Friday, March 19, 2010

Writer's Groups, Part II

Last week I wrote about choosing the “right” writer’s group. This week I want to talk about how to start and maintain a group of your own.

Before you begin, however, the first thing you’ll need to figure out is whether you want a critique or a support group. A critique group meets to help members achieve excellent writing through editing. While it can be invaluable to know you’ve named a character “Zena” on page 17 but then her name changes to “Drusilla” on page 24, or that your sentence structure in Chapter 10 is just awful, you and the others in your group may not be ready for—or want—this kind of editing. You might still be in the rough draft stage, or still finding your voice and style. That's when a support group can be more helpful, encouraging members to freewrite or experiment without fear of failure. If you do choose a critique group over a support group decide early on what kind of critiques you will give: line by line (time consuming); general warm-and-fuzzy (can be vague and not very helpful); or no praise at all (I belonged to this kind of group only once and it was the least successful).

After choosing your group type, your next job is to find members. This really isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Placing ads at your library or local bookstore can work well. Many of the professional writer’s organizations will give you free space in their newsletters to advertise your group needs. If you’re enrolled in a writing workshop, ask the others if they’d like to continue meeting after the class is finished. Or simply ask your friends. You’ll be amazed who is secretly writing and never told you.

Deciding where you will you meet can often be your biggest dilemma. Meeting in your own home may not be the smartest choice, at least not until you get to know the other members. My favorite meeting places are the same as those where I’ve put up notices seeking other writers. One drawback to the library, though, is you must be willing to let in the general public. I once had to contend with someone who insisted on barking, as in, “Woof, woof,” for no apparent reason. (Yes, it was very disrupting.) If the thought of strangers and their quirks makes you nervous, a bookstore cafĂ© can be a nice mix of both private and public space.

When will you meet? Meeting at a set time every 2 weeks or similar lets people know when the meeting is without you having to remind them. If one or more members have to miss a meeting, it’s never a good idea to try to accommodate their schedules—all you’ll do is confuse everyone else. Just keep to your regular date and time even if only two of you show up.

Belonging to a group can be one of the most fun experiences of your writing life. A group can help you write better and more often, and with more enthusiasm. But to really work, the most successful groups agree on the “rules” from the start. For instance, if you only want to critique westerns, or screenplays, or narrative poetry—say so right up front. Don't set people up for disappoint down the road because they love science fiction pantoums and you don't. Personally I like groups that allow all types of writing, but I’ve also belonged to groups that kept to strict genre lines and they were some of my favorites.

As fun as groups are, though, it's important to recognize when a group is in danger of falling apart. A toxic group wastes and drains everyone's time. Signs of trouble and how to fix them include:

The Dominator. This is the member who believes the meetings are all about and only for her (or him!). She brings 12 pages instead of the agreed-upon 4; talks off-topic; is catty in her critique style because “she knows best.” Solution: If the rules are 4 pages, she can only read 4 pages. It’s never okay to read more. Don’t make exceptions “just this once.”

Going off topic. Influenced by the Dominator, other members also talk about work, their family, and social life. Solution: Rather than singling anyone out, set an established time for “personal news.” For instance, everyone gets 3 minutes each at the start of the meeting to share whatever they feel is important.

Unhelpful critiques. “I like it,” “I don’t like it,” without explanation. Or critiques are based on personal taste: “I hate cats!” “I can’t stand war movies.” Or “critique” is confused with “attack and shame”: “Oh my God, that’s a perpendicular parallel past tense modifier split invective! And you didn’t even notice? What’s wrong with you?” Solution: Remind members that critiques are based on opinion—the same yardstick most agents and editors rely on as well. To keep critiques helpful and on track, ask that they be based on at least these 4 questions: What would I like to see more of? What would I like to see less of? What is just right? And why? Ask that any copyediting or proofing be done on the actual manuscript and given back to the writer later without needing to discuss as a group.

The Rule Police. “You can’t start a mystery without a dead body.” Many times the police are right, but not always. Acknowledge that their information is correct, but it’s up to the individual writer to decide how creative he or she wants to get with established precedents.

Crazymakers. “This would be so much better without Chapter 7.” Next week, “Why did you take out Chapter 7? Now the whole book falls apart!” Solution: Let members know they don’t have to take every piece of advice they hear. If Chapter 7 is disliked by 4 out of 5 members, then there might be a good reason for making a change. However, if only one member continues to go back and forth, I’ll bet she’s the dominator too, and it might be time to ask her if she’d like to join another group.

Scary as the above pitfalls might sound, I can’t stress enough that they are rare occurrences. If you do come up against one or more of them, don’t think the only solution is to give up. A much better approach is to ask group members to write down what they want from the group and why. Before you know it you will have a mission statement that everyone has participated in and will want to keep.

Tip of the Day: The best thing you can do to start a group is to commit to a group of one—yourself. You don’t need numbers to make a group work; you just need to show up and on a regular basis. Remember that even if it’s only you and one other writing buddy meeting over coffee to write together and share market news, you’ve laid the foundation for a great and productive group. Good luck!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Choosing a Writer's Group, Part I

Hi Valerie,
I took your writing class a few years ago and was working on a children’s book at the time. I’ve finished that book and now am writing a YA. I’d love to join a writer’s group. Do you have any suggestions of where I should start? Thanks so much.
Terry H.

Thanks, Terry, that’s a great question. Joining a writer’s group is an excellent way to keep on track with your writing. Groups can provide you with feedback on your manuscript progress as well as help you maintain a consistent writing schedule.

The first thing I can tell Terry and anyone else in her position is that there are essentially three distinct types of groups: professional organizations; critique groups; and writing “support” groups (for lack of a better term). Professional groups are organized somewhat along corporate lines with a president, a board of officers, bylaws, and the range of the group can be state- if not nation-wide or even international. In Terry’s case I would recommend she join up with a group such as The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. If her YA is perhaps a romance, joining Romance Writers of America would be a smart move too. And because Terry lives in the Atlanta area, she might like to also become a member of Georgia Writers.

The wonderful thing about these organizations and others like them is there really is at least one for every genre or region you can think of. The only possible drawback to joining might be the membership fees. That said, dues often include a subscription to a newsletter or magazine, and members should receive discounts to conferences and other events—events with editors, celebrity authors, workshops, and all sorts of good things only available through that particular organization.

Critique groups are frequently made up of members who belong to the same pro organizations described above. Not only do members hold a common interest in a particular genre or theme, but they probably all met each other at a conference or regional meeting to begin with! However, it isn’t necessary to think you have to belong to the larger group first. The most important criteria is whether you feel you can receive a helpful critique of your work from the group and you feel comfortable with the other members.

Critique groups work best when they are based on the premise that members will bring a certain amount of unpublished manuscript pages to the meetings and everyone participates equally in the critiquing. One of the best critique groups I ever belonged to met every two weeks for an 8-hour session (we brought our lunch). We were all writing novels at the time so members brought copies of their current chapter to each meeting. The person being critiqued read his or her manuscript pages aloud while the others followed along, pen in hand, making notes on typos or awkward sentences or just things that drove them crazy. When the reading was finished, we went around in a circle and discussed our notes. Then we gave the marked-up copies back to the writer being critiqued. It was a long day but oh, did we learn. And write. The screenwriting group I belong to now doesn't have the luxury of an 8-hour day and we meet in the evening. To save time we email our manuscripts to each other for critiquing at home. Then we bring our notes to the meetings for discussion.

My freewrting/support group is a whole 'nother kind of animal. Not only do we forego critiquing, we use the meetings as a time to experiment. Our format is simple but effective: as soon as we’re settled with coffee (we meet at a local bookstore cafe), we choose a writing prompt from whatever’s handy, e.g. a book title, a mood, or something already selected from a magazine cut-out. We then write on that topic in silence for 20 minutes. When the time’s up, we go around in a circle and read our pages. After that we spend a few minutes sharing personal or professional news, followed by the reading and sharing of our bi-weekly “assignments.” These are based on a prompt or theme chosen at the last meeting. Topics range from the philosophical, “What is art for?” to the evocative, “Into the woods…” We limit ourselves to five pages each so our meetings don’t go on too long.

Lately we’ve had the wonderful idea of including illustration to go with our writing. Members have been painting, collaging, drawing, photographing…it’s been thrilling to see how far we can go beyond words. We also welcome any genre or form of writing, from screenplay to poetry to personal essay. This year we’re doing most of our work in art journals to more easily accommodate both writing and artwork at the same time. I love it!

But what if you’re thinking, well, this sounds very nice but I don’t live anywhere near other writers, or, I’ve tried a couple of critique groups and just didn’t feel “right” about being there. I hear you loud and clear. Next post I’ll address these concerns and discuss how to start a group of your own while avoiding that great time and energy drain: the toxic group.

Tip of the Day: If you haven’t already, do consider joining a writers’ group. The most important thing is to decide which type is best for you.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Finishing Line

One of my favorite classes I teach is called “Write that Novel (and Finish it Too!)". It’s always been a strong belief of mine that the only books readers want to buy and read are the finished ones, and that probably holds true for agents and editors as well. But like many writers, I have to admit that not every one of my manuscripts is finished. And guess what? They’re the ones I haven’t sold.

The problem came home to me the other day when I was inventing excuses to explain my reluctance to work on the current WIP and wondering if I really had to write it (you mean I do have to figure out those old family connections and why my MC is so terrified of change and…?). Well, you get the picture. After the heady fun of first draft write-whatever-comes-to-mind, second drafts can feel like pure slog and I wasn’t in the mood for work.

While I was wishing the manuscript would write itself, I suddenly thought about my most embarrassing unfinished project to date; not a manuscript but a sweater. Some time before Christmas I started to knit for my husband a fairly simple (or so it seemed) pullover. And then some time before New Year’s I stopped; the reason being that I didn’t know how to begin decreasing for the sleeves. Every time I tried to read the instructions in the knitting manual the words just turned to squiggles and I couldn’t understand any of it. It was as if the entire pattern was written in secret code and I didn't have the code book.

Thinking I would return to it "later," I left it neatly folded on a chair. Except later never came and even with my husband making little jokes: “Is that a cat or a sweater on that chair?” (we don’t have a cat) I managed to avoid any knitting whatsoever until I got stuck on my manuscript.

Last Sunday while I was trying to decide what to do with 200 pages of what seemed like sheer drivel (throw it in the trash?) I thought I should take a look at the sweater—I was that desperate to avoid writing. I went to the chair where it had been folded for a good two months and discovered a spider had taken up where I had left off, weaving an incredibly complex and strong tubular web right across the entire top row. Fitting right in with the whole abandonment metaphor, the web was empty, the spider having moved on and by the dusty look of it, a while ago.

I stood there with what in truth was a very nice and neatly knitted piece of the back and decided that I simply had to find out what to do next. I thought if I began now I could have the sweater finished by the start of next winter, oh happy thought, or worse case scenario, next Christmas. Yes, I would do it.

It took a morning of bright light, strong coffee, and utter silence, but in the end I successfully deciphered the pattern and knitted to the point that my confidence returned and I was able to complete nearly six more inches. Strangely, my manuscript also became a lot more attractive to me. When I put my knitting down and returned to the computer, I was able to see a way out of my current chapter dilemma and how to get back on track.

Later that day I went to my writer’s group and on the way driving there I realized the main reason we leave things unfinished is because we don’t know what to do, and not knowing what to do leads to fear, mainly fear of failure. With that is the unreasonable notion that we’re supposed to figure it all out by ourselves or by magic, a kind of ta-dah moment when everything becomes clear with no effort or research on our part. To understand my knitting pattern I had to take the time to be quiet, read the directions, and experiment until I got it right. The same goes for my manuscript. It’s impossible to know whether Chapter Five should be Chapter Seventeen or vice versa if I don’t try putting those arrangements down on paper. And if I’m stuck or need help, all I need to do is ask—either a writer friend, or look up my question on-line or in one of the several great how-to books I own. There are no secret codes. All it takes is a little effort and a whole lot of willingness to be wrong for the answer to appear, usually right on the page in front of us.

Tip of the day: What creative project or manuscript have you left unfinished, and why? Go dig it out of its hiding place and resolve to make a fresh start. If you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Once you have some answers and solutions, dive back in as soon as you can.