Mermaid for a Day – Willa Blair

In April of 2011, thirteen Mermaids met at the annual WRW Retreat and soon afterward formed the Waterworld Mermaids. One year later, those same crazy Mermaids gave a panel at the 2012 WRW Retreat on group blogging and declared one person Mermaid for a Day. It’s safe to say that we are all thrilled to introduce you to Willa Blair, Mermaid for a Day, soon-to-be published author of Highland Healer and all-around amazing person. Take it away, Willa…

First, I’d like to thank the Waterworld Mermaids for having me here today. Being an honorary Mermaid is so much fun. I love what you’ve done with the Mermaid Pool and I’m happy to be able to add my own little touches.

My debut book, HIGHLAND HEALER, is coming soon from The Wild Rose Press.

I moved from Maryland to Texas early last summer. I know, I know, it was hot. And I had to leave behind the best critique group in the world, run by Ruth Glick/Rebecca York. Though we’ve arranged it so I can Skype in when they meet (so they haven’t gotten rid of me yet) I wanted to have the same experience with writers here in Texas.

My local RWA chapter, the San Antonio Romance Authors group, was doing online critique twice a month. It’s a terrific vehicle and I highly recommend it, but I missed the face-to-face experience, so I volunteered to host a session at my house. In addition to meeting in-person, I wanted us to do what the Maryland group does — read aloud.

Ruth warned me that not everyone can do that – it’s uncomfortable at first for the reader, and not everyone is an “auditory learner” who can hear and make note of things they want to comment on. But reading aloud is the best way I’ve found to discover mistakes in your own writing. And it develops a useful listening skill – I can feel my brain stretching every time I sit in on one of these sessions. I have to pay attention to what is being said and that allows me to catch the flow and rhythm of the story, not just the mechanics of the punctuation, grammar and so forth.

The real benefit, though, is in the discussions, sometimes passionate, that these sessions provoke. The topic may be something within the story or the history or culture related to it, but inevitably that leads to the craft of writing or something about the writing business. We’ve celebrated each others’ successes, comforted each other through our disappointments, and taught each other a lot about writing. Even the most experienced, multi-published authors among us learn as well as teach. Oh, and yes, sometimes we just talk about men. We do like to talk about men, don’t we?

Here are some tips for establishing and running critique groups that I’ve learned at the feet of my mentors:

State a goal: The purpose of the group is to improve its members’ writing and help them get published. Always. No exception.

Establish ground rules to establish trust: The way to establish trust is to mandate that criticism is being given for the goal purpose and is always and utterly well-intended. That means that you have to be honest in telling someone what you think needs improvement, but you have to be able to do it in a way that protects their confidence in their abilities. You don’t necessarily go into the finer points of technique with a brand new writer; you comment in ways that they can use and learn and grow. And you can’t like everything. It’s not helpful. I belonged to a critique group early on in my writing career where everybody loved everything. And frankly, no one learned anything. That group was a good example of how not to do it.

Establish a process: Each person doesn’t read each time, but each person offers comments and critique. If someone is up against a deadline, they jump to the head of the line. If someone hasn’t read for a long time but has been an active participant, they jump to the head of the line when they have something to read. Otherwise, it’s up to the group – if there’s time for everyone to read, great. If not, some people volunteer to wait for the next meeting.

Try out different methods: In our SARA group, we’ve had people read their own writing and we’ve had each person read someone else’s writing. Some people need to see the words on paper and bring multiple copies of what will be read so that each person can mark up their pages. Personally, I prefer to read my own writing, but others are more comfortable taking notes if someone else reads their selection.

Be sensitive to each others’ moods: There are times when you can accept and even relish strong critiques, dissension of opinion over what you’ve written, even suggestions that mean you’ll have to tear your story apart and rework it. Remember that those comments are made to help you improve. But sometimes, for whatever reason, comments hit too close to home and the group needs to moderate its enthusiasm for helping you. Because of my years of experience in Ruth’s critique group, I’ve become much better at accepting criticism, and I’m a Leo — we don’t typically do that well. I’ve learned to use the critique – or to reject it if it doesn’t suit my purposes. It’s taken time to grow that extra layer of skin and to accept well-intentioned assistance, but it’s been worth it.

I know authors who say they can’t imagine being part of a critique group. They write too fast, or they get confused by the variety of opinions their work engenders, or they just want to go it on their own. That’s fine, but for me, a good critique group is a necessity of my writing life.

Thanks again, Mermaids. It’s been fun! I’ll see you around the Pool.  

Willa Blair won the 2011 WRW Marlene contest in the Paranormal category for Warrior (now Highland Healer) and she was also the 2012 Merritt Winner in the Paranormal category for Empath

Highland Healer is being released soon from The Wild Rose Press. You can find out more about Willa at her website, Facebook or follow her on Twitter – @willablair
 (we do!).

53 thoughts on “Mermaid for a Day – Willa Blair

  1. Welcome back to the Mermaid Pond Willa! And thank you for all that wonderful advice on critique groups! You are so right about not learning anything when someone tells you how fabulous your writing is. I tell my beta readers and anyone else critiquing my work to give me one thing I have done well, and at least three areas I need to improve on.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  2. Willa,
    I’m sharing this great information with my critique group. You have some great advice. All the best to you! Thanks for swimming with us today.

    Hugs and Fishy kisses! (OOO’s and :-%)

  3. Welcome Willa! I have to echo Loni and Dana and thank you for this excellent advice. I am curious to know if you’ve ever been in a situation where the group needed to”moderate its enthusiasm”, I love that by the way 😉

    Can’t wait to read “Highland Healer”! Congratulations!

    1. Thanks, Mermaid Carlene! Yes, we can get excited and involved with teasing apart and solving a plot problem. It makes it hard to write it all down when everyone starts talking at once (I wouldn’t say that Roberts Rules of Order are required, but you get the idea). Or when the group doesn’t like your latest absolutely wonderful scene or plot device, and you realize that you’re facing major surgery on your MS. It can be daunting and a bit overwhelming. Everyone recognizes this and quickly tones down the enthusiasm and the avalanche of comments. And some sends notes after the session expressing support. There’s nothing like being told “we know you can do it!” to get you going again.

  4. Thanks for having me here today, Mermaids! It’s great to be in the pool. It’s about the only water I’ve seen lately here in hot, dry Texas.

    I’ll answer questions as I see them, and of course, anyone is welcome to contact me via Facebook and my website.

    Hugs to all of you. Have a great weekend and a great Mermaid June!

  5. Hi Willa! We are so glad you are here with us in the lagoon today. I like the mandate that all criticism is given for the goal purpose. I think this implicit trust is essential for a critique group’s survival. Thanks for all the great advice!

  6. Yay Willa! I was so excited when you won mermaid for the day at the WRW retreat. Fate couldn’t have blessed us any more. 🙂

    This is a great guide for the critique group process. Crit groups still intimidate me a bit but I’ve found that the help they give is invaluable compared to a little bit of nerves.

    1. Thanks, Avery. I can’t take all (or even most) of the credit. I learned all of this from Rebecca York and the fabulous authors in her group. We’ve built up years of experience together and the group works really well. But each critique group has to find its own footing. These tips are meant to help a critique group more quickly become solid and supportive of all of its members.

      1. Enjoyed the post, Willa! I’m one of the lucky ones who benefited from your participation in our Thursday evening “class.” We miss you body and soul, but appreciate the “virtual you” on Skype. Groups are a very effective way to receive input from one’s peers. Each writer boasts a particular strength–some are plotmeisters, others are great at developing characters, others can tease out motivation brilliantly, or make dialogue sing. Get a group of these experts to advise you and it’s like striking gold. Love your new book BTW–and enjoyed hearing it come to life.

  7. Hoorah for Willa-Mermaid! Welcome to the lagoon!

    Love this post and all of your wonderful advice on critique groups. It’s tough to hear criticism of your writing but it can really help you focus and improve.

    I hope you have a wonderful, magical day with us!!!! Can’t wait for Highland Healer!

    1. Thanks for the warm welcome, Kerri and all the Mermaids. I love being here.

      Yes, critique is tough to take (especially for us Leo mermaids), but there’s no better way to learn how to capitalize on your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.

  8. Great post Willa! I had a fantastic critique group in North Texas that I truly miss working with. It wasn’t always easy, but we all worked hard to be sincere and supportive. I have no doubt my group helped me break in to the publishing world. The right critique group = GIFT!

  9. Hi, Linda.
    Thanks for the wonderful blog post. I am in three crit groups (including yours, thank you) and I find them to be quite different. In one, the author is not allowed to read her work. Unfortunately, this week the person the moderator selected to read my work simply was not a good reader. I knew my work was not the problem, because the chapter had been critiqued by other groups. It was a grueling experience. Thank goodness, people still laughed in the right places, but it will be in my nightmares for some time.

    I am amazed by how well the group that meets at your house makes wonderful suggestions. You are all incredible, and I learned SO much from the experience. Listening to all of you make suggestions for a member who needed ideas for a new series was amazing.

    I am in a third group, which I created for myself. I invited members of the San Antonio Writers Guild to come to my house every Tuesday evening to critique each other. There are around 50 members, and by sheer luck I got the most wonderful people to come. The 10 people have become a support group. When I broke my ankles, they ran errands for me and even brought me surprise soup. One member moved to Corpus, but we Skype her in now.

    Since I started the group, I get to read first. Then if others have more than we can get to in the evening, they draw Scrabble tiles to see who gets to read next, etc. That way I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings if they get left out. I serve tea, coffee, and Marie Callender’s (sp?) razzleberry pie. The cost is minimal. The benefit to me is priceless.

    We provide copies, but we read our own work. That way we can mark things as we go. I have learned a lot from the group. We are very honest with each other because we trust each other.

    Thanks for the article, and thanks for being you.

    1. Thanks, Marilyn. How sweet of you to say that!

      I’m glad you’re finding so much success with your critique groups. The diversity of opinion, which is a huge strength of critique groups, really helps. Each person notices something different.

      You’ve intrigued me – I’ve got to check out the SAWG!

    1. Hi Robin! Seriously? 110 percent. I’ve learned easily 98 percent of what I know about POV, plotting (I affectionately call them the “Plot Police”), motivation (cause and effect) and the business side of writing from them. Not to mention a few (okay, a lot) of grammar rules that I learned in school years ago and promptly forgot.

      With the Marlene win being responsible for another huge percentage, I’ve been very lucky. Talk about a confidence boost!

  10. Terrific post and sage advice, Willa! Yes, critique groups aren’t for everyone, but when you find one that clicks, it’s an immeasurable blessing. I’m so glad you found us here in Maryland and are still with us. Sounds as if you’ve struck gold again in Texas – or should that be oil? Can’t wait to hold Highland Healer in my hands and crow that we heard it first!! Woo-hoo! (Or should it be yee-haw?)

  11. Thanks for the post, Willa. Good suggestions. I’m not a huge fan of the read aloud critique, though I completely agree, it’s great to hear someone else read your work. I just don’t like critiquing in real time like that. The group I’m in locally, we email each other our work a couple of days before we meet. We then bring our copy of each other’s chapter with track changes edit/suggestions.

    I’m also very active in an online group that specializes in a particular type of historicals. Great group and it helps keep an eye on historical accuracy in addition to the regular stuff.

    Good luck with Highland Healer.

    1. Thanks! It took some getting used to, but I’ve come to like it a lot because of what I hear that I didn’t see. There are lots of ways to critique and be critiqued. The trick is to find a group where you can learn.

  12. Great post, Willa. I was in a wonderful critique group, the Uno’s Goddesses (we met at Uno’s pizzeria in Manassas), for six years. We broke up because two of us moved away and the third is no longer writing, but I can’t say enough about how much they helped my writing. On the other hand, I stopped participating in another group because one member’s feedback was, to me, both unhelpful and delivered in a way that didn’t feel constructive. I’m enjoying the group that meets at your house. 🙂

  13. Great post, Willa, congrats on being our Mermaid for a Day! I hope you have fun splashing with us in the pool.

    Your comments on critique groups brings to mind the wonderful women I worked with when I was just getting started. It would be so nice to have a critique group again… that trust issue is a big one, however. I can’t quite get myself over that hump.

  14. Willa,
    Thanks so much for sitting in the right seat at our workshop. 🙂 I’m so glad you were our Mermaid of the Day!
    Your book sounds so amazing, and I can’t wait to read it.
    Any your tips on critique groups is invaluable. Currently, I have a small critique group of 3 which meets when one of us is in need of a drink. We end up gathering at Mike’s American Grill, and we drink and laugh, and then at the end (after we’ve had several drinks) decide we should discuss our writing. I might have to cut them loose. (Just kidding.) I’m not mentioning any names. They know who they are…
    This post was really helpful though. I’m so glad you were able to benefit so much from your CPs.
    Good luck with HIGHLAND HEALER! And thanks for swimming with us!

    1. Wait – WHAT???

      First of all, you will never be able to get rid of me. Or, ahem, whoever you’re talking about above.

      Secondly, sometimes we, or you know whoever, talk about our writing WHILE we’re drinking. Not just after.

      Third, when is our next CG meeting?

      1. Kerri,
        What makes you think I’m talking about you? I could totally be talking about another critique group. But that would be extremely embarrassing if I was involved in TWO critique groups that just ended up drinking all night.
        As for when our next critique group meets….who needs a drink? 🙂
        There’s a Mojito with my name on it…

          1. That’s because you haven’t been a part of our very serious critique group. We are die-hard writers and take our writing very, very seriously. We don’t drink while we critique. Ever. And we certainly don’t talk about anything else if it doesn’t pertain to writing.
            But, if you really want to join us for drinks some time, we’ll be more than happy to invite you. But definitely not for our very serious critique group. 🙂 That’s just some really heavy stuff. LOL.
            And Avery is right. I do happen to have a problem with gnawing on my sugar cane sticks. I’m like a beaver. It’s embarrassing. And it only gets worse as the night wears on…

  15. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Willa! The SARA critique group was invaluable to me with my current release. Not only does it help with your own manuscript but you learn techniques, other viewpoints, etc. from your partners. Would not write again without one!

    Congratulations on your new release! Can’t wait to read it!

    1. Well, who says I want to be part of your stuffy old critique group? I just jealous that I’m missing out on a night out mermaid style! ;-D

      1. You better clarify that you’re being a bit snotty to our drinking critique group of 3 and not the SARA one that Sophie and Willa referred to. LOL.
        I’m sure they are very professional and even talk about their books.

      2. No, I definitely told it to reply to your post Kim! I wouldn’t dream of being snotty to people who actually discuss manuscripts at their critique group meetings. ;-D

        1. Ouch. Now you’re just being plain nasty. We very well could discuss a manuscript soon. We could!

  16. Great advice, Willa! And good to see you swimming with the coolest girls in the pool.

    When it comes to critiques, I confess the Rockville 8 finds that pastry helps…a lot!

    Seriously, you cover great points for the starting, care and feeding of a productive group. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Pastry indeed! I should confess that several of the authors in Rebecca York’s group write, among other things, cookbooks. They’re always trying out recipes. And bringing the goodies to share. Add that to what RY puts out and anyone else brings, and no one has starved yet! We’ve been doing the same thing here in TX, except that we’re lacking a cookbook author.

      1. Um. Excuse me…where can I get in on the critique group with some cookbooks? And they have samples and stuff???
        That sounds like heaven.

  17. Great post. I started with the online critique and as a new writer I think it helped focus on POV and other basic skills I needed to develop. Saying that, the face to face at your house takes critique to a whole new level. And to the Capricorn in me finds nothing’s more fun than a group of strong, intelligent woman debating a point. Have to say after the last meeting I tore my opening in half and completely rearrange it – to the better! So thank you for bringing the face to face to Texas! The only danger can be to a writer not sure of their own voice – all the ideas and suggestions could be overwhelming.

    1. Thanks, Jolene! I love the discussions. I’ve learned so much from the MD group as we debated why something works or doesn’t. Eventually I learned to sort it all out and use what I could. We have a saying the origins of which would take too long to explain, but it goes “it’s your river.” Ultimately, you decide where it flows and who or what goes with it.

  18. It’s late and even later where you are, so I’ll just say a quick goodnight and thanks again.

    If anyone has any questions, they can contact me via my website or on FB.

    Pleasant dreams, Mermaids! I had a great time in the Mermaid Lagoon today and look forward to the next time we can get together.


  19. Hi, Willa! Great blog. We are so happy you’ve been able to remain a part of our Maryland group through Skype. You only miss the cookbook samples, which is regretable. And your advice on critique groups is excellent.


  20. Great post! This writing business is complicated and stressful and fun. A good crit group and untangle the questions, bring a laugh when you need it and cheer your success. If you find yourself in a bad one quit and try again.

    1. Jamie, that’s good advice. You need people who will tell you the truth – in a way that preserves your ability to use that truth to your advantage. Nobody needs to have a bunch of sunshine blown up their skirt (a Texas saying, I believe. See, I’m assimilating!).

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