Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Writing groups -- they can be good for you

So your manuscript is done. Everyone (and by everyone, I mean, your friends and family) seems to like it. But after you make some calls and send some letters, all you're getting is crickets and tumbleweeds. Could your writing not be as good as Hemingway, as you first thought?

Murderati breaks it down. You may want to consider joining a writing group. Like any grouping of people, writers groups come with pros and cons. Here's what Murderati says makes for a good group:
1. Rules
This isn't a social hour, it's a work session. The group I belong to follows the basic guidelines set up by Clarion. You can read two good articles on this here (how to workshop) and here (insights into how to react when being critiqued).
2. Trust
Participants need to feel that everyone in the group has the same goal when they're reading and critiquing: to help each other write and tell the best stories possible. That's it.
Do I need to mention NO STEALING? I sure hope not.
3. Commitment
Participants have to be willing to read the good and the bad, and to treat each submission -- and each member -- with utter respect. No showing up without having read the submissions, no comments without considered rationale.
4. Confidentiality
Only gab or complain about participants in the group IN the group -- and rarely do that, if ever. Keep mum about other people's works-in-progress.
5. Similar levels of writing experience
It's uncomfortable and inappropriate to have writers with vastly different levels of experience in the same group. If you do, some participants become "experts" while others are peons. How can you possibly nourish the useful kind of democracy that promotes honest communication in that case? I don't think it can happen.
Meanwhile, PoeWar has a list of things you can do that will most definitely annoy fellow group members. A smattering:

10 Ways to Annoy the Hell out of your Writers’ Group

  • Attend sporadically. Most writers’ groups have rules about attendance, but once you are there, what are they going to do? Do they seriously have the stones to kick you out? I think not. Writers are usually nice people — exploit that.
  • Bring the whole novel. Most writers’ groups try to keep the length of the things they are discussing to a reasonable level. After all, most members have jobs or kids or classes. Some members even want to spend time on their own writing. They can’t be expected to read and critique hundred of pages a week… or can they? After all, the main reason the group exists is to serve your needs.
  • Don’t worry about the genre. The science fiction writer’s group is the perfect place to present your nihilistic seventies romance. If anyone makes a fuss, tell them that they’re stifling you.
  • Don’t waste a lot of time reading the other member’s work. Try to limit any review to the five minutes before the group meets. Make a show of marking up the paper with red lines or a highlighter. Just pick random passages to mark. There’s always something wrong with everything if you look hard enough.
  • Keep an eye out for typos or spelling errors. Some writers think that a writers’ group should focus on character, plot, themes and other esoteric things. Stick to the basics. If you find a spelling error or a grammar error, focus solely on that. Make sure the discussion lasts twenty minutes at least. By discussion I mean you prattling on, interrupting other people whenever they try to take part.
  • Keep other criticisms as vague as possible. Look for statements that sound intelligent but mean nothing. String them together for as long as you can. Sample Rant: You need this story to feel more real. It doesn’t speak to me yet. When I read it, it feels like a story. It’s as if someone wrote it down and expected me to read it and come away with some sort of impression. I shouldn’t have to know so much about the characters in order to get them. They should be a part of the page. The whole thing should function holistically and organically.
I know Cake Man touched on this before, way back in the pre-suckerman days, so I'll toss in my two cents. I find that being in a writers' group to be a great motivator. Knowing that I have a meeting coming up and should crank out some pages really helps me get in front of my computer and WRITE. Which is a good thing.

The tricky thing for me is, since I'm writing a novel, I'm going to have a lot more pages to present before I'm "finished." Pretty much everyone else is working on a specific screenplay, which probably won't clock in over 200 pages. But that's overly technical and something that is easily resolved. I find the feedback you get in the group to be very helpful. Obviously, like anything else, you have to parse through the notes and suggestions and decide "is this helpful?" Your initial instinct when dealing with harsh commentary is to toss it and chalk it up to the person not "understanding" what you're trying to do. But once you do that, you might as well stop coming to the meetings. The best part of a writers group is that you're getting an initial, ideally unfiltered reaction from a wide spectrum of readers. This is what you want. You want to see how Joe Regular Reader reacts to your material. Will they keep reading? What made them stop reading? Those are the things that are really invaluable.

Yeah, I'll read that.

Guess who's writing a memoir?

Alive and kicking from New York, it's Tina Fey's book deal!

Amid reports of particularly egregious bidding wars, Fey's rep has confirmed the Saturday Night Live cum 30 Rock cum Saturday Night Live star has continued in her quest for media domination and indeed signed a book deal.

Details are being kept under wraps, with no official word on subject matter, release date or the value of Fey's contract.

What has been confirmed is that Little, Brown & Company will release the would-be best-seller.

Last week both the New York Post and Observer reported that Fey was entertaining offers in the $5-6 million range and that the tome would not be a memoir, but "nonfiction humor," most likely a collection of humorous essays.

While Team Fey and her publisher are mum on the money, reps for both did confirm that the deal included a gift to the nonprofit group Books for Kids to help stock school libraries in New York City.

I'm not an avid viewer, but I've enjoyed the episodes I've caught here or there. It looks like Sarah Palin did some good...for someone.

Thoughts from a literary agent: Query Letter Don'ts

There are a few things Janet Reid doesn't want to see in your query letter:
1. Theme

I don't care what the theme of your work is. I care what the story is.

2. I love to write

I don't care. I only care about whether you can write well enough to tell a good compelling story.

3. I think my book will make a great movie.

I don't care. I only care whether it will make a good book.

4. It took me x+1 years to write.

I don't care. I only care if it's a good story.

Pretty basic stuff, I think.

Reid's blog is worth bookmarking. Also worth checking out: posts about things that annoy Reid, and her collection of query letter pitfalls.