That First Brutal Critique

Earlier this month I got an email from my youngest sister, Katie, who told me she was writing again. She’d enrolled in a few courses at her local university and asked if I’d like to be critique partners.


Another writer in the family! A new critique partner! Katie’s a natural, one of those writers who makes it look effortless. She’s got a lot more innate talent than me. I think she’ll do great.

Still, every writer frets about sharing work for the first time. It puts us out there and makes us vulnerable. That’s what happened to Katie. She’s just lived through her first workshop, in which students submitted a short story for peer critique. The experience left her feeling gutted, like a complete failure. She wrote to me:

After my first critique (which was a very very harsh critique that tore my piece apart) I went home and cried all night and then spent the next week seriously doubting whether I really am a writer or not, and feeling like a worthless pile of sh*t.

Boy, do I know how she feels.

I’ll never forget my first workshop. I went into it with a little too much confidence. Until I read a classmate’s submission. It was noticeably better than the rest of ours (that student was author Kourtney Heintz). Reading her segment, as well as her feedback on my own piece, showed me how much I had to learn. It was good for me. Helped put my ego in check.

Katie and my girls in 2011

Katie and my girls in 2011

I shared this experience with Katie to show her that every writer goes through periods of doubt. Critiques, as hard as some are to swallow, are only meant to help. Every first draft is flawed, but we have to keep writing if we want to improve.

Of all my critique partners, Larry is the toughest on me. Each time I send him a piece I hold my breath, because I know he’s going to let me have it. I typically need a few days to “recover” from his critiques, and even longer to digest his comments, but after some distance I can return to his feedback with some perspective. In almost every case, I have to admit he’s right.

Can you recall your first critique? Do you find it easier to accept criticism the longer you write?


No Place Like Home

In 2007, my family and I took a spring vacation at a beach resort in Cancun, Mexico. It was a timeshare we’d purchased years before the kids were born, and we were going for the first time as a whole family. Our youngest, Fiona, would turn four that summer, and we reasoned she was now old enough to tolerate the intense heat and sunshine.


Royal Resorts, Cancun, Mexico

I had an uneasy feeling when we arrived at O’Hare that Saturday morning. It’s one of the world’s busiest airports, but I’d never seen it more chaotic. By the time we’d checked the luggage and wended through security, we had to sprint the length of two sprawling concourses to make the flight. In our seats at last, we then waited on a departure slot, parked on the tarmac, for 90 minutes.

Based on the madness at O’Hare, I should have predicted what came next, but I was still surprised when we landed in Cancun without luggage. Even more unsettling was the airline didn’t seem to know where the lost bags were. I learned an important travel lesson that day: always pack an extra carry-on filled with a day’s worth of essentials for this very scenario.

It was another long wait in a cramped airport office to report the missing luggage, but I marveled at how well our 3- and 6-year-old were handing the delays. When we finally arrived at the resort, our first stop was not the swimming pool, as we’d promised the girls, but a trip to the resort’s pricey boutique for some clothing and toiletries.

Yet even in the best of times, young children have a fixed amount of patience, and I could see mine were reaching their limits.


Cancun, 2007

Where was her Finding Nemo swimsuit, Fiona demanded. She didn’t want to wear that stupid pink flowery thing. She wanted her swimsuit. Hoping to avoid a full-fledged tantrum, I did what any sensible parent would do, and bribed my preschooler with a sugary treat.

Unfortunately, it was only a temporary fix. The meltdown eventually came at bedtime, when Fiona refused to lie down.

“I don’t want to sleep in that green bed,” she wailed. “I want my blue bed at home! My home!”

My heart ached for my baby girl. The vacation we’d long anticipated was finally here, and all she wanted was to go home.

Spring break is now our annual tradition, a week that signifies the end of the brutal Chicago winter. Our only requirement is the destination must be sunny and warm. This year we spent the school holiday in Southern California.

But even after a week in the sun, we look forward to coming home. Chicago is not a pretty place this time of year. Still recovering from the ravages of winter, the trees and flowers have yet to blossom, and our sodden lawns lie dormant, the color a washed out hue of Dijon mustard.

Nevertheless, I’m a proud Chicagoan. I love my hometown, and it’s where my heart will always be. There really is no place like home.

Spring Has Sprung

After an incredibly long and frigid winter, Spring has finally arrived in Chicago. At least I think it has.

The Keukenhof gardens in Lisse, the Netherlands. 2003

This is one of my favorite seasonal photos. It’s my daughter in 2003 at the Keukenhof gardens near Lisse, the Netherlands. An estimated 7 million flower bulbs are planted here every year. When they bloom, it’s an amazing sight to see. Nobody does springtime flowers quite like the Dutch.

I’m taking a blogging break this week to enjoy the school holidays with my family. I’ll be back to my regular posting schedule on Monday, April 7.

Writing Every Day — Do You?

Recently author Nathan Bransford wrote a great blog post entitled You don’t have to write every day. This theme struck a chord with me, because I don’t write every day. Nor do I feel I should.

Last week, for example, I wrote very little. The inspiration just wasn’t there. So instead of trying to force it, I used my early morning writing time for reading. It was heavenly, and time well spent. Good writers need to be readers, too.


In his post, Bransford debunked the so-called myth that “serious” writers write every day:

“I still see this myth repeated so often I feel like it’s time to chime in again. You don’t have to write every day. You really don’t. I certainly don’t write every day.” – Nathan Bransford

It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

To sit down and write, I need to be moved by a project. I need to feel it. When this happens, I write and write until I exhaust the idea stream. Then I take a break for a while and let my mind work on solutions to problems or “what happens next.” The answers always come to me eventually. And when they do, I return to the computer with renewed gusto.

That’s my way of doing things, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

I also don’t believe in writing anything, even if it’s crap, just for the sake of getting words on the page.

It’s easy for me to agree with Bransford’s viewpoint, because writing isn’t my day job (nor is it his). For me, writing is a hobby. I do it because I love it. And if I ever end up with published work, it’ll be the icing on the most delicious cake.

How do you feel about writing every day?

Life in the Fabulous Forties

I’ve been thinking about age lately, and the idea of getting older. Not in a morbid sense, but rather how we humans evolve through the decades of our lives.

Maybe this has been on my mind because my husband turns 50 this spring. Fifty! There was a time when this age was synonymous with grandparents. After all, my mom became a grandmother in her 40s.

But my husband doesn’t fit my (former) notion of a 50-year-old. He doesn’t own a cardigan or wear dentures. He doesn’t ask for the senior discount at restaurants. Gray hair and reading glasses, yes, but that’s no different than the majority of our Generation-X peers.


The half-century mark is only a few years off for me, too. Despite pop culture’s emphasis on eternal youth, I’ve come to believe youth is largely overrated. Would I want to relive my 20s? Well, I was unencumbered and looked better in a swim suit, but other than that, probably not.

Middle age wisdom and life experience, I’ve found, is empowering. And when I considered some of the things I can do now that I couldn’t do when I was younger, I came up with quite a list. Check it out.

25 things I can do in my 40s that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do in my 20s:

  • Stop drinking after one cocktail
  • Cook dinner 6 nights a week
  • Wear sunscreen
  • Watch TV on a Friday night
  • Clean up puke and poop
  • Relish time spent alone
  • Afford the imported wine
  • Tolerate screaming children
  • Empathize with parents of screaming children
  • Rise at 4 A.M.
  • Take pride in my working class background
  • Leave a 20% tip
  • Ignore celebrity gossip
  • Be the designated driver
  • Pay off credit card balances every month
  • Be seen in public without make up
  • Give to charity
  • Buy tampons without embarrassment
  • Hunt for bargains at thrift shops
  • Drive a station wagon
  • Make saving for retirement a priority
  • Regard full-time parenting as a worthy profession
  • Go to the grocery store in sweatpants
  • Stay home on New Years Eve
  • Skip dessert

What are your thoughts on age?

Making the Career Transition to Full-Time Author

As much as I love to write, I’ve often wondered if pursuing it as a career is the right choice for me. Having had the opportunity to try it out it a couple of years ago, I found myself unable to cope with the long, unstructured day. So what does it take to become a successful full-time writer?

Here to explore this topic further is author Francis Guenette. I had the pleasure of reading Fran’s debut novel, Disappearing in Plain Sight while vacationing in Mexico last spring (check out my full review here). Fran’s newest novel, The Light Never Lies, is the next book in her Crater Lake series, and it’s available now. She’s here to share her thoughts on writing for a living.


Gwen’s recent post on being a full-time writer, versus wedging writing into a busy life, led to a great discussion among her followers. Within the stream of responses, one theme was repeated – having the whole day to write meant not getting much writing done at all. I wondered about this more-time-equals-less-output scenario and what the underlying message of such a dichotomy might be.

Varied stops along a single roadway – that’s the phrase I would use to describe my own career path. Imagine walking down a street, chock full of restaurants, trying to decide where you will eat – fast food, falafels, Italian, Chinese, Greek. It’s all food but the variety is what makes life interesting.

The single roadway has been education and the repeated motifs have been work that was largely self-structured and work that didn’t garner a lot of prestige or money. When it came to making the career transition to full-time writer, it was simply the next stop.

I face the challenges I have always faced – how to work amid the distractions of the home environment, how to balance output efficiency with creativity and how to deal with the lack of status that comes from not being out in the world making scads of money.

Author Francis Guenette's work space.

Author Francis Guenette’s work space.

To be a full-time, stay-at-home writer, is to battle doubt on a daily basis. The world tells me that what I’m doing doesn’t make sense. The reasons are obvious. Self-publishing isn’t really publishing. Looking ahead five years to a time when (maybe) I’ll make money and even then, it won’t be status-gaining money, is crazy. Writing is too time consuming to ever justify itself, unless I become the next J.A. Konrath or Amanda Hockings – a highly unlikely prospect.

What do I have at the end of an average writing day to show for my efforts? I may have sat around the house the whole time in my pajamas sweating to write 500 words. And yet, the struggle, at every step of the writing process, is part of bringing a well-honed story to life. Few people understand that; some days, I’m on the list of doubters, myself. Validation, both outward and inward, is hard to come by.

My primary solace is something I learned early in my working life – the only critic I need to satisfy is the one in my own head. When I’ve managed that feat, the need to justify how I spend my time, what I produce, what I say, do or think, becomes unnecessary. My work will speak for itself.

And the work of creating good stories matters more than many people understand. I’ll end with a quote that has always made me shiver at the responsibility we take on when we tell stories.

“In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: We live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate them with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”
(Nigerian storyteller, Ben Okri)


the_light_never_lies 3-D bookcover

As circumstances spiral out of control, Lisa-Marie is desperate to return to Crater Lake. The young girl’s resolve is strengthened when she learns that Justin Roberts is headed there for a summer job at the local sawmill. Her sudden appearance causes turmoil. The mere sight of Lisa-Marie upsets the relationship Liam Collins has with trauma counsellor, Izzy Montgomery. All he wants to do is love Izzy, putter in the garden and mind the chickens. Bethany struggles with her own issues as Beulah hits a brick wall in her efforts to keep the organic bakery and her own life running smoothly. A native elder and a young boy who possesses a rare gift show up seeking family. A mystery writer arrives to rent the guest cabin and a former client returns looking for Izzy’s help. Life is never dull for those who live on the secluded shores of Crater Lake. Set against the backdrop of Northern Vancouver Island, The Light Never Lies is a story of heartbreaking need and desperate measures. People grapple with the loss of cherished ideals to discover that love comes through the unique family ties they create as they go.

imagesFrancis Guenette is the author of The Crater Lake Series – Disappearing in Plain Sight and The Light Never Lies. Set on the shore of a Northern Vancouver Island lake, her novels are rich in rural life, family dynamics, and romance.

2014′s List of Banished Words

annoyedEvery year, Lake Superior State University publishes a proposed list of words and phrases to be banished from the Queen’s English, for “misuse, overuse and general uselessness.”

These are the words that annoy the heck out of us. The catch phrases we hear ad nauseum in every day speech, in the news media, politics, advertising, and more.

Although it’s all in fun, here are this year’s winners — er, losers?

  • Selfie
  • Twerk/Twerking
  • Hashtag
  • Twittersphere
  • Mister Mom
  • T-bone (used as a verb to describe a car wreck)
  • __________ on steroids
  • The suffixes –AGEDDON and –POCALYPSE
  • Intellectually/Morally Bankrupt (thank you, U.S. politicians)
  • Obamacare
  • Adversity & Fan Base (in the context of professional sports)

I’d add my perennial pet peeve, basically (which has made the list in three separate years), and its annoying cousin literally, under the General Uselessness umbrella.

What words would you like to see banished?