My day job is… well, it’s not my dream job (because that would obviously be more authorly stuff). I resource humans in an Human Resourcing office. One of my coworkers is looking to “borrow” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) graphics to use in an upcoming EEO training he has to give. Knowing how much I love horrible writing, business or otherwise, he just sent me this picture he found here– and I’m begging him to use it.
First of all, join a writing group. If there’s not one in your area, start one. What’s the worst that could happen? Nobody shows up? If that happens, you’re no worse off than you were before. But, the more probable thing is that you will end up meeting great people who inspire you. I started Dorchester Writers almost a year ago and I thought I would share a few of the things I’ve learned about interacting with a critique group – and a few things specific to running one.
The first thing is to set down ground rules. We usually have two to five people ready to submit work each week, so they’ve worked for us so far: Here is a clip from our submission guidelines
We have never put a cap on the limit of submission for the week – and I would like to never have to. In order for that to be the case, please read the following guidelines. (If you have a looming deadline and want to submit a longer piece, let me know and we will definitely work with you.)
- Roughly 10 pages a week. Less is fine and if you occasionally go over a page or two so you don’t drop us out in the middle of a scene, that’s fine too. But keep the ten pages in mind.
- Double spaced. We need room for notes.
- Your name needs to be on the document… somewhere.
- Page numbers. It makes referring to different parts of the work much easier.
- Submit by Tuesday night. We need time. Some of us work two jobs and need the~ 48 hours to give everyone’s work the attention it deserves.
I’ve learned a few things in the last year, through my mistakes and the mistakes of others, hopefully this will be of use to someone out there.
Always start with what you like about the work. I know, this is a no-brainer. But, when you meet with the same people every week for a year, you tend to get comfortable. That comfort is great, but don’t forget that even though you might think, “They know I like their work,” people still need to hear it every now and then. Though submitting your work to other people gets easier over time – I almost threw up the first few weeks when I posted to our Google Drive folder – people still need encouragement.
Never, ever use the phrase, “This is how I would write that.” It might not get you a physical slap, but know that I am beating you with a stick in my mind. You’re not writing it. Throwing out the occasional, “Maybe you could do this…” is more acceptable, but the best thing to do is to explain what your issue is with it and offer suggestions if they are asked for.
Don’t speak out of frustration. Always take a deep breath and say, “Cool, thanks for pointing that out and I will definitely give it some thought.” Consider what the person is saying.
Consider the audience. This goes both ways. If someone didn’t understand something, you need to take a minute to figure out why. It could just be them and your work is fine – or you may need to rethink something. If the majority of people in a group have an issue with something, give it even more thought. We all come from different cultures with different slang. It is quite possible that you can just look at someone after a critique and think…
… I know I do sometimes.
This also means that not everything someone else writes is going to be to your taste. Critique the work on its merits and let it go.
Pet grammar peeves. We all have them. It’s fine to mention them – and then let it go. Everyone in my group knows how much I despise adverb abuse and when a character “feels, sees, hears,” etc. I don’t bring it up in the group any more, but when I hand their pages back to them, all instances of those things are circled. They know how I feel, they know the reasoning… I don’t need to harp on it or bring it up in every meeting. That’s just annoying. Oh, and thankfully, every time I accidentally mess up something like that, they circle it. Have I mentioned – we have a really good core group of writers.
Don’t dominate the group. It is not the Suzy or John or Raul show… it’s a group that everyone needs to get something out of. We meet for an hour and half a week, spending an hour on one person’s story is not fair.
Granted, this falls on me as much as the writer. It’s my job to move things along… but so I can more easily do that without being rude, keep the good of the group in mind.
If you are in charge of making sure the group stays on track, don’t do what I did here.
Don’t waste our time. If tons of plot holes have been pointed out in your manuscript, don’t keep submitting the same thing with the same gaping wounds – it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Rethink your work – rewrite your work. These things may feel like your children, but they ain’t. I don’t care that you’ve been thinking of this story since you were three; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We’ll be happy to help you brainstorm – but you have to be open to changing things.
As a side note, if your story has an obvious agenda – political, social, etc. – you really need to remain open about the fact that you might be too close to the subject to see holes in the plot.
Administrator – You won’t (and shouldn’t try to) please everyone. I am the least leadery type leader to ever put a group together. If I can do it – anybody can. There is no way a venue at a specific time will be good for everyone. We are all busy and meshing schedules with a group of random people from the general public is impossible. Sometimes you just have to make a decision, stick to it, and see how things shake out. Obviously keep a somewhat open mind about these things and test which way the wind is blowing every now and then – but ultimately, you are in charge and need to act like it. If you have rules and they are working – enforce them. If they aren’t working – rethink them. You will have at least one or two people who are mainstays in the group that you can discuss this with.
Last year we decided to all go celebrate the oncoming NANOWRIMO with a few drinks, so we went to a pub across the street from our usual meeting place. We had a good time and a few people mentioned that they would like to have the critique meetings there at the bar. I didn’t think it was the best idea, but the bartender was pretty cute, so I went along with it. It took three months, but the general consensus eventually shifted back to holding the meetings at our usual coffee shop. Be flexible when necessary.
People will come and go, especially if you use Meetup to put the group together. When someone joins the group, be welcoming and do everything you can to make them feel comfortable. Remember how nervous you were? They are as nervous as you were and they are walking into a fully formed, already functional group. Do not make them feel like they’ve walked into a clique of some sort. Pay attention to them and make sure the group welcomes them.
On the flip-side of that, it’s ok when people leave. You and your group will not be to everyone’s taste. It is better to have a small, reliable group of people who all know each other’s writing styles, and that will form in time. As long as you were as welcoming as you could be to newcomers, if they leave, it’s not on your head. If there is correspondence with the person after they leave, thank them for giving your group a try, wish them the best of luck in finding a group that fits their needs (and mean it), and for the sake of your and everyone else’s sanity, the final thing I’ve learned…
Don’t take anything personally! Ever!
I’ve finished the first draft of my first novel. I’ve worked fitfully for years, started hundreds of projects, and never gotten this far. So, what was the first thing I did when I was done? Slammed my head down on the desk.
The book is too short to be considered a novel and that pisses me off.
I’ve thought of scenes and plot lines I could go back and insert, but most of them seem contrived. Instead of going back to the beginning and starting the second draft (adding all of the things that popped up along the way that needed to be foreshadowed, reworking the things my writing group said didn’t work… well, some of those things, etc), I just froze.
Don’t get me wrong – I know the story is nowhere near publication ready, but I’m one of those people who feels great trepidation about the initial writing, but can edit like the wind. I love going back over my work and making it better, so the second and third drafts will fly by.
I remember some advice I’ve read a few times, “So, you’ve finished your first book? Great! Now, throw it away and write another one.” At the time, I was flabbergasted. But, I now understand.
I went to school to learn how to do this – but there are things they didn’t teach us in school. I would have to argue, some of the most important things were left out. Can I have my $60,000 dollars back now?
STRUCTURE! That’s not taught. I went into this knowing my beginning, my ending, and the middle where my character changes (something I learned from fellow writers, not school. I would tell Ms. Weiland that the check’s in the mail, but I’m still paying on my student loans.). I added more conflict and worked out the three act structure and wrote the book… and it’s not enough,
Luckily, this is the digital age and a 150 page book can work very well as an e-book, so I calmed down a little. I’m going to go over this thing a few times, put it up for sale on Amazon and not ever think about it again. It essentially introduces characters that I would like to use in the future, tells how they came together, and why they are the way they are. That way, when I want to have them solve a mystery in the future, I can just jump right in without all the background and have this as a free book that points readers to those books.
Writing the wrong book has given me a much better perspective on how to write the right one. I like this novella (damn) and I love the characters. That makes me want to share it instead of trashing it, but I’m not putting much stock in it.
Now it’s time to sit down and write another one.
Oh, and in case anyone is wondering – renting office space away from my house for writing was the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
I’ve been playing around with this writing thing for a while now. (“a while now” in my vernacular means “25 years”) I even went to school to get all learned up on how to do it. I’m finally about to complete a novel that I finished by only writing a chapter a week. It’s taken six months (plus aforementioned 25 years).
I looked at the word count and realized that if I’d worked on it for just two hours a day, I could have written the entire first draft in two weeks. WTF? The crazy thing is that when I actually sit down and write, it’s not hard – not at all. The hard part is the actual sitting.
I have a few things going on. I sell quilt patterns online, which some days is quite lucrative. One day last week I made over $300. This is just from my already having done the work and just kicking back. It’s that elusive ‘passive income’ that they talk about on late night television – and it didn’t cost my life’s savings or my dignity. Those patterns will continue to exist and will continue to make money even if I never acknowledge their existence again.
As you might imagine, this makes me want to make more patterns. But, it also makes me want to write because ebooks would act in the same way and, frankly, that’s what I’d prefer to be doing. So I sit at home and look from my sewing table to my writing table, torn between which one to do… and I do neither. Instead, I sit and feel guilty while I binge watch TNG or Doctor Who, yet again.
Anyway, all that to say that I finally pulled the trigger on an idea I’d been wresting with for about six months. I noticed that when I get to my office in Boston in the mornings, there’s no ambiguity. I walk in the door and my brain knows what it’s there to do – what my goals for the day are, the order I complete my work in – everything is rote. I decided I needed to take my writing out of my sewing, Netflix watching, and reading area and give it a place of its own.
I just took on a second job. I went yesterday and rented a desk in a shared office a few blocks from my house. I’m committing twenty hours a week to writing. If with two hours a night and a few extra hours on the weekend, I can’t come up with at least one piece of salable fiction by the end of summer, I’ll give up on thinking I can do it and find another dream. I’ll still write for fun of course, but…
And to any ‘pure art’ people out there, if life has taught me anything, it’s that ‘money’ is not a dirty word. You can love something and expect to make a profit on it.
So, the line-up of stories I have sketched out dictate that I write under three names. One for paranormal, young adult, and general fiction, one for a possible series (I only have one of these books plotted so far) that would sell much better with a female author’s name – most of my quilting customers already think I’m a woman, and one for stuff that should never be tied to the other ones for decency’s sake.
I’m going to start pushing this stuff out and getting it out to ebook sellers and see where it leads. Realizing that instead of being the guy who starts stuff, I am someone who is actually capable of finishing something, makes every morning feel like Christmas morning. Now it’s time to finish a whole bunch of stuff.
And with everything separate, I will be able to enjoy relaxing again instead of feeling guilty about it.
I’ve decided to take the words of Ron Swanson – from whom all wisdom flows – and run with them…
As we all know, there are a few entities who know absolutely everything there is to know about us because of what we do online. None seems to be more omniscient than Google though.
If you use Google to find pretty much anything, you are guaranteed to see advertisements related to that search for the next week or so.
When I call my mother and ask about shotgun dispersion patterns, all the contingencies if I were to dump a body in the Louisiana swamp, or how I could stab someone in a manner that would make them un-savable but could be kept alive for three hours, she doesn’t question my motives or ever mention it again. She just answers me and then we go on to talk about how her day was. Google, on the other hand, does not have that same amount of courtesy.
Since I saw that Google placed an advertisement for a bucket of sodium hydroxide (i.e. lye) on the side of a website I was looking at, I’ve stopped using it to figure out how to get rid of bodies and how to get bodies into the situations where they need getting rid of.
Now, if I’m researching a murder idea, I sign out of Google and head over to Bing. I don’t need the cops breaking down my door to find me armed with a keyboard and a cup of coffee.
I have been on such a roll lately, writing like a maniac for the first time in my life. Running up to the 4 ½ day weekend that was Christmas this year, I was excited about all of the writing I was going to get done. It was not unthinkable that between that break and the one coming up for New Year’s, I could get the complete first draft of the main novel I’m working on completely done. Lately, my first drafts have been really clean, so that would have been a huge accomplishment.
I got home from work early last Wednesday, sat down at my computer and looked at the list of scenes I needed to complete and didn’t write a word on that story the whole weekend. I worked on a couple of other projects, binge watched Doctor Who, ate more calories than any person has a right…
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A few months ago I got a little annoyed during our weekly writing group. One of the authors was working on a fantasy novel that contained witchcraft. One of the people in our group said that the spell his characters were using would actually take much longer in real life and a ten minute conversation ensued with two of our members telling him how his magic should be written, giving him a seemingly inexhaustible list of references for him to check, and discussing the differences between his magic system and real life magic. Ten minutes.
He looked as if he was not enjoying the conversation – and I sure as hell wasn’t. Since I started the group, pay the fees, etc., it’s my job to keep the critiques on track, so I broke into the conversation.
What I meant to say:
It’s up to the author to make up magic systems…
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I’ve been writing a lot lately. Just the fact that I can honestly type that sentence makes me just about the happiest idiot on this planet – but that’s not what this post is about. Anyway, even when I’m in production mode, I still make sure I read for at least 30 minutes every day. I had been slowly making my way through Anne Rice’s new vampire book. I figure if she’s going to make me wait 11 years between books, I’d better drag this one out. Because of that, I’ve been throwing in a few books in other genres too. I love writing in every genre, so it’s fitting.
The problem is that it’s hard to break my head out of editing mode. The other 23 1/2 hours of the day, if I’m reading, it’s to come up with ways to improve the prose, either mine or members of…
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Yesterday, I listened to the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts, A Way with Words. (I highly recommend subscribing if you care even the least bit about language – it’s a lot of fun) Grant and Martha started discussing a new style guide (I groaned) written by Steven Pinker (I stopped groaning and started paying attention).
Being in the middle of twelve writing projects and trying to revive my stagnant business, I opted for the audio version – immediately. My time’s a little precious at the moment, but I guess it always should be, and I can listen to an audio book while I plod away at my day job. Within the first ten minutes of starting the book, the Hallelujah Chorus played in my head and I wanted to jump out of my seat and yell, “Amen!”
Pinker pays homage to The Elements of Style and then proceeds to hold a much needed match to it. And I, for one, gladly watch it burn. Grammar, usage, and punctuation have changed since the 1800s. Hell, they’ve changed since the 1900s and it’s time we recognize and adjust accordingly. I honestly think Pinker’s book will lead the way.
Do I recommend this book because Mr. Pinker happens to agree with my writing philosophies? Abso-freaking-lutely. Also because he addresses some of the issues I see coming up in my current writing groups.
On the Facebook page for Writing and English Majors from the university I attended, threads pop up regularly bemoaning the decline of grammar and writing in the general population (i.e. anyone who hasn’t had ‘proper’ training). My answer is to call them pretentious, short-sighted pricks and walk away. Mr. Pinker addresses this same issue and, while it appears we agree, he gives a much more rational and detailed response.
Though I’ve sworn off writing instruction books as the bad, procrastination-inducing habits that they are – reading The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker is a must.
As always seems to be the case lately when someone in a position of influence comes out of the closet, comment sections are flooded with people saying, “Who cares?” The announcement that Tim Cook (who was never actually in the closet) is gay brought the same onslaught.
Well, I do – and if you had even a sliver of a heart, you would too.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless and the U.S. Government, the percentage of gay and lesbian kids in the homeless population is more than double the percentage of us in the general population. Much of this is because some parents can’t deal with having gay kids and throw their kids out on the street. If you need a source for this… just call my mother.
The percentage of kids who commit suicide over sexuality issues is three times higher than our percentage in the general population and much of that is caused by bullying.
Gay and lesbian kids hear every single day how they are an abomination, are not equal to their straight friends and classmates(Reference: Fox News, southern politicians, and many evangelical ministers), and some in the U.S. even call for their death(Reference: southern politicians, and many evangelical ministers). In some other countries, they actually follow through on the murdering. And, yes, this happens in 2014 – and with our struggle for equality being made into a political hot-button issue and bringing us even more into the news, it’s getting worse in some parts of the U.S., not better.
The more men and women in influential positions who come out and let the world know they are not ashamed of the way they were born, the better off all of these kids will be. When I came out, there were very few role models. Now kids have sports stars, high-profile actors and actresses, politicians, CEOs, and other people who have changed the world to look up to. They need to know that they aren’t relegated to the fringes of society, but can have a long, wonderful life with a family, friends, and, most importantly, love and respect.
So, the next time you want to leave the comment “Who cares?” on a news article about someone stating that they are not ashamed of being gay – ask me first. I’ll let you know if it matters or not.
(And I am so glad my NANOWRIMO media blackout is coming. My faith in humanity is at an all-time low lately.)