Wrangling Up the Posse

Howdy friends! A happy late Mother’s Day to all you maternal types. Today’s going to be a little short today, as I find myself working through some unpleasantness that you’ll probably have the joy of reading about later.

M Elizabeth Tait pointed out last week that I had forgotten to add a mentioned link and then she kindly helped me comb through the archives to find it. During the hunt, it became apparent that I had skipped over some information in my post that I had thought were written up in a previous post, but didn’t seem to have been. (Gosh, what tense is that sentence in?) And some of that missing information is finding those writing pals in the first place- pretty important stuff!

So as a quick follow up/stop gag to last week’s post, here are some of my favorite places where aspiring posse-ists can look for fellow creatives.

Formal Writing Organizations– A lot of towns and even regions have their own writing groups, like my very own Alaska Writers Guild, particularly our chapter right here in Fairbanks. You can also check and see if your age category or genre has a writing organization, such as SCBWI, RWA, SFWA, or HWA; these groups also often have local chapters as well where you can meet up with your writerly neighbors and keep up with each other and your projects. If there aren’t any local chapters, forums can help you to keep in touch with fellow members.

Writers Conferences, Workshops, etc.– When attending writing events, be sure to take a bundle of business cards with you (or at the very least, a pad of paper and a writing utensil) so you can give out your info- and be sure to plug any new pals’ info into your phone or laptop as soon as possible just in case you lose that slip of paper later. Swapping contact information with other writers at these events can be a great way to build up your writing support group.

Social Media– I found a bunch of my writing buddies on Twitter. Maybe Instagram is your thing- writers are there. Pinterest? Writers are there too! Facebook? There. Anywhere you are, other writers are too.

Local Libraries, Bookshops, Schools, etc.– These spaces love supporting local writers and often have groups you can join, or at least contacts for writing groups in town. If your local college/university/high school has a creative writing department, get it touch with those teachers specifically and see if they can introduce you to other writers as well. The same holds true for librarians and shop owners. These folks know people. These folks know everything.

So the hunt is on! Just remember as you put together your writing group that this is a collaboration to benefit all members. Be sure you give as much as you take and you will soon have a healthy, thriving writing group to support you in all your literary goals.

Happy writing!

Cultivating a Writing Posse

posseWant to know a secret? When left to my own devices, I’m not a very productive writer. I can easily type over seventy words per minute, but I generally don’t write more than a couple paragraphs in a day

That is, unless I’m writing with pals. On those nights, I can clock in and have nearly two thousand words an hour later. Of course, I’m not always that productive. We do like to chitchat between sprints, and we can sometimes lose track of how much chatting we’re doing (and how little writing). But I definitely write more when I have others working with me.

I think it comes down to pride. I am a very competitive person (just ask my longsuffering husband). And as any kid who has ever done like any sport ever knows, you’re really only supposed to compete against yourself, but- yeah. I run faster when I have other people running with me, and I got better grades when I took the same classes as my brother, and I write more when there are others writing with me. None of this is to say that I excel at any of these things. Just that I try harder than when I am on my own. (There are probably all kinds of psych to unpack here.)

Whether this is good or bad, I know me and I know what gets me moving. So while some people work better in seclusion, I work better when I know that in fifteen minutes I’m going to be comparing my word count and the last sentence I wrote to some very talented friends, and darn it all, I don’t want to embarrass myself.

I’ve written in the past about where to find writing pals (but never did it better than Grandmaster Evrard in A Beta, a Beta, My Kingdom for a Beta-Reader), but once you have a group of people together, what can you do to make that group the best it can be? Here are three things that I’ve found help our group shine.

STAY POSITIVE Okay, yes, everybody loves a little trash talk, but in the end, we are all there for encouragement. So even when someone gets a stinky word count or has to miss a session or drops off the planet for months at a time, stay positive- this is a zero guilt zone! Everyone is stronger when we support one another.

BE FLEXIBLE Whenever you get groups of people together, there must be give and take. For example, I write best at night, but that time doesn’t work for my group because one of us lives on the east coast and I live out west. My ideal writing time is like one or two in the morning for her and that’s no good. We work together to make the group the best possible for the most of us, most of the time, which is basically like trying to hit a moving target. It will never be perfect for everyone, but we try to roll with it.

KEEP IT SMALL Try to keep your group small and close knit. This will make hitting that aforementioned moving target a little easier. Also, don’t make huge plans to meet every other day for three hours at a time; make it manageable. (For example, there are three of us in my group that meets online for one hour twice per week while kids are napping/at school.) Likewise, populate your group with others that are at about your own skill level, which will help assure that everyone benefits from the group.

And that’s it! I’m sure there are other things that we could be doing Writing Crest Simpleto improve group cohesion, but honestly, I don’t think we need much more than that. We’re basically like the same demographic copied three times and we adore each other; doesn’t get much more cohesive than that. Some groups prefer having group agreements laid out at the beginning for newcomers to sign. Others like to keep it local and meet face to face. Some groups are only for writing, which others like to throw in beta reading as well. What works for one group might not work for the next. You do you.

If you have some eager authors ready to write but aren’t sure how you want the group to look in the end, just set a meeting and get started. You’ll figure out pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t, so don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. If everyone treats the group like a first draft and understands that you’ll shift and settle into your best group over time, that’s fine. If you’d rather have the bylaws and election ballots ready to go on day one, that’s fine too. Just do whatever works for your group.

However, if you start a group, or join an already established one, and find that it isn’t working for you, do not feel obligated to stay. I’m not telling you to get everyone to edit your work and then drop them when they ask the same of you (because that would make you a turd), but don’t stick with something that isn’t good for your writing career. Our group briefly had a fourth member; she was only with us for a couple months before she realized that she works more effectively on her own. And good for her for standing up for her career! Remember, zero guilt zone!

Building your career as a successful author begins with building your process. If you want that process to include others, great! If that process is best done alone, great! Know what works best for you and do that. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. The only ‘should’ is to write, whatever form that takes. That’s it.

Happy writing!

The Other Side.

Hi. Jill’s husband here.  Jill asked that I do a post for her on her birthday!  So I’ve sent her to bed and am writing this in her stead. I think this will be useful but first you have to step into my world for just a second.

I love games. In particular, I voraciously play a certain card game that involves two players, each with a deck of cards. Many people become attached to their deck, and see it as an extension of their persona. It has been carefully crafted.  It is their tool for defeating opponents. It contains rare cards that they own. In short, people want to play with their deck. So it came as a surprise to my opponent at a tournament yesterday when I asked if we could switch decks (during a non tournament game).

The reason I do this is to lean how my deck operates from the opponent’s perspective. Some cards may not seem powerful, but when played against you are quite brutal and visa versa. This made me realize that I was a good person to talk about living with a writer and focus on the other side.


actually i just needed an embaressing picture

Being stranded on a park bench in a flooded lake may hinder writing time…

Living with a writer is an interesting study in the use of time. There is never enough to go around. I take way more time in our relationship, and with more immediate specter of income, we both agree that my career time constraints have priority over Jill’s. I thought that her time writing could be truly flexible, but it has come to my attention that she is more productive at certain times of the day or has a routine that she prefers to work within. I don’t always realize when I’ve disrupted that routine.

Alpha/Beta Reading

Usually I have the role of reading material as it is generated. Or at the very least ideas are reviewed off me. In many instances I am just awed at what Jill can produce. I am not a writer nor do I enjoy the process, but I have read quite a bit. To quote that one guy: “I may not know much about [writing], but I know what I like.” My comments are often like that. I may have a minor complain about a character or how the story is laid out, or I may just express my love of how similar situations were treated in my favorite books. Jill is the one who has to mold that whimsical desire into her storyline in a literarily appropriate manner. In a similar vein, some of my proudest moments come from giving ideas to her stories that actually come to fruition.

Moral Support

yep, they're cute alright!

Moral support is about all they can do to help…

The biggest influence I think I have on Jill as a writer is as moral support. Full disclosure here: sometimes I think that all this writing stuff is useless unless its getting a paycheck. But then I realize that my schooling and unpaid internships are generating just as much money. And I truly believe in the skills my wife possesses and the material she produces. I think it is amazing and people should pay to read her work. Besides, even if her current novel fails to every publish it is still not a “failure”. It’s a piece of good writing, of value for her, and to all who do read it.  Is a painting useless is if no one buys it? No. Writing is clearly an art, and there is something beautiful and inspiring about the creating of art. There is not a way to really put a price on that.

Other Other Side

I just want to end my note here by reiterating my example of the card game. In the game, there is always a single clear opponent. From what I gather of the writing business there are a number of people who have an important opinion of what a writer does. The spouse is at the bottom of that list in many ways. I think this blog has many examples of how to gain the perspective of the agents, readers, publishers, editors, and reviewers.

I hope we can all get a little more understanding of each other by “switching decks” as often as possible.

Thank you Jill for being so wonderful, and happy birthday!

Usin’ and Abusin’

I have long and loud lauded the glories and contributions of beta readers. Beta readers get a sneak peak at our baby before it’s left on some agent’s front porch, and they tell us what makes it a lovely and/or ugly little baby. Then we can beautify our babe a bit more in the hope that someone will pick that little darling up and take it in out of the cold.

But for some of us, that’s not enough. We need even more hand-holding than that. And those long suffering hand-holders are more like our doulas, helping us push that ugly newborn out in the first place.

That’s right, I’m talking about alpha readers. Not every writer needs them. But for those of us who do, they are an absolute god-send. My half-formed protolizard fetal story ideas would probably never make it into first draft form without my alpha reader. (She also is my best friend and we constantly make each other’s husbands jealous. My cousin thinks we are secretly lovers. This relationship has all sorts of benefits.)

Alpha readers are different from beta readers in that they get the blow-by-blow of the writing process. Alpha readers hang with their writers every step of the way, offering suggestions, asking insightful questions, and kicking your rear into gear when you slack off. And then when you’re all done with that first draft, they usually double up as a beta reader, too. All alpha readers have their own style, but here are the uses I make of my literary slave best buddy who I’d never ever abuse.

Brainstorming There is something about pinging ideas off of a like-minded buddy that just gets my creative juices flowing. She’s pretty much my muse. I usually come into these sessions with something I’m excited about. If I can get her excited about it, too, I know we may be onto something.

Outlining/Story-boarding Or however you do it. I tend to write out a long-winded list of points that my alpha reader then tears into like a shark into a whale carcass. This is where having an alpha reader is most beneficial for me. She chews that outline to bits and then spits it back at me, demanding more. She wants the details. And heaven help me, I don’t have them. So I’d better get them. Before my fingers ever touch the keyboard, she makes me think through every subplot, every relationship, every side character, and every motivation and reaction. Which saves me huge amounts of fuss and worry later on when I start writing.

Researching I have seriously dragged my alpha reader out into the woods with me in full elfy-garb to cook slabs of raw meat over an open fire that we built without the benefit of a hatchet. I also made her slap me. Not all alpha readers will spend the night shivering with you in your bishop’s tree house. But my alpha reader is pretty much the cat’s meow.

Writing Alpha reader involvement varies from person to person. My alpha is with me every step of the way. We write together daily (or mostly daily, anyway- I have a really pathetic internet connection) and so we know exactly what the other is working on at all times. That really keeps my nose to the grindstone. If I’m bored writing, I know my alpha reader is bored hearing about it. And my beta readers will be bored reading about it. And agents won’t get past the first sentence.

Fixing the Cheesy/Boring/Cliche/Etc. Poop You’ve Just Written Just because you’ve written it doesn’t mean you know how to fix it. Or even that you can recognize it. Probably about every week, if not more, my poor alpha reader gets some whiny message about how So-and-so’s golden hair sparkling in the sunshine just isn’t working out and I don’t know why, and then she has to pull my butt out of the emo chair and help me shovel the poo. (Actually, my issues are more along the lines of “Should I KILL So-and-so in such-and-such a way, or some other way?” Because So-and-so must die.) This isn’t usually something that happens in the end. This is a boots-on-the-ground emergency clean-up crew. Whatever I wrote yesterday was plain garbage, so it’s the alpha reader’s job to talk me through the fixin’s today. I don’t know how many emails I’ve sent my beta reader titled “Is this weird?” Or stupid. Or boring. Or whatever the adjective of the day is. And I can always count on her giving me her honest reaction.

Then and only then do my beta readers get a steaming hot mess shoveled out into their inboxes. (Now all my beta readers are wondering what the heck my poor alpha reader has to put up with.)

So how does one pick up a suitable alpha reader? Just poke around! Make friends on the internet. Meet other writers in your community. Join a critique group and sort through the pickin’s there. I found my alpha reader at church. It’s important to have an alpha reader that you can be completely honest with (because things will get messy) and who can be completely honest with you (because things will get messy).

Once you have a solid working relationship with your alpha reader, it’s like having a second brain rattling around your skull. And, I don’t care what the doctors say, that can only be a good thing.