New Year’s Writing Goals, 2017, and Critique Groups

Happy Pagan New Year!

The month of January is named for the Roman god Janus, the two-faces on one head keeper of the doors, of transitions, of ends and beginnings, of looking at the  past and the future. Through the years I have come to appreciate this concept more and more. For me, each January first is a day of renewal,  a time to set goals, a time to dream, a time to hope.

Like with diets, I know I can’t accomplish much writing without the encouragement of friends. My biggest encourager is my husband, Jeff, without whom I never would have honestly pursued writing.

One of my critique partners for the past many years is Samantha. Today she sent a Happy New Year’s message to the group. She wrote, “I wanted to start the year by thanking you wonderful ladies for all your support, encouragement and patience (and of course, thoughtful and skillful critiques)! I cannot imagine traveling this writing journey without you! Love you all!” Everyone in the group agrees with her.

Writing may seem like a lonely journey. I mean, individuals must do the sitting down at the keyboard and typing away alone. But I cannot conceive of a time without the support and encouragement of critique groups, people at conferences, listservs, my husband.

My two writing goals this year is to write, and to show my appreciation and encouragement to my fellow writers.

Happy New Year. May this year be full of completed hopes and dreams.

Write Alone, but Don’t be Lonely (the purpose of a critique group)

This past spring, I was at a book signing with several other authors. The woman beside me was part of the local Writer’s Guild and tried to get other authors to join. I asked if they did critiques with one another. Her eyes lit up and drifted off to the left and up before looking back down at me. “Having someone else read over your story first? What a wonderful idea!”

She is self-published, and was popular with the locals who came to the event, but as sweet as this woman was, I couldn’t get myself to buy one of her books  — without an editor or even other writers giving their imput before publication. I could be wrong. She might be one of those rare gems who is truly a word-wizard, and I missed my chance. I actually met an elderly woman once who caused my jaw to drop with her on-the-spot writings, but she wasn’t at all interested in getting published. How sad for the world.

For those of us who write and rewrite and delete and toss and revise, and revise a few more times, often doing all this before presenting anything to our critique groups, writing is a struggle. It’s time-consuming and hard work. I simply cannot imagine doing this all on my own. I need my critique group. I value their eyes and their thoughts. For me, I see five main reasons to participate in a critique group:

1. Someone other than your mother or spouse can look over the manuscript for plot structure or story arch or clarification.

2. They can point out where the characters work or don’t work, where the author has the character say or do something, but isn’t in that character’s voice or POV.

3. They can show where you’ve repeated a single word four times in two paragraphs, or have a convoluted sentence structure, or have told, not shown, etc.

4. Struggling alongside others, and each wanting to improve your writing, you can do group studies on various books of writing craft, or of books in your genre, and share the insights and promote discussions and then apply what you’ve gleaned to your own writing.

5. Critique groups keep you producing, month after month.

I’ve been in several critique groups, one for over a dozen years. I’ve also had beta readers checking word for word errors. And I’ve had editors who point out things which none of the others mentioned, and who strive to make my writing absolutely shine.

Writing is a lone business, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.

Writing is What Happens While You’re Living Your Life

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression: “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.”

I’ve got another one for writers which I just came up with: “Writing is what happens while you’re living your life.”

Through the years I’ve read dozens of articles, books, posts, etc. about how to write every day regardless of the situations thrown at you. I’m more of the feast or famine type of writer. Given the time, I can easily write 2,667 words in a day, but I refuse to feel guilty if a day or few go past and I haven’t written anything on my WIP.

In life, there are the Big Seven for causing stress in your life, all of which I’ve gone through personally or with a family member or close friend. They are birth (or other things related to children), sickness, death, divorce (or relational breakup), job change, changing of housing location, and…can’t remember. Probably something about losing your mental facilities. Actually, all of the Big Seven have to do with loss of some sort. Oh. The seventh has to do with money.

As a living writer, during any given week of life you may go through one or some of these Big Seven, along with the thousands of other smaller life distractions. That’s the challenge for any writer. The trick to being a writer is to write.

Just like athletes or people wanting to lose weight, partners can help you stick to your goals. Without my critique groups and other writing groups, I wouldn’t have the discipline to pound out chapters. There’s just too much life stuff going on all the time causing disturbances in my writing time to be able to write without a commitment to others.

My sister-in-law died this week. Sad. I live in the moment with the relatives, but I still write.

Next week I’ll be a grandmother of twins. I’ll desert my dear hubby and go the five hours around the pond to be a baby-nurse and toddler-helper (and maybe cook and housekeeper) for an unspecified amount of time (probably until just short of homicide; dead fish, guests, and all). I’m thankful I’m healthy enough and unemployed enough to be able to help out — not to mention lapping up tons of Grandma Time. Will I have the energy in all my spare time to do writing? Somehow I think this might be one of those writing famine times. Then again, with writing, I can usually control my characters, or else say, “I can’t belive you just did that,” then wait a day or few for a proper, civilized response. Whether I actually write or not, I’ll be storing up plenty of life experience things to incorporate into my future writing.

But my very best advice, and challenge, to writers is: Don’t quit. Keep on writing.

Who Are Your Inklings?

Part of my husband’s Study Leave revolves around two of my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. In preparation, he purchased the book, The Inklings of Oxford, text by H.L. Poe and photography by J.R. Veneman. It’s a five-star recommendation from me. The research and words in the book are great, but the photos have prepared my brain for what I will see.

Both Lewis and Tolkien were professors at Oxford for many years. They didn’t particularly like each other at first, but their interest in Norse mythology and then weekly sharing of what they’d written couldn’t help but draw them together through the years. Several others were also part of this group which they dubbed The Inklings.

Three things struck me (this time around) about these intellectual geniuses:

1) It was a men’s group;

2) They were all academics and university connected; and

3) Because they were tenacious with and about their weekly readings of their creative works, they finished their projects and had their manuscripts published.

I’m not a man. I’m not a college professor (although I did teach one college summer course). But I do have a weekly critique group where we share our writings and offer each other suggestions, clarifications, encouragement, and laughter. I’ve been in many critique groups in the past twenty years, some face-to-face in groups or as individual swaps, or sending manuscripts through the postal system, or chapters via email. Critiquers have come and gone, like with the Inklings. Some have held on since nearly the beginning, like with the Inklings. And within my 12-year-pld critique group, we have slowly published our works over time, just like with the Inklings.

The Inklings (and more than just Lewis and Tolkien) are an inspiration to me. I look forward to walking the paths and roads the Inklings strode. I look forward to drinking in the pubs they drank and ate in, and where they read to each other from their latest WIPs, encouraging one another as writers.

Who encourages your writing? Who are your Inklings?

 

In Support of Writing Groups, like SCBWI or NaNoWriMo

Do you feel writing is a lone adventure? If you answer, “The writing part is,” I can accept that. In order to get the rough draft out, you yourself must sit down and dedicate the time to actually do it. If you answer the entire writing process is a lone adventure, I want to take your hand and welcome you into the world of writers.

Today I overheard a woman in our Barnes and Nobel who had written a YA, self-published it, her family loved the story, and she was asking the clerk how to sell her book since B&N wouldn’t take it on. I didn’t exactly stalk her, but felt as though I was led to her this morning. So I introduced myself and walked with her out to the parking lot. It was a short conversation with little eye contact. Poor thing probably was fumbling in her pocket for her phone, hoping her fingers could dial 911 without looking at it. I politely asked about her YA book, and then if she was in any writing group. No, she wasn’t. I asked if she’d heard of SCBWI. No, she hadn’t. But she had to meet her sister for lunch, so good-bye. I gave her my business card and wrote the SCBWI national website on the back. I don’t know her name, but I do hope I had more of an influence than just terrorizing her.

I remember my early days of writing, alone, when my mom gave her writing advice for me to publish my stories in Reader’s Digest or get Oprah to talk about it on her show.

I remember joining a live writing group where I was the only children’s author, and after reading a piece, everyone consistently responded with, “Oh, how nice,” or “I’m sure children will like it.”

I remember driving nine hours to a generic writers conference where twelve of us children’s authors moved about huddled together from one workshop (on romance) to another (on marketing your book) to another (on using correct forensics evidence in your story). (Love you Pikes Peak Writers Conference folk!)

And then I met SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and fell in love.

In support of writing groups:

1) Other writers encourage you to, well, write and to finish writing what you’ve started.

2) Honest critique group people (with other than family members) will point out inconsistencies or spelling or grammar errors. After all, we all want to be not only writers, but good writers.

3) Paying a club fee for a wealth of information treasure is well worth it. The SCBWI.org site is full of helpful information, about writing, about agents, about editors, about what’s current, etc. There are also national groups like RWA (Romance Writers of America) or WWA (Western Writers of America), just to name two others.

4) Attending conferences hooks you up with agents, editors, and a flock of similar-thinking writers.

5) With online courses and groups, the information world concerning writing is abundant. In a couple of weeks starts NaNoWriMo (National November Writing Month), where the challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, or 1,667 words per day. You may never meet any of the NaNo writers face to face, but you know there are thousands of others taking up the challenge along side of you. You can do it! You are not alone.

So if you are not in a writing group… why not!

Reason #5 for Self-Publishing — Ding! Dong! My Stalker’s Dead!

In college, I dated a boy who threatened that if I ever broke up with him, he’d kill me. He also made similar threats to my original family. It was a very, very dark time of my life. Back then, he attempted to carry out his threats on several occasions, saying he wanted me to know that he had control over whether I lived or died. (How I got to this point and how I escaped him are two other stories irrelevant to this post.)

Flash forward from my college days, about forty years.

Last year, I told my cousin it was the fear of this man finding me was why I wouldn’t have anything to do with my high school or first college. Because of my husband’s job, our family moved enough to confuse even the best of our friends’ Christmas card lists. My cousin encouraged me to look up my bane and see where he was. It was such a casual, non-fearful suggestion. I said I didn’t want to know. But her comment nagged at me. As a Christian, I knew I’d always be free at death, but with this guy somewhere out there, there was a teardrop of his black threats quenching me, holding me back from doing anything very public. I never minded the quiet life. When I got home from my cousin’s, after decades of trying to ignore that deep-rooted fear, I finally googled my stalker’s name. His was a unique spelling, so it came up right away, in the town where I knew he last lived, doing activities I knew he’d loved. It was an obituary. There is no doubt this was my stalker. Plus, the obituary was only in the on-line paper for one more month. Had I googled his name a year before or a month later, I may not have found it so readily.

My reaction to this discovery (and you may ask my critique group to confirm my flood of relief): I felt like one of the minions after the death of the Wicked Witch of the West, jumping around, singing and shouting, “Ding! Dong! The witch is dead!” I hadn’t heard from this guy in forty years, but the memory of what he did to me and his threats — oh, those threats — were always buried somewhere deep inside me. At the news of his death, those threats flew away like a caged wild bird. I was free.

Along with the combination of reasons listed in additional posts in this series, this new-found freedom led me to not be afraid to have my name out there. Like, having my name on book covers! Hence, after a lifetime of writing and learning the craft of writing, I now am totally free to be published. I don’t want to wait the two to ten years to be traditionally published. I am free to be published NOW.

The Best Thing about Critique Groups

The best thing about being in a critique group is that they help make your writing sparkle. WRONG! That sure is a great thing about a critique group, but not the best.

The best thing is that they point out big things like plot structural errors or character flaws (of your fictional characters, not your own). WRONG again! That is a very essential part of critique partners, but still not the best.

The best thing is the writing encouragement you get during all your slump times. WRONG! It’s quite true that some weeks or months, if it weren’t for my critique group, I wouldn’t be doing any writing (outside of journaling and blogging, which really are and really aren’t writing).

THE BEST THING about being in a critique group is (drum roll, please) the intense friendships developed.

The very nature of writing is solitary work. You work alone, except for the rare collaborations. There you sit by yourself, pen or keyboard in hand, wrapped up with just your characters and you placed in all sorts of dire situations, and when you’re “brought back to reality,” you look around trying to figure out where and who you are. (Well, that’s a common scenario for me, anyway.) But when involved in a critique group, every week, year after year, you hold onto hands with these unmet (if online) friends, with whom you go through births, sicknesses, moves across states or countries, tornados, floods, marriage, divorce, death of friends or family or even fellow critique group members. “Life is what happens to you while you write” is certainly true. But you’re never disconnected with reality and never lacking from inspiration. My critiquing friends are my lifeblood to both my writing and reality.

I hereby delare this week Appreciate Your Critique Group Week!

Go be thankful.