Critique Groups

Critique groups are integral to writing, and some would say a faction such as this gives breath and life to ones work. I know I usually begin my posts with the title in mind, and somewhere along the way go into a left turn that leads me one hundred miles in another direction. But, this time it will be deliberate. For us old timers (I mean how long we’ve been writing or trying to write), we know a few things that happen at a critique session:

  1. Bringing your work before your peers to obtain feed back on what has been produced in the past month or since you last met;
  2. Brainstorming – bouncing ideas around for those who are stuck in a plot, scene, chapter beginning, ending, etc.;
  3. Reviewing your work for grammar, structure; and
  4. Motivation – spiritual and intellectual.

I joined New Jersey Romance Writers (NJRW) and Romance Writers of America (RWA) twelve years ago, just as I moved from Rockaway, New Jersey to East Brunswick. Then, through NJRW I became hooked up with a group of women calling themselves, “The Lusty Ladies,” who I must say left an indelible work ethic on my craft as well as my heart.

Once a month the six of us would meet, right after work for me, at a members’ home where we’d begin the evening with pizza, and someone always managed to bring desert. Back then, only one of the six held bragging rights to being published.  Then, maybe a year before I moved here to Virginia (give or take), we took in another member who had stories published in True Confessions Magazine. Everyone usually read something at every meeting.  We would share stories, our written fiction works, as well as an account of our day-to-day lives since we were together last.  And, if anyone knows anything about writing, they are aware a writer’s story is their baby; they’ve sweated, cried, and agonized over its formation – so the person with whom the tale is shared becomes a confidant – almost as intimate as the doctor delivering a son or daughter, theoretically that is.

Growing up in the city, I think helps some of us develop a thick skin; some of us…maybe. I must say for the newbie out there, you have to bite the nail and dive right in, because as one of my critique buddies said, “otherwise you’re writing in a vacuum.”  Okay, so if you go in “thin-skinned,” after a few months, your hide should be toughened enough for anything.  But, you cannot trade the hours spent learning in such a setting. Along the way, I got in my head to take some courses at a school for creative writing.  After I finished the classes, I wrote a piece for one of the trade newsletters comparing that experience with the local chapter. What I said in that article still holds true today. Everything taught in those courses, I already knew. Why? Because of all the information picked up from the work shops, meetings, my special bond with my critique buddies, and those many critique sessions. I am in the process of looking for another group, I’ve had two since I’ve lived in Virginia. But, I have to say, and I must be candid here, I have this fear that I’ve been spoiled for life.  I don’t think I will ever; can ever find another party of women who can equal the professionalism and camaraderie found with “The Lusty Ladies.” Thanks guys, and I just want to say how much I miss our little meetings.

Story Conflict: Do You Have Enough? by Ciara Ballintyne

Conflict is what drives a story. You might have heard it said a story should begin in the middle of the action, which is often misunderstood to mean literal action, like a car chase or a fight scene. What it really refers to is conflict.

Most writers recognize very early-on that conflict is required – the protagonist needs a villain to fight, or a mystery to solve. But conflict goes beyond this. It’s not enough to have this over-arching external conflict. A character needs internal and external conflicts, and there needs to be multiple conflicts. Ideally, the resolution of each successive conflict should up the stakes and increase the pressure on the protagonist – push them towards an untenable situation or impossible decision, force them to act in ways they never would have previously considered. It’s almost impossible to create this kind of situation without having both an internal and external conflict.

So what is the difference between internal and external conflicts?

An external conflict is fairly readily understood – these are physical obstacles to the character attaining their goals. It could be another person (Die Hard), a force of nature (The Day After Tomorrow), a beast (The Ghost and the Darkness), society or cultural restraints (Romeo & Juliet), technology (Terminator), or fate itself. You need to have at least one of these. You could have many more, or you could have multiple conflicts of the same kind. Man vs man is easily the most common. If you only have one external conflict (one, total, not one type), your story may be overly-simplistic.

In my novel, Deathhawk’s Betrayal, the key external conflict is man vs man (or woman vs man in this case), but there are easily five of these types of conflicts, each consisting of the protagonist, Astarl, against another person, each of whom have different reasons and goals for opposing her. She also has an external conflict with society.

Internal conflict is more complex. Internal conflict is man vs himself, and consists of any kind of mental or emotional impediment to what he wants. Think of Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes, which he must overcome to attain his goal – that’s an internal conflict. Internal conflicts can also arise from cultural, ethical or religious beliefs. If those beliefs dictate the character behave in a certain way, and those beliefs are challenged, or the character encounters someone with different beliefs, an internal conflict arises.

Internal conflict forces a character to grow and change throughout the course of the book. These are the conflicts that truly challenge a character as a person.

This is why it’s important for your character to have flaws. A perfect character won’t have any internal conflicts. A perfect character won’t be challenged to grow. Back story is what gives your character flaws and internal conflicts.

How can you identify your conflicts?

Some writers can do this intuitively, but for others there are a variety of tools. The one I like to use is a simple Goal Motivation Conflict (GMC) chart. This is a simple grid matrix used to identify, for each of your characters, their goals (what they want), their motivation (why they want it), and the conflict (what’s preventing them from getting it). Don’t assume each character only has one goal – there may be one primary goal, or a first goal, but additional goals may develop along the way. For example, Astarl wants to heal her father – that’s her initial and primary goal throughout the book. That latter changes, and she has additional goals – she wants to help a friend, she wants a romantic relationship with a man she can’t have, she wants to find the man trying to kill her, and there are ‘sub-goals’ – things she must achieve to get closer to achieving her ultimate goal.

Each goal for each character must have a motivation. This isn’t essential so much to conflict, but to creating believable characters. If there is no reason for that character to have that goal, then their actions won’t ring true. If you find a character’s goal lacks motivation, you had better find one quick! Motivations may breed conflict where two characters’ motivations clash.

Once you’ve got the goals for each character, and the motivation for each goal, you need to identify what’s preventing the character from attaining that goal. If the answer is ‘nothing’, you have a big problem. Anywhere you find nothing preventing the character reaching the goal, you need to create an obstacle. Why? Because without an obstacle, there is no story! If Astarl healing her father was as simple as asking a duke for a loan of his magic item, and he said yes, none of the subsequent events in the book would have happened.

Some obstacles are generated by other character goals e.g. Astarl wants a magic artifact, but so do at least two other people, each of whom is trying to prevent the others getting it. This is a classic man vs man external conflict. Some conflicts will be created by the character’s own feelings and beliefs. So, Astarl is prevented from a happy relationship with her lover by her own fear of men. At the same time, he is also sabotaging their relationship, because of his own internal conflicts arising from a sense of duty and obligation.

A GMC chart can help you to build a workable plot by assisting you to work out where you have conflict or a lack of it. Not enough conflict? Pile more obstacles in the way of your protagonist.

All the conflicts need to drive your character towards the ‘Black Moment’, where all seems lost.

The ultimate conflict is to force your character to choose between two alternatives, neither of which is acceptable, or to put your character in a situation where he is forced to do something contrary to his nature.

Meet Ciara

Ciara Ballintyne is an Australian writer of high fantasy, lawyer, and dragon expert. Bent on world domination and born argumentative, Ciara invested her natural inclinations in a career in law. Her short story, A Magical Melody, is available as part of the newly-released Spells: Ten Tales of Magic ebook anthology.

Follow Ciara

E-book @ Smashwords

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Ciara Ballintyne (Website)

Critique Groups

Critique groups are integral to writing, and some would say a faction such as this gives breath and life to ones work. I know I usually begin my posts with the title in mind, and somewhere along the way go into a left turn that leads me one hundred miles in another direction. But, this time it will be deliberate. For us old timers (I mean how long we’ve been writing or trying to write), we know a few things that happen at a critique session:

  1. Bringing your work before your peers to obtain feed back on what has been produced in the past month or since you last met;
  2. Brainstorming – bouncing ideas around for those who are stuck in a plot, scene, chapter beginning, ending, etc.;
  3. Reviewing your work for grammar, structure; and
  4. Motivation – spiritual and intellectual.

I joined New Jersey Romance Writers (NJRW) and Romance Writers of America (RWA) twelve years ago, just as I moved from Rockaway, New Jersey to East Brunswick. Then, through NJRW I became hooked up with a group of women calling themselves, “The Lusty Ladies,” who I must say left an indelible work ethic on my craft as well as my heart.

Once a month the six of us would meet, right after work for me, at a members’ home where we’d begin the evening with pizza, and someone always managed to bring desert. Back then, only one of the six held bragging rights to being published.  Then, maybe a year before I moved here to Virginia (give or take), we took in another member who had stories published in True Confessions Magazine. Everyone usually read something at every meeting.  We would share stories, our written fiction works, as well as an account of our day-to-day lives since we were together last.  And, if anyone knows anything about writing, they are aware a writer’s story is their baby; they’ve sweated, cried, and agonized over its formation – so the person with whom the tale is shared becomes a confidant – almost as intimate as the doctor delivering a son or daughter, theoretically that is.

Growing up in the city, I think helps some of us develop a thick skin; some of us…maybe. I must say for the newbie out there, you have to bite the nail and dive right in, because as one of my critique buddies said, “otherwise you’re writing in a vacuum.”  Okay, so if you go in “thin-skinned,” after a few months, your hide should be toughened enough for anything.  But, you cannot trade the hours spent learning in such a setting. Along the way, I got in my head to take some courses at a school for creative writing.  After I finished the classes, I wrote a piece for one of the trade newsletters comparing that experience with the local chapter. What I said in that article still holds true today. Everything taught in those courses, I already knew. Why? Because of all the information picked up from the work shops, meetings, my special bond with my critique buddies, and those many critique sessions. I am in the process of looking for another group, I’ve had two since I’ve lived in Virginia. But, I have to say, and I must be candid here, I have this fear that I’ve been spoiled for life.  I don’t think I will ever; can ever find another party of women who can equal the professionalism and camaraderie found with “The Lusty Ladies.” Thanks guys, and I just want to say how much I miss our little meetings.