Writing tips for your writers' group:
Chapter summaries keep you on target

Soda Springs cover

Writing tips don't have to be hard to implement . . . or swathed in mysticism. Here's a simple tip to get even more from your writers' group:

  • As you write your novel, write a short summary of each chapter.
  • Week-by-week, compile them into a single document.
  • Pass them out to your group along with the new chapter you want them to critique next.

Here's why: After several chapters, even your most faithful group members will forget both detail and much of the flow of the novel. True, even if you meet weekly. More true if you meet monthly. And especially true of those members who don't make it to every session.

A good critique group can comment on your writing style, word choice, dialogue, etc. But it's difficult to judge the overall flow of the story . . . how themes are integrated (or not) . . . sub-plots developed and resolved (or not). . . how characters grow (or not) . . . or how it all fits together in the end.

Even if you meet weekly, chances are you'll take a year or more to make it through a full novel. Your chapter summaries will refresh your readers' memories of what has gone before . . . bring those who have missed chapters up to date, and . . . equally important . . . help you keep on track.

I've done this for years with several writing groups. Simple writing tips like these always help.

Here's an example: summaries for each of the eight sample chapters of Soda Springs included on this website. Read on.

Chapter 01

Saturday, April 6, 1963 :
En route to and arrival in Birmingham, Alabama

Rick Sanders and Charlie McPherson are en route to Birmingham for spring break. They're both college journalism students -- Rick a writer; Charlie a photographer. They'll vacation with Charlie's family, but also gin up some stories on the Martin Luther King-inspired Negro protests in Birmingham for the Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper.

They stop at the Forsythe store near Anniston where Rednecks ran down and burned a Freedom Rider bus in 1961. Afterwards, a state trooper hauls them over, then hassles and assaults Rick -- Rick's a northerner, unwelcome in Alabama. Charlie talks their way out of the trooper's clutches.

In Birmingham, Charlie's mother, Priscilla McPherson, a high school English teacher, greets Rick as if he were a long-lost boyfriend. They spend the evening dining, drinking, and talking literature . . . and Rick is smitten: she's beautiful, erudite, and sexy as hell. Charlie's father, Phil McPherson,, doesn't make it home; he's a Birmingham cop, caught up in the Negro demonstrations wracking the city.

At chapter's end, Rick finds himself naked in bed; Priscilla's scent permeates his every pore. He remembers her kissing him, but he's too wasted to be sure. He hopes to God he didn't do anything to embarrass himself.

Freedom Rider Bus

Jump over to Soda Springs Chapter 1

Chapter 02

Saturday, April 6, Soda Springs, Colorado:
Rev Bob Hardwick and his wife, Flor, en route to Tinkum's farm sale

En route to the auction of Tinkum's farm, Rev. Bob Hardwick and his wife Flor Hardwick, a high school science teacher and school counselor, argue: money, an icy, never-ending winter, town rumors, Bob's struggle to revitalize his failing church.

At Tinkum's, Flor joins the church ladies inside. Bob falls in with Jock Sanders (Rick's dad) and Buck Bennett, Jock's pal and neighboring farmer.

Buck drops the news he has worked a deal for Bob to run the declining church in nearby Apache Flats, as well as the Soda Springs church both churches are on the financial skids. Buck, a church board member, made the decision himself and plans to have the board rubber-stamp it. Bob is furious: he's already saddled with the youth program -- Muriel Tinkum ran it for years. Bob knows he can't take on Buck, not directly. Worse, Bob's key supporter on the board has been Tinkum. Tinkum's gone.

Meanwhile, Lupe Sandoval, the town's fiery Mexican-American activist, hails Flor at the auction. Lupe has a federal grant for a migrant program, and offers Flor a summer job teaching dropouts. Flor is leery, but intrigued. As they talk, Coach Odell Andrews busts in and insults Lupe: Mexicans don't belong in the Tinkum house. Lupe cuts him down.

At chapter's end, Flor accepts Lupe's offer, even though she knows Bob won't approve; they need the money.

Jump to Soda Springs Chapter 2

Chapter 03

Palm Sunday, April 7:
First United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

Rick and Charlie escort Priscilla into the grand old First United Methodist Church -- Phil came home late and left early for work, he can't go to church with them, Priscilla says. After the service, they spot a gang of Negroes marching down the street. Rick takes off -- much to Priscilla's disgust -- and gets swept up into a near riot. Cops sic dogs on the protestors, beat some of them, arrest others.

At chapter's end, Charlie finds Rick after the riot. "Mom's pissed, you better pray she doesn't toss all your shit into the street," he says.

Jump to Soda Springs Chapter 3

Chapter 04

Palm Sunday, April 7:
McPherson house, Birmingham

Priscilla confronts Rick and Charlie when they come in late that night. She reams Rick out for involving himself in the march-turned-riot, lectures him on local race relations, challenges him to look at the whole story of Birmingham, not just swallow the biased reporting of the northern press. Rick is stunned: she's a full-blown racist -- nothing like the sweet ingenue who captivated him last night. God, he's stuck in her house for a week. What now?

Jump to Soda Springs Chapter 4

Chapter 05

Monday-Tuesday, April 8-9:

Charlie takes up Priscilla's challenge and attacks Rick for his northern bias. They immerse themselves in back issues of the local newspaper to get a better perspective on local politics and current events. Downtown for lunch, they find themselves at a street protest. A demonstrator invites Rick to tonight's rally at 16th Street Baptist. Rick wants to go. Charlie objects, but eventually gives in.

Outside 16th Street Baptist they spar with Sasha Johnson, a sassy high school activist. Inside, they hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and singer Al Hibbler rally the troops. Afterwards, Rick runs into Dr. King outside the basement restroom, and carries on a brief, awkward conversation. Dr. King is in need; he flees into the one-person men's john.

At chapter's end, Rick is frantic -- he's got to go as bad as Dr. King did, but King has locked the bathroom door. Rick darts into the women's john for relief.

16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama


Jump to Soda Springs Chapter 5

Chapter 06

Tuesday, April 9:
Soda Springs High and the Methodist Church parsonage

Lupe Sandoval has recruited a gang of dropouts and tells Flor Hardwick she wants her to begin teaching them Monday. The short notice irritates Flor, but she is also eager to get started.

That night, as Flor waits for Bob to return from Apache Flats, she recalls their first impressions of the poverty-stricken Mexican barrio, and how they vowed to bridge Soda Springs' two communities: whites on one side, Mexicans on the other. They hadn't; the church consumed them.

At last, Bob drags in. Flor jumps him. They argue about the church, the impossibility of him running both parishes by himself, and her plan to work for Lupe instead of helping him with his overwhelming duties. They're at loggerheads . . . until a stroke of genius hits him: what if they recruited high school senior Ginny Sue Bennett to run the youth program until she leaves for college in the fall? She's smart, a natural leader, and best of all, a dedicated Christian. Flor pooh-poohs the idea. But the more they talk, the better it sounds. It would greatly lessen Bob's load . . . and keep Buck Bennett off his back. They agree to ask her.

At chapter's end, Flor is mollified, but she needs Bob to understand she can never be satisfied being merely "Pastor's wife"; she has to have a life of her own outside of the church.

Jump to Soda Springs Chapter 6

Chapter 07

Wednesday night, April 10:
La Casa de Esperanza, Soda Springs

Lupe and her niece, Concha Montoya, are hard at work with a gang of volunteers renovating the old Studebaker garage into a Mexican community center, La Casa de Esperanza. Lupe reflects on how the town fathers have opposed them at every step, and how Concha, now three years out of high school, has matured into such a key figure in their effort. It has given her the direction she hasn't had since high school.

Police chief Zeigler bursts through the door and demands they stop work immediately -- they have no building permit. He confronts Lupe, but her husband, Elias Sandoval, and brother-in-law Nacho Sandoval, step in to defend her. Zeigler backs off, but says come tomorrow, he'll put a stop to their work . . . and he'll bring plenty of reinforcements if he needs to.

At chapter's end, the gang crowds around Lupe, who tells them, "Tomorrow night, same time. We'll make him throw us out. Nacho and Elias first."

Jump to Soda Springs Chapter 7

Chapter 08

Wednesday-Thursday, April 10-11:

Downtown, Rick and Charlie stumble into a budding lunch counter sit-in. When they get home, Priscilla confronts them over their excursion to 16th Street Baptist, and challenges Rick to go to her classes to see what Birmingham is really like. He accepts. At all-white Ramsay High, Rick meets bright students, gets a different -- and surprisingly, non-racist -- view of Negro activism.

After school, Priscilla treats him to happy hour at the elegant Tutweiler Hotel. Time gets away from them. They race home to fix dinner for Charlie, only to discover he is out for the evening with a former girlfriend. Over mint juleps, Rick and Priscilla get on beautifully -- vignettes of Charlie growing up, of Charlie's dad, of Rick's childhood.

The drinks flow. Priscilla comes on to him. He shies away; this isn't right, not with a married woman -- and his best friend's mother, to boot. She turns up the heat. He melts. Clothes fly off. They're at the brink of sex. Rick's thrilled. It's a dream come true: this will be his first time. But then . . . bam, Charlie thumps into the house. Priscilla scurries off. Success denied.

At chapter's end, Rick fears the dawn to come: he can't face either of them -- his best friendor his friend's mother.

Jump to Soda Springs Chapter 8

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