Tag Archives: writing groups

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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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.

~

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 Past the Pain of Critique

It’s funny how fate plays a role in your writing sometimes.

Today,I woke up exhausted, my head thick with a fog that settled in after lack of sleep and a hangover.

Sleep deprivation was a result from spending two days home with a sick child. Prescribed certain medications, she becomes a toddler-on-the-move who’s stuck on fast forward and can’t even pause for bedtime. At 10:30 last night, her feet kicked up and out and down on the bed and her hands clapped and she whispered stories non stop.

The hangover came after a night of novel workshop with me and mine in the hot seat. Though the critique process worked well – the author sits quiet and listens while the readers discuss – the feedback weighed heavy against my chest when I finally fell asleep.

I’m a newbie, and I imagine first critiques always cut deep. So, I’m following Becky Levine’s advice, from her book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide:

Most of our bad feelings don’t come from the words written on our manuscripts…or from the person who writes them. Instead they come from within ourselves. They reflect our own doubts about ourselves as writers – as skilled, creative craftspeople.

Be ready for [those feelings] to come, and, when they do, recognize and acknowledge them. Then, get to work (p. 242).

I decided to pushthose critiques to the side for the day and to tackle Wednesday’s Word.

And, funny enough, the word that rolled out from Wordsmith.org this morning was bayonet — a call to arms, an insistence to fight, a subtle reminder that this is where the rubber meets the road, missy.

Critique or no critique, get writing.

So, here goes. Read at your own risk. And, if you’re feeling feisty, put a link to your version of how the word-of-the-day’s call to action translates into your writing. Camaraderie is always a good thing.

*****

They were back, the whole lot of them.

Phi Delts, from the frat house down the block, stormed into the bar as soon as she unlocked the door that morning. They slurred on and on about another 24 hour party, chanting rugby cheers and demanding multiple rounds of Bloody Marys.

She stood behind the counter and emptied bottles into glasses like she worked on an assembly line.

They harassed her and called her a hard ass when she tried to measure the vodka and told her to “lighten up.”

The one with the U of M baseball cap and stubble leaned over the bar, grabbed her hand, kissed it, and then begged for “three more of those plump…green…olives.” She jerked her hand away.

She picked up a cocktail sword and stabbed three times into the dish with the habanero stuffed olives. She held them up close to his face and smiled.

“Here you go, Mr. Rugby.” Then, she excused herself and walked calmly to the restroom.

She barely heard him over the noise of the hand dryer as he coughed and sneezed and pleaded for water.

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Becky Levine and the Basement of a Mall

A while ago, I ordered Becky Levine’s The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.  Because I ordered it to be delivered along with the more-than-popular LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary (on back order for all you hard-core LEGO and Star Wars fans), I didn’t receive the book until last week.

I’m not far into Becky Levine’s book yet, but I read just enough to carry me through my first meeting with a local writing group this afternoon.

She writes:

Take care to make the meeting worth your time and money. Talk to people. Too often, at these events, writers give in to their nervousness, shyness, or just their uncertainty about their own writing.

…[R]emember: This is your writing. It’s important. I’m not advocating shoving yourself into the middle of someone else’s discussion or waving a red flag in the bathroom line, but put yourself out there (pgs. 14-15).

The woman who runs this particular local group emailed me the room information, said I was welcome to attend, and mentioned that they would all be bringing a sample of their work to share.

Yesterday, I worked a split shift at my paying job and was gone most of the day. My daughter cried both times I had to leave, so the decision to steal away for another two hours today wasn’t easy. Add, to that guilt, the anxiety about sitting in a room with strangers and reading a short story out loud (for the first time to someone other than myself), and I could have easily backed out. But, something in my gut told me – and Becky Levine’s words encouraged me – to go to this meeting.

When I got to the building, I came upon another woman looking for the meeting room. She smiled, told me her name, and immediately set me at ease. We made our way to the basement of the building and walked into the meeting together. She introduced me to her friends as a “fellow traveler.”

It was a small group, and I mostly just listened. When it came time to read our samples of work, I hesitated. A few of the members were aging adults, and the conversation, in the beginning, drifted from writing to assisted living. In the story I brought to read aloud, a young woman visits her grandmother in a nursing home. I thought maybe they wouldn’t like the story, that they would think I was rude to read that kind of story to this group. Worse yet, I worried they might not like my writing style.

Then, I remembered,

This is your writing.
It’s important.
Put yourself out there.

So, in the basement of a shopping mall, I sat around a table with six other writers and read my work. My face grew hot and my voice wavered. But, I pushed off that feeling of insecurity and panic and kept my eyes on the words.

After I finished, one person noted a place where I might change the wording to make it more clear. Everyone else sat quiet. Someone got up to leave. I tried to interpret the silence, then I decided, Oh well, at least I took the action.

I can’t control their response.
Nor, can I assume I know what it means.

And, isn’t that the way it is with every story a writer sends out into the world?

Before the meeting ended, the woman who introduced me earlier offered some kind words about my story. The man across the table suggested my published works will be filed in the group’s archives one day. I left the meeting with a few phone numbers and an invitation to come back.

I don’t know that I had much in common with the people there today, other than writing itself. But, when Becky Levine talks about finding a writing or critique group, she doesn’t mention we should search for people like ourselves: with kids or without, working day jobs or not, old or young. Instead, she emphasizes that we follow our gut instinct.

Find a group where we feel welcomed and supported – a group that will meet our writing needs.

My gut tells me that I found several good souls sitting at a table in a mall basement today, who passed kind words around the circle and who didn’t kick me out after my first reading. I can’t wait to go back.

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