I’m always going on about how great my writers groups have been, so it should be no surprise that I think every writer should have one. I credit most of the improvements in my writing to both my writers groups. It’s not just the benefit of hearing the critiques they give on my writing, but also what is said about the writing of others.
I know the idea of a bunch of people telling you what is wrong with your story sounds a bit daunting, but if you want to get it published it will have to happen eventually. I think it is much better if the people telling you the issues with your story are a group of people who want to see you improve and succeed, rather than a publisher who is looking for an excuse to reject your story.
You also need to find the writers group that fits you. I know there are a lot of groups who believe in only saying positive things, and will focus on the bits you got right rather than the opportunities for improvement. That sort of group is not for me, and I don’t think will help improve my writing, but if that is the encouragement you need to keep writing, then go for it.
The key is to make sure you know what you are getting into before you commit. Most groups I’m aware of offer new recruits an invitation to observe and, if you like what you see, they let you submit a story for the next meeting. I have to confess I also saw a lot of people never return after that second meeting, but that’s how you find your fit.
If you don’t know any writers then contact your local writers centre. While they don’t always run writers groups, they often rent out space to writers groups, so can put you in contact with them. I’ve also seen groups advertised at Libraries, and on association pages. If you are a genre writer finding a group through a relevant association can be particularly useful as you will get more relevant feedback from others who write in the genre you do.
Another great opportunity to start up a writers group is to gather people from conventions or courses you attend. So keep that in mind when you are at your next writer event, as it can be a great opening to start talking to others. And remember, when you find the right group there is a good chance you are also finding life-long friends.
Just in case you don’t know what they are, writing conventions are usually two or three day events with a few ‘big name’ key note speakers and then a heap of other authors and industry people. These people participate in talks about all aspects of writing and sometimes they even run master-classes. The talks can cover everything from publishing trends to how to write action scenes. Most genres run conventions in most countries, just type in a Google search and you’ll find something.
I’ll never forget my first convention. The key note speakers were Robin Hobb, Neil Gaiman and Poppy Z Brite. They were fantastic. Not only did they give great talks, but they mixed with everyone afterwards in the convention bar (and there is always an attached bar). But the key note speakers were just a small part of what made it so great.
Conventions attract people from all demographics who have one overriding thing in common; writing. Meeting other people who are serious about their writing is one of the most important things a writer can do. You get to talk about issues, successful tricks, and you can find out about resources or opportunities you might otherwise never hear about.
Being at a convention gives you permission to be a writer, and your presence there shows how serious you are about improving you craft. After you have been to a few conventions you will probably find that you get less out of the talks, but you still get a lot out of hanging out at the bar. More than a few life-long friendships have been born at conventions, and I would highly recommend you make the most of it.
The hardest thing about going to a convention is dealing with the downer you inevitably fall into when it is all over and you return to your ‘normal’ life. I channelled this feeling into making me seek out other opportunities to feel like a writer, which I’ll cover in the rest of my Top 10 blogs.
OMG! On Tuesday morning I was busily building a workflow to back up a form I had just delivered, when I got a call from a quiet room. It was my boss’s, boss’s boss. When I walked into the room there was also a girl from HR in there, who looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes, she had clearly been having a tough day. My heart beat so fast I thought they would see the throb of my pulse in my throat. I couldn’t believe it, it was finally happening… I was being made redundant!
What a rollercoaster of emotions I have been on since then. I read the little flyer they gave me (as much to touch it and prove to myself that it really happened and it wasn’t just a dream) and I was meant to go through anger, sadness, acceptance etc. Well I bounced between those with alarming speed. Though sheer joy also kept popping up, and lucky for me that’s where I seem to have landed now.
All my sadness was about missing the wonderful people I work with, I feel like I am abandoning my team and that I’ll never see them again. Neither of those things are true and I have now accepted that. I also know that it was time for me to go a while back, so the universe is now kicking me out to do what I didn’t have the courage to do myself. Thank you Universe.
I have two weeks before my last day, so I have booked myself solid with lunches, coffees, oh and I have some forms and workflows to finish. But the biggest, most important thing I’m going to do with this last fortnight of work is to plan out my time off. My writers group gave me some great tips, so I’m going to get started now. Wish me luck!
I’ve heard a lot of people bag writers groups over the years. This weekend was my writers group meet-up, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Quite aside from the fantastic critiques they give me (which have greatly improved specific stories and my writing in general) but it is such a release to talk about writing with others who write.
Stephen King is perhaps one of the best examples of someone famous I can think of who has voiced an opinion against writers groups. However he does share his writing with a core group of readers, several of whom are writers, and he comments about hanging out with other writers, I am sure they must talk about writing when they catch up. So maybe he does have a writers group, but he just calls them friends. I like to think that my writers group are friends too, we just happened to meet through writing.
I think what I’m trying to say is that if you are a writer don’t do it alone. Meeting up with other people who write so you can talk about the challenges the highs and the lows is amazingly valuable. You may get support from your non-writing friends when you talk about these things, but you get understanding from another writer.
I once got a gig on an independent short film as a continuity person. I went to great lengths to make sure the cigarette being smoked was always burnt to the right point in the conversation and that the girl’s scarf was worn consistently in each shot.
I got the job because that’s the sort of thing I pick up when I watch a movie. It’s a ‘skill’ I’ve rarely had to call on when reading a book, until now. This week I picked up a book that is full of continuity errors.
The character walks to another character’s house, and at the end of the chat he takes her downstairs to her car so she can drive home. She gets up early, describing the sunrise in detail, then goes to see a friend who comments that it is nearly 5:30pm so they’ll need to wait until the next day to go to a florist. It is as if no-one bothered to read the book after the first draft was completed.
I don’t claim to never make these mistakes, I can totally relate to changing your mind on something, going back to edit it, not remembering that you referenced the thing you changed later in the story. But that’s why you always do a read through when you think you have finished the book. That’s why you give it to your beta-readers, to pick up on all the little details you got wrong. That’s why you employ an editor if you run a publishing house before you commit the book to print.
This is not a self-published book, it is also not the first edition. I can’t see how it is possible that so many continuity errors have made it into the copy of the book I have. The story is well put together, so I want to keep reading it, but the errors really are starting to hamper my enjoyment because there are just so many of them.
It really has underscored, for me, the importance of beta-readers. I know there are a lot of writers out there who shy away from showing their work to people they know, but will gladly send it off to a publisher. I guess the writer I’m reading was like that, and she managed to get away with it. But I think in 99.99% of cases where this has happened the authors have not been so lucky. In a world where publishers are looking for a reason to say no, it is best not to hand them this mistake. I’m sure that’s why I normally see so few continuity errors in books.
There is no doubt that the most important part of writing a story is coming up with the idea, but does that process of thinking about the story count as writing? I guess first we have to define what ‘counting’ means. For me, anything I can use to offset my guilt from not writing any words for the week is an activity that ‘counts’.
This week I’ve had this chat with three other writers, all more productive than me when it comes to weekly word count, and the split was 2:1 against. The argument against was that thinking is just daydreaming, whereas writing was words on a page that could be read by others. I know how easy it is to lose an hour to daydreaming, the idea that this could be writing was like being told you will now get paid for your commute to work as well as the hours in the office.
I will admit, I was firmly in the against camp, but as luck would have it, immediately after this chat I got lumbered with a 40 minute wait at the bus stop while my bus crawled through Fringe road-closure traffic. Can you guess what I did with that time?
By the time the bus rolled up I had ironed out the bumps in a new story idea that was kicking around in my head. The key here was ‘in my head’ –I haven’t written a word for this story, but I know it is a story, and now I know what happens in it.
So I guess there are cases when thinking is writing, so long as that thinking is not just fantasies about aliens landing so you don’t have to go to work, or coming up with a string of good come-backs you should have used on the person who said that really mean thing to you. Provided you don’t replace all your word-smithing time with daydreaming I think it is vital to give your mind space and time to do some work without a keyboard.
Sometimes as a writer you get an idea which fascinates you, so you turn it over in your head to try and find the best way to explore it, but there are so many parts to it that it is hard to pick just one. I think what most of us do at this point is follow the one that stands out the most, and release the other ideas back into the collective unconscious for someone else to discover.
But sometimes you can’t let them go, so you end up writing two (or more) stories with the same starting premise. I have read two John Saul books which had experiments on school children, so I know other writers do it. One of the girls in my writers group has three stories with the same idea; a kid’s version, a young adult version and a dark adult version. All three work, so I can see why she’s done it, but it does beg the question; can you put all of them out into the world?
I’ve always had the attitude of either only sending my favourite out, and keeping the other(s) just for me, or send them all out, and whichever gets published first forces the retirement of the others. I don’t know why I have this attitude, after all, if the stories were different enough for me to write them, then they should be different enough to publish.
I guess I keep thinking back to the John Saul books. In my head they became the one novel, and I really struggled to remember one separate from the other. When I was reading the second novel I kept drawing in background story from the first that didn’t fit, so I kept confusing myself.
I would love to know the experience of others, have you ever had two same-premise stories? If so, did you write them both? If so, did you send them both out? If so, did you cop any flack?
I came back into the office after buying the book of one of the writers in my Melbourne writers group, and I proudly showed it off. The first comment from one of my colleagues was ‘but shouldn’t he give you a freebie?’ I dug a little further and discovered there was a perception that when you get a book published you also were given boxes of copies to give away to friends and family.
When you publish a book you want everyone you know to buy a copy. BUY a copy. They should be the first batch of sales you can depend on. All the free books go to people who might review them in a forum where others will read about it so that they will then go out and buy a copy.
Writing and publishing a book is a business, and your business (like any other) is only as good as your sales. It is funny because a few years ago I was involved in a venture to make aluminium-free deodorant. I did have boxes of the stuff I could give away, but I was touched by how many people told me they would like to buy some.
I guess in a world where people think it is okay to illegally download music and movies for free (something I want to make it clear I abhor and am vehemently against), I should expect that books will also be thrown into that category of okay to take for free. It is so disappointing to see such an attitude be held so commonly.
Artists (and production staff) put a lot of work into these products, it just seems so obvious to me that if you like them, and you want those artists to make more of them, you should pay them for it. You don’t want your favourite author to be forced to find writing hours inside a schedule of pressure-packed full time work. I can tell you now; the work usually wins. Do you want them to finish that trilogy or not?
Go buy a book.
There is a theory that you need to do 10,000 hours working on a skill to master it. Now while I would never say that I have mastered writing, the countless hours I have spent doing it, studying it and sharing it with people who know more about it than me have certainly improved my writing.
Yesterday I spent the day in the garden. It is my third year of having a sizable garden and I reflected on how different my gardening was yesterday to what it was three years ago. When I first started gardening I would see a plant I liked in a garden centre, bring it home, plant it, and then watch it die.
I knew there were things I should consider like fertilizer, soil PH, drainage, sun exposure, frost tolerance etc. but it was too daunting and I didn’t want to learn. Randomly I started putting seaweed solution on everything I planted and got slightly better results. At that point I started watching some gardening shows.
Yesterday I mixed up my own potting mix and added different ingredients according to what I was planting. Everything now gets some kind of wetting agent and I only put sun-lovers in the sun, no matter how much better I think they would look down the side of the house.
This little bit of knowledge I have gained over the last three years has improved the survival rate of my garden significantly, but I know there is a lot more I could do. I haven’t ever measured my soil PH and my knowledge of companion planting is rudimentary at best. But I now acknowledge that I will need to learn these things when I’m ready if I want my garden to thrive.
So while it may not be true that you need to do 10,000 hours of something to get good at it, the fact is you do need to put in time, effort and be willing to learn. Knowing how to put words on the page does not equate to being a writer. Playing notes on the piano does not equate to being a musician. Doing anything well requires effort, and the sooner you embrace that and start to learn, the sooner you become better at whatever it is that you wish to master.
The Australian Horror Writers Association Short Story winners have just been announced – and I’ve got an honourable mention for my short story ‘Glow’. I am so excited that I’m almost shaking!
I started this story three times. I finally finished the first draft in March and two days later put it through my Adelaide writers group. There were problems with the story. I re-wrote it, re-wrote it and re-wrote it. Finally I subbed it to the competition nearly a whole week before the closing date (I was determined NOT to be the final entry as I normally am). By now I both loved and hated this story.
Then I got the news that there had been a record number of entries. There were nearly double the number of what they had received last year. My heart dropped. This story had been banging about inside my head for four years, why did I pick this year to give it life?
Of course you know the punch line, so I won’t labour the point, but I do have to give a massive thank you to Lilliana, Sam and Margot from my writers group for their fantastic feedback. I thought the story was finished and they all explained to me the many reasons why it wasn’t. It was a much better story after I added and cut what they suggested, and this honourable mention is proof of that.
For all of you out there who think a writers group will crush your creativity or box you into a style that is not yours, I want to say that’s rubbish. You have been going to the wrong writers groups. I’ve been a part of two so far and they have both taught me so much. I am a better writer because of them.