The Value of Writing Groups


Last December I posted about two different types of writing groups. That brief overview was related to a couple of columns I wrote for a private writing group’s newsletter. Even then, I didn’t feel as though I’d said all I wanted to on the subject.


An expanded how-to guide, with suggestions for getting a group started, identifying your group, and setting some rules, for starters. I included some prompts and other tips, all based on years of experience as a member of both creative groups and critique groups.

Now you can get that 8-page guide FREE. Just click here.


Oh… and in the critique group section I include an idea for making those groups even better — something I’ve never seen in practice before.

What do you think makes a great writing group? What have your experience been? Do you agree with the ideas in the guide? Let us know what you think!

Writing and Geometry

Oh, but they DO have a lot in common!

I was reading Ava Jae’s great post, “You Don’t Have to Get It Right the First Time” and decided it was time to post about the writing process after a long spell without mentioning it.

In her post, Ava lists the things you shouldn’t be thinking about while you’re drafting. The one thing you *should* be focusing on while drafting, she says, is “Getting the story written.” Period.

And she’s right. (Again. Ava Jae is always right…. if you read the ellenbooks roundup posts, she shows up quite a bit in the links, and there’s a reason for that. So go read her post, too.)

You should be running like a train when you’re drafting, and trains do nothing but stay on one track. If a train scootches even a little bit off that track — whammo — disaster.

So where does the geometry part come in?

Think of the writing process as an inverted triangle — the big heavy side balanced on the tip. When you draft, you’re doing the BIG STUFF. Getting the story into words. Putting the characters out there. Mixing things up. Charging with that train down the track.

When you get through to the end of the story, when you’ve mentally tapped “The End” on the final page, celebrate, then admit that you’re only a fraction of the way to finishing your novel.

You’ve got several more stages in the process to move through — revision, edit, proofreading, polishing. I won’t repeat here what’s been covered earlier (see Re-Draft? Revise?) but you should be seeing the pattern:


Notice how you’re moving from the big chunks down to smaller and smaller bits of the manuscript? Why move your commas around if you’re not sure your story is where it needs to be? You could end up chopping all that proofreading work you’ve done.

New novelists often ask how to be more efficient in their writing. “I spent hours and hours on a scene that I ended up cutting!”

If you HATE wasting time… consider practicing the inverted triangle method. It reduces the chance you’ll waste effort.

Of course, nothing is iron-clad, and the tinkerers among us won’t mind getting those commas in the right spots — even if we drop the entire page — but at least we know the risk we’re taking. Mess with the commas in an early stage of revision, and you just might be “wasting” your time (we’re never wasting our time… but that’s another post).

Where are you in the process? Charging like a freight train down one skinny track? Or are you further down the triangle?

Author Interview: E. Michael Helms

So many questions for E. Michael Helms, author of two novels and several nonfiction works! I sent out word I was willing to read and offer reviews of mysteries, and he was one of the writers who responded. I confess I’d started another book by a different author, one that was not well written, so I put off beginning Michael’s “Deadly Catch.” But once I started downstream with Mac McClellan, the main character, I was hooked (you can find my full reviews at Goodreads and on Amazon). I’m so pleased he’s agreed to an interview with ellenbooks so we can all learn from this very accomplished writer.


Michael, please tell us which came first, the series idea for Mac, or the story for “Deadly Catch”?

The story for “Deadly Catch” came first. I had toyed with the idea of writing a mystery for some time. I knew I wanted the locale to be the Florida panhandle coast (where I grew up). I didn’t know if it would be a standalone or series. All I knew for sure was the opening line: The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare. That sentence kept running through my mind like a dripping faucet, and it was the seed for “Deadly Catch.” I had no idea who the protagonist might be, no plot to speak of, nothing except that opening sentence. So, I sat down at the computer one morning and wrote it down. Within a few minutes I knew the protagonist was a recently retired/divorced Marine named Mac McClellan. He was enjoying a fishing vacation while pondering what to do with his post-Corps life. Soon, Mac and the other characters came to life and started telling me where the story was going.

How does “Deadly Catch” fit in with your other books? Is it similar, very different?

All the “Mac” mysteries have different plotlines. In “Deadly Catch” Mac hooks the decomposing body of a young woman which puts events in motion. In the second Mac mystery, “Deadly Ruse,” Mac’s girlfriend, Kate Bell, recognizes an old boyfriend in a theater lobby. The problem is, this boyfriend supposedly died in a boating accident several years before. Did he die, or not? That question gets things rolling along. What’s interesting to me is to see Mac, Kate, and a few other regular characters develop and grow from one book to the next. I’ve completed four books in the series so far (two published), and keeping the characters real, I feel, is an important aspect for both reader and writer.


Did you publish shorter works — articles, short stories, essays, for example — before plunging into novel writing? Could you give us an idea of your trajectory as a published author?

I used to freelance articles to area and national publications. I’ve written several short stories (a few published), and used to edit a couple of area tabloid newspapers (military/veterans and Christian). My first full-length published book, “The Proud Bastards,” is a memoir of my combat experiences with the Marines during Vietnam. I pitched a portion to the editor of a New York magazine I’d written for, “Vietnam Combat.” He liked it and said he wanted to see the entire work when finished. Acting as my first agent, he quickly sold it to Kensington/Zebra. After more than twenty years it remains in print, currently with Simon & Schuster/Pocket.

You’ve published with Koehler Books and Seventh Street Books. Why have you used two different publishers? What made you choose these two in particular?

I’ve been published by Kensington/Zebra, Simon & Schuster/Pocket, Koehler Books, Seventh Street Books, and Stairway Press. Different publishers have different genre interests, so it was really a matter of my agent placing a particular book(s) with a particular publishing house that fit their interests.

From what I can tell, these companies are small press, traditional publishing houses. Is that how you would describe them? In other words, they took on all of the publishing responsibilities so you can focus on writing and marketing. Is that a correct assumption?

Well, yes and no. Koehler Books is a small press, while Seventh Street Books (publisher of the Mac McClellan Mystery series) is part of the Prometheus group; they’re more mid-sized, and are distributed/marketed in conjunction with Random House. Simon & Schuster is big, while Stairway Press is a small house located in the Seattle, WA area. Obviously, the larger presses can do more than the smaller, but they all assume the expenses of editing, publishing, etc. They don’t charge their authors any money for the publishing process, they pay their authors.

Have your books been placed in bookstores by those publishers? Are they available in any other outlets? Who made those choices?

Fortunately, I’ve seen all my books in brick and mortar bookstores, at least short-term. “Deadly Catch” was a Barnes & Noble “Top Ten Mystery Pick” for November 2013. It was satisfying to walk into one of their stores and see a stack of my books face-out on their shelves! I visited a nearby Books-A-Million store about a year ago and saw a couple of copies of “The Proud Bastards” on their shelves. Not bad for a book originally published in 1990. For the vast majority of books (including my own), shelf-life is very limited in physical bookstores. The online stores are where most sales come from. My titles are easily found in all the major online outlets.

Would you recommend either of these publishers to other writers? Why or why not — or with what advice?

Without hesitation I’d recommend Seventh Street Books to any writer fortunate enough to be signed by them. They are a topnotch mystery/thriller publisher and well-respected in the publishing world. Great distribution, a publicist who works hard for their authors, decent advances, etc. To the contrary, I’ve recently learned that Koehler Books has begun a “cooperative” offshoot for some of their titles where the authors are expected to pay some of the costs of the publishing process. I think this is unfortunate, and could reflect negatively on the authors who are legitimately published by them. They are the only publisher I’ve been involved with that I wouldn’t recommend.

Have you done any self-publishing? If so, tell us about that.

No, not that I think there’s anything wrong with self-publishing if the author has paid his/her dues by learning the craft. I know of many traditionally published authors who are now turning to self-publishing. I’ve read many well-written works that have been self-published. The problem is, with the technology available today, everyone wants to be an “instant author,” and it shows in the enormous number of poorly written and edited works clogging the book trade pipeline today. There are self-published gems out there for sure, but there are also huge piles of, to put it kindly, less-than-impressive books.

Your books are available in print and e-book format. Is one format selling better than the other? Why do you think that is?

Right now it seems my printed books are outselling my e-books. I don’t have the answer to that. A couple of years ago some were proclaiming the death knell for print books, and that e-books would be the biggest thing since sliced bread. That hasn’t happened. One reason might be that the bigger, traditional publishers are keeping their e-book prices inflated. For example, “The Proud Bastards” (Simon & Schuster/Pocket) mass market paperback is selling at for $8.99, while the e-book is priced at $8.00. To me, that’s ridiculous. After the initial setup costs, e-books are basically free to produce; it’s a matter of transferring files. Why such a small price difference? I don’t know. I believe e-reader devices will eventually become more widespread, but I doubt they’ll ever become the overwhelming rage that smart phones are.

What do you think are the three most important things you’ve done (or are doing) to help market your books? Why?

1) Digging and scrapping for book reviews (I’m still amazed how many poor quality self-pubbed e-books by relatively unknown authors have amassed hundreds of reviews, while authors with mid-list books from traditional publishers have such paltry numbers by comparison).

2) Social media participation (Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, Google+, personal website, etc.) Developing a rapport with the reading public is invaluable.

3) Book blog tours and giveaways. Giveaways on sites such as Goodreads can generate a lot of interest in an author’s work; even those who don’t win have seen and read a little about the book. A number of those will wind up buying the book. I recently concluded a blog tour/giveaway that attracted almost four thousand, two-hundred entries. That’s also a lot of exposure.

Can you tell us anything about the next Mac McClellan book? What are you working on now? Do you have an expected release date?

“Deadly Dunes” is next up for Mac and Kate. Mac is hired by a young woman to investigate whether or not her brother actually committed suicide, or was murdered as she believes. The victim had evidence that a contingent from Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s sixteen century expedition in Florida may have traveled to the coast and established a fort on what is now Five-Mile Island. Hours after Mac takes on the case, the young woman dies in a suspicious car accident. Mac digs deep to uncover a tangled web of deceit, betrayal, and murder that all hinges on a planned community development on the island. Hopefully, it will be released this fall.

If you could give one piece of advice to a writer working toward publication, what would it be?

Read extensively in your chosen genre(s). Pay close attention to punctuation, dialogue, and how stories are structured. All dialogue and scenes should either reveal character or advance the plot. If not, rewrite it or cut it. Use active verbs, and “show” way more than “tell.” Put your characters “on stage” and let them act out the story. Practice the craft, and be persistent. It’s a tough business. Don’t expect to get rich. Strive to leave something worthwhile behind as part of your legacy.

Where can we find out more about your books?

My Amazon author page is probably best:
Or, my website:
How can you be contacted?

Through my website: or my e-mail:

I’m also on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, Google+, Facebook and others, under E. Michael Helms. Thanks for having me!
Thank *you* so much, Mike!


Is a Writing Group a Waste of Your Time?


Quick answer: they can be. Or not. Depends.

Don’t you love answers like those?!?

But seriously. Much does depend on what the group’s purpose and who’s attending it.


Though types of writing groups vary, two primary categories are critique groups and creative groups.

Critique Groups

There’s no one way to organize such groups, but the members should all have one thing in common: improving their writing, which means being willing to hear honest (though polite) feedback on their writing. Some groups include a variety of writing types while others are specific to fiction or articles or poetry. It’s up to the group, but important to have enough experience among the members to avoid ending up with the blind leading the blind. If only one poet meets in a group of magazine article writers, that poet isn’t likely to get helpful critique.

Creative Groups

More free-flowing, these groups focus on getting together to flex their writing muscles, without necessarily having the goal of publishing, and without criticism. In the latter case, this type of group is 180-degrees from a critique group. Often patterned after Natalie Goldberg’s guideline of ten-minute segments of free writing, the group can use a variety of prompts, focus on any type (or all types) of writing, and include the option of reading what’s writting to the rest of the group. The important things here are to keep things positive: no critique, no judgment, no gossiping outside the group about what was written so everyone can feel free to write whatever pops into their heads.

Which is Better?

Each group has its benefits. Accustomed to many years of critique groups, I was a little out of my element in a creative group at first. I wondered if my Wednesday mornings might have been better spent “doing my own writing” rather than meeting with the group. What I discovered was the group’s insistence on taking a prompt and following it wherever it led opened up my writing heart to possibilities in ways it hadn’t in many years. While drafting my recent novel, “Pea Body,” I found myself “riffing” (as musicians might say) — heading down paths I probably wouldn’t have followed before being part of the creative group. I would have censored my ideas before they even had a chance to express themselves. As a result, writing the book was much more fluid than any other book has been for me, and much more enjoyable. The creative group demonstrated to me how easy it was to trust my writing instincts, and how well it could pay off when I did.

Critique groups have also benefited me, but in more predictable ways: I found more boo-boos, got harder on myself when I was tempted to give my plot or characters the easy way out.

But there’s an underlying advantage to critique groups that many people miss. More on that next time!

A View of Self-Publishing from Canadian Author Lin Weich

On our journey to Alaska this past summer, we traveled through much of British Columbia, Canada, and were rewarded with amazing food, great shops, and wonderful people. At a farmer’s market in Quesnel, we paused to peruse the booth set by the local writers’ group. A novel caught my eye, and a conversation began. Lin Weich has had a fascinating life and now writes stories born of her experiences, which she self-publishes.


What compelled you to start writing fiction? Have you always written or made up stories? Was there a particular incident that got the writing momentum going for you? If so, what was it?
On a trip to Prince Rupert [BC] shortly after I retired early from teaching, I passed the sign on the highway that warned girls not to hitchhike on the highway of tears; then while on a mothership kayaking tour I asked the captain of the vessel if he’d ever run across any smuggling…one thing lead to another and I wondered if I could actually write a book. The story just came together (Strength of an Eagle). My second novel Half-Truths, Total Lies was basically started by a dream. My third book (Alone) is one of several running around in my head. Now I can’t stop writing! Previous to this I had no interest in writing.

How has your real life influenced your writing?
Writers write what they know and research and embellish the rest. I live a very outdoor life, have taught for many years, am intrigued by self-sufficient lifestyles, travel both in Canada and abroad. Couple those influences with the belief that everyone you meet has a story hidden inside them just waiting for me to tweak out…

Why did you decide to self-publish your books? Did you seek a traditional publisher or an agent first, or plunge right into self-publishing?
I spent two years trying to “sell” my books to both agents and publishers rarely getting past the gatekeepers. Publishers are not interested in new talent as they simply can’t afford to take a chance on unknown writers. Vanity press (self-publishing) has evolved into a now reputable option and with the advent of e-book publishing I decided to go the self-publishing route via a known company. Some writers might consider print on demand and doing their own e-book formatting but I do not have enough technical knowledge for that route.

How did you choose your printer? Cover designer?
I chose Friesen Press after doing a lot of research. It is more expensive but it is a Canadian company based out of Victoria, BC. Part of the package included cover design. There were also modules on selling your books, deciding your focus and goals etc. I purchased editing services from another company before I chose my publishing company.

Do you take your the cover photos? If not, how do you choose them?
The cover image for Strength of an Eagle is my photo. Half-Truths, Total Lies and Alone use stock photos available from various websites. Initially I wanted to use another of my photos for Strength of an Eagle but the pixels were not sufficient for a good quality cover.

What’s been most challenging for you as writer and publisher?
Waiting for other people to do their jobs, the selling/marketing aspect, although you would have the same problems with traditional publishers because authors must do their own marketing.

What rewards have you reaped by self-publishing?
Moderate success re- selling, people read and like my books, which is the best reward.

Would you consider traditional publishing?
The jury is out on this one…I wouldn’t say no if they came knocking but I like the complete control you have with self-publishing.

How has being a member of a writing group helped?
My writing group affords some opportunities for selling books and perhaps some moral support. I have a very supportive friend who also writes and have beta readers who are quite skillful. I need to reach out to more writers and online groups.

If you could give an aspiring writer advice about whether to self-publish or seek publication via traditional routes, what would you say?
Know yourself and your goals, have a good manuscript ready and edited, consider how much time you have to devote to seeking agents and publishers, do you homework about what traditional publishers want regarding queries etc., do your homework about self-publishing companies…compare the packages…It is very expensive. Know how much control you need to have over your final product, develop an ability to take constructive criticism, know how long you want to try with traditional publishers…it truly is like winning a lottery. Most importantly, if you self-publish, have a good product if you expect to get anywhere. Do not go with a company that is willing to publish anything just to get your money. Self-publishing is coming into its own but only if the novel reflects quality work.

Thanks, Lin!

To learn more about Lin’s work, visit her web site at; contact Lin directly by accessing her site, then clicking the “Contact Us” link.

Lin Weich, a retired teacher, writes suspense thrillers, enjoys freelance writing and photography. She grew up in West Africa and has lived in various places in both eastern and western Canada. She lives in Quesnel, British Columbia with her husband Brian. Her kayaking adventures, teaching experiences, outdoor activities and travels have influenced the substance and voice of her stories and photography. When she isn’t busy creating stories, she enjoys travelling both in Canada and abroad. Lin has published two novels Strength of an Eagle and Half-Truths, Total Lies. She has also published articles in Our Canada, More of Our Canada, Postscript, Rocky Mountaineer brochure, and Royal Photographic Society (Canada) on-line magazine.


You’d think something is cozy or not, but semi-cozy? Is that like a quilt that’s just a little too short? Or a cabin in the woods with just a few too many drafts? A fire in the hearth that burns a little too low?

I’m making my case for why my newest novel, Pea Body, is a semi-cozy mystery. “Cozies” — like any genre — have fairly specific conventions their writers are supposed to follow. Pea Body follows most of them, but not all, and fudges on a few. Of course I think that makes it a better novel than if I’d followed all the rules, or I would have toed the line.

For example, most cozies feature a single woman as its main character (MC). She generally has at least one a male love interest who’s connected to law enforcement in some way. This is not only to capture a bit of romantic intrigue, but to give the MC/amateur sleuth a sounding board for her theories and often an “in” with whatever investigation she’s found herself involved with.

Cozies eschew overt sex and four-letter words, so they tend to be the shy stepsisters of the more violent and gritty hard-boiled mysteries. You can tell by their covers — usually cartoons of women (or domestic pets) in a bright setting that only suggests something terrible is happening. They’re a light read.

I’ve read dozens of these books, mostly to learn the genre, and I still can’t swallow the idea that murder should be a light read.

So like any great cook, I added a few things to the cozy recipe, substituted others, and omitted the ingredients that just didn’t fit the new mix. That “cozy” taste is still there, but it’s been layered with some other flavored nuances.

Pea Body features a couple — Walt and Betty Rollin — who’ve been married many years, and have been living what’s called the “full-time RV lifestyle.” They sold their house and travel full-time in their RV.

Can you see how my premise defies the cozy convention at it’s most basic level? The series features a couple rather than a single woman, though the story is told first person from Betty’s point of view.

Another convention I couldn’t swallow was how often people in the same little cozy communities kill each other. Or get killed by some nasty outsider. Putting Walt and Betty on the road all the time means I’ll get to write about various places we’ve spent time. It’s also more credible that the same people keep running into bad circumstances — the more neighborhoods you visit, the more likely you’ll run into bad situations and awful people (trust me on this).

There are allusions to sex (Walt and Betty are happily married; why not?) and though an occasional four-letter word pops out, it’s usually from a secondary character. I see avoiding bad language as a wonderful opportunity for word play. Giving Betty and Walt substitutions for swearing makes writing their dialogue (spoken and interior) much more fun.

Does my grand experiment work? We’ll find out.

I just know a few things from this experience:

1. I learned what I was supposed to do before I chose an alternative. This way I consciously weighed the convention — and reader’s expectations — against the choices I faced.

2. I wrote the book true to the characters and to the readers I imagine would most enjoy reading about them.

3. I accepted — embraced, actually — that writing a “semi-cozy” meant I would be best served publishing my book myself rather than hunting down an agent who would (most likely) want me to change things to fit the convention.

4. I’m happy with what I wrote. In another year I might not feel this way, but for now… it’s all good.


Found Prompts

Prompts are everywhere. We just have to be able to spot them and know how to use them. Take receipts, for instance.


Ever pick up a random receipt someone left in a shopping cart or tossed away and give it a close look? You should.

What did this stranger buy? What time of day or night was it? Did they pay cash or charge it?

For a writing group prompt, I collected receipts from all sorts of places — grocery and department stores, bookstores, gas stations…. then handed them out randomly to members of the writing group, set the timer for ten minutes and bam! Away we went, writing whateverthe receipts brought to mind. And the results were — as usual with this group — amazing.

You don’t need a writing group to do this — just gather receipts when you find them in good condition (ignore the ones in parking lots that have been trampled over… nobody wants cooties…!), stuff them in a pocket for writing time, then pull one out to get your creativity flowing.

Stuck in a current project? Wondering what move a character should make next? Use that receipt as a way to get your brain moving in another direction: What if the character goes someplace where they’d get this receipt?

*What did they purchase? Why?
*Is this part of a normal routine? If so, did they vary the routine? Why?
*Was it a good idea for them to do this? Why or why not?
*Did they make any other stops? What were they? why did they make those stops?
*Did they bump into anybody at this place or somewhere along the way? If so, did that person influence what they bought? In what way? Why?

Can you see how this can lead you in a lot of directions?

Well? What are you waiting for! Go find a receipt! Okay… here are a couple to get you started….

receipt1 receipt2 receipt3 receipt5