Tag Archives: Writers Group

10,000 Hours

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.

It’s an honour

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.

Thank you!

More rejection

In keeping with my send out something every month resolution, I’m getting much more experience at rejection. It’s funny but my response differs each time and I can’t work out if there is any reason behind it.

The good response is that I get a fire in my belly and go out with the ‘I’ll show them’ frame of mind. Unfortunately this often leads to me sending the story out straight away without giving it the proper review a rejection probably invites.

The medium response is that I hope that maybe I can get the story up to scratch and find it a home, all it needs is a really good edit, and then another one, and another one, and maybe one more time through the writers group. These responses often lead to the story getting trapped in a never-good-enough loop.

The bad response, and the one I had this week, is the ‘why do I do this to myself?’ response. I write to entertain myself, and maybe what I find entertaining isn’t what the world wants to see. This response threatens to bring my whole send out policy to a standstill.

Fortunately I’m OCD enough to know I have committed to sending out a new piece every month, so I will continue with that until the end of the year when I can make some new resolutions. But what may happen is that once they get rejected the stories can just sit for a while.

Or maybe I’ll show them and get it published in an even BETTER magazine!

The other senses

I’m a very visual person. As a result my writing is pretty skewed toward visual descriptions of people and places. In fact I’d go so far as to say that unless something must be smelled, touched, heard or tasted by a character, I never inject those senses into the story.

I have just finished reading Perfume by Patrick Suskind. This book is an absolute feast of odours and aromas. The protagonist has a heightened sense of smell and describes everything by smell. I found myself becoming aware of the scents of my surrounds in a way I never have been before. I started to see my day to day activities in a whole new light, and it was fascinating.

Then in a rather serendipitous move onto the next Top 100 book on the list, I started reading Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. In this book the main character has a heightened sense of hearing. Again, the focus on the description was all the little sounds we naturally dismiss (if we hear them at all).

Both these books have been really enjoyable and I’m sure a large part of that is the immersion in my other senses. I have been picked up a few times by my writers group about not having enough non-visual descriptions in my stories and now I understand exactly what they mean.

I guess awareness is the first step, now I just need to find the right words to get these senses across. I’m sure my writing will only benefit from making the story a more complete experience for the reader.

The Unreliable Narrator

There is a format of writing know as the unreliable narrator. This is where the character taking you through the story is lying to you, but you don’t know it. For example, they may talk about how wonderful person X is and can’t understand why someone would murder them, then the punch line of the story is that they are the one who murdered person X.

Generally this style annoys me (though when pulled off well it can be excellent), and the only way I can relate it back to real life is those friends (and we all have them) who exaggerate their stories and sometimes get confused about what they imagined and what actually happened. And let’s face it, we know they do this so we don’t put a lot of stock in their tales anyway.

But then I realised we do all have an unreliable narrator who we cannot trust; ourselves.

I recently wrote a story and tried to edit it within 24 hours of finishing due to a writing group deadline. The edit was a waste of time. The story looked like a mess to me. I couldn’t see enough good bits to exorcise the bad bits. Yesterday I edited it again. There were lots of good bits, yes there were also lots of opportunities for improvement, but it was not the total write-off that my first edit indicated.

Then I was talking to a friend who was saying how much she hated her novel right now, and instantly I went ‘oh, you’re up to that bit’ –because it is so common for writers to hate their story at some stage, usually closer to the end than the beginning. It is our unreliable narrator kicking in and telling us stuff is crap when it is not.

I’m sure this same narrator tells us we are stupid, fat, ugly etc. and we believe it. If only it was so easy to recognise our exaggerating, lying self in real life as it is when it comes to editing. I guess we do have the benefit of writers groups to tell us that it is not crap (and honestly tell us when it is), but our friends and family are probably a little less reliable when we check in with them about if we really are being stupid.

Wright and wrong

Writers group opened with the usual guilty confessions about how much we had not written since last month. This is a fairly common conversation in both my writers groups, yet each month there is new writing to be critiqued so something must be getting written.

Are we expecting too much of ourselves?

For the most part we are not full-time writers. We have jobs, families, friends, gardens and pets that have genuine claims on our time too. There is no denying that writing is a lonely game, and you have to make sacrifices that others won’t necessarily understand, but I wonder if we are all a bit too heavy on the guilt.

It is hard to find the balance between saying no to the social events so you can get your story finished and giving your time to those who need you and who, in turn, you will need in the future. After all, if we do reach the goal of getting published, we want to have loved ones to invite to the book launch.

I’m starting to realise how important it is to factor in the non-writing time. You can either plan for it and enjoy it, or you can put unrealistic expectations on yourself and get disappointed. Sometimes having a bit of a break can be good for your writing.

Rejection

This year one of my NY resolutions was to submit a new piece of writing for publication each month. It has to be a new piece that I send off, so if a previous month’s submission gets rejected, when I next send it out it doesn’t count toward my sub for the month. So at the moment I have three pieces doing the rounds (yes, I have had one accepted, yay, but more on that closer to the publication date).

This means for the first time in a long time I’m getting lots of rejections again. The funny thing is that I’m not taking the rejections personally anymore. I just tick it off on my spreadsheet and move on (well, if I’m honest there are about five parameters collected on my spreadsheet and there may be some auto-graphing, but that’s just my Excel OCD).

I think one of the reasons I’m better able to cope with the rejection is the thick skin my writers group has calloused upon me. In my current group we each submit every month. This means a) I must write something every month, and b) I’m used to people giving me feedback on my stuff, not all of it good!

I’ve heard stories of people who fall apart when they get a critique of their story because the reader didn’t love every word. They completely blank the positive feedback and focus on the bad bits (these really are opportunities to make your story the best it can be and should be embraced). I hate to think how they must react when they get a form rejection with no explanation.

There is so much about being a writer that has nothing to do with writing, and I think accepting rejection and criticism is a big part of it. After all, even if you get a publisher who LOVES your story, there will always be people who read your stuff and write horrible reviews, or feel the need to tell the world why they think you should go back to your day job.

I don’t know if I’m ready to embrace the level of rejection and criticism that published novelists get, but thanks to my writers group I know I’m a lot closer to being ready.

Publication!

As I have confessed in earlier posts, I’ve not been subbing much this year. Partially due to my focus on my novels, and partially because I’m being lazy (if I’m honest). But I’m pleased to say that I have had a short story accepted this year, and it has just been published by Stupefying Stories.

I have a bit of a soft spot for this story, it spilled out one night, all in one go, and had me in its clutches from about 8:30pm until 11pm. I still remember sitting on the lounge, computer balanced on my lap, thinking I really should be getting to bed. I’m glad I didn’t because otherwise it might have sat on my ‘stories to be finished’ pile forever.

As much as I had fun with it, I know it is not to everyone’s taste. It has been through both of my writers groups with lovers and haters, more so than any of my other stories. The first time I showed it to the world one person in the group said that it wasn’t working on any level and I should give up on it.

I don’t like that kind of advice, so I ignored it. And a fortunate thing too, because I really enjoyed playing with this story and it was quite different from my usual style. No, it won’t change the world, and you won’t learn anything from the lead character’s journey, but hopefully it will make you smile, and I think that is enough.

So I hope you enjoy Stanhope’s Finest, and I’m grateful that the editors at Stupefying Stories have the same quirky sense of humour that I do!

The out loud edit

I’m working on a kids book at the moment, aimed at the 6-8 year old market. This area straddles the bracket between picture books and chapter books, but the books are not so long that parents can’t sit and read them to their kids. Because of this I had to make sure it sounded okay when read aloud.

I have heard that a lot of published writers go through an out loud edit, even for their adult books, and several people in my writers groups said they do the same thing for their adult stories. I had never seen it as being necessary before, and have always done all my editing and critiquing by reading in my head. But for the kids book I thought I’d better be more thorough as it might get read out loud.

Wow, what a surprise. Something my brain was happy to read, I was amazed to discover my mouth would stumble over. I didn’t realise how similar some words sound when read aloud, how twisty sentences can be when they don’t have a break in the middle. My red pen edit (the out loud edit) is by far the most prominent on the page. I slashed whole sections and simplified ruthlessly.

I think I need to do this for all my stories. As mad as I feel reading out loud when no one is listening but me, I think it does help you to see your sentences much better. The brain can be very forgiving, but the tongue doesn’t have the same level of tolerance, so I’m going to utilise that a bit more.

A marathon, not a sprint

Writing is such a slow process that you can’t help but want to speed things up a bit sometimes. Earlier in my writing career I made the mistake of sending out my stories too soon. After bleeding over them to get them finished, the moment I typed ‘the end’ I was so flushed with relief and excitement that I wanted to send them out straight away. Which is what I did, over and over again.

I have a soft spot for my first novel Paragon, but when I finished it the closest I got to editing it was converting some of the hand written pages into Word files. Then I systematically sent it off to some of the biggest publishing houses in Australia. They all said no.

Eventually I realised something might be wrong with the magnum opus, so I thought an edit might be necessary. I was shocked at the number of typos, incorrect words and even transposed names that were in the manuscript. And I had sent this out!?!

After the first edit I sent it off again, and amazingly got some interest from the last remaining big publishing house that I had not already burned with my typo-laden manuscript. After some time, and a breathtakingly close call, they passed on it and Paragon went to the bottom drawer.

Since then I have learned all sorts of things about point of view slips, excess gerunds and exposition that I have now corrected in the story (thank you writers groups). But I cannot send this to any of the major publishing houses now. They said no to Paragon and generally, unless they invite you to resubmit, there is no second chance.

If Paragon had been in the shape it is in now when I first sent it off, instead of being my learning novel, it might have been my debut novel. I was trying to sprint to the end too soon.

So the lesson I have learned, rather painfully, over more than ten years, is that writing is not a sprint, it is a marathon. You have to be prepared to pace yourself and give things time, and you can only make it to the finish line if you take all the steps to get there.