The 10 Commandments of Critique Groups—A Lesson in Survival!

So you’ve been furiously typing away on a novel for several years, have developed your characters down to the last detail, have spent hundreds of dollars in research materials, have sliced the fat from your prose, and, after turning off the printer for the last time, you finally have in your hands what one part of you truly believes could be the biggest blockbuster since the invention of the pen!

But then the other part of you takes over—that insufferable nagging voice that continually questions all of your hard work—and you wonder, “Am I kidding myself?”

No, you think defiantly, my spouse, my friends, even “Crazy” Aunt Shirley praised the chapters I gave to them, calling the novel “a masterpiece.” And then that nagging voice comes alive once more, telling you that your spouse and friends were perhaps just “being nice,” and also reminding you just how “Crazy” Aunt Shirley earned her nickname.

Any author who claims that he or she has never experienced the above (except, perhaps, the part about the lunatic aunt) is nothing but a bold-faced liar. It’s human nature to question your work, for glory’s sake, so let no one fool you into thinking you are the only one who has been in this situation.

But now what do you do? Get another opinion, obviously. But from whom? Oh no, you think, not a crit…a crit…a critique group?

Heavens, just the name can turn an otherwise intelligent, outspoken, talented individual into a quivering pile of mush, or have the power to send them into a tizzy that even a healthy dose of Aunt Shirley’s narcotics couldn’t still. Yes, authors new to the art of writing may be fearful of these dreaded groups—they might even picture themselves as Buffy with a single stake facing a gaggle of bloodthirsty vampires. But would they be correct in their assessment?

Good question. All I know is that, like or lump critique groups, you certainly can’t kill them—and believe me, there have been many times when I’ve tried. Like Buffy’s vampires, many simply refuse to die! But I’m not, however, convinced they deserve extinction. I’ve learned to face the truth—in the business of writing fiction, critique groups go with the territory. A required evil, if you will. There certainly is no experience in the world like presenting your work for review amongst peers, especially for the first time, except, perhaps, being stripped naked in front of a crowd at the Rose Bowl.

So why put yourself through the turmoil, you might ask? Easy answer—so you will improve your craft. By no means am I suggesting that you rely on a critique group for the rest of your life, nor that it is the right thing to do for every individual, but from personal experience I must tell you that finding a solid group of writers who are not only willing to read your work, but who give encouragement and much-needed advice—correction: honest and trustworthy and unbiased advice—can make all the difference between a lifetime of rejections and that seemingly unobtainable sale.

Now, finding this group is not an easy task. How well I know. It took me years, literally, to gather around me people who have aided more than hindered me. Granted, there will be bad days, when your chosen audience seems to have nothing good to say about your work. But then there are the good days, days when you leave your group with the plaudits ringing in your ears and that euphoric, almost orgasmic feeling of accomplishment filling your soul.

As the former moderator or co-moderator of a few such “beasts,” and as a past participant in several others, I have taken it upon myself to put forth for you the golden rules—the 10 Commandments—regarding attending a critique group. I guarantee, adhering to them will not only make your time spent with a group worthwhile, but also steer you on the path to finding those unique individuals who can help you in honing your skills.

1. Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of The Moderator In Vain.

Every good critique group has a moderator, whether specifically designated or not, who leads the conversation toward productive criticism, who salves ruffled feathers, who cuts off the windbags when oxygen levels in the room drop to dangerously low levels. If the moderator says it’s time to move along to the next topic, by all means, bow to their will without question.

2. Thou Shalt Listen Carefully When Others Speak.

A successful critique-group member will learn much of their craft in this manner. We learn what and what not to do by listening to brilliant and not-so-brilliant prose, and by hearing suggestions proffered from the authors who have tackled similar problems and mastered them.

3. Thou Shalt Be Willing To Offer Opinions.

A vital key to a successful critique group are members who are actually willing to participate. All members. What a concept! Perhaps the commandment should be renamed “Thou Must Be Willing To Give And Not Just Receive.” If this commandment is not heeded, you will quickly find yourself alone, and will, in all likelihood, not be invited to return. It stands to reason—why should others listen to your work and offer their learned advice if you are unwilling to return the favor?

4. Thou Shalt Be Tactful.

A commandment that should, in a perfect world, be common sense, but alas, ’tis not. People are different—some have grating personalities while others are lamb-meek. Believe me, a surefire method of losing respect within the group and forfeiting your welcome to return is to accuse another member of stupidity. You must remember, not all members of the same group will have equal skills. Some authors excel at dialogue, some at description, some at plotting…simply because one has exceptional talent in a certain area of writing does not give one license to belittle others. Use your head, think before you laugh at someone’s clumsy prose, and by all means, talk to them as you expect others to talk to you.

5. Thou Shalt Not Participate With A Closed Mind.

There is nothing more infuriating than an author supposedly seeking advice who is not willing to take any. If you are enamored with your prose, have chiseled your words in stone, and you feel that other authors cannot aid you, then stay home and make passionate love to your manuscript!

6. Thou Shalt Not Argue Nor Justify, But Be Thankful.

This goes hand-in-hand with the above commandment. The authors in the group are volunteering their time to help you develop your craft. True, it is a natural instinct to defend your work. If there is a reason behind why “such-and-such” happened in your story, it is perfectly acceptable to voice your original intention, thus providing insight to those in the group who might be unaware. But, if you are defending your switch in Point Of View halfway through a sentence, or spitefully digging in your heels regarding broken rules of grammar, you will find few allies. Believe me, a smile of gratitude goes a long way.

7. Thou Shalt Beware Of Those Who Offer Advice Yet Cannot Construct A Decent Sentence Without The Aid Of A Hammer And A Thirty-Man Workforce.

A tough commandment to follow, but one of the most vital to your mental health. Yes, the opinions of people matter, and have the power to destroy, should the ego be delicate. But you must hear the work of others in order to access whether their opinion is a credible one. If someone is offering an opinion that you know in your heart goes against all logic, before taking their advice and altering your story, ask yourself several questions…

In which genre does this person write? In other words, are they standing in similar shoes or are they unfamiliar with your particular genre? Second, is there any logical truth when they say, for instance, that your clump of historical research in the middle of an otherwise spellbinding scene is boring, or that your dialogue is stilted? Third, does this person’s own work warrant their criticism? In other words, do they have a similar style of writing, or are they asking you to alter your style to fit their own taste? Tricky, to say the least.

But there are some things you can do. When confronted by an opposite opinion, first ask  yourself—does this author write in the same genre or have a comparable writing style? After all, it may not be wise for a Horror author (as an example) to happily take advice from the author of fluffy Romantic Comedies who suggests “brightening things up” in a story. Or it’s perhaps not the wisest choice for an author writing Historical Romance novels set during the 17th Century to immediately follow the suggestion of the hardcore Science Fiction author who thinks it’s better to “remove all those silly and unnecessary historical details from your book along with all that romantic junk no one cares about.” Get what I mean?  Know Your Audience—or rather, know the individual members of your critique group who give suggestions. Before shredding your prose or frantically rewriting entire chapters based on one person’s opinion (no matter how learned they sound, or how many times they’ve been published, or how many admirers they have within the group), identify the author who gave the advice and weigh their opinions based on their preferences and knowledge of your particular market.

Once you identify a like-minded author, however, then listen carefully to what they have to say. They, after all, may have faced similar dilemmas when it came to plotting novels in your genre, may know something about the ever-changing market that you do not, may have an actual point regarding problems in your research, etc., so take notes on what they say. Additionally, if this author is consistent in his/her own work, then do not even think to discard their opinions, especially if they create, say, stunning dialogue or breathtaking descriptions, and suggest ways to improve yours. By all means, take what they say to heart and reexamine your work.

Which leads me to the following commandment…

8. Thou Shalt Use One’s Intelligence.

Again, before you run home and make changes to your work based on all the suggestions you receive, use your head. First (in your mind, at least) weed out comments from the “bad apples”—you know the type, the participants who are there only to find a mate (who could care less about the quality of their own prose), who are simply there to stroke their egos (appalling, right?—who would have thought?), or the ones who like bragging that they are “authors” simply to impress those whom they believe are less intelligent. Yes, you will run into these irritating monsters from time to time, but fear not. Follow your instincts regarding the participants…I always found several authors to whom I was naturally drawn. You can usually tell within a few minutes of listening to their comments whether they are knowledgeable or motivated by hidden agendas. The bottom line with this commandment is to learn which members of critique groups are credible—and avoid, at all costs, those that are not.

9. Thou Shalt Ask Specific Questions.

Arrive prepared with a list of what you are seeking to accomplish in the work you have elected to share. Trust me, if after finishing your reading, you look around at the faces and ask, “What do you think?,” you are going to receive a plethora of responses, ones that will always make you wish you had not gotten out of bed that morning. If you know your passage has a dialogue problem, ask how to improve it. If you know your descriptions or metaphors are shaky, seek advice. But never, NEVER, ask for generalizations, because in a group of 10 people you will receive 10 varying and opposite responses—you will end up rewriting your story for the umpteenth time, and more than likely, destroy any semblance of brilliance that might have been there in the first place.

10. Thou Shalt Bring The Moderator An Expensive Gift.

Just kidding. Hey, you gotta give this boy credit for trying, right? 🙂

Anyway, the bottom line is this…

No, it’s not an easy chore to swallow your pride and face a group of virtual strangers with verbal claws, sharpened and gleaming, who are likely to rip your hard work to shreds.

But is it worth the effort?

Yes! If you are a beginning writer, or one who has remained “in the closet” without presenting your work to the unbiased eye, then I wholeheartedly believe it behooves you to find a group—if you have the mettle, that is. Frankly, if you can’t confront criticism from a peer, who does not have the power to break your career, yet who is a person facing similar obstacles, how will you confront your first rejection letter from the “High-And-Mighty” agents/publishers?

Another good question, huh? Enough to make you think, I hope.

So please, do yourself a favor and join or form a critique group—after all, how far would you get relying on the all-knowing wisdom of “Crazy” Aunt Shirley?

—Trace Edward Zaber, owner of ByThunder LLC

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Is An Editor Truly Necessary?

To anyone in the publishing world—and I mean the professionally run publishing world, be it an author who is dedicated to self-publishing top-quality books and building an avid fan base, or an author who hopes to write for a publishing house and has dreams of selling books for years to come—the answer to that simple opening question is “Absolutely.”

“But why?” some new authors might ask. “Readers will likely buy anything, if it’s cheap enough, right? Publishing houses won’t care too much about the quality of my new manuscript, will they?”

Did you know that most reputable agents or publishers—both print and electronic publishers—read no more than a few pages of a submission before deciding whether the work has merit? Did you also know that, in many cases, if a new submission contains a single spelling or punctuation error within these few pages, not to mention sloppy sentence structure, a reliance on adverbs and adjectives, etc., that the entire manuscript will immediately hit the rejection pile? (And if any publisher does allow horribly written manuscripts to get through the main gate and into the actual “contract” pile, then frankly, they are not a publisher you should want to have publishing your “baby.” Slipshod is as slipshod does.) Although many readers are sometimes less finicky, self-published authors will also face difficulties gaining that loyal fan base if their work is consistently riddled with errors.

Although this sounds like a harsh reality, publishing is a brutal business. Yet, if you seriously ponder this reality, it is quite understandable. With dozens of submissions from “hopeful” authors pouring into each mailbox every week, and with only a handful of actual publishing “slots” available each year in any professional company’s release schedule, it’s the only way agents and publishers can discover the “best of the best.” Gone are the days when untested authors might be given a “shot” at a large publishing house, despite problems in the manuscript’s prose or plotline. No longer will a busy publishing house (large or small) assign an equally busy editor to perfect a manuscript for release if the chore appears overwhelming. These days, a manuscript must be next to perfect before even making it past the proverbial publishing house gatekeepers (the nitpicky readers) and, only then, will the manuscript appear on the desk of a “higher-up,” who is equally as nitpicky. Additionally, with so many self-published books being released every single week, readers have an endless stream of new stories at their disposal, so many won’t waste time on an author who has a bad track record when it comes to the quality of their books.

But how does one beat the odds, make it past the gatekeepers who search for any reason to toss a manuscript into the rejection heap? Or for self-published authors, how does one lessen the chances of readers closing the book file after perusing only a few chapters before getting disgusted, giving up, and returning the book to Amazon for a refund?

The answer, obviously, is edit. One phrase that consistently appears in creative writing courses and “how-to-write-fiction” manuals is this: The best books are not written, they are rewritten! Truer words were never spoken.

Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible for any author to thoroughly edit or objectively evaluate their own writing. Mistakes in grammar, syntax, tense, or punctuation always creep into an author’s work, whether they realize it or not. Their eyes have a tendency to skip over these “relatively minor” errors, simply since the writer knows what should appear on the page, knows what they meant to type. And what about “major” errors? The same answer. Authors may occasionally ignore nagging plotting problems, dismiss poor character development, disregard the lack of tension in non-dramatic opening scenes, etc., since many writers, at one time or another, become enamored with their own prose. It’s human nature, after all—one has a final manuscript before them (a spectacular achievement in its own right) and it can often become impossible not to fall in love with every single word on those pages, even if those words are wrong or misspelled or nonsensical.

ThunderProse, therefore, can become your objective eye, that eagle eye to help you perfect your writing. Better still, my prices (see the ThunderPrices page) are more affordable than many professional editing/evaluation services or “Book Doctors.” See the ThunderBio page for my qualifications.

So why waste money on postage to a publishing company, only to face rejection when the gatekeeper discovers all those misplaced commas or misspellings? Why upload your self-published manuscript to a site such as Amazon if the readers complain about the awkward sentence structure or poor dialogue and demand a refund? Why not improve your chances of staying out of the constantly growing slush pile, or a reader’s “avoid this author at all costs” list? Why not receive a better grade in your creative writing course? Although I obviously cannot guarantee agent representation or a publishing contract to my clients, I can certainly guarantee those nitpicky gatekeepers and finicky readers will have a much more difficult time discarding your manuscript!

For detailed information on what editing services I offer, please visit the ThunderProse page on this website. And if you feel any of my various editing services are right for you, please visit my ThunderPrices page for basic cost information, then email me with details regarding the type of “product” you require, and I will provide price quotes and we can work out a deadline.

Happy writing!

—Trace Edward Zaber, owner of ByThunder LLC

ThunderBlog

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this blog post (and visiting this website at all) it’s likely because you’re an author who may need some of the services I offer. Therefore, since this is the first post on my new website, I decided to introduce the company and myself, giving you an overview of what ByThunder LLC can do for you, as well as providing my qualifications…

Welcome to ByThunder LLC, a one-stop resource for self-published authors or publishing houses seeking cover art and/or editing services for manuscripts, as well as promotional graphics for websites or book advertising campaigns.

Why did I begin this new website?

Actually, this is a revamped version of a site (same company name) I owned several years ago that was ruthlessly hacked by some Japanese porn merchants, believe it or not. Anyway, now that I’ve fully recovered emotionally from that loss and have thoroughly re-energized myself to start afresh, I decided to tackle the project of resurrecting ByThunder, upgrading it into an LLC, especially now with self-publishing becoming more and more “the norm” and the need for cover artists and editors becoming more and more in demand.

But what experience do I bring to the table when it comes to the services I offer?

A brief history of my years in the publishing industry, which I pray will illustrate my qualifications…

Back in the late 1990s, as I was putting the finishing touches on Sins of the Father, my very first novel, I started shopping for a publisher and an agent. During those days, I first attempted entering the traditional New York publishing industry and, alas, met with little success in securing that all-important agent to represent me. “Absolutely no reader,” I was briskly told by countless agents, “could care less about a Civil War novel, let alone any novel of Historical fiction. Go away and write something that sells.” This might have made sense to me had the book Cold Mountain not been at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List during these months of searching for an agent. Well, after receiving nearly a dozen similar responses, I came to the conclusion that all of those “professional” NY agents truly had no bloody clue what they were talking about.

It was then I decided to try my luck in the scary yet exciting world of e-book publishing, still in its infancy. I investigated the few companies in existence back then, and after meeting several authors online who lent much advice, I made contact with the company RFI West. Not only did the publisher offer me a contract for Sins of the Father, but they actually created an entirely new imprint named Pulsar Books around it. Finally, some initial success.

Then came the nerve-wracking moment of publication, all the while fearing that no reader would care, just as the NY agents had predicted. Thankfully, the book actually sold—granted, certainly not as many units as Cold Mountain, but enough to confirm that all those NY agents weren’t exactly the sharpest pencils in the box. Historical fiction, Civil War fiction, did have some fans after all. But even better still, my novel started winning awards and garnering positive reviews, and I received a glimpse of what the still-fledgling e-book industry might be able to achieve. I became fascinated with the new medium, and eventually wondered what I might do to help the many talented authors I had met through those early years, the ones also struggling with New York “professionals.”

I quickly secured a job at my publisher’s company, becoming an editor, then a cover artist, and learned how the entire industry worked, from acquisitions to contracts, from editing and copy-editing to book cover creation and e-book formatting, then finally to the entire sales process. Overall, an invaluable learning experience. For reasons I refuse to detail here—let’s just say that I, along with several colleagues at the same company, also learned what “NOT to do” when running a company, thanks to the teachings of the owner—I and my disaffected colleagues formed another company, which we christened Amber Quill Press, LLC.

That was way back in 2002, and here I am now in 2016, after thirteen years of simultaneously working as an Acquisitions Manager, Editorial Director, and Creative Director for Amber Quill Press. As the company’s sole cover artist, I’ve designed more than 3000 book covers for both e-books and paperback, edited hundreds of manuscripts, while also freelancing in both duties for a variety of other e-book publishers as well as self-published authors.

The bottom line? I understand the industry from top to bottom, knowing the detailed steps needed before a book successfully goes into publication. And as an author myself, I’ve undoubtedly stepped into your shoes on occasion as well, therefore I comprehend your anxiety and your determination to get everything just right. I have seen the numerous trends in genres come and go, and I have a thorough understanding as to what works and what doesn’t when it comes to cover art design, winning numerous awards for my work (see my ThunderBio page for more information). I also know how to polish a manuscript to look as professional as possible, both in content and visual appeal, thus giving publishing houses less reason to reject your book, readers less chance to stop reading halfway into the story’s opening chapter, and a self-publishing vendor less likely to reject your final cover art flats or book files due to spec problems.

So whether you’re an author taking the self-publishing route in this ever-changing industry or an author seeking aid when it comes to perfecting your words before submitting them to a publishing house, perhaps I have a service that could make your own publishing journey less vexing. My prices are reasonable, and I work well under tight deadlines. I also hope the examples of my past work and details of my services that I’ve included on these pages will also persuade you in hiring me for your next project.

Should you have any questions about what I can do to polish your manuscript or “package” it as professionally as possible, even provide promotional graphics or format your manuscript before you self-publish it, I’ll be more than happy to answer them. Simply send me an email.

Meanwhile, happy writing and promoting to all. And thanks for visiting!

—Trace Edward Zaber, owner of ByThunder LLC