Category Archives: Making Progress as a Writer

Three’s Company, But Six is a Crowd

Writing critique groups are like blogs. They both tend to start with vows of seriousness and dedication. They launch with vigor and excitement, but eventually slow and become work. Life gets complicated (as it always does) and priorities change. First one deadline is missed. Then two. Then all of them. Most often, people in the group wander away, and unless there is a constant flow of new blood, the collective falls apart. Though plentiful, most fail within a year.

However, decay and disbandment are not inevitable, just common. I’ve contributed to half a dozen blogs or critique groups over the years. Only two have continued to this day. First is the Fictorians. Second is my current critique group, which has been going strong for over two years and has helped us all grow as authors. So, what makes these two groups successful, whereas the others failed?

The key factor, I think, is ensuring the group is the right size for what it is trying to accomplish. Groups that are too small may fail to meet their goals because the work overwhelms the members. There are simply not enough people to carry the load. Another common pitfall that I’ve observed is the tendency of small groups to synchronize into a group think. There needs to be enough diversity of thought and experience to keep things interesting and productive. So why then not take a “the more, the merrier” approach? Wouldn’t a group open to the public be preferable?

Frankly not, in my experience. It’s a matter of the time and reliability of the individuals involved. Nobody’s time is infinite, so any meeting that is too large must inevitably splinter into smaller groups to allow for practical critique. Secondly, large groups inherently diffuse personal responsibility. Why, after all, does any one member need to meet their writing goals for the week or read the other members’ submissions? Surely someone else will do it. Finally, the larger the group, the more likely there will be conflicts of personality that sour the tone of the meetings. Writers put ourselves on display in our fiction. We must trust those we turn to for critique or we will not be open to their help.

Take as an example my first two critique groups. With seven and eight members respectively, reading everyone else’s submissions became a chore and seriously impinged on my writing time. The critique we offered was often superficial and therefore not terribly useful. The second major problem that killed these groups was that we were never able to meet face to face. We tried to use a private forum to bridge the gap, but that medium destroyed accountability and it wasn’t long before people stopped posting.

My current critique group calls ourselves “the League” and consists of three members. Though we may seem too small, our size makes us flexible and familiar. Though we live in different cities, we meet face to face each week via video conferencing. When one of us has something come up on the normal meeting date, we can usually find an alternative time. This maintains accountability, which has been my only reason for making keyboard time some weeks. Because we are friends, we trust and value one another. We understand each other well enough to know what our fellow authors are thinking and can therefore offer deep, constructive criticism. Furthermore, we are comfortable enough with one another to engage in productive conflict, pushing each other to be better.

Also key to the success of the League is that we have been able to adapt the group to our changing needs. We started by performing weekly writing challenges. At that point, we three needed something to get us writing consistently, and it worked. For a time. After a few months, we all grew bored and frustrated, yearning to get to actual fiction. We three are novelists at heart, after all, and 1,000 word challenges weren’t promoting our goals of becoming published authors. So one meeting we discussed the problem and decided to change our focus to be prewriting new books in tandem.

For a while, this vein worked for us. However, we eventually found ourselves bogged down and struggling with making consistent progress. Another discussion led us to take David Farland’s Story Puzzle class as a trio. The class was fantastic, but even better because we took it together.

We all received extremely positive feedback from Dave on our assignments. NOT because we were particularly brilliant, but rather because we discussed his lessons and workshopped the exercises before sending them to him. I firmly believe that we three got more out of the class because we took it with friends.

My critique group has found a size and a strategy that works for us. Though every writing journey is unique, none of us is in it alone. I would highly encourage any aspiring author to find a group of like minds to help them take their craft to the next level. Like writing itself, critique groups require dedication, time, trust, and most of all the ability to grow and change.

Waking Up from a Nightmare

I had a nightmare last night, and it was bad. There was no natural disaster, no fire, no car accident, no home invader, no endless falling through the abyss—indeed, no violence. I was at a writer’s convention, which for introverts can be almost as bad, and I didn’t know anyone there. Not a soul. The dream consisted of me making concerted efforts to join conversations and mingle with the other con-goers, and time after time it went badly. I stuck my foot in my mouth. I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t brushed my teeth that morning and had bad breath. Suddenly everyone spoke a foreign language and I couldn’t keep up. The reasons varied. The results didn’t.

It was a story of constant rejection. Which is a worse fear than falling through an endless abyss.

Eventually I did find someone I knew, a writing friend from my hometown. She was gregariously holding court with a bunch of people, and the sense of relief I felt when she welcomed me in and facilitated introductions was so intense that it literally woke me up.

Such is the power of friendship.

I’ve said before that I find friendship to be a more powerful force in many ways than romantic relationships. Going by my own personal tastes, it’s a more powerful force in fiction (sorry, romance readers, I know you outnumber me). In a larger sense, I think the argument could be made that it’s a more powerful force in the world. It seems to me that friendships often outlast romantic partnerships. How does the average length of a friendship compare to the average length of a spousal relationship? I wonder! Calculating these averages would be extraordinarily tricky.

I’ll take Thelma and Louise over Romeo and Juliet, thank you very much. I’ll take Han and Chewie over Han and Leia, Geordi and Data over Riker and Troi, Norm and Cliff over Sam and Diane. But maybe that’s just because fictional couples are plagued by narrative-mandated drama in a way that many real-life couples aren’t. Maybe.

When I think about my best friends, they’ve been with me for an awfully long time. Many of them have been in my life since high school or college, and they are crucial supports. If I lost my boyfriend (whom I love dearly, are you reading this?), I would be devastated. Devastated. But I’d need my friends to get through it.

Friends support us in a multitude of ways, but for now I want to focus on those who support us professionally. I’m talking about writer friends, and how until seven years ago I didn’t have any. Talk about the dark ages. The good times started to roll when I first attended Superstars Writing Seminar, a story I’ve told many times before and won’t go into now, since it’s a story shared by just about every writer on this blog and most of its guests.

But those friends still weren’t local. I couldn’t call them up and go out for a coffee. I didn’t manage to find those kinds of friends until four years ago, and it turned out they were right under my nose all this time. It’s hard to imagine being successful in my career without them. I see some combination of them once a week, often on Mondays, and they play a big role in kickstarting my productivity.

They also hang out with me at those otherwise scary writing conventions, pretty much ensuring that nightmares like the one I woke up from this morning can’t possibly happen.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.

Starting a Web Presence

Guest Post by Noah & Gigi Ward

My wife, Gigi, and I have been writing for several years. Until recently we had no presence on the internet at all, despite all of our friends in the field telling us we needed one. Gigi and I are luddites to the point where she killed a microwave by using it as a kitchen timer while baking and I can’t set the clock on the new one.

This is what it looks like in the administration section of our new website.

Thanks to a friend and fellow author, we just started an author website. He’s going to be tweaking and fixing things we break, and he will be hosting the website for us. That was the actual reason why we decided to give in and get a web presence.

One thing I had to do was to get the website name (my friend says it’s called a URL for Uniform Resource Locator). I was disappointed to find the website name I wanted for myself was already taken for “.com”, which is the most common. Then I got excited that “.net” was available, so I bought it immediately.

That’s the first lesson to learn here. Don’t jump on things without thinking them through. I now owned noahward.net when I should have went with NoahAndGigiWard.net (or .com, which was available). Gigi does not want her own website and swore she would never do anything with it, so she decided that I should add her to mine. Despite my technical friend urging her to get a second website, she kept refusing until she told him if he asked again she would never bake him any more cookies. He finally relented. Gigi is the world’s best baker.

Gigi and I both have accounts on the new website, but I don’t know what to do once I get in. My friend then set up something called mail-to-post, where I can just send an email to a special address and it magically appears on the website. I’m still awed by how the internet functions. I’m also terrified.

Now my website runs all by itself, including performing updates and tweaks all on its own. My friend will keep an eye on the innards. If you’ve been avoiding getting your own website, ask around until you find someone trustworthy to help you set it up. You can also learn how to do it, which is something I plan on trying to do this year. My first 2017 resolution. The second is to cut back on smoking cigars. The third is to cut back on overusing adverbs. We will see how things go as the year progresses.

There are other options, including getting some totally free places to start a web presence. If we didn’t have a friend to administer the website and host it for us, we would have gone with one of the free places to set up our web presence. All of them put their logo on your website; some can be obnoxious about where they place it.

  • Sitebuilder.com. Similar to Websitebuilder.com, their designs were better organized.
  • Sitey.com. This one touted getting a mobile site for people with better eyesight than ours to read on their smart phones.
  • Weebly.com. Their added bonus was the ability to create a store. We seriously considered hosting here but realized we would have to individually package and ship books ourselves. We decided to leave it to the bookstores since they know what they’re doing.
  • WordPress.com. Totally free with a system that makes it easy (or at least easier) for luddites like us to create a place in the sun.
  • Websitebuilder.com. This place had some nice looking designs and their administrative pages allowed users to just drag and drop things until they were happy with the results.
  • Wix.com. Another free place similar to WordPress.com. It seemed a bit more flashy to set things up.

With enough cajoling, even technophobes like Gigi and I can be convinced to get a place of our own. Now you have no excuses. If we can do it, so can you.

Getting Started with Organizing Your Projects

Like most of the authors I know, I’m not a naturally organized person. Sometimes it’s a struggle to force myself to get the major plot points or non-fiction chapters mapped out before I start on a new project. After installing a giant electronic whiteboard I picked up on CraigsList, I was able to see the value of the visual cues and mind-mapping when hashing out a new project.

When it comes to my writing laptop, appropriately named “Novel Factory”, I tended to start writing and just dump everything into the My Documents folder. When I set a project aside for a while, I sometimes have a problem locating where I put the documents, notes, and/or pictures. That’s why I created an organized area for projects.

The first step was to create a home for my projects. This is a set of nested folders so I know where things are located. In My Documents (I use Windows for this example), I have a folder called !Master Project Files. I place an exclamation point at the beginning of this folder name to make sure it appears at the top of the listing.

I have enough projects where I had to add in a layer between the Master folder and the project names.

Here is my main overall folder structure:

  • !Master Project Files
    • Fiction
      • Science Fiction
      • Cyberpunk
      • Fantasy
      • Horror
      • Western
      • Graphic Novels
    • Non-Fiction
      • Cookbooks
      • Author’s Handbook Series
      • One-Offs
    • Poetry
      • !Poem Superstore
      • Chapbooks
    • Collections
      • !Short Story Superstore
    • Anthologies
      • Original (Add in Submissions and Contracts folders to each Project)
      • For Other Publishers (Add in Submissions and Contracts folders to each Project)

The “Superstores” are short stories and poems that have been published elsewhere or are original unpublished works that are available to put into a new collection or chapbook. When I complete a short work or poem, I make sure to put a copy in the Superstores.

For each project, I copy the below generic project folder structure and rename it to the title of my new project. Inside some of these folders are appropriate files. For example, in the Word folder, I have a generic Word document set up with my preferences (font, margins, etc.), whereas in the Research folders I have a simple text document ready to accept notes and URLs. In the Final folders, I have documents that have my set publishing templates for interiors and covers. Note that I have a folder called Graveyard. I never throw away (delete) anything. If I cut something, such as a scene or a whole story arc out of a book, I paste it to text documents and place them in the graveyard. I can use these later on to develop short stories, to generate ideas for a series, or to use the words for marketing. Sometimes I file off the serial numbers and reuse them in other books.

Here’s my individual project folder structure:

  • Project Name (Rename Me)
    • Manuscript
      • Word
      • Text
      • Scrivener
    • Images
      • Cover Ideas
      • Characters
      • Places
      • Objects
    • Research
      • Concepts
      • Scientific
    • Characters
    • Tropes
    • Marketing
      • Ideas
      • Ads
      • SWOT
    • Final
      • Print
        • Interior
        • Cover
      • eBook
        • Interior
        • Cover
      • Audio
        • Notes
        • Script
    • Graveyard

When I have a new project, I copy the “Project Name” folder and its contents and place it in the appropriate genre master folder. Then I rename it to the book title. Now I can find all of my information for any project in one location (three, if you count the backup on my server and the copy linked and auto-uploaded to my commercial Dropbox account.)

Hopefully this will inspire you to create a better organized virtual home for your darlings. Have a happy, prosperous, and productive 2017!


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.