Archive for the 'Writing Groups' Category

Beta-licious

Jun. 30th 2011

When this post goes live, I’ll be sitting with the Nobscot Niblets — my writing group extraordinaire — listening as they discuss my second novel, What Happened in Granite Creek, which is slated for an October release.

They’re my wonderful beta readers and have been for 6.5 years. Their feedback is always kind, encouraging, but also constructive — we Nibs aren’t shy in letting one another know when something isn’t working.

Even though I’m super comfortable with them, it’s always a little nerve wracking when I’m in the workshop hot seat. I imagine it is for most writers.

If you’ve never been in a workshop before, here’s the analogy I use. You’re a parent and you’re placing your child on a stage in front of people who’ve spent around 10 hours with said child. The people then go on to tell you everything you’ve done right — and wrong — as a parent.

Yeah, it’s kinda like that.

I’d like to call up Ben & Jerry’s and pitch a flavor of ice cream called Beta-Licious. It would be banana ice cream with nuts and kahlua-laced chocolate chunks. Yeah, that sums up the experience! 🙂

By the way — and I’ll be sharing more about this on Twitter and Facebook — I’m taking part in a virtual book took in support of Forgotten April. You can learn more here, including a list of the “stops” I’ll be making over the next month or so.

Thanks, as always, for your continued support!

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Posted by Robyn | in Writing Groups | 4 Comments »

How to Receive Feedback on Your Writing

Dec. 10th 2010

I’m obsessed with writing group posts this month. The good news? Many of the topics — like how to comment on someone’s writing and the reality of the green-eyed monster — also apply to the larger topic of writing in general. And so, I continue.

Today’s topic? How to receive feedback on your writing. The whole “thick skin” recommendation is a crock of you-know-what. We’re not lizards or alligators. Our skin bruises. Easily. I think what writers need to develop is Bounce Back. Feedback, even the best intentioned, will *likely* sting, bruise, hurt, and, in some cases, completely shatter your soul. (Notice I use the word “likely” a lot when I’m making these generalizations. There are always exceptions to the rule. I’m sure there’s a Teflon Writer out there who doesn’t feel a thing when receiving feedback. I haven’t met this person. But, like Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster, I’ve heard about rare sightings.)

What is “Bounce Back”? It’s not some fancy-schmancy SEO term or a warning on your checking account. Basically, it’s the term I use to describe how quickly you bounce back from receiving feedback. Bounce Back manifests itself in how you respond over time to the feedback. Forget your immediate response, which might involve expletives running through your head and thoughts of “You don’t know what you’re talking about” rants that you’d like to deliver to your fellow writing group members. Or your editor. Or that reviewer. Or that customer comment on Amazon. Bounce Back is what happens after you’ve had a chance to digest the criticism, constructive or otherwise.

At the end of the day, it’s your writing. You get to decide what feedback to reject and what to accept. You know you’ve hit your Bounce Back groove when you find yourself doing both. If all you’re doing is rejecting everything everyone says, well, you have very low Bounce Back. Same if you accept everything everyone says (thus turning the piece of writing into what I often call a platypus). Bounce Back is kinda like the Golden Mean of feedback. It balances what makes sense to you with what doesn’t feel right…and it allows you to go back and look at your piece with an objective eye.

Achieving Bounce Back takes practice. Here are some strategies:

  • Take notes. Listening to feedback can be painful (even if it’s good overall, your mind will home in on that one comment that wasn’t). Learning to really hear what people are saying is not always easy to decipher as you’re listening. That’s why it’s important to take notes, I think. Write down everything everyone says, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. Why? Two reasons. First, it gives you something to do while people are delivering their feedback. Second, it gives you something to go back to after your mind has had a chance to process.
  • Put the notes aside for awhile. How long will depend upon your personality and/or it might depend on the piece. I’ll often go through my notes and marked-up drafts within a couple of days and accept all the obvious things (e.g. typos) and whatever feels instantly “right” in my gut. Then I put it aside, knowing that my subconscious is working through the more controversial recommendations and feedback. As for how long it takes before I come back to that specific feedback? It really depends. Sometimes days, sometimes years (for novels).
  • Look at the craziest idea and try it. Is someone suggesting you ditch third person and try writing it in first? Try it. Open a fresh Word doc and try writing one scene or one chapter in first person. Is someone saying they want more description? Open a new page, and try describing a room, a character, whatever in great detail. Go with it. You may or may not end up using the text, but it will flex your brain muscle in a new way. And that’s a good thing.
  • Keep it in perspective – one person’s opinions is one person’s opinions. You will never, ever get everyone to like your piece. Don’t aim to please everyone. Aim to make the writing and the story (memoir, poem, etc.) as strong as you can make it. (How do you know when you’ve achieved this? When the thought of your own death and having people find your writing when they’re cleaning out your stuff doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of you.)
  • Consider the source. Everyone’s opinion is valid; this is true. But some feedback is going to be more informed than others. In my writing group, we have some members who write sci-fi. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, so I always preface my feedback with that disclaimer. That particular genre has certain “rules,” and I always defer to the writer and the members in the group who are voracious readers of the genre. That doesn’t mean I don’t have any relevant feedback to provide; I often do. But I think it’s important for everyone to realize they have their strengths. (Agents often specialize in certain genres for this reason — same concept applies.)
  • Receive feedback graciously (even the yucky stuff). Feedback is a one-way process: from one person to you. You should not debate with someone that he or she is wrong or missed the point. Why? Because you’re not going to be sitting next to every reader who picks up your short story, novel, poem, etc. and offering explanations when he or she misinterprets something or misses a point. Your job is to ensure that you’re conveying on the page what your mind thinks it’s conveying — the two often don’t match up.
  • Don’t exact revenge on others. If you get torn apart in a workshop session, do not seek revenge by becoming a monster when it’s your turn to give feedback.
  • Don’t give up. A tough workshop session (I’m thinking MFA programs now rather than writing groups) can leave you questioning whether you should be doing this at all. It’s a normal reaction to have in certain moments, as long as you don’t let the notion consume you and cloud your judgment.

Add your ideas and experiences with feedback in the comments.

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Posted by Robyn | in Creative Writing, Writing Groups | Comments Off on How to Receive Feedback on Your Writing

Green Writers (and I’m Not Talking Newbies)

Dec. 8th 2010

As part of my celebration of National Writing Group Month (do you think I might launch a movement?), I’ve covered how to start a writing group and how to workshop submissions in your writing group. Now, I want to address a topic that we writing group members don’t like to talk about: jealousy and competition.

Listen, we’re human. So it’s gonna happen. I don’t care how much a person likes a fellow member. When one member of the group starts succeeding even when it’s totally deserved (i.e. the person has been working his or her ass off and has real talent that you’ve always seen and advocated for and he or she is really NICE to boot), the rest of the “serious” members (meaning those who are seeking publication) will *likely* feel at some point (if they’re truly honest with themselves) envy and/or jealousy. Here’s a good quick read on the difference between envy and jealousy.

I think it’s normal. And I don’t think it’s a problem if it comes and goes quickly. When it starts to become all-consuming, that’s when you need to stop and ask yourself what’s going on.

And it goes both ways: if you’re the person on the upswing and receiving all the accolades, be prepared for an occasional green-eyed monster (or two or three) giving you dirty looks or whispering behind your back. Be cool, and know that it will likely pass. And let it serve as a reminder to you that staying humble, even when a little voice inside of your head is saying you really are all that and a bag a chips, is not a bad thing.

One of the most honest discussions I’ve ever read on this topic is in Elizabeth Berg‘s book on writing: Escaping into the Open – The Art of Writing True. It’s a great writing book in general, but in her chapter “The Business of Writing,” she has a section on success (page 195), where she invites her best friend, Phyllis, to write about what happened between the two of them…and how they almost lost their friendship to envy. Phyllis writes humbly and honestly, and I give her a whole lot of credit for being able to admit it in writing.

I think this chapter should be required reading for every writer — and for all those who are close to a writer, especially ones who are successful or who are on the cusp. It’s easy to cheer on the struggling writer, especially when you’re a struggling writer as well. It’s a whole different ballgame when one person from the group starts advancing while the others continue to struggle. But that’s the reality of the game. I honestly believe there’s enough room for all of us, especially now, thanks to e-readers. But the most coveted positions — bestseller lists, awards — unfortunately do discriminate, and the bittersweet reality is not everyone in your group will “make it.”

I’d be curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this touchy subject. Leave your insights in the comments.

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Posted by Robyn | in Writing Groups | Comments Off on Green Writers (and I’m Not Talking Newbies)

How to Workshop Writing in Your Critique Group

Dec. 6th 2010

Some people hate the term workshop. I don’t have a problem with the word, and we use the term in my writing group, so I’m going with it.

In this recent post, I talked about how to start a writing group (in honor of National Writing Group Month, which I made up). So let’s talk about how to workshop.

These thoughts are based on my six years of experience with The Nobscot Niblets, on my experience teaching a first-semester writing course at Mass School of Law, and on my experience in being part of MFA workshops.

  • Lead with something positive. Yes, writing is hard. Yes, we writers need to develop thick skins. Yes, we can’t improve unless we hear all feedback: the good, the bad, and the ugly. But it’s much easier to swallow the yucky stuff if you lead with something sweet. Trust me.
  • Be specific. Don’t say, “I liked it.” This is a running joke now with the Nibs since one of our long-term members often starts out his comments with this line — on purpose now — but then he follows up with something specific. Try not to use the word “like” at all since that word often leads to general sentences — “I like your dialogue” — instead of something specific: “Your use of dialogue in this scene was effective because it revealed how much was at stake for Character X.” The same goes for pointing out what’s not working. Don’t say, “I didn’t like this.” Again, be specific, “The exposition here didn’t work for me because it took me out of the story. I think I felt that way because it seemed like a lot of background info was being put into a small space.”
  • Remember, you’re one reader with one very subjective opinion. Almost everything in writing is debatable. Almost. Share your thoughts honestly and respectfully. And acknowledge that your recommendations are just that.
  • Conversation or one-by-one? I tend to like having conversations about a piece of writing, like people do in book groups. I feel it can lead to better critiques because it involves conversation that can naturally lead to debates. The problem? Comment hogs. A good facilitator can help reign in the hogs and give the floor over to those who might be a little quieter. If you go one-by-one around the room, you ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak, but it can get a little boring. If you choose this way, make sure you mix up who goes first and last. And a facilitator is still needed to cut off that person who decides to rattle off a laundry list of issues.
  • Mark up the drafts. Your “public” critiques should highlight the most pressing questions you have or bring to light the issues. Save line edits for the hard copy. And remember to provide positive comments in the marked-up copy as well since no one wants to see only a marked-up draft of everything he or she did “wrong.”
  • Red pen alert! I know some people who think using a red pen is psychologically damaging — and in some schools, it’s actually forbidden. You’ll need to decide among yourselves what to do. Lots of red ink can be overwhelming. Is it less so if you use green or blue? I dunno.
  • For memoirs and personal essays, sometimes it’s more comfortable to refer to “the narrator” instead of the author’s name. I actually like this approach, even though it might come across as odd to talk about “the narrator” in the third person when the first-person subject is sitting right next to you. It depends on the content, I think, and on the writer’s comfort with it. If it’s heavy content (like incest, for example), it might be more comfortable for everyone to approach the discussion in a more neutral way by discussing “the narrator’s” actions, dialogue etc.
  • Workshopping poetry follows the basics outlined above, but there are other things to consider. If you have a group of poets, you know what to do. But if your group is a mix of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, you should probably provide some guidelines on how to workshop poetry.
  • Writers should be seen and not heard. Some workshops require the writer whose piece is under discussion to keep quiet during the critique and simply listen. At the end, he or she can then ask questions, provide clarification, or take part in the discussion. Overall, I like this approach since the writer should listen, which can be extremely hard to do; often our natural inclination is to defend what we wrote. But, again, this rule should be flexible, I think.

I welcome other ideas, especially any “big ones” I’ve overlooked. Leave your thoughts in the comments

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Posted by Robyn | in Creative Writing, Writing Groups | Comments Off on How to Workshop Writing in Your Critique Group

How to Start a Writing Group (December is National Writing Group Month)

Dec. 4th 2010

I have no idea if such a month exists. A quick Google search didn’t shed any light. But there’s a National Novel Writing Month in November (and national everything-under-the-sun months), so it only seems fitting to have a National Writing Group Month. Even more so to have it in December, since it comes after NaNoWriMo (hello revisions! hello feedback!) and since people might be thinking about doing things differently in their writerly world come the New Year. December is also the month when I met the co-founder of my writing group, the Nobscot Niblets (long story), in 2004.

So you’re thinking of starting a writing group, eh?

Here are things to think about –I’m going to answer the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How questions.

Who?

You’re probably thinking, “Well, writers. Duh!” And here’s my response: what kind of writers? Novelists, memoirists, poets? Published? Unpublished? Legal-pad scribbler? Typewriter only? Open to anyone?

There are pros and cons to welcoming everyone no matter what they write or how they write it. While it’s great to want to embrace all writers, if you have one member who, say, doesn’t own a computer and only types submissions (on a typewriter) that she must then fax to someone in the group who then has to scan the fax and email to everyone…well, you get the idea. (This is not an extreme example. It really happened in my group.)

Setting the ground rules on who you want just makes it easier to vet prospective members. And your rules can evolve (ours did). At first, we didn’t accept poets (a story for another post), but then we did. (And I believe we’re all better writers and readers because of it).

Another thing: how many of the “who” will you be accepting? I know groups with only four members. Our group averages around nine. In smaller groups, people will need to submit regularly (probably every meeting), and this has its benefits (especially if people are working on book-length works).

What?

Again, you’re probably thinking, “Well, writing, that’s what!” And again I say, what kind of writing (think genre)? YA, Sci-Fi, romance, literary? How long will submissions be? How often should members be required to submit? Should they be required to submit?

In the Niblets, we generally ask people to submit pieces that are under 5000 words. If members have a novel — and we’ve done this twice already — we’ll hold a special meeting where we’ll workshop only that novel (and we’ll get the novel at least one month in advance).Members try to submit every other meeting, and “try” is the key word. Some of us (this writer included) only submit once every couple of months.

Determine how rigid you’re going to be with the rules. In the Niblets, our goal is to have a full docket for every meeting. That’s usually anywhere from three to five submissions, depending on the length. Think about format requirements too: double spacing and page numbers help a lot when you’re reading and then discussing them in the group.

Where?

Ah, location, location, location. It’s important in real estate, and it’s important in terms of your critique group. Think about noise, ambiance, cost (if any), and how easy it is to access. We lucked out: our local Annie’s Book Stop in Framingham, Mass., hosts a wide variety of groups, and the owner was happy to give us the space for free (we all, happily, buy goodies from him before the meeting — his is also a coffee shop). Other ideas: libraries, church basements, members’ homes (rotate), coffee shops, B&N/Borders, indie bookstores.

When?

How often will you meet? Once a month. Twice? Twice a month seems to work well for my group overall, but we’ve been known to meet once a month (during crazy times, like December), and I think the group is pretty much okay now with taking July and August off (though we still try to get together socially as a group). We meet on the first and third Thursdays of the month, around 7-ish (sadly, we are not a prompt group).

Why?

This, again, might seem like a question with an obvious answer, but I urge you and your prospective members to think about it. What’s the goal? Do your members write more for fun or as a hobby, or are your members serious about publication? Are you okay with a combination? Ninety percent of the Nibs are serious about publication and many of us have published over the last six years. The way you answer this question will influence group dynamics (and who you ultimately attract as members).

How?

Just how does one form a group? For years, I thought of joining a group, but I tend to be shy and felt weird about joining an already existing group (I think I was also suffering from a lack of confidence). Luckily, I met Steve Tannuzzo (a fabulous fellow copywriter) at a networking event, and we got to talking about writing. Turns out, he had similar feelings. So we decided to form our own group.

Steve and I went to Paul, the owner of Annie’s, and pitched our idea. I knew Paul from my visits to his store and had mentioned casually in the past about starting a group, and he always seemed open to the idea of hosting. Indeed, Paul was all for it. This was in December of 2004.

We posted signs around Paul’s shop, and Steve did a Craig’s List posting as well. We had our first meeting in January of 2005, and it was small. We also had a pseudo “mentor” named Deb. Deb was a friend of mine who ran a successful writing group near her hometown and she shared her ideas and thoughts with us. Eventually, word got out. Members would pull in other members, some of whom were great. And then there was the one who used smoke signals to communicate instead of email, which, of course, leads to a question: how do you kick members out? I don’t have a good answer for that, and we’ve never done it in our group. People do come and go, for various reasons, and if someone isn’t working out, that someone will probably end up leaving on her own/his own.

The other “how” you need to think about is how to workshop submissions. I’ll discuss this in more detail in another post later this week, but my one recommendation would be this: encourage respectful comments. Constructive criticism is, of course, a good thing, but the way it’s delivered can make all the difference in the world. Leading with something positive (trust me, you can ALWAYS find at least one positive thing to say) is a good way to begin a critique session.

Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to start a writing group…you will figure a lot of it out as you go along, and your group will develop its own culture and its own, um, quirks and stories (ask me about the member who stormed out of a meeting over a chair dispute. The funny part was none of us witnessed her storming out…we all thought she was in the bathroom).

Most important, remember to have fun. Having a nearby pub where you can all go to after the meeting for a drink [or two] helps in this endeavor.

I welcome other ideas from veteran writing group folks — just leave them in the comments.

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