7 shopping tips for buying into a writing group

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Would you like to workshop your book? People call these writing groups, too. The idea is to get some other authors, all working on their books diligently, to gather in person to review and respond to the book you’re writing. Published authors swear by them. Other authors can vouch for the help which a good workshop brings to a book, too. What’s the smart way to get started in one? If you haven’t met this challenge yet, there are shopping tips that lead to a good investment. Because no matter what you spend, you’re always investing your time.

Is there a size limit? Every writer who appears at the table will bring pages for you to review. A group of eight, of course, means seven sets of pages you must read. So you’ll then shift gears six times, into somebody’s story, out and then on to the next. It’s a rare thing to be able to mark with comments on more than 3,000 words an hour. Do the math. Figure that a big group means hours and hours of reviewing. Groups work best at four writers.

Is there vetting, or an introduction? Everybody wants to be in a writing group with an author who’s got more advanced skills. Or the same level, at least. Someone’s got to be judge and jury on this, though. Personal groups form between writers who know one another already. The first writing group I joined had no vetting for skills. Or courtesy, either. The next came from a Writers’ League of Texas Advanced Fiction class. The late, great novelist Karen Stolz told us, after our eight weeks of classes, “Form up groups, you guys.” The Square Table writers were off and running for the next seven years. We ran with four writers at first, then three.

I’ve got Austin’s only paid writing group. Since 2006 I’ve been open to any author who’s writing a book. No vetting, but there are limits and practices. Someone has to lead, and that means a lot more than watching a timer to be sure limits are enforced.

How much will your group read? Can you submit 15 pages, or even 20? It can be a challenge to say something useful in response to six pages of writing. You can critique a scene for the mechanics, or find a way to ask questions about what’s not on the page but intrigues you. A page count of 15-20 is 4,000-6,000 words. That’s a chapter, maybe two—the unit of the idea in a book.

Do you read before you meet? Very few authors can edit live, unless they’re only doing a line edit. It takes time to write comments, especially longhand. Legibility matters. A group with pre-submitted pages will give its members time to read closely and say what’s confusing, compelling, or dragging. A group which shares pages using email also gives members the means to look backward in a book to recall what a reader might have overlooked. Those prior chapters are right at hand, on your laptop.

Is it easy to connect personally with a member? Unless you’re entering a group linked via email, it’s so much harder to strike up a relationship with another member who really shows a connection to your work. Not everybody will “grok” your creation (the Stranger in a Strange Land verb from Robert Heinlein that means “to understand something’s soul.”) Writers might be shy in person but gregarious online. Email is essential. A group with a driving need for privacy makes such connect more work. Email is the means that professional writers use to share ideas and critique, query and trade editorial notes. A leader should make email available for every member.

How long do we meet, and where? Critique and response is careful work done best in a private space. A member’s home gets the job done, but only if there’s no distractions there. Meeting at a bookstore worked pretty well at first for us Square Table Writers. We were only four members big so we got a table well away from store cafes (Steaming milk! Lots of music!) or Saturday’s shoppers (I want that book!). Nobody had much more than three hours to meet, but each book got 45 minutes of airtime. We had time to talk about our book after critiques, too.

What’s the comfort and leadership level? Critiquing is real work with genuine payoffs. This isn’t a workout at the gym. Does you host do snacks or a demi-brunch, give breaks to stretch, encourage people to get to know one another? Such things make a space and a group personal and unique. Somebody’s going to have to ask for pages to distribute to a pre-reading group; otherwise someone forgets. A regular meeting schedule is important, too, so people can protect the time they will devote to making books better.

Yes, authors can bring their own water bottles or a venti Starbucks to a group. And whoever goes first can be determined by a lottery, tarot cards, or just whoever’s turned in pages first. Try to avoid your arrival time to the table as a way to choose who goes first. The Traffic Gods shouldn’t have a seat at your group.

There’s a lot to consider when finding a group to critique your book in progress. You do get what you invest in, though. Efficient and effective groups make good use of time in meetings is available for writing and revising your book. Think of how much sooner that will finish it. Finishing, after all, is at why we help one another. Those outsider insights should save us time.

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Don’t call writing hard. Write it now.

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OBrienWhen I watched the wonderful movie The Sessions, I saw the story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who contracted polio as a boy but kept on writing. Kept writing even though he’d lost the control of all of his muscles, except those in his face. He lived in an iron lung. He held a pencil with a fat eraser in his mouth, then tapped the keys on his typewriter, or later on, a keyboard on a computer, once those became popular in the 1980s.

Let My Words Touch You

No matter what’s happening in your writing, you and I don’t have that hurdle to overcome. O’Brien published many articles and essays – he worked as a journalist as well as a poet – and released three books of poetry. Watching this man write in The Sessions, I realized I would never be able to complain again about how hard it is to write.

Revision is another matter. I can’t even start to wonder how he managed that. But you won’t have your writing published without revising it. On the other hand, there’ll be no revising without the writing, simple first drafts.

So write now. Because you need to do it before something else might stop you.

Karen-Stolz-214x300

March 5 is the birthday of Karen Stolz. Or it would be, if she were still alive. She was a writing teacher of mine in the years when I just started to study fiction. Karen passed away in 2011 at age 54, felled by heart failure. She had a big heart, enough to embrace people new to writing or new to fiction. She taught a class at St. Edwards attended by my brother-in-law Billy, a bank robber, gambler and storyteller extraordinaire. Billy’s stories arrived at my house inside letters from prison to my wife. Karen called him a good writer.

Billy was writing because he had nothing but time. Karen wrote her bestselling novel in stories, The World of Pies, because it was her time to move up from her short stories. Those stories got her into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

She moved back to her hometown in Kansas after her son graduated high school, where she taught writing at Pittsburg State. Karen had published a second novel by then, Fanny and Sue, and was working on a third, looking for a publisher.

Like anybody taken early from life, she figured she had more time to write. But unlike many writers, she wrote sooner – while her son was still in school – rather than later, when she’d have more time.

It was a smart choice, and one we can make for ourselves, too. Even if your writing is only blog entries right now, or 20 minutes at a time in a workshop meeting, choose to do it now. Let your voice be heard and enjoyed by the world.

Boundaries spark creativity

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It’s easy enough to revel in the first-draft mania of a writing project. This is important time, the period to clear your pipes and empty that tank of ideas and dreams. The genuine creation time, however, is when there’s a deadline and a word count or a page count to meet.

That’s what drives Saturday Night Live, according to its producer Lorne Michaels. He’s been interviewed on Alec Baldwin’s top-flight Here’s the Thing podcast. Michaels said that “I believe creativity doesn’t exist without boundaries.” For him there’s both a page count and a deadline. The show is ready by 11:30 Eastern Time — or as he puts it, “it’s not ready, but it’s got to go on the air at 11:30.” At some point, a piece of writing needs to meet a deadline to show to a writing group, an agent, a contest, or a lit mag’s submission date.

And SNL needs to unspool in 90 minutes total time — so plenty of it has to be dropped or shortened to meet time. Sometimes whole skits are dumped if they don’t work out during the frantic six days before airtime.

Boundaries exist to create choices, and some people believe that choices are all there is to define art. There’s a great scene in the movie Wonder Boys. Novelist Grady Tripp is slogging through his second book after a debut success. You see him creep into his study and take a page and feed it into a typewriter. He lines up the paper for a page number and types 261 — then looks around and adds a 4, for a 2,600-plus page manuscript. Later his grad student Hannah reads the wooly piece of writing and confronts him about it.

Hannah glances at the huge stack of paper sitting on her dresser, then, hesitantly, looks back to Grady.

					HANNAH GREEN
		It's just that, you know, I was thinking about 
		how, in class, you're always telling us '-that 
		writers make choices--at least the good ones. 
		And, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the 
		book isn't really great-I mean, really great-
		but at times it's, well, very detailed, you 
		know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses 
		and ail the dental records and so on-and I 
		don't know, maybe I'm wrong, but it sort of 
		reads, in places, like, well, actually, like... 
			(with trepidation)
	...you didn't make any choices at all.

Let choices of page counts, deadlines and characters establish the boundaries that can spark great writing. And remember, sooner or later it’s 11:30, and time to finish the creation.

The Free Dictionary: page definition: a youth being trained for the medieval rank of knight and in the personal service of a knight.

Publishing can take years, but persevere

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The Austin Writer’s League left behind its history, years ago, to become the Writer’s League of Texas and have statewide reach. But way back at the start of the decade, the annual Manuscript Contest for the AWL caught a winner who’s now won a book contract from Holt. From the League’s newsletter, by way of the author:

Jacqueline Kelly of Austin sold her first novel to Holt. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate will be published in the spring of 2009. She won the 2002 Manuscript Contest Mainstream Fiction category with the first chapter of this book.

The news arrived in a PDF version of the League’s newsletter Scribe, which was once a monthly printed item but now will show up in our e-mail in-boxes every other month. It’s great to hear of a book success so long after winning a contest. Making a contest cut is good. A deal is another step up. And Holt is, well, a step up from Xlibris, Authorhouse and other help yourself subsidy houses.

As Gilded Age publisher Henry Holt once observed, a “book is a thing by itself. There is nothing like it, as one shoe is like another, or as one kind of whiskey is like another.” There’s nothing like a book, guilded with a fine cover and bound to be bent in the bed or the bathroom.

Six years to a deal, seven years and more between starting and publication. Keep at those keyboards, join those groups and work your manuscripts. Persevere, or continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulty or with little or no prospect of success. Have faith that by the time your book gets a deal, paper and ink will still be the dominant medium of writing and publishing. Not that there’s anything wrong with PDF publishing — but many of us aspire to something with a spine.