Monday, January 21, 2008

The Writing Group

One of the best ways to move your writing along is to have good readers, and a writing group can fit the bill. Read my last entry for how to find people you can trust. Make arrangements for a comfortable and convenient place to meet, a place with good light at a time that works for everyone. My group meets at our local library every other Wednesday morning. Because we have flexible schedules, we're able to meet as the sun is rising over Mt. Abe and shining in the big library windows while we lounge on upholstered furniture in the reading area. We've tried meeting at houses of members, and that's fine if someone is willing to provide the space, but the library is central for all of us. If you decide to meet in the evenings, the library may also be able to accommodate you. Some groups have dinner meetings, but I find that a meal distracts from the work you've set out to do. You can define your own purposes, but my fellow writers come to work on writing, and we budget our time so we can fit in all our business within our scheduled time. If someone wants to bring a little snack, that's fine. But, for us, the discussion of our writing is most important.

I suggest you limit the size of your group to half a dozen writers so that everyone has a chance to speak. You can invite eight and expect that a couple won't be able to make every meeting. Four writers means that I'm getting comments from only three other writers, which doesn't offer enough variety of opinion for me. You might start with a larger group and expect that some will drop out. Committing to a regular schedule of writing is very hard for most people. The real writers will hang in there.

At your first meeting, make introductions and let everyone talk for a few minutes (keep time if you must) about their writing projects and their writing objectives. Then set up a schedule you can keep. Once a week is a whale of a commitment. Once a month is not nearly enough. My group used to meet once every three weeks, but we found that we wanted feedback more regularly than that, so we agreed to every other week, which works well for us. Make sure that everyone understands that being in the group means commitment, loyalty, and confidentiality.

All groups function differently. In my group, we have a rule that we email our work to each other by Sunday night before the Wednesday meeting. That gives us a few days to read and mark up the pieces. We also write a brief note of explanation for the reader and hand her the manuscript back after discussing the piece. Having the story ahead of time allows me to go more deeply into the spirit of the work and give the writer better comments. We have a length limit of 20 pages, double spaced. Often early drafts are less than that, and sometimes the pieces run over. We're flexible with the length rule. If a writer wants to send a huge chunk of, say, a novel, she needs to make sure it's okay with the group before she sends. Exercise courtesy. Don't take unfair advantage.

Make sure someone with a watch keeps time, and allow about a half hour for each piece or however long you need to fit in all writers within your time frame. When we discuss a story, we begin by having the writer read a paragraph so we can hear her voice and how she inflects. Usually she will pick out a strong section of the story, and we begin by talking about that. A "leader" generally emerges in each group, someone who makes sure everyone is involved and one or two speakers aren't dominating the discussion. You may become that leader.

Always always always begin on a positive note. There is something worthy in every story, essay or poem. Bring the strengths to the front of the discussion because once the train of negativity starts rolling down the track, it picks up speed and is hard to derail. Everyone needs to toss in a positive comment before questions and suggestions. We are all sensitive about our writing, and we all are trying to do our best. Be sure to acknowledge the heart behind the words.

While the work is being discussed, the writer is silent. The tendency is to defend our work, the precious offspring of our muses. Defense is a waste of time. The writer needs to hear what the readers like and don't like, what they agree or disagree about, what suggestions they have to make the writing stronger. Afterward, the writer can clarify, ask a speaker to elaborate or, yes, defend the piece.

I also exchange comments once a month with another writer. The two of us meet either at her place or mine, and we have tea and a snack and read our pieces aloud to each other. In a large group, I find I get distracted when I try to listen, but with one other writer, it's not a problem, especially if the meeting place is cozy and private. While she reads, I take notes on phrases that impress me and questions that arise about something in the story. Usually the pieces are no more than a dozen pages. When she finishes reading, we discuss her purpose, how well she had addressed it, and what she might do to tighten. Reading my own story aloud, I always "hear" things I miss when I'm just looking at the words on the screen or page.

I hope it's obvious that I enjoy my writing group. I even socialize with a couple of the members. But you don't have to be best friends. You just need to respect each other and honor each individual's best intentions when it comes to writing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

You've written something ~ now what?

Let's assume you've written a story or an essay or a poem. Good work! Now put it in a drawer and walk around the block. Ten times. Or, if you live where I do, walk up the dirt road a mile and trot back down. What will happen is that your brain will begin to sort out your writing, fill in the empty spaces, cut things you don't need, organize your thoughts according to some logic that escaped you when you were communing with the muse. For some reason, the rational mind engages when you're away from your work. I think of that first draft as a big crush. That fellow is just the cutest thing. How could anyone be any cuter than he? I want to show him off to the world so everyone can agree that I'm a great gal to be with such a jolly fellow. But if I put him in the drawer and take a walk, I start thinking about the lump on his forehead and his giggle (which seemed so endearing at first and now is inane and vacuous). I begin to think like my mother, who would wonder what I'm doing with such a loser. And then I have to decide if this fellow has enough going for him that I'm willing to work with him. I can trim the hair growing in his ears. I can buy him a belt to hold up his pants. I can teach him how to order good wine. I think I can do these things. And so maybe I'll give him another shot.

If you do decide to go back and work with the draft, give it a solid rewrite. When you think it's ready, ask someone else to read it. Michael Chabon says you need a conscious critic, what he calls a guy on the dock. Writing a story is like designing a ship. You've got a good drawing and a pretty smooth idea of what the ship is going to look like. Now you've got to start building it, but in order to do that, you've got to go down into the boiler room. But once you're down there, you can't see how the ship is coming along. So you need a guy on the dock to tell you if the deck is level, if the portholes are even, if the mast is straight. For you, the guy on the dock is also a good reader.

So, how do you find this guy? In the last blog, I suggested you talk to your local librarian about good books to read. Now I suggest you go back to her and tell her that you need a reader. She probably knows people who like to write or at least people who like to read and know something about what they're reading. You don't need a Pulitzer winner to give you feedback on your story. Some of my best readers don't write at all, but they read everything they can get their hands on, and they read really good literature. They know when I'm off course, and they get a little thrill when they read a description that lifts off the page. Don't discount someone who hasn't published. Good readers are hiding in your neighborhood like gems in the cracks of the floorboards. See if you can dig them out.

You may have to do favors for a good reader, like bake her a pie or take her out to lunch. When your story is farther along, you may even want to pay someone to read it, but save that for just before you're ready to send it to a publisher. In the meantime, ask your librarian to put a small ad in her monthly newsletter inviting people in your community to start a writing group. My writing group is my most valuable resource. Two other members are published writers: one writes a weekly finance column for a women's newsletter; the other is an acupuncturist with a book about medicine and spirituality. Then there's a midwife, a retired elementary school teacher, a Buddhist nun, and a 21-year-old genius. They are each good eyes for my work, and I value every word of feedback they give me on my writing.

Next time I'll write more about writing groups. There are some things you should know before you hand your tender paragraphs over to outsiders. Stay tuned.

Monday, January 14, 2008

So you want to write? Then write! Let's go!

This article is meant to be about you and how to get you started down the literary path, but perhaps I should tell you first why I think I can help you. I taught high school English for 25 years, helping students not only improve their writing but also develop a love for good literature. It was hard for them to believe that the authors of the works in their anthologies were at one point living, breathing people. When my first book, a young adult historical novel about the underground railroad, was accepted for publication, the call came into the classroom while I was leading a group of ninth graders who qualified as reluctant learners. To my surprise, when I told them my book was going to be published, they burst into applause. Here was an author standing in front of them. Not just a name in black letters on a white page, but a real person, someone they knew. It was a defining moment for me. For the rest of the year, not only did I have these students' attention, but I became committed to writing and to trying to get published again and again.

To improve my writing technique, I enrolled in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College with a focus on fiction. During the two-year program, I worked with four instructors who looked closely at my work and gave me individual feedback. One of those mentors was author Sena Jeter Naslund. She must have seen something in my writing and in my workshop comments because she confided that she was going to start her own MFA program in Louisville and asked me if I would serve on the faculty. I didn't have to think long about my answer.

When Sena was ready to launch the Spalding University MFA in Writing Program in Louisville, she gave me a call. I took early retirement from teaching and began mentoring adult students in fiction and writing for children. And the longer I work with writing students, the more I learn about writing. So, let me give you some tips that might help you improve your writing.

First, writing goes hand-in-hand with reading. Ask your local librarian for tips about good literary books to read. Librarians love it when you ask about books because they became librarians because they love books, so don't be shy about approaching a librarian.. Start with the classics, like Tolstoy, Flaubert, Garcia-Marquez, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, O'Connor, Cather and Wharton. Join a book group so you'll have someone to talk with about what you read. As you read, ask yourself questions about the main character. What is her desire? What stands in the way of fulfilling that desire? What conflicts does she face, and are they outside of her power or within herself? How does she go about getting what she wants? Does she succeed? What does she learn by the end?

Also pay attention to the passages in the books that you particularly like. Are they action or reflection? Are they simple phrases or long, looping sentences? Or is it the dialog that attracts you and what is it about the dialog that you like? It's a good idea to buy an inexpensive copy of these books so you can write in the margins and highlight passages that you want to come back to. Maybe you'll want to read a book twice, once for the story and a second time to study the story's structure and the author's techniques. Read as much
as you can. Listen to books on CD when you're driving in the car. Think about where your mind drifts away and when you're caught up closely in a scene. Make a list of books you like and books you don't. Read more titles by the authors you like and get to know their style. Lots of writers even copy passages from good books so they can "feel" the words as they flow through the pen onto paper. I like to read passages aloud so I can taste the words and experience the breath it takes to say them.

And read books about writing, like Ann Lamotte's Bird By Bird or Betsy Lerner's The Forest For the Trees or Stephen King's On Writing. For inspiration, I turn to Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write, which was first published in the 1930s, although there are more recent editions. You'll find a whole section of books related to writing in your local bookstore. Browse and see what catches your eye.

Second, get writing. If you want to write, you must write. Flaubert wrote only a paragraph a day, but it was one fine paragraph. When I'm writing a novel, I force myself to write two pages a day, double-spaced. Some days two pages doesn't seem like much and I'll write five or even ten pages on that good day. On other days, two pages takes hours and hours and at the end of the day I feel as if I've given a quart of blood. Some days those two pages are pretty darn good, and other days they are nothing but drivel. On days when I can't stand my own story (and those days happen often), I write in a journal about the weather or what happened at the gym or what I had for breakfast.

I have a dozen friends who started out wanting to write, gave it a shot, and quit. That's tragic because if you want someone to read what you have written, you must have written something. As I have said, if you want to write, you must write. And if you must write, you must also be willing to plant your bottom on a horizontal surface for long periods of time. Without the television on. Without people talking to you. And, for me, without music blasting (although I know lots of writers who like instrumental music while they write).

Try writing in a variety of places. I have one writer friend who can only begin a new story if she is wearing her fuzzy pink bathrobe while sitting on her green couch with a dozen sharpened pencils and a brand new pad of yellow legal paper. And a cup of tea. Or a pot of tea. Some people like to write in the kitchen, where they can be near food. Writing and snacks make a nice pairing. Other lucky writers have an office or a studio all their own, and they write there. If I'm writing something new, I like to take pen and paper to the mall or to the airport or the train station where I can see people and hear snippets of conversation and look at what people are wearing and how they struggle with the ATM machine and watch how they scratch their noses or jiggle a crossed leg. Sometimes I go for a long walk with a voice-activated tape recorder and "talk" my story out. The rhythm of my pace on the dirt road helps me get a cadence, especially in dialog. But the editing takes place at home in total quiet in my writing loft. Find a place that works for you. Make sure it's a comfortable place because, as I have said, you should be there for a very long time.

Okay, that's a start for now. I'll give you more tips in the next blog. Good luck, and good writing!