Thursday, December 28, 2006

Making a Literary Life Friday

This week, we have more good news. Read Hannah's post and you'll see why.

Road trip research was one of the many things I fit into my holiday plans. But this I hadn't planned on. Reading Elizabeth George's book, Write Away, reminded me how important details are when it comes to rendering a setting. Though I've spent plenty of time in the New England setting of my novel-in-progress, a couple brief stops along the drive (through New Hampshire and Vermont) seemed to be a great idea. It was. Nothing like a few moments taking in sights and sounds of an area to leave a few lasting impressions and incorporate them into my writing.

I finished outlining my next book and am eager to get writing. First, however, I need to diagram exquisite sentences from some of my favorite books. I'll take pages from say, Cold Mountain or Memoirs of a Geisha, definitely The Inheritance of Loss, and feel the rhythm, listen to the tone, wander the settings, absorb the beauty of the characters' pain. I am a hungry student.

In addition to reading, I chose to forego a family trip to the zoo to stay home and write. I was so busy thinking in the shower about what I was going to write, I forgot whether I shampooed. I think I did. What did I write? The end to Draft One (okay, more like draft five, if you count shifts along the way). Now to revisions!

I read On Beauty by Zadie Smith and started reading Banishing Verona by Margot Livesey. I've outlined the first three chapters of my next novel and plan to steal time to write on New Year's Day. I want to start writing my new novel on the very first day of 2007.

Getting back to writing

A line or two from Lynne

Given the unusual demands and unique rhythms of the holiday season, the subject of our posts this week has been taking time off from writing. If you define writing strictly as the number of words on a page, then I take a lot of time off from writing. When a broader more forgiving definition is used, then you could say like many writers, I'm writing all the time.

This holiday season, I've done some character sketching at a neighborhood party. I've stolen a wonderful line of dialogue from the sermon on Christmas Eve and placed in on page 176 of my manuscript. I even made note of an unusual facial expression I saw on Christmas morning when one of my family members feigned surprise over a not-so-surprising gift. Examining human behavior, storing up fine material, writing. Writers write all the time.

While the broad definition of writing is valuable, comforting and true, ultimately words on a page matters most. So, how do I get motivated to get back to the process of writing after taking any time large or small off from putting words on a page? My methods of getting back to writing may not be universal but they help me bring back into sharp focus my desire to capture character, setting and plot. Think of these ways in which I get back to writing as my New Year's gift to you. Here are some of the ways I get back to writing.

  • I pull out a beautiful journal and a good pen and jot down some interesting observations or conversations I've had over the past few days.
  • I set aside a half hour or more to read over the last few written pages of my work in progress, with no expectation I will write anything new.
  • I set aside some time to edit a portion of my work in progress; I choose an entry or chapter that's in good shape to spur me on.
  • I choose a writing prompt or exercise from one of many writing books or writers' websites then find a comfy corner and play with the words.
  • I love to research a particular character's job or illness or life struggle. Finding new ways of examining issues or describing behavior is a wonderful motivator for me.
  • I sneak away to a library or bookstore for time to write; stolen writing time often brings out the best in my writing--something to do with guilty pleasure.
  • I read my favorite authors' work. Submerging myself in beautiful language, savoring the turn of a phrase, imagining a specific setting, contemplating nuances in a relationship--these things always inspire me to try my own hand at it.
  • I look forward to writers' group. For as you know by now, my writers' group meetings are my touchstone for believing in the process of writing and my ability to be part of the literary life.

These are a few of the ways I try to reignite my fire to write. Feel free to share how you get back to writing.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Right Questions

By Hannah

Sometimes the words don't come. Won't come. There may be no current project, or there may be half a book already written. No matter. We sit at our desks and frown at paper or screens. We sit on sofas and stare into space. We wonder whether we will ever have a fresh idea again. Ever. In our entire lives.

In those moments, the only thing to do is to read. Other fiction, other non-fiction, and best of all, the real-life words of writers we respect. Pages magazine currently interviews “Lions in Winter” such as Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike. In one way or another, each of twelve legends addresses why they write, and why and when writing is important.

I curled up and read the interviews one question and answer at a time, letting each response linger. There were perhaps only six paragraphs from each writer, but I had to put down the magazine between subjects, sometimes within one interview, to consider it all.

These writers I love demand answers and effort not just of themselves. Gore Vidal wonders where the American writers are who will write truthfully about the state of the American Republic. Ursula LeGuin talks about the limitations of conscious intention in art. Kurt Vonnegut asks everyone to write a six-line, rhymed poem, to be torn into little pieces and disposed of in multiple trash depositories, purely to get the brain working. Just reading the right questions gets ideas flowing, sets words free. They make me want to pick up a pen again, and again, and again.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Time-off from Writing

Tuesdays with Amy

Conventional wisdom suggests that once a writer finishes a book, s/he must immediately start writing the next. It’s excellent advice when one considers the angst a writer can succumb to when that first manuscript is sent off to agents and then to editors. Move forward toward a renewed goal; have another project ready to present if an editor bites; immerse yourself in a new world, with fresh characters, create hope once again.

Solid advice I give my own writer friends, but, unfortunately, cannot take myself. I’ve just finished a manuscript and I’m eager to start the next. Truly, I am. The problem is I need time to research my topic. I need to know the specifics of my protagonist’s life: the sounds she would awaken to each morning, the fauna that surrounds her home, scents that pervade her village. I have to know the routine specific to her and her culture. Before I can begin to build a world around her, I need to lay the basic structure of her life.

All the while, she whispers to me, becoming my most intimate friend. Her voice is distinctive, so utterly different from the protagonist in my first book. She’s already told me how her story starts and ends. It will be my job to discover the places in-between, to immerse myself in her world.

In the meantime, I’ll write essays and try my hand at a short story that’s been percolating for weeks, exercises to prime myself for the marathon ahead. In spite of the title of this entry, as every writer knows, truly, there’s no time-off from writing.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Making a Literary Life Friday

It's been a very exciting week here at the Writers' Group. You may have noticed Lisa updated her profile to include her wonderful news: she now has an agent. Brava, Lisa! The rest of us have been busy as well. Here's a sampling of what we've done to broaden our literary lives. We'd love to hear what you've been doing, too.

This week a dream came true! An agent at a well established literary agency left me a message Friday afternoon. On Monday morning I returned the call. He told me the ins and outs of how their agency works. He detailed his plan for submitting my novel to publishers. He even complimented my work, telling me what drew him to my writing. I told him about my background and my writing aspirations. Though I had planned to tell him I would consider his offer and contact other agents looking at my full manuscript, I didn't. I told him I would be thrilled to have him represent me. I have never been more sure of a decision. My manuscript is being sent to publishers in early January.

My writers' group gave me such amazing support and reacted with such kindness to this news: each of them called me to congratulate me, one dropped off a thoughtful gift that made me laugh. I know I will be there to congratulate the next person when good news arrives.

I discovered a stunning writer: Robert Olen Butler. He was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer for Fiction and, best of all, has 14 more books I look forward to reading. Naturally, I have my lovely stationery out and am about to compose a charming note. His writing leaves me breathless. If you recall last Friday's post, I mentioned I was writing Tom Perrotta to congratulate him on his Golden Globe nomination. Literary gem that he is, he wrote back. Remember when you become a famous published author that charming notes work both ways. Also, you may have noticed the multi-talented (she writes in two genres!) Tish Cohen (Town House, May 2007) commented here this week and I returned the favor over at The Debs. It seems we both have panic attacks, though hers seem far more reasonable. And if you're a frustrated writer (who isn't?) in need of a little reassurance as we close out another year, I urge you to read literary agent Rachel Vater's December 19 post, Consolation and Inspiration. Then hop on over to mother-of-all-multi-taskers Allison Winn Scotch and learn why you can never again complain about not having enough time to write. Yes, that's me in the comments section marveling at Julia Glass again. What will you be reading over the holiday break next week? I have Butler, Alice Munro, and Kiran Desai waiting for me. Here's wishing you lots of gift cards to your local independent book store.

Per a long-standing agreement with my husband, we purchase our own gifts and act surprised when we unwrap them at the holidays. Thus, I have a strong suspicion I will be opening the current copy of Pages magazine, and then be doubly thrilled to find out I am getting a subscription. Nick Hornby's Long Way Down may be in the white paper with the gold bow, while Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude may have a silver bow. Needless to say, there will also be chocolate, which is not completely literary, but surely inspirational. Almost as wonderful, I have been promised some solitude of my own for writing during the vacation week. The gift of time is a beautiful thing!

This week I reached a major milestone in my writing career. I finished the edits on my first novel and sent the manuscript to my wonderful agent at Trident Media Group. Here's hoping she likes it. I spent my holiday shopping time supporting my local booksellers. The gifts under my tree for my family include, The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman for my husband. The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers and three of the Ross MacDonald classic mystery novels for my son. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and A Writer's Book of Days by Judy Reeves (no relation) are wrapped in beautiful paper for my daughter, the emerging writer. I can only dream about which books are under the tree for me.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Treated like a writer

A line or two from Lynne

I gave a lot of thought to how I would behave when it was my first time to receive feedback at writers' group. We'd already had one meeting, and I'd had the chance to see how the group might operate. Each person began with positive comments about the work being presented. When it came time for constructive feedback, it was exactly that--constructive. No barbs, or jabs. The writers' work was respected, yet critique and suggestions were thoughtful and deep.

Then it came time for me to send my pages. With twenty pages of a novel to my name, I knew I needed to do this, and I knew there would be feedback, lots of feedback. But I was fearful they wouldn't think I was a writer. Maybe I didn't really belong in this group of talented women. When I pressed the send button on the email that contained my work, I immediately wondered what they thought. Like a teenager dying to fit it, all day long I asked myself, are they reading it right now? More importantly, do they like it?

I'm the kind of person who usually dives into new learning situations but for once I consciously chose to hang back and see how this would play out. I was nervous when I arrived at our meeting one week later; I tried really hard not to show it. I knew Hannah, Lisa and Amy had enormous power that night. I prayed they'd use it wisely.

I still have the notes I made during that meeting. I scribbled away in my journal, my pen to paper keeping me pinned to my seat. They really liked my protagonist. They felt drawn into my story. Now for the constructive feedback. I chose a difficult story to tell. They struggled with the way I structured my story. One of the main characters was inaccessible.

I knew when I joined the group that from a fiction perspective, I was a novice. Lisa, Hannah and Amy never said I was, and though I'm sure they always knew it, that night they treated me like a fiction writer. They examined and discussed my work, never once comparing it to anyone else's. Never once judging it. Their feedback was and still is, a rich blend of the art and science of writing. Always aimed at making a piece better, stronger, more moving.

When I left that first meeting, I was energized. They'd had positive things to say about my work! The next day, I carved out time to edit those first pages and I wrote three more. I could do this, I thought. I could write and I could withstand the critique of my work. I was on my way.

Since that first meeting some fifteen months ago, I've finished telling my difficult story, I've made that main character complex yet likable and I've won the group over to my unusual structure. It never would have happened if during my first night of feedback in writers' group I hadn't been treated like a writer.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

'Tis Better to Give or Receive?

By Hannah

When friends find out about this group, two questions always arise, from non-writers perhaps more than from writers. Before they ask what we write, who we are, or how we work, their faces crinkle up with sympathetic worry.

“What is it like getting your story discussed? And what if you don’t like someone else’s?”

Or, seasonally put, when it comes to criticism, is it better to give or to receive?

It is hard to have something you create taken apart. I am used to being edited, but before our first several meetings, a surprising case of nerves hit as soon as my twenty pages flew away by e-mail. Each time, however, Amy, Lisa and Lynne started with what they loved and then pointed out what needed attention, with honesty and kindness, and a goal of making the work stronger. So while I delight in their enthusiasm, their criticism has become addictive.

Do I take every comment? Most, yes. If three people react the same way, it’s a no-brainer. Do I rewrite along the way? Yes, unfortunately. I start with an outline, but my characters surprise me, and certain Group edits pave the way for dramatic shifts. 2002 Newbery Award winner Linda Sue Park describes herself as more a rewriter than a writer; when I heard her say this, I wanted to hug her. I write ahead, make mad notes on old pages based on Group comments, shift things about, and push forward again. Because of my writing style and Group, my first draft looks like a Jackson Pollock, but because of their honest critique, I will pour out the second full draft quickly and with confidence that those characters are real, settings are clear, threads are tied.

As for giving feedback, I find it hard to take apart something created by another. If it's a good story, I get swept away, and I have read three amazing stories over the past year. But in addition to offering Grammar and Punctuation Nerdliness, I continually try to make my critique more useful: pointing out foreshadowing that makes me excited but asking continuity questions; doodling under character comments that deliver a crystal clear voice, and checking any that seem out of place.

The answer to the seasonal question at hand? Simple. It is always nice to receive, but if I can give back even a small piece of what has been given to me, it is my pleasure to do it.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Believing is a Powerful Gift

Tuesdays with Amy

I had no intention of turning that first chapter into a book; I didn’t believe in it enough. It was dark; the characters ached with melancholy and the setting was too morose to sustain a reader’s interest. My protagonist, Clara, had been through enough in life, she didn’t need to have her character dissected as well.

But that first time I shared Clara with them, they empathized with her. They felt her pain and also wanted to know more about another character, a little girl who played in the funeral home. They were intrigued and I, a writer in search of approval, was hooked by their interest.

In subsequent weeks and months, I would sit quietly at my end of the critique table, my shoulders hunched (I never hunch!), my hand covering my mouth to hide a smile whenever they paid a compliment or busily taking notes when they offered suggestions to make my writing better.

Always their voices swirled in my head as I wrote:

Lisa would encourage me to play with whole paragraphs, perhaps this would be better if it came at the opening of the chapter, and move this to the middle.

Lynne would whisper to me about a character’s motivation, would he really behave that way?

Hannah always had me reaching for my copies of Strunk & White and Chicago Manual, the semicolon is probably the least utilized and most misunderstood punctuation mark.

And there was more, too many substantive critiques to account for here.

Now that I’ve completed my book, I often wonder if I would have continued on without the support given me by my writers’ group. They believed in me and my writing, and that’s a mighty powerful gift.

This much I know is true: Had they not been there every step of the way, it would not have become a manuscript I believe in too.

Monday, December 18, 2006

My writer's group helps me build a snowman

Posted by Lisa

Sharing my writing with my group is easy - that's what I'd like to say. But, I'm afraid, I can't.

Since the first time we met, it has never been easy to e-mail my pages. As I hit that send button, I wonder whether my characters' actions are consistent, believable. Whether pacing and stakes work. No, sharing my writing hasn't gotten easier. But, now I understand how it helps me as a writer.

When I write a first draft, a second draft, I am building a snowman (I grew up in Canada - building a snowman should be easy for me). It takes time, planning, hard work, and sculpting. Final details are crucial; you need more than a carrot nose to give your snowman a presence and a personality - at least I learned that much about building character in my favorite writing book, Word Painting.

The first time our group met to review work, I hoped Amy, Hannah, and Lynne would LOVE my writing. They did love my writing, PARTS of it. But they had questions about a character, concerns about the timing of events in the first chapter. I walked away from those first couple meetings, more or less confused.

Now when I write my pages (build my snowman), I get their feedback knowing their insights can only help me grow as a writer.

If my writing REALLY were a snowman, they might say:

"I like the structure you chose. Four snowballs instead of three. Neat."

"But the foundation, it's lopsided. Look, Lisa, from this angle, it's not working. It looks like it might tip. Pack some snow here. Take this."

The first meeting I was leery of their criticism. Now I long for their feedback. Writing, for me, it's the same as building a snowman. And so, my writer's group helps me build a better snowman. Sure it's tough to hear that I must knock off the top snowball to straighten and sculpt the middle one. But they help me do what is necessary to produce my best writing.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Habits become a part of our lives

Our blog entries this week focused on the writing habits that help us build our literary lives. As we've shared with you, we meet every other week and at this weeks' meeting, our discussions focused on querying, marketing, revising manuscripts, agent-author relationships and of course, blogging. As always, writers' group was the gem buried in our busy schedules. Here are our individual highlights.

This week I watched the movie "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." Fun to see a creative novel brought to life on the screen!

Tis the season for shopping and while I'm in my local independently-owned bookstore, I'm sure to introduce myself and ask about any upcoming events they may have. Not only am I genuinely interested in meeting other people who love books, I also want to know which authors will be doing readings (always support your fellow writers by attending; they'll really appreciate it!) and I want to establish a relationship with book store staff. Remember, they're the ones who hand sell your books and submit nominations to Book Sense Picks. Also, I sent a charming note to the amazing and truly gracious Tom Perrotta whom I recently met at a PEN/New England event. Yesterday, he received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Screenplay for Little Children. Good luck, Tom!

The Writers' Group was the anchor for my literary life this week! Our meeting gave me the ooph I needed to keep focused on my novel. I've written two big chunks and two small chunks since Monday.

I worked very long days finishing edits on my nonfiction manuscript. I sent it off to my editor Wednesday. Next, following a productive workshop of my fiction from the fabulous writers in The Writers' Group, I began the edits on my novel. When I was Christmas shopping for others, I bought a copy of James Bell's Plot and Structure. I'm looking forward to reading it to get ideas for my next novel.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ideal writing routine or reality?

A line or two from Lynne

I love writing on my laptop, sitting in an Adirondack chair on a deck overlooking the sea. The smell of salty mist and the din of waves hitting the shoreline are the perfect level of sensory inspiration.

Would you like to know how many times I've had that writing experience? Exactly twice. That's because the ideal writing routine and reality, are oceans apart.

I write a good deal of nonfiction parenting material for my "day job." My writing routine for this work is similar to Hannah's; I'm all business. I place my coffee to the right. I sit at my desktop computer in my office. The phone's ring. The copy machine is copying. This writing for me starts with outlines. It includes scientific research and well-tested strategies for problem solving. It ends with my credentials, telling others why I'm able to write what I write.

My fiction writing routine is different in so many ways. I don't write in my office. Whether it's my window seat in the family room, my dining room table overlooking my front yard, or the bedroom chair given to me by my mother that overlooks the backyard--I need the sensory input a view provides.

My nonfiction writing is predictable; it's done between 9 and 5. My fiction writing is done--all day and unfortunately all night. Like Amy, I often write without putting words on a page and like Lisa, I experiment doing it here and there. I steal the time from the other things I should be doing. I think about plot and characters while driving, as I grocery shop and yes, sometimes while I'm sleeping.

My nonfiction is written to deadlines. A parenting paper needs an article, my manuscript is due to my editor. For my fiction, I have no daily page limits or word count goals. Someone once gave me advice, that to this day, drives my creative process: touch the work everyday. Sometimes I only have time to make notes about a scene in a pretty notebook given to me by one of my children. Some days I might write three pages.

If I were to wait to write until I found that Adirondack chair and felt the sea salt on my face--well, I wouldn't be a writer.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Taming the Beast

By Hannah

Every writer is fascinated by other writers' habits, let's confess, because we want to know how to tame this Beast of sorts we've found in our lives.

I am an extremely structured writer. Someone taught me to speed read in first grade. Bad educational experiment, but I do research in a snap. Outlines, key points, phrases my clients use, all come together into their finished products.

I write for them in the morning. The house has to be quiet. I need enough but not too much caffeine, cereal, and orange juice. I read the newspaper, check Web sites, throw in laundry. No meetings on the calendar, so I can let rip for two or three hours at a time. I follow a similar routine after lunch.

Did I mention these fabulous habits work only when writing for other people? Because for me, the Beast of Fiction is a completely different animal.

This Beast can demand attention before breakfast. Before coffee. I have missed lunch. I’ve written when I should have been making dinner. All I need is a good half hour. I’ll lie in bed, drift off, only to have the Beast nudge me with an idea. A small notebook in my backpack handbag, lying next to a pen, is filled with children’s doodles of flowers and graffiti lettering and directions for character action, circled and question-marked.

My Beast doesn’t mind noise. It has withstood test alarms for the local nuclear power plant. If my characters are ready to move, if I am in the story, I can write with one child playing drums and the other singing Broadway tunes.

Then again, my Beast will hide, leaving my head and the screen empty. I have not yet tamed this one; but I have gotten better about coaxing it. I set aside time, have coffee at the ready, turn off the stereo. I type a sentence or two, erase, retype. I go for a walk or do an errand and think about my story, and everything and nothing, hoping the Beast will believe itself ignored and will stick its nose out into the air. I do this sometimes for hours, for days. It is alive, there in its lair, and given steady encouragement, it eventually has no choice. It rustles, sniffs the coffee and roars.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Writing Routine?

Tuesdays with Amy

I have a confession: I don’t write every day. The conventional wisdom is that a bar must be set each day for a person to call herself a writer. In his book On Writing, Stephen King states that it’s 10 pages a day for him, even Christmas. Claire Cook suggests in her writing workshops that two pages is a manageable goal. In her book, Making a Literary Life, the darling Carolyn See titled Chapter Three, A Thousand Words a Day. Jennifer Haigh told me she sits at her kitchen table each morning and drafts her pages in long hand. Every single day.

All of their industriousness left me to wonder about my own routine. When I began my last book, I spent weeks simply listening to my protagonist tell me her story. She was a bit shy at first, reserved may be a better word, but soon I was able to capture her voice on the page. I worked for six months on that first chapter, getting to know my characters, letting the story unfold. And not every day. Entire months would pass before I’d take out my WIP and look at the pages again. Sure, in-between, I was freelancing essays, but I was not writing my book every day.

Still, it called to me.

I have three children, a job, a house that needs cleaning (it doesn’t help that I’m a bit OCD); there are many demands on my time. Many days I would rise at 4:30 a.m. to get in two hours of writing before my children woke. Other days, I would sneak in only 45 minutes when I was supposed to be at yoga, ten minutes when I should have been folding laundry. There were times when I would go as long as four days without writing at all. It was always a purposeful break, though.

I needed to wallow within my characters’ lives. I afforded myself time to ponder their innermost thoughts and fears, imagine what secrets they kept, what experiences had brought them to their present states. My best writing was done in the shower or while walking. Afterward, I would race to the computer and pour out entire chapters within a few hours. Still, I was aware that I wasn’t living up to the true writers’ standard.

Then I read an interview with National Book Award recipient, Julia Glass. In it, she said she followed a similar routine while writing Three Junes: stealing 15 minutes from her workday, constructing plot points while showering, and long periods of writing nothing at all.

So, really, be assured there is no one perfect routine to achieve your writing goal, only the one that works for you. Just ask Julia

Monday, December 11, 2006

When it comes to developing writing habits, experiment.

Posted by Lisa

When it comes to writing, and writing habits, authors' quirks are as unique as the books they write. As I grow as a writer, I continue to refine my writing habits: What time of day works best for me? Do I need quiet to think, or do I function well with background noise? Listen to music? Write with paper and pencil? Or keyboard?

Maybe, I figured, I should study the masters. That's the best approach, right? If something works for them, I should try it myself. Luckily, here in Boston, we have a wealth of local talent. Why shouldn't I turn to them for ideas? You know, check out their writing habits then try those habits myself.

Well, these authors are way cool, and this is what I've heard:

Christopher Castellani likes the background noises of a cafe when he writes (conversations, music - the occasional clatter of dishes). The anonymity of sitting in a corner with a laptop.
I tried it. I loved it. I was sold. I frequent my closest book store once a week.

Steve Almond digs writing to music.
So do I! I tune my I-pod to the mood of the scene I'm writing. Sad scenes, play sad music. Action scenes, play fast music. Happy scenes, play the Grateful Dead.

Jenna Blum has a special type of bound journal to write in, only available at Barnes & Noble. At least I think she said Barnes & Noble at the Novel Class I attended at Grub Street Writers last summer.
Jenna's onto something. Though my writing pads are thin lined looseleaf, the consistency of the feel, the spacing, it works.

So what's just right for me? Definitely morning. Definitely evening. Definitely not any time between. Other approaches work for me:

Writing at the kitchen table.
Writing on the top bunk of a bunk bed.
Writing cuddled next to my dog (how cute is my dog?)
Writing on long drives to Canada.
Writing on short drives to French Memories Bakery (passenger seat, of course - husband driving).
Writing in French Memories Bakery.

Then taking a break. After all, I need a break sometime, and if I'm in French Memories Bakery, well...

Friday, December 08, 2006

Little steps on a long journey

In three weeks' time writing for this blog, we've shared how we found our writers' group, who we are as writers and how we conduct our meetings. Check out our index to read what we've posted so far. One of the most frequently asked questions any writer gets has to do with the actual process of writing. Next week, each of us will describe our unique writing processes, including how often we write, how much we write and under what circumstances we write.

But it's Friday and time for a round-up of what each of us did this week to take little steps on this long journey.

This week I continue to learn more about the art and magic of drafting query letters. I helped a friend perfect her letter, and I am so excited she is sending work out.

This week, I've been reading a wonderful manuscript and can't wait to workshop it. I love it when my writer friends succeed. I've also been brainstorming with friends about marketing their books in advance of their pub dates. Unlike most writers, I love this aspect of the business; why not to spread the word about great books?

A crazy week, so I stuck to the basics of reading and 'riting. Reading was Lynne's wonderful, completed novel manuscript, and the writing moved onward, forward, toward that ever-growing light at the end of the tunnel.

I spent most of my work time this week working on edits for Negotiation Generation. I got the news that noted educational psychologist Jane Healy, author of the classic, Endangered Minds will be writing a testimonial for NG. Most of my fiction writing time was focused on doing the beginning research for my next novel. I chose character names, did some character sketches and researched the history of the period in which the story will take place. I am excited to be getting to know these new people; I plan on spending a great deal of time with them.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Rituals build trust

A line or two from Lynne

Young children thrive on routine and structure. Predictable and consistent routines make them feel safe and secure--ready to learn. Why wouldn't writers feel the same way. We do.

Like young children at the beginning of a school day, we file into one of our member's dining room between 7 and 7:10 pm one evening every other week. Funny, we arrive in a predictable pattern, too. We do not change locations each week. This decision was made early on because of a child care need but has turned out to be terrrific for minimizing the distraction and stress changing locations each week would bring.

We place our journals and pages down at our regular seats. These seats were not assigned but chosen the first week and now no one would change them. There is comfort in sameness.

The four of us meet first in the kitchen where we pour a cup of tea and take a biscotti or apple square. The refreshments are not the focus of our meeting yet they've become a small ritual that marks the beginning of our time together. There is no pressure to bake the perfect cake; only the self-imposed pressure to write the perfect story.

If you've read the earlier posts this week written by Lisa, Amy and Hannah, you know the ins and outs of how we run a meeting. We thrive on the routine and structure. It is the calm in the midst of putting forward your work for critique.

One special ritual adds uniqueness to our group and it is our celebratory glasses. Drinking alcohol has never been nor will it be part of our meetings; we are at work in our meetings. But the celebratory glasses filled with sparkling lemonade or pear juice is my favorite ritual.

When one of us finishes a manuscript, gets an agent or a book deal, out come the glasses. We raise our glasses high, genuinely thrilled for the person for whom we are celebrating.

The structure we rely on and the rituals we've adopted have allowed us to trust each other and to be comfortable sharing our precious work. We've found over the fifteen months that we've been a group that we're all eager to do the same thing. Write what we love, share what we write and do it with other serious writers.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


by Hannah

The focus of the blog this week is our writers’ group structure. As you can see from Lisa and Amy's posts, we have strict rules, and for good reason. It is impossible to make progress without them.

Except. How can any one person, never mind four, keep to such strict rules? Do we really follow our rules 100% of the time? Well…

- We meet every two weeks. Okay, except due to illness, holidays or vacation. But we do create a replacement meeting as close to the original date as humanly possible. We do not push it off to the next meeting, ever. We have always met twice a month.

- Two people present 15 – 20 pages. Although we have read the last 50 pages of three manuscripts now, at a shot. And we reread each completed MS, start to finish, which is a total joy. Never less? Well, after finished manuscripts, we have read query letters, but we rarely have to wait more than another round before we get the first 20 pages of a new project.

- Pages are sent at least a week in advance and edited in advance. This one holds fast. Even and especially with entire manuscripts. It is useful having a group of voracious readers.

- The person being critiqued remains silent until the others are done. We may confess to occasional sign language, but we are good about this.

- We begin with compliments. Always; it is never an issue.

- No unnecessary chit-chat unrelated to the writing life. This is work we love, and we are virtual office mates in an otherwise solitary experience. Who else would listen to discussions of punctuation, possible plot shifts, and the wisdom of Agents and Editors and Authors met along the way, without going cross-eyed? Do we ever mention other parts of our lives? Maybe. Okay, now and then. But we always get back to the writing.

We were far stricter about our rules at the start, which is how it needed to be. As we have gotten to know each other, to trust each other, we have loosened them. But not much. Bottom line: rules provide structure, wise exceptions make them stronger, and trust and commitment within the group make both possible.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Right Writers' Group

Tuesdays with Amy

The first writers’ group I joined met every Monday. Eight to ten women would arrive (we were never really sure how many would show) some empty-handed, others clutching pages: one wrote angst-ridden memoir; another, picture books; and still another would burst in with a flash of brilliance scribbled in the margins of her shopping list. The rules were that everyone read aloud up to ten pages to the group, and then the group would devote the next few minutes to critiquing the writing sample. All of this was preceded by lots of personal chit-chat.

Clearly, this wasn’t productive.

There was no order, no real structure, and worst of all, no expectation of momentum concerning either our meetings or our writing. We were a dysfunctional group and we knew it.

Most agreed to part ways, and Hannah, one of the newest members, offered to host a farewell party. Somehow -- I don’t recall the particulars -- Hannah, Lisa, and this new woman, Lynne, whom we met for the first time at that party, cajoled me into giving it another go – shhh, just the four of us.

Now, I am not a person to be cajoled into anything. People who know me well can attest that asserting my will has never been a problem for me, but these three women were all so…eager.

Reluctantly, I agreed, but with several caveats. Not only did they agree to these conditions, they had some of their own:

- We would meet every two weeks. Once a week was too cumbersome to our other lives and created unnecessary pressure to produce pages instead of good writing.
- Two people would present up to 20 pages, no fewer than 15, at each meeting. That meant each of us had to generate a certain volume of respectable pages once a month; manageable and productive.
- Pages had to be sent at least a week in advance and edited by the other members before the meeting.
- At the meeting, the person whose work was being critiqued had to remain silent until the others were finished discussing her pages.
- We had to begin each critique with several compliments about the writing.
- No unnecessary chit-chat about topics unrelated to the writing life.

I knew before the first meeting that I would soon withdraw. The dynamic of the last group had worn me through, and I didn’t believe that this new group could hold fast to this terse structure. That first meeting, though, even I had to agree it went well. Still, I planned to tell them the next time we met that I was leaving. But the next time, I couldn’t because I had agreed to read their pages. The next meeting, then. It went on like that for a couple of months, until one night when they were work-shopping an early section of my novel-in-progress. They understood the themes, quickly identified the weaknesses, and were genuinely supportive of my project. They got it. More than that, I recognized I was working with individuals intent on creating something beautiful with their words. Without even realizing it, I had become devoted to their writing as well.

Since then, they’ve become the critics swirling in my head as I write, the ones who understand what it means to type for hours and never notice the time, they have become my dear friends, and my needed touchstone.

And together, we have become a writers’ group.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Writer's Group is a check-in

Posted by Lisa

The Boston Globe recently had a piece on a local writer. She hit it big with her first novel. The second was a struggle. The story in the paper described how she ultimately hit her stride when she joined a writer's group. She described her meeting as a weekly check-in. Essentially, letting her know if her writing was working or not.

It is the same for me. We meet twice monthly, two of us share pages every other week; we e-mail twenty or so in advance. When each of us get to writer's group, the others have had a chance to read it. When we meet, the writer goes "in the box": that means no talking as others discuss the writing's strengths and weaknesses. In general, we speak fifteen to twenty minutes. Positive feedback is balanced with constructive criticism and suggestions.

And, it works. At least our writing has shown improvement over the past many months. How many times, I wonder, have I toiled over one aspect of the pages I submit. A plot element, a change in setting. But I don't ask questions. I let them share their thoughts. My writer's group tells me if a scene works or not; it is up to them to find the strengths and weaknesses.

Writer's group is a check-in. Oftentimes, a much-needed check-in. Though questions are welcome at the end.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Workshops Work

It's Friday, which means the Writers' Group blog entry for today highlights what each of us did this week to take new steps toward creating a meaningful literary life.

Three of us, Lisa, Lynne and Amy went to a Grub Street South workshop with Stace Budzko called Characters in Conflict--The Art of Storytelling.

Stace pictured above, holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College where he teaches composition and creative writing. Through discussion, lecture and writing exercises, Stace challenged us to create conflict in our writing, rich in complications for our characters. These complications propel plot, deepen characterization and flesh out character motivation.

Thanks to Amy for organizing this event in cooperation with Buttonwood Books. And thanks to Stace, he was interesting and his ideas thought provoking.

So here is what we did this week to make a literary life:

Stace is a dynamic and motivating teacher. So glad he got me thinking more and more about my new protagonist. What makes her tick, her ambitions and fears.

I finished the revisions to my novel based on the detailed feedback from The Writers' Group; I owe you everything, friends. I also sent out four charming notes, thanking writers for inspiring my own work. Finally, I've drafted my query letter and hope to start sending it to agents soon. If anyone is willing to do the agent dance for me, I'll send you a charming note too.

I finally rewrote (more on our processes in future posts!) the biggest chunk of the middle of my story to remove a character. Ugh. Knowing I missed a great workshop, I did skim a couple of Jessica Page Morrell's chapters in Between the Lines, and expect to rewrite the next bits quickly, with the finish in sight!

Though I had a crazy busy work week, I found a way to sneak out to hear Stace. I finished edits on my novel and gave my manuscript to my friends at The Writers' Group. It will be my turn to hear feedback in two weeks. I signed off on the written material that will be on the cover of my parenting book, due out next September.