Rethinking Genre

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Cut and paste this list into a Word document:

    Adventure | Biography | Comic books | Creative non-fiction | Crime | Diary | Epic | Erotica | Essay | Fan Fic | Fantasy | Horror | Journalism | Literary fiction | Literary realism | Mainstream fiction | Memoir | Romance | Science fiction | Western | Thriller | Graphic novels | Manga | Slash | Mystery | Gothic | Southern gothic | Paranormal | New journalism | Gonzo journalism | Hard SF | Soft SF | Dystopian/utopian | Steampunk | Cyberpunk | Alternate history | Apocalyptic/post-Apocalyptic | Dark fantasy | High Fantasy | Low Fantasy | Sword/sorcery (S&S) | Urban fantasy | Contemporary romance | Historical romance | Comedy | Coming of age | Historical fiction | Pomo | Satire | Transgressional

    Enlarge the font so that the list fills a page (Arial 26 pt works). Close your eyes and circle your mouse over the document. Click on two or more random genres, combine them and write the first 500 words (or more) of a story.

    Alternately you can print the document, cut out the words and pick them out of a bowl.

    Bonus: Post your exercise for feedback and see if people can guess your random genres.

  2. Have a stalled story in your idea file? Rewrite what you have using a different genre. For example, make your narrator an antihero and put him in a frontier setting (American west, space, etc.) and voila, you have a western. Sketch out the action and turn it into a comic or graphic novel, focusing on dialogue. Change the time period on your urban fantasy and turn your piece into steampunk. Tone down your erotica and let it evolve into a romance. Have your narrator live in an apartment above a haunted restaurant and create a paranormal romance.

    Simple changes are not enough to redefine your story’s genre completely but they can get you thinking about your style and writing goals in new ways and breathe new life into old work.

  3. If there’s a genre or subgenre you’ve never heard of, tackle it by combining one of our archived or current writing prompts with that genre.
  4. If you’re intrigued by a genre, search for journals (or contests) that specialize in that genre. Write something specifically for that publication (or contest) and submit it.

Writer’s Glossary, Part I: Elements of Fiction Construction

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Welcome to the first of Toasted Cheese’s new “Writer’s Glossary” series.

This article defines elements of fiction construction (characters and story elements). These are some of the most common storytelling elements, ones that writers and readers use when speaking about the story. If you don’t know what an editor meant when she said “the narrative didn’t work for me” or “I enjoyed the relationship between the nemesis and the antagonist,” this article might be the resource you’ve been hoping to find. Of course this glossary is not all-inclusive but it should give you a good foundation for you to perform further research.

The second Writer’s Glossary is scheduled for October 2009 and will be about the business of writing and publishing.

Writer's Glossary, Part I

Background Photo: (CC-by-sa).

People in the Story

Narrator: the voice within the work telling the story.

  • Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
  • Holden Caulfield, The Catcher In the Rye
  • Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Unreliable narrator: a narrator whose credibility is compromised.
    • Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
    • Dr. James Sheppard, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Protagonist: the main character.

  • Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind
  • Jake Barnes, The Sun Also Rises
  • Celie, The Color Purple
  • Hero: a protagonist who faces and overcomes extraordinary challenges.
    • Harry Potter, the Harry Potter series
    • Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings
  • False protagonist: a character who seems to be the protagonist until he is disposed of and a new protagonist takes over.
    • Bernard Marx, Brave New World (new protagonists: Helmholtz Watson, John)
    • Mary Crane, Psycho (new protagonist: Norman Bates)

Antagonist: a main character (or group) working against the protagonist.

  • Mister, The Color Purple
  • Randall Flag, The Stand
  • Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Villain: a main character who works in opposition to a hero.
    • Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series
    • Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
    • Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs
  • Nemesis: A character who creates trouble for the protagonist but is not necessarily opposed to his goals.
    • Fagin, Oliver Twist
    • Gollum, The Hobbit, The Two Towers and Return of the King
    • Severus Snape, the Harry Potter series.

Foil: a character whose contrast with another character, usually the protagonist, underscores aspects of the other character’s personality. The characteristics they share are often superficial, such as appearance or a shared history.

  • In Hamlet, Laertes acts as a foil to Hamlet in that both men experience the loss of their fathers via murder (Polonius by Hamlet and King Hamlet by Claudius, respectively) but while Hamlet has spent the play deciding what to do to avenge his father, Laertes acts immediately by challenging Hamlet to a duel, underscoring Hamlet’s indecision.

Archetype: a generalization about individuals as created and reflected by the whole of a culture.

  • Father/Mother Figure (Sirius Black/Molly Weasley, The Harry Potter series)
  • Trickster (Peeves the Poltergeist, The Harry Potter series)
  • Mentor (Remus Lupin, The Harry Potter series)

Stereotype: a generalization about a group of people, which varies among cultures often based on prejudice. Common stereotypes tend to be applied to ethnic, racial or economic groups or classes.

Stock character: more narrowly defined than archetypes, stock characters can act as shorthand for an author to introduce a character about whom the reader already has an expectation or knowledge.

  • The hooker with the heart of gold, the ugly duckling or the “redshirt” (i.e. an expendable character who appears only to be eliminated, referring to the red shirts worn by undeveloped Star Trek characters who appeared as part of the crew for away missions during which they would be killed).


Elements of the Story

Narrative: the telling of the events of the story by the narrator; the way in which the narrator communicates the story to the reader

Prose: a free form writing style which uses full sentences and paragraphs, reflective of everyday language.

Voice: the unique way in which a writer uses elements like syntax (word order), character development, plot structure, etc.

Plot: The main sequence of events. (See also.)

  • Subplot:a secondary storyline, usually involving secondary characters
  • Plot hole: a gap in the logic established by the story
  • Plot device: an element introduced in order to move the story forward. Examples include deus ex machina or a MacGuffin.
    • Deus ex machina: literally “God from the machine” – an unexpected event which serves to alter action in the story or solve conflict
    • MacGuffin: an object that is not as important as the motivation of the characters to acquire it. Examples include the Maltese Falcon or the “papers of transit” in the film Casablanca.

Act: a unit of the overall story. There are usually three acts: the first act establishes character, place and scenario, the second introduces and perpetuates conflict and the third includes the climax and dénouement (ending). Acts tend to take up ¼, ½ and ¼ of the story respectively.

Pace: the rate of flow for the action.

Theme: an idea or message conveyed in the work, usually conveyed in an abstract way. Themes may be simple or complex and there may be several minor themes in addition to a main theme in a long work.

Atmosphere: the mood of the story

Symbolism: something in your story used to evoke something else. Symbolism may be cultural/universal or contextual/authorial.

Tone: the feel of the work.

  • serious, humorous, sarcastic, playful, etc.

Cliché: a saying or expression that is so common it lacks substantial meaning.

  • cuts like a knife
  • thick as pea soup

Dialogue/dialog: words spoken by characters; written conversations.

Dialect: speech patterns, determined by factors like region or social class, including vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.

Flashback: shifts the action of the story to a previous point in time and then back to current action.

Foreshadowing: hinting at an event which will come later in the story.

Frame: “surrounds” the main story as a narrative technique that provides context for the story within.

  • Frankenstein
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Heart of Darkness
  • The Turn of the Screw

Metaphor/simile: connects seemingly unrelated objects (simile uses “like” or “as” to accomplish this). Specific metaphor types include:

  • allegory: an extended metaphor that illustrates an important attribute of the subject
  • catachresis: mixed metaphor, one that connects two disparate identifications (ex: While looking for the needle in the haystack, make sure you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater)
  • parable: extended metaphor that teaches a moral lesson

Persona: usually refers to a unifying force throughout a book, linking different situations and narratives and guiding the reader through the work, sometimes subtly suggesting conclusions or opinions the reader should have about characters or situations, in the opinion of the author. The persona is not the same as the narrator.

  • Authors who have used regularly personas include James Joyce (Ulysses) , William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) and Charles Dickens.

Exposition: Opening narrative used to orient readers in the story.

Rising action: Narrative leading up to the climax.

Crisis: a turning point; a moment of decision; there may be several crises in long works of fiction or drama.

  • Celie standing up to and leaving Mister, The Color Purple
  • Janie shoots Tea Cake, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Climax: The height of action, the ultimate crisis or turning point where several elements combine to create “fireworks” (even though the climax may be a quiet moment with little action).

  • The fight over Daisy, between Tom and Gatsby, The Great Gatsby
  • Holden gives his red hunting hat to Phoebe, The Catcher In The Rye

Falling action: Narrative following the climax, leading to the dénouement.

Dénouement: the resolution of the plot (sometimes called “catastrophe” in tragedy).

Catharsis: purification, cleansing or purging, often symbolic in literature.

  • Brutus’s death in Julius Caesar
  • Gatsby’s body floating in the pool, The Great Gatsby

POV: Point of view. Point of view is either first person (“I” or “we”), second person (narrative voice addresses the reader as “you”) or third person (calls characters by name). Third-person POV may be limited (action shown through one character) or omniscient (action may be shown through any character’s experiences).

  • First person POV: Rebecca; The Great Gatsby
  • Second Person POV: Bright Lights, Big City
  • Third person limited POV: Harry Potter series
  • Third person omniscient POV: The Lord of the Rings

Narrative mode: encompasses POV and includes elements like stream of consciousness or the reliability of the narrator

Sequel/prequel: The events of a sequel fall after the events in a previous work. The events of a prequel come before the events of the previous work.

  • The Silence of the Lambs (sequel to Red Dragon).
  • The Magician’s Nephew (prequel to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, both part of The Chronicles of Narnia).

Info dump: A chunk of information, usually exposition, not integrated into the story, usually superfluous to the action

AYKB: “As you know, Bob…” Implausible dialogue often used to explain something to the reader that the characters already know; an “info dump” disguised as dialogue. Here are some examples from Dracula:

“It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally, she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting. –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 1

When all was ready, Van Helsing said, “Before we do anything, let me tell you this. It is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality. They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world. For all that die from the preying of the Un-dead become themselves Un-dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water. Friend Arthur, if you had met that kiss which you know of before poor Lucy die, or again, last night when you open your arms to her, you would in time, when you had died, have become nosferatu, as they call it in Eastern Europe, and would for all time make more of those Un-Deads that so have filled us with horror. The career of this so unhappy dear lady is but just begun. Those children whose blood she sucked are not as yet so much the worse, but if she lives on, Un-Dead, more and more they lose their blood and by her power over them they come to her, and so she draw their blood with that so wicked mouth. But if she die in truth, then all cease. The tiny wounds of the throats disappear, and they go back to their play unknowing ever of what has been. But of the most blessed of all, when this now Un-Dead be made to rest as true dead, then the soul of the poor lady whom we love shall again be free. Instead of working wickedness by night and growing more debased in the assimilating of it by day, she shall take her place with the other Angels.” –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 16

Final Poll Results

Eight Character & Story Exercises

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Write a 1000 words of a new story where your narrator is a character in the story but is not your protagonist, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.
  2. False narrators:
    1. Take an old story you never finished and change narrators without rewriting what you’ve already done (ie: create a false narrator)
    2. Write a new story using a false narrator
  3. Working on a story now? Add a nemesis to create tension. If you’re already using a nemesis, explore the connection between protagonist/nemesis or antagonist/nemesis by writing a new scene.
  4. Archetypes:
    1. Identify any archetypes or potential archetypes in your story and expand on your use of them as archetypes
    2. Write a new story based on an archetypal relationship.
  5. Identify the subplots in your novel in progress (or completed draft). Think of how they relate to the main plot. If they don’t, cut them. Make the remaining subplot(s) more significantly contribute to the main plot.
  6. Write a scene of crisis. Have the character reach a crossroads with three or more possible decisions. Have the character make a “bad” choice and see where it takes you. Try this with a story you’re already working on or something from your idea file.
  7. Find a story or poem you’ve finished or even published. For ten minutes, write a prequel or sequel scene/poem, maybe with a different narrator or time setting. If it goes well, expand it.
  8. Have some fun writing “As you know Bob…” dialogue:
    1. The setting is a semi-casual party, like a class reunion, cocktail party or wedding rehearsal. One character owns a newly-opened coffee/tea shop. Another character is a stuntwoman who had a terrible flight from LA. A third character raises Old English sheepdogs. They use “AYKB” dialogue to relay this information to each other and the reader and to have further conversation.
    2. Rewrite the previous scene without the AYKB dialogue.

The Virgin Page: A Peek at Writing Erotica

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

People are sexual creatures. It’s not something everyone is comfortable admitting, much less exploring through creative writing, but it’s something we need to acknowledge about our characters. Whether you want to write flat-out erotica or just spice up your “vanilla” fiction or poetry, some of the tips and tricks for writing erotica could come in handy for developing your work.

Background Image: CC-by kori monster/Flickr

Background Image: CC-by kori monster/Flickr

What is erotica?

Erotica is sexually explicit literature and may be fiction or poetry. It can have several purposes but what makes it erotica is that it arouses the sensuality of the reader. There is nothing inherently “dirty” about erotic writing but unlike romance fiction, for example, the curtain is not drawn and words are not minced. Erotica is written for and by both men and women, although the majority of the audience for erotica is female.

Erotica is a hot, growing genre and erotica markets can be lucrative. Publishing houses like Ellora’s Cave are dedicated solely to publishing erotic work. There are several online and in-print journals devoted to erotica; Duotrope’s Digest and Erotica Readers and Writers Association are great places to begin searching for markets (and there’s a list at the end of this article). Some erotica journals and publishers run contests, if you’re looking to test the waters.

The world of erotica writers and editors is welcoming and as professional as other genres. Erotica writers take their craft very seriously. Note, however, that not every writing community allows erotica to be posted for feedback (this includes Toasted Cheese, but you are welcome to post a request for feedback via email); ERWA has forums where you can get critique from writers familiar with the genre.

Many mainstream writers also publish erotica under assumed names. In fact, many erotica authors use pseudonyms; this is something to consider if you’re concerned about maintaining your anonymity. Another benefit of using a pseudonym for erotica is that you can keep your credits and portfolios separate. Although things are changing, erotica writers aren’t always given the same respect as other genre writers. Sometimes listing your erotica credits isn’t a bonus to a mainstream editor, agent or publisher. I’ve learned that it’s best only to mention your erotica credits when submitting erotica and if you want to hint at it, say something like “other publications” in your queries and cover letters.

Are there any restrictions involved in writing erotica?

Most erotica journals and writing communities are restricted to those 18 and over. That doesn’t mean you can’t write erotica or use erotic elements in your work if you’re 17 or younger. You can write whatever you like. Publishing your work may be difficult, however, as some journals require that the author be over 18 and to see your work in print you would have to violate the journal’s rules. Getting feedback might be difficult as well but it’s not impossible.

Just about anything goes in erotica; you’ll find niche markets for certain kinds of erotica (bondage or BDSM erotica for example) so if you think something is verboten, you might be surprised. The erotica reader isn’t looking for pornography however. That’s not to say that your erotica can’t be raunchy or smutty. What it means is that she expects well-crafted writing alongside what’s lighting her fire. It’s certainly possible to write beautiful smut (or to write smut beautifully).

There isn’t really a good, clear-cut definition of pornography. What one person finds pornographic, prurient or obscene might not bother or even excite someone else. But the one thing that sets erotica apart from pornography is the artistic nature of the work. For example, a “letter to Penthouse” is likely to be labeled “pornography” rather than erotica. A short story in Clean Sheets might use the same subject or sexual acts as the “letter” but its execution sets it apart as literature and, therefore, erotica. Erotica is artistic and expressive first, sexually exciting second (or simultaneously). Pornography is meant to be sexually exciting without using artistic expression to achieve that end. Of course there are exceptions to these guidelines but in general, that’s how to differentiate.

Usually the restrictions you’ll come across are by publication. One publication might say “no S/M (sadomasochism) please” while another only publishes S/M. Some publishers have to obey the laws of other countries and are legally bound. In the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand—generally speaking—anything goes. For example, it’s not illegal to write erotica featuring underage characters or erotica with homosexual acts. Write without boundaries, no matter what you’re writing.

What sets erotica apart from other writing?

Erotica is just another genre, like sci-fi or horror. There are conventions and expectations. The basics of erotica writing are the same as any creative writing: rounded characters, a plot, action, dialogue and so forth.

It might feel silly to think about dialogue in erotica but when it comes down to it, it’s not the SAT. Silence is not required… or maybe it is and that’s an idea for a story right there. In general though, sexual partners speak to each other before, during and after sexual activity.

In fact, an erotic story doesn’t even need sexual action but it, like most any story, it will need some kind of action. All that means is that there is a journey between opening and closing paragraph. Your protagonist need never get out of her seat on the subway to have an erotic experience.

If you want to add erotic elements to an existing story, go for it. You know these characters better than they know themselves. What gets their engines stoked? Write some erotic scenes and if they don’t fit with your story, you’ve still gotten to know those characters that much better.

Erotica can exist alongside another genre in the same work (erotic western, erotic fantasy, erotic crime, erotic graphic novels, etc.). All you need is some sexuality and, hopefully, some sex. Erotica can also be an ingredient in a work that’s mainly in another genre (think single scenes in mainstream or literary fiction). You know, the “good parts” where library books have dog-eared corners.

The main thing about using erotic elements in mainstream work is that they need to fit with the feel of the remainder of the work. Use language that’s conducive to the language already in place. If your narrator wouldn’t use certain terms, save them for a stand-alone piece.

Speaking of four letter words…

Erotica embraces language—all elements of language, including words that some find offensive. The flip side of the offensiveness is that the words are also titillating. Erotica readers generally don’t care for pieces that use euphemisms like “member.” They want to read the blue words, especially the “Queen Mother of Dirty Words.” Erotica readers don’t want to dance around the sex; sex is what the reader expects.

It’s okay to be embarrassed about language or situations. Same goes for your characters. Not every written sex scene has to be the World’s Best Experience. Like a conversation, it can be bad, mediocre or fantastic. They might be embarrassed about what they’re doing so why not write that? Or if they’re uncomfortable, let us know. It develops your character.

If you’re not writing stand-alone erotica, it’s important that your scenes mesh with the surrounding work, not just in tone but as part of the story. Make sure you’re not shoehorning in some sex just for the sake of sex. The scene can change the dynamic between characters, reveal a secret, turn the plot 180 degrees, etc. It’s likely that your sex scene won’t just be a sex scene. If it is, you can always lift it and edit it into a stand-alone.

Back to the embarrassment factor…

You might worry about what people will think. The people who know I write erotica aren’t really surprised and are more intrigued than anything. If people don’t like it or don’t want to talk about it, they change the subject or clam up. In my experience, the reaction is more often, “Tell me about it.” People ask for copies of the stories and want to know when I’m writing more. Then again, I’m not terribly concerned about the opinions of others. You can be a highly successful erotica writer and no one need ever know it’s you. However, I’ve also found that when you’re “out” about writing erotica, you have a legion of volunteer editors happy to read your latest work.

How do I get started?

One way to get started is to do some exercises to help determine what you want to write. Do you want to write something new or add to an existing work? For a new piece, think about what you find erotic. Maybe it’s a dream or a fantasy you’ve had. Maybe you’ve had a real experience you could turn into a story. Hrm—that doesn’t sound so unlike regular fiction or poetry, does it?

Anyone can write erotica, whether you’re a virgin or sexually experienced, a great lover or a lousy lover. As I wrote in the opening paragraph: people are sexual creatures. Everyone has something that excites him or her. The key is not to be shy about it. If it works for you, chances are it works for someone else. Besides, you can always deny that it’s something you dig. That’s the beauty of fiction—you are not (necessarily) your narrator.

An excellent way to get started is to read erotica journals. There’s a list on online journals at the end of this article. Reading other work can help you learn what kinds of words are not only acceptable but expected. Even better: it’s fun to read! Erotica has a determined goal: to excite the reader in a sexual way but also in a literary way. What’s happening in the action of the story might not be your cup of tea but the literary effect could be quite stimulating. Writers are naturally turned on by words; after all, the primary sexual organ is the brain.

Write with emotion and passion. We don’t need to know whose foot is where or how they moved from position A to position B (unless it’s relevant). Sex is within and without, physical, emotional, and mental. Let us know what’s happening inside your character’s head and heart as much as between her legs or on her skin. How does she feel about what’s happening?

Of course we all want to be shown what’s happening. The best advice I can give on how to do this is to trust yourself and your writing. If it feels good, write it. The pieces you find in other journals can also help guide you in terms of how to set up your scene and what details you should include. Work at your comfort level but don’t be afraid to challenge your boundaries.

One great thing about writing an erotic scene is that you have a natural plot arc; erotica stories (and some poems) follow the pattern of sexual arousal, complete with climax (a term that’s the same in sex and plotting) and resolution. Of course you don’t have to follow that kind of plot arc. You can have a character’s climax in the first paragraph (or none at all) but if you’re anxious about getting started, it’s a convenient tool to help you structure and complete a story or poem.

You’re also likely to have a myriad of options for sensory detail, which is another reason we don’t need to know whose foot is where. Unlike real-life intimate moments, your writer’s eye can linger on spots, freeze images and pick and choose what is noticed by and conveyed to the reader. Again, your reader expects this kind of detail—it’s what makes your scene or poem erotic and sensual.

If you’re still a little wary or shy about writing erotica, remember that you don’t need to show your work to anyone. You can password-protect your work if you don’t want anyone else to read it. You might be pleasantly surprised by the freedom of writing in a genre anything goes with an eager audience on the other side just waiting to embrace your work.

Recommended reading:

Anthologies and collections:

Websites that offer must-subscribe newsletters:

Books About Writing Erotica

Stephanie Lenz writes erotica as Eden Lenz and Ceilidh Lindsay. Her erotica has appeared in Amoret, Mind Caviar, Abby’s Realm, Asexystory and Best Women’s Erotica 2003. Her mainstream fiction has appeared in “other publications.”

Final Poll Results

Five Exercises

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Write a sex scene between two people. Be as explicit as you’re comfortable with. Pay particular attention to details and don’t be shy about language. Alternately, write a poem set during a sexual experience.
  2. Write an ordinary scene but write it in an erotic and sensual manner. For example: a woman eating an ice cream cone, a man browsing fruit at the market, a couple driving in a car or riding a train. Think of themes like desire, exploration and satisfaction.
  3. One of the most popular underground publications in Victorian England was an erotic newsletter called The Pearl (available in bound form under author “Anonymous”). The Story of O was published anonymously in the 1950s with the author’s pseudonym attached 40 years later. Write an erotic story, poem or scene set in one of these time periods. Note how your characters dress, speak and act differently than they would in a contemporary piece. If you like, rewrite the scene as set in modern times, maybe mixing up the sexes of the people (or person) involved.
  4. Research erotica markets and read online journals to get familiar with the genre. Alternately you can check out erotica and other erotic literature at the library, borrow the books from friends or pick up inexpensive second-hand copies.
  5. If you’re feeling bold, browse an adult toy website and write a story or poem based on something you find there (or on any object you like if you don’t want to visit the 18+ sites). Clean Sheets has advertisers that can inspire your story or poem.

Writing as a Not-So-Solitary Pursuit: Ye Olde Guide to Wryting Groupes

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

We got our first computer in December 1999 and one of the first things I did was look for an online writing group. I’d been working on a novel on our old word processor and I wanted to keep working on it and get some feedback on it as I went. Plus I wanted to do exercises, meet other writers, and do the things I’d done in college workshops.

I found one with a lot of great people (some of us went on to form Toasted Cheese). That site was among the 101 Best Websites For Writers in 2000 but, like any community, it had its flaws. We started asking each other “If we could make the perfect writer’s group, what would we include?” Password-protected forums were atop our list because many people asked if the work they offered for critique would be considered “published” and expressed concern about others “stealing” their stories.

We also wanted to provide a real-time chat, to give the feel of in-person writer circles. Of course we wanted a page of links and resources but we wanted to be sure to include other writing communities, since we knew that no one group is right for everyone. We also wanted to create an atmosphere where members of the community would feel comfortable posting links to contests, journals and other publishing opportunities. We wanted to eschew the idea that writing communities were in competition for the writer’s attention and embrace the idea that they were tools to help us succeed.

So in January 2001, we launched Toasted Cheese. We had nothing but word of mouth to get us going. In March 2002, our literary journal had a write-up in Writer’s Digest’s “Zine Scene.” By the time we were chosen among their 101 Best Websites for Writers for the first time in May 2002, we had a healthy following. I think the success of our writing community came in part from the fact that we knew what we wanted as writers and we provided that for other writers.

In the years since we created Toasted Cheese, there have been many wonderful writing communities created on the Net. I’ve also noticed an increase in the availability of in-person critique groups. But how do you know when a group is for you? Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself if you’re thinking of joining a writing community either online or offline.


What does a writers group do?

At their cores, online and offline writers groups operate in the same way. You present your work and other writers offer constructive feedback. You also offer feedback on work that others present to the group.

There are certain characteristics of both that may be advantages or disadvantages, depending on what the writer wants/needs. For example, I’m a mother to two young children and it’s difficult for me to arrange childcare to go to a group for a couple hours. An online writing community is available when I am so if I don’t have a free minute until midnight, I can “go to the group” then. And I can wear my robe and slippers while I go.

The flip side of that is that in-person groups provide face-to-face contact. Some people might feel more comfortable looking a critiquer in the eye, for example.

What do I want from the group?

Your main objective is probably that you want feedback on your work. Communities get a fair number of people who “post and run,” meaning they put their own work up for feedback, don’t give any feedback and then are never heard from again. Writing communities generally try to enforce the “give and take” aspect of critiques. At TC, we work on the honor system (our critiquing guidelines ask that you critique two pieces for every one you post). Other communities have come up with clever ways to ensure that members give feedback as well as receive it. Critique Circle works on a “point” system:

You pay three credits for submitting a story, and receive 0.5 – 2 credits for giving a critique.

If the crit is (150-)300 words you always receive 0.5 credits, no matter how long the story is. However, if you crit a story that reaches 3000 words, you receive 1.5 credit for a crit over 300 words. If the story reaches 4000 words you get 2 credits for a crit over 300 words.

When you’re approved to join Critique Circle, you get 2 credits. Therefore, before you can post anything for feedback, you have to participate.

Writing communities can also serve as a get-together spot, like any group of people. You’ll find familiar faces, people with whom you “click,” etc. You have a built-in commonality: you’re writers. By its nature, a writing community provides social interaction when we talk with other writers about submissions, rejections, story ideas, characters, etc.

How much can I or do I want to participate?

Some groups require participation for your user ID to remain active. If you’re not comfortable being in the midst of the group, you can “lurk.”

For example, let’s say there’s an in-person group that meets at the local bookstore. You can browse books (or pretend to) near where they’re meeting. Listen to what’s happening and determine if you might want to join them at the next meeting. Some offline groups do their reading at the meeting so be prepared to eavesdrop on silence. Other groups ask people to bring photocopies to hand out at the end of the meeting, the stories are critiqued in the interim and then the following meeting is devoted to discussion. In a group like this, you might feel left out during the discussion but you can always jump in with general advice, impressions or suggestions.

TC is a small, laid back community. Other communities are intense, with dozens of stories waiting for critique. The size and activity level of the community can dictate your comfort level.

Do I have to give feedback?

If you want feedback on your work, be prepared to give some. Your chances of getting constructive feedback increases with your participation. If you feel iffy about doing feedback, check out our articles on giving and receiving critique. Also, be honest with the group. We’re all just writers here. Tell them you’re anxious about giving (or receiving) critiques. If you haven’t done many crits, let them know. Remember: if you can read, you can crit.

What will I invest in a writing group? (money, time, “self”)

There are two main things you’ll invest in a writing community: time and yourself.

You’ll spend time reading other people’s writing, whether you’re critiquing it or not. If you’re attending meetings of an offline group, there’s also travel time, social time (usually after the meeting), and possibly “homework,” like reading articles or doing crits outside of the meeting time. Some groups also ask members to bring an edited version of a piece the group critiqued, so editing time is also a factor.

Online groups have rules or guidelines to read. Many offer links, prompts or message boards, for example. The time you invest in a writing group is usually up to you.

When you offer a piece for critique, you’re putting your work out there for approval and it can be an investment of yourself. It can hurt when someone doesn’t like your favorite character or suggests you cut a section you worked for hours to perfect. An online community can be better in this regard. You can walk away from a critique you disagree with, whereas in an offline group, it can be hard to hide a reaction. If you want to be in a writing community, you should be ready to receive critique, not just praise. It’s fine to admit that you need an ego boost (all writers understand that); the key is finding a community that allows the type of feedback you need.

Some writing communities also require an investment of money. If you want to join a writing community that requires fees or dues, that’s your prerogative. There are many free writing communities as well, some of which offer alternative versions (ad-free, for example) for those who donate for site hosting costs. Running a writing community website isn’t cheap and so many communities (including TC) accept donations. You can also support a writing community by shopping through their affiliate links. For in-person groups, you can offer to host the group (if they meet in private homes), bring refreshments, or donate to defray costs like rental of the meeting space.

What other features are offered by the community?

Every writing community is different. Some groups don’t exchange work; they’re just writers getting together to talk about writing.

It’s really a matter of finding what you like. Maybe you find a level of participation you like but the flashing ads drive you crazy. Maybe you see that there are a lot of posted pieces without any feedback. Maybe the community vibe isn’t friendly. Like any online community or offline group, you need to examine what the group offers and determine if it’s right for you. And no one says you have to only belong to one community. Maybe one group has a higher level of feedback but you really like the people at another group. Go to both. Or maybe you want to be part of an online community but you also want to get out of the house once a month. Do both. Any good writing community will encourage you to do what’s best for you and your writing.

Is a story posted to an online writing group considered “published?”

In almost every case, no. If you’re antsy about this, chose a writing community that’s “members only” or requires a password to access its forums.

Posting a story or poem to an online crit group is akin to photocopying a piece to hand out to your offline writing group. Most editors recognize that stories posted for critique are drafts and encourage people to polish their work before submission.

Fred Sasaki, assistant editor at Poetry says, “If a writer is interested in publishing in POETRY and also wishes to participate in an online critique forum, we recommend that writers use private forums that require password access. This way they can submit the work for print consideration at a later date. Basically it comes down to recognizing the Internet as a legitimate publishing vehicle.”

The submission guidelines of some journals clarify the editor’s definition of “published.” From the submission guidelines at Mindflights:

POSTS TO CRITIQUE GROUPS ARE NOT CONSIDERED PUBLISHED if a password and special group membership are required to read the item. Likewise, inclusion in symposium or workshop collections with limited distribution is not considered published. However, if the item is easily available to the world at large, it is published.

For some journals, you have to read between the lines; note the use of terms like “final draft.” From the submission guidelines at Segue:

We do not accept previously published creative work. “Previously published” includes final drafts published on blogs, personal web sites, etc.

A “final draft” is not one being workshopped in a writing community. Then again, some publishers don’t consider anything found online to be “published.” From contest guidelines for the William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition:

A work will be considered previously published if more than 50 percent has been published in any form. Self published or on-demand works will be considered published if more than 500 copies have been distributed in any way. If there is a question regarding publication by a winner selected in the competition, that person will be expected to offer proof of number of copies of a manuscript actually sold or distributed in any way. Works from which brief sections have been excerpted for quotation in literary journals, news journals, broadsides will not be disqualified. The Society is dedicated to the art of the printed word, and, therefore, works appearing on the Internet or read on other electronic media will not be considered to have been published if they are not offered in printed form.

If in doubt after reading submission guidelines, e-mail an editor and ask. I think the best guidelines were set forth by Jordan E. Rosenfeld in his Writer’s Digest article, “Shades of Gray“:

It was published if…

  • you gave up your first North American serial rights
  • it went through an editorial process
  • it appeared in an online journal, even a defunct one
  • it appeared in a print publication with a small print run
  • it appeared in a literary anthology

It’s unpublished if…

  • it won a prize but was not printed
  • it was workshopped in an online writing workshop
  • it appeared on your blog or someone else’s (though this is changing, so tread carefully)

In my research, I’ve found that the most anxiety about whether a work is “published” or not seems to pertain to poetry published in one’s personal weblog. When guidelines aren’t clear about online workshopping as “publishing” and you’re not confident about the definition of “published,” write to the editor and ask. If the guidelines are hazy enough, the editor might rewrite them to be clearer.

What do moderators or group leaders do and what do I need to do for myself?

Whether online or off, group leaders are the ones who lead the discussions, keep everyone courteous, and they participate in the discussions. Beyond that, it depends on the community. Some communities treat the leaders as mentors, some as equals. Moderators will welcome you to the group, answer your questions, and guide you through the community as you become acclimated. Some communities are very large and are self-sustaining, with little moderator interference. It’s easier to find a community with moderators you can tolerate than to try and wedge into a community with moderators whose approach you don’t like.

How do I know if a group is right for me?

Do you feel welcome? Are you comfortable sharing work? Is the feedback what you’re looking for? Are you treated with respect as a newcomer? There are a lot of factors that determine whether the fit is “right.” Treat writing communities like clothing. Try it all on and if it doesn’t fit, don’t feel guilty about leaving it on the rack.

Maybe you’re still wary about writing communities and you hear yourself saying “What if…?”

What if someone steals my story?

It’s possible that someone might swoop in and steal your story. If you publish it, it’s possible that someone could get it from a literary journal. The question to ask is “is it likely?” The answer: “No.” People in a writing community are writers and are busy working on their own stuff. If someone wants to steal a poem or story, he’s more likely to swipe something by a famous author.

If you do find that something you’ve shared in a writing community is published under someone else’s name, contact the editor of the publication. If you find it posted in another community or otherwise incorrectly credited, contact the community moderator or website owner of the site that is using your work without permission. A reputable site will work with you to make things right. If they refuse or do not respond, contact their hosting company and report the copyright infringement. If you find your work on a scraper site, your best recourse is to contact the search engine where you saw it and ask that the page be removed from the search results.

What if the other members are better/worse writers than I am?

It’s a guarantee that there will be writers of varying level of experience and talent in any writing community. Don’t let degrees or publishing credits intimidate or overly-impress you. You can learn from every writer in the community. The more you critique, the better you’ll become at editing your own work as well. You have something to offer to every writer as well. In an editor’s submission pile, the only thing that matters is the quality of the work.

What if someone attacks me instead of my story?

This can happen. A moderator should step in and sort things out, but in larger communities, you might be on your own. Hopefully another member of the group will step up and say something to the attacker. If not or if you want to speak up for yourself, remain professional and as courteous as possible. If you feel you need to continue the discussion, use e-mail or private messages for online groups or one-on-one conversations after the group meeting for offline groups.

What if they hate my story?

They might. They might love it. You’ll never know unless you share it. The important thing isn’t whether the writing is loved or hated. It’s whether you’re offered valuable feedback and the way in which feedback is offered. If someone in the group says, “This stinks,” is it a group you want to utilize? If the overall tone is derisive, can you learn in that environment? It’s okay if someone doesn’t like your story or poem. Don’t let a negative review keep you from using a writing group. Members of a good writing group will help you improve a weak story, not mock it.

What if they don’t give me any feedback?

This can be worse than negative feedback. At least with “this stinks,” you have an opinion to work with. With no replies, you’re left to wonder “What’s wrong with my work?” There could be several reasons that a story gets light feedback or none at all. We’ve found that around major holidays, feedback drops off (US Thanksgiving, Christmas week, Memorial Day). Feedback also drops off in the summer for the northern hemisphere, which is unfortunate since so many young writers join crit groups in those months and then abandon them when there’s no response to their work.

If there’s an option for “e-mail me replies,” select it. That way you don’t have to return to the site to check for feedback. Look at the frequency of posts. Is the group one that doesn’t work often but gives good, in-depth feedback when it does? Do group members reply quickly but not offer much beyond “I like it” in their replies? If you’re looking for a little quick praise or an ego boost, which we all need occasionally, the second group could be a good addition to the first.

What if I’m not good at giving feedback?

Members of a good writing circle will help you with this as much as they’ll help you with your writing. Since everyone is working together toward the same goal, everyone should want the group to be as effective as possible. If your feedback is too light, a more experienced member might ask you questions to help you expand your response. For example, you might say “I liked this dialogue.” The other member might say, “What did you like about it?”

If your feedback is too vague, it’s likely that the author will ask for clarification. You can also learn by reading other people’s critiques.

Remember: if you can read, you can critique. Don’t feel embarrassed to offer your opinion. It has value, even if it’s as simple as “I liked this.” Do your best to offer specific critique, since that’s what you’ll want when it’s your turn to receive. Toasted Cheese has some guidelines to help members create constructive criticism.

What if they want me to give them money?

They probably do. What you’ll need to ask yourself is whether you feel comfortable with what the group is asking for. Do they ask for a membership fee? If so, do they require the fee before you can check out the group?

There are groups that require fees. In researching this article, I didn’t pay to join any writing groups. There are excellent groups that require no money to participate. Often you’ll need to sign up since password-protected forums are the norm for online crit groups. Toasted Cheese is one example of a free group that requires sign-up. None of the groups I joined have sent me any spam either so I wouldn’t hesitate to provide my e-mail address for registration. Many groups have newsletters that you can opt into. I recommend creating an e-mail address just for your writing ventures (submissions, writing group sign-up, etc.); using a separate e-mail address can help you keep things organized.

Some writing groups allow donations. These donations help with site costs, like paying for the domain and hosting fees. It’s nice to support your favorite sites if you have a little extra money but it’s not requisite for you to participate in the group. If you’re not comfortable donating, most writing groups have affiliations (with Amazon, Powell’s, Cafe Press, etc.) that earn them commissions on sales of things you buy through their affiliate links. Best of all, you can support your writing groups without spending a cent by sharing their URLs, telling your writer friends to check them out and by participating in the group.

Some writing groups:

Final Poll Results

Writers of the Round Table

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Research and join an online writing group.
  2. If you already belong to a writing community, resolve to offer more critiques and post more work for feedback.
  3. Attend an offline writing group meeting. If there aren’t any in your area, start your own. Libraries and bookstores can be allies in setting up and allowing a meeting space for a writers’ crit group.

Nobody’s Perfect: Shortcuts for Creating Imperfect Characters

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the narrator presents Holly Golightly as an almost perfect person. He acknowledges at times that she may have some flaws but he also seems to remember an idealized version of the character and he’s reluctant to pass judgment on her faults or even to acknowledge them as such. Author Truman Capote knows better and it is because of his grasp of Holly’s character (and of the narrator, whom we only know as “Fred,” the name Holly gives him) that we’re able to see Holly for everything she is: a truly imperfect person. Yet we think of her as a person, not as a character, because those very flaws combine with the romanticized remembrance of her by “Fred” to create a truly three-dimensional person. Holly might be the person who lives across the hall or the woman we spot window-shopping on Fifth Avenue.

Faults and all, we tend to like Holly and we enjoy “Fred’s” fond portrait of her. So why is it that when we write characters, we’re reluctant to make them flawed? We might drop in a little something imperfect, more so if we’re writing a “bad guy,” but in general, we seem to try to keep them closer to perfect than to imperfect. Is it because we created them and we want the best for them? Is it because we’re reluctant to add characteristics that interfere with our plans for the story?

Imperfect characters hold the greatest potential for making mistakes. It’s their poor choices, their shady backgrounds, and their inherent flaws that create the potential for disaster. This threat of their worlds crashing in around them because of who they are not only makes their stories fun to write but endears them to readers. Flaws allow readers to identify and bond with your characters.

Nobody's Perfect: Shortcuts for Creating Imperfect Characters

Good Guys

“The protagonist… cannot be a perfect person. If he were, he could not improve and he must come out at the end… a more admirable human being than when he went in.” –Maxwell Anderson

Ask an actor and he’s likely to tell you that playing the bad guy is more fun than playing the hero. That might be because so many traditional heroes are so milquetoast. Sure there are fascinating antiheroes (like Batman, Sam Spade, Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara and Severus Snape) but the most interesting characters—protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters and even minor characters—are the ones who are imperfect and are not usually at the center of the story.

Here are a few easy ways you can rattle your protagonist’s closet skeletons:

  • Make a small change in the character’s background, even if it has no immediate effect on the story. Think of the nature of your character. If one thing had gone differently in her life, how would it change her nature? For example, let’s say she’s a nurturing woman who acts as a mother figure to everyone around her. Now imagine this: her mother passed away when she was a small child. Would she still be nurturing, perhaps trying to fulfill a void in her own life? Would she become self-sufficient and unable to comprehend those who can’t do the same for themselves? Making one different decision or having one alternate outcome to a situation can make a world of difference in your character’s personality.
  • Make a change in the surroundings. Maybe the character fits too well with the world around him. Does your hero work in an office building? What’s it like? Is it bright and airy with lots of open space or is it a fluorescent-lit cubicle farm? Change the setting and watch the effect it has on your character. Maybe he didn’t realize how much he valued freedom over stability until you took away his office window.
  • Bring in a character who sees everyone as the opposite of what they’re trying to project. For example, a therapist, bartender, or childhood friend might see that the hero is always looking for something to do not because he is creative but because he fears boredom. If confronted with this fact, how might the hero react?

Bad Guys

“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not ‘characters.’ A ‘character’ is a caricature.” –Ernest Hemingway

Antagonists are more often given the juicy backgrounds, the flaws and the faults but just as often they may be a little too perfect in their roles. It’s easier to make the bad guy the opposite of everything ours hero stands for. It’s no fun to have a bad guy without a chink in the armor for our hero to exploit.

Everyone is the hero of his own story. Our antagonists are no different. They believe they’re doing what is best for someone or some purpose, even if it’s only for themselves. Here are a few questions that might help round out your bad guys:

  • What are his weaknesses? Does he share any with the protagonist?
  • What are the antagonist’s redeeming qualities? Again, does he share any of these with the protagonist?
  • What tempts him and how susceptible is he to temptation? Can one temptation cause him to weaken or let down his guard? For example, if the hero is a beautiful woman, could the villain become distracted by that fact? And for that matter, would your hero exploit that weakness?
  • How does the antagonist change over the course of the story? The antagonist takes a journey, same as the protagonist. At what points do their courses intersect and how do they compare in their responses to similar situations?

Showing the Reader

“Front-rank characters should have some defect, some conflicting inner polarity, some real or imagined inadequacy.” –Barnaby Conrad

It can be tough to convey these flaws without infringing on the story, especially in the case of a first person narrator, but it is possible. Your protagonist might not be as smart as you are, for one thing, and while he shows us what’s going on around him, we might pick up things he’s not seeing but that you are making a point to show us. Maybe your character uses alcohol or drugs and doesn’t relay things accurately. Readers will be able to determine this (and it can add some surprises later in the story). An unreliable narrator is a good example of a flawed character.

Characters will also view each other differently. What you might see as a good trait in your character—generosity, for example—another character (or a reader) might see as a flaw—he gives so much away that he has nothing for himself. Use other characters to help put shades of gray onto your protagonist or antagonist. For example, your hero might be having a conversation with her best friend when she mentions the villain. The best friend could relay some information or an opinion that adds depth to the villain. There are more points of view in your story than the one you’re using for storytelling.

It’s fine for characters to idealize each other, so long as the author and the reader know that what lies beneath isn’t always perfection, like the earlier example of the narrator in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Allow your characters to be neither all-good nor all-bad. Allow them to make the worst possible choice (for example, it would be “good” for the married character not to have an affair but is it good for the story?). Allow yourself to have fun creating the most well-rounded characters you can and to use them to tell the “perfect” story.

Note: The exercise accompanying this article is a mini-bio sheet designed as a companion to our Character Development Worksheet. The CDW already has lots of opportunities to make your characters less than perfect (scars, childhood traumas, manners, etc.). The mini-bio will help you tweak existing characters or go further in-depth as you create new ones.

Final Poll Results

Mini Character-Development Sheet

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker


  • Purpose in story*:
  • Protagonist
  • Antagonist
  • Friend
  • Rival
  • Mentor
  • Love interest
  • Symbol
  • Other

If one asks the character, s/he would give these answers:

  • Best physical feature?
  • Worst physical feature?
  • Best trait?
  • Worst trait?
  • Proudest moment(s)?
  • Darkest moments(s)?
  • I am most ashamed of…
  • … makes me happier than anything else
  • Biggest vice?
  • Best gift to give myself?
  • Best gift to give someone else?
  • Best advice received?
  • Best or most often given advice?
  • Skill I have that no one knows about?
  • The secret(s) I would never tell anyone…
  • The secret someone knows… (and who knows it and how I feel about them knowing)
  • If I could get away with it, I would…
  • Best surprise?
  • Worst surprise?
  • Illnesses, allergies, phobias, etc.?
  • I am ashamed of…
  • I am proud of…
  • I am right about…
  • I may be wrong about…
  • … makes me angry enough to lose control
  • If I feel myself overwhelmed by emotion, I…
  • When I am alone, I…
  • When I am surrounded by others, I…
  • … knows my true nature, which is…
  • Traits I admire in others?
  • Traits I despise in others?
  • Nothing could be worse than being seen as…
  • Nothing could be better than being seen as…
  • My relationship with my mother is/was…
  • My relationship with my father is/was…
  • My first romantic relationship was…
  • Most influential relationship?
  • Worst decision?
  • Best decision?
  • … is typical of me (a decision, trait, circumstance, etc.)
  • Anything else I would want people to know (or not know) about me?

As the author, you would give these answers about this character:

  • Best physical feature?
  • Worst physical feature?
  • Best trait?
  • Worst trait?
  • Proudest moment(s)?
  • Darkest moments(s)?
  • He/she is most ashamed of…
  • … makes him/her happier than anything else
  • Biggest vice?
  • Best gift to give self?
  • Best gift to give someone else?
  • Best advice received?
  • Best or most often given advice?
  • Skill s/he has that no one knows about?
  • The secret(s) s/he would never tell anyone…
  • The secret someone knows… (and who knows it and how s/he feels about them knowing)
  • If s/he could get away with it, s/he would…
  • Best surprise?
  • Worst surprise?
  • Illnesses, allergies, phobias, etc.?
  • S/he is ashamed of…
  • S/he is proud of…
  • S/he is right about…
  • S/he is wrong about…
  • … makes him/her angry enough to lose control
  • If s/he feels overwhelmed by emotion…
  • When alone, s/he…
  • When surrounded by others, s/he…
  • … knows his/her true nature, which is…
  • Traits admired in others?
  • Traits despised in others?
  • Nothing could be worse than being seen as…
  • Nothing could be better than being seen as…
  • Relationship with mother is/was…
  • Relationship with father is/was…
  • First romantic relationship was…
  • Most influential relationship?
  • Best decision?
  • Worst decision?
  • … is typical of him/her

My opinion of this character is…

  • I like… (about the character)
  • I dislike…
  • What did the character determine about him/herself?
  • What have I imposed on this character?
  • The character is unique because…
  • The character’s greatest attribute is…
  • The character’s greatest flaw in terms of the story and/or effect on other characters is…
  • Other notes about my the character

*Elaborate on any of these; feel free to fill in names of other characters and how they relate to this one. For example, this sheet may be about the protagonist’s best friend, Kelly. Kelly may have a rival, maybe a common rival w/ the protagonist. Go ahead and fill in that info if it helps you determine Kelly’s character.