Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Finding And Maintaining A Fun And Effective Writing Group

So last week I lamented the lack of writing groups in my life, and asked for help. Because she's amazing, my blogging friend Loni Townsend answered me with such a long, detailed, and helpful email that I asked her to reshape it a bit and make it into a guest post. She did this purely because I asked her to, but I wanted to give her a shout-out, because a) her writing is wonderful, and b) so is she. So if you haven't already, please go buy her books! (And keep reading after her guest post for a look into her most recent novella, This World Bites.)

What follows is Loni's excellent advice on finding, forming, and maintaining a writing group:

Last week, Liz brought up the topic of writing groups, and how much she’d love to find one.

As my buddy Jim mentioned on my blog a few weeks back, I do have one of those groups. In fact, I'm the one that started it because I couldn't find anything that matched what I wanted in a group. I didn't want casual come-if-you-can-and-we'll-do-whatever, which at the time was all the Idaho Writer's Guild offered.

Jim is actually the critique group manager guy for the guild. He keeps track of all of the different groups, so that when someone comes to the guild, he can point them in the right direction. I'm not part of the guild, since I can't justify paying for meetings and conferences that I can't attend because of work and family. But I know enough people on the board to be dangerous. ;) That being said, if you have a local writer's guild, check there first because they may have something you're looking for.

Since the guild didn't have something I wanted, I made my own. It started with NaNoWriMo. Me and a couple of friends met every Friday morning for "write-ins" (drinking coffee and chatting a lot) during November. After November ended, we created a Facebook group that local people could join and stay in contact beyond the NaNo forums. I posted a question to the group to see if anyone would be interested in starting up a critique group. I knew I wanted a limited number of people because big groups are hard to manage when it comes to scheduling, plus you lose some of the intimacy. I got a couple of bites from people I hadn't met yet, and some interest from a few I had.

I ended up limiting it to 12 because the closest library had a meeting room that sat 12 and was free to reserve.

Then I sat down and wrote the expectations and guidelines for what I wanted. Here's a look into those guidelines:

Treasure Valley Critiquers is a group aimed to provide constructive criticism to group participants. It is a community where writers can go to gain honest feedback about a segment of their work.


  • Meetings will take place every two weeks
  • Sharing will take place on a round-robin schedule.
  • One member will share per scheduled 60 minutes. If more than 60 minutes is scheduled, then more than one member will share.
  • The scheduled sharer will email their work to the other members, or place it in the appropriate Dropbox folder, 10-14 days before their scheduled share date and indicate genre.
  • The shared segment will consist of approximately 5,000 words or less.
  • Critiquing members will have feedback compiled prior to meeting start (either physically or electronically).
  • Sharing author will remain silent during the discussion.
  • Critiquing members will discuss the work with the author present, but not directly address the author. 
  • First time attendees must participate in critiquing another member’s work before they are added to the schedule. 
  • Criticism is more than just grammar. 
  • Topics covered will include:
    • Plot/Pacing
    • Characterization
    • Setting/Tone
    • Clarity
    • Dialogue
    • Entertainment Value – If a short story, was it satisfactory? If part of a bigger story, would you continue reading?
    • Other


  • Be courteous. It is fine to dislike another person’s writing or work and to voice that opinion, but refrain from cruel or mean-spirited feedback. Comments such as “It sucked” are inappropriate. If you come bearing a complaint, be prepared to provide a suggestion on how the piece can be improved.
  • Keep an open mind. People are allowed to have opinions. Whether you are giving feedback or receiving it, not everyone comes from the same background. Some people may and will have different moral foundations. Even if you disagree with someone else’s opinion, discuss your reasons civilly. 
  • If you are the sharing author: once your time has started, you are done talking. Refrain from defending or commenting on or even clarifying any of the details within your work. You are there to listen. Your readers will not have you there to answer all their questions once you publish, so if something is misunderstood, then it may need to be rewritten. 
  • Avoid sidetracking on tangents that don’t relate to the author’s work. This is the time to focus on the author’s writing and not how attractive a particular actor is (even though you would love to see him play this such-and-such character in the segment you’ve just read).
  • Don't share another author's pages with people outside of the group unless you gain the author's explicit permission. They are trusting you with their work. Don't betray that trust. You don't own the rights to their work.

It's been tweaked a few times since the beginning, but mostly it's the same.

Then I figured out a schedule. Every other Wednesday worked best for most people, so that's what I went with.

I manage the critiquing schedule, group vacancies, and location scheduling. We have a closed Facebook group where I post the events of who is going when and where we're meeting. I also keep track of time and prompt topic discussion while we are critiquing, and steer conversation back on track when we get too far off-topic. I've even busted out my mom voice on some of the more excessive talkers.

Not all people understand the finer points of the group's intention. We've had to update our expectations to include a topic list so that we weren't spending twenty minutes on wrongly placed commas. It's helped smooth over some of the frustrations some members have with other members.

We use Dropbox to share our work and feedback. This works, for the most part. :) Some people still struggle with uploading files. They usually just email them to me and I put them in the folder. We used to email our pieces to a group distribution, but then some people were getting missed or lost, and I'd have to re-email.

Sometimes the group plan doesn't always work. One of my members started a separate group specifically for YA/NA (mine is open to all genres, including nonfiction). She based it on our existing structure, and expectations and guidelines. A volatile personality in her group started fracturing the other members' confidence. She came to me asking how I would handle the member. I suggested she talk to him, and if he wasn't willing to be tactful with his feedback, then to cut him off. I don't think she was willing to kick him out, or she didn't convey her message very well (she's not a mom and doesn't have a mom voice). The group crumbled, and disbanded after a few months.

We've had people come and go from my group. Since creating the group nearly two years ago, there are 6 from the original 12, and we've had 8 people join and leave for varying reasons (new babies, new jobs, new apartments in other cities). We still see each other around town and exchange laughs and stories.

Everyone is looking for something slightly different. If you don’t find what you want, try making your own.

This World Bites

It’s her first day on a new world and Cera's already found trouble. Michael, her guardian, has been bitten by a zombie and will soon join the undead ranks.

Everyone tells her there's no cure, but Cera isn't one to be deterred. She’s willing to face off with zombie hordes, demon slavers, and black market informants if it means she’ll find a cure for Michael.

But she’s not the only one hunting for something.

Something is hunting her.

Buy it now:

Barnes & Noble

By day, she writes code. By predawn darkness, she writes fantasies. All other times, she writes in her head.

People call her peculiar with a twisted sense of fashion, but don't let those understatements fool you. Her behavior is perfectly normal for a squirrel disguised as a human. That's part of being a ninja—blending in.

She makes her home in Idaho with her sadistically clever—yet often thwarted—husband, two frighteningly brilliant children, and three sneaky little shibas.

Find her on her blog or social media.

Contact info:
Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Google+ | Goodreads

Thank you so much, Loni!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Writing Groups And Other Rare Species

Note: Somehow I missed signing up for Alex J. Cavanaugh's release day! I am so bummed, and so sorry, Alex!! So let me take a second to plug his BRAND NEW BOOK, Dragon of the Stars, which is OUT and available to buy. Head on over to Alex's blog for all of the info.

On to today's regular post...

Hey, A-Zers! You're through your first week of the marathon. Congratulations!!! I am wholly impressed by all of you.

Now, for something totally unrelated. Or, well, mostly unrelated.

I am at a loss. Not only that, I am lost. Being lost as well as at a loss is frustrating, not to mention confusing. Sort of like being stranded on a mountain with no idea of how to get home, and no idea of how to figure out how to get home. Maybe you have a compass but don't know how to use it, and you're staring at due north on it and wishing you knew what lay north of you if you walked that way, besides some fragment of Earth's magnetic field.

Before my metaphor gets stretched too thin (I know; too late), what I mean is that I know I am in desperate need of a writing group. Not just CPs or beta readers, although I love and appreciate them beyond words, but an actual, bona fide, official writing group. You know, people who meet up with each other on at least a semi-regular basis and exchange work, trade critiques and advice, inspire each other, and help each other. People who meet up just for writing dates. You know, my people. 

See, I'm working hard on my non-fiction and am producing pieces much more quickly than I could ever produce a novel, and as a result I need other pairs of eyes on them often. Far more often, in fact, than I can ask my CPs and beta readers to do. I also need some face-to-face time, some writing dates, some pushes and inspiration and community. As I said, I need a damn group.

The problem is that I can't seem to find one. I go to some writing classes and I meet some cool people, but I haven't yet met anyone who could form such a group. Some people live too far to meet up; some people are casual, occasional writers who don't need a group; and some...well, in total honesty some I don't want to be in a group with. There, I said it: I'm picky.

This is one of the few times I really regret not going through an MFA program. I think many people form their groups that way, or at least get connected to them through their communities.

Anyway, I am also at a loss as to how find this group. I know I could put out an ad on craig's list or something, but as I said, I'm picky.

So, blogosphere, I put this question out to you: if you have such a group, how on earth did you find it? How did it get started? Do you have any tips you could share with the lost, dazed, and confused?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Insecure Writers: Saying No and Cheering Anyway

It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! The IWSG is an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. You, too, can join us anytime!

Happy IWSG, everyone, but also, happy first day of the A-Z Challenge! To use last week's metaphor, this is the starting line of one very long, challenging, amazing, inspiring, and exhausting marathon of a month. For the uninitiated (and are there any people who don't know what this is anymore?), bloggers who pick up the thrown gauntlet of the challenge must post every day for the month of April (except Sundays), with each post corresponding to a sequential letter of the alphabet, and revolving around a theme.

To all of you brave participants out there, I send my heartfelt congratulations and best wishes. You're all going to kill it, I know it, and I'll be here cheering you on from the sidelines.

Yes, from the sidelines. I feel a little wimpy saying that, but here's the deal: I did the challenge last year, and while I had fun, and learned a lot, and loved meeting so many other new bloggers, it took up a ton of time. And that's the problem.

Time, you see, is one commodity I never have enough of. And when my time gets cut short, one of the first things to suffer is my writing - because unfortunately, the day job pays the bills, and it doesn't do that so well when I take time off to blog or write.

When I signed up for the challenge last year, I was naive enough to think that as long as I planned it all in advance, it wouldn't take up too much of my time, and I'd still be able to write. After about two days I realized how ridiculous that thought was. It wasn't the posts that ate up my time - it was all of the visits! Every day! And I loved those visits, and couldn't bring myself to cut them short, and as a result I got very little actual writing done. So this year, I'm a little older, and a little wiser, and I know just can't do that again for another whole month. So this year, I am bowing out - gracefully or not - to devote more time to writing.

Do I feel insecure, and wimpy and sad and a little pathetic about that? YOU BET I DO. Is it going to stop me? Well, no, it's not.

So, my brave A-Z friends, I really do salute you - but I also want to salute anyone who, like me, is deciding that it's OK to miss the fun, and to prioritize other things. Because saying no is hard, darn it. I'm still learning how to do it.

Are you A-Zing it this year? If not, why not?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Six Prompts to Kick-Start Your Writing

Hey everyone, it's almost time for the A-Z Challenge, which I like to call it the blogging version of an Ironman Triathlon! No, I'm not participating this year (more on that next week), but I thought I should mention it, in case you were thinking of joining. If you are, and haven't yet - don't. I say this not out of dislike of the challenge - it's great - but because that would mean you haven't planned your theme or pre-written any posts, and that would mean you would be royally (excuse the language) screwed.


I'm short on ideas today, so I thought I'd do something we all always need, and provide some gentle kicks in the butt to get us writing. In other words, I've got PROMPTS, y'all.

I've collected a few of my faves for you. Some of them are non-fiction, cuz, y'know, that's what I'm writing these days, but I think they would make really cool fiction prompts, too. I've given the original authors of these prompts credit whenever possible, and I came up one of them myself. If you're looking for more where these came from, definitely click on the links below, as almost all of them lead to longer lists of prompts, and some other great resources.

Ok, so, PROMPTS:

And there you have it. Now - go write!! And if you have a favorite prompt or two, put it in the comments, please!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Lost List: Books We Should Have Read

Every once in a while, I like to veer away from the usual theme of this blog (whatever that is; if you know it, please do tell me) and write a post about reading books.

Those words deserve italics, because I love books. Like many of you, I am a committed and admitted bibliophile. This of course causes many of the problems we all struggle with: overstuffed shelves, precarious stacks of books on the nightstand, 'libraries' so big on e-readers that it would be impossible to read it all in one lifetime, and marital discord ("I don't WANT to throw any of these away! They're my FRIENDS!") But, it also brings great joy, transports us to different lands, and provides fodder for blog posts.

In the past, I've blogged about the books that made me a writer, as well as my favorite childhood books, and I've vaguely promised to blog about Books That Got Me Through Puberty Without Committing Heinous Bodily Harm To Myself or Others, as well as Books That Changed The Way I Write. I will post about those some day, but not today.

Today, I want to post a different sort of list, one that feels appropriate to the discussions about diversity that are (thankfully) all over the place these days: Books I Wish Someone Had Told Me To Read, But No One Ever Did. I have to state first that no one told me to read them mostly because they are by and about marginalized and/or minority populations (at least in the U.S.), but also because I am white and American and grew up in a white and American suburb. I'd be interested to know if people who grew up in the States, but from other backgrounds, did have a more diverse list of Books To Read - but I'd bet, unfortunately, that the answer is no.

Most of these are fairly well-known, critically acclaimed books - although there are a few exceptions - and I know I'm not listing anything shocking or unheard of. There aren't a lot of unknown gems here. But this is my real list, a list of books I loved, that changed me, moved me, widened my world-view - and they are all books I found on my own, only recently.

So without further adieu, here are the Books I Wish Someone Had Told Me To Read, But No One Ever Did:

  • Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie: I know Rushdie is on a lot of people's lists, but he never made it onto any of my assigned or even recommended reading lists until a few years ago. I loved this book. It's vibrant and funny and infuriating, rich with details about the best and worst parts of India's history. It's also a brilliant work of magical realism, which is one of my favorite underwritten genres.
  • What Looks Like Crazy On an Ordinary Day, by Pearl Cleage: I'm embarrassed to admit this, but for the sake of this list, I have to say that this was the first book I'd read by a modern black female author not named Toni Morrison. When I first read it, at least 15 years ago, I fell in love with it for its humor and wisdom and craft, but also because I could so easily relate to it. The book is about the black community in Atlanta and in the MC's small town in Michigan, but it's alive with human fears, failures, and hopes. I loved the main character, and identified with her, and if that's not essential in our world of divisions and misunderstandings, I don't know what is. 
  • In The City of Shy Hunters, by Tom Spanbauer: I'm not going to lie - this is a very strange book. The plot wanders and meanders, and sometimes falls down shifting rabbit holes of drug-induced insanity. The ending is unconventional, to say the least. But, it's also heart-wrenching and hilarious, gritty, real, and sometimes down and frighteningly dirty. It paints a crystal-clear picture of New York City during the AIDS epidemic, and another, equally clear (and devastating) picture of what it was like to grow up gay in 1960s-70s middle America. 
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Ok, I'm cheating, here. No one told me to read this book because it just came out last year, so no one really had a chance to - BUT I loved it so much that I don't care if I'm cheating. It should be required reading on any list of modern American literature. For those who would argue that it's about Nigeria, I would say it's also first and foremost about being an immigrant in America, and there is nothing more American than that. It's also a frank, unflinching look at race and racism in the States. 
  • The House of Spirits, by Isabel Allende: Yes, I love magical realism, if you can't tell. And while everyone told me to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, nobody mentioned I might also want to try Isabel Allende. This is a fantastic, sweeping, epic book, at times ridiculous; at others, hideous; at still others, tender; and also violent, romantic, magical, political, and wonderful. It'll take a while to read, but it's worth every minute. 
  • Orlando, or Mrs. Dalloway, or To The Lighthouse, or The Waves by Virginia Woolf: During my high school and college years, I felt like most teachers and students talked about Virginia Woolf the way that people talk about tax reform: everyone agrees it's important, and no one wants to touch it. So there was a lot of talk about how great Woolf was, and very little in the way of actual reading. These four titles are my favorites of hers, listed here in what I consider their order of readability, from easiest to hardest. They are each brilliant and experimental and wonderful, but The Waves might be the most challenging - and rewarding - book I've ever read.
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich: To be fair and honest, I have to admit two things. First, a teacher did tell me to read Erdrich in college, albeit a different, more well-known book; and second, my aunt recommended this book to me. But then, my aunt is gay and Jewish and not remotely mainstream, so I think this book still deserves to be on this list. Here's the teaser from the Amazon page: "For more than a half century, Father Damien Modeste has served his beloved people, the Ojibwe, on the remote reservation of Little No Horse. Now, nearing the end of his life, Father Damien dreads the discovery of his physical identity, for he is a woman who has lived as a man." 'Nuff said, I think. Oh, and, it's a great book.
What about you? What books would make it on your list? What did I miss - and what should I read?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Visiting Old Friends

I'm not going to write about the weather today. Really, I'm not. Except to mention, just off-hand, briefly, you know, all nonchalant and stuff, that it is currently 50 DEGREES OUTSIDE. What is that sound? That drip drip drip drip drip? Oh right - THE SNOW IS MELTING! THE SNOW IS MELTING!!! HALLELUJAH!!

Ding dong the winter's dead! What's all dead? The winter's dead! Ding dong the wicked winter's dead!

(Man, I must be losing it; that's my second Wizard of Oz reference in the last few weeks.)

In celebration, I shall write about something besides snow. Amazing, I know.

So, during this nasty, insane, ludicrous winter I had a large amount of time to spend holed up in my house, waiting out the storms. Add to that the fact that it was utterly miserable outside for long weeks at a time, and you have a perfect recipe for escapism. Not one to be deterred by cliches, I dove right into an old, beloved fantasy series: Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle. 

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I've read these books before, and adored them, but it's been years since I last picked them up (well, except for The Tombs of Atuan; I read that one on an annual basis.) And this time through, reading them as an adult and not a teenager or college student, one of my favorite things happened: I read the familiar, much-loved stories and characters, and it was an entirely new experience. There was the memory of how I felt reading them years ago, and then there were all of the new, unexpected, and very different feelings reading them again.

I love when this happens. It's the mark of well-written, thoughtful books: the ability to reach different readers on different levels at different times. I'd even venture to say it's one of the things that fantasy does so well, because everything in fantasy is cloaked and wrapped in metaphor. Sometimes, at some points in our lives, we see its disguise, and then at others, we see beneath that costume to its true nature. Metaphor, myth, fantasy; these things are primal; felt but not always understood; they reach down into the dark corners of our minds and touch something there, in the deepest level, our collective unconscious.

I won't give away anything, or spoil anything, but there were things I'd disliked about these books when I was younger, that I found had now become some of my favorite parts - because I understood them so differently. The fourth book, Tehanu, used to be one of my least favorite, and this time, I loved it. I also learned, incidentally, that Le Guin wrote it nearly twenty years after the third book - and you can see that change and growth in every word. Or at least, I could see it now, fifteen years after the first time I read it.

What about you? What books do you return to, and find new meaning in, over and over again?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Insecure Writers: Feathers

It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! The IWSG is an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. You, too, can join us anytime!

Happy March, everyone! I'm always happy when February finally ends, but this year I'm overjoyed. It's March! It's spring!! Well, almost, anyway!!!

This excitement is in spite of the fact that I've lived in New England for most of my life, and so I know that March is the king of unmet expectations. March comes in with a super cool haircut and a hot leather jacket and a chip the size of Montana on its shoulder. It smirks at us, saying, "Oh, you want spring, huh? How about this blizzard first?" And then it proceeds to dump more winter on us, proving itself to be just another normal, boring month posing as a sexy summer crush.

BUT, I remain hopeful. Even though the past says otherwise; even though it's snowing as I write this. Again. It's March, and spring is coming, dammit.

So, that's my message for IWSG today, folks: be hopeful. Against all the odds, against all of those gloomy statistics about publishing and dark predictions on the death of literature, against all of our own fears about not being good enough, talented enough, savvy enough, driven enough, against writers' block and crippling anxiety and the unbearable weight of expectations; against the mountains of snow and the pinnacles of ice and the grey, heavy skies: hope.

After all, as someone once said, hope is the thing with feathers. Just watch: it'll out-fly us all.