Tag Archives: Writing Groups

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.

The Inklings: One Friendship to Bind Them

When it comes to famous friendships, the one that first comes to mind is the bond between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Their friendship developed through their writing group, The Inklings, which met in a pub called The Eagle and Child, or as they affectionately called it, The Bird and Baby. Over years of critiquing and beers, a number of the Inklings went on to be published, as well as become some of the most respected authors in history.

In college, I was fortunate enough to take a J.R.R. Tolkien class from one of the most renowned C.S. Lewis scholars in the world, Diana Glyer. Naturally her studies of Lewis led her to the study of Tolkien as well. Diana Glyer recently released the book Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings, which focuses on the relationships, successes, and pitfalls of the group. No one else that I know of, save for Christopher Tolkien, knows The Inklings like my former professor Diana Glyer. She’s devoted much of her life to passionately researching them.

Thanks to her book, I gathered some important points that you may want to keep in mind when it comes to your own career and the company you keep.

  1. There were 19 Inklings total, and they met for 17 years!
  2. The Inklings greatly encouraged one another, even going so far as writing publishers to encourage the publishers to publish one another’s books.
  3. While they encouraged one another, the group members fought and criticized just as easily and often.
  4. Tolkien didn’t like The Chronicles of Narnia when Lewis brought in the first pages to The Eagle and Child. Not even a little.
  5. However, not everyone was crazy about The Lord of the Rings either, namely Hugo Dyson.

These points stood out to me because of the group’s commitment to one another, even though they did not always agree. They fought for one another, encouraged one another, and did what they could for the others.

Sometimes we may get a little tired of our writing groups and wonder what the point of it all is. But just remember: a few men would meet in a pub not so long ago, and some of them might’ve had the same thoughts. But their commitment to their craft and commitment to the group didn’t waver.

Throughout the book, Diana also observes how the reader can shape their writing group to be successful. She outlines what was successful in the Inkling collective, and how to make your group dynamically your own while avoiding some of The Inklings’ nasty pitfalls.

I’d highly recommend picking up the book if you’re in a writing group and you’d like to learn lessons from some of the most well-known authors in history.

Serendipity is a Weird Mistress

Serendipity really is a weird mistress. I mean, I’d been wondering for months what I could do to take my writing to the next level. I’ve edited an anthology, I’ve published and yet I found myself feeling absolutely stuck. A mentor was what I wanted – someone to show me how I could improve. But where are they? All the really good writers I know are writing and publishing with little time to spare. My critique groups (I love every writer in them) felt predictable. Plus, I couldn’t afford to go on an expensive training session. So where could I get the injection of awareness and learning to improve my craft?

When Serendipity cast her hand, I was elated for my help came in three ways:

Psychotherapy for writers and their characters
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Based on his latest book Writing the 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, Donald Maass’s one day workshop focused on making writing deeper, more meaningful, more palpable and more energized. It was psychotherapy for the writer and story characters. Here are two examples of the exercises he had us do. If you answer them honestly, then it creates an opportunity to take your writing to the next level because the core of who you are becomes the core of your characters and that’s what readers find interesting.

Example #1 What can’t I say in my story (what is it I fear writing about)? When does my protagonist fear the very thing I’m not saying? When does my protagonist become me?

Example #2 What makes me blissfully happy? How is it different for me than for anybody else? When in my story will the protagonist experience the same bliss?

Example #3 What feeling was new to me in the last year? When in the story will my protagonist experience this same new feeling? What happens that stirs this new feeling?

An awesome revision checklist
My imagination is boundless – I have five first draft novels on my desk waiting for revision. Yet the very idea mortified me – if I’m writing at a certain level, how do I know what to look for? How do I make my story better? When I attended FictionWriterCoverWeb-190x300Nina Munteanu’s one hour presentation on revision at the When Words Collide Conference the pieces to the puzzle fell together and now revising is totally fun!

I was elated to discover that I had many of the skills and resources I needed to revise. What I lacked was structure for the task. Revising, I learned, is a ten step process. The second step, Dig Deep, is the most exciting for it gives permission to restructure and change things to make the story better. For example, I had been toying with changing the gender of a main character but was unsure. Then, Nina said it was okay. Bingo! When I did it, I discovered that I hadn’t made the original character as strong and unique as I thought – there were trite mannerisms and stereotypical reactions I had subconsciously written. Why should a female wail and a male not? Or did I want either of them wailing? Was that the reaction I wanted? Of course not! Out with the stereotypes, in with more concrete characters and writing. It’s given me a whole new perspective as I examine all my characters.

The other helpful thing about the book is that Nina has a good succinct information on things important to telling a good story such as an overview of the hero’s journey, using the metaphor, getting sensual, the Zen of passionate writing and more. Simply and succinctly written, The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now is an excellent resource which has helped me get my writing to the next level. Simply written (I don’t have the patience for long dissertations), it makes its points quickly on essential things such as the hero’s journey, using the metaphor, getting sensual, the Zen of passionate writing and more. Nina will be our guest next week, so be sure to join us then.

Learning from each other
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Many writer friends, including some in my critique groups, also attended sessions, took workshops or did cool things like attend Odyssey for six weeks. Now, we have some truly interesting discussions, brainstorming sessions and meaningful critiques. I learned that the mentors I sought weren’t some magical gurus from best seller lists (although I wouldn’t turn one of those down!). They’re local writers who continue to learn and grow. Because we each pick up on different things, we can see issues in each other’s writing that the writer cannot. The importance of having a learning, supportive group becomes evident when you read a novel’s acknowledgement page. Great mid-list and best seller authors credit numerous people for everything from technical information to proof reading and editorial advice. We all need a community to help us get to the next level.

So yeah, taking my writing to the next level was as simple as 1,2,3: psychotherapy, a revision checklist, and having a community of good supportive writers who have the same aspirations. Serendipity provided me the tools I needed to grow as a writer – I just needed to take advantage of them when they presented themselves. I’m really glad I did.

Happy writing!

 

Existing in a Writing Group

A year ago, fellow fictorian Kevin Cioffi wrote about starting a writing group, and I thought I would give my own advice on starting and existing within a writing group. I personally find that having a writing group provides one of the best benefits I could ask for, a deadline. I write for the joy of telling an awesome story, and that’s really about it. Without the weekly deadline, I find myself putting off my writing to pursue other hobbies. With a writing group, I know I have two weeks to finish the next chapter. If nothing else, that’s reason enough for me to find and stay in a writing group. So, lets say you take my advice and follow Kevins steps to find or create your own writing group, what steps can you take that will help both you and your group?

First, learn to step away from your work. This may be one of the hardest things to do, but when your work is being critiqued you should step back and stay silent. Pull out your notebook and write down what the other members talk about, but don’t defend your work! We all love our writing and we want to correct every misconception or issue that arises. If someone says something that is wildly different from what you meant, write it down and listen to everyone else. Wait to see what the other members of the group thought. If you need to, feel free to ask other members if they agree or how they felt about a section, but don’t stop the conversation or try to point it in a certain way. If you do this, you may give information that is crucial to later parts of the novel, which your group will understand but will be lost on any other reader. Use your common sense to give only as much info as needed and make sure your group makes the connections you wish.

Similar to the prior suggestion, be as detailed as you can when you read others works. I like to write emotions or idle thoughts in the margins as I read. I may not bring a lot of these thoughts up during the group meeting, but it might be useful to the author as he reads it after the fact. Something that I idly wrote down and didn’t think was important enough to bring up could have been the plot hole nobody noticed. If someone else mentions feeling odd about a certain point of the novel, I can respond with my feelings and give another point of view.

Feel free to experiment. Writing groups are the best place to try that bit of trickery that might not work. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know right away and maybe even get advice on how to fix or improve the idea. You’re all there for each other and you should feel comfortable around your group. If not, you might want to find/refine your group until you are.

Make sure you have something for every meeting. This may seem obvious, but you might get stuck on a chapter and have no clue how to precede. It happens to all of us, so be prepared and have other things to contribute. Take a character and write a small side story, or step away and write something wildly different. I’ve heard of two authors in a writing group who both got stuck so they switched novels for a week and wrote the others next chapter. It helped give ideas while keeping the creative juices flowing. As the mantra goes, keep writing!

Have fun. You want your writing groups to be something you look forward to. Prepare fun writing exorcizes to start each session or save extra time for word games. Bring food or drinks and enjoy the company of your friends. Make it an environment that keeps bringing you back.

The real goal of a writing group is to provide a forum for you to go over your work and receive feedback on the fly. You understand your novel more than anyone, but your writing group will provide your first real insight into what the rest of the world will think.

Have your own suggestions or experience with a writing group? Don’t agree with my suggestions? Add a comment below. I’m looking forward for more tips or suggestions that can improve my writing groups.