Category: Stuff That’s Important

Is A Critique Group Right For You?

(by SICCO Board Member Connie Campbell Berry)

You’ve spent months alone with your characters. The setting of your novel is more real to you than your hometown. You can quote whole chapters word for word. You laugh and cry at all the right places. But is your manuscript ready to be seen by agents and publishers?

Maybe not.

What you need is feedback. An unbiased take on your dialogue, characterization, and plot flow. Someone to point out lapses in continuity or point of view. Someone to catch the typos your brain automatically corrects. But where can you find unbiased readers who don’t demand your firstborn in payment?

One option is to join a critique group. A critique group is a small group of people who read and give feedback on each others’ submissions. Sometimes After belonging to several critique groups, here are the top ten things I’ve learned:

  1. You can’t write a novel by committee.

Critique groups work best when members feel free to express honest opinions and writers feel free to ignore them. You are the final arbiter of your work.

  1. Agree on the guidelines.

Will you meet in person or online? How many pages will you submit? How long will you have to complete critiques? My suggestion is to limit submissions to

ten or twenty pages, double-spaced. The fewer members of the group, the more pages you might agree to read. Reading whole scenes or whole chapters is the best, but the length can vary greatly. Talk about it in advance so everyone’s on the same page. A week or two to complete critiques is usually workable (depending on the number of participants and length of submissions). The important thing is to agree in advance.

  1. Limit the number in the group.

More than five is probably too many. Critiquing four submissions every two

weeks takes time. Most of us have day jobs and families.

  1. Seek a group with relatively similar skills and projects.

Including an inexperienced writer with those more skillful can work, but it can also be frustrating. Critique partners aren’t teachers or editors. And while good writing is good writing, the norms for various genres vary wildly. Would a group of cozy mystery writers really get dystopian fantasy? Would a writer of steamy romances fit into a group writing Christian historical fiction?

  1. Share approximate word count in advance.

If three manuscripts fall in the 75,000 to 80,000 range and one is an epic of 250,000 words, you’ve got a problem. Will three of you hang in there with the fourth for several additional months at the rate of 10 pages per week? If manuscripts are dissimilar in length, agree on a plan. Those with shorter manuscripts might agree to post revisions or another WIP.

  1. Don’t expect to be told how magnificent you are.

Be open to both positive and negative feedback. If you don’t want an honest

critique, ask your mother to read your manuscript instead.

  1. Don’t argue.

Avoid the temptation to defend or explain your work. You’ve made no promises to agree with or use the feedback of others. Asking questions, however, can be very helpful. For example: “Can you tell me why that section didn’t work for you?”

  1. Be timely.

Submit on time and finish critiques on time. Period.

  1. Include positive feedback.

In addition to pointing out what doesn’t work, tell your critique group partners what you loved: a character finely drawn, a passage you just couldn’t put down, a lovely turn of phrase, the place where you laughed out loud. There is always something positive to say.

  1. Give group members the right to opt out.

No explanations necessary.

If you are interested in forming or joining a critique group, find a local chapter of one of the national writers’ organizations like Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and American Christian Fiction Writers. I hooked up with my first critique group through the Guppies, an online chapter of Sisters in Crime, dedicated to helping writers get published.

The Columbus chapter of Sisters in Crime (SiCCo) has several Writing Critique sessions planned for 2018. Check our Facebook page and website for dates and locations. Those participating will register in advance, submit pages, and download the pages of others to read and comment in advance.

Attending writers’ conferences and workshops is another great way to meet fellow writers. The critique group I’m in now was formed at Seascape Writers’ Retreat in Connecticut.

Or you can find a group online. Check out these possibilities:

Ladies Who Critique (

The Critique Circle (

The Writer’s Chatroom (

Absolute Write (

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HOWDY 2018!


Hey, welcome!  This is Patrick Stuart, the upcoming 2018 SICCO President taking over the reins so that our 2017 President, Kristin Crump, can spend a long sabbatical recuperating relaxing after an incredibly successful year.  To recoup; in 2017, we had several successful speakers, including Cleveland author and winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award  D.M. Pulley (February), Pulitzer Prize-winning author and novelist Julia Keller (June), and a field trip to the Ohio Fire Marshal Forensics Laboratory (August).  In addition, we dissected the book Girl On A Train (January), watched and discussed the movie Chinatown (March), and had our annual member writer’s workshop (May).  And, oh yeah . . . our daylong BIG EVENT in September, with speakers including Peter Tobin (U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Ohio), Gary Wilgus (Special Agent with the Ohio BCI Forensic Underwater Dive Team), Mitchell Seckman (detective with the Columbus Division of Police), and keynote speaker Andrew Welsh-Huggins (Associated Press reporter and author of the Andy Hayes mystery series).  Holy bovine . . . no wonder Ms. Kristin is wore out.  And this year proves to be just as exciting and intriguing.  Here’s a small teaser:

For 2018, the SICCO board decided to spend the year focusing on (drumroll); writing.  This will be a year spent getting back to basics and supporting one another for the sole purpose of getting published.  So instead of one critique meeting, we’ll now have (3) . . . tentatively February, May and October/November (also NaNoWriMo month).  However, this doesn’t mean we’re abandoning our regular speakers.  We have a way-cool list of speakers and/or trips where we’re still finalizing the details (see our Events category for regular updates and changes).  Once we get confirmation we’ll put it out there, but in the meantime we don’t want to jinx ourselves.  In addition, we’re in the last stages of finalizing our Manuscript Critique group.  Need beta readers?  Contact us.  If a rough draft of your manuscript is complete, we’ll distribute it among member volunteers for a healthy critique.  Because we want to see more authors exchanging words for filthy lucre.  And in order for this to happen, you need resources.  So once we get the details finalized, it’ll be another resource available to you as a member.  Because although we’re already part of a national organization with over 3600 members across the country, and our local chapter already has award-winning members, NYTBR authors, etc., we want more.  We’re just weird like that.  Helping to get you published makes us a little, well . . . giddy.  We like giddy.

So come join us for 2018.  If you’re unaware, we typically meet the last Saturday of each month, at a local central Ohio library location, with the exception of the occasional field visit or day-long special event.  And after our monthly meeting, we typically hit a local restaurant or diner to liquor up engage the speaker, commiserate over writerly obstacles, and basically offer group therapy.  In other words, we’re social.  Let’s face it:  writing is a monastic pursuit, and you need a place to get out of your shell occasionally.  So let us be it.  Come see what we’re about and hang for awhile.  Meet up with like individuals and talk about craft, writing the perfect query letter, finding an agent, navigating the rewards/perils of self-publishing, trading research tips, or just to have an excuse to get out of the freaking house and leave the pets/kids/spouse/significant other behind for a couple of hours.  Or four.  Whatever.  We’re writers . . . not mathematicians.

So stop by in 2018.  Attend gratis for one or two meetings and kick the tires.  Give us a test drive.  Check under the hood (enough with the car metaphors, Patrick, we get it!).  Sheesh, all right . . . you don’t have to yell.  But give us a look-see.  You just might like us.

Patrick Stuart:  SICCO 2018 President

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Saturday, September 23, 2017!

Our annual BIG EVENT!

Be there!


OK, if you missed this on the home page then you shan’t be blamed (we’ve been experiencing some website thingies since switching over to the new format and our site became . . . ah . . . infected).  Nothing you need worry about, but a big pain in the butt for us.  So we’ve been letting things sit and cool out until we were sure the fire was extinguished, and now we’re testing out the new wheels (baby steps) with the most pressing update to REMIND YOU OF OUR BIG EVENT ON 9/23/17!

Our speakers for the all-day extravaganza are as follows:

Andrew Welsh Huggins (Keynote Speaker):  AP reporter, local author of the Andy Hayes mystery series, and all-around terrific person (not to mention a popular past speaker for SICCO), Andrew will discuss his research methods for how he nails the details on his now 4-book series with Ohio University Press.

Peter Tobin (U.S. Marshal for the Ohio Southern District):  holy cow, is this someone not to miss.  Former Chief of Police for Powell and London (Ohio), SWAT commander, Narcotics Division Chief for BCI, and now Superintendent of BCI/US Marshal.  If you’re looking for info on how to catch bad guys or just a lot of wicked, big-time anecdotal stories, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Gary Wilgus (Supervisor for the Ohio BCI Forensic Underwater Dive Team):  we’re still scratching our heads how we were able to get this guy.  If you’ve ever wondered how they find the people with ice water in their veins to strap on SCUBA gear in the middle of a freezing January night to search for a drowning victim, this is your chance.  A definite must-see.

Mitchell Seckman (Detective with Columbus PD/member of the FBI Columbus Violent Criminal Task Force):  there’s not enough room to include this officer’s bona fides.  Part of the Columbus Police gang unit and a popular SICCO past speaker, Mitchell is the quintessential cop’s cop.  With a wealth of experience for anyone interested in police procedurals, cozies, mysteries, thrillers or anything in between.

So for anyone interested in reading or writing about criminal activities, this is for you.  Whether an author looking for technical details or a reader simply wondering ‘how the hell do they do that?’, this is a perfect way to spend a central-Ohio autumn day.  The time is 9:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. at the Blacklick Woods Metro Park/Beech-Maple Lodge.  Cost is $60 for SICCO members, $70 for non-members (lunch and breakfast goodies included).  Visit the SICCO Facebook page and click on the EVENTBRITE.COM link to sign up (parking is available, but space may be limited).  And please contact us at our Facebook site with any questions!

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Book Review – The Savage Apostle (by John Kachuba)

Review by Patrick Stuart

In February SICCO was lucky enough to have author John Kachuba speak, where much ofScreen Shot 2016-05-04 at 8.10.42 PM his presentation centered on his new book The Savage Apostle. The novel takes place during the 1670’s in the American colonies, with the crux of the story focusing on the expanding Plymouth settlement. The title of the book refers to a Christianized Native American named Sassamon who is murdered, with three members of the Pokanoket tribe then accused on trumped up charges to be decided by a white jury.

The Good: There’s a lot to like in this novel, especially if you’re a fan of historic fiction. The author spent several years researching this time period and it shows. The places and character names sound authentic, as do the settings and daily interactions of the characters, and there’s even guest appearances by historical characters such as Miles Standish, Squanto and Cotton Mather. The novel’s voice sounds transplanted from the seventeenth century so that the reader actually feels in the scene, rather than simply reading a modern description of another time period. Chapters oscillate between the main white protagonist (John Eliot) and the Native American protagonist (Metacom/Philip), and both points of view show their shared despair as Governor Winslow of the Plymouth settlers uses Machiavellian techniques to push Metacom to a fateful and calamitous decision. No matter how much might wish for a happy ending . . . unfortunately, we all know how history typically played out in these situations.

The Bad: Ironically, what makes the novel so rich in detail is what takes away somewhat from the plot. The novel is a trim 220 pages, and the plot is a pretty straightforward trial scene. Not much mystery is involved, and the decision and aftermath are no surprise. Which is the conundrum of historical fiction; how much can you deviate from history in the interest of story? Other novels from that time period do the opposite, such as The Pilgrim (by Hugh Nissenson) and The Midwife’s Tale (by Sam Thomas), where history becomes the background for the story to happen, allowing a tapestry of fiction and reality to form. Perhaps there’s more of a middle ground to investigate in future books.

Either way, John Kachuba is a promising author with a deep understanding of this vastly underrated and unexplored time period in American history. Although I felt this novel could’ve expanded into additional plot and intrigue, I definitely look forward to future work from him. Out of 4 thumbs up, I give this a strong 3.





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Review: Where All Light Tends to Go

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WHERE ALL LIGHT TENDS TO GO by David Joy, another Edgar nominee for best first novel, is a first rate debut novel. Jacob McNeely is a young man trapped by the circumstances of his Appalachian upbringing and convinced that his destiny is pre-ordained. His violent meth-dealing father controls what goes on in Cashiers, North Carolina, including the local authorities. Jacob dropped out of high school and has been working for his father for years on the promise that his father will eventually pay him for his efforts. The high point of his life comes from reuniting with Maggie, his first love, and a girl bound for bigger and better things.

Initially, I found it difficult to get into the book. Joy is a very descriptive writer, and in the beginning, he made use of a number of clichés. As I got further into the book, I was swept away by his use of language, sense of place, ability to catch the reader off guard with brutal and often upsetting incidents, and heart-pounding pacing. I highly recommend this book.

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The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield

Review by David Ploskonka

I reaScreen Shot 2016-03-19 at 6.05.26 PMd a lot of books on writing. My nightstand almost always has one or two books from the library about how to write a better novel, better characters, better anything. And I’ll tell you what – most of them are terrible. If I had a dollar for every book chockfull of bad advice or painful clichés, I could buy my own publishing house.

But that is precisely why I get so excited when I find one that is good. And let me tell you, I’ve found a good one.

The Scene Book: A Primer for The Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield is jewel: detailed, concise, practical, and full of great examples. Scene Book explains that every good piece of fictional writing requires good scenes. Its central premise is that to write a good scene you must understand the following:

  • Every scene has an EVENT
  • Every scene has a FUNCTION and a FOCAL POINT
  • Every scene has a STRUCTURE
  • Every scene has a PULSE

The author then unpacks all of this over the course of 14 chapters. Each of these chapters include instruction, actual scene examples, and analysis of what works in those scenes, making each chapter a mini-course in scene construction. Scofield even has the best explanation of the differences between conflict and tension that I’ve ever seen.

Most of the scene examples come from the “literary” genre and include examples by people like Raymond Carver, Richard Stone, and Joy Williams. While I love these writers, this is not what I write. But no matter—I found the examples elucidating enough that I did not need them to match my genre of choice. Whether I am writing or revising, I find myself reaching for The Scene Book over and over to help me out of jams. I fully recommend it!

Table of Contents Below
Part One

The Scene Primer:

  • The Basics (Ch. 1)
  • Event and Meaning (Ch. 2)
  • Beats (Ch. 3)
  • The Focal Point (Ch. 4)

Part Two

  • The Heart of a Scene: Pulse (Ch. 5)
  • Tension (Ch. 6)
  • Negotiation (Ch. 7)
  • Images (Ch. 8)

Part Three

  • Some Useful Scene Skills: Scene Activity and Character Response (Ch. 9)
  • Scene Openings (Ch. 10)
  • Big Scenes (Ch. 11).

Part Four

  • Moving to Independent Study: Reading for Story and Scene (Ch. 12)
  • Evaluation (Ch. 13)
  • Scenarios (Ch. 14).Sample Scenes

    Further Reading

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“X” Marks a Good Book

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Review by Carolyn Melvin

Sue Grafton is another author I admire. I’ve read every one of her alphabet books and was very much looking forward to reading the newest, X.

In this latest installment, private investigator, Kinsy Millhone, has several cases that are demanding her attention.  She is approached by a wealthy woman named Hallie Battencourt to find her son, Christian Satterfield, who has just been released from prison. It was supposed to be an easy job, but Kinsey discovers that Hallie was lying, and Kinsey gets involved in a domestic dispute. At the same time, Ruth, the widow of Pete Wolinsky, a private eye with whom Kinsey once worked, hires Kinsey to sort through her late husband’s files, since the IRS is threatening an audit. Kinsey soon discovers new information that opens up a series of events from the past. The third case involves Kinsey’s landlord Henry Pitts’ new retired, elderly neighbors, Joseph and Edna. While Henry takes them at face value, Kinsey finds them supremely annoying and becomes suspicious of their motives as she looks further into their background.

Beautifully constructed and well written, X is a satisfying, if somewhat slow, read. Sue Grafton still delivers, and I anxiously await the last two novels in the series.


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The Nature of the Beast

Review written by Carolyn Melvin, SiCCO Treasurer Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 7.51.49 PM

One of my all-time favorite mystery authors is Louise Penny. I eagerly await each of her releases with great anticipation, and I have never known her to disappoint. The Nature of the Beast, the newest in her Chief Inspector Gamache series, is a different, in that it is a bit more thriller than mystery, but for me, it was still among her better efforts.

Armand Gamache, retired from his position as the head of homicide for the Surete of Quebec, and his wife, Reine Marie have moved to Three Pines, an almost magical Quebecois village across the border from Vermont. Among his circle of friends, Gamache befriends nine year old Laurent Lepage, an out-going boy with a vivid imagination. Each day Laurent races home from his adventures exploring the woods near his home with stories of alien invasions, wild beasts and other amazing creatures. When he arrives home one afternoon insisting that everyone should come to see something extraordinary that he has found, no one takes him seriously, including Gamache. When Laurent disappears, and is later found dead, Gamache becomes involved in the investigation with his former colleagues from the Surete.

The usual cast of quirky characters is back, and, as always, I love the dialogue and the humor. Penny is unsurpassed in her ability to build a sense of heart-stopping urgency. In her earlier books the stakes were more personal. This time, Penny creates a threat with potential world-wide impact.  I highly recommend this book.

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The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley (by Jeremy Massey)

book cover (last four days)Book Review by Patrick Stuart, SiCCO President

I was tipped to this debut novel by our very own SICCO member, Connie Berry, because I suspect she knows I like weird storylines and funky plots. And The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley definitely fits that description.

The novel centers on the protagonist Patrick (a.k.a., Paddy) Buckley, a middle-aged funeral director in Dublin, Ireland, who lost his pregnant wife and has since dealt with it via insomnia and work. Despite his professionalism and careful manner, learned from his casket-making father until his death from a car crash, Paddy is quite literally an accident waiting to happen. And true enough, in a blinding rainstorm he runs over a pedestrian crossing the road. The unintended victim is Donal Cullen, younger brother of Vincent Cullen, the most feared mobster in Dublin. And once Paddy recognizes what’s happened he speeds away in his damaged car, but not without one witness getting a partial view of his profile.

You can pretty much figure out what happens next. As a top employee at the most prestigious funeral home in Dublin, Paddy is soon tasked with Donal’s funeral. He has to meet with Vincent Cullen to arrange the details, and his guilt almost gives him away. Vincent is ‘the alpha male of alpha males’ . . . a character both intensely charming and strangely beautiful, but nonetheless brutal and vicious, wearing his barely tamped aggression like a second skin. Much of the allure of the novel is undoubtedly Vincent, who makes an art form of intimidating people. In the hands of a lesser novelist he might have been ham-fisted and stock, but the author paints him like an artist, something between Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt. Eventually Vincent finds the truth of his brother’s death, and the reader finds out the real malevolence of the Irish mob. Mobsters of the United Kingdom are in a different class than our own home-grown variety, and the Cullen crew is a great example. Which makes the story unique, intense and terrifying as the plot progresses.

Lest anyone be turned off by the fact that everything takes place around a funeral home, keep in mind that the Irish grieve like nobody else. These are drawn-out, sonorous, serious affairs, which doesn’t mean that the occasional slapstick mistakes occur. Such as the wrong person being cremated by a London colleague . . . no doubt intended as an Irish tweak at British expense. And author Jeremy Massey, also the son of an Irish funeral director, provides plenty of detail that gives the story additional spice. At times the plot goes off in unnecessary directions with elements of magical realism, hokey love interests, occasional plot holes and a somewhat disappointing ending, but the excellent writing and unique premise carries this novel. Jeremy Massey is a natural storyteller and an author to watch: read this and you’ll never look at a funeral quite the same way again.

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Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plumb Series

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Review written by by Kristin Crump, SiCCO Secretary

I love to read. I really love to read. I have since I was a little girl. Back then my bookcases were filled with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mysteries. My tastes have changed but now, as then, I get hooked on a good series. I enjoy seeing characters I’ve come to regard as friends come back time after time, getting into new predicaments and finding danger around every turn, only to be rescued (either by their own ingenuity or someone else’s) at the last possible moment.

Last November I decided to give Janet Evanovich a try. Even though I knew she was immensely popular, I’d never picked up one of her books. I was addicted as soon as I started reading book 1, One For The Money. The entire series revolves around the life/train wreck of the main character, Stephanie Plum, a New Jersey girl turned bounty hunter. She works for her cousin Vincent Plum, who she isn’t proud to admit is a branch on her family tree and who she had to blackmail into giving her a job by threatening to reveal his amorous relationship with a duck.

Stephanie will be the first to admit she isn’t great at her job. Most of the time she isn’t even good but she perseveres none the less. Aided by her cohort Lula, an ex-ho, who has a size 4 body image in a size 16 reality, and her Grandma Mazzur, who carries a .45 in her purse, they are always getting Stephanie into more trouble than she was in to begin with.

Other main characters in the books include Stephanie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend Joe Morelli, a Trenton cop. Ranger, the other man in her life, who is a cross between Batman and GI Joe. Her mother, who drinks to get through dinner and irons when she’s stressed, her father who tries to ignore everyone around him, especially his mother-in-law, and Connie, the receptionist at the bail bonds office. In addition to the main characters you’ll also see a whole host of secondary characters who make appearances throughout the series. Most of the books are set in Trenton, New Jersey, specifically “The Burg”, a Trenton suburb. Stephanie and her friends do take trips to Atlantic City and the “Shore” though in search of their targets…and a little fun.

Each book in the series has a number in the title, One For The Money, Two For The Dough, Three To Get Deadly…you get the picture. The latest in the series is Tricky Twenty-Two. Each and every book will have you laughing out loud at the hijinks of Stephanie and Lula and their friends as they set about trying to solve mysteries and apprehend criminals who have skipped out on their court dates and their bail.

If you haven’t read any of the Stephanie Plum novels, I highly recommend them. I also recommend not reading them at night, unless of course you want to wake up your spouse with your laughter. If so, then by all means, carry-on!

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