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Workshops, Groups, and Retreats, Part 2

 

 

 

 

In Part 1, I spoke about writer’s groups and explained some of the differences between writer’s groups and critique groups. I’ve already covered my search for a critique group in The Help. And, I touched on some of the benefits I’ve received by joining the “right group”, in The Help, Part 2. I will come back to critique groups later in this series or posts.

Today I want to discuss workshops. To remind you, here is the definition that I am using:

“Writing workshop – A group of writers (strangers) who have provided samples of their writing to each other to read. They then provide feedback (written and/or verbal) on the quality of each other’s writing and possibly provide recommendations on the various aspects of the craft. This is usually a one shot event.”

Advice provided by other writers indicated that this would be an excellent tool to use during the editing process. The fact that the members do not know you very well, if at all, and haven’t seen your work on a regular basis like a writers/critique group does. Fresh eyes, various backgrounds, and hopefully a common interest in the genre can provide insight into those writing tics that your friends and group mates have become accustomed to. Their reactions and feedback should be reflective of a new reader in your target audience. Or, so one would think.

The common interest in your genre is not at all required. In fact, having authors from other genres look at you story can really be an eye-opening experience. Romance, mystery, and literary authors can see your fantasy story very differently, and provide unique feedback that you may not have considered before. Each writer tends to focus on their genre’s own tropes and idiosyncrasies. Blending some of those into your story can, if they fit, provide a color or plot direction that makes it sing. Equally important is that being a participant in this type of workshop (multi-genre) forces you to read the other writer’s stories. So you get to see how the different genre’s deal with issues common to all stories like setting, characterization, plot, pacing, etc.

I will never forget the first romance novel I ever read. Yes, I read it cover to cover and provided a review for the author. It was a struggle for me to get through simply because it was so different from my usual fare. However, it was well written. I did see a few issues, in my humble opinion, in how the setting was portrayed and I hope that some of my comments helped the author with future projects.

Like all forms of critique facilities, workshops should have rules or guidelines to provide a framework for the event and attempt to ensure the workshop runs efficiently and is as productive as possible for everyone. Typical guidelines might include: Only one participant speaks at a time in a prescribed order, always start with a positive comment, what worked for you, what didn’t work for you, what would have worked better, critique the writing not the writer, read from prepared comments, the author cannot speak other than to ask direct yes or no questions to clarify a comment, the author should not attempt to defend the work, the author can ask additional questions after all critiques have been received, the author is allowed to take notes during the critique, or written copies of comments are provided at the end of the session. It is the responsibility of the moderator to keep everyone on track.

As a rule the workshops I have attended were friendly, productive and well worth my time and money. Yes, you usually have to pay a small fee to participate. However, I would advise you to be aware of two issues before signing up and paying your fee. First, read the submission requirements and guidelines carefully. Being unprepared is rude and can bring out the worst in even the friendliest of writers. This will also tell you what to expect when your work is being reviewed. Second, grow some thick skin. You’ll need it eventually anyway, so start now. Not everyone follows the rules of critique and not every moderator can retain control of a session. So, some of the comments you receive might be very harsh. Always remember that you asked for this.

One other thing. If you attend a workshop, expect to learn something! In fact, a lot of somethings. Even the harshest critique can have a silver lining. Let me give you an example from a recent workshop I attended as part of a fantasy writers conference.

I had attended this same conference many times, so I felt comfortable signing up for the pre-conference workshop. The introductory email included a link to the “MilFord Style rules” of the critique sessions as well as submission guidelines. I submitted the first 5,000 words of a story I’d been working on and had already run through my writer’s group. I wanted some fresh eyes to see it. After a short time I received four submissions from the other participants that I was required to read and comment on during the workshop. I completed my assignment, printed off copies of my comments and arrived at the workshop site.

To keep this on point, I will skip ahead to the feedback I received and the lessons I learned. First, a brief scene synopsis:  Scene One – My half-breed male protagonist enters a contemporary western brothel run by his mother, an evil woman whom he suspects is responsible for the murder of his father, to tell her that her second husband has died of cancer. Scene Two – The protagonist is introduced to his new client and the female lead of the story, an award-winning actress/ranch owner who is being stalked.

The four members of my group spent forty of the forty-five minute session in which my submission was critiqued, focused on two things: My negative portrayal of women, based on a two sentence description of two working girls wearing undersized lingerie, and that the mother was a sociopath. And, that a “middle-aged white male writer” should not discuss native american spirituality and syncretism across cultures, without substantial supporting data and permission from the Nations I was portraying, as it will be seen as an insult to the indigenous peoples.

As for my portrayal of women, the moderator did say that she gave me the benefit of the doubt in the first chapter, since she didn’t know me and that the second chapter seemed to reflect a more favorable light based on her initial impression on the actress character. However, the other three participants felt that I was being insensitive and should reconsider my setting choices. In addition, they recommended that I move this first chapter to later in the story to allow for the more positive view of the actress to lead off.

At no time during the critique, did any of the participants ask me about my own belief system, my heritage, my experiences with Native Americans, my credentials, or whether I was basing this character on a real person. According to the “rules of the workshop” I was only allowed to answer yes or no questions and could not speak up to clarify misconceptions. So, I kept my mouth shut and took good notes. The other five minutes of the session included some positive comments about my writing style and some suggestions relating to technical aspects of the story.

After they were finished, I chose to not get defensive (once again, I followed the rules), thanked them for their feedback, and we moved on to the next submission.

Those people who know me well are probably shaking their heads wondering how I controlled myself and kept from lighting up the entire group. The answer was simple. I know and believe in myself, my characters, and my story, what they said was based on a limited amount of information, and I’d been through enough critiques to know what to listen to and what to ignore.

The silver lining of this experience was two-fold. One, a group of strangers who read fantasy novels, stated that my writing style was engaging. And, two, these four individuals were probably not part of my target audience. I could have jumped up on my soapbox and shouted at the rain, trying to convince them, and maybe I will in a later post. However, it would not have changed the outcome of their critiques. The bottom line is not everyone is going to like your story and they have hot buttons that will send them off on a tangent. But isn’t that what writing fiction is about? Making the reader think, question, feel, experience is what this is all about.

I strongly recommend attending a workshop if you are able. More often than not it will be a fantastic experience. Just prepare and go into it with an open mind. And when you are providing a fellow writer with your comments, pay attention to the advise from this quote:

“When giving the critique of what did not work for you about the story. Don’t be afraid to be critical of the writing, in a fair and constructive way. Focus on the writing, not the writer. In short, be of assistance, don’t be an ass.” – Milford-Style Workshopping

Next up, Retreats!

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Posted by on February 28, 2019 in Thoughts on Writing

 

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Workshops, Groups and Retreats, Part 1

 

 

 

 

Writing workshop, critique group, writer’s group, writing retreat, etc. Most established writers will tell you that these institutions can be invaluable. The functional phrase there is CAN BE. There are many variables that can affect the quality of your experience in each. Over the next few posts, I will discuss each one and my personal experiences with them. Some have been VERY good and others…not so much. I will say this before I get too far along, no matter how bad my experience was, I was able to take something positive away from it.

Some readers might say that a writing workshop, a writing retreat, a critique group, and a writing group are pretty much the same. I would agree that there are similarities. However, there are critical differences in my mind. And, since my mind is the one spewing forth, let’s be clear on what I’m calling each of these institutions.

Writing workshop – A group of writers (strangers) who have provided samples of their writing to each other to read. They then provide feedback (written and/or verbal) on the quality of each other’s writing and possibly provide recommendations on the various aspects of the craft. This is usually a one shot event.

Writer’s group – A group of writers known to each other,  who either have provided samples of their writing to each other to read or read samples of their work to the rest of the group at a meeting. They may provide feedback (written and/or verbal) on the quality of each other’s writing. They may or may not provide recommendations on various aspects of the craft. The same group (some variation of participants can occur) meets regularly over a longer period of time, months/years.

Critique group – A group of individuals who may be writers, readers, editors, etc. They can be either strangers or known to each other. The writers provide samples of their writing to the group to read. The group then provides feedback (written and/or verbal) on the quality of each other’s writing and possibly provide recommendations on the various aspects of the craft. This can be done either in a meeting or online.

Usually, but not always, held at a remote, tranquil location where writers go to write. There is often some collaboration time and maybe even some workshops. However, the primary focus is putting words on paper.

I am sure that I have left out some key details and you may have different ideas as to what happens in these group activities. But this is the framework that I will be using.

Let’s get started. In a previous post called “The Help”, I talked about my search for a writer’s group. The reality is I was looking for a critique group. Specifically, one that was more advanced than the writer’s groups that I belonged to at the time. I’m  not saying the other groups don’t have value. On the contrary, they are working quite well for most of the members. So the first distinction I want to make is that not all writing groups are good at the kind of detailed craft, constructive critique I was looking for.

Here are two examples of different writer’s groups, how they operate, and some pros and cons.

I joined Group A very early in my writing career. It was founded by a writing instructor and the members were attendees of his first two classes. The class had included some work-shopping, so everyone was familiar with the process, kind of. Members would volunteer at random to submit short samples of their writing to everyone for review. Two weeks later the group would meet at a coffee shop. The session would begin with one of the submitters volunteering to go first and everyone present would take turns providing both verbal and written feedback on their work. Few rules/guidelines were enforced other than don’t attack the writer and don’t get defensive. This was mostly successful. After all of the submissions were discussed, the coordinator would provide a writing prompt and the members would flash write for 10 or 15 minutes. Then, each member would read what they wrote back tot he group, also voluntary. I will say that some of my very best ideas came out of those flash exercises. The session would end with volunteers agreeing to submit work for the following meeting.

Pros: As a newish writer, this was an excellent opportunity to get my work in front of someone else’s eyes. Every member was interested in the same genre so you didn’t have to explain that magic exists and that there are races other than human. You could submit at your own speed. There was no pressure to generate scenes/chapters in a given time. Even though writing ability varied between members, the process of giving and receiving critique was new to us which made it fairly safe. The writing exercises were very beneficial in that they forced the members to write under pressure! It also taught us how to turn off the editor inside. Both very important skills to develop.

Cons: The overall lack of experience meant that much of the critique was plot-based, with little or no technical recommendation offered. Many of the better writers seemed to lose interest and stopped submitting or showing up to offer their insights. This happens at any level of group. It seems to have more of a negative impact in the groups of newer writers. You could submit at your own speed. There was no pressure to generate scenes/chapters in a given time. You should notice this was also listed as a pro. Depending on what you are looking to get out of your writing, this can be a critical part of the decision to join a group.

Writer’s group B was a group of older writers of varying skills. It included a few educators. A handful of members had some minor works published. The group was not genre specific so anything was possible. participation was hit or miss. You never knew who or how many people would show up. A typical session would include some or all of the members reading a selection of their own work and then the others would provide verbal feedback. Most feedback was based on the overall feeling the piece depicted with not technical recommendations. The reader would have to scribble down notes while the feedback was being given as no hard copies were provided. After the readings and feedback were finished, there might be a writing exercise or discussion of a technical aspect of writing followed by a prompt that the members could use to provide material for the next meeting.

Pros: Exposure to multiple genres. Loose structure let the members choose what and how much writing they could do. A chance to interact with some very good writers. Reading your own work out loud can really help you hear dialogue, see holes in sentence structure, catch repeat words or repetitive phrasing. I highly recommend reading your work aloud for these reasons. Also, reading to your audience adds a whole new layer of pressure to your writing because of the immediate feedback from the listeners.

Cons: The lack of written feedback and the hesitation of the members to provide serious technical critiques made this group feel more like a writing support group versus a way to improve craft skills.

As I said earlier, these formats work for some people. There are many other group formats out there to choose from. So ,if the first one doesn’t do it for you, choose another one. After all, it is your writing journey. You should get out of it exactly what you want.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2019 in Thoughts on Writing

 

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What if? Then what?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At my work, there are two questions that I ask every day. What if? and Then what? I drive my co-workers crazy, but if they can get past their burning desire to see me attempt to swim across Lake Monona carrying 500 pounds of chain, we end up creating a disaster response plan that makes sense and will keep the company in business until a full recovery is possible.

It really doesn’t matter what crisis scenario they throw at me, my response is the same, “Then what?” “Okay, but what if this happens? Then what?” Action and response, action and response, rinse and repeat. Does this sound familiar to you writers? It should. This simple formula can be a life saver when plotting out your story and it is a near sure-fire cure for writer’s block.

New story/Opening scene:   Imagine you have this really great character that you have spent hours working up back story, traits, flaws, abilities, likes and dislikes. Then what? A good story needs conflict, right? So, throw your character in to the frying pan. You can use their biggest fear, greatest dislike, natural disaster, man-made disaster, etc. Drop them into the setting and throw the book at them. Then what?

Plot:   How do they respond to the crisis that you threw them into? Do they take direct action, try to talk their way out, ask a stranger for help, use a super power, etc. What is the result of their action? Whatever they did, it fails or, even better, the situation gets worse. Now what? They try something else that only makes their situation more dire. Then what? Rinse and repeat until the characters can’t possible survive, then write the story’s climax.

Story board: For those of you who don’t write by the seat of your pants, this technique works very well when story boarding. We’ve already seen it used for plotting, but it also works well when looking at character arcs. Once you have determined where your character will start and you have an idea as to where you see them ending up, go back to the beginning and start asking, how does a scene affect the character? How do they change? Maybe they don’t at first, so ask, then what? After the next scene what has changed? Will the change affect the next scene? How? Then what? Always aim for your final outcome but take small steps, building a little at a time. Eventually, those little changes will add up until the character reaches the point where they either need to make a major change to survive, or revert back to their beginning stage never to recover.

The bottom line is this, these two little questions should be in every writers toolkit. They are versatile and very useful. So, have you consciously used this technique?

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2019 in Thoughts on Writing

 

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The Help

 

 

 

 

When last we spoke I told you that the new goal was to get help. That goal was identified back in January. One of the best sources of help any writer can find is a really good writers group. Now I googled “writers groups” and Google provided me about 236 million potential hits. I cut that down to a manageable amount by picking a state to focus on and decided whether I wanted an online group. I have tried a few online groups and a couple were okay, but I was really looking for some face to face interaction with people I can get to know and trust. So, I waded through the groups based in Wisconsin and cut the number to five. All were within 35 miles from home and each listing advertised that the group members were trying to get published, a key factor in my decision. With high hopes, I sent out five emails requesting contact and additional information.

Group One Response: The reply email said that she was no longer with the group and that she thought they had folded but I could try to contact a different individual. I received no response from my attempts at the second individual.

Group Two Response: The reply stated that they had over 100 members! and that they were full for people submitting work, but I could come by and offer my opinions. In other words, I could critique other’s work but could not submit anything to get feedback. Reading other work and offering opinions is valuable and can help your own writing, but I was looking for feedback on my work.

Group Three Response:  We are a group of seniors who write for fun and get together and read our work to the group. Better, but not there yet.

Group Four Response: We are a group of writers who are trying to get published. We use writing prompts and then read our work to the group for feedback. Because this group met in very close proximity to me, I decided to attend a few sessions. There are some talented writers in this group with some interesting ideas. However, it was not the critique group I was looking for.

Group Five: On their website, the group indicated that they were a very serious group dedicated to getting everyone in the group published. They were, however, full on membership (10 people). If I was interested in joining, I could apply and if my qualifications were acceptable, they might make an exception, or place me on a waiting list in case a member left the group. I had nothing to lose so I put together a short bio of my writing experience, goals and involvement in other writers groups, and sent it in. I was actually shocked when I received an email requesting some additional information including a sample of my work. Two of their group would critique the sample and provide feedback so I could see what to expect and what was expected of me when I critiqued others. A few days later, I received their “crits” and a writing sample that I was asked to critique. I provided my feedback and was then told that they would present my request, writing sample, and crit to the group for acceptance. There was no guarantee that I would be asked to join at this point. Damn, I’ve been through job interviews that were not this intensive.

As it turned out, I was asked to join and honestly, it has been worth the effort. As advertised, the group is knowledgeable and motivated with eclectic backgrounds and styles which makes for a wide variety of comments on a submission. The crits can be hard at times, but the criticism is directed solely at the writing and not the writer. The result is that I can see a huge improvement in my writing and I have a much better idea as to what my “voice” sounds like. Many of my writing “ticks” (Bad habits) have been identified so I can catch them during revision and as I write future stories. The group”s comments have created a lot of revision work for me, but that is the point of a critique group. I always have the choice to act on their suggestions or not.

I know this is the type of group that I’ve been looking for, and needed to take me to the next level, and ultimately help me prepare my manuscript for submission to an agent. My advice is, If you decide you need a writers group, do whatever you must to find a GOOD one. One that fits your needs.

Goal: Get help. CHECK!

New goal: Finish this revision.

 

 

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An interesting life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What has made your life interesting?

Some people might say that they lead a boring life and nothing much happens to them. Yet, I have met very few people that after a few minutes of conversation, I would agree with them. Granted, some people’s lives are more “exciting” than others. But that doesn’t make one life less interesting. Everyone’s life is unique. Even identical twins grow up to be different people. So, what is it that is interesting?

Here’s a little exercise you might enjoy. Pick a famous person that you find interesting. Take some time and write down all of the things that you find interesting about them. Your list may include appearance, type of work, travels, political views, hobbies, events they participated in, etc.

Next, pick a family member, relative, friend, co-worker, or neighbor. Someone you know well and find interesting or admire. Make a list of interesting things about them. As before be as complete as you can.

Now the fun begins!

Write your name at the top of a piece of paper. Without judging whether you think it’s interesting or not, complete a list for yourself. Use the same criteria and categories you used for the other two lists. Include appearance, type of work, travels, political views, hobbies, events they participated in, etc. Don’t think about your answers, just write.

When you have finished, compare all three lists. Are there any similarities? What from list number three would someone else think is interesting? Are there any “mundane” things that jump out as interesting on any of the lists.

If you are really brave, ask a close friend or someone else that you trust to be truthful what they find interesting about you. Be prepared for a few surprises.

Now, for those of you who write, think about your characters. Are they a bit flat? What can you add to their back story to make them more interesting? Did they have a job repairing organs while they went to college? Did they travel to the Yucatan during spring break and got lost in the jungle? Do they carve bear figurines out of soapstone to relieve stress?

A few lines of your story mentioning one of these points can add depth to your character that makes them more real.

So, I ask again, “What makes your life interesting?”

 

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Revision, Revision, Revision

 

 

 

 

There! I’ve added the scenes that needed to be added to complete character arcs. I’ve included “showing” details and cleaned up the timeline. I’ve given the characters depth and conflict. Strong action verbs replaced adverbs and weak phrases. I even think a spell check happened somewhere!

Is it ready to go to beta readers for review? I want to say yes. But, a nagging feeling is telling me to go through it again. I know I could add a scene or two to help explain a few things. However, I’m afraid it might slow the pacing to a crawl and wouldn’t really add to the story. So, I set the draft aside for a month and worked on a different project.

After I had worked on the new story with a different setting and cast of characters for a few weeks, I found myself thinking about my draft in the drawer. From a high level, I asked myself, “Does the story flow well? Are the characters interesting? Are there any holes?”

The next time I opened the laptop (“Drawer”), the draft came up and, starting at the beginning, I read the whole story in one sitting. There were a couple spots where I felt jarred by the dialogue. A couple more where characters seemed a bit flat. I placed comments in the margins and kept going. When I finished reading, I realized I stilled liked the story. Not sure if that is good or bad!

The result of the reading is that I am going to take one more pass at it before I send it out for a real critique. I’ll be hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

 

 

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Devil in the Details

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Writing about a culture other than your own can provide more than a few complications. In a pure fantasy setting, the author has more control and, so long as he is consistent, can tweak things a bit and make it work. However, when we use a real culture to base our story on, and where a member of that culture may pick up and read your story, we had better get the details right. Unless…

My protagonist is half-Apache, a native american tribe that lives in the southwestern United States and into Mexico. His father was a tribal holy man and taught my protagonist the ways of spiritual medicine. During this instruction a ritual takes place to help my protagonist find a spiritual guide. The spirit guide helps an individual travel along life’s ever changing path. The spirit guide turns out to be “Snake”. This is where things get dicey.

I had written about three-quarters of the story before I found out how Snake is viewed in the Apache culture. The Apache see Snake as a very negative spirit. Often seen as evil, the Apache people will distance themselves from anything related to Snake. Whether it is the real creature, an image, a vision, or a story, Snake is Very bad medicine.

When I first made this discovery, I began to panic. Thinking I would need to rewrite whole sections to either change the spirit guide to something else, or change his tribe to something that looked favorably on the Snake. Instead of jumping off a cliff, I decided to go ahead and finish the first draft without making huge changes. I tried very hard to not let this knowledge guide the story in any way.

After the required cooling off period once the first draft was finished, I did a quick read through and a second read through where I jotted down the more glaring issues and holes. During the second time through, it hit me that the main character was still a little flat.Along with this I was leaning toward changing his tribal lineage.

Then while I was discussing a similar topic with my brother, it dawned on me that the answer to my flat character was right there. The fact that an Apache shaman has Snake as a spirit guide would add several layers of conflict for the character.

So not counting the major conflicts he faces throughout the plot line, he has to deal with being a half-breed, an Apache with Snake as a guide, and his job makes him walk the line between the normal world and those who use magic.

Now I have a character with more than a little color. Yes, I have to add a few sections to exacerbate and the situation, but it will definitely make for a more memorable character.

This turned out to be one of those details that worked out in the end. However, I am more careful about performing research on areas that I am not 100% sure of.

 
 

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