Ten Tips for a Writers’ Group

These tips from a New York based writer could equally apply to my Randwick Writers’ Group.

Reblogged from Lee Kofman at leekofman.com.au

Guest post by Tracy Sayre

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work in writers’ groups. Here’s a list of my top ten tips.

1.Find the group. Facebook is a great place to start. Post a message that you want to begin a writers’ group and you’ll be amazed by how many of your friends harbor a desire to write. Alternatively, you can contact bookstores, colleges, and libraries to ask if they know of a group you can join. There are also websites like Meetup.com that have information on local writers’ groups.
2.Keep it small. I think the best size for a group is 4 people. If it’s smaller, you won’t get varied feedback, if it’s larger, you spend too much time reading other people’s work. I’ve also found with larger groups people tend to cancel last minute because they don’t feel like their attendance matters that much.
3.Plan ahead. One of the worst things you can do is leave the schedule vague. We all dread that never-ending email chain where everyone’s rescheduling. From the beginning, decide when you’re going to meet, for instance every other Tuesday at 7 pm, and stick to it.
youa

4.Set the format. Determine if you want to read the pieces out loud at the meeting, or if everyone is expected to read beforehand and bring in their notes. Determine how many pages everyone is going to share and how many people will share at a meeting. Here’s what has worked the best for my groups: 2 people send their material a week before the meeting. They can share up to 20 pages. Members read ahead of time and come with prepared notes. When we’re discussing a submission, the writer does not talk. You can waste a lot of time explaining your decisions but at the end of the day, it’s more helpful to hear what other people thought of your decisions than for them to know why you made them.

5.No alcohol. I learned this the hard way. During my first group, we each brought a bottle of wine. By the time we got to the last piece we were tipsy and distracted. Now we don’t have any alcohol and the critiques are much more focused. I can come home and write when I’m most inspired by the feedback instead of passing out drunk!

6.Limit socialising. You can chat about the election with anyone, but not about the craft of your story. Honor the time you have with these people and focus on your writing. In my groups, we say the meeting officially starts at 7pm but come at 6:30 if you’d like time to catch up. This also helps keep the meetings a reasonable length of time. If the meetings start taking four or five hours you’ll probably end up canceling when you get busier.
7.Don’t be selfish. One of my pet-peeves is someone who clearly joins a group to just get feedback on their own work. They miss meetings when it’s not their turn to share, or they never have time to finish others’ submissions. I learn so much through reading the other members’ works. For instance, I found one submission really boring and I realized it was because there was no conflict. I had heard this criticism of my own writing but I didn’t understand how boring such writing can be until I saw it in someone else’s piece. Discussing works of other writers develops your critical eye and makes you a better a writer yourself.
8.Take a break. Every year or so, take a break from the feedback and discuss if the group is working for everyone. Is someone dominating the critique? Are the meetings getting too long? Have your goals changed? I’ve found that groups tend to lose steam after two years. This is when people start cancelling a lot or not submitting new work. Determine as a group if you need to take a break and reconvene with new focus, or if some want to drop out and make room for fresh faces. New members offer new perspectives. There’s nothing wrong with dropping out and there’s nothing wrong with starting a new group. You need to be among people who will help your writing flourish.
9.Do activities together. I went on writing retreats with my first two writers’ groups. We also hosted a public reading of our work at a local bookstore. These activities cemented the group and made us feel like we were moving toward something. Go to conferences together. Attend a reading of a favorite author together. Enjoy this amazing, creative connection you have – it’s unlike any other friendship.
10.Don’t take anything personally. I think the worst response is when someone has nothing to say about your writing: they either didn’t care enough or they don’t think you have the ability to improve it. Someone who points out flaws in your writing is spending a great deal of time giving you feedback and they are sharing it because they respect you and think you are capable of more. That’s a compliment. When negative feedback comes up it’s especially helpful to be in a group because that’s when you can determine if that’s one person’s opinion or if everyone in the group felt the same way. Either way, don’t forget that this is feedback on your writing, not you.

Writer’s Block

IMG_4140

No wonder I’m having trouble putting pen to paper, or bum on seat. Here in tropical Darwin a strange soporific haze hangs over me, and what seemed once imperative now gets relegated to the ‘maybe later’ pile. Somehow the joyful and terrifying task of writing recedes into dreamland. You might think this is a good thing, drifting around in Lotus Land, yet its very pleasantness scares me – just not enough to face that blank page or screen. Yes, I have a bad case of Writer’s Block. In spite of some unsympathetic writers telling us ‘there’s no such thing, it’s mere laziness, so get the finger out etc. etc.’ I and others swear it exists. Here’s what some writers have to say on the subject:

IMG_4836
F Scott Fitzgerald Photo: Wikipedia

‘Let’s start with one of the most famous examples of writer’s block ‘ writes Lee Kofman, in her post Alcohol, Insanity & Other Methods for Unblocking Writer’s Block’ – that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose frequent bouts of this condition are forever imprinted on the history of modern literature. In response, Fitzgerald consumed alcohol liberally, often going on a bender (gin was his favorite medicine). But then, it is also possible that it was his drinking that caused much of his blockage, which intensified in his final years. Still, this isn’t a cautionary tale. I suspect that more moderate amounts of booze may prove useful to some for seducing our inner muses.’

Lee  writes: ‘Another strategy to prevent the onset of writer’s block comes from another famous sufferer – Hemingway. A bullfight aficionado who fought in the First World War and reported on the Spanish civil war, when asked about the most frightening thing he had ever encountered, Hemingway said: ‘A blank sheet of paper.’ And here is his advice how to conquer this terror:’

Ernest Hemingway, photo from Google images
Ernest Hemingway, photo  Google images

Stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next… and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it… But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.

Re-blogged from Lee Kofman’s post ‘Alcohol, Insanity & Other Methods for Unblocking Writer’s Block’ from her Blog ‘Lee Kofman: Author, writing teacher, mentor’, at www.leekofman.com.au

 

 

Procrastination: a cautionary tale


image

PROCRASTINATION

Disclaimer: All persons in this story are the product of my imagination.

Today’s my writing day, I say to myself: Wednesday, my only day with no work and almost no commitments. By the late afternoon I should have a thousand words, at least, to show for myself. As advised in my latest self-help for writers book, I start with a brisk walk. An early start means I can be back before nine. Setting off at eight, I plan to think about my writing on the way. Several successful writers I‘ve read about start their day like this. Like them, I should be at my desk at nine o’clock, the perfect time to begin the working day.

It’s a brilliant day, the ocean spread out blue and wrinkled, sparkling where the sun hits it. Several times I have to stop to admire its vastness. There’s a cold wind, bringing tears to my eyes. When I get to the cliff I call mine, I stop. I know it’s mine because there’s a hollow in this cliff that exactly fits my bottom. I sit in the hollow, in the lotus pose, and do my morning meditation. Essential for a writer, I tell myself as I watch my thoughts drift past.  This will surely save me time by making me centered and one-pointed, able to be fully in the moment. Several good writing ideas float off into the universe from where they may, with the right karma, return. I arrive back just before 9am, calm and refreshed, to the insistent ring of the phone.

“Hi, Dina! It’s Helen. Don’t forget our date today. It’s the third Wednesday of the month, remember?” I had forgotten. Weeks ago my friend and I had agreed to meet once a month to exchange writing news. I don’t dare break our date, as Helen is far too sensitive to cope with a last-minute change of plan. Mostly the coffee mornings are for moral support particularly towards our common goal: to become “real” writers.

“Of course I haven’t forgotten,” I lie. “Let’s meet at that little outdoor place you liked so much last time. Oh, by the way, I’ve heaps to tell you, but this news can’t wait. Guess what? I got into that writing course I told you about! They must’ve liked the pieces I sent in.”

“Oh my God! You didn’t! I heard on the grapevine that even Eva, who’s actually been published, didn’t get in. How amazing!” I held the phone away from my ear as she shrieked into the receiver, hurt by her obvious lack of faith in my talent.

“Helen, I must go. Have to get the first thousand words for the story competition finished today. Can we make it a quick coffee today, say about midday?”

The bed’s not made and last night’s dishes are still in the sink. A prolific writer once told me he couldn’t put pen to paper until the bed is made and every dish is washed. Even a dirty coffee cup can block his creativity. On the other hand the author of “The Writer’s Way” urges struggling writers to ignore housework, so I decide to go with this mentor’s sound advice. She also advises us to look after our bodies. A quick swim in the local pool should set me up for the day’s writing.

In the pool at last, swimming releases me. As I strike out smoothly down the lane I start to count the laps, breathing rhythmically. On the last lap I silently affirm: “I am a writer. I write every day.” I swim only twenty-four laps instead of the usual thirty. I don’t feel quite right if I haven’t done thirty laps.  Perfectionism is the curse of the frustrated writer, one I have not escaped.

Pale and windblown, Helen arrives half an hour late at the coffee shop, with a breathless apology about broken down buses and other improbable excuses. She has different phobias to me; about being bumped into by people and inhaling smoke from a distant table. We change tables three times. By one-thirty we have ordered. I’ve read somewhere that the secret to sanity is eating breakfast out, and believing sanity is important for a writer I try to do this every day. As we talk about our respective neuroses and I keep thinking “this is all material.” The woman at the next table looks at us as if we were mad, which confirms my belief that we writers, quite simply, are not ordinary people. While Helen is still describing some claustrophobic experience in an airplane that happened to her six years ago, I extricate myself by inventing a dentist’s appointment.

It’s almost two by now. My backpack is heavy with books, including my half-written stories, my journal, and a spare memory stick in case I actually write anything.

We writers should clear the way of any practical worries as much as possible, so I go to claim a much-needed refund from Medicare.  I have to stand in a queue for at least thirty minutes, which I pass by making notes for a new story in the tiny notebook I now carry with me, should inspiration strike. Opposite Medicare there’s a bookshop, and remember I owe it to myself as a budding writer to check out the latest best sellers for their literary merit. A new book from a woman writer stops me in my tracks. It’s all about her experiences in childbirth, written in the first person and giving intimate details. I find myself quite drawn in. This is the sort of thing I could write, I realise, and I making a mental note to add it to my list of ideas I whip out my notebook and jot down the title.

With a shock I realise it’s after four as I finally walk the half-mile to the library. The euphoria of my swim has long since worn off, and now I need another coffee. I look longingly for a coffee shop. Even a takeaway would take away this sinking feeling. I resist.

‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ I remember an aunt telling me years ago.  I’d never fully understood the one about procrastination until now, as my morning’s goal fades into the afternoon’s dying sun. Nevertheless I will not give up. I stagger into the library. The clock’s hands point accusingly to five. I phone my partner, knowing how he worries about me when he doesn’t know where I am. The librarian glares at me and points to the sign: “please switch off your mobile.” It appears he wasn’t at all worried, and suggests we go to a movie. No, I say in a panic. I’ve got work to do. Give me an hour.

 In the library I look up some references from my last writing course; research is always easier than writing. I sit at the computer catalogue, exhausted. How I wish this day was over. I’m so tired I can’t move, which is ridiculous considering I’ve done practically nothing all day. I look for a place to sit with a panicky feeling fluttering in my stomach. Now I know it’s not just the act of writing I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of failure, of letting everyone down, of never being able to produce anything of worth…

At six I open my notebook and start to write. The sinking feeling lifts. The first line appears and I start to feel better. My energy returns, and I forget about the coffee and the bills and the clock. There’s a compulsion to get the words out. I write some more and then before I know it, I’ve written five pages. Over a thousand words!

A shadow looms over me. I look up to see the man himself gazing fondly over my shoulder, just as I pen the last words of the first draft of a chapter. “Been writing all day? That’s the way! I’m starving! What are we having for dinner?” I look up at the clock. Its hands show seven-thirty.

“I’ve actually finished a first draft!” I reply virtuously, stretching with relief. I smile at him and gather up my books. “I’ve been far too busy writing to cook today. Let’s go out for dinner?”

IMG_1177 IMG_1177

Do you Write by the Rules?

IMG_1178

The secret of creativity, Natalie Goldberg makes clear in her “Writing Down the Bones”, is to substract rules for writing, not to add them. It’s a process of “undereducation” rather than education. – Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Is it only our greatest writers who are allowed to break the rules of writing? And what exactly are these rules? Mantras such as ‘Show not Tell’ ‘Point of View’ ‘Omniscient Narrator’ or ‘Close Third Person’ seem to abound in 21st century writing guides. I doubt whether the great George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and our own Christina Stead had ever heard of these ”rules’. Yet their writing survives to this day, never out of print or out of favour. And of course, whether unconsciously or not, each of these writers were instinctively following many of these techniques. Many, but not all – depending on the fashion and flavour of their times.

IMG_2501
The Arch-Critic Looking Stern

In my own writing group, I’ve found the use of  technical criteria for feedback limited my creativity, and constrained my writing voice. It seems to me that intellectualising the writing process is the opposite of that unconscious process which produces the best writing. It’s as if we have to cross a bridge from the so-called ‘right-brain’ which governs creativity, to the ‘left-brain’ which controls planning, logic and reasoning. And that crossing can often be a painful obstacle course. I once exclaimed to my group: ‘Away with your rules! They do my head in!’ Clumsy expressions indeed, which burst out of my mouth unbidden but unstoppable.

Sentences which flow with speed, grace and simplicity look easy to the reader, but experienced writers know it is the hardest writing of all. Like the Zen archer who does not appear to be aiming, yet strikes the bull’s eye every time, the writers untrammelled by rules and regulations, unconcerned with the fashions of the day, are the ones who stay in our minds the longest.

Writing Down the Bones

Natalie Goldberg on the Basics of Writing Practice

The-True-Secret-of-Writing

Many years ago, when I first had the courage to try writing, I came across the wonderful Natalie Goldberg’s book, ‘Writing Down the Bones’. Until then I’d always thought my writing had to be perfect, with impeccable grammar, sentence structure, and so on. But no – according to Natalie, the secret of writing is to just let yourself go, forget rules and regulations, and silence the censor in your head.

After having written one novel and started another, I still have trouble turning off the critic. It’s a lifelong habit of those of us whose school compositions were judged on form rather than content. But Natalie gave me these liberating strategies for creative writing, and they may help you too. Here are some edited extracts from ‘Writing Down the Bones’:

‘The aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel. You must be a great warrior when you contact on first thoughts and write from them. Especially at the beginning you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don’t stop writing. Your internal editor might be saying: “You are a jerk, whoever said you could write, I hate your work, you suck, I’m embarrassed, you have nothing valuable to say, and besides you can’t spell…” Sound familiar? The more clearly you know the editor, the better you can ignore it.  Don’t be abstract. Write the real stuff. Be honest and detailed.’

Here are some of Natalie’s strategies:

  1. Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
  2. Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
  3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
  4. Lose control.
  5. Don’t Think. Don’t get logical.
  6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

List of ideas when you’re stuck:

  1. Begin with “I remember.” Write lots of small memories. If you fall into one large memory write that. Just keep going. Don’t be concerned if the memory happened five seconds ago or five years ago. Everything that isn’t in this moment is memory coming alive again as you write. If you get stuck, just repeat the phrase “I remember” again and keep going.
  2. Who are the people you have loved?
  3. Write about the streets in your city.
  4. Describe a grandparent.
  5. Write about:
    • swimming
    • the stars
    • the most frightened you’ve ever been
    • green places
    • how you learned about sex
    • your first sexual experience
    • the closest you ever felt to God or nature
    • reading and books that have changed your life
    • physical endurance
    • a teacher you hadFinally Natalie urges us:‘The ability to put something down – to tell how you feel about an old husband, an old shoe, or the memory of a cheese sandwich on a gray morning in Miami – that moment you can finally align how you feel inside with the words you write; at that moment you are free because you are not fighting those things inside. You have accepted them, become one with them. Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of beginning. Probably that’s why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary. We are touching down onto something real. It is beyond the point when you think you are done that often something strong comes out.’

     

Writers’ Groups: a waste of time?

image

Why Join a Writers’ Group?

Many creative people are just not suited to locking themselves away in a room for a year with only a computer and their thoughts for company. Others just don’t have the confidence or endurance to keep on writing in a vacuum.  In a group, you will always have someone to encourage you when you start flagging, or to fix up a stretch of writing you can’t seem to get right. You also need to have really good systems that everybody sticks to religiously. (NSWWC newsletter, May 2016)

For some years now, I’ve been convening a local Writers’ Group. We started with five members, all working towards publication. Two of our members have achieved their goal, and seen their manuscript miraculously transformed into a real book by a prestigious publisher. This is after extensive editing resulted from the group’s feedback. We even have a grammar queen in our midst!

For me, the main benefits have been the wonderful solidarity and support from the group, and the momentum created by having a regular deadline for that next 2000 words or so. Procrastination and writers block couldn’t survive the positive motivation to produce a first draft for the next meeting. Add to that our delicious morning teas, and the warm friendships special to writers who share the highs and lows of the rocky road to publication.

 

Our Randwick Writers’ Group has the following simple guidelines, which have served us well for the last three years:

• fortnightly (now monthly) meetings on a Wednesday morning, of two and a half to three hours for giving and receiving feedback.
• rotate venues from house to house  – providing a safe and friendly environment in which to share our work.
• submit max 2000 to 3000 words  by the Monday before the meeting, either digitally, or hard copy.
• Option to read aloud one or two pages (it’s helpful to hear your work read by someone else)
• keep feedback constructive, as always. We start with a global review, then focus on what works and what doesn’t, and finish with positive suggestions.

 New Guidelines for Giving and Receiving Feedback

1. The Sandwich Analogy: Say something positive before something negative, then finish on the positive or how to make it better.

2. Give the positives first and say why. Give the negatives next, and say why it doesn’t work for you, and lastly, how you think it could be made better.

3. Take on the task of critiquing with a positive and helpful intention; read carefully, trying to understand the writer’s point of view and creative goal.


4. Consider the basic issues of narrative structure, characterisation, evocative and atmospheric language, vivid setting and believable dialogue.


5. Think carefully about what is not working for you, and what is working, before you offer feedback. Be honest in your feedback; the writer needs guidance, not niceties! 

Guidelines for Accepting Feedback

1. Be prepared to receive negative, as well as positive, feedback.
2. Separate the personal from the product, and see feedback as a valuable opportunity to improve your writing.
3. While receiving verbal feedback, try not to interrupt the speaker.
4. Be ready to respond to negative feedback, after speaker has finished. Give your reasons for your opinion.
5. Rewrite your work in accordance with the feedback received, and see if it is better. If not, stick to your guns!
6. A sure sign that you can write is that you keep going after knockbacks.

 I can certainly relate to this comment from the Blog  ‘Write to Done’:

In my writing life, there’s nothing that’s helped me more than having a circle of writer friends to share work-in-progress with. Setting my own deadlines for finishing a scene or chapter leaves far too much room for renegotiation: committing to a weekly or monthly meeting means I have to meet an external deadline, one that involves other people who’re counting on me to get my work done.

Courtesy Harleysville Books Inc
Courtesy Harleysville Books Inc

The Art of Forgiveness – and Writing

 

image

The words of author Ann Patchett  are both an inspiration, and a warning, to those of us for whom writing is a passion, and who believe it’s a gift, rather than a craft which needs to be practiced to perfection. Here she explains the importance of forgiveness and acceptance in our quest for perfection:

I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

Patchett pokes at the strange logic by which we exempt writing from the beliefs and standards to which we hold other crafts:

Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and that there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity their delusion, yet beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker. Perhaps you’re thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art itself but an interpretation of the composer’s art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

 

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/04/27/ann-patchett-on-writing/