Writers’ Groups

Writers’ groups are like workshops, only less compressed and more ongoing. Writers’ groups are generally free. This is a big plus when you don’t have much in the way of disposable income. Unlike workshops and classes, they usually don’t have instructors. They may have a leader, official or unofficial, but that person’s job is generally to keep things on track, not to teach. In writers’ groups we learn from each other.

You may have had bad experiences in writers’ groups. If you hang out with other writers, you’ve almost certainly heard about a Writers’ Group from Hell. I know they’re out there.

Nevertheless, I’ve been in several writers’ groups over the years, formal and informal, and they’ve taught me a lot. If you aspire to write for an audience of more than one, i.e., yourself, a writers’ group can be beneficial in so many ways. Each meeting is a deadline for you to meet — very helpful if your writing is always taking a backseat to everything else going on in your life. The more work you share with other writers, the braver you’ll get about sharing your work. Other writers’ comments can help you see your own work from different angles — and your comments will help them likewise.

My first writers’ group included mostly poets and fiction writers, all women. Our numbers fluctuated, but there were about six regulars. At each meeting we’d talk about how our writerly lives were going and discuss the work of two or three members. Ideally we’d each get copies of our work to the others before the meeting, but this was long before email so this wasn’t always possible. Once we produced a potluck group reading in which more than 60 women crowded into a smallish community space to enjoy good food and good writing. This was the first public reading I’d ever done. It was wonderful.

A group I was in several years later usually met in the cozy kitchen of one of its members. The kitchen had a fireplace; except in the warmest weather, there’d usually be a fire going. We sat around the kitchen table, sipping coffee (and sometimes Black Bush whiskey), nibbling homemade chocolate chip cookies, and discussing our writing, which included short essays, one-act plays, memoir, and fiction.

At each meeting we’d do some freewriting, all with pen or pencil on paper. We took turns giving a starting word or phrase and setting a time limit — usually 10, 15, or 20 minutes. Then we’d read what we’d written aloud. We didn’t have to, but we nearly always did.

The group I’m in now meets weekly in the sitting room of its leader. She provides popcorn and beverages (usually wine, fruit juice, and water, with hot cider in season); members often contribute other goodies. At each meeting, we pass out copies of our work to everyone else and then read it aloud. As we listen, we mark our hardcopies — a check mark or “good!” for things that stand out, a question mark for things we find puzzling, perhaps an alternative word or wording if one pops into our heads. Then we discuss the work, and when everyone’s had their say, we pass the marked-up hardcopies back to the writer.

As you can see, writers’ groups vary a lot.  No one group is going to be everything to all its members. My current group doesn’t lend itself to in-depth critique: we’re all hearing each piece for the first time, and each piece gets about 20 minutes of our attention. Since most of us are writing book-length works — fiction, history, and memoir — we only see a small chunk of it each week. For comments on overall structure, we have to wait till we’ve finished a complete draft, then enlist volunteer readers or a professional editor to read the whole thing. But the weekly deadline has been invaluable, and so is reading my work aloud, and hearing others read theirs.

Yes, I have been in some groups that weren’t so helpful and that sooner or later fell apart. Keeping a group together is a group effort. I could go on, but instead I’ll quote from Marge Piercy’s poem “For the Young Who Want To”: “The real writer is one / who really writes.” If a group is monopolized by writers who talk incessantly about the writing they didn’t do, or were going to do, or mean to do before the next meeting, it will quickly become useless to the writers who are really writing.

So how to find a writers’ group? Libraries and bookstores are a good place to start looking. I know of groups that have spun off from adult ed classes: the course ended, but the writers decided to keep meeting on their own. If you can’t find one, or one that’s currently open to new members — it’s definitely possible for a group to get too big — try starting one. Start small, say with one or two or three writer friends.

And please share your experiences and tips in the comments!

Aside: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, or How to Choose a Writers’ Group,” by the novelist and teacher Holly Lisle, is a wonderfully detailed guide, not just to choosing a group but for starting one.

 

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Welcome!

Welcome to all followers and readers of Write Through It, especially those who’ve discovered it through the wonders of Freshly Pressed.

Write Through It is a new blog, not even two months old yet. It’s still evolving. Check out the blog’s “what, who, why” pages to see what (I think) I’m doing. I want this to be a place where writers and editors can learn from each other. If you’ve got a question about the whys and wherefores of writing, either general or specific, or an answer (dealing with writer’s block is always a hot topic!), send it in. You can use the contact form below to send me an email. (There’s now a contact form on the “You!” link on the menu bar above.) Or you can post a comment.

Again — welcome aboard!

Like Driving

As a kid I’d ride in the passenger’s seat and watch my mother’s hands on the steering wheel. They were always moving. How did she know when to move her hands? Driving, I thought, must be very difficult.

After I’d been behind the wheel myself a few times, I began to get it: You don’t move your hands on the wheel. The wheel moves your hands. Your hands respond to the road, the car, and what your eyes and other senses tell them.

True, your hands turn the wheel when you want to go left or right, but if you hold your hands still when you’re going down the road, you’ll probably start drifting to one side or the other.

In the last two months I’ve copyedited two demanding nonfiction manuscripts. One was 900 pages long, the other about 550. Yesterday morning I sent the second of the two off to its publisher.

I probably made thousands of editorial decisions for each of those books. Many were easy: insert a comma, remove a comma, correct the spelling of a misspelled word. If you stopped me in the middle of such insertions and deletions, I could explain without hesitation what I was doing and why I was doing it.

With many others, the explanation would take a moment or two. Here I changed “in a small number of instances” to “in a few instances.” Why? Because “instances” was more important than “number,” and we had no idea what that “small number” was. There I deleted “kind of” from “This kind of semi-prosperity.” My author was overly fond of “a number of,” “this kind of,” and “a sort of.” Sometimes they served a purpose. Sometimes they didn’t.

As I work, I make such decisions so quickly it feels as though the manuscript is telling me what to do. I just know. But an awful lot of experience goes into that knowing. That’s why, in retrospect, I can usually explain what I’ve done.

stetIt’s also why sometimes I’ll slam on the brakes a page or two after I’ve made one of those apparently instinctive changes, then go back and stet the author’s version. (“Stet” means “let it stand.” If a writer doesn’t agree with an editor’s change, she can stet the original.) While I’m editing along, evidently I’m also evaluating my editing. How do I do it? Damned if I know.

When I learned to drive, I was conscious of all the steps that went into making a smooth stop just a foot or two behind the car in front. Until I learned to judge distances, and to trust my judgment, I’d leave several feet between my bumper and the other car’s. It also took a while to learn to coordinate clutch and accelerator, especially on inclines. (I learned on a standard and that’s what I still drive.)

On the back roads, trees, curves, and bumps enforce the speed limit.

On the back roads, trees, curves, and bumps enforce the speed limit.

Of course I also learned the rules of the road, not just the written-down ones likely to be on the test but also the informal ones, like it’s usually safe to go five or so miles an hour over the speed limit and if an oncoming car flashes its headlights at you there’s a speed trap up ahead. If the vehicle ahead of you is poking along at ten mph under the speed limit, it may be looking for a crossroad, so be prepared for a sudden and unsignaled turn.

Editing works the same way. So does writing. So does every other skill I can think of. You learn the rules and conventions, they become second nature, then you start to improvise. If you leave the paved road, you don’t have to obey the traffic laws, but you better know know what your vehicle can handle and how to read the terrain. Otherwise you might wind up in a ditch, or worse.

Confessions of a Less-Than-Avid Reader

As a kid my nose was always in a book. I made a tent with the bedspread of my lower-bunk bed and read under it with a flashlight. When I went into the woods, it was usually to find a tree that I could climb and read in without being bothered.

I’m a writer.

I’ve reviewed books. I’ve sold books. I’ve written a novel.

I make my living as an editor.

I rarely read for pleasure any more. It’s not that I don’t have the time but that I’ve got more interesting things to do with the time I’ve got: write, go walking with Travvy, sing, drum, read e-mail, post responses to the e-lists I’m on, mess around on Facebook . . .

When The Mud of the Place was approaching completion, I circulated the manuscript to pretty much everyone I knew who was willing to slog through 400+ pages of typescript. Close to three dozen people in all. Their ages ranged from early 20s to late 70s. Nearly all of them liked it. Many waxed seriously enthusiastic, and many gave me useful comments about it.

Several of those people told me that they hardly ever read. They probably didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t either.

Educators and people in the book trades are forever bemoaning the decline in reading. The decline is well documented and ongoing. And I, writer and editor though I am, am part of it.

What to say about this?

I spent years working in a community — the women’s community of Washington, D.C., and the larger feminist movement — where words saved lives, words saved sanity. As a bookseller, I saw it happen over and over again. It happened to me. We knew books were important. Not a luxury. Not a duty. Important.

In theory I know there are books like that out there today, but I wouldn’t walk very far out of my way on the off chance that I might find one of them.

On the other hand — since I got my first e-reader in December 2011, I’ve been reading more books. Nowhere near as voraciously as I did growing up, or in my bookselling and reviewing days, but considerably more, and more enthusiastically, than in the previous 15 years or so. Most of these books have been recommended either in the (few) blogs I follow or by friends, often on social media.

I think not enough people have had their lives changed by a book, and if they have, they don’t know where to find another one like that. Neither do I. I have an especially hard time with general fiction. (With fantasy and science fiction, I know how to find the books and writers worth reading.) My life has never been changed by the technically flawless prose of a writer who wouldn’t know a moral conundrum if s/he met one on the road.

I’m looking for books that show me the world from new angles. I’m looking for books that can disturb my dreams without putting me to sleep.

Genres and Dump Dogs

Literary genres weren’t invented by writers. They were invented by publishers. Writing is notoriously hard to categorize. Each book is unique, even books written by the same author. Publishers’ marketing departments hate this. Promote each book as a unique entity? That’s no way to do business.

So publishers identify niches, big groups of potential readers with similar interests, and market to them. Much easier, much more efficient, and (from the marketers’ perspective) much more effective.

At first the boundaries between niches are flexible, barely perceptible even. But with time they harden into walls. The niches become genres, and the genres subdivide into subgenres. The walls get higher, so that readers can barely see over them.

Reading Ray and Lorna Coppinger’s book Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, I got the idea that the evolution of literature has a lot in common with the evolution of dogs.

The Coppingers believe that canids domesticated themselves (and evolved into dogs) after humans started settling into stationary villages, which featured on their outskirts stationary dumps — good foraging for those canids who didn’t mind being that close to people. These “village dogs,” both in history and in the present, developed certain common characteristics, e.g., a medium size that was big enough to defend itself but small enough to thrive on the food available. Physical differentiation started to happen when some humans figured out that dogs could be useful at certain tasks, such as herding or guarding livestock and pulling sleds.

“Breeds” as we know them, however, are relatively recent developments. Until a couple of centuries ago, a retriever was a dog that retrieved well — not necessarily a dog with retrievers on both sides of its pedigree. Whether a dog could retrieve well depended partly on its parents (did it have the right physical characteristics for the job?) and partly on how it was raised and trained. A Labrador retriever pedigree alone does not a good retriever make. The modern emphasis on “pure” breeds (meaning the stud books are closed, meaning genetic diversity takes a wallop), especially in the show ring, tends to divorce function from appearance and to focus heavily on the latter.

Literary genres are like breeds — of relatively recent development, especially the notion that there are clear lines between them and everything has to fit into one category. “Literature” is more like those village dogs of indeterminate breed: it adapts to the climate and food sources available, and maybe it looks a little like this, a little like that, but you can’t say for sure that it’s a beagle or a foxhound (or a mystery or a romance). When you’re trying to tell a story, you scavenge and steal from whatever’s in the vicinity and if it works you keep it.

All of which is not to say that genres aren’t useful to writers. Faced with a whole boundless ocean of possibilities, it’s easy to choke. Why not focus on the weather and currents, the flora and fauna, of a particular inlet or harbor or archipelago? By all means go ahead. Each genre has its tropes and conventions. Because readers are familiar with them, you don’t have to justify, say, the dead body that turns up in chapter 1 or the FTL (faster-than-light) starship that enables your characters to get from one planet to another. You can devote your writerly attention to other things.

Just keep in mind that many stories worth telling don’t fit neatly, or even messily, into one genre or another. In the attempt to squeeze them in, sacrifices have to be made. Genetic diversity may be lost. The end result might be a dog that looks sharp in the show ring but can’t do the job its ancestors did.

 

 

Workshop

In the summer of 1984, having saved my pennies and summoned my courage, I headed off to Ithaca, New York, for the Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop. Was I ready? Was I good enough?

My poetry chapbook (1989). Cover design by Maggie MacCarty.

I’d never been to a workshop. I’d never taken a writing class. I didn’t know what to expect. Junior year of high school, though, I’d won the school’s writing prize. Since then I’d done lots and lots of self-teaching. The college newspapers had published my op-eds and reviews. More recently, my reviews and essays had appeared in feminist and gay publications. I’d written most of the poems that eventually appeared in my chapbook, Leaving the Island (1989). I was working on a novel.

Maybe most important of all, I was the book buyer for Lammas, Washington, D.C.’s feminist bookstore. For years I’d been immersed in a movement, a community, for which books and magazines and newspapers were crucial, life-sustaining stuff. I saw it every day at work: women discovering words that inspired them, strengthened them, and even changed their lives.

Words were my only instrument, writing and editing my only useful skills. It was time, I thought, to test my vocation.

Me standing on the boathouse deck during a break, ca. 1987

Me standing on the boathouse deck during a break, ca. 1987

The heart of the workshop was our morning critique sessions. At each two-hour session, an hour would be devoted to the work of one participant. In those days the workshop was held at Wells College in tiny Aurora, New York, about 30 miles from Ithaca. These meetings were held on the second floor of the boathouse, overlooking Cayuga Lake.

The day before, the scheduled writers would put copies of their work out for everyone to read. (“Copies” meant paper in those days. In 1984 we all still had typewriters.) We took our homework seriously. When we gathered in a big circle at 9 every morning, everyone was prepared. The scheduled writers were usually at least a little bit nervous.

The ground rules were simple. For the first part of the session, the writer was invisible. Critiquers were to discuss the work with each other, as if she weren’t there. Her job was to listen. She wasn’t to speak. The workshop director got the discussion going by asking a question about the work, then she’d keep the discussion on track by asking more questions, making comments, and when necessary reminding us of the ground rules. With 10 or 15 minutes to go in the hour, she’d close the discussion and give the floor to the writer. The writer could then answer whatever questions had been raised, ask some of her own, and generally respond to the comments made.

Talking writing on the Wells College lawn, ca. 1987

Talking writing on the Wells College lawn, ca. 1987

Taking part in these sessions morning after morning was a powerful experience. As the writer being critiqued, I listened to 18 of my peers focusing all their attention on my work. My work had to stand on its own, apart from me. Sometimes my peers would argue about a particular line. They’d disagree, sometimes heatedly, about what it meant and whether it worked. Gradually it dawned on me that I couldn’t take any single comment, supportive or critical, as the final word. I had to sort through all the feedback and decide how to use it.

As a critiquer, this meant my job was to tell the writer whatever I could about her work, even if I thought my idea was off-the-wall or too personal or even negative. “I don’t understand what’s going on here” is my take on the work, no more, no less. Maybe the writer will find it useful, maybe not. Either way it’s her call. Sometimes as a critique session began, I’d be on the verge of panic because a work had left me cold, or angry, or frustrated. Some works were more polished than others. I learned that I could nearly always come up with something the writer might find useful.

For better or worse, my vocation passed the test. I returned to the workshop for the next three years as one of two assistant directors. By 1988, however, I’d been sucked into the seasonal economy of Martha’s Vineyard, to which I’d moved in 1985, and could no longer escape for 10 days in the summer. The Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop no longer exists, but the critique process I learned there can be replicated anywhere — if the workshop leader (if there is one) and participants are willing to create a safe space for critiquing and being critiqued.

Editing? What’s Editing?

Good question. If you ask half a dozen editors, you’ll get two dozen answers. What’s a writer to do?

grammar policeEditing and writing are closely related, but they aren’t the same. Writing creates something new. Editing rearranges, refines, and otherwise messes with something that’s already been created.

Notice that I’m sticking with the verbs here, rather than trying to define what writers do and what editors do. It’s more complicated than “writers write and editors edit.” Plenty of editors are also writers. Most writers do at least some editing: that’s what second, third, and tenth drafts are about.

I encourage writers to learn as much as they can about editing. It makes us better writers. It gives us more control of our work. It saves us money, because the more we can do ourselves, the less we have to pay others to do. And when the time comes to hire an editor, we’re better able to find one who will do justice to our work.

So what’s editing, beyond messing with something that’s already been written? Here’s where it can get confusing. “Editing” can involve anything from correcting typos and grammar gaffes to rearranging paragraphs and even helping a writer build a book from scratch. So we talk about “levels of editing.” Here’s a rough guide to the levels, starting with “big picture” editing and moving down to what I call the “picky bitch stage”: catching spelling and grammar errors.

Ghostwriting. Ghostwriting is writing, not editing. I include it because I’m not the only editor who’s heard this question: “I’ve got a great idea. Can you help me turn it into a book and we can share the royalties?” The answer is no. Ghostwriting is time-intensive and therefore costly. The chances that the resulting product will earn any royalties are close to nil. My standard answer is “Sell your proposal first and then we can talk.” None of the querents has ever come back.

Developmental editing. Like ghostwriting, this involves building the manuscript from the ground up. For big projects, like textbooks, it can involve multiple authors, researchers, designers, and more. For the individual writer, it’s all the work that goes into creating a coherent complete draft. Most of us do our own developmental editing, often with assistance from writers’ groups and those generous people who volunteer to read our work and give us feedback.

Rewriting. Most of us do our own rewriting too. From the individual writer’s point of view, it’s close kin to developmental editing.

Structural editing. The structure of a work is its skeleton. When the wrist bones are connected to the thigh bones, the body doesn’t work too well. All written works have structure. Structure is what guides readers through the story or the essay. When you decide that a scene in the middle of the book has to come near the beginning or a certain character’s motivation won’t make sense, you’re messing with the work’s structure.

typoStylistic editing. This is called all sorts of things, including content editing, line editing, and copyediting. Here you go through the work line by line, asking whether each sentence, phrase, and word says what you want it to say, and in the best way possible. English is a wonderfully flexible language. Choosing the right word and putting it in the right place can make a big difference. Writers’ groups and volunteer readers (aka “guinea pigs”) can be invaluable here. You know what you meant to say, but until you get feedback from readers it’s hard to know how well it’s coming across.

prooffreadingCopyediting. I hire out as a “copyeditor,” but my work includes plenty of stylistic editing so I have a hard time distinguishing one from the other. Let’s say here that copyediting focuses on the mechanics: spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting, and the like. With nonfiction, it includes ensuring that footnotes and endnotes, bibliographies and reference lists, are accurate, consistent with each other, and properly formatted.

Proofreading. This level is the most mechanical of all. It means catching the errors that have slipped through despite all the writer’s and editor’s best efforts. (No matter how expert the writer and editor are, there will be errors. Trust me on this. I just caught one in this sentence. No, I won’t tell.)

The Editors’ Association of Canada has a handy page on its website: “Definitions of Editorial Skills.” Other organizations, publishers, and individual editors break the skills down differently, but this list gives a good idea of all the skills that are subsumed under “editing.” Not to worry: Unless you work on big, complex projects, you’re unlikely to need more than a few of them. If you do work on big, complex projects, your team probably has all the skills required, or knows where to find them.

Walking

The deadline-frazzled writer is often depicted staring at a blank screen or a blank sheet of paper. From the look in the writer’s eyes and the beads of sweat on the writer’s face, you know he or she is on the verge of panic.

Common advice to blocked or procrastinating writers: Chain yourself to your desk until it’s done.

Ummm — maybe. Writing every day is a really good idea. Chaining yourself to your desk — maybe not.  Staring too long at the computer screen can cause brain freeze. When my brain freezes, so do the characters in my story. So do the thoughts I’m trying to spin into an essay.

How to unfreeze the brain? What works best for me is physical activity. Something that doesn’t involve sitting in a chair. Something that doesn’t involve a computer.

Travvy, my #1 walking buddy, and I take a break on the trail.

Travvy, my #1 walking buddy, and I take a break on the trail.

Walking is high on my list. I walk a lot. Lately I’ve been walking even more than usual.

My last several weeks have been busy. I’ve got two huge, demanding editing jobs in progress, and I’ve also been looking after an assortment of critters while their owners are away. Usually these gigs only last a few days. In one case it’s three weeks. Weekend before last, the beginning of school vacation, I was looking after two cats, five hens, one rabbit, and four dogs, one of them mine.

My best writing time is first thing in the morning. The good news is that every single day for the last almost-three weeks I’ve managed to get up and write for at least an hour before I’m off to feed the dogs, let the hens out, and check on the cats. On my busiest weekend, three of the dogs could be walked in combination. My Travvy does better solo, and besides, a brisk hour-long walk is part of our routine. The upshot is that he and I don’t get home till a little after 10.

My writerly brain is not idle while I walk. While I’m talking to a dog and noticing changes in the air and landscape, my brain is testing ideas for my essay in progress — this is the one I referred to in “Get Me Rewrite,” about a statue that’s caused controversy at Wellesley College. It’s also playing with the structural challenges of Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel in progress. When I get home, I scribble down notes that I hope will come in handy next time I sit down at the computer.

Try it. Walk. Knead bread (another favorite activity of mine). Knit. Chop vegetables. Do barn chores. Anything that doesn’t involve staring at the computer screen. We humans have bodies as well as brains. The two are connected. Movement of the body can unfreeze the brain.

Talk to your characters. Listen to them talk to each other, or to themselves. Play with the ideas you’re trying to shape into an essay. They’re talking to you too, the way characters do. Listen to them.