Tag Archives: Writers’ Groups

And Then There Were Five

I recently wrote about the impending demise of my writers’ group, at least in its current form. One guy was mad at another guy, and then a third guy jumped on board, and suddenly the rest of us had to pick sides. Awkward, to say the least. But I wasn’t prepared for how much this discord would affect me. I had a weight in my chest and unease in my belly not dissimilar to that feeling you get when you know you’re about to be dumped, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Dread.

Let me rewind a bit.

The backstory: Gus emailed a few members of the group the previous week, asking if we shared his view that the group’s founder, Eric, had been increasingly negative and unhelpful in his critiques. He also missed a fair amount of meetings. While I didn’t have a problem with him, others did. A few more email exchanges, and Gus and another member Jake decided to start their own group. Anyone who wanted to come was welcome. These two guys in particular have provided me with a lot of valuable feedback over the last two years, so I decided to go with them.

Gus’ and Jake’s plan was to wait until the end of our next meeting to tell Eric they were leaving, and that it was likely others would go with them. When the time came, I skedaddled out of there. I wanted no part of that conversation. I was certain Eric had no idea what was coming at him, and would probably be shocked and upset. The situation reminded me of the cruelty of middle school: one day someone is your best friend and the next, she isn’t speaking to you. And you have no idea why.

(Shudder.)

After the meeting, Gus emailed everyone to apologize for his part in the drama and to reaffirm his hope that we would join in the new group. I responded that I would, as did a couple of others.

The next morning, I received the email from Eric explaining his side of the story. It was clear that he was indeed surprised by Gus’ and Jake’s departure, and felt the need to defend himself against their assertions. The uneasy feeling in my gut deepened as he made his case for why the rest of us should remain in his group, and touted his solid track record of recruiting new members. The clincher was his comment that yes, he does often miss meetings due to his travel schedule and therefore he “would need a co-facilitator that would help me run the group, preferably Lisa, if she decides to stay.”

My stomach took another turn.

In response, I expressed my regret at having to choose a side and wished Eric well. I hadn’t instigated any of this, yet I felt terrible for abandoning him. I felt even worse when several days later, the one member who had yet to pick a side decided to stay with Eric. He couldn’t bear to be yet another person to jump ship. While I was crushed to lose him – he’s writing a great novel and I’ve always valued his critiques – I understood his decision and wondered if I shouldn’t have made the same one. But at the end of the day, I joined the group to improve my writing, not because I felt sorry for someone.

macarons

Never underestimate the healing power of delicious.

So the eight members are now five and three. I approached the first meeting of the newly formed five with some trepidation, worried that I wouldn’t be able to shake my bad feelings, that the group was now ruined for me. But then Gus said a heartfelt thanks for our support during this uncomfortable time and gave each of us a box of the loveliest macarons from his favorite bakery to show his appreciation. And I knew everything was going to be okay.

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Breaking Up the Band

It happens all the time in rock bands: one member starts turning up late for shows, blackout drinking every night of the week, and/or just being a belligerent asshole. If this member is, say, the bassist or the drummer, the rest of the band will probably kick him out and release a statement wishing him a successful stint in rehab.

But what if the problem child is the band’s founder?

The founder of my writers’ group is getting on other members’ nerves, and one in particular – I will call him Gus – who emailed me last week to ask about my feelings on the matter. Have I noticed our founder’s shift in attitude of late? Have I noticed that his critiques are increasingly condescending and mean-spirited?

In truth, I have not. He can be blunt sometimes, but it hasn’t bothered me thus far. What I have noticed is that our founder – I’ll call him Eric – takes a heck of a lot of long vacations, which results in sporadic attendance on his part. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I was a short story writer, but when it comes to critiquing a novel, it’s difficult to provide valuable feedback on chapter 20 when you’ve missed everything after chapter 5.

breakup-heart.jpgGus sited a few recent examples of Eric’s bad behavior and negative critiques, one of which had bordered on accusing Gus of stealing story ideas from other writers. Gus said he had already spoken to a couple other members, and they were getting fed up too.

I took a diplomatic approach and suggested that Eric may not be aware of his behavior, and perhaps a calm and rationale conversation would set him right. But for Gus, it was too late for diplomatic measures. He had made up his mind. He would leave the group.

I am not one for indulging unnecessary drama, and I did wonder if Gus wasn’t being a little oversensitive. But then another member, Jake – who is as levelheaded as they come – said that he agreed with Gus and would leave with him. As he said, “Writing is hard enough without people routinely telling you your output sucks.”

During my time in the group, Jake and Gus have consistently attended meetings and have consistently delivered valuable feedback. I may not have any particular issue with Eric, but majority rules. If they go, I go with them.

So we’re breaking up the band. Tonight at the end of our meeting, Gus and Jake will take Eric aside and tell him they are leaving the group. And that other members plan to come with them.

I don’t particularly like the middle school “I don’t want to be your friend anymore” vibe to this approach, but Gus and Jake are convinced he will not leave on his own. So we will dissolve and reform as a kinder, gentler version of our group, one that doesn’t involve Eric.

But make no mistake, this sends a strong message to the other members: misbehave and we will shut you down.

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Readers!

I’m in the home stretch on the third draft of my novel! With just a few chapters left to revise, I’ve started to prepare for the next phase of the process: identifying my non-writer Beta readers.

To clarify, I’ve already had several Beta readers in the form of my writers’ group, who – over the past year and change – have given me both encouragement and valuable feedback. And of course there’s my BFF and uber-talented artist/writer Mari, who is my trusted First Reader for every novel, essay, or story’s initial exposure to the world outside of my head.Love Reading

But non-writer readers are a different story, and identifying the right ones can be tricky. It is crucial to select readers who: 1) enjoy reading 2) enjoy reading your genre 3) will be forthright and detailed in their critique while never forgetting that your writing is an essential part of you, like your lungs or your liver. Insensitive or dismissive comments can be hurtful, but even worse, they do nothing to help improve the work.

Our natural inclination is to reach out to our loved ones. They already adore us, so of course they will also adore our writing, right? Maybe, maybe not. I once made the apocalyptic-scale blunder of asking my then-boyfriend to read an early draft of my novel. Not only was he was not a novel reader by nature, he was so unsure of his own ability to provide useful feedback that he simply avoided the whole exercise*. As my manuscript gathered dust on his bedside table, my faith in both my writing and my relationship took a major plunge. If the man who was supposed to love me had no interest in my work, then who would??

These days, I make sure to communicate my needs and expectations to my readers (as well as to my boyfriends). My ultimate goal is to write a kick-ass novel, one that all kinds of readers can enjoy. But I’m going to need a little help.

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* For the record, we were in our 20s and had not yet mastered the fine art of clear communication. Actually, I’m still working on that…

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Writing What You Don’t Know

If writers took the old adage “Write What You Know” to heart, I’m willing to bet that nearly all modern protagonists would be writers struggling to craft a literary masterpiece, balance the demands of their day jobs, relationships, and families, while battling the sometimes crippling self doubt that comes with being a sensitive, creative type. And really, there are already plenty of novels that fit this bill.*

There’s a reason why there aren’t more novels about plumbers or dry-wallers. When was the last time you read a book about a 50-year-old assembly line worker in a chicken processing plant in Missouri? I will venture a guess at an explanation: most fiction writers know very little about the best way to strip a chicken or replace a leaky flush valve.14045-write-what-you-know-that-should-leave-you-with-a-lot-of-free-2_380x280_width

I am not above this literary sink trap. But if I only wrote about what I know, I would quickly run out of material.

My current novel-in-progress, Small Legends, centers on four main characters. Although I’ve never been 1) a post-feminist mom trying to find her place in a time of changing gender roles, 2) an artistic yet angst-ridden 19-year-old boy, or 3) a 30-something woman with commitment issues (okay, I might relate to that last one just a tad), I can understand where all of these characters are coming from. However the fourth character – a middle-aged, blue collar lineman who works for the electric company – is completely out of my realm of experience. Middle-aged men are somewhat of a mystery to me (which probably explains why I’m still single) and if I worked on the line, I’d probably fall to my death from the utility pole before I had a chance to electrocute myself. So yeah, he’s been a challenging character.

Another topic central to my novel’s plot: Parenthood. I do not have children. I do not particularly like children, with the de facto exception of my friends’ children. But I am attempting to write about the feelings – the good, the bad, and the ugly – that my characters have for their children. I am attempting to create genuine parent/child relationships, and quickly realizing that I should really pay better attention when friends and co-workers talk about their kids.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when a member of my writers’ group – a mother of two – gently called me out for subscribing to another familiar adage: Children Should Be Seen And Not Heard. “How are the parents able to have so many uninterrupted conversations with a rambunctious four-year-old boy in the same house?” she asked. “Where is their son all this time?”

Duh. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that the parents might need to interact with their child every now and again. Because I wasn’t putting myself in their shoes, I was sort of putting them in mine – an elementary party foul for writers.

I took her questions to heart and rewrote the next chapter to incorporate significantly more face time with the four-year-old boy, including a brief but telling exchange between mother and son that another member – a middle-aged man and a father – declared “beautiful”:

As my stomach grew, Nate took to spending more and more time talking to the baby growing inside of it. He decided that if it was a boy, he would name it Pinocchio, after one of his favorite Disney characters, and if it was a girl, Alice, after his other.

“I like peanut butter,” Nate stage-whispered, his face about an inch away. “And goldfish crackers.”

“What about string cheese?” I suggested. Nate looked up at me as if he was surprised to find that I was still attached to my stomach.

“Mommy, you’re not supposed to listen!” he complained, frowning.

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry,” I said. “I won’t listen anymore.”

He moved even closer so that his lips brushed up against my sweater when he whispered, “And string cheese.”

I pretended not to hear.

I am learning, it seems, once scene at a time.

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*Exhibit A: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, in which a frustrated writer is seven years and 2,500-words into a novel that he can’t seem to finish. Either Chabon is a master for pulling this off so beautifully or I’m a sucker for a good story about the struggles of my fellow writers. Probably both. Stephen King also famously writes about writers (Misery, Tommy Knockers, Bag of Bones), but takes their struggles far beyond rejected query letters and writers’ block.

 

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Quid Pro Quo?

Of the many milestones in the life of every novel, short story, or poem, one of the most crucial is the first time a writer allows his or her infant yet already beloved work to be viewed by others. At this key juncture, it is crucial to select the right early readers: literate, compassionate, and totally honest. They must be willing and able to provide specific, constructive feedback in a way that inspires you to keep revising*. In short, your early readers should either be people you trust implicitly, or who you are paying well.

So imagine my surprise when barely an hour after meeting Bill, the newest member of my writers’ group, he sent me a somewhat desperate email entitled “You are well read and I need help!” It said:

I am in a quandary and without someone’s input may have to stop writing until I’m clear. this clarity may never come. I would appreciate it if you would do me the ultimate favor and read what I have … and help me see clearly and focus my direction.

HelpEarlier that evening, the group critiqued an excerpt from Bill’s novel-in-progress about a man obsessed with reading the private diaries of the recently deceased. While his writing style was erratic and difficult to follow – shifting from short, stunted sentences to stream-of-conscious meanderings, and then back again, all within the span of a few paragraphs – his premise was at least interesting.

I’d given Bill what I hoped to be the aforementioned honest yet compassionate feedback that would inspire him to move forward with his work. But now he was asking me, practically begging me, to read and critique the entirety of his novel.

I am frozen, he went on. I realize this is an unusual and off the wall request but I don’t know where else to turn. my friends can’t help. thanks for listening.

I contacted the rest of the group to ask if anyone else had received a similar request. They had not. I wasn’t sure if I should take this as a compliment or feel a little creeped out. Had Bill been so impressed by my critique that he now sought out my unique wisdom? Had I perhaps led him on in some way, been too kind with my comments? Or was he simply desperate for validation, and I seemed the least likely of the group to tell him off?

While the credo of most writers’ groups is for the members to learn from one another, Bill’s distressed email didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t help but feel a little used. It was like having a stranger at a party strike up a conversation with me only to then ask for an introduction to my best friend. It seemed that Bill was only interested in what I could do for him.

The following day, he sent another email. And then another, this time with his novel attached.

the tenses are all off and I haven’t had the time to do transitions but that’s what you get with a first draft. it’s only 137 pages a quick read. do I cut bait or fill in?

It was at this point that I wrote him back. I told him I was unable to help him, that my hands were full with my own projects at present. I encouraged him to set his novel aside for a little while, until he could come back to it with a fresh perspective. I did not hear from him again.

The other members of my writers’ group decided to rescind Bill’s invitation to join due to the quality – or lack thereof – of his writing and the fact that some thought he had been unnecessarily harsh in his critique of another member’s work. His emails to me, I was told, were the literary icing on the cake.

Although I was admittedly put off by his neediness, I still felt sad for him. We all get a little lost along the way, and can only hope that when we do, someone will be there to offer a helping hand.

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* The alternative to revision is, of course, crouching in a dark corner and drinking gin.

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LiteraryMatch.com

I recently decided to join a writers’ group, with a goal to meet more of my fellow writers and get early feedback on my novel. As with most everything these days, there’s a Meetup group for that.

literarymatch

LiteraryMatch.com (trademark pending)

Over the years, I’ve participated in a string of writers’ groups; some were structured and monogamous, while others were casual drop-in affairs, more like a literary booty call. In some groups, I was consistently impressed by the quality of the writing and the critique, while in others I struggled to come up with positive feedback and then never called again.

Whilst perusing Meetup, I came upon an established writers’ group – I will call it the RR Group – who were looking to expand their circle. The core group of four members had met regularly for several years; to me, this spoke volumes about the maturity and commitment of the individuals, who clearly trusted each another enough to share one of their deepest vulnerabilities – their writing. I was further heartened by the RR Group’s request for a writing sample from interested parties. After all, as with any relationship, it was important to ensure that new prospects had complimentary styles and interests.

I composed a masterful email expressing my lifelong love of writing, touting my four-for-four record with National Novel Writing Month, and boasting about the second draft of my novel, a short excerpt of which I provided. I sold it, Baby! There was no chance they wouldn’t want me.

But when I hadn’t heard back by the following morning, I started to worry. What if the RR Group didn’t like my writing sample? What if, instead of dedicated and creative, my email came across as arrogant and desperate? Barely two months out of the epicenter of a difficult breakup, my fragile ego couldn’t take much more rejection.

As I obsessively clicked the refresh button on my email, I thought of the early days of online dating, back when you simply posted a paragraph or two about yourself, and refrained from exchanging photos until you felt reasonably confident that your correspondent wasn’t a) a serial killer, b) your ex, or c) your boss. Exchanging photos with a potential suitor was like engaging in a round of Hot or Not, and it was unclear which was worse, being the Rejecter or the Rejectee.

Twenty-fours hours after I submitted my writing sample, I got the email: “We enjoyed your writing and would like to invite you to join the group.” I was in. I was HOT!

As a new member, I was encouraged to submit a piece for discussion at our first meeting, so I sent along the first chapter of my novel. Everyone was expected to read the submissions prior to meeting, and be prepared to give feedback, so I settled onto my couch with a cup of tea and the other two submissions. The first was a hard read; each sentence was so long and effusive that I wondered if the writer had a personal vendetta against the period (I lost my breath somewhere around the third clause). The second submission, however, was well paced and quick-witted, and I liked it at once. I was relieved. I was in good company.

"I just love the way you use semicolons."

“I love the way you use semicolons.”

There were four of us at my first meeting. Anne, a plump, 60ish woman with a thin blond ponytail, was a fellow newbie. The two existing members, Jay, balding and mustached, and CeeCee, thin and pale with penny red hair, were genial if not a tad brusque. I thought we’d start off with a little get-to-know-you conversation, the usual “when did you start writing?” and “who are your favorite authors?” exchange. But there was no candlelight, no romance. No foreplay. We got right down to business.

As we critiqued each submission, I was surprised (and a little impressed) by how forthright everybody was in his or her feedback. While I was still trying to think up a kind way to tell Anne she should consider punctuation as a writing tool, Jay cut right to the quick: “You should cut out about a third of the words in every sentence.” I was even more surprised when, far from being offended, Anne nodded her head in agreement. “Yes, I wondered if it was too much,” she said.

I prepared myself for similarly frank feedback on my submission, however the critique was overwhelmingly positive: humorous, engaging, with a good prose style and voice. Then CeeCee said: “The only problem is that your novel reads more like a memoir than fiction, and this will confuse your readers.” Jay and Anne agreed, and almost at once, I realized that they were right. This was just as obvious to the rest of the group as Anne’s run-on sentences had been to me. How had I never noticed it before?!

I left the meeting that night feeling exhilarated. While the RR Group wasn’t exactly the friendly community of writing pals I’d envisioned, I was confident that my writing would benefit immensely from their input. The takeaway: Sometimes it’s worth forgoing the romance and the candlelight to get a damn good climax.

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