Category Archives: Reviews

Libraries & Writers Groups ““ A Partnership made in Reader Heaven

Guest Post by Holly Paxson

You’re a writer. You know the joys and agony of transforming that blank page into something creative and new. But you’re tired of slogging away at the keyboard on your own. Maybe you’re a brand-new writer who isn’t sure where to go after those first few pages, maybe you’re an experienced master of prose who needs a fresh environment to break a block. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided you want to join a writer’s group, perhaps even start one of your own. So how do you go about it?

A great place to start is your local public library. In addition to the helpful books and other resources on writing, libraries often provide free meeting room space for writing groups to meet, or perhaps already run such a group as a library-sponsored program.  Libraries host everything from weekly critique groups to full-fledged day-long writers workshops complete with published-author instructors and tips on getting published. And almost always, these programs and workshops are completely free.

If your local library doesn’t have any kind of writers program or group, then you may wish to consider starting one. First, think about what kind of group you’d like. A small critique group? A large organization where members share presentations on writing and form critique partnerships on the side? Think about how often you’d like to meet, and, if you don’t already have a group of writers ready to join you, consider how you’ll get the word out that your writers group exists.

Once you’ve considered these questions, then, go to your local library. See what kind of meeting space they have available. Will you need to commandeer a table in a quiet corner, or does the library have a meeting room you can reserve? What is the room’s capacity, and how often is it available? Ideally, the availability of the library’s space will work with what you’ve envisioned for your group.

You may even wish to approach the library staff, to see if they’d like to work with you to make your writers group a library-sponsored program. When libraries sponsor programs, they can provide advertising to promote your group to help recruit members, sometimes even provide funds to assist with workshops or presenters. Typically, all that the library asks for in return is that participation in the writers group be free and open to the public.

Libraries can also support the work of your group’s published authors, to varying degrees. For those who wish to get their work into the library’s collection, the best way is to ask the library what their criteria are for accepting books. Some libraries can’t add books that have been self-published, or are only available in ebook form; others can. Some libraries have special donated local author collections, which allow any local author to donate a copy of their book for the community to borrow and read. Some libraries will sponsor special author receptions or book-signings to help promote local authors, or will allow books to be sold in associated Friends of the Library bookstores or booksales.

More than ever, libraries today are community hubs and busier than ever. As an institution supported by your tax dollars, they exist to be used, to provide resources, and to bring people together. For your writers group, a partnership with your local library can be invaluable. So how do you know what your local library can do for you?

All you have to do is ask them.

Holly Paxson has worked (and written!) in public libraries for the past nineteen years. She currently manages a branch of the Timberland Regional Library in Lacey, Washington, where she is hard at work on her next book.

Book Review: Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

The subtitle of Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder is The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need. So why, in the midst of NaNoWriMo, am I recommending a book on screenwriting?

It’s because this is the book I wish I’d read when I was writing my first novel, which I did during NaNo in 2011. Why? Because Save the Cat! provides a story structure template that is both more specific than the three act structure and not so comprehensive that one feels overwhelmed by the model itself. This makes it the perfect story craft entry point for newbies and a great reference for veterans.

Based on Snyder’s experience as a pro screenwriter and his analysis of hit movies, STC details a sequence of 15 beats that every good screenplay must have. These beats overlays the three act structure and work as a sort of connect-the-dots framework. You can download the Save the Cat beat sheet for free from:

Snyder would insist you not start writing until you figure out all 15 beats. If you do, you’ll end up with a high level outline for your story. This is a great start for outliners.

If you’re a pantser, the STC model can still be of great use for analyzing your finished first draft and troubleshooting story problems. Alternatively, if you get mired down and can’t figure out how to get unstuck, the template may give you some ideas.

An important part of the STC methodology is creating what Snyder calls “the board.” The board is a layout of index cards (no more than 40) that lets you see how your story fits together. When I used this method on my most recent novel, I was shocked to find I had an overloaded second act and a very thin third act. With this insight, I identified an alternative Midpoint (one of the 15 beats) that had better dramatic effect than what I’d originally planned. This allowed me to shift some things to act three and unlocked the story for me. I was off to the races.

NaNoWriMo is a big challenge, and if you’re like most, getting your daily word count is a hard enough without having to also read about story craft. But if your up for it, go Save the Cat!

Buy Save the Cat at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, and other fine bookstores.

It’s a Book Review! (Fictorian Style)

I love comics.  And one webcomic in particular has hit the top of my list:  Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio.  (If you haven’t tried it, go here.  I’ll wait.)

All of which is prelude to this review of the first volume of the novelization of the comic:  Agatha H. and the Airship City, by Phil and Kaja Foglio, published last year by Night Shade Books.  (Note that the authors are the same creative team that produce the webcomic.)



First, what it is:  the whole Girl Genius story universe is a fantasy/steampunk extravaganza, laid in what appears to be an analog of late 19th or early 20th century Europe, if you squint your eyes really hard.  There are all kinds of glorious brassy machines of all sizes, incredible monsters of all descriptions, and mad engineers all filled with the Spark, which enables them to create all of these crazy beasts and contraptions.  So it reads a bit like a three-way mash-up of The Prisoner of Zenda and Jules Verne and The Three Stooges.  Slapstick, oh my.  And Murphy’s Law appears to be a universal constant in this universe also:  whatever can go wrong, will.  And at the worst possible moment.

High hilarity is the result.

Now my experience of novelizations of original visual and graphic works has been very disappointing in the past.  But I finally broke down and read this one, and was very pleasantly surprised.  Perhaps because it was written by the creative team that writes the comic instead of by some outsider “adapting” the comic, it captures the flavor of the comic very well.  It does an astonishingly good job of telling the webcomic story arc that it parallels.  And almost all of the balancing-on-a-high-wire suspense and riding-a-speeding-car-down-the-mountain-road-with-no-brakes pacing makes the transition to text extremely well.

Second, what it isn’t.  It’s not dark, or depressing, or grim.  It gets a little tense from time to time, and it’s a little bloody, but most of the blood is green, so that doesn’t count.  It’s just a lot of fun.  I think we need to be reminded as writers that not everything we write has to be apocryphal, apocalyptic, or tragic.  There’s a place in the market for books like this, and kudos to the Foglios for writing it and to Night Shade Books for publishing it.

There’s not much of a way to tell you more about the story itself without committing major snerks, so let me just say that underneath the fun is some well-plotted writer’s craftsmanship.

Okay, so what did I as a writer find illuminating about the writer’s craft in this book?

First of all, I think it’s an excellent model of how to maintain a high energy breakneck pace in a long story.  It’s 264 pages long in hardback, and when I closed the cover I felt like I’d been on a killer roller coaster ride.  I think we could all get some pointers from that.  The writers just never let up on the pace.

Second, as mentioned above, even missing the mugging and double-takes possible in the comic, it’s still genuinely hilarious.  And it’s consistent in its humor as well, which is much harder to do than you might think, especially in a novel-length work.  I’ll be looking back at it for some hints on how to handle humor, as well.

Third, a negative lesson:  there is a class of characters in the story who are presented to the reader with a heavy generic Eastern European/Russian accent spelled phonetically.  I stumbled over this.  I’d have to stop and sound out the words to figure out what they were saying.  This reinforced in me the teaching I first got from one of L. Sprague deCamp’s essays, that dialect and accents need to be treated very carefully, otherwise it can interfere with the readability of the story.  If they had it to do over again, I would suggest to the Foglios that they lighten up on the dialect.  But with 11 years of producing the comic behind them, it’s a bit late for that.  Nonetheless, that was my only problem, and it wasn’t nearly enough to make me quit reading.

To wrap it up, all in all a well-crafted and enjoyable read, suitable for adults and YA as well.


P.S. – The sequel, Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess has just been released, also from Night Shade Books.