Tag Archives: The Writer

Writing Groups: Turning Problems into Progress

Part of the fun in being the author of your own blog is hosting a guest. Please welcome Lisa Cron: writer, instructor, and story consultant. Lisa shares on the pros and cons of writing groups, and how problems can be turned into positive experiences for the writer, and for the work-in-progress.

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Lisa Cron

It’s a delicious irony when you think about it — writing is a very solitary act, and yet its ultimate goal is to communicate, and with a wide audience at that.  Which is why as we strive to coax our story onto the page, a writers group can be incredibly helpful.  In fact, writers groups offer two fabulous benefits before you even get out the door.  First, they provide a concrete writing time frame – and nothing focuses the mind better than a rapidly approaching deadline.  And second, they give you a reason to get out of your pj’s, close the laptop, and actually leave the house.  But there are two main areas where writers groups can inadvertently do more harm than good.  Once you’re aware of them, you can sidestep them, and flip them in your favor. First, the problems:

1. Writers groups tend to focus on the prose, so good writing is praised. And what could possibly be wrong with that?  Isn’t great prose what hooks readers? Surprisingly, no, it’s not. What actually hooks readers is the story beneath the prose. In fact, if a story is good, the prose can be decidedly not — The Da Vinci Code, anyone? Not so the other way around.

The problem with praising prose in and of itself is that the writer often becomes so attached to it that she’s afraid to cut it, even when she suspects it might be holding her story back.  I’ll never forget the stricken look on a student’s face when I pointed out that several lyrical sentences on the first page of her novel were getting in the way of the story she was telling. “But my writing group told me they were beautiful, and I shouldn’t even think of cutting them,” she said.  Then she did. In fact, she cut the first 40 pages of her novel, and a month later, a publisher expressed interest.

2. In a writers group you can only workshop about a chapter at a time. What’s wrong with that?  Story is a cause-and-effect trajectory.  So the important question isn’t: Does this scene work in and of itself?  It’s: Does it make sense given what happened up to now? Does it move the story forward? And hey, why does the reader need to know this? These are questions writers groups often miss, especially if they’re caught up in the beautiful prose.

So, how can you make sure you get the feedback you need?

1. Make sure the group knows exactly what happened prior to the scene you read and what you think will happen next, so they understand its intended purpose, storywise. Then, once you’ve read it, ask them: What do you think was important? Based on that scene, where do you think the story is going? What leapt out as a “setup”?  What do you think the protagonist’s agenda is in this scene? Questions like this help immeasurably, both in terms of pointing out where the story in your head and the one on the page might diverge, and in triggering new story possibilities that hadn’t yet occurred to you.  What’s more, they tend to weed out the judgmental statements that can shut a writer down. It’s not about what the group liked, or what they didn’t, it’s about the expectations they had based on what you read.

2. If you get negative feedback that you don’t like or don’t agree with, while you don’t have to follow it, you don’t want to discount it, either. There’s an old saw that goes, “If twelve people tell you you’re drunk, even if you’ve never had a drink in your life, go home and sleep it off.”  In other words, while the group may be utterly wrong about what caused them to decide your story needed help at that point, and even more misguided about how you might solve it, something pulled them out. This gives you the opportunity to dive in and try to figure out what it was.

Chances are that what the group is responding to is a glitch in the emotional or psychological credibility of how your characters are (or aren’t) reacting to what happens.  That doesn’t mean you have to scrap the story you want to tell, it just means that you might need to dig deeper (and probably make external plot changes) in order to bring your story on to the page. In this case, it also helps to remember that neuroscience has revealed  a truth every kindergartner knows: one negative statement carries the emotional weight of ten positive ones.  They’re a gut punch.  They don’t really negate the good stuff, it just feels like they do.

3. Don’t forget to consider the source. It’s like in life, when your significant other does something squirrelly, and you turn to your friends for advice.  You always know whose attitude is going to be, “He called five minutes late? Dump him!” and who’ll say, “Well, I know that the fact he slept with the entire glee club looks bad, but . . .”  In other words, make sure that you know each writer’s idiosyncrasies, and how they see the world, so you know what advice is likely to be objective, and what might be a wee bit too subjective to have merit.

Having the courage to view your work through a writers group’s eyes helps assure that you’re communicating the story you want to tell.  But at the end of the day, when you’re back in your pj’s, fingers flying over the keys, your story always belongs to you.

What do you think of writers groups? What’s the best (and worst) advice you ever got from a writer’s group?

*****

Lisa offers more great advice on her website, Wired for Story. You can also follow her on Twitter, or check out her UCLA Extension Writers Program instructor page. Her upcoming online course is entitled the Inside Story.

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You Talk Too Much: Balancing Dialogue and Narrative

I pride myself on being a quiet observer: in a church pew, during a staff meeting, behind a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in a cafe. Most days, it takes me a long time to warm up to any conversation. But, stick me in front of my laptop (and smack-dab in the middle of rewriting a story) and suddenly I’m all talk.

At least, that’s what I’ve noticed lately with my work-in-progress. The early drafts of my novel were heavy in exposition and light in conversation. Now, I have a clearer vision of the plot, and I know my characters better. And, dialogue comes easy for me. The problem is that once the characters start talking, I let them go on and on. In rewriting another section last week, I noticed a whole page of chit chat. All that character banter started to tug at my writer’s gut, which suggested I should to rethink my use of dialogue.

Nathan Bransford posted on the Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue, in which he pin points one area of concern. He says, “A good conversation is an escalationCharacters in a novel never just talk. There’s always more to it.” In all writing, each character, scene, and piece of dialogue must move the story forward. I practice that in my short stories and flash fiction. But, in this novel rewrite, much of the dialogue I’ve written just fills up space. Though realistic, it reads flat and doesn’t necessarily propel the story.

Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander) has her own post, entitled “A Few Thoughts About Dialogue,” where she carries this idea of flat conversation even further. She says, “Dialogue is only for conflict…You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, and all that yack…If someone’s just buying a donut, nobody needs to say anything.” Then, she throws in a quick example of unnecessary talk: in response to a character asking, Want a cup of coffee? she writes, “No. I don’t. Ever.”

I’m guilty of that kind of dialogue: in the span of one chapter, my characters have discussed getting  a cup of coffee or tea twice. That’s a lot of “coffee talk.”

Sam McGarver, in his article, “10 Fiction Pitfalls,” (which appears in the May 2010 issue of The Writer) talks about too much weight on the other end of the writing scale: narrative. He says:

Many writers think a story should be largely narrated, in the manner of classic literature. But here’s a good rule: fight the urge to narrate…A story should consist of one scene following another, connected by narration.

I don’t want to nix half of the conversations in my novel just because I want to avoid too much talking. So, how do I find a balance between dialogue and narrative? After reading Bransford, Fitch, and McCarver, I found three different techniques:

  • From McCarver’s article: Find a particularly long narrative section and see how it might be broken up into more of a scene with dialogue.
  • After reading Fitch’s post: Find a section in the story where the characters have a whole conversation, and then cross out the dialogue that is commonplace. Because, as Fitch says, “A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.”
  • From Bransford’s post: If the dialogue does carry the story forward but still feels “thin,” look for places to add gestures, facial expressions, and/or any details from the scene that enhance that section. Bransford says, “gesture and action [are] not [used] to simply break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful….”

How do you balance your story with narrative and dialogue? Do you talk too much?

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A Writing Group is an Anchor…in a good way.

From Zany Holidays Blog

I’ve been hanging out with a great group of people lately.

Once every two weeks, I pull my car into a small parking lot behind an old convent, run up two long flights of stairs, and sit down at a table with other like-minded individuals.

We are all writers.

I paid for my seat at the table and, in doing so, committed to a block of time that throws a wrench into my weeknight schedule of dinner, books and bedtime for two small kids. But, when I received an email asking if I wanted to return for the next session of Roundtables, I looked past my Mother Writer guilt to four reasons why these sessions are vital to my writing career:

1. I read my work out loud during each meeting. We all do. The group is run in a very egalitarian style. I’m nervous every time I read. Still, I love this aspect of the session for the exact reason that Delia Lloyd mentions in her Huffington Post article, “5 Tips for Productively Editing Your Writing,” (which I found via Lisa Romeo Writes).

Reading out loud, Lloyd says, helps you discover your voice.

You not only hear the repetition and the over-writing. You can also hear whether or not you sound too stifled, too casual, too funny or too sharp.

Besides finding my voice, reading my work to others forces me out of my comfort zone. Margaret Atwood says, “You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer.” I agree. And, each time I read, I put myself out there as a professional writer and, in the process, gain more courage to be that writer.

2. I get instant feedback. In the January issue of The Writer magazine, Robin Garland interviews a story consultant and agent, Lisa Cron, and asks what makes a good story.

“A [good] story,” Cron says, “must have the ability to engender a sense of urgency from page 1.”

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com

Sharing my latest chapter with a live group of writers gives me a pretty good idea – right away – whether or not my story will keep a reader engaged.

This in-the-moment critique was new to me, but I’m beginning to appreciate the quality of it. Though, I know I don’t need instant feedback to continue with my rewrite, I don’t want to move on to the next chapter until I know I’m in a good place with the current chapter, not this time around anyway.

3. My draft reads more consistent. Writing a novel is daunting, and I procrastinate when projects seem overwhelming. For the last two years, I’ve worked in spurts on this novel and then put it down. When I did get back to it – after too long a break – the tension was lost. The draft felt fractured, unstructured, and too loose.

In just a short time, I knew that the feedback I received from the other writers at the Roundtable was invaluable. Finishing another chapter rewrite by the next session became a concrete deadline I didn’t want to ignore. And, with shorter breaks between revisions, I had less problems remembering where I left off and where I was headed.

4. I benefit from more camaraderie and support. I could tackle this novel alone, huddled over my laptop in the cold basement of my house. But, I focus better and am more driven to finish when I’m surrounded by the warm bodies of other writers.

Yes, I’ve met so many great writers on Twitter, She Writes, and (now) Facebook, and I wouldn’t trade those connections for anything — many of them have become fast friends and staunch supporters. But, we all live miles and states apart. While I treasure the ethereal influence they have on my writing, I need the presence of writers in close proximity just the same.

Sitting at that table has a tangible affect on my writing. I am tethered to my work in a new way that fuels my determination to finish this novel. And, my place in that group completes  another piece of my puzzle in becoming a writer.

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What has a writing group done for you lately?

*****

Garland, Robin. “The Love of a Good Story.” The Writer. January 2011: 34-35, 55. Print.


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Writing Without Using Labels

In the October 2010 issue of The Writer Magazine, Lynn Capehart writes a powerful article, entitled “The importance of inclusionary writing.” Before Capehart even begins her article, she asks a question that might stop any writer in his or her tracks:

Are you unwittingly saying more than you mean to in your treatment of characters of other races?

She doesn’t write about whether or not characters of color appear in our stories. She draws attention to the way some writers describe those characters when they do play a role. A description – or lack of description – of a character of color may fuel a sense of inequality. Capehart says that often  “[white] writers…will not mention race unless the character they are writing about isn’t white” (p. 34).

When I read that quote, I immediately thought of one example where I did just that. And, like Capehart points out, I did it without thinking. My choice, to include the race of a particular character in a story I wrote, never sat well with me. But, I had considered and re-considered my use of language. I thought I had a good reason for using that description. And, I never pinpointed the real source of my discomfort.

Capehart’s article suggests that I didn’t need to mention race at all. She does admit that sometimes “[a] writer will find it…constructive to the story, to simply mention a character’s race up front” (p. 34). But often, as proven by the writing samples Capehart analyzes in her article, the mention of race does little more than add a label to the character; it rarely adds texture.

The solution Capehart offers, in lieu of identifying race, is a technique writers turn to all the time when constructing narrative or dialogue — Show, don’t tell. Capehart says:

If a writer does a professional job constructing a character, readers will know the race without being told directly (p. 34).

She also highlights several benefits of using inclusionary language in our writing:

  • Inclusionary writing helps a reader see a character beyond their race, as an “individual with a unique set of talents and tics” (p. 34), and breathes much more life into that character.
  • Inclusionary writing shows respect for readers of color and, in doing so, broadens a writer’s audience.
  • Inclusionary writing gives each character the weight they deserve in the story, whether they play a major or minor role. As Capehart says, “[e]xclusionary writing diminishes any character who is not white” (p. 35).
  • Inclusionary writing supports equality, because “it treats all races alike” (p. 35).

To be fair, Capehart doesn’t let Writers of color off the hook, saying they must do their part to avoid labels as well and give white characters “the same relevance as nonwhite characters” (p. 35).

Capehart’s message throughout her article remains powerful, yet simple: a character is a character, no matter their gender or race. If I, as a writer, make an honest effort to study and describe each character as an individual, I am more likely to find myself writing inclusively.

*****

Capehart, Lynn. “The importance of inclusionary writing,” The Writer. October 2010: 34-35. Print.

You can also read Capehart’s article online here.

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Breaking the Rules: Using Present Tense in Fiction

In my copy of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, she says “…a first rule for behavior in society is: ‘Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others.'” So, I wonder if I’ll be ruffling any feathers when I publish this post on writing a novel in present tense?

I know. Throw “present tense” in the midst of a discussion on fiction and you beg for trouble, maybe even set the stage for a form rejection.

But hear me out.

My first writing teacher, Ariel Gore, reminded us one day that a good memoir reads like fiction and great fiction can read like a memoir. The art of the narrative is critical in both genres.

Writers of creative nonfiction often use fiction techniques. And, once in a while, a technique for writing memoir crosses over into fiction. I first considered how the practice of writing memoir can influence a work of fiction in a post I wrote on Stanley Kunitz, Memoir and Fiction. When I flipped open my June issue of The Writer and read an article by Mimi Schwartz on using present tense in memoir, I wondered again about transferable techniques.

I punched out the first draft of my current novel-in-progress during NaNoWriMo two years ago.  In thirty days, I wrote a little over 50,000 words of a story that unfolded in present tense. At the time, I was very much a novice writer and didn’t consider the rule that fiction is usually written in past tense. I didn’t consider anything. I was hunched over a keyboard chasing down a character and her tale before she got away. In the end, I was thrilled at having written a full story, even in its most raw stage.

In between the first draft and a serious rewrite, I read a novel that is written in present tense. I barely made it through the novel; each chapter sounded like a running commentary. So, when I sat down to study and rework chapter one of my WIP, I weighed my options: keep the story as is – in present tense – and risk losing the reader after the first few pages, or rework the story into past tense.

As an emerging writer, I wanted to learn my craft (and earn my way) by following the rules first; I could break them later. So, I changed the tense of the story. Each time I re-read my new version of chapter one, though, something pulled at the back of my throat. My gut twisted. My head was telling me to go one way, but the story insisted I go another.

Isn’t that just how it works sometimes? The story has a mind of it’s own, and I am simply a conductor. I couldn’t ignore the pull to return to present tense.

Here’s where Mimi Schwartz’s article (“The special power of present tense”) comes in. Schwartz mentions a few specific ways that present tense can strengthen memoir.

“For creative nonfiction writers, the act of discovery is what makes the genre so appealing.”

When reading a story written in present tense, the audience experiences the immediacy of the character’s own discoveries, adding to the suspense of the story.

Schwartz also says that using present tense can highlight the main character’s “[changes] over time.” Sure, you can do this with past tense as well, but Schwartz emphasizes her point by sharing her own experience when she used it her memoir Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village:

“…[T]he village and the villagers kept drawing me back, literally and figuratively, into their living rooms and kitchens, as I tried to uncover why these people mattered to me in New Jersey, 70 years later. And the present tense let the reader come along; we walk together in my father’s old world, trying to figure it out.”

Writing fiction in present tense can be a stylistic choice that taps into the readers senses and emotion on a deeper level.

There’s still a part of me that worries I’m biting off more than can chew, being so green and all, but I like a challenge. And I also like to listen to the way the story wants to be told. That means, my choice to stick with present tense must be a stylistic move and not a way of avoiding a major restructuring of a draft. Throughout the whole rewriting process, I must make each word, phrase, and passage count.

What are your experiences with present tense? Have you written a short story or a novel that cried out for it? Or, have you read a novel that used it successfully?

*****

Schwartz, Mimi. “The special power of present tense.” The Writer. June 2010: 26-27. Print.

Post, Emily. Etiquette. United States of America: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922. p.  Print.

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