But It Really Happened That Way!

Mar. 17th 2011

I imagine many writers out there have heard a fellow writer say, “But it really happened that way!” when questioned by beta readers or critique partners about a particular event in their story. (I might even be guilty.)

This isn’t an original thought, but I’m sharing because it’s worth remembering: just because something happened in real life doesn’t mean repeating it in your story will automatically make it “real” to the reader. It’s your job as a writer to render the event believable. That might require deviating from the “real” nature of the “real” event in order to make it authentic to your characters, story, and, ultimately, your audience. You might know it’s “for real” since you experienced the event or saw it happen or whatever. But your audience doesn’t know that.

That’s why ripped-from-the-headlines television shows are such a hit, I think. Their almost-unbelievable story lines become believable because the audience has “heard” it before, thanks to the media. (I think many readers would have had a hard time accepting Room’s premise if not for the Josef Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard cases.)

While readers often willingly suspend their disbelief, they’re willing to suspend it only so far. It’s the writer’s responsibility to make even the most unbelievable thing feel real. Not an easy task.

Have you read anything recently that made you go “No way. That never could have happened”? Or have you read anything that seemed unbelievable but you kept reading anyway and the “thing” became believable, thanks to the writer’s skill? Share in the comments.

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Posted by Robyn | in Creative Writing | 5 Comments »

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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