need to approach critiquing a fellow member’s writing. But when the members of a writers group are an unknown quantity, so to speak, it often becomes a little nerve-wracking for both the constructive criticizer and the constructively criticized. It might be helpful to put the following protocol in place, especially if members of the writing group don’t yet know one another:

  • When receiving constructive criticism, instead of speaking, take notes and write down questions you have for those offering their feedback.
  • Allow each member of the group to offer feedback and then address each member’s comments and questions.
  • Always keep in mind that the goal is to help you develop your writing.
  • If something someone says strikes you the wrong way, be sure to ask questions to help clarify their comments. Chances are, they did not mean the comment to be taken in a negative manner.

The fact is that most everyone is nervous about giving and receiving constructive criticism. As long as clear expectations are conveyed to the entire group, there should be very few problems with the process. Not everyone is going to agree and sometimes you might be providing feedback on a piece written in your least favorite genre, but try to put personal feelings aside and look at the writing itself. Ask yourself how you can help the writer make the piece better. And always remember that each person in the group has a common goal: to improve their writing. Listen to one another. Work together. Read thoroughly and provide meaningful feedback. Those are the keys to using constructive criticism in a writer’s group.

Our thoughts (and yours!) on the first Cakepan Manuscript

Prepared pans

Image by Bill HR via Flickr

Most of the writers on this blog belong to a writing group that meets twice a month in the Phoenix area. Several weeks ago we decided to try a little project and each write a chapter of a new story as a collaboration. We thought it would be an education for us, and interesting for people reading the blog. We really had no idea how it would go, but there was one way to find out.

Everyone in the group has wildly different styles and backgrounds, and we all work on different types of writing. Some work on screenplays, others on poetry. We have both a pulp fiction western and a female centered romance novel currently underway. Trying to work together on a single project would be like making a salad from every item in your refrigerator: a little scary.

This is our thoughts on how it went. If you haven’t read it yet, go to the first chapter and catch up. Here is our thoughts, in the order we wrote.

We would love your input on what you liked and where we could improve next time around.

What Worked

Jeff Moriarty (Chapter One)
I loved the different styles and what they brought.
I liked that I had no idea where the story was going, even though I helped start it off.
Our different views added ideas I never would have come up with on my own.

Barbara McAllister (Chapter Two)
I enjoyed building on the ideas of others while at the same time having the freedom to take the story in any direction of choice
I loved reading the different styles. Knowing the group for an extended period of time, it was natural to guess where each of us would take the story.

Rose (Chapter Three)
Taking on a different POV which allowed me to show the presumed protagonist in an entirely new light.
Seeing how the plot was developed after doing your part was interesting, because the subsequent writers can take a very minor point and move the story in a whole different direction that never would have occurred to me.

Scott Shields (Chapter Four)
I knew going into the project that all of the members of our writing group had distinct writing styles, but to see them side by side made me appreciate each writer’s unique voice that much more.
I also thought it was fun to see how the story evolved from chapter to chapter.

Tim Giron (Chapter Five)
The different styles made it interesting to read, both before and after my contribution.
The discussions around the process during the writing meetings.
Everyone stayed committed to the deadline.

M. Jaynes (Chapter Six)
I too liked the blend of different styles. Each chapter brought a new, fresh perspective.
I also liked that many used the last line of the chapter before to begin the next chapter.
I like that we didn’t lose the blind date storyline completely.

Eric Bahle (Chapter Seven)
Firstly it was just fun to try something new and it’s always interesting to see how different writers come at the same project.  It’s an interesting storytelling concept and I enjoyed wondering where this one would go.  Knowing you would contribute made reading the other chapters weirdly visceral.  Like different people taking turns driving without bothering to stop the car.

What Could Improve

Jeff Moriarty
It was so free-form that it lacked some cohesion and was tough to read all the way through.
Some items changed from person to person (wine store to grocery store to bodega) which was confusing.
Huge range in the size of chapters, from very small to pretty big.

Barbara McAllister
Establish a word count goal for consistency
Agree on just 2 or 3 things that must stay with the story

The change from 3rd person point of view to 1st person point of view was jarring for the readers.

Scott Shields
The chapter lengths could be more consistent.  Likewise, the POV should be either first or third person, but not both.

Tim Giron
A few more rules so that the expectation for each writer is better defined.

M. Jaynes
I think establishing some ground rules such as word count (ironic coming from me since I wrote the shortest chapter) and using the chapter’s last line as the first line in the next post will help with consistency. Maintaining a consistent voice was a struggle.

Eric Bahle
It seems obvious now but we needed way more rules.  The rapid POV changes, tone changes, and length differences made for some jarring chapter transitions.

What Surprised You

Jeff Moriarty
Where some of the characters went, and how others interpreted them from what I wrote.
The blend of all this being one story, but still having each chapter be incredibly different.

Barbara McAllister
Bringing in of new characters. For some reason, I thought we’d stick with just the few we started with.
The excitement around not knowing what would be next. Very engaging.

How much fun it was!
It was another example of how much a reader brings to a story.

Scott Shields
I was surprised to see what happened with the characters.  When Rose added the gangster element in Chapter 3, I envisioned the story progressing from a simple armed robbery to a “Gangs of New York” type finale.  And I certainly loved Eric’s twist ending.

Tim Giron
How much fun it was anticipating where things were going before I took my turn at the helm.
The twists, turns and jolts that each chapter added to the overall story.
That we immediately wanted to do another one!

M. Jaynes
What surprised me was how much fun it was! There was a sense of anticipation as each person posted their chapter. Each chapter was a bit of a jolt since the story often did not go where I expected it to, but I think that may have been a good thing. I am looking forward to doing it again to see what I learn about myself as a writer. It is a great creative exercise!

Eric Bahle
Every damn chapter including my own.  Actually I was surprised that depite the chapters being so different it ended up hanging together as a story.  I definitely think it’s worth a second attempt.

What’s Next…

We’re going to try it again. We have a few new rules to help us stay more consistent, like a word count, keeping the same perspective, and a few other things.

We hope you’ll keep reading!