Monday, June 29, 2009

Writing Group Etiquette Part II

I wanted to include a follow up to the writing group etiquette post from June 16, and relate a recent writing group experience.

Last week I attended my usual writing group, where we were critiquing 50 pages each from two writers. At one point when I had the floor, I started talking about a problem I had with the story under discussion. Overall, the writing was excellent. I found the story engaging and the location vivid and unusual. But one of my points was so prescriptive, that as I spoke it aloud I realized a few things:

• I had failed to heed my own advice and critique the work as written, not force my own writing wishes for what I would like to have seen within another’s pages.
• I had not read the pages closely enough. If I had, I would have come to them with the understanding that the rest of the group seemed to have.
• I had (I imagine) achieved the one effect I was hoping to avoid: I pissed off a fellow writer. At least momentarily. By the end of the meeting I had embraced a much less extreme solution to the problem, suggested by some of the other members of the group.

Lesson learned: be honest, but be tactful. Try to determine what you don’t like about a piece, and take the time to come up with helpful recommendations. You might need to read pages more than once to really get to the core of what you want to say about them.

Final Writing Group Thoughts

Online Writing Groups. I’ve traded writing over email, but I’ve never been part of a continuing online group. You should be able to carry over many of these experiences and tips into cyber critiques.

If you’ve had experience with online groups, let me know if you like them better than meeting in person. My sister, romantic suspense writer Cynthia Sherrick, just joined one for the first time. I’ll be interested to find out how it goes.

Try More Than One. Robin Smith-Johnson (another sister—I have three, all writers) left the following comment:

"It actually has been helpful to have two reactions to my poems (and fun to take the same poem to different meetings). The feedback is always helpful and has helped me shape poems that were later accepted for publication."

This is a great idea: showing the same work to more than one set of writers. Like Robin says, she uses all the feedback to help shape her work to be publish-ready.

Read Aloud. I forgot to mention this last time. If you get the chance, have somebody read a few pages of your writing aloud. Hearing your writing aloud immediately highlights problems with dialogue, rhythm, pacing, tone, and more. You can hear previously unchecked cracks in what you thought was the smooth surface of your pages. Flat dialogue truly lies like a wet dishtowel when you hear it spoken. Clichés you had no idea were there bare teeth. Uneven paragraphs and sloppy sentence structure become much easier to detect. Part of this phenomenon happens when you are faced with an audience for the first time. You become your own toughest, hyper-vigilant critic, concentrating intensely as if for the first time on your own phrases, segues, and dialogue.

Okay, enough. There’s nothing more I can do for you. You’re on your own now. Send a postcard occasionally and let me know how it's going.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Muse Redux

An excerpt from my post about this year's Muse and the Marketplace was just published in the summer issue of the Grub Street Free Press. The excerpt covers highlights of the three workshops I attended on the first day of the conference. A selection of photos taken at the conference accompanies the article.

Read the original full post. And check out Grub Street's Flickr page, featuring nearly 200 photos from the conference (in case you missed it live).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bunch of Grapes: Welcome Back!

The Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven closed early last summer due to a fire that gutted the second floor of the store and a next-door restaurant.

I’m happy to report that the bookstore, under new ownership, has reopened less than a year later.

The two story location now has a restructured downstairs with a more open layout and dark wood finish. Plus, chairs to sit and read. Or just sit.

I was lucky enough to be in the neighborhood on their grand reopening day.

I picked up a copy of Ghosts, by César Aira.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Writing Group Etiquette (or, how not to piss off your fellow writers)

There are all kinds of writing groups, from impromptu beer and wine-fueled evenings at somebody’s loft, to groups that follow a rigid schedule every third Monday of the month, to an open format where anybody can bring in pages every meeting. Whatever the format, all participants deserve equal time to have their work thoughtfully considered. Whether you’re a writing group veteran or a beginning writer looking for your first group, it helps to remember the basic tenets of writing group etiquette.

Stay Positive. In writing groups and workshops both, sometimes it’s easy to forget that you'll be reading pages that aren't polished, and sometimes are far from finished. If you’re critiquing pages that have recognizable but reparable problems, try to first focus on positive aspects of the story that you genuinely like. Preface your honest comments (both verbal and written) with a compliment, and then segue into some helpful hints for making the story better. This sets a friendlier tone for the discussion, and may cushion any defensiveness the writer develops. Just remember that it’s easier for any writer to hear, “I really loved your dialogue. Your setting is unique. But I'm not 100% behind your decision to make the husband a horse. Maybe if you considered...” than, “I really had a problem with this horse thing...”

Find the Right Group. Join the writing group that’s best for you. Don’t hammer away in a group that you’re not comfortable in or doesn’t feel supportive. Don’t expect to always get a loving response from all your fellow writers—believe me, it won’t happen. And if you want to be a better writer, you don’t want it to. But if you only receive negative feedback, or you only get preemptive comments about how you should write instead of how to make what you’ve written better, then it’s time to find another group. Also, when you hand out your work, you should expect the other members to give thoughtful feedback. Not everyone will (or can) spin their ideas about your writing into wonderful diamonds of insight, but on the other hand if all you get is margin scribbles like “Boring!” or “I don’t get it!” without explanation, that’s worse than not having your work read at all.

Find your Level. Make sure you’re at the proper group level. Being among writers who are advanced and have a lot to say about the work and business of writing can be an invaluable tool to any writer. Then again, maybe you’re a beginner and not ready to send out your work. In which case you need help with the basics of putting a short story or chapter together, and you’re not interested in the symbolic implications of color choice in the bedroom scene or which agent is taking vampire alien stories. It’s like when you were in elementary school and they put you in an advanced reading circle. Could you keep up with the other kids? Did you understand everything you read? There’s no shame in biding with the beginners. There’s always something to gain from meeting with like-minded writers, whether you’re all beginning writers or veterans of the writing conference and agent query circuit.

Get it in Writing. Be sure to get some kind of written feedback from your fellow writers. It’s hard enough to remember what people say about your work, harder still to take notes and listen at the same time, but if you’re not taking home notes from all participants you’re not getting your money’s worth from a writing group. Set group rules early on about how to handle getting feedback to the writers. Not everyone is great at supplying pages of comments, and that’s not always helpful anyway. But everyone should be getting down their thoughts about your writing, whether its typing up comments and handing them to you, writing tasty notes in the margins of your printouts, or emailing you a helpful missive. Feedback is much more powerful and meaningful if you can walk away with concrete evidence. And it comes in handy when you’re rewriting your pages.

Join the Fun. Beware of groups where participants show up only on those occasions when they are scheduled to hand out or get critiqued. They don’t care about helping other writers, getting better at the craft by reading as much work as they can, or finding out what other types of writing their peers are producing.

Be Honest. When it comes to a room full of passionate people who all strive to get better at their craft, (and, let’s face it, to get published), the real reason you’re all there can get overshadowed. By doubt, by competition, by jealousy, by lack of confidence. But don’t let that get in the way of giving honest critiques. As with verbal comments, when preparing written comments to hand to the writer, be honest and helpful. Don’t blow smoke up their ass, and don’t shy away from areas that you think the writer can improve. Also, line edits are fine, and are generally welcome. Be as honest in your critique of other’s work as you are when you write for yourself.

Consider the Source. You may be in a group with somebody who, for example, doesn’t like flashbacks. So whenever somebody writes a flashback, this person will pick it apart. Don’t take it personally—consider the source. On the other hand, don’t dismiss the tough love of an entire group if, for example, nobody much likes the final scene in your story. When the group reaches a consensus about your work, that’s when you should take notice. In this case, maybe it’s time to revise your ending. Overall, take all criticism for what it is: suggestion. Nobody’s forcing you to change a word, but often positive suggestions and gentle nudging in different and new directions can really expand your initial idea of your story, and make a big difference when it’s time to revise.

Writing Group Tips

If you’re a poet, don’t join a novel writing group. If you’re a beginner, don’t just join any group that’ll have you. Be choosy; it’s your writing, it’s your time. If you can’t find the right group for you, start your own.

When you meet as a group, keep to a schedule, but don’t obsess over sticking to it. As long as you spend enough time on the critique at hand, don’t worry too much when the conversation strays into other topics as long as they’re relevant.

You can glean lots of great information from shooting the shit with fellow writers. Writing groups are a great place to compare notes on everything from how to write a query to which agents might be for you.

Don’t drink and critique. Unless you just got a story accepted or got a book published.

Are you in a writing group? Do you have some favorites you’d like to share?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Book Tour of Florida

That’s right: I went to Florida and bought books. You can do that in Massachusetts, why go all the way to Florida? I hear you say. Well, why not? I was there anyway (Anna Maria Island, visiting family), why not do something I love?

While we hit two Goodwills and one Salvation Army between visits to the beach, I also wanted to go to a Books-A-Million, apparently the third largest bookstore chain in the country (after Barnes & Noble and Borders) although they don’t have a single store in New England. They're found mostly down south. During a visit to Bradenton, we ran across one. I’d never even seen one, so we went in.

It smelled like a Barnes & Noble. I ordered a house blend from the youthful, hirsute barista. The coffee was not great and I ended up dumping half of it out. The layout of the bookstore was flat and wide open. At first that was pleasant enough, but the signage was insufficient and I had trouble delineating sections. The stacks spread out into a linear sameness that had me popping my head up out of each row, like a prairie dog, to get my bearings.

What Books-a-Million did have, however, was a voluminous selection of bibles and other religious tomes. Liz counted six rows total. There was even a bible remainder section. In Northeast bookstores, bibles are tucked away in the back rows, sometimes under the guise of Spirituality. Here, there was a prominent display of new religious books next to the new non-fiction table, new in zombie fiction table, and finally, new in paperback fiction.

During a day trip to Siesta Key, Liz and I stopped in the business district, a main street of restaurants, bars, and shops. I was drawn in by a sign promising a used book heaven. And indeed that was the name of the shop, Used Book Heaven.

I found an early John D. MacDonald mystery The Deep Blue Goodbye, featuring his most popular character, Travis McGee. The shop keeper, a kindly old lady, mentioned that this was MacDonald’s first McGee novel. How could I resist? The Travis McGee novels are all set in Florida, so MacDonald’s books are still pretty popular down here.

During a stop at St. Armand’s Circle, an upscale shopping locale just over the bridge from Sarasota, I hit Circle Books. A small store that keeps its pond well-stocked with fiction. Because I was on vacation, and in the mood to spend decadently, I wanted to spring for a new hardcover. When I was younger I would have never considered buying a hardcover book new. So expensive. And I rarely bought a new paperback. But now I’m all about supporting the book industry.

I had just finished reading about a young author I admire, Joe Meno, in the latest Poets & Writers magazine. He has a new book out, The Great Perhaps, and I was curious, so I picked up copy.

Our time in St. Armand’s wasn’t over yet, as Liz wanted to shop in one of the many clothing boutiques. I busied myself reading the beginning of The Great Perhaps on a nearby bench. After a while my mind wandered and I took out my camera. I’m a people-watcher, and this is one of the sights I documented while I waited for my wife:

I’m not sure what’s going here. Turns out, this girl with a cat tail also had matching ears. She and her family sat next to me on the bench, eating ice cream, drinking coffee, like nothing was unusual or unique. Like it was just another day to play dress up. But I’m haunted by this girl. Maybe somebody will fill in her back story. Maybe a writer. A writer of fictions...