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.

3 Ways to Succeed at NaNoWriMo

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NaNoWriMoEvery November, thousands of writers take the 30-day challenge that’s National Novel Writing Month. The goal is 50,000 unrevised words over a month, or about 1,700 every day. You “win” if you can post a file (which is then scrambled for your protection) with a 50K word count or more.

Win or not, you write among a community both local and worldwide. It’s fun, and it will at least get tens of thousands of words out of you even if you fall short.

NaNoWriMo has three ways to succeed, according to its website shared on its Facebook page:

  1. Never edit as you go. If you get caught up with editing, your story will never meet your expectations and you’ll get bored. You don’t want to get bored. Fall in love with your story!
  2. Don’t quit if you get behind. You’ll still feel happy if you finish a book in December.
  3. Remember you are doing this for you. Not to impress friends. Not to get published. Do this because it makes you happy. Remember that you love to write, even when it’s hard.

The Things You Buy to Write

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Well here’s a surprise: My first email from a literary agency selling a webinar on how to get published. Really not very costly at $299. It’s only 2.5 hours. Previously named “Think Like an Agent,” it’s now Creating the Road Map for Your Novel.

It’s true, a lit agency knows a lot about building a great novel. Selling you an evaluation on how to do it might have crossed a line back in the olden days. It’s a new age. There’s more money to be made serving writers in all necessary aspects of publishing than in publishing books. These are the Things You Buy to Write, or more accurately, to Be a Published Writer.

Hey, wouldn’t you like to learn about (from the offer)

Market viability – Agents see good writing all the time in projects we can’t sell. Editor or Agent-speak translated: what does “too quiet” or “not commercial enough” mean and does it apply to your project? What are all the other catch phrases that are often used when agents/editors give writers feedback? Do you have a novel idea (pun intended) or should you shelve it instead?

How To Realistically Evaluate Your Own Work – Tips and strategies on how to create the distance needed to read your own writing dispassionately. Creating the road map for your novel. Elements of good critique groups or partners that can be invaluable to your success.

Is Your Manuscript Ready? Each participant is required to submit the first 30 pages of his/her novel. All attendees are required to read each other’s work for comment and discussion. We’ll decide if your writing is market ready and if it’s not, discuss why so you can take the next step to make it so.

MS-pagesIt’s that last one that’s a shot across the bow. (I do have to wonder who the “we” is: the agent, or the other participants.) You might think it amounts to a reading fee for your 30 page excerpt. What the agents call a “partial.” On the way to a full submission. For sure, this agency will read your 30 pages, if you sign up soon enough. You also get to watch and listen to the 2.5 hours for six months online.

Why didn’t I think of this before? Oh, wait, I might have. I believe I call it a writing workshop. It lasts nine months of 2.5-hour meetings, not one afternoon of 2.5 hours, and you turn in up to 180 pages of your novel over that time. You only have to read five other writers’ work, but you get comments in writing from everyone in addition to the talk. (The lit agency likes to call this a critique group. You get a partner if you sign on as a book coach client.) And for now, that workshop’s only $90 more than the 2.5 hours of web time.

I’m not an agent. I probably haven’t read as many novel excerpts as some of these literary pros. I don’t know for sure. But like them, for the moment my writing workshop (I call it a Manuscript Brunch) is almost full-up. You do get breakfasts, being here in Austin. Maybe that’s not important to getting a book ready. It does help a writer build trust in your evaluators. We don’t decide if your book is ready on the basis of 30 pages.

But my surprise is that agencies — which used to just kick back unsuitable queries and pursue the strong ones — are now showing a few authors in why your manuscript isn’t ready, so you might take the next step. At least one agency. I’m waiting for an upcoming webinar on drafting a query letter and writing a synopsis.

So to review: The agency charges $300 for the benefit of having seven other people read your excerpt, along with the agent. Then everybody talks. Eight people, of six; can’t be much more than 15-20 minutes of talk about your writing. You get the assignment to read 210 pages of other novels. Advice on “why your manuscript [may not be ready] so you can do the next step” of work. Authors do buy this kind of advice. From agents, in our modern era. It must have great value, because publishing pros are offering it.

Would you be interested in knowing more about how to query, and sum up your book? I can offer that. Getting the brunch served over the webinar’s phone-line — that’s the real challenge.


Read what you have written in Austin

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One of our Workshop Writers, Erin Machniak, read some workshop writing of hers at an open mic this weekend, here in Austin. While we enjoyed hearing her writing read out loud — a piece based upon “These the things my mother taught me; these are the things my mother did not teach me — the mic’s organizers passed out a guide to open mic readings in the Austin area.

Austin Open MicsHere’s the handout, with readings nearly every day of the week. Some are populated by poets, others take any type of fiction. Five minutes is a good time limit for your reading. That’s going to be something on the order of 400 words. You need to read a little slower than you think — well, maybe a lot slower if you’re in a rush when you read. When all that we have is the sound of words, it helps to deliver them slow enough that we can paint pictures of what we’re hearing.

Of course, reading aloud is a feature of Workshop meetings. It’s optional, for the writing we’ve just created together. But for people like Erin who read, they receive the immediate response from other writers: only the positive response of what we remembered, what stayed with us, what was alive and working in the writing. Just-written stories deserve this gentle treatment. As I say, if you cannot identify what’s working in your writing, then you’ve got no business rooting out what is not working.

Erin’s writing will appear in our forthcoming anthology, Small Packages. Coming soon in Austin, on Amazon, and elsewhere.

Our holiday schedule starts with a class shift, discounts

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Workshop writers who enjoy our weekly classes, evenings and mornings, have a revised schedule for the coming weeks.

On November 19, our regular Tuesday night shifts to Wednesday evening November 20 — for one week only. See you at 7PM on November 20. Contact me if you’d like to sample a class for free.

No Tuesday or Wednesday classes November 26-27. It’s the Turkey Day week. Enjoy the time with your friends and family. Or go get that pumpkin spice that you only buy once a year for that pie.

Our first Weekend Day Retreat is December 6-8, Friday through Sunday. Just $250 for three days of writing, relaxation (steam shower, optional massages, Saturday night entertainment) and a catered supper on Saturday. Enjoy writing in the daylight with prompts, exercises, even arts and crafts. A couple of spaces left…

Regular class times on December 3-4, December 10-11, December 17-18 — all Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Then our usual two-week Holiday Hiatus, Christmas and New Year’s weeks. We’re back for the regular schedule in January.

Get your Class Card for the coming year. One free class per card purchased until the end of the year.


Writing as Your Self Help

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One of my groups at the Writer’s Workshop builds memoirs, and its members have been hard at work being vulnerable, fierce and flawed while they tell stories about themselves. It’s a challenging assignment to use creative nonfiction to write a memoir — these stories usually have pain and loss to go along with lessons and laughter.

self-helpThis kind of writing can help you help yourself. Yes, self-help, that phrase that’s been denigrated since it first appeared well over a decade ago. Of course, you still see Self Help on the bookshelf signs at Barnes & Noble or our local Bookpeople. But for some of our writers, finding self-help practice inside of a memoir group has been surprising.

It’s surprising to me to think that writing about yourself would not be helpful — or even the most rewarding result of creating a memoir. One of my early Workshop students recently expressed a common feeling: Writing is Hard. As we shared about this on her Facebook feed, a friend noted that the therapy of writing is one of the biggest prizes to be earned from the effort.

Writing is ultimately therapeutic – getting it clear on paper means getting it celar in your head, which means getting it clear in your heart sometimes.

So working on memoir, or any heartfelt writing, has the potential to be much more than comparison of narration vs. scene, or how to construct an elegant transition, or how many of your paragraphs get to be one-sentence grafs. (Tip: if there’s more than one single-sentence graf on your manuscript page, you may be undercutting every one of them after the first one. Sports columnists rely hard on the single-sentence paragraph. Even the prize-winning ones.)

The connection: The sports columns are creative non-fiction, just like a memoir. But the subject of memoirs is yourself and your heart, where the battles are conflicts between friends and family — so we want to read about struggles overcome, not just gamesmanship. Memoir is writing that will become therapeutic with enough practice and honesty. Making a memoir can produce self-help, with a gentle group to spread courage.

Greatest Hits: using -ing verbs

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Back in 2006 I posted a short piece about the difference between -ing verbs and the other forms of the verb. It’s also got nice advice on what Dr. Peter Clark calls “branch to the right.”

So while -ing is a natural part of English, and maybe a significant part of your true voice, it is gentle, not powerful. Clark has another column about some of the best advice he got on writing strong. He calls it, “Branch to the right.” It means get your subject and verb as close to the beginning of the sentence as you can, then follow them with your subordinate clauses. “Even a long, long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning early,” he says.

You can read the full post here. It includes a link to Clark’s fine book. I use -ing in our Workshop as an exercise. We’re filling out the September tables now. You can be sign-ing up for a spot even now.

What AWA stands for

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The Amherst Writers & Artists practices form the foundation for what we do in the Writer’s Workshop. The AWA group trained me in leadership, then sent me back into Texas to found my own personalized practices.

Whether you participate in our community as a monthly manuscript member, or one of our weekly Tuesday night series writers, the AWA foundations still serve all of us who gather around the Workshop’s table. Pat Schneider is the guru of the AWA, and here’s what she reminded us this month:

If you have lived, you have a story. If you can speak your story, you can write it. It doesn’t matter who you are; you have been using language since you were an infant, and you already know how to use it to move those close to you. Everybody has a life, everybody has a story, everybody has a natural, internal understanding of craft.

This is a nurturing message no matter where you are in your writing life — learning how to speak out on paper, or polishing craft for submissions to publishers, or searching for the right story to start to tell in your own words. Everybody can write. We enjoy a mix of skill and experience levels among our members, including those who always hoped and knew they could write.

What merits come from critique?

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A little while back I offered up an opinion about whether a Master’s degree in writing will produce that book a writer pursues. It will not, and I have two comments to that post which concur.

But the second post from anonymous (we’d love to know who our readers are, by the way) says that

I fail to understand why a writer would develop better critique habits outside of an MFA program than inside one. I’ve taken many workshops with non-MFA writers, and plenty of them have no idea how to critique work. And there are enough MFA programs out there to conclude that there is diversity to the workshop experience and no monolithic approach to critiquing.

The ideal of developing “critique habits” is at the heart of this failure to understand. In fact, developing better critique habits is just the opposite of what my workshops do — and any workshops based on the Amherst Writers & Artists methods. (That’s what Cary Tennis of Salon uses to lead, as do I.) The practices state that our workshops handle revised, second-draft work offered as a manuscript this way:

A thorough critique is offered only when a writer asks for it — after the work has been distributed in manuscript form. Critique is balanced; there is as much affirmation as suggestion for change.

Many MFA graduates share stories of the painful sessions when “my writing was up.” Just as many, perhaps, as writers in critique groups which meet with no clear process for how to suggest changes to writing. Balance in these sometimes-grim classrooms proves to be a scant commodity. In “Narrative Design,” Madison Smart Bell tells the story of being a visiting teacher for two semesters in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, known as the bellwether of critique-based workshops.

Within the limits of law and propriety, we were free to do what we pleased… However, there were enormous, crushing pressures to conform in those Iowa fiction workshops. The pressure came not from any teacher but from the students themselves. It was a largely unconscious exercise in groupthink, and in many aspects it really was quite frightening… Fiction workshops are inherently almost incapable of recognizing success.

We always ask in our workshops, “What was working well in that writing?” And we ask it before we move on to suggestions for change.

Bell’s comments that will not hearten many an MFA applicant. Only one point of view, yes, but maybe being driven by critique is the highway to revision hell. Bell goes on to say that when he was a student in such a program, he considered 90 percent of the critique he received on his writing to be worthless. He would still be noodling a first draft if he considered matters of detail. Now, he tells his students in workshops to consider themselves fortunate if just one workshop member understands what the writer intends. “Your job,” he says, “is to become the best judge of your own work.”

Our anonymous commenter reports they are aiming at an exclusive MFA program, adding that “I have to produce that work, and it will be much easier for me to do so with mentors and peers, the resources of a large university, and fellowship money that will free me from the household drudgery and round-the-clock childcare that take up most of my time now.”

That’s a good course for the 2 percent of applicants who can clear the walls of these elite programs. For the rest of the world’s hopeful writers, including some MFA aspirants, we offer practice toward publication, dedication, and community without an emphasis on the need to polish critique habits. We suggest, based on our individual reading of the writing. Our goal is to recognize the best in a writer’s authentic voice, and then suggest how they might follow their own practiced voice when they succeed.

Elimination of household time and childcare can be an option for some, but the line for these fellowships is long and filled with talented writers. Yes, apply to win such money. Send your best work. Hope for the best — but remember in the meantime that art does not spring from critique, but in your expression of voice, mentored by suggestions for change. I believe everyone can write, and together we can be better.

Headed west for vivid words

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This weekend I’m heading 400 miles west of the Workshop, to do some work of my own on my writing. The Writer’s League of Texas is hosting its first Summer Writing Academy, where about two dozen of us will learn about writing novels, screenplays, or in my case, Making Fiction Come Alive.

My instructor is Jodi Thomas, a USA Today bestselling author of romances who’s also the writer in residence at West Texas A&M University. I figured that with teaching experience in her background and more than a dozen books in print, Jodi would be a good choice to learn the language of vivid love. I bought a copy of her novel The Texan’s Wager. It starts strong, with our heroine stranded in the middle of nowhere, kicked out of a wagon train with no weapons in 19th Century Texas.

Trouble right away, the cardinal rule of how to kick off a compelling story. I’m looking forward to being a little more kicked out in the week to come, too, kind of a retreat away from the life that supports me and my family.

Alpine, of course, will be beautiful, in the summertime cool of the Davis Mountains. I’m especially keen to drive to Ft. Davis soon, to visit Dayton’s birthplace and the spot he fell in love with his wife. There’s nothing like being an eyewitness to detail to make the writing come alive.

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