Sunday, July 31, 2011

Writing groups

As today was the monthly meeting of the Schenectady Writing Assistance Group, I thought it might be an apt topic for a post today.

Our group was formed following NaNoWriMo in 2008.  We'd spoken to several participants who wanted to continue writing throughout the year, and who had trouble making it to the write-ins and other events.  Or, they had too much going on in November, but still wanted that interaction from other writers.  It just so happens that a lot of us are in similar situations with our writing - we've been tinkering with it for some time, but still consider ourselves amateurs.

Since the formation, we've lost and gained members, some of whom have publication credits.  One member since the beginning was just picked up by an ebook publisher.  She writes romance, and I'll link to it when her book becomes available.  She and I write very different stories, but we've each found our voices, which is probably why we're crit partners.

Our group is more informal than a lot of writing groups.  We don't critique entire novels, though most of us are working on novels.  We'll critique a chapter, and maybe a later chapter during a later meeting.  We only critique one or two members per meeting, and some of us (*cough* like the thin-skinned among us *cough*) get away with getting two critiques a year, or fewer.

Most of what we all get out of the group is the social aspect.  Writing is a solitary activity, as I'm sure you know, if you're reading the blog.  We acknowledge that, as well as how hard it is to really dig into the subject without our friends' eyes glazing over.  The meetings are where we can talk about how figuring out the bad guy's eye color has changed everything, and everyone else will nod knowingly.  We set goals, but there are no punishments for missing our goals.  The only reward for consistently meeting our goals is that we can be smug about it, and we can set the bar however low we want.

We also have informal write-ins every other week, which are another opportunity for social interaction.  We're trying to cut it down so that there's some time to write without distractions in the middle, but we're still figuring that out.  We're experimenting now with asking people, at the beginning of the write-in, if they can move elsewhere if they want a conversation so they don't distract the rest of us, and setting aside 7 - 9 PM for just writing.

Every once in a while, we have community write-ins at local libraries and coffee shops, and we invite our NaNoWriMo friends and ask them to get the word out.

I can't say for certain if the writing group has helped me with my writing.  I know I've been consistently writing since its formation, and I like the friendships I've formed with members of the group.  Sometimes, it feels like more of a distraction than a help, but I can't imagine going without.

I highly recommend a writer's group, if you can arrange one.  If you're looking for a group as informal as SWAG, then your local NaNoWriMo chapter may be the best place to start.  If not, your library may have an already-established writing group, or know of one.  Check your local community college, bookstores, or anywhere else aspiring writers or bibliophiles hang out.  If there isn't one already established, consider starting one, or joining one online.

And if the first one doesn't work out, don't get discouraged.  Writing groups can fall apart for a lot of reasons.  We're really lucky to have the group we do; we're agreeable, open to ideas, and flexible, and we generally agree on our purpose and what we should be doing.  If you're not getting anything out of your group, or they're not what you wanted out of a group, you're under no obligation to stay, even if you've made friends there.

Especially if you've made friends, for that matter.  Some of my favorite people I don't see very often are former SWAGers.  We all respected our friends a lot more for standing up to say they weren't getting as much out of the meetings anymore, or had other things to do.

Review: Tails of Wonder and Imagination

Tails of Wonder and Imagination
Tails of Wonder and Imagination by Ellen Datlow

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

While this collection has several delightful stories in it, it also has an awful lot of stories about cats being tortured, mistreated, or killed, and it was upsetting to read. The one story with a meaningful cat death made me cry like my own cat had died.

Here are the highlights:

"No Heaven Will Not Ever Heaven Be..." is about an artist who painted ads, and incorporated in all the cats he'd loved.

"The Price" is a Neil Gaiman story about a cat showing up to deal with an otherworldly pest problem.

"Dark Eyes, Faith, and Devotion" by Charles de Lint is about a cabbie with a criminal record going on a rescue mission for a kitten.

"Gordon, the Self-Made Cat" by Peter S. Beagle is about a mouse who goes to cat school. It's still adorable, though I've read it several times, now.

"The Burglar Takes a Cat" is about a bookstore owner and retired thief being talked into having a cat, though he doesn't consider himself a cat person.

"Coyote Peyote" by Carole Nelson Douglas is a short story about Midnight Louie, the feline PI.

"The Poet and the Inkmaker's Daughter" is a fable about a matchmaking red bobtailed cat.

"The Manticore's Tale" is a fun fairy tale about a manticore kidnapped as a kitten, then befriended by a young girl who needs to escape.

"Nine Lives to Live" by Sharyn McCrumb is a revenge tale about a man who gets his wish and comes back as a cat.

"Dominion" is a creation myth where Eden's serpent creates cats out of clay and juice from fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

"Healing Benjamin" is the aforementioned story that made me cry. It was lovely, but upsetting.

The trouble with rating anthologies is the uneven quality. The above stories deserve 4 or 5 stars. The stories I haven't mentioned, though, are what stuck with me when I chose the overall rating.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I started this book, I had no idea it was a lighthearted, humorous book. The blurb made it sound depressing and heavy, but I was ready to slog through, nonetheless.

What I got, instead, was an epistolary novel (meaning, told through writings and letters) about people surviving with their senses of humor intact thanks to the bonding power of books. It would be a poor writer who could make that anything but an enjoyable read, and neither Shaffer nor Barrows failed in their task.

The story takes place in post-WWII Great Britain, and follows the movements of the writer Juliet Ashton. She's written a series of humorous essays about living in wartime, and they've just been published into a book. While she's hunting for the subject of her next publication, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, who has happened to get a copy of a book that used to belong to her. He lives in the only British territory to have been occupied by the Germans during WWII, and she rightly sniffs out a story there. But it's the people she's really interested in, and she and the reader get to know them all better through the course of their correspondence.

It's the characters who hold this book together; the plot is actually rather light, for the subject matter. There are important goings-on, and various atrocities of the war are brought up, somehow without breaking the overall light and cheerful tone of the book. I often found myself laughing at a passage, tearing up at the next, then laughing again. That rests entirely on the shoulders of the various narrative voices employed in the letters. In the audio edition, they're all read by different narrators, but the language still sounds distinct for each character.

Don't let the subject matter intimidate you. If you love reading and you like stories about the endurance of the human spirit (without having to endure everything with them), then you'll enjoy this book. I was rather surprised, coming up on the end, that I was almost finished with it, and then I was disappointed that I couldn't spend more time with the characters. But that's what rereads are for.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The "I" problem

I have read posts about blogging before.  I didn't do it to be meta.  I did it to see what I should do with my posts, should I feel like reaching an actual audience, or in case I had a reason for people to be drawn to my posts about writing (say, like publication).

The most often repeated piece of advice about blogging is to avoid talking about oneself too often. "Don't say 'I' more than 10 times in your post," they exhort.  It's egotistic and self-involved, and you'll bore people.

Maybe I am boring you.  But at least I'm not preaching to you.  Which is exactly what it feels like I'm doing if I'm moving beyond sharing my own experiences.

I feel I'm coming from a place more of humility if I'm saying, "this is what I deal with, and this is what works," versus, "this is what you should do."  The way I'm phrasing it, I figure, people can take it as advice, or as an interesting anecdote, or as commiseration.

Besides, who am I to tell people what works?  I can vomit back all the things I've learned in writing classes, or from my writing group, or from what I've read about writing.  But you can take those classes, join your own writing group, read those books, all on your own.  You don't need the filter of my perception sullying that experience.

And so, I hope you're reading these posts in the spirit I intend them:  as one wannabe writer's perspective on the issues and/or solutions I run into while writing.  You can take it as advice if you find anything useful.  You can take it as entertainment, on whatever level you find me amusing.  You can take it as commiseration, and I welcome and will respond to all comments (except spam, which will be deleted).

There are certainly writers who know enough about the craft, the process, the whole publication thing, to be able to dispense advice.  I wouldn't dare presume to place myself on their level.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

Fearless Fourteen
Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I've said before, I've made it rather far to decide I don't like the series, now. Evanovich continues to improve and bring us thrilling adventures that are fun to read.

This installment introduces Brenda, the 61-year-old pop tart. She drinks, gropes her bodyguards, and runs around literally chasing down news stories in an effort to reinvent herself. She's this book's answer to the fact that Stephanie is getting too competent to make stupid, silly mistakes, so someone has to make them for her.

Lula remains a major player in the madcap adventures, and there's a reappearance of Mooner, the innocent stoner who manages to get himself in a lot of trouble.

The plot, itself, revolves around a missing $9M robbery haul, and the mysterious fourth partner who helped pull it off. Stephanie proves just as lucky, and to have learned something from her previous adventures, in figuring it out.

I thought the romantic angle, too, was a good balance. Both of her love interests make good arguments for winning her over for good, and the tension continues to simmer in a convincing way. I'm not shouting at the character to quit being a twit and just pick one, as I suspected I would be this far into the series.

One note about the audio edition: it has an interview between Janet Evanovich and the narrator, Lorelei King, at the very end. It gives insight both into the books, and into the voice acting process, and it was a cool bonus. I was glad I'd picked it up on audio, just to hear that blurb.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Receiving feedback

I'm really thin-skinned, in case my last few blog posts haven't given me away.  I realize, when my writer's group gives me suggestions or brings things to my attention, they're only trying to help.  All I hear them saying, though, is that I'm terrible and should just give up.  Intellectually, I know I need to listen to feedback and learn from it, and that early drafts suck.  I know writing isn't a magical process where the right words appear in a puff of fairy dust.  Stubbornly, I still cling to the notion that, this time, I'll get it exactly right.

I have a few ways of coping better, though.  The first is that I've learned to take notes on critique.  That way, after I've calmed down and thought about the critique and it's not so fresh on my mind, I can sift through the general impressions the feedback gives me, and make changes based on that overall picture.

The second is to focus on listening, without defending my work.  The words have to stand on their own, and, if they can't, that's a shortcoming that I can fix.  I have to listen for what my writer's group wants to know more about, or the questions they're asking.  If I answer the questions several chapters later, I have to ask myself if the reveal needs to be sooner, or if the suspense will keep people reading.  If there are too many mysteries, and too many of them are mundane, like what my character looks like, I'm going to lose readers' interest.

The third is to think about my own critiques.  I don't always have constructive things to say in my writer's group about people's pieces.  Sometimes I wasn't paying attention, or I read it all wrong.  Sometimes my feedback is spectacularly unhelpful.  I need to remember that my group is only as human as I am.  If a lot of them are confused on the same point, it needs to be changed.  But if one person says one thing, and another corrects her, then I did get my point across, after all.

Most of all, though, I focus on the positive.  People tell me I have a strong voice, that they like the snarky humor I lend my characters, that they think I'm ready to submit for publication.  I have to keep those foremost in my mind.  Despite my flaws, they still enjoy what I write.  Flaws are something I can fix, and they're worth fixing, because I have assets.  The story is salvageable, but only if I listen to my group and take the feedback like a big girl.

Like most things in life, it's a process.  But it is a process I'll face many, many times on this road, and so it's one I consider to be rather important to master.  Hopefully, I'm getting there.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Writing by the seat of your pants

The current blog title, which will probably change in another day or two, going by my recent pattern, is a reference to my plotting style.  Some people outline, writing out either in some detail or in a rough sketch, what the book they want to write is about.  They figure out what they need to research, get all the information and rough character sketches together, and often know what the ending will be.  In my writing group, we refer to them, logically enough, as Outliners.

The writing group, however, is mostly composed of Pantsters, so called because we write by the seat of our pants.  When I sit down to write a story, I don't know how it'll end.  I don't know what I'll need to foreshadow.  I don't know how many characters I'll introduce, or exactly what will happen.  I don't even have a rough idea.  I have one character who has told me some random detail about the story I'm sitting down to write, and I don't know the ending until I've written it.

I felt a lot better about my unplanned writing when I realized many of the writers I enjoy do precisely the same thing.  The series I've liked best have been mapped out in advance, but stand-alone books, generally, are more enjoyable for me if the writer was as surprised by his or her characters as I was.

That isn't to say that edits are useless.  If anything, with pantstering, edits are all the more important.  You have to tidy up the mess your characters have left on the pages.  You have to dab on some foreshadowing, and make sure that, despite all their surprises, the characters still make sense.  Often, you have to take out huge swaths of dialogue, because the characters never got around to a point in their conversation.  As fun as it may be for the writer to listen to his or her characters natter on for pages, dialogue does need to serve the narrative.

I had to train myself, early on, to stop valuing my first drafts so highly.  I've heard some writers call them "zero drafts," which I may be more comfortable calling them.  My initial drafts are VERY rough, and they meander and wander, and they're a mess.  I've learned to accept my messy writing, and sometimes I can clean up as I go.  I've learned how to preserve the pieces I really wanted, and how to say goodbye when they don't fit.

Perhaps I've learned the lesson too well, because I'm regularly reinventing the wheel in my rewrites.  I can't just change a few things around here and there.  My edits always start that way, but, after a chapter or two, I'm making it up from whole cloth, and simply pulling out the parts I liked best from the last draft.  I refer to my drafts as chaos theory in action; changing one tiny aspect of the early chapters changes everything about the final chapters.

I can't say my method is working, because, as I said in my last writing post, I'm not published, and I haven't screwed up the courage to even submit.  But, this method agrees with me, and I reserve the right to change my mind.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review: Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood

Life Before Man
Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Going by previous reviews, I should be proud I even got through this book. It wasn't a chore to read, exactly, but it definitely misses a lot of what I like about other Atwood books.

The book follows the perspectives of three people. Nate and Elizabeth are married, but neither of them are happy about it, and they have an agreement to sleep with other people. Nate wants to have an affair with Lesje. Elizabeth is deep in depression because her last affair ended with the guy shooting himself in the head.

I'm not sure what the book was trying to say. There are messages about environmentalism, about life being better off before humans came along, about politics. As the book takes place in Canada in 1976-8, it whooshed right over my head.

I wanted so much to sympathize with someone in this book, to feel like their actions were justified within some semblance of a value system. But if these people had values, or mores, or anything resembling a conscience, I never saw it. Maybe that was the point, but it made the reading experience difficult to stomach. The only character I liked, I don't think I was supposed to, because Elizabeth hated her with a passion I didn't understand. Judging from the text, Elizabeth hated her Aunt Muriel because Muriel tried to instill values in her. It went beyond simply disagreeing with her perspective, though, and she alluded to abuse and maltreatment that I didn't see supported in the text.

The language, itself, is poetry, and, awful plot though it was, it was soothing to listen to on audio. The narrator sometimes took a plaintive, whiny tone for younger characters that irritated me at times, but dialogue was sparse, and most of the prose was long, eye-opening descriptions of a city and buildings I'll never see.

I can't see myself recommending this, except to people who like poetry and enjoy the train wreck effect of watching people make consistently poor decisions. I've consistently disliked books based on the premise of stupidity. I don't think these characters were stupid, exactly, but I do think they were self-destructive and made stupid decisions. So instead of disliking it, I'll just say that it wasn't my favorite of Margaret Atwood's books.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I am a wannabe writer

"Alicethewriter" is something of a misnomer, because I haven't ever been published.  For Christmas one year, my father gave me a book of common writing questions, along with the promise of a monetary reward once I was published.  I haven't collected.

Still, "alicetheowl," my usual internet pseudonym, was already taken, so it's as good a title as any.  I'm told I think like a writer.  I get a lot of encouraging noises from my writing group.  I've been writing stories since before I even started school, and, after I taught myself how to type, I kept my parents awake into the wee hours, tap-tapping away in the next room on something I never intended to see the light of day.

I suppose I've heard so many definitions of what constitutes a writer that I don't even know where to draw the line.  By the definition of "one who writes," I am, indeed, a writer.  But I'm too snobbish to put myself into such an inclusive category.  By that definition, everyone I know is a writer.  "One who is paid for publication?"  I don't fit in there, but how can something I've spent a quarter of my life working at not define me?  "One who devotes most of one's mental energy composing words for the consumption of others?"  Clunky, but the closest definition I have of what I do.

I haven't put the words out there for the consumption of others, not including this blog and LJ and twitter and whatever other shiny thing has caught my attention on the internet this week.  It doesn't count.  There's no quality control, no filter by which the wrong words can be tossed out, the remainder sifted through to be polished up until my point shines through.

Honestly, the idea of holding up my words for judgment frightens me.  I want them to stand in for my voice, to show people the wonderful things I can dream up when given the time and mental space.  I want to share these solitary experiences with others.  I'm constantly afraid that I've failed them, that I haven't gotten my ideas across, that I'm inadequate to the task.

I'm no college student now, trembling under the judgment of my peers, just learning, with the rest of them, how this writing thing works.  I like to think I've come a long way.

And there's only one way to tell:  by submitting my work to editors, letting them judge the words on their own merits, and trusting their judgment in whether my writing makes it to the next level, to the public's scrutiny.

It's the most exciting, yet terrifying thought I allow myself to entertain.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Like I need another time sink

Maybe with this I can move away from LJ and Dreamwidth, and link this up to my G+ account.  More likely, I've found another time sink.  BUT, this can actually publish my Goodreads reviews automatically, so maybe I'll discuss books and writing here.  Or maybe I'll figure out a better use for it.  We'll see.  I'm open to suggestions.