November 10, 2009

Guest Blog: Author Dianne Castell

Lord Save Me From Critique Groups!
By: Dianne Castell

The thought of someone messing with my plot in Hot and Irresistible or poking and prodding my characters, rolling their eyes at my voice sends chills up my spine. How can I write a story that’s new and exciting and make my characters unique and interesting with a group of people passing judgment on my work and—this is the worse part—telling me to change things to suit them!

It’s not their story!

“But my critique group has really, really good ideas,” you say. And that’s great! It’s the best part of the group, the part worth keeping. Get rid of the critiquing part and go for the idea part, the brainstorming part. Brainstorming builds and creates and unites; critiquing destroys and frustrates and separates. Why do it?

There are boatloads of how-to books out there on the basics of writing (I’m reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Maass. Good stuff)and lists of workshops that can hone skills, but when it comes to writing my story, it must be one-hundred percent my idea told in my voice. If I let a critique group at my story I get book-by-committee. It’s sliced and diced and put back together to suit them. Nothing fresh and new because someone would probably not like the something fresh and new I put in and tell me to take it out. Kiss my voice good-by.

The one thing that is selling right now is different, totally different. If my critique group is stuck in the past with past ideas and old attitudes I’m totally screwed. Editors are looking for the new, unique, on-the-edge story. Bam on every page. Instead of listening to my critique group week after week, go to a conference where there’s an editor I’m targeting and listen to them. (I just went to the Cleveland and Columbus conferences for cheap and learned tons!) The market is totally different now than 3 years ago!

Brainstorm using these new ideas. Brainstorming doesn’t tamper with voice and my voice is what sells my books. Brainstorming starts before the writing. It is the collecting of ideas to add to the ideas I already have. No one tells me how to put the ideas together or even which ones to use. That’s my choice.

Critiquing is like throwing a rock through a window. The original work is shattered. Brainstorming is like throwing a rock in a pond. It lands and the ripples start building from small circles to every widening ones that seem to go on forever. The brainstorming group forms a pool of creative energy where great ideas feed off other great ideas. Goals, motivation and conflict of the story are explored in ways I never even thought about.

Brainstorming doesn’t mean someone else writes my book. It means I have the basic premise, characters, maybe a beginning and end and some turning points. I bring these ideas to the group, ply them with chocolate-chip cookies then write down their ideas as they suggest ways to fill in the rest of the story I don’t have. We do this in three stages--the opening and beginning, the middle action and turning point, the climax, black moment and epiphany. We also discuss what makes the story unique, what hooks fit and how to best pitch the story to an editor.

I take notes, but a tape recorder is better. I write down all the ideas, even ones I think would never work. What sounds crazy now may very well be what works the best when I’m actually writing the story. Or, often a suggested idea will spark another idea that I’d never have thought of on my own. In brainstorming, the most important things to remember are...there are no wrong ideas, no one insists their idea is best, and pass the cookies.

Brainstorming doesn’t have to be for an entire book. Maybe it the beginning or end or a scene that needs help. Or perhaps a character’s gotten into a mess and I don’t know how to get him out of it.

A fun and incredibly productive way to brainstorm is a brainstorming weekend. This is not a vacation; this is work. In fact, when you get back you’ll need a vacation. I did this with four other authors. We met in Louisiana and at the end of three days we’d brainstormed three books for each of us to take home.

This was great. Not only did I have new books to write, I learned how to smoke a cigar. Hey, what are friends for! Being with other authors let me see how they plot and create wonderful intriguing characters that bring their stories to life. Before that weekend I never considered the idea of making a book saleable...I didn’t even know what it meant. I do now!

Brainstorming is far better than critiquing. It’s a positive experience, not negative in any way. Editors say, write the book of your heart—not hearts. It has to be my story told my way in my voice.

USA Today best selling author Dianne Castell writes for Kensington BRAVA. She also writes a monthly editor interview column for Romance Writers Report. Her books have won Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, been on the cover of Romantic Times Magazine and included in Rhapsody Book Club, Doubleday Book Club and have made the Waldenbooks Bestseller list.
The second book in her Savannah Sizzles series for the BRAVA line, Hot and Irresistible, hits the shelves Nov‘09. Hot and Dangerous is on in May ‘10
Dianne lives in Cincinnati with her two cats and will do just about anything to get out of housework.


  1. What a fascinating article. I was going to say I'd never tried brainstorming, then realized it was two friends whose critiques I valued that brainstormed one of my wips, resulting in my finding focus and names for the characters.

  2. Totally loved Diane's post. It all made so much sense. I mean who's writing the story anyway.

    I'd love to win this so I could have a chance to read her work.

    I am a follower


  3. What an unusual but helpful post by Dianne Castell on the process of writing, editing and the personal effect of critiquing, editing. The fear of losing your voice in your writing to a group of individuals who may not totally understand the intent of your writing would surely be fearful. I think Dianne has come up with a great idea of using brainstorming to support the editing process and future book development is something other authors shouldlook into. Great article.

    bstilwell12 at comcast dot net