Saturday, November 17, 2012

It Takes A Village

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: We LOVE debut authors! And we are always eager to introduce you. Today,  Lucie Smoker, who lives with her husband and two sons on the great North American prairie. She won me over then she said she "turns caffeine into stories." A girl after my own heart.

A Book as Community

More than plot and characters, a good book opens up a Pandora's box of fresh ideas to you, the reader. Set them loose in your mind and you hope to find some piece of wisdom, an attitude or a fresh direction for your afternoon jog ... but where do those fresh ideas begin?  How do we make them explode on the page?  Writers often portray process as an almost-magical event: scenes come to us complete;  animated characters start talking; and 86,000 words later, a novel?  Not so easy. 

I can only speak for myself, but in my humble experience, writing comes out of community. 

I meet people who inspire a twist, a smile, a snide comment—and yes maybe that comment comes out as part of a complete scene—but that smile was born from someone I met twenty years ago or last week.  That plot twist may have come from an experience I had on a trip to Guatemala, a three-week research dive into drug cartels, or an article I read in the Quilting News. 

To assemble all of these Polaroid-like moments into a novel, I have to have a vision, a plan.  And I need some help. 

Friends, readers, and especially other writers offer insights into my prose.  They tell me when the words bore them, when I need to find a vehicle to bring momentum to the moment, or when they just can't wait  to see that next scene.  I'm not the first author to write with the help of a community or just a friend. 

“Inklings,” the most famous writing club from Oxford, sported CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Roger Lancelyn Green, and others reading aloud and then offering constructive criticism of the work.  Such critiques from other writers can elevate or emaciate a scene, but the suggestions don't always feel good when you first hear them.  No matter how tactfully it's presented, a critique can bruise your confidence.  Thus, the Inklings often met on Tuesdays--at a local pub. 

Lucie (far right) with members of her writing club at a conference.
My own local writing club also meets at a university, though not at the pub—at least not yet.  We most often share techniques on the craft of writing, we read our work and critique.  The ladies and one gentleman normally share everything they loved about that story or poem.  Then if the scene didn't work, one of the ladies will gently say, in the nicest way possible, that maybe that story “wasn't my style” or perhaps they were just “waiting for something to happen.”  Even sugar-coated, the negatives sting.  

Maxine still participates at 103.
They say that Truman Capote critiqued like a subtle knife. My online club is my personal Capote.  Everyone's anonymous.  When I post a story in that critique room, I have already read their agreement stating that, yes, I do want to hear their honest opinions.  I put up my scene and leave that page as fast as I can.  A few hours later, I return to find that someone has either sliced and diced my story more efficiently than a set of Ginsu knives, left a recipe for the proper use of a semi-colon, or maybe garnished me with a tidbit of praise.  I'm most grateful for the slicers.  When I get over the shock, I actually take a good look at their suggestions.  I learn something.  My scene starts cooking. 

The most resounding piece of critique I ever received was from a reader.  Writers often invite strangers to read their works-in-progress and offer personal reviews.  We call them “beta-readers.”  One such reader, frustrated that I had not described the setting of a scene in Chapter 13 wrote:

“Lucie, I like the fast pace, but please, when we enter a scene, tell me what it looks like, what it smells like--and who is sleeping with who.”   

My debut book DISTORTION  would never have been the same without Sharon.  We ended up meeting over lunch to discuss the story and characters.  Other friends taught me how to shoot an AK-47, why skaters can execute a powerslide on a wooden porch, and what defines the mystical relationship between a twenty-something woman and her cell phone.  When I look at the pages, I see my community.

Tell us your book-community stories.  How did you help a writer or receive help with a book?  


Lucie Smoker's imagination grew up at a Little House on the Prairie and at 221B Baker Street.  Her best friends were her little sister Minnie, The Hardy Boys and the Count of Monte Cristo.  Like them, her life followed a path of adventure, sometimes intrigue.  Then she fell in love and found home down a long, empty road. 

Distortion is a mystery about an artist who paints a crime scene in reverse perspective and turns a murder investigation backwards--onto her friends.  The FBI asks her to spy on them, for her country.  Adele refuses ... until someone starts killing them.  Now she'll use the FBI, the clues--even her friends--to save them. 

Distortion is out as of Oct 30 in all formats,  Here's its Amazon page:   


  1. What a great post. I'm going to check out the book now.

    I agree. One of the best perks of writing is all the wonderful things that we get to learn and do in the name of research!

  2. Community...well Sisters in Crime comes to mind. One meeting in particular, when we had a Private Eye as our guest speaker. Stories of catching theft rings, hiding in mud, and working with the police had us riveted. Our writers huddled around him long after the meeting, and I believe he is still in contact with several as a resource.

    Lucie, I saw in your amazon review that your character, Addie is an artist. What role did the art community play in writing Distortion?

  3. Love this essay, Lucie! I totally agree, it's all about community, especially finding the folks who can be critical but support you at the same time.

    When I first tried to write a novel, I would thrust the new pages at my husband when he came in from work. here, read these, what do you think?

    Now he often doesn't read until the book is published, but I have a writers group and several readers--would hate to have to do without them!

    Best wishes on the new book!

  4. So interesting, Lucie - sounds like you've found a great community of writers. And congratulations on your new book!

    I find my need for critique has changed over time. I used to relish a monthly critique session on new pages I'd written with a wonderful writer's group. Then, at some point, I started to feel as if it wasn't helpful -- it only made me continually second-guess myself. I needed to draft the book and see where I was going, finish the draft, revise it as much as I could, and only then get it critiqued.

    The challenge now is being open to whatever my critiquers have to say, even if it means radically changing a character or plot line. No one said it was going to be easy.

  5. Thanks so much, y'all. Janet, I used to organize art events in Houston, plus I shared a house with the artist John Delk (now in NY). When I sat down to write the mystery, I loved the idea of using both the unique artist view of the world, plus the paintings themselves as parts of the mystery. I worked wiuth several artists at defferent times for insight on their process, on pigments, and on reverse perspective.

  6. Hey Lucie! So lovely...thank you!

    I remmbr the first day I walked into a sisters in crime meeting..I knew absolutely no one1 It was what, 6 years ago? And I met Hallie..! and it's been history in the making since then. Amazing, huh? As as for community, I feel so passionalte abouti t, I even made a video. I'll dig up the link..

    Still, though, I'm not in a critique group. I just--would rather do the writing work myself. But htat's just me!

    And yes, Lucie, let's hear more anout the book!

  7. What a great post! I never thought of it as community before, I thought more that life is the writer's pallet, but I think I like community better!!

    Congrats on your new book!

  8. Lovely post, Lucie! I was in a writer's group for years, and they were a great help in getting my first and subsequent books published.

    Over time, however, distance and circumstance separated us, and by that time we found we could predict each others comments practically to the letter, so it was probably time to move on.

    I now have several friends who read the books at different stages and have extremely helpful suggestions. I also have a great editor, who never fails to make the books better. So I suppose my communities have evolved.

  9. Welcome, Lucie! Terrific post!

    I've been a member of a small critique group for years, one of the only two original members left in it. I also count on my local branch of Sisters in Crime, Border Crimes for support and camaraderie in this strange business of writing.

    I tend not to critique my books with my group because, when I'm writing a novel's first draft, I'm usually moving too fast for a group that meets once a month and has a 25-page limit. Also, I don't like anyone to see my first drafts. I revise as far as I can take it myself before I try to get someone else's feedback. Then, I ask Ben, who's a professional editor, to take a look at what I've got before sending it off to my agent.

    Sometimes, though, I'll solicit a special beta reader's opinion. The project I'm working on is in another genre entirely, and I asked a bookseller who specializes in this genre to look at the first three chapters and synopsis to see if I'd captured the right kind of voice and if the concept was a good one. Happily, she said yes to both, then gave me some excellent suggestions for changes.

    Best wishes on your new book!

  10. Lucie - I can truly understand how your writing community both supports you and makes you grow as a writer. I started out years ago in a closed writers group under Jennifer Crusie. It was the best experience of my writing life because, like you, they could wield a ginsu to my work with the utmost professionalism and provide the occasional praise when appropriate. And again, like you, it was the ginsu knife that helped me grow and learn the most. Though praise is wonderful for writers, it isn't really what makes us become better. Even today, I covet the critiques that point out the shortcomings in my work. So thrilled to see you have debuted and best of luck with the book -- and your career!

  11. A writer's group or a writing partner is like a marriage - it either fits or it does not. You have to find what is best for your own style and needs and go with it. Sometimes you have to test a lot of waters first. You'll know what fits best! Thelma Straw in manhattan

  12. I'm not part of a critique group, but if I have a problem I can count on my friend Susan to say something insightful. I knew there was something very wrong with the manuscript for my YA, Five Minutes More. Susan read it and said, "You can't kill Seth." She was right. (Okay, it took a while for me to admit that.)

  13. To me, whether we work with a writing group or have a set of "first readers" the people who first look at our work are crucial.

    An example: When I started to write the odd story here and there, I gave a couple of stories to my husband to read first. I waited with my heart in my mouth as he read, was pleased when I heard a chuckle from the next room and my heart sank when he said "That was great; I love it". Well, darn. I might as well have given it to my mother.

    The point is, our early readers need to be people we can trust to be honest (while not hurtful) -- and I really do agree that the concept of Community says that in a profound way!

  14. Isn't it amazing how so many of us have benefited from the community? One of my betas was a magazine copy editor,a major critique was given selflessly by an agent who doesn't handle my genre. He just liked the sound of my book.

    Hank, thanks for asking about it. DISTORTION's a mystery about an artist who paints a crime scene in reverse perspective and turns a murder investigation backwards--onto her friends. Its themes, however, are about reverse perspective, friendship and female body image.

    Reverse perspective is an art technique that enlarges the background of a painting whilst shrinking the front. My artist protagonist, Adele, uses that technique to paint portraits--because isn't the best measure of a person the effect they have on the world. I created Adele Proust to be the "bombshell" who isn't stupid, evil or blonde. She allows me to explore female body image and what happens to women who try to use sex to get what they want.