The Joys and Perils of the Writing Life

The Joys and Perils of the Writing Life

So here I am, as Abraham said to the Lord when offering up his son for sacrifice. “Here I Am” is the title of a wonderful new book by Jonathan Safran Foer, a monumental work close to 1000 pages, exploring themes of cultural identity, fidelity and betrayal, the ephemeral nature of love, families functional and dysfunctional, and what makes them so.

As for me myself and I, this post is in the nature of an apology to you, my readers, for my untoward absence. SInce I last posted back in April, life has overtaken me. There’s been illness, convalescence, slow recovery, as well as the joys of grandchildrens’ birthdays. and celebrations of their achievements, some sojourns in beautiful Darwin, home of my daughters and grandsons, and the minutiae of everyday life.

On the writing side, I’ve been hard  at work on my new novel, ‘A Difficult Daughter’, and preparing my first novel. ‘Capriccio’, for publication. This entailed a major rewrite, mostly in appeasement to Faber and Faber, publishers of the works of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and the Hughes Estate. Like Jonathan Bate, I fell foul of the Estate when requesting permission to quote thirteen lines of Hughes’s poetry, fully expecting dispensation for such a small amount of material. The lines I quoted were used to introduce chapters, each of which was given the title of one of the ‘Capriccio’ poems by Hughes. Titles, I know, are not subject to copyright. However, to be on the safe side, I have removed every syllable of Hughes’s poetry, and, in order to comply with the other request by the Estate, changed the name of  every character. The astute reader will no doubt recognise my novel, “Capriccio”, as the tragic story of Assia Gutmann Wevill, the lover of Ted Hughes, who came between Hughes, and his wife, Sylvia Plath.  My novel ends with one of Assia’s poems (quoted with permission of her sister, Celia Chaikin), a final clue to the true identity of my protagonist.

Now for the Joy of the writing life: my company of writers, the Randwick Writers Group, continues to flourish, with all four of us preparing to submit novels or memoirs to publishers. Without my fellow-writers, I would never have achieved the completion of one novel and the development of another. Their constructive feedback, wise insights, consistent encouragement, and friendship, has been the motivating force which keeps me going.

In Darwin, I was lucky to join the talented playwright Sandra Thibodeaux for her weekly writers’ workshop, which helped me develop ideas for ‘A Difficult Daughter’, my novel-in-progress. Then there was the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, the Jewish Writers’ Festival in August, and only last weekend, the St Aubin’s Writers’ Festival. More on this bucolic festival in my next post!

Advertisements

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.

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

How to Bring Your Writing to the Next Level

10 HINTS FOR SELF-EDITING (re-blogged from ‘Write to Done’)

The old cliché “practice makes perfect” applies to the editing process. Many best- selling authors note that the art of writing is really the art of re-writing!

Polishing what you write can make all the difference. Take diamonds. In the raw, only experts can spot them. But once they are cut and polished, they sparkle and shine.This is what good editing can do to your writing.But there is a problem.

The old cliché “practice makes perfect” applies to the editing process. Many best-            selling authors note that the art of writing is really the art of re-writing!

The good news is that self-editing is a skill that can be developed.

Sound good? Let’s get to it.

1.Get Some Distance from Your Writing

In many cases, the reason you find it hard to go back over your work is that it   makes you feel bad. It may be that you don’t feel satisfied with your work and   worry about how it will be received. You may also been just plain bored with it! Whatever the negative emotion, a way to face it is to imagine that you are sitting  down to edit someone else’s work. That can help give you the distance to see your  writing from a fresh perspective. And take comfort from the fact that many  successful authors hate their first drafts too!

“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact,    the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first  drafts”.

Anne Lamott

2 Give it a Rest

Another way to get distance from your writing is to leave at least 24 hours from  the time you finish until the time you start your serious editing attempts.Your brain knows your work and so will fill in the gaps where missing words are, or will autocorrect spelling errors without you even realizing it!

When you come back after a break, you will be able to see your writing without     the additional “help” from your brain

3 Change the format

This is an old editor’s trick for catching bad phrasing, double or missing words.  Print it out, read it on Kindle, magnify the screen or change the font and font size. Read your writing slowly out loud. A nice trick is to have Adobe Reader read it to you. The dull computerized voice   will quickly help you pick up the errors your brain omits!

4 Change locations While editing

Self-editing can be a boring process and you may find your attention start to          wander. When you find your attention drifting, Cal Newport, a prolific writer and college professor recommends that you try moving physical locations. He tried this experiment when working on a particularly challenging piece of  work. He found himself moving every half an hour, and each time the move brought about renewed energy for the task.

5 Eliminate distractions

Catching those small, pesky errors requires that you pay close attention to your    work. If you are attempting to multi-task, by juggling between email, Facebook,  and Twitter, they are going to find their way into your final piece. Set yourself small and manageable distraction-free time chunks and focus solely     on editing.

6 Remember Who You Are Writing for

Knowing your audience and holding an image of one reader in mind while you        edit will help you write in a way which is appropriate. This will affect your choice of words and tone. If you are writing a blog post you will tend to be conversational and use contractions – isn’t instead of is not. You’ll speak in the first person and avoid the passive tense.If you’re writing an academic piece, you’ll make different choices. Editing with   one reader in mind will ensure consistency.

7 Start With the Big picture

Start with the big picture – the core message and overall structure- and check for    clarity, consistency and flow. Ask yourself how well the different parts contribute        to the central message or narrative. You may find yourself making big structural changes at the point, even eliminating big chunks of writing, which is why doing a line by line edit at this stage isn’t a good idea. And be sure to be able to answer the question “what’s the point?”

8 Cut Out the fluff

Be brutal! Readers have short attention spans these days, and even if you are writing a novel, a short tolerance for long rambling sentences (I’m not commenting on whether  this is a good thing, it just is a trend). Look for times where you repeat yourself, state the obvious, or add extra information that doesn’t need to be there.

9 Grammar, punctuation and Spelling (gpS

)Many of us have words that we like to use regularly that find their way into every  few sentences. Some of the most common habit words are “so”, “just”,“actually”, “literally”, and “very”. Keep a list of your common offenders and then search and see if you can replace   them without altering your intended meaning.

10 Read Your Work Backwards

The final tip, is to read over your work, starting from the end. This helps to   combat a common pattern where we pay good attention at the beginning, but our attention wanes as we get further into the piece. This way, you can be sure that     your conclusion is as tight and polished as your introduction.

Following these tips will help you become a better writer, help you avoid the        embarrassment of making obvious mistakes, and ensure your work is more   convincing and credible.

 

Copyright Mary Jaksch, 2015

 

 

Randwick Writers’ Feedback Guidelines

FullSizeRender
GIVING FEEDBACK
  • The Sandwich Analogy: Say something positive before something negative, then finish on the positive or how to make it better.
  • Give the positives first and say what works for you. Give the negatives next, and say what doesn’t work for you, and lastly, how you think it could be made better.
  • 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.
  • Consider the basic issues of narrative structure, characterisation, evocative and atmospheric language, vivid setting and believable dialogue.
  •  Be honest in your feedback; the writer needs guidance, not niceties!

RECEIVING FEEDBACK

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

Success for one of our members

coogee-sands-hotel-and-apartment_5

Last Wednesday our group met for a celebratory lunch near beautiful Coogee Beach, to acknowledge the success of one of our writers. Congratulations, Garth, on your memoir being accepted for publication by Ginninderra Press. We are all striving towards publication, and are thrilled that one of us has reached that goal. Can’t wait for the book launch!2