The pros and cons of joining a writers group

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Critique partners, writing buddies, torture pals. Whatever you call them, having some writer friends who can give you honest, constructive criticism on your work is necessary when revision time rolls around. We aren’t trustworthy when it comes to objectively reviewing our own creative writing.

This is why I joined a writers group earlier this year. Well, two reasons: 1) I wanted to force myself to share my WIP with other people, which means being vulnerable and brave. And 2), I knew that without a little feedback and direction, I was going to revise in circles because it’s impossible for me to know what’s good and bad. Your readers determine that stuff. We’re too biased and close to the writing to make those sorts of decisions.

So here are a few lessons I’ve learned these past months from attending a local writing group:

Knowing other writers helps keep you stable

Writing is a lonely occupation, and it’s damn hard. So when you’re struggling or feeling discouraged, or you’re excited about something you’ve accomplished, it’s good to reach out to other people who get it.

My writing group has been super supportive, and it’s nice to talk to other people who understand about word counts and character development and stupid stuff like that without them looking at me like I’m crazy.

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Not everyone will be at your skill level

My writing group consists of 10 or so members, and every one of them is at a different skill level and has different interests. So while they’re critiquing your work, you have to decide whose opinions and thought processes match yours and whose don’t.

If you can find even two people whose criticisms are spot on, then your writing is going to be in better shape than it would be otherwise.

Critiquing other people’s work helps you learn

Most likely, your writing group will consist of beginners, which means you’re going to critique a lot of bad writing. Before you judge, yours is probably bad, too.

The good news is that pointing out the problems and areas for improvement in other people’s writing can teach you a lot about the writing process and how to avoid those kinds of mistakes. Because when you can recognize what’s boring, clunky, or ineffective, you’ll get better at detecting those sorts of flaws in your work. So try to keep this in mind while you’re waiting for your turn, and keep the groaning to a reasonable minimum.

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There can be … drama (sigh)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but writers are neurotic people. And chances are any writing group you join will be a mixed bag of lovers and haters of different genres whose personalities are going to clash.

This is going to happen. It’s inevitable. The best thing you can do is try to stay out of the drama and set a good example. Especially if you’re younger than other people in your group, you’re going to wonder how adults can be so immature. So try to be as fair and accepting as you can, because most writers are weirdos with baggage, and that counts you.

Diversity also means valuable perspectives

In my opinion, the more diverse the group, the better. Not everyone in my group likes fantasy, my genre of choice. Or is anywhere in my age range. Or knows a whole lot about writing techniques and story structure. But that doesn’t devalue their opinions.

Why? Because first of all, your readers may not be educated about these things, either. But if they’re bored with your story or don’t like a character that you wanted them to like, these are still valid problems. So before you gripe about them not understanding the depth and subtlety of your dialogue, remember that every reader is worth listening to, whether you act on their feedback or not.

Secondly, I’ve found that every member of my writing group — despite their strengths, weaknesses, and hang-ups — contributes at least one smart and valuable comment when they critique my work. Because they come from a different background and see the world another way than I do, they catch things I might not. And that’s the whole point of having critique partners in the first place.

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How do I tell my friend their novel sucks?

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Quick answer: You don’t. Or, at least, you don’t tell your friend their book stinks and then chat merrily about the weather or resume whatever else it was you were doing (celebrating their birthday, maybe — please don’t tell them this on their birthday). If someone you know is writing a novel, that means they still have time to improve it. If the novel’s already published, well, then I guess someone thought it was okay enough for other people to read, and you should probably shut up and congratulate your friend. The point is, if you’re friend is in the midst of writing, maybe they’re looking less for soul-crushing judgment and more for feedback on how they can make their story better. Here’s what’s actually helpful for them to hear: “Hey, I don’t like this particular thing, but I think you could make it awesome.” Not all critiquing is constructive. If your friend wrote a story about a dog and you hate dogs, then don’t say their novel sucks because of your personal preference. Plenty of other people like dogs and would read about them. Also, never utter the words “your novel sucks,” because that’s just petty. It will probably also make your friend do this:

Fillion Writing GIF Instead, try to figure out what you don’t like and why. Give them more reasoning than “it’s stupid” or “this is boring.” Maybe your friend needs to do more to endear the reader to their main character, or maybe they need to add more action and dialogue and lose some description. Find something concrete for them to work with. If you want, you can suggest ideas for how they might fix the problem, but keep in mind that the writer makes the final call. Readers are usually right when they feel something’s off, but that’s as far as their power extends. “This chapter needs work, but I loved this part.” Don’t just point out the bad things. Regardless of its quality, writing takes a tremendous amount of energy and dedication, and hearing someone rattle off criticism after criticism can be demotivating. Keep your friend’s spirits high by either starting out with a compliment (“This is a great idea for a story” or “I loved this character!”) or by taking a break from the negative and pointing out something you did like. It can be as small as a sentence or a descriptive image. Your friend will appreciate the mention and feel happy that you liked it. Basically, it tells them that if they keep writing more of that — the thing you liked — they’ll be doing a good job. “Don’t give up.” This must-watch TED Talk teaches an amazing lesson: You are not your novel.

It’s easy for writers to believe that if their novel is bad, that’s because they’re bad writers. That’s not how it works. I’m a firm believer than you become a good writer by writing — and writing a lot of crap before you get good. Skill takes time to develop. No matter how much you read or how much writing advice you digest, everyone needs to put pencil to paper (or fingers to keys) and untangle the very scary and magical thing that is writing. Writing a novel takes hundreds and hundreds of hours. Whole years. Decades, even. People spend a tiny fraction of that time reading the damn thing once it’s finished, and they can destroy a writer’s confidence and hope in a mere few words. Be mindful: Writing is hard work. It takes courage to do it and an incredible amount of willpower to see it through. Whether your love your friend’s book or hate it, tell them the same thing at the end of the day: “Don’t give up.” “You can do this.” “You’ve got it.” Because those few words can go a long way.

Put down the writing books

writing advice

I’ve noticed in the course of my fiction writing endeavors that reading books on writing can be helpful — and then stifling.

The expert advice can make us smarter and ward us away from a lot of bad decisions. But after I had stockpiled a dozen books and was rifling through them, marking their pages with pen or post-it notes to flag a good tip, I realized all that information was weighing me down. Not just in my head but in my writing as well.

So today, I put all those books in the corner of my room, where they’d stay out of sight. Because to set your writing free, you have to turn off all the voices that tell you to do this or do that, or that it’s not good, and just listen to what the story and characters tell you.

Having all the voices from those books speaking at once — telling me what my writing should and shouldn’t be like — was like trying to write in a crowded, noisy room.

I’m not done reading books on writing. I want to keep honing my craft, and other, wiser people have a lot to teach me. But for now, I’m going to concentrate on writing my way. The lessons I’ve learned are still with me. I’ll just leave the rest for another day — when the writing is done and editing as all I have to think about.

And when I feel overwhelmed by this, by writing at all, I think of Anne Lamott. Just take it bird by bird, kid.

What do you think? Is advice ever too much of a good thing? How do you deal with it?

An exercise every writer should try

NaNoWriMo & Google Docs

NaNoWriMo & Google Docs

We can do some pretty amazing things with technology these days. We can build self-driving cars and 3D-print chocolate, but technology also gives us more outlets and tools for what we can accomplish with pen and paper: creative writing. NaNoWriMo is one example. Google Docs is another.

Last month, Google for Education partnered with National Novel Writing Month to help three authors from across the country write a short story together — in an hour.

At over 1,600 words and with three illustrations, the story about a memorial service set on an emu farm combines the imaginations of Edan Lepucki, Tope Folarin, and Mike Curato. The video below shows how it was done — in Google Docs, with the authors taking turns and a Google Docs user named Lauren providing the opening line. You can read the full story here.


The result is a great exercise for growing writers: Have someone think of the first sentence for you, and then work together with one or two other writers for an hour and see what you get. This teaches us to work without worrying about what we’re putting on the page and to allow our imaginations to roam free, uncensored. After all, the writers involved don’t have time to be afraid of what the others might think of their ideas. Their only job is to respond to what the person before them wrote to keep the story going.

So have fun, and give it a try! Free up an hour some afternoon — or better yet, do it tonight when you would otherwise be watching TV. Let me know how it goes in the comments. It’s good practice, and you might find that you and the other writers have a lot to teach each other, both while you’re writing and when the story’s done.

Happy new year! My first book of 2015 (plus the best writing device ever)

Happy new year, whoooo! As today’s the last day of my holiday vacation, I wanted to squeeze in a book and kick off 2015. I don’t know how many books you resolved to read this year, but the first one matters, doesn’t it?

On Writing by Stephen KingI chose Stephen King’s On Writing, a memoir and writing advice book that I’ve been wanting to read for a while and finally found discounted at Half-Price Books (I love that store). I enjoyed it so much that I finished it within 24 hours — not that it’s long (about 300 pages), but books that grab me like that are hard to come by.

A good chunk of On Writing is about Stephen King’s life growing up, which is far from boring. His whole purpose is to show how he as a writer was formed (writers aren’t “made”), and with 20/20 hindsight, he connects certain habits and events from his childhood and early adulthood with the shaping of the best-selling author he became. He was writing long before Carrie, in other words, and although he loved (and continues to love) movies, he learned to turn off the television early in life (it’s a killer to productivity).

The other parts of the book deal with his tips on writing and a good bit about his own process, which are probably the most valuable sections. Some of the final pages discuss his accident in 1999, when a man driving a blue van hit him while he was walking on a road in Maine, and how writing helped him through his painful recovery.

Probably my favorite section, which is even smaller, is a look at the editing process: King gives you several pages of a story (“1408,” as it happens) unedited and then provides a marked-up version and explains the revisions. One fundamental rule: Omit needless words. Another? Kill your adverbs (those pesky -ly words).

Some of the writing advice is common: Kill your darlings. Use strong verbs. Know your grammar. The rest is a hell of a lot of tough love. At some points I found King’s attitude a little snobby — he thinks we all should be writing unplotted novels, but we’re not all Stephen Kings, Stephen King — but other times he was humble and modest, and above all I think he’s probably right. Here’s a few of the passages that I dog-eared:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools your plan to work with.

So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind — they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best — always, always, always — when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer. I can write in cold blood if I have to, but I like it best when it’s fresh and almost too hot to handle.

Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.

Some ideas that King thinks are overrated: writing workshops, characters based on real life (not that you can’t take inspiration from people you know), the phrase “write what you know” (thank you!), plot (he writes everything from situation and character, but I think that’s a very advanced technique), and theme (it comes sooner or later — don’t sweat if you don’t know it right away, as it follows with the story).

A couple tenets he repeats often: Be honest in your writing (even if it will make people uncomfortable). Put the story first. Include only the description details that come to mind. And use the vocabulary you mean to — don’t dress it up to make yourself sound smart.

It’s a honest book full of advice that can be hard to hear, but that’s tough love, baby.

One thing I’ll note for anyone who’s curious about routine: King says read a lot and write a lot. He admitted to reading around 60-70 books a year, but I think your own pace is just fine. How much should you write every day? As much as you can, but I’ve seen 1,000 words pop up more than once. I think what’s important isn’t the word count you achieve but that you stick with it every day so that you establish a routine — whether that’s with the writing (door closed, as King says) or the editing (door open). Same with reading: Turning off the television and reading regularly helps you get into the right mindset for writing. And resist to the temptation to show anyone your draft until it’s done — or don’t dare talk about it. That’s my advice — like with New Year’s resolutions, if you share that you’re writing a novel, that’s when it dies.

So get yourself a copy of King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft this year. And remember, you can read and talk about writing all you like, but the best way to learn it is to do it. For that I went on eBay and bought myself an AlphaSmart Neo. An author I follow recommended it for distraction-free writing, and it’s great. They don’t make them new anymore, but the company still supports it with documentation and so on. It’s basically a keyboard and a small screen, and it’s good for cranking out a draft of a chapter or whatever (so not for revising). You can’t connect to the Internet, and it’s light-weight (and inexpensive) enough that you won’t mind carting it around everywhere with you. It’s like the Hemingwrite, only more practical and much more reasonably priced (I paid $22, although most I’ve seen are around $40 — Hemingwrites will be $400-500). All you need is the Neo and a USB cord (the one that comes with your computer’s printer should work well).

I’ve used it and can vouch that yes, it’s damn good at helping you get the words out. It’s a lot better than staring at a blank white page and that goddamned blinking cursor (how it mocks you). You won’t be tempted to mess around with the font for half an hour. And uploading it to your computer (in any word processor — I use Scrivener) is easy once you find the right cable (B type, 2.0, I believe, but I bought two wrong USB cords before I figured that out).

You can’t store thousands and thousands of words, but you can save up to eight different files, and it has an autosave feature and a battery life like whoa (a year at least on three AAs). The keyboard is comfy, and you can adjust the font size and contrast (no backlight, though). Here’s a good Q&A guide.

Happy writing (and reading)! What book are your reading first in 2015?

Game of Thrones candle book

It’s totally OK to burn these books

When burned, these books give off a charming smell.

Like pumpkin souffle, clean cotton, and ocean breeze.

These are the smells of Hagrid’s Pumpkin Patch, Dobby’s Socks, and Gatsby’s Shoreline — all candles, and all great holiday gift ideas.

You can also find lip balms and wax tarts in the Etsy seller’s shop, From the Page.

Plague World: What constitutes a ‘good’ book ending?

tackyIn August, author Dana Fredsti released Plague World, the third and final novel in her Ashley Parker girl-kicks-zombie-butt series. Years ago, the first book, Plague Town, caught me by surprise as I wasn’t expecting something so good — Resident Evil novelizations have taught me that zombie fiction is usually kind of corny, while The Walking Dead comics and countless movies about the undead have convinced me that any visual probably suits the genre best.

Thankfully, I was wrong, and the Ashley Parker series is as good or better than any zombie movie (although it’s still a little corny, in a good, fully-conscious-of-its-corniness way of course).

Still, as much as I love Fredsti’s writing, I was a teensy bit hard on the second book, Plague Nation. I was worried that — with the zombie outbreak spreading so fast and then going airborne — maybe this thing was getting too out of hand for her or any of the characters to manage.

I didn’t know it then, but that was kind of the point.

plague town

Not everyone was happy about the trilogy’s ending. One reader on Goodreads left a one-star review (warning: it’s here, but spoilers!) and asked, “How on earth is that conceivably a good ending? An appropriate one? I … I can’t even … I’m so pissed off I wasted all this time just to end up with THAT! […] I will NEVER recommend this series to anyone (even my enemies) again. It was that wrong. If I could go back in time and unread the Ashley Parker series I would.”

So, yeah, strong reaction.

Let me first say that, without revealing any specific details, I thought Dana Fredsti did a beautiful job on the ending to Plague World. So big hint here: Somebody dies. Was I shocked by what happened? Yes. Was I OK with this death? Not so much, and I can understand why someone else might outraged.

But was it a good ending? Yes, yes, yes — because first, it was indeed “appropriate.” OK, minor spoilers here, but not really: It’s an apocalypse. People tend to die. Secondly, the ending wasn’t good because the characters died or lived. It was good because it was believable. I was expecting Fredsti to try to find a way to “resolve” the huge Zombie problem with a capital Z, but that wasn’t giving her enough credit. Would we be able to fix something like that in real life with a wink and two swings of a paragraph? No, I don’t think so. The consequences of a catastrophe that huge would last a long time.

I understand the reviewer’s disappointment. I even understand her anger. But to say that the ending wasn’t worth the journey because you disagreed with it — well, that’s like saying your whole life is shit just because something bad happens. And, hey, we all totally do that sometimes. I’m as guilty as anyone. But you’re going to drive yourself crazy unless you realize that you got some good stuff out of the experience, too, and maybe you learned something, and that has to be enough. Life isn’t fair, and frankly, the author doesn’t owe you anything — except maybe a conclusion to all hanging plot threads (which Fredsti addressed). Be happy you got a third book at all.

Take The Hunger Games, for example. I love that trilogy. But hell if I don’t think Mockingjay is the biggest insult to Katniss and readers everywhere. Do I hate it so much that I wish Collins had never even bothered, or that I hadn’t read a single word? No. Because the story wasn’t a waste. It provided me with some entertainment for a while, and I got to disappear into a world and become close to imaginary characters that mean so much to readers that they might as well be real. It’s the mark of a good author when you give a shit what happens to a character. If you’re angry or sad or scared or even happy — the author has done her job.

So if Fredsti made that reviewer that upset, she obviously wrote some good characters because the reader was attached to them. But to wish you had never picked up those books and met those characters is like saying you wished you had never met Dumbledore or — hell — anyone in real life. Because we all die sometime. And we’re all worth knowing, for however long or short of a time that we’re here.

Grade: B