Why you need a Critique Group

May 22, 2012

If you’re anything of a serious writer you’ve been at your craft the moment your fingers wrapped themselves around a crayon. You’ve probably gotten really used to getting an A+ on your writing assignments at school—been known as ‘the writer’ by your classmates—and spent beautiful summer days in your basement, hammering away at your typewriter or computer while your friends and family ventured into the sun.

After some wonderful feedback from your friends, your spouse, or even your kids, you build up the courage to send forth your creation.

Except it gets rejected. Then it gets rejected again. And again. How can this be? You ask, Everyone said it was wonderful!

You probably aren’t wrong. It probably is a wonderful story—and your writing is most likely good (you have taken some creative writing courses, right? Of course you have!) But there may be a flaw in the plot, in the characters or even the style which you may have not noticed. Your family and friends may not have noticed it either; and if they did, they may not have wanted to hurt your feelings.

This is where every writer—regardless of their idea of success—can benefit from a critique group (or a writer’s group, depending on what circle you belong to) and I will tell you why:


A critique group is made up of other writers.

No matter how helpful or constructive your friends and family would like to be, they may not be able to point out some key issues that other writers will be able to pick up on. Things like structure, voice, style, and tone may be lost on those who aren’t familiar with the mechanics of writing.


At the end of the day, all members of the group are striving for the same thing.

It doesn’t matter if your prerogative is bragging rights or a hefty pay cheque, getting published is one of the key reasons groups are created. The publishing industry is as deep and fickle as the ocean, and it may be difficult to plunder its depths alone. The benefit of a group is that you are not alone. While you may come across an anthology for a specific theme, someone else may have information on an upcoming contest you’ve overlooked. In the end, banding together will mean better chances of a sale.


Critique groups are just that: for critique

Keep in mind that a critique group is not about bashing each other down, but helping each other become better writers. The people in your group will tell you what didn’t work, they will point out areas you may need to improve and why certain things weren’t as clear as they could be. But they will also tell you what they liked, what was golden, and what held their interest. Every writer has strengths, and when you combine these talents what you end up with is a very objective assessment of a piece of writing, and a greater chance of publication.


Writers get other writers.

Your spouse may not understand why you’re furiously scribbling on a piece of paper while you drip on the carpet and there is still shampoo in your hair. Other writers recognize these sparks of genius (and probably have a similar story…) They don’t mind talking about writing, getting together to write, and offering suggestions when you are stuck. They are a second family, a safe haven where encouragement and inspiration are in abundance. These will be the people who will see your writing at its worst and still like you, get you back into your groove when rejection woes rob you of your motivation, and will be there to high-five you when you achieve your goals.   

Anthology Editing for Fun and (hopefully) Profit

May 19, 2012

Last fall, I proposed an idea for anthology of short stories to my publisher, Virginia O’Dine, at Bundoran Press.  After some discussion she agreed to take on the project and I’m happy to say that Blood and Water will be published in August 2012.

This is my first anthology, though not my first experience with the editorial process.  I’ve sat on juries for contests, including the Alberta Book Awards and edited several newsletters with multiple contributors.  Those experiences are similar but in the end not truly comparable.  Imprinting your own ideas of what makes a good story – and sometimes helping writers make their stories better – is a whole different thing.  It is not even like critiquing someone’s work.  An editor has the power to buy your work – as such writers tend to do much of what the editor asks. 

The first step in creating an anthology is writing the guidelines.  Virginia contributed the “publisher” material – pay rates, rights, who could submit, etc. – while I developed the subject description of the stories we were looking for.  We collaborated on things like story length, original/reprint ratios and deadlines.  In describing the stories we were looking at I wanted to make sure that the guidelines were specific enough to give a focus to the anthology, while not being so narrow as to exclude otherwise excellent work.

Still, we tried to make it clear we were mostly interested in near-future science fiction that address the impact of resource conflicts from a Canadian perspective – though we would accept urban fantasy or other close genres if they met the general theme.  Most – though not all – submitters more or less followed the stated guidelines.  We would consider reprints, though mostly on an invitational basis.  We also decided only to accept e-mail submissions.

Once we had announced the guidelines in December, I began to promote them through Facebook and Twitter and Virginia placed notices in several of the more prominent market sites, such as SF Canada and Ralan’s.  A few stories began to trickle in – mostly reprints or stories that people happen to have written that fit the guidelines.  However, the vast majority of the submissions arrived in the ten days prior to the deadline in early March.  Nearly one-third arrived on the final day.

I read stories as they came in and did my initial ranking based on what I hoped were consistent criteria.  A few stories I knew I would reject right away; a few others were almost certain buys.  However, I had committed to myself to read every story at least twice before making final decisions.  As I said, most people adhered to the guidelines.  A few seemed to feel their work was so brilliant that I would accept it even though it was completely off-topic.  Those were the only stories that didn’t get read a second time.  One was so far off-topic, I didn’t read it all the way to the end.  Note to writers: READ THE GUIDELINES.  SUBMIT ACCORDINGLY.

After the second read-through, I was able to reject about half the stories.  I’d like to tell you that every story was brilliant and it was hard to reject any of them – but that would be lying.  A few were so bad that it was frankly painful to read them once, let alone a second time.  You might ask why I would bother.  I’m sure some editors wouldn’t.  But this was my first anthology and I wanted to make sure I had the best stories possible.  It was possible that hidden beneath the surface of bad writing there was the germ of a great story, that, as an editor, I might draw out.  As I said, I had the power to accept or reject – to buy – stories.  With great power, etc., etc.

In the end, I short listed thirty stories, knowing that I would be able to buy between 18 and 22.  Only about a quarter of them were in my definite-buy category.  At that point, I sent them off to Virginia for her views.  As publisher, she had to be comfortable with the selection.  After all it was her company’s name that was on the cover and it was her money that would bring it to market.

Generally, we were in agreement on the relative ranking of stories, on those we would buy, those that we would likely buy with some changes and those we might buy with significant rewrites.  We also at this point agreed on the optimal length of the anthology – which also affected the final decision.  At 90K words, twenty stories was probably the limit. We did have some disagreements and, while our debate was heated it was also productive and, in the end, we were both satisfied we had crafted the best possible anthology.

Eight more writers were sent their rejection notices, reducing the final list to twenty two.  Now came the fun part.  A few stories were bought outright, with only minor requests for changes – spelling, typos, a few suggested re-writes.  Most of the rest were asked for substantive rewrites.  In doing so, I tried to identify aspects of the story that were strong (more of that please) while giving specific instructions as to what needed fixing.  I tried to avoid being prescriptive by focusing on the problem and not the solution, though I did occasionally tell people to cut unneeded scenes or to make very specific changes. 

It was a great strategy.  Not only did the writers respond in a positive manner to my suggestions, they did so in surprising ways, always giving me at least what I wanted and often providing so much more.  Every rewrite was a substantial improvement on the original.  It was difficult to send those last two rejections but the happiness of the writers I accepted (three of whom were making their first sale) more than made up for it.

But the work was far from done.  I now had to do a final copy-edit on the stories, making sure spelling (Canadian English) and style were consistent and catching those pesky typos.  The writers picked up some I missed but I’m sure Virginia found a few more as she did the lay-out.  Copy-editing takes several sets of eyes and an attention to detail that is sometimes difficult to maintain.  It may not be my greatest strength as an editor.  I also had to prepare a page of biographies and another of copyright acknowledgements.

Next, I had to decide on the order of the stories which may be the most creative aspect of an editor’s function.  There is a flow in reading collections of short stories that is very different from that of a novel.  Some stories are ideal to bring the reader into the collection and to set the tone and feel of the experience.  Others sustain interest through the book.  Variation in length, style and substance are important.  With a collection like Blood and Water where a lot of the stories are dystopian, you need to place the optimistic stories at strategic points.  Lightness has to follow dark; contemplative stories need to be separated by more action-oriented tales.  And finally, you need to pick the last few stories to take the reader out of the collection, thinking and feeling a certain way.  Time will tell if I made the right choices.

Finally, I had to decide what type of editorial material to provide.  In the end, I decided against trying to comment on each story – let them speak for themselves.  Instead I wrote a thousand-word introduction to the theme and even made a few suggestions for further (non-fiction) reading.  Then it was off to Virginia for layout and book design, including a very impressive cover.

The final thing I have to say is about objectivity.  I’ve been kicking around Canadian science fiction for twenty years.  I don’t know everyone in the field but I know a lot.  Inevitably, many of the stories came from people who were friends and colleagues – though nearly half were from people I had never met.  I solved one conflict right away – I asked my wife, Elizabeth Westbrook-Trenholm, not to submit a story.  If I had bought it, everyone would have yelled: Fix! And, if I hadn’t, well, you can imagine.

However, four members of my current writing group did submit.  I bought two and rejected two others.  It was not easy.  But in the end, I had a responsibility to make the best anthology I possibly could.  That meant I had to focus on the stories, not the writers.  So, to my many friends whom I rejected, I apologize and to all those I accepted, it was your story that I was judging, and nothing more.  And even then – it was only my opinion.

And that, I think, is what I liked most about the process.  I’ve often read stories published in big-league magazines which, frankly, ‘didn’t grab me.’ {to borrow the most popular catch-all rejection of a certain well-known editor}.  I now realize just how personal the editing process is.  Anthologies and magazines inevitably have to reflect, not merely the tastes of the editor, but also their theories of story.  That’s what the editor brings to the table – not simply selecting the ‘best’ stories (as if, once competence is achieved, there were some objective measure) but to select the stories that go together best.  I’m satisfied with the results – I hope my readers will be, too.

May 17, 2012

This is fabulous advice on the famous “elevator pitch” for your novel from Helen and Laura Marshall. If you don’t know the names, Helen is the Managing Editor of ChiZine Publications while Laura is ChiZine Publications’ Marketing Director. What this means is this blog post, and their blog Movable Type, gives writers the point of view of both the Editor who will be acquiring your manuscript as well as the Marketer who will be trying to sell it.

Writing Advice: Don’t Send Out that Rejected Story from a Themed Anthology

May 12, 2012

It’s happened to all of us. You hear about an anthology with a cool theme. You brainstorm story ideas, settle on one and spend the next few weeks writing, revising and work shopping the story. With high hopes, you submit it.

Then the rejection notice arrives. A bit disappointed, you think “That’s OK, it’s a great story. I’ll submit it to magazines interested in the same genre.”

This is a mistake. Don’t submit the rejected story to other markets for at least a year. Why? Because that’s what everyone else is doing and editors will be flooded with those stories.

Do you want your story lost in that mix?

How Publishers & Editors React to the Deluge of Rejected Anthology Submissions

I’m fortunate to have met and befriended some editors and publishers. From them, I learned the other side of the publishing world. One thing I’ve learned is the post-anthology deluge drives editors mad.

A few weeks ago at Ad Astra, a Toronto science fiction convention, I listened to my magazine editor friends chide anthology editor friends that the rejected stories from the anthologies were flooding in to the magazines. A lot of steam was blown off and plenty of friendly ribbing, but it made me appreciate their side of the business.

Editors have a stack of manuscripts to read at any given time. It can be a draining, mindless job. So, editors are looking for something that jumps out at them—well-written, entertaining and original.

The Two Results of the Post-Anthology Hang-Over

Your story may be well-written and entertaining, but if all the rejected anthology stories start rolling in at the same time, you lose your originality. The editor might only give these stories—including yours—a quick glance, mentally lumping them all together. Now, as an author I feel your pain in saying “That’s not fair!” And it’s not. But it’s human nature.

A second strike against your story is the editor will know these are rejected stories, so it’s simple to assume they are second-best. True, your story may have been rejected for reasons other than quality, but again it’s human nature and how an editor can get through the mountain of stories that much easier.

Set the Story Aside for a Year

So what do you do with that story? Set is aside for a year. That’s right—one whole year. There are two reasons for this.

First, let the wave of stories flooding the inboxes of magazines pass. After a year, your tale of the unicorn-powered zeppelin will regain its sheen of originality and stand on its own merits.

Second, before you submit the story, review it. You will have grown and improved as a writer over that year, so there may be some improvements you can make to the story to further increase its chances of being purchased.

And Read that Anthology

Lastly, read that anthology when it comes out. Take a look at what got accepted and why. You might find your writing was not up to snuff or thematically the story didn’t work with the others. Take a good, hard, critical look at the anthology because—most likely—the editor will do another anthology… maybe a “Volume 2”. Understanding the editor’s tastes will greatly improve your chances of selling him or her another story.

EBI @ Ad Astra 2012

April 13, 2012

A quick note to say the East Block Irregulars will be represented at Ad Astra in Toronto this weekend by Marie Bilodeau, Derek Kunsken and Matt Moore. Looking forward to some great discussions and lots of laughs!

Writing Workshop in Ottawa for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Writers – 26 February, Ottawa

January 11, 2012

In support of Can-Con 2012, the Ottawa Science Fiction Convention, Derek Kunsken, Matt Moore and Hayden Trenholm will be offering a 1-day writing workshop on science fiction, fantasy and horror. 

  • Derek has sold short fiction to Asimov’s Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, On Spec, Black Gate, sub-Terrain and Chilling Tales II, and is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. 
  • Matt’s fiction has been published in print, online and audio magazines and anthologies like the Tesseracts Series, On Spec, the Drabblecast and AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.  His story “Touch the Sky” was nominated for the 2011 Aurora Award and he is the Marketing Director of ChiZine Publications, an award-winning horror press in Toronto. 
  • Hayden’s plays have been produced Alberta and Saskatchewan and on CBC radio and his short fiction has appeared in On Spec, TransVersions, Tesseracts6, Neo-Opsis, Challenging Destiny, Talebones, Gaslight Grimoire and on CBC radio. In 2008, he won the Aurora for his novella, “Like Water in the Desert,” and in 2011, he once again won an Aurora for his short story “The Burden of Fire.”  His novels “Defining Diana,” “Steel Whispers,” and “Stealing Home” received Aurora nominations.  “Stealing Home” was also a finalist in the 2011 Sunburst Award. He is currently he is editing a short fiction anthology, “Blood and Water,” for Bundoran Press. It will appear in August 2012.

The workshop will run from 10-5 on Sunday, 26 February, 2012, on the campus of the University of Ottawa (70 Laurier Ave E, Room 509, Ottawa) and is targeting writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror early in their careers who are looking to improve both their writing skills and knowledge of the publishing world.  The workshop will focus on writing short stories but lessons learned can also be applied to the novel.  We will use short lecture sessions, writing activities and group discussions.  Topics will include: 

  • The writing life:
    • Finding time to write in a busy schedule
    • How to keep motivated despite setbacks and rejections
    • What publishing will look like in the years to come
  • The premise and story – the big picture of plotting
  • The Grail of Originality and tips for the quest
  • Quick and obvious editing techniques to polish your writing
  • Wrap-up: Where you can find resources and information to improve your writing and stay motivated

To see what Matt, Derek and Hayden write, please see:

Derek’s Fiction:

Matt’s Fiction:

Hayden’s fiction:

  • You can read “Iron Ties” (from Talebones) and “Symphony of Stones” (from Neo-Opsis) at www.haydentrenholm.com

The workshop will be limited to 20 participants, so reserve a spot early by emailing dkunsken (at ) hotmail . com.  The cost for attending the workshop will be $40 and all proceeds go to support Can-Con 2012, a science fiction convention in Ottawa in September 21-23, 2012, a meeting place of fans as well as pro and semi-pro writers, editors and publishers.  Check out Can-Can 2012 at www.can-con.org.

Writing news for Derek Künsken as 2012 opens

January 4, 2012

Quick writing news: “The God Thieves”, my tale of magical espionage in 15th century Venice has been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #84.  You can read it online at http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/story.php?s=182.

I really appreciate the early reviews. I paste a few below. 

“The God Thieves” by Derek Künsken

A sort of alternate history in which Christianity [the god that won’t fight] has been mostly superseded by the use of ancient gods as weapons of war between the great commercial powers.

Genoa stole the secrets of domesticating the gods from the Venetians. The Venetians stole from Genoa. Always chasing. Always fleeing. Always hunting up new gods with which to destroy each other.

Mateo is one of Genoa’s top agents, but he is also a Christian who yearns for salvation, all the while knowing that his job imperils his soul. He is now being sent to Venice to steal the plans for the Enlil engine, with his own soul augmented by a dragon’s, a powerful weapon of magic itself. A lot of neat stuff in this scenario. I particularly like the soul-weighing scale. The story is a clear analogy for the perils of arms wars. While there is sufficient magical-agent action, the real emphasis here is on the religious issues, the struggle for personal salvation and the peril of the soul.  – Lois Tilton, http://www.locusmag.com/Reviews/#bcs201112

The second short, “The God Thieves,” by Derek Kunsken is substantially longer. It is a historical fantasy that tells the story of Mateo del Monte Feltro, a Genoese spy sometime around the renaissance. The re-envisioning of Europe here is drastic. Venice and Genoa have become the seats of power, because they have mutually learned how to weaponize the powers of the gods. There is a bit of Lovecraft here; Kunsken described Odin, one of the gods weaponized by Venice as “a gibbering monster of overripe flesh and rudderless power.” If you get the Old Ones vibe, you’re onto something. Mateo is tasked with infiltrating the Venice Secret Police, where the ‘engines’ that harness the power of their captive guards are kept, in order to steal away the secret of Venice’s newest acquired power, the Sumerian god Enlil. Mateo doesn’t like this; he has recently converted to Christianity (in this world, Christ is “The God who Does Not Fight”), and struggles with where his loyalties lie: his city, and his daughter, or with the Christ whose powers may be subtle, but whom he believes can cleanse his soul. And there’s a catch to Genoa’s request of him: in order to infiltrate the Venetian vaults, he’ll have to have part of his soul amputated, in order to make room for a lobotomized dragon soul which will give him enough power to slip in unnoticed. You read that right. In Kunsken’s dark-aged, theo-nuclear Europe, spiritual surgery—and magical creatures—exist, and are important in the way of creating a better soldier. It’s a very interesting facet of the story, and it clearly bears resemblance to some of the experimenting the government performs on its own soldiers. It’s not nearly as exaggerated as the soldier-enhancement is in The Manchurian Candidate, but it is here in this short, and the dragon, Batu, is a wonderful character that Kunsken has realized with bright language. As Batu and Mateo attempt to infiltrate Venice, you learn a lot about this very intricate, arguably insane magical technology that might be the most interesting form of magic I’ve read of in a long time. It’s totally worth the read. Mateo’s conflict with his Christian faith and the demands of the state, and his need to protect his daughter, are very well realized, and drive the story far further, and much deeper, than I would have guessed from the first few pages. – Travis Knight, The Weaving Knight.

Derek Kunsken’s tale of Renaissance gods and magic, “The God Thieves,” is also a very good story, with first-rate worldbuilding. – Jonathan Crowe at http://www.jonathancrowe.net/2011/12/reading-short-sf-2.php.

Il y a aussi une petite discussion en France:

Encore une nouvelle remarquable dans ce numéro.
The god thieves par Derek Kunsken est une nouvelle de fantasy uchronique nous introduisant dans une renaissance italienne où la magie existe, où les dieux antiques ont été capturé et transformé en arme ou leurs âmes a servi à élaborer des dispositifs magiques. Nous suivons un héros agent secret dans une aventure digne de James Bond. Nous avons même droit aux gadgets mais ici ils sont de natures magiques et ont une nature très particulière. C’est une histoire qui va bien sûr à 100 à l’heure mais avec une réflexion sur l’âme, les sacrifices nécessaires… Bref la lecture est hautement recommandées. – Fabien Lyraud at http://www.elbakin.net/forum/viewtopic.php?pid=300093

My next story, “The Way of the Needle”, mixes the samurai ethos with life around a pulsar, and is the lead story in the March issue of Asimovs:

The action never lets up in our March lead story by newish author Derek Künksen. Life may have formed very differently in “The Way of the Needle” than it has on Earth, but the nature of conflict remains the same. – http://www.asimovs.com/2012_02/nextissue.shtml

I hope everyone has a great year!



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