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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A 10-Cent Tour of Today’s Publishing

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Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 8.23.11 AMPeople with talent and a tremendous sense for story and character can succeed at fiction. (They gotta rewrite like demons, too.) So many are trying, all at once. So there’s so much competition there. It’s like making it to the NBA after being a college basketball star. Short of landing a career in the NBA, great players can land in the CBA, the D-League, China, Eurobasket, and more. Those are the indie presses. Hitting on the NBA is Big 5 money. Big 5 publishing houses own dozens of “imprints.” Avon is an imprint. Scribner, St. Martins Press, Tor. The Dogs of Babel, for example, is a book about a linguist solving his wife’s murder by trying to teach his dog—the only witness— to talk. It’s published by Little, Brown and Company. Little Brown is owned by Hatchette, one of the Five.

(If you’re keeping score, the four others are Penguin-Random House, Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan.)

There are other nice-sized presses out there, too. My friend Donna Johnson got her memoir sold to Gotham, a Big 5 imprint. Penguin used to own Gotham. Penguin closed Gotham a year ago and transferred all the books and author contracts to another imprint. There’s tremendous consolidation going on among the NBA-caliber publishers.

A blockbuster novel will still earn more than nearly all memoirs. There are few blockbusters. But writing a memoir can be a unique story, and it has that Real Events element to it. Nobody else will tell your exact story in their memoir, so you have a one-off product. A great novel’s premise, well, it might be a lot like another great novel’s. Novel sales are driven by the reputation of the author. Not so for memoir. Meanwhile, nonfiction and memoir outsells fiction 70-30. Look at the book sections in Barnes & Noble. Go count the aisles devoted to fiction. It won’t take long.

Bookstore sales, or the sales force for a Big 5 imprint — these are things any traditionally published author needs to ponder. That’s why you get an agent.

You can get paid for what you love. It’s happening now for me. Some days I create fiction and memoir. Other days I edit and coach writers. How much you can get paid is another question. If it’s enough, you keep doing it for the pay. If not, then you do it for the love of creating. You never work a day, I suppose—but when you’re rewriting a book you thought was already finished, it might feel like work. A good work practice is essential to getting a book published, though. More

Do You Need a Developmental Edit, Or a Copy Edit? What’s A Pitch?

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blackwingNovelists contact me with manuscripts in hand. I’ve got 80,000 words, they say. Can you quote me on a copy edit, or a developmental edit? You use these edits in a different order. Developmental edits are different from a copy edit. The copy edit only takes place once you’ve chosen all of the paths the story will take, and the scenes that will remain. Developmental edits help you make those choices. What’s more, it’s better to have an outline, with not all of your book written, before you purchase a developmental edit.

(If you’re ready to see how copy editing looks — just to get an idea of whether you and your editor will be a good fit — a good editor should be able to edit a 500-word sample for free. It’s just a couple of pages worth, but you get the idea.)

How ready are you to pursue a publisher? One very important part of breaking in with publishers is your summary paragraph about your book. In about five sentences, tell me the most important things about the story.

Your entry to the whole process is your pitch. You use a pitch to get the attention of an agent, or an editor at a smaller press. It’s the one sentence you say when people ask, “So what’s your book about?”

Pitches for novels should contain setup, hook, and resolution:

When <character> discovers <catalyst>; s/he must <overcome problem> before <impending doom>, or else <stakes>.

Donald Maas (agent-book developer) had a good deal to say about stakes during the seminar I took with him in San Francisco. They are crucial, and the higher the stakes, the more compelling your story will be. They go all the way up to mortal stakes (your character will die, or someone they love will die.) You can even go beyond those mortal stakes. For example, in my novel Viral Times, millions of lives are at stake — because if Dayton Winstead cannot find the source of the MightyHand virus, then tens of millions of millions will be infected with HIVE-5.

At some point in the near future, you’ll have a chance to deliver the story you’ve written, perhaps by telling a pitch in person to an agent. That’s what conferences can offer you. What you do between now and then will give you a better opportunity to find someone who’s the right person to represent you.

You do research. Which books are like yours, not just in subject but in tone and style? Who agented them?  Use online resources like Publisher’s Lunch to sort through the known universe of agent submissions. Learn as much as you can, and start a list. Rank agents in order of likelihood of love match.