The Force Behind Writing Groups by Bruce Kirkpatrick

A few tips from Bruce Kirkpatrick on being a member of a writer’s group.

I’m a member of four groups and each works differently. Here’s what I’ve learned about writer’s groups and if you are a writer, why you may want be a part of one.

Both new and seasoned writers are often members of writer’s groups. No hard and fast rules exist about how they work, but a few tips to get the most out of them might help.

Groups can meet in person or online. They can require that members trade “chapters” or work beforehand—or not. They can read aloud or simply offer critique in the written form. They can be full of published authors or those just getting started.


  1. If you attend a meeting, it forces you to write. No better way to get to work than to have somebody ready to read it.  One of the groups I’m involved with has over 270 members, but only 10 to 15 come to meetings regularly and read. Those are the more serious writers.
  2. It forces you to edit. Nobody wants to read work that is weak. By the time I read something in front of the group, I’ve edited it at least several times. That makes for better writing.
  3. It forces you, in many cases, to read your work out loud. That’s a key to better structure, phrasing, and dialogue. If your group doesn’t read aloud, you can always incorporate that into your editing practice.
  4. Groups force you to toughen up. Most groups offer sound criticism, delivered in a positive manner. One of my groups start the critique with what we liked, then move to how the writing could be better. It can always be better. You need to hear that, continually.
  5. They force you to meet and work with other writers. Writing can be a lonely passion but there is enlightenment in numbers. You’ll pick up great tips, habits, and skills working with like individuals. You may even use the group to connect you to others in the profession that can push your career forward. It’s a great place to network.
  6. Writing groups will force you to be a better writer. If you stay connected, and keep writing, your work will improve. You may not be the next Hemingway, but it’s a start.


That said, in my experience, writing groups have little knowledge about getting published. They are all about the writing. My groups don’t include many published authors, so the how-to-write-for-publication is a glaring hole. Most writers will do better reading the books about writing—Stein, Gorkin, Browne & King, George—than trusting inexperienced writers.

But you have to start someplace and a writing group will force you to write, edit, and receive feedback. If you’re a beginning writer or want to write for your own pleasure, it’s a good place to start.


Bruce Kirkpatrick is the author of Hard Left and Lumberjack Jesus. He is currently working on several different writing projects. To learn more about Bruce and his books, you can visit:


At Written Dreams, we believe writers who take part of writer’s groups can be very successful. We will often suggest joining the local chapters to new writers because we believe in the benefits. Here in Green Bay, WI, we’re lucky to have a few groups that meet locally. If you’re looking for a writer’s group in your area, here’s a few associations you can start your search with, depending on the genre you write in: RWA-Romance Writers of America, HWA-Horror Writers of America, SFWA-Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America, CWG-The Children’s Writer’s Guild, NAMW-National Association of Memoir Writers, and many more!

Marketing: Having a Cause

As an author, having a cause or charity that you support is both noble and marketable. It’s a way to support something you believe in, and help your community. And even though I know a lot of authors will donate their royalties towards a specific cause, in most cases, it doesn’t hurt overall book sales. It’s a great way to get your name out there in different circles, to people who believe in helping the same cause. It can also help your self-esteem and make you feel good about yourself for doing the right thing.

Jim C. Hines writes in his blog about having more awareness about rape and sexual abuse issues: Brenda Novak does a fundraiser for juvenile diabetes: Both are people who have a cause they support and donate to, who happen to be authors.

Jim had a friend who was sexually assaulted. It’s something he doesn’t want to see happen to anyone–with good reason. Sexual abuse is a huge problem in today’s world. Helping others to get educated on the subject and be more aware is very dear to his heart. He’s broadened a lot of minds, including my own, with his unique approach.

Brenda’s son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes as a young child. As a mother myself, I understand the desire and willingness to do anything and everything to protect your child. Brenda did what any mother would do when faced with a challenge out of her control. She brainstormed. As of today, she’s raised well over $2 million towards research for a cure.

These authors are just two examples of people doing good by their writing. They’re raising awareness for a cause they believe in, and in doing so, they’re helping their community. Has their audience for their own books increased because of it? Maybe. The important thing here is that they’re doing what they can to help this world be a better place.

For myself, I have several charities I support.

Michael and Brittiany in 2007 at Red Smith SchoolMy church, the local no-kill animal shelter, and raising awareness for psoriatic arthritis, an arthritis many people still don’t know exists. It’s a disease my husband has been living with for close to twenty years, and I’m hopeful someday he’ll have a pain-free day. To learn more about this autoimmune disease, go to:

So, when you’re marketing your next book, be more creative. Don’t think about the “Buy My Book” posts that need to be created for your new release. Think about who you are as a person and who you want to be. Think about those you’d like to help. Think about what you really care about in your life. Think about the needs of your family, friends, and community, and let things happen naturally.


Picture of Brittiany and Michael Koren © copyright 2015 by the Koren family.

Reader Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Reader Review: Reading non-fiction can be just as entertaining as fiction.

Title:                 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author:             Rebecca Skloot

Version:            Paperback

Genre:              Nonfiction

Publisher:         Crown Publishing

Reviewer:         Stewart

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a nonfiction book that engages the reader as grippingly as a good novel. Skloot was sixteen when she heard about HeLa cells, which in 1951 had been grown from the cancer of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. The cells had the unexplained ability to replicate in tissue culture “forever,” and they provided the basis for thousands of important scientific studies during the following decades. Yet nothing was known of Henrietta Lacks. This story stayed with Skloot through college and graduate school and led to her 10-year research for this book–the story not only of Henrietta and her family, but also of the doctors who treated her, the scientists who developed and used her cells, the journalists who, during the 1970’s, sensationalized her story without regard to the privacy or feelings of the family, and the impact of all of this on family members.

Henrietta and her family were poor and black, deprived of education, work, and other opportunities in Baltimore, where Jim Crow in the 1950’s was still strong. Most hospitals did not offer care to black patients, and Henrietta received “charity” care in the “colored” sections of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Medical care was primitive by today’s standards and medical research was even more so. Communication between doctors and patients was governed by the notion that the all-powerful doctor was obliged to tell patients only what he felt was in the patient’s interest. “Informed consent” did not cross the minds of early clinical researchers, who conducted many potentially harmful studies on patients without their knowledge. Henrietta received standard radiation treatment (with severe side effects) and died 6 months after her diagnosis. Her medical care was not unusual; it was an example of how bad care was for everyone, especially poor people.

But Skloot doesn’t stop there. She describes medical progress (through the lens of HeLa cellular research) during the following years, as well as the efforts to improve communication with patients and their families, including Henrietta’s family.

The stories are complicated, but Skloot writes with feeling and an eye for detail that keeps the different narratives lively and connected. For me the book was a page-turner.

WD’s Editorial Tip: This is a good example of a nice balance of medical research and storyline so the reader learns about the topic at hand, but can also take away the hard lessons learned about the people in the story.

Writer’s Wednesday with Tim Waggoner: Avoiding What’s Been Done To Death

Having a horror writer as today’s guest–it being Halloween– seemed to be fitting. I was first introduced to Tim’s writing over ten years ago by a mutual friend. I was looking for a few writers to invite to write stories for an anthology I was putting together, and it was suggested I contact Tim. After reading Tim’s short stories, I was hooked. He’s a talented writer, and a wonderful person.  I’m thrilled to have Tim as our guest today!

Tim Waggoner wrote his first story at the age of five, when he created a comic book version of King Kong vs. Godzilla on a stenographer’s pad. It took him a few more years until he began selling professionally, though. He has published more than twenty novels and two short story collections. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program. He hopes to continue writing and teaching until he keels over dead, after which he wants to be stuffed and mounted, and then placed in front of his computer terminal. Visit Tim’s website at:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” –H.P. Lovecraft

Writers often refer to the above quote when discussing what makes great horror fiction, but when they do so, they’re usually referring to the fear part. But I want to highlight the word unknown, specifically referring to the elements writers build their stories from. Genre fiction is marked by certain shared elements called tropes, but when a trope becomes too familiar and overused, it loses it power and descends into cliché. The princess that needs rescuing by a handsome prince, apocalypse survivors named Adam and Eve, a character doesn’t realize until the end of the story that he or she has been dead all along . . . Each of these ideas may have been fresh once, but now they’re stale to the point of fossilization.

Clichés like this are especially deadly in horror fiction. Once something is known, it can’t be unknown. Vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, knife-wielding serial killers, abduction-obsessed aliens, haunted houses . . . An audience raised on a steady diet of horror – especially horror movies – has encountered each of those tropes and more dozens of times, and if you use them in your horror fiction, you’re more likely to elicit yawns of boredom then you are shivers of delight.

But there are ways to take dull, flat tropes and, like Dr. Frankenstein cobbling together a new creation from bits and pieces of the dead, make them live again. Let me tell you how.

Deconstruct Tropes:

Tropes exist because they embody a primal idea. The trick is understanding what that idea is. Take Jason from the Friday the 13th movies. What does he look like? He’s a silent figure who wears a white mask and featureless dark clothing, carries a bladed weapon and relentlessly hunts down his victims. Remind you of any well-known myth image? If any of you said the Grim Reaper, go the front of the class. White hockey mask = skull face. Dark clothes = black robe. Machete = scythe. Jason worked so well for audiences because they instinctively recognized the trope he was built on. He’s the embodiment of Death.

In my story “Anubis Has Left the Building,” I wrote about the ancient view of death versus a modern view. Anubis embodies the old gods of death: mysterious, powerful, terrifying, and majestic. For the modern god of death, I used a disaffected youth to whom the end of life is nothing more than a simple biological process. As he says, “Sometimes meat moves, sometimes it doesn’t.” Anubis represents an old trope, and the youth represents that trope deconstructed and reworked for the modern age.

In my novel Darkness Wakes, there’s a creature called the Overshadow. If you feed it the life force of another, it will directly stimulate the pleasure center of your brain, giving you ecstasy unlike anything you’ve ever known. At no place in the novel do I use the word vampire, but that’s the trope I built my monster from. By reworking tropes, I’m able to avoid reader’s preconceptions, and I can focus on the concepts underlying those tropes. In the case of Darkness Wakes, I wanted to focus on the ideas of symbiosis and addiction, and the Overshadow allowed me to do this without centuries’ worth of vampire baggage getting in the way. You can do the same with your stories. Pick a trope, strip it down to its essential core, and then rebuild it. Or to put it more simply, take your trope shopping and buy it some new clothes.

Use Tropes From Other Cultures:

Remember when Japanese-inspired horror was all the rage in America? Movies like The Ring and The Grudge were big box office, and the reason was simple. They presented tropes that were fresh to American audiences. Of course, those tropes have become clichés of their own now, but there’s still a world’s worth of legend and myth for you to draw on to help you write your own stories.

For example, I recently heard that according to an Hawaiian creation myth, our universe was born from the death of a previous universe, and the only creature to survive this process of destruction and rebirth is the octopus. Now, you don’t have to use this myth in its entirety. You can take the basic concept of an endless process of universes dying and being reborn, with one creature from the previous universe always surviving. Maybe this survivor hates the new universe and is determined to bring about its death. Maybe this is how the cycle is supposed to work. That would mean the “monster” is actually a vital part of the cosmic scheme of things, and in that sense, not a villain at all.

And there you have a brand-new trope, born out of another culture’s myth. All it takes is a little research and a little imagination.

Find Analogues of Tropes:

Let’s say you want to write a zombie apocalypse story, but – ever mindful of to avoid clichés in your horror – you want to create something fresh. Pick one aspect of the trope and take a step sideways with it. In this case, let’s choose the contagion aspect of the zombie apocalypse, along with the loss of identity. Maybe some force – the government, an evil corporation, a foreign power, extraterrestrials – have created a virus that destroys a human’s psyche, overwriting it with a single personality and set of memories, effectively creating a race of mental clones who are really many expressions of one individual. No flesh-eating, reanimated dead here, but that’s the point. You’ve grabbed hold of an old idea, taken a “step to the left,” as they say in Rocky Horror, and by doing so made it seem new again.

Combine Tropes Or Elements of Tropes:

Take a werewolf, an evil spirit inhabiting a mortal body, and a serial killer, throw them into your mental Mixmaster, and viola! You have a character who, when the sun goes down, becomes possessed by the spirit of a killer. Take a mad scientist, the concept of eternal punishment in Hell, and witchcraft. Mix well, and you get a scientist who’s created a virtual reality program that simulates Hell, perhaps as some kind of extreme psychological therapy. But one of the subjects in his experiment is taught dark magic within the simulation – magic that somehow actually operates in the real world, much to the scientist’s dismay.

Learn to mix and match tropes like this, and you’ll have an endless supply of story ideas.

Create Your Own Tropes:

Aristotle said the only way to get to the universal is through the particular. Want to find new tropes to create your horror from, tropes that will strike a universal chord in your readers? Then start by taking a good look inside yourself.

What are you (and no one else) afraid of?:

      Death, torture, mutilation, the loss of a loved one – especially a child . . . Humans share so many fears. But if you want to create a new trope, you need to find out what you as an individual are afraid of that’s unique to you.

When I was a child, my sister and I were afraid of feathers and band-aids. I can’t remember which of us was scared by which item, nor do I remember why we found them so frightening. But those innocuous objects don’t, in and of themselves, conjure up feelings of fear for most people. That makes them ripe ideas to base new tropes on.

When I was in fifth grade, my dad took me to see Jaws in the theater. Not long afterward, I was taking a shower, and it occurred to me that I was surrounded by water, like in the movie, and I imagined a shark emerging from the shower head, expanding to full size as it came, like some kind of bizarre cartoon character. It’s a strange imagine, one I could easily base a new trope on.

Look To Your Dreams:

I have to admit to not having a lot of experience in this area. My dreams are usually quite dull, consisting of me talking to people I don’t know (and no, I don’t remember what we talk about). But sometimes I have nightmares of all the lights going off and someone pounding violently at the front door. And sometimes I dream of wandering through an endless series of rooms with no way out. Neither of these scenarios seems all that interesting to me, but I know people who have wild, incredibly vivid dreams. And if you’re lucky enough to have an interesting dream life, make it a habit to record your dreams in a notebook every morning upon awakening. I bet you’ll come up with numerous original ideas for your horror fiction, thanks to your own subconscious (which is no doubt far more inventive than mine!).

Pay Attention to the Wonderfully Weird World Around You:

      I do this a lot. I make it a point to be, as Henry James said, one of those people “on whom nothing is lost.” I’m constantly looking around, checking out my environment in search of anything that strikes me as a strange. As soon as I see something cool, I open the note app on my phone and write it down before I forget it. I figure that if I’m the only person in the world who notices something, then it’s bound to be a new trope when I eventually incorporate it in a story.

For example, I often write in Starbucks, and one time in the very store where I’m now at (sitting, as a matter of fact, at the same table where I’m writing this), I saw a man staring at his laptop, muttering over and over, “What are you doing here? What are you doing here?” I also once saw a woman breathe on her hand and then wipe it across the seat of a chair before sitting. Also at this store I once saw a girl child wearing what looked like a wedding ring. I’ve already used the muttering man in a story. The hand-breather and child bride are still on my list, waiting to be used.

While driving around town, I once saw a vehicle that had the word Soulless on it and a personalized plate that read SKINNER. Intrigued, I followed it to a restaurant called the Chop House. And people wonder why I write the kind of stories I write.

All of these images/events are things that I noticed. Who knows what kind of things you’ll notice if you start paying more attention to your surroundings? And that’s the point – we don’t know. We can’t. And that’s why what strikes you as strange and interesting can make for the most original horror tropes of all – because they’re your observations and no one else’s.

So go forth and venture into the unknown – and make sure to take the rest of us with you. To paraphrase Clive Barker’s Hellraiser: you have such sights to show us.

For Further Reference:

Not sure what ideas are clichéd in horror? Then check out these sites:

“Horror Cliches”

“10 Cliches Horror Writers Should Try to Avoid”

“Horror Fiction: Ten Cliches to Avoid”

“Horror Stories We’ve Seen Too Often”

“51 Worst Horror Movie Cliches”

Thank you, Tim, for being our guest today, and for the great tips! In case you’re wondering, yes, Tim did write a story for me. Two, in fact. 🙂  “Fixer-Upper” appeared in Single White Vampire Seeks Same, and “All In the Execution” for Places To Be, People To Kill. If you have questions or comments for Tim, he’ll be with us all day. Thank you!